Category Archives: Essays

7174987-2790

American Doll

By Laila Azmy

I watch my best friend’s little sister strip her Barbie from her hot pink mini-skirt and heels, revealing a tiny waist and large breasts below a mane of glistening blond hair. My nose wrinkles. Is this what true American beauty looks like? And how many people actually look like that? A thin, tall, blue-eyed girl standing on tiptoes just so she can wear heels? Barbie stares back at me, a smile remaining on her pink plastic lips.

In 1963, a teen Barbie was sold with a diet book that simply stated, “Don’t eat!” Even the International Journal of Eating Disorders got involved. They said that the odds of being born with a body like Barbie was 100,000 to one. In a recent tweet, @ShannaHiThere said, “If only @Barbie was also giving girls realistic body expectations.” @ShannaHiThere is right. Barbie is an example of a toy that is giving kids unrealistic ideas of what a beautiful body looks like. Real bodies are the ones we see everyday in the streets, not fake reality bound in doll form with lipstick that is pink-plastic perfection.

“Barbie was never designed to replicate the female body,” argues Michelle Chidoni, the Barbie communications head. “She was just a vehicle for play.” Still, the fact remains that Barbie’s waist is only big enough to store half a liver and a few inches of intestine, according to Glamour magazine.

Once, I was surfing the web for other thoughts on Barbie. An article popped up. Sounds good, I thought. I clicked on it. It showed a snippet of an old commercial from the 1950’s. Curious, I googled it, and got to see the whole thing. “Barbie, you’re beautiful[…] your clothes and figure look so neat[…] with all the hats and gloves galore, all the gadgets gals adore[…] I want to be just like youuuuuuu!” a muffled female voice sang. A boiling brew of unfair, unjust, stereotypical, and just plain mad fizzed inside of me, and I was shocked. Is this what people think girls should look up to? A doll with a “neat figure,” and “hats and gloves galore?” I shut the computer, and stormed out of the room. That stewing mixture in my stomach filtered through my mind and blossomed into this commentary.

I believe that girls of all diversities and body types are beautiful, and that our differences should be celebrated. Our uniqueness should be celebrated, and we should not have toys like Barbie who celebrate only one race, and one type of body.

The band Aqua clearly agrees. Their song “Barbie Girl” is like a slap in the face to Mattel, the company that makes Barbie. It made them realize that Barbie haters weren’t just a couple of irritated moms, and some offensive social media posts. “I’m a blond bimbo girl in a fantasy world, life in plastic, it’s fantastic,” is one of the verses from the popular song.

Some disagree. Some, like Jeremy Scott, love Barbie for her symbolic pop culture fashions. “I love Barbie. It’s hard not to. She’s had every job in the world, worn every outfit…” Mr. Scott gushes in the Barbie magazine. Richard Dickson, Mattel’s COO, even says that harsh  critics should embrace Barbie.

“Our brand represents female empowerment. […] Barbie had careers at a time when women were restricted to being just housewives,” he told Time magazine.

In 1993, Mattel released a Barbie that came with a talk button connected to a voice box. One of her comments was “Math class is tough.” The Barbie Liberation Organization, a group of artists and activists, blew a fuse, and said that the doll taught girls that it was more important to be pretty than smart. They secretly switched the voice boxes of GI Joe and Barbie. Children were surprised to hear Barbie yell the macho phrases of the GI Joe, including “Eat lead, Cobra!” while others unwrapped a warrior who enthusiastically said, “Let’s plan our dream wedding!”

As the years go by, people’s idea of beauty is evolving. Times are changing. Women are becoming resentful about buying Barbies for their daughters.

“I wish she was curvier,” says a mom who was surveyed by Mattel about Barbie. “There are shapes that are curvier and still beautiful.” Mattel responded this year by creating a new, better set of Barbies. Tall, petite, and curvy. Yes, you heard that right. Curvy. The 23 new dolls will have eight skin tones, 18 eye colors, 22 hairstyles, 14 facial structures,  and new outfits that better represent how girls see the women in their life. To me, this is a step in the right direction. It will help girls to really see how their world is reflected in this worldwide icon. Barbies that come in different colors, shapes, sizes, and ethnicities will forever change how people think of Barbie.

“Our decision to go on this journey to really evolve the brand was inspired by many things,” says Evelyn Mazzocco, the head of the Barbie brand. “Of course, it was inspired by softness in sales.” Time magazine’s calculations report that the doll who once made $1 billion in sales in over 150 countries, is not doing well. Barbie sales dropped 3 percent in 2012, another 6 percent in 2013, and 16 percent in 2014. “It was also driven by what we’re seeing on social media about Barbie,” she continues. “And, of course, moms who say, ‘I don’t think Barbie really speaks to me.’”

The doll has long been under sales pressure, with other companies creating newer, more modern dolls. In 2014, a doll of Elsa from the movie “Frozen” was voted the most popular girls toy. Lego is producing more girls’ toys than ever, and Bratz, a line of dolls with highlights in their hair, big eyes overshadowed with eye-shadow, and their own lip gloss are “eating Barbie’s lunch in the older girl demographic,” as Mr. Dickson  puts it.

According to Mattel, nine out of every 10 people recognize Barbie when the blond icon is put before them. Apparently, they remember how thin Barbie’s waist is, and how shiny her blond hair is. C’mon girls! Barbie is a bad role model for us; and I don’t mean the strutting kind. The new Barbie is a beacon of hope to all of us who have ever sat, miserable, at the edge of the playground, crying because we don’t have a body like Barbie. We can finally not be afraid to be proud of our body.

“We need to let girls know that no matter what shape you come in, anything is possible,” Tania Missad, the director of consumer insights at Mattel, says in a message to girls on Barbie.com.

We are all beautiful in our own unique way. That deserves to be celebrated. All of us need to be celebrated, because we are all who we are. And who we are is amazing. We all are amazing.

Laila Azmy is a sixth grader living in New York City.  In her free time, she enjoys reading and playing piano.

Bustillos RNC

Behold a Pale Little Pony: Watching the RNC

By Maria Bustillos

The Republican National Convention started off with a bang on Monday, when all kinds of chaos and yelling broke out over an attempt by the #NeverTrump faction to change the party’s nominating rules. Later, in an appearance with Chris Hayes and April Ryan, journalist Charlie Pierce suggested to ultra-right-wing Rep. Steve King of Iowa that this might be the last convention in which “old white people will command […] the Republican Party’s public face.” King replied with a pseudo-question, suggesting that white people (and not “any other sub-group”) are responsible for Western civilization.

In the evening Melania Trump’s speech created a sensation, mostly because a hunk of it was cribbed directly from a speech Michelle Obama gave at the Democratic National Convention in 2008. Donald Trump told Fox’s Bill O’Reilly that, as president, he might instruct his Attorney General to investigate the Black Lives Matter movement, because he thinks that Black Lives Matter has been “essentially calling death to the police.”

On Tuesday, the RNC attempted to justify Melania Trump’s plagiarism of Mrs. Obama by likening it to substantially dissimilar remarks made by Twilight Sparkle, the animated heroine of My Little Pony. The pundits weren’t about to take that lying down. “Melania is totally Rarity,” journalist Sarah Kendzior sniffed on Twitter. “No Twilight Sparkle to be found in Trump Equestria.” (Equestria is where the My Little Ponies live.) Shortly afterward it was reported that Melania Trump does not, in fact, hold a college degree in architecture, as her personal website claims, nor any other college degree, from “University in Slovenia” or anywhere else.

That same day Fox News chief Roger Ailes was (perhaps) fired for the alleged sexual harassment of a burgeoning number of his employees. The condition, color, and texture of his genitals were described in detail. Matt Drudge reported that Ailes’s severance is, or could be, worth $40 million. The news of his firing was confirmed and unconfirmed a few times over the course of the day. “What the Fox!” blared the cover of the New York Post, alongside a photograph of Ailes.

A dozen guys wandered around downtown Cleveland decked out in military gear and American flags and armed to the teeth with AR-15, AK-47 and G3 rifles. One of them told Salon: “We’re just trying to help the community.”

In the evening, Republicans formally nominated Donald Trump as their candidate for the 2016 Presidential election. Photographs of Donald Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., recirculated on Twitter, depicting Jr. holding the bloody, severed tail of an elephant he, or someone, had killed on a hunting trip. The elephant’s corpse lay beside him.

“Donald Day Trump,” said Paul Ryan.

“Lock her up!” screamed those in attendance at the RNC on Tuesday night, with reference to the presumptive Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton. “We’ll get there,” promised New Jersey governor Chris Christie.

On Wednesday many of Ailes’s employees, including Bill O’Reilly and Greta Van Susteren, said they would walk out if Ailes were to be fired.

“A person she has always liked is Michelle Obama,” Melania Trump’s speechwriter said of Melania Trump.

On Thursday, a press release from 21st Century Fox announced, “Roger Ailes, Chairman and CEO of Fox News Channel and Fox Business Network, and Chairman of Fox Television Stations, has resigned from his role effective immediately.”

In the evening, at the convention, Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio said, “We must respect the police.”

“The desire for greatness is not new,” said Representative Marsha Blackburn.

“Where I work in Silicon Valley, it’s hard to see where America has gone wrong,” said Peter Thiel. Either cocaine or the attention of so many thousands of people at once lit him up like a toddler on Halloween candy.

“Ivanka, if you’re going to be thinking anyway, you might as well think big,” said Ivanka Trump.

“I am your voice!” shouted Donald Trump. Now and then he yelled along with the crowd. “U! S! A!” He clapped his little hands together.

Jared Kushner and Mike Pence kicked off their shoes and engaged in a genial cha-cha. Local herpetologists explained how to cope with the sudden rain of frogs pouring from the sky (“try to stay indoors”). With a banshee wail, Ted Nugent shot a flaming arrow in the general direction of the moon in a widely-circulated YouTube clip. Clint Eastwood spoke, all alone, to a refrigerator in his kitchen. The ghost of Dwight Eisenhower laughed and laughed, sadly, with his ghost-head held in transparent grey hands. Then the ghost lay down and closed his eyes.

A hail of pink strawberries popped out of the walls of the arena and exploded into clouds of ladybugs, which attached themselves to the skin of certain attendees of the Republican National Convention, who ran shrieking outside, shrieking, screaming, where the frogs were still falling hard.

27416319244_1784da80ef_z

The Art of the Plain Deal: A Report from the RNC in Cleveland

By Tom Zoellner

CLEVELAND — An invisible line split the concrete plaza. On the north side, protestors with a megaphone clamored in practiced order, poking signs into the air. One read “Trump: An American Embarrassment.” Barely a hundred yards away, a tubby man in a cowboy hat spoke into his own microphone to tell the story of his son who had died of an overdose. “Donald Trump is going to protect our southern border to keep the heroin from getting in here,” he growled, before launching into the campaign ballad “We’re Going to Make This Country Great Again.”

The opposing crowds at these popup events eyed each other curiously from the plaza, as nearly a hundred police officers kept watch over both at the margins. As an exchange of ideas, it was a joke. But nobody was arrested; there weren’t even any arguments. The event had the air of a set piece performed by actors who knew their lines and spoke them with gently nasal Midwestern accents.

“I haven’t seen the Cleveland hellscape apocalypse the media kept telling us about,” said Dr. Bryan Hambley, the chief organizer of the Stand Together Against Trump rally, who said he gave credit to the “pro-Trump people” for the leeway. Television journalists from around the world eager to get the “mayhem” story their editors had anticipated swarmed small demonstrations in such multitudes that it was hard for them to avoid filming each other.

Politics is often described as a clash of competing interests, of which protests are a blunt-force version. But it was scenes of grudging cordiality that had unfolded all week in Cleveland, the beat-up and deindustrialized – but relentlessly gracious – city experiencing a brief spillover of national attention from the Republican National Convention.

For most observers in Cleveland, the Convention had the surreal flavor of reality television beamed in from elsewhere. As Scott Baio and other trivia-question celebrities delivered tributes to the nominee inside the Quicken Loans Arena, the rest of the city watched with a mix of bemusement and silent dread. They feared a riot or another police killing might put another dent in the reputation of a city that has already endured years of hard kicks.

Bad enough for Cleveland that its premier civic arena bore the logo of a company whose very name evoked the fast-buck mentality that created the mortgage collapse of the previous decade (perhaps this is why locals were so quick to dub it “The Q”). It was also that the rhetoric about a broken America trying to find its way back to former greatness is consistent with a local narrative about a once world-class city coping with a modern inferiority complex. “Cleveland has always been defensive about itself,” said local attorney Patrick DePace. “I’ve lived through so many bad incidents, but I will tell you that we’ve always had hope.”

Modesty was written into Cleveland’s character from the start. The first streets and a grand plaza called the Public Square were laid out in 1786 on a bluff above the marshlands by a surveyor named Moses Cleaveland, whose wildest dream was that the town might one day have as many people as his native Connecticut village (pop. 2,000). The founder stayed three months and never returned, and only one member of his expedition was confident enough to remain and build a cabin. The first newspaper, the Cleveland Advertiser, didn’t have room for the town’s full name in its banner and pragmatically dropped the “a” to make it fit. Another early newspaper, The Plain Dealer, screamed insults at abolitionists during the Civil War but went on in a more sober frame of mind to become the dominant daily. (Winston Churchill once commented it had “the best newspaper name of any in the world.”)

Cleveland thrived because heavy goods like steel and gasoline could be made on the Cuyahoga and shipped away on Lake Erie or the Ohio Canal. The mills took in iron ore from Minnesota, coal from Pennsylvania and fired it up into skyscraper girders and bridge supports. A thin-lipped Baptist striver named John D. Rockefeller built an oil refinery down at the mouth of a creekbed called Kingsbury Run; his Standard Oil would intimidate, rate-fix, and plunder its way toward a national petroleum monopoly. The oily gouge later became a dumping ground for the corpses of the drifters and down-and-outers mutilated by the 1930s serial killer The Plain Dealer called “The Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run,” or, more squeamishly, “The Cleveland Torso Murderer.” He was never caught.

By that time, Cleveland had arranged itself into hard geographic patterns of race and class: the Poles clustered around the steel mills of Fleet Avenue; the Czechs and Italians near the garment factories of Central Woodland; the Eastern European Jews on East 55th Street below the refineries. They worked hard hours, drank at the union halls, named their children after forgotten grandfathers, and decorated their two-story houses with curtains and side gardens. The managerial WASPs, meanwhile, got themselves away from the coke sludge of the mills as fast as the cornfields west of the river could be leveled to make space for detached houses. The Cuyahoga became the true cleavage of Cleveland: west of the river was understood to mean generally white; inner-east was generally African-American. Radiating at the center of it all was the fourth-tallest building in the world, the 52-story beaux-arts Terminal Tower at the southwestern edge of the Public Square and above the tracks of the Nickel Plate Railroad, crowned with a colored strobe beacon that could be seen from far across Lake Erie and helped guide planes into the airport.

The American industrial twilight of the 1970s also spelled slow ruin for the economic motors that powered Cleveland. Republic Steel closed down most of its local plants. The missile-building giant TRW, which started life as the Cleveland Cap Screw Co. in 1900, was sold to Northrop Grumman and moved away to California. Standard Oil of Ohio got bought by British Petroleum, which redrew the logo, merged with Amoco, and kept its home on the Public Square for the briefest of decent intervals until fleeing for Chicago. Between 1950 and today, Cleveland’s population dropped by nearly two-thirds. Comfortable houses of brick and Tudor half-timber got chopped into cheap apartments. Some of them burned for insurance money, and the inner-ring neighborhoods took on a gangrene look — the sign of long-term, systematic economic rot. The belle époque estates of Millionaire’s Row on Euclid Avenue, once called the “Showpiece of America,” almost completely disappeared. Derelict lots, gyro restaurants, and a few lonely CVS drugstores now line the corridor; its grand mainline churches either went to sacred ivy-covered ruin or were awkwardly mounted with new signs announcing a struggling Pentecost assembly or Holiness temple. As if to seal the gloom, Cleveland lost its football team to Baltimore in a midnight move, and the totality of its awfulness in other sports left it without a national championship for 52 years, the longest drought in history.

Promised renaissances came and went. Developers opened a set of fratboy bars and nightclubs down in a set of warehouses called The Flats, but the air has gone out of their efforts in recent years. The grand Public Square — the centerpiece of Moses Cleaveland’s original urban plan — recently got a $55-million facelift and a Jack Casino now runs blackjack tables and slot machines in a lobby astride the Terminal Tower, which also features three levels of mall stores. Today’s big economic drivers are a combination of universities like Case Western and Cleveland State and hospital systems like the Cleveland Clinic and University Hospital — what economists call “eds and meds,” which themselves rely on a significant amount of federal cash. Those who can get at least a little baccalaureate education can still cobble a living together, but the city’s overall poverty rate stands at 40 percent.

“No longer the mistake on the lake, we are a city on the rise — unless you venture into our forgotten, neglected neighborhoods,” said the Rev. Tracey Lind of Trinity Cathedral from her pulpit on Sunday. She said later: “We are a city out of alignment. We have some of the best hospitals but some of the worst mortality rates. Some of the best universities, but one of the worst literacy rates.”

Cleveland gets up for work and slogs on, like the nation that surrounds it, no matter what the feverish end-days prophets say. It can rightfully brag about the haute accouterments of a great city that it still possesses: the arts museum, the ballet, the spotless cars on the Rapid Transit Authority trolley system, its well-regarded orchestra — and its relative lack of racial tension. The boundaries between black and white neighborhoods appear to be fuzzier than those in most American cities of such scale.

This détente was put to a severe test on November 23, 2014, when a police officer named Timothy Loehmann, later described as “emotionally disturbed,” answered a call about a 12-year-old boy named Tamir Rice reportedly pointing a gun at people in a public park. The officer jumped out of his car and shot Rice to death within two seconds; the boy’s gun was an Airsoft toy. The District Attorney declined to prosecute Loehmann with a carefully written report widely considered a cover-up, and yet Clevelanders did not riot. That isn’t their way. When the long-suffering Cavaliers won the NBA championship earlier this year, 1.3 million people choked downtown for a celebratory pan-racial parade with a bare minimum of trouble; the politeness was almost as much a source of local pride as the basketball triumph. The common wisdom about the GOP convention — held smack-dab in the middle of a month dominated by news of overseas terror attacks and domestic police violence — held that, if trouble were to start, the fuse will have been lit by those coming from the outside, and certainly nobody from here.

On the Sunday before the start of the convention, and just two hours after news broke of the murder of three police officer in Baton Rogue, several thousand people spread across the Hope Memorial Bridge — named for the father of comedian Bob Hope — for a half-hour of silent meditation overlooking the convention center where all the spangled tumult was about to start. “All reminds me of the fall of Rome — people are becoming shallow and angry,” said a woman named Judy Slivka, wearing a T-shirt from St. Malachi Catholic Church. “Our character as a nation is just flowing away, along with respect and courtesy for others. The new economy has hurt people. If there’s no jobs, people go to the lowest denominator.”

A few minutes later, a nun named Sister Rita Petruziello instructed the crowd through a megaphone: “We need silence if we’re going to touch souls… So you’ve showed up. Now you’re going to shut up.” And then after the giggles and murmurs had passed, a double-chain of Clevelanders held hands and kept quiet on the bridge overlooking the Quicken Loans Arena. The only consistent sound was the buzz of a light airplane which had been hired to circle downtown trailing a banner reading “Hillary for Prison 2016” — followed by the web address for the voluble Texas conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who later almost got himself arrested after a scuffle on the Public Square. After an air-horn sounded ending the silence, dozens of Clevelanders shook hands one-by-one with the police on bicycles assigned to guard the event, an impromptu line-up reminiscent of two Little League teams slapping hands in sportsmanship after a game.

Republicans picked this likeable, careworn city as their coronation site back in 2014 not because of the Democratic machine that has essentially controlled municipal politics here for generations. The big Republican power and money lies in the white-flight suburbs, where Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald lobbied the GOP on the premise that it lie at the top of Ohio — one of the six states that usually decide the presidency. That was the same year FitzGerald lost a race for governor to John Kasich after an electrician spotted him in a parked Ford Focus at 4:30 a.m. and called the police. The woman he was with was not his wife, but what made the incident public was that FitzGerald, a former FBI agent, had been driving without a valid license.

Understandably wary of truck bombs, rioting, assassination or a thousand other unpleasant outcomes, the city police and the U.S. Secret Service took extraordinary measures to create a labyrinth of metal-mesh fences, hydraulic vehicle blockades, swinging gates and pat-down checkpoints called the “hard zone” around the Quicken Loans Arena, with borrowed officers from Kansas, California, Indiana, Wisconsin and many other jurisdictions positioned outside, along with an unknown number of undercover officers wandering around like awkward demonstrators or lost tourists.

Inside this fortress of concentric circles was the husk of the Republican Party, missing 18 of its senators and many of its elder statesmen who — for reasons both electoral and personal — wanted nothing to do with the Trump D-list celebrity freakshow. Today’s rump parliament was a shadow of the Republican Party of just twenty years ago, which used to fancy itself the guardian of the sober Volksgemeinschaft: the afternoon lemonade and the evening newspaper; the bank vice president and the Presbyterian church picnic; the genteel polity of thrift and prudence that thrived in Cleveland’s leafy ring of freeway suburbs like Kirtland, Seven Hills, and Lakewood (where FitzGerald had been the mayor).

Founded as a protest movement in 1854 against the weak-kneed Whigs, the Republicans stood opposed to the expansion of slavery into Nebraska. The election of their nominee Abraham Lincoln to the presidency in 1860 triggered the flight of southern states. For generations in the northern tier of industrialized states, the Republican Party became a convenient device to wire up the county courthouses and ensure local patrimony in the multitudes of Clevelands and little farming towns that dotted the country.

The Republicans became the party of big corporations after the 1896 election of the Ohio coal-mining lawyer William McKinley, and then the party of soft segregation after the 1968 election of Richard Nixon, who campaigned on a platform of “states’ rights,” which was always code for nullifying race-mixing schemes, and “law and order,” which meant silencing dissent. (N.B.: on the first day of the convention, Trump advisor Paul Manafort told reporters the campaign was looking explicitly to Nixon’s message as an inspiration).

By the 21st century, Republicans had come to embody traditionally Southern political values: visible patriotism, distrust of cities and their ethnic coalitions, celebration of the individual striver, broad interpretation of the 2nd Amendment, opposition to anything that smelled of income redistribution, hostility to federal programs of justice or equalization, and wariness of spending by any government agency except the military.

Then three key technological advances exacerbated the agonist narrative. Sophisticated mapmaking software made it easy for state legislatures to draw spiky Congressional districts nearly house-by-house, ensuring at least 227 complete or nearly complete safe seats for the GOP in the House of Representatives, allowing these lawmakers to “govern” without thought of compromise or moderation. Meanwhile, the Internet had broken the backs of the television networks and the big-city newspapers, ushering in the proliferation of rancorous pamphleteering of a sort that hadn’t been seen since the administration of Andrew Jackson. Sites like Newsmax, the Drudge Report and The Daily Caller pumped out streams of stories that cast doubt on President Obama’s background and greeted his every action with moral outrage (Brietbart: “Obama’s Disrespectful ‘Latte Saulte’ Shocks and Offends”). Compromise and horsetrading — the standard route to getting anything done in a legislature — became impossible. And most visceral of all: cell phones with video cameras became as standard as belts and wallets, allowing bystanders to capture the kind of routine police violence against black people that had been going on all along. Despite years of steady economic and legal progress, during the two-term administration of its first black president, the country has been rocked by the sense that race relations have never been worse.

These factors — gerrymandering, pamphleteering, and racial bias in policing — have plagued the nation since its founding, but they have been supercharged by technology. The culture of moderation and shared destiny that had bound our disparate communities is weaker than ever. Into the breach stepped Donald Trump, the publicity-crazed real-estate promoter from Queens who had first inserted his name into national politics by sending a team of detectives to Hawaii to ferret out the truth about Barack Obama’s birthplace. On June 16, 2015, he announced his candidacy by calling Mexican immigrants “rapists” and then won an astonishing number of primaries by eschewing the traditional methods of flattering county chairmen, attending church suppers, and paying teams of consultants to sand down a canned message. Instead, Trump flew himself into rallies in downtown convention centers with something like the political version of the traveling medicine show, the paranoid culmination of which played out at the Quicken Loans Arena this week. How else to describe an event at which one of the invited speakers is soap opera star and underwear model Antonio Sabato, Jr., who tells reporters that Obama is “absolutely” a Muslim and is “with the bad guys”?

There was a moment in the pre-birther career of Donald Trump that seemed to capture the mysteriously appealing blend of bad taste, simple-mindedness, and greed that has characterized his presidential campaign. In the first season of his reality show The Apprentice he had sixteen young adults perform symbolic business tasks in competition for a “job” with the Trump Organization. After surviving fifteen episodes, a young man named Bill Rancic emerged at the top of the pyramid and was handed the keys to a Chrysler Crossfire convertible (“A brand-new car!” in the parlance of game shows). With arms outstretched, Rancic bounded down to the sidewalk toward the driver’s side door of the shiny blue car. “Unbelievable!” he screamed.

The final credit sequence showed Rancic’s beaming face on a dash-cam as he piloted his gift through the electric ziggurat of Times Square, on his way toward Trump Tower. The sum of our basest yearnings crystalized in that moment: there he was, our benefactor, with his winner’s thirst for the kill and a magic-button solution to Make America Great Again by rescuing us from the alliance of treacherous elites at the top and parasitic minorities down below. He’d put us all into American-made luxury convertibles for a ride down the avenue of dreams. We know in our hearts it cannot be true. But something in us loves a scoundrel and hungers for simple answers.

Though Trump’s career of hotel-branding has been checkered with exaggerations and lies, it does not seem to bother his admirers, who see in him a refreshing willingness to say what many are already thinking. Years of low-wage labor has brought them nothing but debt and uncertainty, and they resent the government entitlements (even the word rankles) given to those who don’t seem to be even looking for a job. A typical politician — the lowest of insults — would not dare stand up to this scam.

“Trump has a backbone,” said Michael DeFrancisco, a dispatcher for a Cleveland-area courier company. “He doesn’t care about being politically correct. He’s not a politician. You’ve got people working their asses off for five and six dollars an hour, and the immigrants are even taking those jobs. Politicians have run this country into the ground. This $22-trillion deficit, I don’t know about anybody talking about this besides Trump.” DeFrancisco has worked in the same job for fourteen years and received a raise of just 43 cents in that time. “I work my ass off and I can barely stay above water to here,” he said, pointing to his chin. He used to be a huge sports fan. Now he listens to political talk radio; for him, its emotional intensity has replaced those of baseball and football.

Though a typical Trump speech is a farrago of insults, self-praise and ADHD-like topic-switching, some old-line conservatives see enough policy content to persuade themselves he must have some bona fides in there somewhere. “A vote for him is a vote for a conservative who can win,” said Dr. Laurence Schiff, a Trump delegate who works as a jail psychologist in Kingman, Arizona. “You have your establishment guys like Jeb Bush and they don’t understand how you talk to those millions of people who stayed home when Mitt Romney was on the ballot. There’s a disconnect between the Washington elite and the voters.”

I spoke to Schiff at the Doubletree off Interstate 77, one of the dozens of local hotels swarmed by well-dressed delegates, many of whom had paid approximately $5,000 for the privilege of sitting for hours inside the Quicken Loans Arena watching Rudy Giuliani, once a Republican moderate, wave his arms and screech an ominous warning: “There’s no next election! This is it!”

Outside the hard zone, a protestor from the feminist group Code Pink yelled into a megaphone about gay marriage and abortion rights at a group of evangelicals until she seemed to run out of things to say. She took a deep final breath and ended with a simple half-hearted: “Fuck you!” Nobody paid attention. Nearby, a sunburned man preached about the evils of pornography and anal sex, while a counter-protestor held a sign over his head reading, “This hate is just visiting. Cleveland Loves.” The man holding the sign said later that he and the screamer had a cordial exchange during the standoff. Each understood the other’s game. At the Public Square, pair of young men paraded around carrying a sign reading, “Socialism Sucks!” — an act partisan performativity designed not to convince but to provoke. “I just had a 20-minute debate with a neo-Nazi and we agreed on nothing,” exulted 19-year-old Timon Prax. “But I loved it. This is what this city is all about!”

This was not the worst epigram for a GOP convention heavy on pessimism and light on cheerfulness, and it was certainly better than any unhinged proclamation or embarrassing act of bloodshed that would have clashed so radically with what this resilient and decorous city has stood for. Cleveland has spent more than four decades, for example, trying to live down a minor but photogenic incident. On June 22, 1969, a passing railroad train threw down some sparks onto an oil slick on the Cuyahoga River outside the Republic Steel mill. The blaze was quickly extinguished, but the photographs that ran in Time magazine served to fix Cleveland in people’s minds as a broken city with a hellish physical environment. Visibility in the river was barely six inches on a good day, and the industrial sludge on the surface had sprouted flames many times before.

Today, though, the river is far cleaner, downtown is spruced up, the Cavaliers finally won their championship, and crime rates are historically low, even among a thinner population, which will still be punching a clock and patching together a living even after the red-white-and-blue banners are taken down and the political jamboree leaves town. “I’ve never felt better about Cleveland,” said Patrick DePace. “The defeatism of the previous generations seems to have lifted.”

For an America that seems to be careening in the opposite direction, with one of its major parties pushed to the edge of despair and wailing hysterically about our collective decline, Cleveland’s strong bones stand as an example: it is one of our realist cities, and it endures.

146860924976424

The Challenge of Israeli Conscientious Objectors

By Omri Boehm

Last Wednesday, Tair Kaminer, a 19-year-old Israeli who has refused to serve in the Israeli Defense Forces, was dishonorably discharged from service due to “grave and malicious behavior.” Military judges had sentenced her to prison multiple times before. When Kaminer is finally released, on July 29th, she will have served almost six months in prison for declining to participate in the occupation of the Palestinian territories — longer than any other Israeli woman.

Kaminer’s story has attracted attention in Israel not just because of the length of her incarceration, but also because of her background. Far from neglecting her duties as an Israeli, Kaminer volunteered after High School to shnat sherut — a year of extra civil service that young citizens may undertake before engaging their lengthy military obligations. She spent her service in Sderot, a town on Israel’s border with Gaza, helping children who were traumatized by Hamas’ rockets. During this time, she reports realizing that she could not join a military that inflicts similar and worse traumas on Palestinians — and she has been going in and out of prison ever since.

Normally in such cases, the military finds a way to discharge conscientious objectors without recognizing their conscientious grounds. For example, Aiden Katri, who also refused to participate in the occupation, and who happens to be transgender, was released from prison four months ago and excused from service due to “mental incompatibility.” IDF officials have insisted that there was no connection between Katri’s discharge and her sexual preferences, but a suspicion lingers that the IDF preferred treating transsexuality as a mental disorder to incarcerating yet another opponent of the occupation. Indeed, before Katri announced her refusal to serve, she had been evaluated by the IDF’s routine mental screenings and was found sound for service. She is now appealing the grounds of her discharge, refusing to allow the military to treat her sexuality — or her conscience — as expressions of abnormality. In the unlikely event that her appeal is accepted, Katri may be sent back to prison. Of the six conscientious objectors who were imprisoned in 2016, five, including Katri, were women.

The right to conscientious objection has been officially recognized in Israel at least since the early 1990s, when the country joined the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Knesset passed its own human rights legislation — Basic Law: Human Dignity and Freedom — that has constitutional status. Despite these legal developments, the IDF automatically releases thousands of women every year if they only declare that their religious conscience forbids them from service. One way or another, objectors such as Kaminer and Katri are being prosecuted because they specifically refuse to participate in the occupation. Their incarceration thus challenges some common assumptions in Israel about the relation between conscience and the law.

According to the military, refusing to serve due to opposition to the occupation is not moral, but political: an illegal act of civil disobedience, not of conscientious objection. This claim — endorsed by Israel’s Supreme Court when it was still presided over by the notable Justice Aharon Barak — draws on a familiar but outdated distinction between universal and selective conscientious objection. The former, which amounts to pacifism, depends on one’s private, moral refusal to partake in violence regardless of its purpose. The latter, the argument goes, aims not at preserving one’s own moral integrity but at influencing politics by breaking the law.

Whatever the merits of this argument may be, it in fact draws on a fictitious distinction. The scope of one’s objection has no bearing on the question of whether her motives are moral or political. Deep moral reasons certainly can — and arguably should — be directed against specific types of violence, not just against violence in general. Kaminer and her friends no doubt also seek to change politics, and their sitting in prison or release from service also certainly has a political significance. But as long as the reason for their refusal is their conscience’s decree against partaking in the occupation, their political agenda is beside the point. They must be excused from service, because it is impossible to force them to act on principles that contradict their conscience without gravely injuring their right to human dignity.

Justice Barak’s stance on this issue can serve as an illuminating example. In his days as President of the Supreme Court, he allowed the demolition of hundreds of houses owned by terrorists’ families. These demolitions conflicted not just with the Fourth Geneva Convention, but also with basic principles of justice: thousands of innocent civilians, who were not even charged with a crime, were used by the IDF supposedly to “deter” terrorist activity. If Justice Barak was appalled by the military’s methods, his conscience evidently did not prevent him from giving them a hand. If it had, the State of Israel would not have forced him to remain a judge. But by allowing these demolitions, Barak did not participate in the injury of Palestinians only; he also sentenced Israeli soldiers to carrying these injuries out. Unlike Barak, these soldiers are coerced by the state into service. Thus in ruling against the right to selective conscientious objection, Barak’s court undermined the right to human dignity of those whose conscience does forbid them from participating in occupation-methods such as house demotions.

Conscientious objectors find themselves on especially precarious ground in Israel, because their stance assaults the IDF’s status as “The People’s Military” — an untouchable source of legitimacy that transcends politics. Indeed, even Israeli human rights organizations, such as Peace Now and Breaking the Silence, draw heavily on their members’ military background to establish moral authority. In a conversation a few weeks ago, as she was on her way back to prison, Kaminer was careful to reject this logic. She emphasized that she admired these organizations’ work, but also that she already “knows enough”: “I do not think that I should participate in the occupation in order to later be able to ‘break the silence’ about it,” she said.

The IDF’s claim to moral authority finds reference in a well-known clause in its Code of Ethics, which dictates that “manifestly illegal” orders must be disobeyed. As every soldier learns during basic training, in extreme cases one’s own conscience overrides the commander’s authority. The powerful words of Justice Benjamin Halevi provide this doctrine its anchor: “the distinguishing mark of a ‘manifestly illegal order’ should fly like a black flag above the order given, as a warning sign saying ‘prohibited’ […] unlawfulness piercing the eye and revolting the heart, be the eye not blind nor the heart not stony and corrupt.” With these sentences in mind, it is common for Israelis to insist that the IDF is “the most moral military in the world” and dismiss conscientious objectors as anarchist political rebels.

The doctrine that allows “manifestly illegal” orders to be disobeyed may have some merit in the course of warfare, but in the present context its effect has been pernicious. For decades, the military’s day-to-day operative task has been not warfare, but serving as government, police and secret police, exercising legislative and juridical authority over millions of civilians. Under the circumstances of a military regime, it is not some grotesquely illegal order — but the imposition of the law itself — which is the main expression of criminal violence that must be contested by conscience. That’s a fact that the IDF’s Code of Ethics has successfully suppressed. Armed with the “manifestly illegal” doctrine, it has become easier to impose military laws on civilians but remains more or less immune from pangs of conscience. Objectors such as Kaminer and Katri challenge this immunity. Their personal integrity is of great value to Israeli society. One day, perhaps, the country will thank them for their service.

 

14686105835751

‘A Man and a Woman’ Taught Me How We Fall in Love with France

By Rob Zaretsky

Fifty years ago this summer, France was between and betwixt events of lasting import. The wounds from the Algerian War — ended just four years earlier — still bled, while the tinder to the “events of May 1968” — namely the student rebellion and worker strikes that nearly pushed Charles de Gaulle from power — was still gathering. Echoes of both events can now be heard in the explosions of terrorist bombs and chants of protesting workers and students in Paris.

Given the lasting and seismic nature of these events, the impact that same summer of what film critic Pauline Kael called the “most efficacious make-out movie of the swinging sixties” amounts to a hill of beans. And yet, with apologies to Virginia Woolf, on or about July 1966, human character changed. Or, at least, my character changed when Claude Lelouch’s Un homme et une femme opened that month in the US.

Though it was a few years later that, as a high school student, I first saw A Man and a Woman, the images and music had already buried themselves in my mind. The white-bordered poster framing a pink-hued shot of Jean-Louis Trintignant and Anouk Aimée hung in my brother’s bedroom. Their eyes are closed, which struck my barely teen self as perfectly normal. But their lips are also closed. Only recently introduced to the theory, not the practice, of French kissing, I should have thought this pose perfectly oxymoronic.

And yet, with apologies to Ludwig Wittgenstein, I suspect there are others who have, along with me, been held captive by this one picture and cannot get outside it. Dimly but deeply, I knew the image was right — as right as anything ever could be. This was France, a world of grace and gravity I wanted to be part of. It is no less right today, as is Francis Lai’s theme song I waited to hear on my transistor radio. The melody is short and sharp, while the lyrics are monosyllabic. Carried by two voices — a man and woman’s, bien sûr — it is a lazy cascade of ba-da-ba-da-da-da-da-da’s. Coasting along for less than three minutes, the song is mostly unencumbered with actual words. How could it be otherwise for lips that are closed?

In fact, the wordless song is perfect for a film also mostly unburdened with words. There are, to be sure, bits and pieces of conversation, but were they to disappear entirely the film would remain whole. The film doesn’t do much more than riff on the poster, images succeeding one another sometimes in black and white, sometimes in color. (The reason, Lelouch later revealed, was economic, not aesthetic: by the end of the filming, he was nearly broke.) A tracking shot of a Mustang race car fishtailing on a snowy road, or purring slowly along a beach; a prolonged shot of Trintignant behind the wheel of the Mustang, partly obscured by wipers sweeping away the rain, or a shot of Aimée watching her young daughter, partly obscured by her hand sweeping away her hair; a glimpse of them exchanging glimpses, or a glimpse of them exchanging kisses that are somehow both passionate and chaste.

Many of us, famously, learned how to kiss from the movies. While I should have taken better notes on that subject, the real lesson I took from A Man and a Woman was something different. I learned how we fall in love. A film carves an image in our minds, an image that shapes our responses to the world and to others. This is, with apologies to Virgil, the Dido response. Aeneas astonishes the Carthaginian queen by appearing, out of a mist, inside a temple she is building to Juno. The temple, it turns out, is version of a cinema house: carved along its walls are many scenes — what Virgil calls “mere image” — of the Trojan War. As Aeneas “feasts his eyes” on these moving pictures, he learns what Dido already knows: he’s the star in a DeMillian epic for which Dido has had a front row seat.

In short, Dido was already falling for Aeneas before they ever met. On that fateful day at the Carthage Cinémathèque, when she was in free fall, all he did was catch her, only to drop her a short time later in order to found Rome. When I first saw A Man and a Woman at the Bleeker Street Cinema in the early 70s, I was caught by an image of France. (That this happened to be the image of a woman was only natural: the personification of France, after all, is Marianne.) I was still falling a few years later when, at a youth hostel, a (French) woman caught me. She dropped me a few years later in order to move to Rome (not at the command of a Latin god, but at the invitation of an Italian biochemist.)

Since that abrupt ending, since becoming an historian of France and having a more complex understanding of the country — and, I hope, myself — than I did as an impressionable teen, I am still enthralled by my particular picture of France, but no longer captive.

Captivation is what cinema aims for, but in life, as we all know, it can be problematic. I keep returning to Aimée and Trintignant’s faces, graced by impossibly high cheekbones and alabaster skin, wreathed in cigarette smoke, even as I know that for others, the picture is different: Paris boulevards wreathed in smoke from tear gas grenades or a flaming police car. For others still, the picture is of an anniversary meal at a fine Paris restaurant, slowly wreathed in cigarette smoke from a neighboring table.

Of course, the sort of captivity I felt gazing at the poster is not exclusive to awkward American teenagers. It may well be that the images etched in Claude Lelouch’s mind as a Jewish child, hidden by his mother in movie houses to evade police dragnets in occupied Paris, shaped a film where faces, not words, express fear and doubt as well as hope and certainty. What images may have been pressed onto the imagination of the young Aimée, née Nicole Dreyfus, during the war? Given a false identity and hidden by her Jewish father in the French countryside, I now wonder how these “pictures” informed her performance as a widow traumatized by the death of her husband.

In the end, a picture can free us as well as capture us. When I recently watched A Man and a Woman for the first time since my Bleeker Street epiphany, I realized I had forgotten the film’s end. After Aimée and Trintignant are reunited at a train station, Lelouch does not give us a fade of embracing lovers. Instead, he gives us a freeze frame, catching Aimée and Trintignant between and betwixt. I stare hard at her expression, one of pain and relief, and despite the misbegotten sequel Lelouch made 20 years later, I still no more know what the future holds for her than she does. It is as open now as it was a half-century ago on Bleeker Street.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Refusing Islam in Dhaka

By Faisal Devji

Poor countries like Bangladesh, with their large labor diasporas and internationally connected or aspirational elites, tend to be far more globalized than rich ones. Given the highly visible role that foreign trade, philanthropy, and development play in their societies, such nations stand at the forefront, if not on the front line, of globalization. The brutal events at Dhaka’s Holey Artisan Bakery on the first day of July serve as an instructive illustration of this reality. The “artisanal” restaurant, with its European and Latin American chefs, its clientele of diplomats, aid workers, and NGO interns from American universities, and, indeed, the internationally educated students from affluent families who attacked them — all were global citizens. It was as if Dhaka provided an arbitrary site for their collision. There was nothing very local about any of the concerns animating the restaurant’s visitors — least of all the murderers, for whom Bangladesh itself was of no particular interest.

Of course, the globalized form of militant Islam that unleashed this savagery didn’t just touch down in Dhaka randomly. In some ways it illustrated the dark side of the humanitarian enterprises that motivated many of the Holey Artisan Bakery’s diners, with their focus on addressing injustice and inequality globally. Moreover, the jihad inspiring some half a dozen Bangladeshi youths to kill these well-meaning men and women had as its context the absence — in fact, the repudiation — of a local or national politics. For both the NGOs and terrorists, who work outside political institutions they often despise and seek to transcend, were matched in Bangladesh with an authoritarian government dedicated to eliminating its parliamentary opposition, which is itself rather unsavory, thereby creating a depoliticized state. Perhaps militant politics, then, is a preliminary or self-annulling practice, whose language of conflict is simply meant to replace government with governance, essentially mirroring Bangladeshi authoritarianism. Or maybe its concern with fighting for the global community of Muslims it sees as under attack is anti-political by definition.

The problem of identification

If both the leftist Occupy movements and rightist anti-immigrant parties in Europe and America represent a protest against globalization, then militant Islam today may be a protest in favor of globalization’s fulfillment. After all, the anti-globalization movements seek to reclaim a lost politics of class or nation, while Muslim terrorism, despite its deployment of political categories like states, peoples, and conflict, does just the opposite, trying to achieve a depoliticized society under an unalterable and unquestionable divine law. In fact, Islamist and militant groups have always been mistrustful of the state and its politics. In this way they resemble, at least in their aims, otherwise very different projects — ranging from the authoritarian state to the neoliberal market-driven Islam of places like Malaysia or Turkey.

Like all globalized phenomena, Islamic militancy often escapes the arenas of national or even international politics, and can move easily from one context to another. It remains unclear whether movements like Al-Qaeda or even ISIS want to found a global politics or destroy its very possibility, an ambivalence manifested in the violence they both wreak. Militancy, as much as philanthropy, is obliged to speak in the name of vast and supposedly victimized constituencies like the “global South” or the “Muslim community,” which cannot represent themselves in any formal way because they don’t enjoy any kind of political existence. And just as with international NGOs, which claim to speak for humanity while remaining unaccountable to all but their donors, militant Islam struggles with the contradiction of identifying with victims who can never acknowledge this fellowship.

The French sociologist Luc Boltanski defined this problem as one characteristic of the media-diffused spectacle of “distant suffering” that serves as a call to humanitarian action. In the absence of an immediate political solution to this suffering, the spectator’s outrage is turned inwards, into a searching examination and criticism of his own guilt, pity, or sentimentality. It’s easy to see how self-sacrifice in its various forms — including dedicating time, money, and skills, as well as weapons or violence in the victim’s defense — might emerge as the strongest response to the call of such suffering. This is especially true when the victim in question is a rather abstract entity, lacking any political reality, like humanity or the Muslim ummah. To sacrifice oneself is to eliminate, willfully, the distance between oneself and the suffering of others. But in the absence of politics this enterprise remains deeply narcissistic, so that today’s militants also compel others to share in their suffering, as if desperate to make visible a real community of victims and spectators.

Hannah Arendt traced the violence with which such pity sought to annul itself in sacrifice to the French Revolution, and so to the historical beginnings of terror. In her view it was the “social question” posed by large-scale inequality, poverty, and oppression that gave rise to pity and its peculiar forms of violent identification, which sought to resolve suffering’s apparently intractable reality through revolution. However, she believed that to address the social question through politics in such a direct fashion was to destroy the latter’s institutions and integrity. But today, with the globalization of identification, suffering seems to have been removed from the province of political institutions and even revolutions altogether. Now suffering can be addressed only in unmediated forms of “moral” outrage and social violence, an approach far worse than even the most cynical of politics.

Politics after globalization

Recognizing its violent potential, Gandhi was one of global identification’s most important critics. He consistently refused to speak or act in the name of humanity, considering this a deeply hubristic and narcissistic enterprise, precisely because it was a politically impossible one. And yet the Mahatma didn’t condemn the idea of universality, and thought that nonviolence, for example, was capable of global expansion. But this was only possible by way of personal example and without making a mission out of it. Instead, as the project of nonviolence spread, control over it had to be constantly resigned. Gandhi described this process of expansion by way of resignation as constituting an “oceanic circle,” where the self-rule of single villages spilled over into that of districts, provinces, the nation, and beyond, without any central authority.

Gandhi’s vision of nonviolence as a practice of sacrifice spread by example, without requiring a central authority for its propagation, appears to describe the very way in which Islamic militancy works in our own time. But in his view this similarity would have allowed for the conversion of one kind of sacrifice into another, drawing out the common idea of goodness by which he thought evil was sustained, and so causing the latter’s collapse. The Mahatma, in other words, would have understood the attraction and even heroism of the terrorist’s sacrifice, as he did its manifestation among the militants of his time, but he would have tried to demonstrate that its most sublime form lay in nonviolence. However, this could only be done by linking sacrifice to what was politically possible.

One way in which the heroism of sacrifice can be made politically salient is by rendering oneself invulnerable to feelings of horror at the sight of suffering and the imperative to action it provoked. This also entails remaining indifferent or rather stoical about the kind of suffering over which one has no control. Such an attitude was, of course, implicit in Gandhi’s idea of resigning responsibility to others. It is an attitude that goes completely against the expansionary and even imperialistic spirit of humanitarianism, which he, like Arendt, thought only encouraged violence of various kinds. The Mahatma always maintained that the responsibility for one’s neighbor’s suffering took precedence over that of more distant victims. He was also highly critical of industrial technology — for instance, the railways — which permitted people to escape their neighbors and localities and to imagine a false identification with abstractions like humanity.

Martyrs and Muslims

It is neither possible nor desirable to return to a time before globalization, as far-right nationalists and others would like to do. But refusing an abstract identification with global entities like humanity, or the Muslim community that militants claim represents its victimization, is crucial to recovering the capacity for politics. Just as Gandhi rejected the idea of humanity as a project, so too might Muslims today refuse that of the Muslim ummah, if they are to do anything more than squabble with militants about theological semantics.

Tunisia’s Ennahda, the only successful Islamist party in the Arab world, has recently done just this after taking power in that country through the only successful revolution of the Arab Spring. Ennahda’s leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, seems to have realized that militant outfits like Al-Qaeda and ISIS have stolen radicalism and thus global influence from older Islamist groups like his own, and that the traditional resort to Pan-Islamic activism has, at the same time, become dangerous and meaningless. Ghannouchi has therefore forsaken the internationalism of the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as the global mission of terrorism, to define his Islam in purely Tunisian — which is to say, political — terms, hoping that this serves as an example for others in the region and beyond.

And in Dhaka we saw even more remarkable instances of such repudiation, when a number of Muslim hostages at the Holey Artisanal Bakery refused to identify with Islam and save their lives. A Bangladeshi-American student named Faraaz Hossain is being celebrated on social media for refusing to abandon his friends and dying alongside them, though he had apparently recited enough scripture to be freed by the terrorists. Even more interesting is the case of Ishrat Akhond, a young woman who refused even to identify herself as Muslim and court release. Here was a truly Gandhian sacrifice, one demonstrating its superiority to the one exercised by the militants. For Ishrat Akhond abjured Islam itself as a global identity and mission, and in doing so recovered her particularity as a Muslim.

Israel, the Occupation, and the Literary Life

By Toby Lichtig

LAST MONTH I published a piece in the TLS about a recent trip I took to the Jerusalem Writers Festival. Print being print, I had to keep to certain space constraints; but Israel, I find, is not a country that lends itself well to brevity in contemplation, and so there was a certain amount of surrounding material that had to go. Now LARB is kindly offering that material a home. Below is an unexpurgated version of my original TLS piece: an account of an edifying, depressing, convivial, and politically charged few days spent at a very unique literary event.

¤

“We are not pacifists. I’m willing to die for my country. We just believe the Occupation is morally indefensible.”

We’re in a minibus heading south from Jerusalem. Our guide is Yehuda Shaul, a bearded and thickset 33-year-old former commander in the Israeli army. Our destination is Hebron in the West Bank — ancient city of the Canaanites, sacred resting ground of the Patriarchs. My biblical history is sketchy but my Bar Mitzvah portion — Genesis 23, verses 1–20 — happens to concern Abraham’s purchase of a plot of land there, including the cave of Machpelah, in which he and his family are buried. Today Machpelah stands in the center of H2: the section of the city administered by Israel and studded with Jewish settlements. The largest of these, on Hebron’s outskirts, is Kiryat Arba, with a population of between seven and eight thousand; the smallest and newest, established in 2014, shelters just three families. 850 soldiers are permanently stationed to protect the settlers.

In 1994 the religious extremist Baruch Goldstein massacred 29 Palestinian worshippers in Machpelah — a site holy to both Jews and Muslims. In the Arab rioting that followed several so-called “sterile zones” were established around the Jewish settlements to keep the two communities apart. During the Second Intifada (2000–2005) these zones were extended. The story will be familiar to anyone with the least interest in the conflict: Palestinians are forbidden to drive down certain streets, or to walk down others; they are cut off from their neighbors, their local amenities; their markets have been closed. Many have moved away. This section of the city is, in the words of Shaul, a “ghost town.”

Our first stop is to a municipal park which houses Goldstein’s grave. The sun has come out and we wander around the scrubby, arid grounds squinting at the dubious attractions. Some of the more fanatical settlers have provided a plaque commemorating this “saint” who “gave his life for the people of Israel” (Goldstein was eventually beaten to death by the guards of Machpelah). Nearby is a statue honouring Meir Kahane, the ultra-nationalist rabbi of whom Goldstein was a disciple. Kahane was himself assassinated in New York in 1990. One of our party — the novelist Gary Shteyngart — shows great interest in the statue: “So that’s Kahane. When my parents emigrated from Russia to America we had no money. But my father gave the first hundred dollars he earned to that jerk.”

I’m not in Israel to write about Hebron or the occupation, but the lure of what Israelis euphemistically refer to as the Hamatzav (the Situation) is irresistible. It isn’t just a matter of prurience or preconception: it pervades every aspect of the Jerusalem Writers Festival at which I am a guest. Our host, Uri Dromi — the charming director general of the Jerusalem Press Club and the former press spokesman for the governments of Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres — seems especially keen for us to engage with the conflict. He explains to me that foreign visitors always want to ask about it anyway and so he deliberately puts the subject at the top of the agenda. After that his mission is to demonstrate that Israel is about so much more.

Our itinerary for the week is helpfully marked out with events we are “expected” to attend. Revealingly few of these concern the festival itself. There is a tour of the ancient city; a visit to the National Library; a trip to Yad Vashem. In Old Jerusalem our guide points out instances of “fascist” anti-Palestinian graffiti stickered to the walls. Arabic street signs have been scrubbed out and the nose on King David’s statue is broken — “idolatry” being, to the religious Jews who live here, even more unacceptable than the presence of the Palestinians. We are led through the winding streets and across a schoolyard game of football to a view of the infamous separation wall (or “security fence,” depending on your politics). It is, says our guide, a necessary evil: “The wall is bad. Terrorism is worse.”

Near the entrance to the city’s Armenian quarter there are posters commemorating the centenary of the Armenian genocide — an atrocity unrecognized by the Israeli Government, which has shrewd political reasons for keeping good relations with both Turkey (the perpetrators) and Azerbaijan (a country that has its own dispute with Armenia over the contested area of Nagorno-Karabakh). Before descending to the base of the Western Wall, where Jewish tourists cram paper scraps of prayer into the overloaded cracks, only meters away from Muslim visitors to the Dome of the Rock above, we take in the view of this many-layered city, storeyed and storied, seemingly every yellowed hunk of Jerusalem stone drenched in history, mythology, blood. The Christian population here has dwindled to less than two percent but the Muslim one is on the rise — a fact the official demographers do their best to fudge. The total official population here is 850,000, but in reality, says our guide, it’s more than one million.

At the Church of the Holy Sepulchre we are provided with a meticulous description of the six warring Christian denominations that control the building. The bickering is so great, and so petty, that nobody can agree on who should change the light bulbs outside the Edicule of Christ’s tomb (an Israeli security guard tends to do the job). As with seemingly everything in this country, the anecdote has a wider resonance: “So you can see, it isn’t just the Israelis and Palestinians who can’t agree,” says our guide. On the subject of a two-state solution he is broadly positive but unable to see past certain obstacles: “I’m in favor of the division of Jerusalem. But how?”

The following day, at the National Library, we are shown a series of atlases drawn by visitors to the Holy Land over the past half-millennium — a reminder of just how long people have been coming here and recording their impressions, often with scant regard for scale and perspective. Dr. Raquel Ukeles, the curator of the Islam and Middle East Collection, describes the current project to digitize the library’s copious Arabic material. The library, we are told, used to be located atop Mount Scopus. When the site was cut off from Israel by the Jordanians during the 1948 war, the books had to be smuggled out. Another survivor put before us is a trampled novel by the great Hebrew author S. Y. Agnon, the damage sustained during Kristallnacht. We are shown the suicide note of Stefan Zweig.

The next morning we are taken to Yad Vashem. There is an uncomfortable moment when our guide takes us to the section on the Łódź Ghetto and one of our party pipes up: “It’s just like Gaza.” Most of our party see that the comment does a disservice to both the victims of the Holocaust and to today’s Gazans, whose suffering has its own unique character and cause. Our guide — a retirement-age historian — declares himself deeply offended, and the Muslim woman who made the comment apologizes. The Holocaust equivalence game is never very edifying, and yet I can see where the outburst has come from, can sense the frustration behind it. I have never been to an arts festival that so insistently attempts to sell the host nation to its visitors. The propaganda isn’t sinister, perhaps not even unwarranted. It betrays a justifiable anxiety: an anxiety from the left-wing organizers to demonstrate to the visitors that Israel isn’t what they think it is; that Israel, despite its faults, is a thriving democracy and regional necessity.

Many of the events are in Hebrew but some are in English and all that I attend address the Hamatzav. At the festival opener even President Reuven Rivlin is at it, introducing the theme of “international collaboration” with an admirably loaded warning about the “danger” of only having one story to tell. It is a refrain that will crop up time and again throughout the week. As the Colombian novelist Juan Gabriel Vásquez will later comment: “Good writing is always saying the world is more complicated than you think.”

The speakers at this opener are David Grossman and Colum McCann. Grossman is a national hero in Israel, and the marquee — set against the Judean hills, the horizon framed by the wall — is packed. The two discuss the parallels between separatism in Ireland and in Israel. Reacting to Grossman’s despair about his country’s lurch to the political right, McCann provocatively asks him: “So, why don’t you leave?” His interlocutor patiently explains that running away from Israel’s problems is not the answer.

McCann’s question is a paraphrase of one asked earlier in the week by J. M. Coetzee — a writer who willingly abandoned his own divided nation. A few miles up the road in Ramallah, Coetzee has been attending the rival PalFest, a literary festival timed to compete with the Jerusalem one, at which his final address will include a comparison between South African apartheid and the Israeli occupation. The Nobel laureate was once invited to the Jerusalem Writers Festival but politely declined. “When there’s peace call me,” he told Dromi. There is no collaboration between PalFest and the JWF — a result of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) campaign against Israel. I can see the point of BDS, even in this context: the playing field isn’t level and thus any cooperation between the two sides will be tainted from the start. And yet I can’t help thinking how a partnership between the two festivals might be fruitful, that such division can only maintain the status quo. Later, at a private author briefing, Grossman will agree. The simple matter, he says, is that BDS “won’t help.”

The author briefings are perhaps the most enjoyable and edifying parts of the week. Grossman chats to us for an hour about his life, his work, and, of course, the Hamatzav. So does Etgar Keret, who tells an illustrative anecdote about the public response to a short story he once wrote. The tale describes an assault by an Israeli soldier on a Palestinian fighter: “Someone wrote in to attack me for being a left-wing liberal. Someone else accused me of being a fascist.” Another author, Meir Shalev, claims not to like “political” literature. But we still end up talking politics. Shalev was serving as a soldier when Israel “liberated” the Golan Heights in 1967. He describes himself as being on the left but seems less despairing than Grossman and Keret. When he finds out the rest of the program he jokes with Dromi: “Didn’t you have any right-wing authors to talk to them?”

A. B. Yehoshua is not a right-wing author but he is a hardliner when it comes to Jewishness. “Diaspora Judaism is masturbation,” he has said, declaring that a “full Jewish life” can only be had in Israel. At the author briefing he repeats this claim and I object.

“Are you American?” he asks.

“British.”

“And you’re not Jewish?”

“I am.”

He looks mildly taken aback, and I realize he was expecting me to say no.

I wonder how his argument might differ if I were a gentile. But I am not a gentile and I thus find myself, time and again, overcome by a heightened sense of involvement in the debates we are engaged in: about Israeli security, Israeli history, Israeli demography. My perceived stake in this country is equivocal (I tell Yehoshua that ambivalence is central to my own experience of a “full Jewish life”) and not always comfortable. I have mixed feelings about the fact that I, a UK passport holder, have a right to live in a land, based on my ethnicity, from which several hundred thousand former inhabitants are barred, based on theirs. And yet the pull is also irresistible. My grandfather was a Zionist who helped to build the roads in 1920s Tel Aviv, and, despite my disdain for many elements of early settler mythology, I find it hard not to be seduced by what Grossman’s calls the “miracle” of Israel. “But are we loyal to that miracle?” Grossman asks. “I’m less and less sure.”

¤

There is little that is miraculous about Hebron. And as we make our way on foot through the “ghost town” of H2, Yehuda points out, street by street, the intricate daily indignities faced by its remaining Arab citizens. You can see it all around you: the emptiness, the lack of life. Shops are shuttered up, houses abandoned. There is a lone water seller, near the cave of Machpelah, and when we approach his children rush to help. A few kids play football in the streets, watched on benignly by soldiers, who occasionally punt a stray ball back. An imaginary line, at the intersection of a street leading to a Jewish settlement, demarcates where the kids are not allowed to pass. On another residential road, barred to access by Palestinians (but not to settlers or tourists) some of the front doors have been sealed. Five Arab families remain inside the homes. They must come and go via the roofs.

Yehuda points up the valley to a school building perched over a cliff. Fifteen years ago, during the Second Intifada, he was stationed in the building from where his task was to send “preemptive” fire from a grenade machine gun into the Palestinian neighborhood below. The fire was largely “indiscriminate”, he tells us. “At first it was very difficult. I’d pull the trigger and hope nobody was harmed. By day five it had become like a computer game.”

Experiences such as this led Yehuda to question the nature of his service — and of the occupation. He went on to form, with several fellow comrades, the charity Breaking the Silence. The charity’s main function is to collect confidential testimonies from soldiers who are serving in the Occupied Territories (OT). For this work, it was recently awarded the prestigious Berelson Prize for Jewish-Arab Understanding by the Middle East Studies department of Ben-Gurion University. The prize was rescinded only days later, however, by the university’s president, Professor Rivka Carmi, who concluded that the charity’s aims do not belong to “the national consensus.” This followed what the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz called “a vicious incitement campaign against the organization,” waged for its ability to undermine the Israeli military occupation — something the current government seems more than capable of doing all by itself.

The charity’s reach is long — and getting longer. Four years ago it brought out a book of these soldier testimonies — Our Harsh Logic — in English. To mark 50 years of occupation, another Anglophone book will be published next year, made up of over 30 firsthand reports from authors who have been taken by Yehuda and his colleagues on visits similar to this one. The contributors will include Mario Vargas Llosa, Colm Tóibin, and Eimear McBride. It was McBride who put me on to Yehuda in the first place. My visit to Hebron has nothing to do with the festival but when I mention it to Dromi he tells me he is in favor of invitees seeing the “other side.”

As well as its various restrictions, Palestinian life on this “other side” involves rather more invasive measures. Yehuda describes the army’s tactics of “making your presence felt” and “showing sovereignty.” This may involve random domestic searches in the middle of the night, or many other forms of basic intimidation. Outside of direct conflict, however, it is not the soldiers whom the Palestinians have to fear. They are frequently attacked by their Jewish neighbors; the settlers loot their homes and seize empty properties in the area, necessitating further “sterile zones.”

The night before our visit, a group of settlers celebrating the “bonfire” festival of Lag B’Omer raided a Palestinian house, stealing furniture for the flames. The owner was inside. It is, says Yehuda, a fairly common occurrence, and the soldiers are impotent to intervene. “They are here to protect the settlers,” he comments, and military law makes it illegal for the IDF to come to the Palestinians’ aid. All they can do is call the municipal police, by which time it is often too late. We get a taste of the tensions when a settler approaches us. “It’s all lies,” he shouts at us in English. Behind him are the deserted remains of H2’s once-thriving vegetable market. He stands on a street adorned with pristine signs in Hebrew — the location’s Arabic name fast fading into memory.

On the way out of Hebron I arrange for a taxi to transport me to a moshav near Beersheba where I will be having dinner with my cousins and aunt. My aunt is in her late 80s and made aliyah to Israel in the 1950s; unlike anyone at the Jerusalem Writers Festival she steadfastly refuses to discuss politics. Leaving the West Bank we are stopped at a checkpoint. “Where have you come from?” an Israeli officer asks me. I tell him and he gestures for us pull into a clearing. My taxi driver, an Arab Israeli, looks a little weary. “It is best in these situations not to say you’ve just been to Hebron,” he tells me. I sheepishly apologize but I’m secretly rather pleased. I’ve been keen to see how checkpoints around here operate — even if my experience will have little in common with that of Palestinians from the Occupied Territories seeking entry into Israel.

A group of affable Arab Israelis is in front of me and we strike up conversation. The atmosphere is relaxed, despite the setting. Eventually it is my turn. My bag is searched and I’m questioned. To save time and avoid further irritating my ride I lie and say I’ve just been to visit Machpelah. “And where are you going to now?” the soldier asks. “To Beersheba,” I reply. And then: “I’ve been invited by my aunt to Shabbat dinner.”

I could pretend to myself that I’m just being friendly, conversational, but really there’s something else at play. I want her to know that I am Jewish. I could also pretend that this is a matter of expediency, a way of smoothing my passage, but really it’s something more. I seem to want to emphasize my tie to this land: I who have just strolled through an Arab town denuded of its Palestinian residents because of the actions of a group of illegal Jewish settlers and their protection by the IDF.

The soldier remains impassive. Eventually she waves me through.

27821815072_5efbd2f710_z

Watching Our Words: on Brexit

By David Taylor

For many of us in the UK the past few days have been painfully difficult. Among those who wanted to keep Britain in the EU, there’s been a sense of shock, shame, and anger — not least at our own complacency. But the prevailing mood might best be described as elegiac. What I’m experiencing both personally and collectively seems to be something akin to mourning.

This might sound overblown, sentimental perhaps, but the truth is that we are grieving, for our disfigured present and, more profoundly still, for the array of possible futures — individually, politically, nationally, transnationally — that now seem suddenly and irremediably lost to us. These are the dissolving horizons I find myself tracing each time I look at my four-month-old daughter. Right now it’s impossible even to imagine what future we’re bequeathing her.

Such grief, as it’s wont to do, breaks apart our capacity for language. In speaking to my friends over the last four days, in reading and sometimes finding solace in their myriad thoughts and reflections on social media, what strikes me most is the desperate, self-acknowledged futility of our words as we attempt to give coherent shape to what’s happened and is still unfolding, as we search for ways to accommodate the referendum result to the nation — the Europe — we know or want.

We need this grappling. Perhaps it’s cathartic. Perhaps it’s really all we can do at the moment. But, however we voted last Thursday, we also need to remember the damage that words can and have caused. In thinking about the 52 percent — the 17.4 million people — who voted to Leave the EU, it’s vital that we keep in mind Raymond Williams’s sage words: “There are in fact no masses,” he tells us, “but only ways of seeing people as masses.” If this message reminds us how toxic are the images of “immigrants” pedalled by the likes of Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party, then it should also caution us against simply caricaturing all Leave voters as xenophobes or racists. Nothing is to be gained by doing so.

Words have done real harm over recent months. The Leave campaign called on us to “Make Britain Great Again”. Britain was never “great”, or rather when it was “great” it was murderously so. But the Remain campaign wasn’t much better. In its incessant talk of “safety”, “jobs”, and “prices”, its corrosive negativity and refusal to think of “cost” in anything other than economic terms, it determinedly effaced the history and cultural complexity of the European project.

Since the result was announced, we have new problem words to contend with. Take “divorce”, for example, which been doing the rounds across the media. “Who’s going to handle the divorce negotiations?,” I heard one journalist ask an MP on TV yesterday. “What will Britain’s divorce from the EU look like?,” ponders the Financial Times. The metaphor of a broken marriage is a mistaken one, not least given that Britain will be leaving a union of 28 member states, but what should worry us is the narrative that it quietly and insistently imposes on past, present, and future: the endless bickering, the long and drawn out struggle, the enduring bitterness. The more entrenched this metaphor becomes, the more we give space to a self-fulfilling prophecy.

And then there’s “revolution”, a word that’s been used over and over in the contexts of both celebration and shock in recent days — and by some distinguished political commentators and journalists. Whatever it is, the referendum result is not a strike against the political establishment by those who feel disenfranchised. I’m not suggesting that many of those who voted to take Britain out of the EU didn’t conceive of their choice in exactly these terms; I’m quite sure they did. But the political reality is somewhat different.

Let’s be clear. Concerns about immigration have come from the political centre in Britain. Over many years the likes of David Cameron and others have the deployed the rhetoric of soft xenophobia and British exceptionalism in order to score political points and win elections. Nigel Farage has pushed this rhetoric much further, of course, but he’s done no more than render explicit what was otherwise (barely) latent. Nor is he the outsider, the common man he claims to be. Rather, this privately-educated son of a stockbroker is a self-fashioned “maverick” who rhetorically positions himself against the very elite to which he in fact belongs (sound familiar, Americans?).

So there’s no revolution to be seen here — and, again, by using this word we accept a narrative that distorts and masks a reality that is far more disconcerting. For the referendum result shows just how effectively white, Oxbridge-educated men have sold their dangerous hyperbole to millions of people. Looking past the different campaigns and political parties, and the downfall of particular individuals, all I see is the strength, not the weakness, of the same old hegemony.

Call me a pedant, if you will. I don’t have any answers. I’ve no idea where we go from here, and yes, it hurts to admit this. But I do know something about words: their histories, their uses, their vital and perilous importance to us. And as we move forward I implore us all — whatever our nation, however we vote — to handle them with care.

IMG_5588

Outliving Dad

By Eric Lax

When my father died, in 1976, he had lived his allotted three score and ten years, plus two more. Two years and two months more to the day, to be precise. Six months before his death he looked like he would go on for decades. Then that February, a persistent cough led to the discovery of an enveloping mass around his lungs that was impossible to resect. On a hot August afternoon he rolled over to greet me when I walked into his hospital room and a minute later was dead in my arms.

Forty years later I still think of him many times a day: Wanting to have had more than 32 years with him; wishing he could have known the wonderful woman I married six years later and our two sterling sons; missing a conversation with advice as well as one of the long groaner jokes he loved to tell and told so well. And these days, I think of something else about him. On August 1, assuming that between now and then the bus with my name on it doesn’t stop to pick me up, I will have outlived him.

He was 40 when I was born and I saw it was not a drawback to have a father older than most, and so I was unconcerned that I was 42 and 45 when Simon and John were born. He taught me to love openly by telling me every day that he loved me, and he consistently demonstrated the bedrock importance of respecting others. Apart from the teenage periods when I felt he was completely clueless (I was amazed by how smart he got between my 17th and 18th birthdays), I hoped to be a lot like him and I measure myself and my abilities as a father and as a person against his, hoping to match them. For all those years he was ahead of me but soon he will be behind me. I’ll be the older with no more measurements against what he did at my then-current age.

He seemed immortal when I was a boy (for that matter, I thought I was immortal), and even for a while as the cancer consumed him it still seemed impossible that he would die, until suddenly it didn’t. By chance one day after the diagnosis, I reunited with a close friend since childhood on the M5 bus going down Fifth Avenue, a woman my father adored and who adored him as well, whom I had not seen in a couple of years. She invited me to dinner with her partner, a doctor. Over pasta and his exquisite red sauce, my friend and I reminisced about my father, all the while introducing him to someone new. We had drinks. We laughed a lot. Then midway through a sentence that I began in a light tone, tears erupted. “I don’t want him to die!” I wailed, and for the next 5 minutes I bawled and sniffled, unable to say more.

In the months after the surgery, optimism or disappointment—depending on the scans and X-rays—followed my father’s visits to the oncologist. In that time, we talked in bursts about our lives, catching up and filling in, saying what we wanted to say. I was with him the day after an appointment in mid-August. He asked me to answer the phone because his voice was weak from the chemotherapy. It was the doctor. His report was brief: the cancer had spread to the bones and there was nothing left to hope for, except an easy death. I struggled to keep tears at bay as I repeated the news to Dad. I told him I loved him very much and could not have had a better father. In an instant we had flipped roles; I was the father, offering succor. Then we flipped back. He was equally loving in reply but also remarkably calm, which stilled me. He was uncomplaining about his fate, I think in part because he had said some days before that life with the pain he felt wasn’t worth living, but also because, as an Episcopal priest with a deep understanding of and compassion for human frailty, he possessed abiding faith that there was something better ahead. He asked me to look out for my mother, and then, preferring pleasure to sorrow, suggested we get a beer and go outside to sit on a palisade overlooking the Pacific. I keep a picture in my office of him taken that afternoon, a broad smile on his face, a glass raised in salute. Two weeks later he was gone.

It is often said that one of the greatest lessons our parents can give us is how to die, and his grace carried to the end, as did my mother’s 20 years later through a torturous 2-year-long decline from ALS. Of course grace is something we hope to pass on to our kids in many ways, starting with how to live a life well. My sons are 26 and 29. I have not wondered much if or how they measure themselves against me or whether something I have done is a marker for them. (Although thinking on this, I am pretty sure that an evening involving a more than adequate sufficiency of Mai Tais at Trader Vic’s followed by jayrunning across a busy street is an experience they have resolved not to repeat with their teenage children.)

Many of us live in the shadow of our father. For some that shadow is an oppressive cloak that prevents us from either becoming or being seen for our own self. My father cast a long shadow but it at once sheltered me and offered a safe place to grow. His pride in any accomplishment I had was evident, even something as prosaic as growing taller than him. “A block off the old chip,” he would say. He looked a bit like the early film comedian Stan Laurel while my mother more resembled Ingrid Bergman. Sometimes he would add, “He has his mother’s looks, because I still have mine.” And I still have all he taught me as company for the mapless road ahead.

 

p17693_p_v8_aa

“When We Were Kings”

By Peter Rainer

Excerpt from Rainer on Film: Thirty Years of Film Writing in a Turbulent and Transformative Era (Santa Monica Press 2013).

IN NORMAN MAILER’S The Fight, his great book on the Muhammad Ali/George Foreman “Rumble in the Jungle,” he begins by writing of Ali, “There is always the shock in seeing him again. Not live as in television but standing before you, looking his best. Then the World’s Greatest Athlete is in danger of being our most beautful man, and the vocabulary of Camp is doomed to appear. Women draw an audible breath. Men look down. They are reminded again of their lack of worth.”

This may sound like hyperbole but Mailer — like Ali — lives in the region where hyperbole can be transcendent. (It can also be bull). Mailer’s response to Ali in this passage is also our response to seeing him in When We Were Kings, Leon Gast’s amazing documentary about the 1974 Zaire fight and the events surrounding it. The film is unabashed hero-worship, but Ali is so clearly a hero here that we don’t feel swept away by gush. And because of what Ali has become — and George Foreman, too, with his newfound cuddliness — the movie is doubly poignant now. The documentary is, in essence, not much more than a record of what happened in Zaire, but it has been assembled with real feeling for the historical moment. It’s literally a blast from the past.

It’s also something of a miracle because it almost didn’t get made. Gast, who had already directed documentaries about the Hell’s Angels and the Grateful Dead, was initially hired to film the musical festivities surrounding the fight. He had in mind an African-American Woodstock complete with James Brown, B. B. King, the Jazz Crusaders, Bill Withers, the Spinners. Then, four days before the fight was scheduled, a cut to Foreman’s eye during a sparring session postponed the match for six weeks. Gast ended up training his cameras on Ali for much of that time, and what he came up with is the core of this movie.

It took almost 23 years to assemble. Returning broke from Zaire with 300,000 feet of celluloid — about a hundred hours — Gast spent the next 15 years processing portions of the film as he was able to pay for it. After finally untangling legal rights and acquiring completion funds, Gast and his newfound partner, David Sonenberg, an influential music talent manager, made the decision to insert additional fight footage and archival clips. They brought in Taylor Hackford to shoot and edit into the film look-back interviews with, among others, Mailer and George Plimpton and Ali biographer Thomas Hauser.

Gast includes snatches of the musicians doing their thing, but for the most part When We Were Kings is a musical in form far more than in content. It’s shaped like a musical — an opera, really — with arias of exhortation, massed choruses, and pomp. Gast knows how to syncopate the story; he gives it a pulse that finally makes it seem like the whole cavalcade of hype and holler is once again upon us.

Of course, we know how it all turned out: Ali, game but somewhat past his prime, stunned the world by knocking out the man most believed would demolish him. Gast builds our knowledge of the fight’s outcome into the film’s structure; there’s a retrospective thrill in seeing how hot the tumult got. It’s easy to forget now how geniune was the fear that Ali might be killed in the ring.

It’s the fear that underscores everything we see — the interviews with the sports commentators and trainers and fight organizers, with Ali’s giddy multitudinous African fans and even a worrywart Howard Cosell, who hyperbolizes about his concerns for Ali’s safety. Mailer makes the point during an interview that Ali must have recognized in his most private moments that Foreman could pulverize him, and the perception lends an extra dimension to Ali’s almost hysterical rants again his challenger. He takes up the African cry Ali boma ye — which means “Ali, kill him” — and is so rapturously insistent in leading the charge that the effect is frightening. It’s as if Ali were exorcising his own horrors right before our eyes.

Ali was attuned in a way Foreman wasn’t to the political momentousness of the event. “From slave ship to championship” was how he billed the fight, and his back-to-Africa oratory resonated with the Zaireans, who revered him not so much because he was a great fighter but because he stood up to the American government and refused induction into the Vietnam War. “No Vietcong ever called me nigger” was his mantra in all those years, and it made him a champion’s champion for people who sized up the racist implications of that war.

Ali had to demonize Foreman in the eyes of Africans; it was his standard operating procedure to run down his opponents before any fight. But Ali was faced with a problem in Zaire: In a match between two great black boxers in the “homeland,” how do you play up the racial angle? Ali was in fact much lighter-skinned that Foreman, but he castigates him as, in effect, white. “He’s in my country,” Ali says of Foreman, who had the misfortune to arrive in Zaire with his German shepherd — the very dog used by the Belgians to police the Congo.

Throughout When We Were Kings Ali comes on like — in Gast’s words — the Original Rapper. He successfully bleaches Foreman with his patter; he milks the press, the trainers, the camera crew. He says, “I’m not fighting for me, I’m fighting for black people who have no future.” Ali is not only a boxer of genius, he’s a politician of genius. I remembered being baffled by how wooden he was playing himself in “The Greatest.” But Ali — who has as much charisma as any movie star who ever lived — can come alive only by his own wit and instinct. To play a role in a movie, even if the role is himself, would mummify his genie.

When Ali lit the Olympic torch in Atlanta and we saw up close the effects of his Parkinson’s disease, the press covered the moment as if it were an unalloyed triumph. The commentators didn’t allow for our mixed emotions, our rage even, for what Ali had become — possibly owing in large measure to his having taken so many blows to the head from such fighters as George Foreman while we cheered him on. Ali is a hero still, but in a more complicated way. His presence is both an inspiration and an admonition. When We Were Kings brings back the unimpeded joy we once felt in Ali’s presence. It’s a movie in a state of denial — magnificent, unapologetic denial.

(1997)