NY Times Sunday Book Review:Cradle of Civil Disobedience


May 10, 2014

Sunday Book Review

Cradle of Civil Disobedience

Gandhi Before India,’ by Ramachandra Guha

At the end of the 19th century, Mohandas Gandhi was a young lawyer living in Durban, South Africa. He left his house in Beach Grove every morning for an office on Mercury Lane, where he spent much of the day helping his fellow Indian immigrants navigate the onerous colonial bureaucracy. He kept meticulous records, including a logbook of correspondence — from an English missionary and local planters, and a series of letters exchanged with the Protector of Indian Immigrants about the treatment of indentured laborers. In January of 1897, and again a few months later, he heard from another lawyer who was, like him, a Gujarati who had studied in England and then struggled to establish a practice in Bombay. The contents of these letters are unknown.

R GuhaIn a remarkable new biography, “Gandhi Before India,” Ramachandra Guha (left) gingerly speculates about what they might have been. Expressions of support for Gandhi’s nascent activism? Or perhaps “explorations of interest in a possible career in South Africa”? Guha wisely stops there.

What is not in doubt is the name in Gandhi’s logbook — “M. A. Jinnah,” Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who would become the founder of Pakistan. “All we now know is that, a full 50 years before partition and the independence of India and Pakistan, the respective ‘Fathers’ of those nations were in correspondence.”

Guha’s description of this encounter is evidence of his strengths as a historian. He mines primary sources — in this case, records of Gandhi’s law practice from the archives in Pietermaritzburg, the capital of Natal, and the logbook dug out of a filing cupboard in the Sabarmati ashram in Ahmedabad, India — to establish that Gandhi and Jinnah were in contact a decade earlier than previously documented. And he writes vividly enough to compete with that bête noire of all Gandhi biographies, Richard Attenborough’s 1982 film “Gandhi.” (In the movie, they meet at a garden party in India, where a skeptical Jinnah adjusts his monocle while the turbaned Mahatma smiles beatifically.) Guha reminds us of everything these two legendary opposites had in common — language, education and the desperate striving of the ambitious immigrant. “Gandhi Before India” is full of such revelations, each one a delight for the reader.

Early on, Guha spells out how his technique differs from those of previous biographers: He uses the records of contemporaries to complement and sometimes challenge Gandhi’s own account. Gandhi was prolific — the first 12 volumes of his collected works run to 5,000 pages — but, Guha explains, “This reliance on Gandhi’s words can often narrow the historical landscape against which his life and work were enacted.”

This approach helps illuminate Gandhi’s time in South Africa. (As the title indicates, “Gandhi Before India” ends with his final departure, in 1914. A planned second volume will pick up the thread in India.) What Gandhi achieved legally for Indians in South Africa was modest, but by filling out the narrative with Gandhi’s colleagues and rivals, Guha makes a persuasive case that this period is just as significant politically as the years in India. Through the mutual wariness of Gandhi and John Dube, his neighbor and a pioneer of the South African freedom struggle, Guha sketches the marginal, often conflicted role of Indians in African nationalist movements.

The frustrations of South Africa’s Gujarati Muslim merchants, Gandhi’s main political patrons, prefigure the mistrust that would later split apart the movement in India. Guha also uses the nervous functionaries of the Raj to show why Gandhi’s agitation in South Africa was so threatening to the larger colonial project — it forced authorities to acknowledge that under its veneer of liberal paternalism, the British Empire was built on racism. “Every patriotic South African looks forward to the establishment of a large and vigorous European population here,” the governor of Transvaal, Lord Selborne, wrote. “The immigration of an Asiatic population on a large scale he regards as a menace to the realization of this ideal.”

Most of the revelations in this book are political, not personal. Readers looking for salacious details about Gandhi’s sexual life will be disappointed. Guha does not venture far into that territory, except to recount the tale of Maud Polak, sister of Gandhi’s old friend Henry Polak, whose apparent infatuation with Gandhi led her to chase him from England to South Africa. “She cannot tear herself away from me,” Gandhi wrote in one letter to Henry. Guha is more interested in giving the well-known contours of Gandhi’s life a new gloss. He shows, for example, how Gandhi’s sexual abstinence and vegetarianism were informed by a long engagement with Christian nonconformism.

These ideas are thoroughly explored elsewhere, but Guha’s moving portrait of Gandhi as an immigrant is new. “Mohandas Gandhi had been a journeyman between continents,” he writes. “Born and raised in Kathiawar, he had braved convention and community to study in England. . . . Having tried, and failed, to establish himself in Rajkot and Bombay, on his third try Gandhi became a successful lawyer in Durban.”

Gandhi by Guha

Gandhi was part of a wave of Indian immigrants who left the subcontinent in the late 19th century to find work in other parts of the Empire, from Fiji to Mauritius to Trinidad. His struggles were their struggles: estrangement from his wife, Kasturba, and their sons; financial worries (at one point he considers abandoning law to study medicine); and a lifelong sense of indebtedness toward his brothers, who pawned the family jewelry to pay for his education.

Guha populates Gandhi’s world with a Bloomsbury’s worth of fascinating characters. In India, we meet the dissolute Sheikh Mehtab, a childhood friend who is shunned after arranging a disastrous visit for the young Gandhi to a brothel but later becomes a bard of the Indian struggle. In Durban, Leung Quinn enters the scene as a steadfast leader of the South African Chinese, traveling to India to preach the gospel of Asian solidarity. And hovering in the background is Sonja Schlesin, Gandhi’s secretary, who cut her hair and began wearing a shirt and tie as part of her bid to become the first woman in South Africa to qualify for the bar. Rejected, she visited jailed passive resisters, rushing “about on her bicycle from prison to prison, carrying food and messages.”

These small details give the book a cinematic richness. After his family moved to Johannesburg, Guha writes, Gandhi “rose early, helped his wife grind flour for the day’s meals, then walked the five miles to his office in Rissik Street, carrying a packed lunch of wholemeal bread with peanut butter and a selection of seasonal fruits.” When Kasturba is released from a difficult jail term, Henry Polak describes the scene via telegram: “Reduced skeleton tottering appearance old woman heart breaking sight.”

Guha falters, though, in explaining why it all matters. He tends to summarize rather than analyze. “There were, circa 1906, six separate strands in the life of Mohandas K. Gandhi,” he writes near the end of one chapter. And in a work of this depth, it seems glib to mention that “a prominent Chinese blogger has a portrait of Gandhi on his profile” as evidence of Gandhi’s relevance to China’s pro-­democracy movement.

Why does Gandhi matter now? Perhaps the fullness of his life is evidence enough. Guha introduces us to a stressed-out parent, a self-­righteous advocate for raw food and a risk-­taking newspaper editor (he coined the word “satyagraha” with a reader contest — an early experiment in user-­generated content). Above all, he was a skillful politician who allowed his adversaries to sharpen his thinking. Fittingly, Guha leaves the last word on Gandhi in South Africa to his nemesis, Gen. Jan Christian Smuts: “The saint has left our shores — I sincerely hope forever.” Jinnah, presumably, reappears in the sequel.

Penang to give Karpal official send-off


The Penang government will provide veteran lawmaker Karpal Singh an official send off.
The Penang government will provide veteran lawmaker Karpal Singh an official send off.

April 17, 2014

A Tribute to The Tiger of Jelutong:

Legacy of the ‘Tiger of Jelutong’ will endure

by Aimee Gulliver @www.malaysiakini.com

  • Cowards die many times before their deaths;
    The valiant never taste of death but once.
    Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
    It seems to me most strange that men should fear;
    Seeing that death, a necessary end,
    Will come when it will come.

    • Julius Caesar Act II, scene 2, line 33.

Karpal Singh’s story may have come to an abrupt end this morning, but the author of his biography says the legacy of the ‘Tiger of Jelutong’ will endure in Malaysia, where he was a warrior in the fight for equality and justice.

image

New Zealand journalist Tim Donoghue first met Karpal in Penang in 1987 and spent nearly 30 years researching the biography he wrote on the fearless lawyer and advocate, titled “Karpal Singh – Tiger of Jelutong”, which was published in 2013.

“I’ve done a few things in journalism, but I’m particularly proud of that because this man was the ultimate scrapper, but he had a sense of humour,” Donoghue said.

“The things he had to deal with, the life and death issues that he had to deal with, he smiled his way through them all, and he helped a lot of people out along the way. There was always that great twinkle in his eyes, and you just knew that no matter what anyone was ever going to throw at that guy, he was never going to kow-tow to any man.”

Karpal and his aide Michael Cornelius Selvam Vellu, 39, were killed in a road accident about 1.10 this morning near Kampar in Perak. The former DAP chairperson’s sudden departure has shocked the nation, and elicated a flood of eulogies from both sides of the political divide.

His death comes as the 74-year-old was gearing up to appeal his recent conviction for sedition that was cross-appealed by the government, which is seeking have the wheelchair-bound politician jailed.

Karpal

“I don’t think the legal system has brought any great credit upon itself by convicting this man of sedition.“I think that is something that those in the ruling political and legal establishment of Malaysia do need to think about.”, Donoghue said.

The government’s persecution of the man who stood up and fought for human rights in Malaysia had made a martyr out of him, Donoghue said.

“Now that Karpal has gone to his death under threat of imprisonment for this sedition charge, I think he will be a great rallying point come the next election – there will be a huge groundswell of support among the opposition parties in the country.”

A long line of challenges

Karpal’s conviction for sedition was just the latest in a long line of challenges for the “Sikh warrior in legal attire”. “Back when he was 65, after the car accident, most people said he was gone. Even his best friends, with the best intentions in the world, were saying it would have been a far more merciful end if he had died at that time.”

“But the Tiger of Jelutong had a message for those who doubted him.

“He suffered a huge amount of pain as a result of that accident, but he vowed, with the help of his family, to get back out there into the realm of both politics and the law in Malaysia and to keep challenging those in power.”

“Karpal continued his work, and some of his most notable achievements came in the years following his debilitating accident”, Donoghue said.

“After his car accident, his life was totally shattered. But I do think he did his best work, both in the law and in politics, in the seven or eight years that he had after his accident. He did some amazing things in his life. “He would say to me, ‘retirement is not a word in my dictionary’. And the reason I think he hung on was as a result of the pain he suffered because of that accident.”

Donoghue said the manner of Karpal’s death could be considered a merciful release in some ways, but his family would not agree.

Backed by family, every step of the way

“Every step of the way they backed him, they fought with him, and they lifted and laid him. They fought to keep him going.” It was with the support of his family, and his devoted assistant Michael Cornelius Selvam Vellu, 39, who was also killed in this morning’s accident, that Karpal was able to continue his work after the 2005 accident.

“Michael gave his life for this man. He worked around the clock, 24 hours a day, just to support Karpal, and the whole family is very, very, grateful for the job he has done.

“Everything Karpal has done in the last few years has been with the support of (his wife) Gurmit Kaur and Michael. They’ve kept him going, really.”

When he came to Malaysia to launch Karpal’s biography in 2013, Donoghue said he could tell Karpal was extremely proud of what he had achieved in his life.

“Basically, his legacy is one of uncompromising challenge to human rights on a number of fronts throughout his 40-plus years in legal practice.

“I suppose what endeared him to me was he challenged, he challenged, he challenged – and he did it in such a way that everybody enjoyed the trip.”

Although he was an eminently patient man, Donoghue said, Karpal would occasionally get frustrated with him, and ask when the book would be completed.

“I would tell him we would finish when he gave me an ending. We had the final ending this morning, and I think Karpal Singh will go down as one of the great warriors of the Malaysian legal and political fraternities.”

“He was a man who, as long as he had breath going into his lungs, was always going to fight. And in the wake of this man’s life, the fight will go on in Malaysia.”


AIMEE GULLIVER is a New Zealand journalist interning with Malaysiakini for six weeks, courtesy of the Asia New Zealand Foundation.

Kennedy, the Elusive President


November 24, 2013

Kennedy, the Elusive President

by Jill Abramson* (10-22-13)

*Jill Abramson is the executive editor of The Times.

…John F. Kennedy remains all but impossible to pin down. One reason is that his martyrdom — for a generation of Americans still the most traumatic public event of their lives, 9/11 notwithstanding — has obscured much about the man and his accomplishments.

JFKThe 35th President of USA

Was Kennedy a great president, as many continue to think? Or was he a reckless and charming lightweight or, worse still, the first of our celebrities-in-chief? To what extent do his numerous personal failings, barely reported during his lifetime but amply documented since, overshadow or undermine his policy achievements? And what of those achievements — in civil rights and poverty, to name two issues his administration embraced. Weren’t the breakthroughs actually the doing of his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson?

Even the basic facts of Kennedy’s death are still subject to heated argument. The historical consensus seems to have settled on Lee Harvey Oswald as the lone assassin, but conspiracy speculation abounds — involving Johnson, the C.I.A., the mob, Fidel Castro or a baroque combination of all of them. Many of the theories have been circulating for decades and have now found new life on the Internet, in Web sites febrile with unfiltered and at times unhinged musings.

Of course the Kennedy fixation is hardly limited to the digital world. An estimated 40,000 books about him have been published since his death, and this anniversary year has loosed another vast outpouring. Yet to explore the enormous literature is to be struck not by what’s there but by what’s missing. Readers can choose from many books but surprisingly few good ones, and not one really outstanding one.

It is a curious state of affairs, and some of the nation’s leading historians wonder about it. “There is such fascination in the country about the anniversary, but there is no great book about Kennedy,” Robert Caro lamented when I spoke to him not long ago. The situation is all the stranger, he added, since Kennedy’s life and death form “one of the great American stories.” Caro should know. His epic life of Johnson (four volumes and counting) brilliantly captures parts of the Kennedy saga, especially the assassination in Dallas, revisited in the latest installment, “The Passage of Power.”

Robert Dallek, the author of “An Unfinished Life,” probably the best single-volume Kennedy biography, suggests that the cultish atmosphere surrounding, and perhaps smothering, the actual man may be the reason for the deficit of good writing about him. “The mass audience has turned Kennedy into a celebrity, so historians are not really impressed by him,” Dallek told me.

“Historians see him more as a celebrity who didn’t accomplish very much.” Dallek also pointed to a second inhibiting factor, the commercial pressure authors feel to come up with sensational new material. His own book, as it happens, included a good deal of fresh information on Kennedy’s severe health problems and their cover-up by those closest to him. And yet Dallek is careful not to let these revelations overwhelm the larger story.

Dallek is also good on the fairy-tale aspects of the Kennedy family history, and he closely examines the workings of the Kennedy White House. So enthralled was he by this last topic that he has written a follow-up, “Camelot’s Court,” which profiles members of Kennedy’s famous brain trust and is being released for the 50th anniversary. This time, however, it is Dallek who doesn’t offer much fresh material.

This in turn raises another question: How much is left to say about Kennedy’s presidency? The signature legislative accomplishments he and his advisers envisioned were not enacted until after his death. Then there is the Vietnam conundrum. Some maintain that Kennedy would not have escalated the war as Johnson did. But the belief that he would have limited the American presence in Vietnam is rooted as much in the romance of “what might have been” as in the documented record.

Indeed, a dolorous mood of “what might have been” hangs over a good deal of writing about Kennedy. Arriving in time for November. 22 is the loathsomely titled “If Kennedy Lived. The First and Second Terms of President John F. Kennedy: An Alternate History,” by the television commentator Jeff Greenfield, who imagines a completed first Kennedy term and then a second. This isn’t new territory for Greenfield, who worked for Kennedy’s brother Robert and is the author of a previous book of presidential “what ifs” called “Then Everything Changed.” (Dallek’s “Camelot’s Court” and Greenfield’s “If Kennedy Lived” are reviewed here.)

Thurston Clarke, the author of two previous and quite serviceable books on the Kennedys, also dwells on fanciful “what might have beens” in “JFK’s Last Hundred Days,” suggesting that the death of the presidential couple’s last child, Patrick, brought the grieving parents closer together and may have signaled the end of Kennedy’s compulsive womanizing.

What’s more, Clarke makes a giant (and dubious) leap about Kennedy as leader, arguing that in the final 100 days he was becoming a great president. One example, according to Clarke, was his persuading the conservative Republicans Charles Halleck, the House minority leader, and Everett Dirksen, the Senate minority leader, to support a civil rights bill. Once re-elected, Kennedy would have pushed the bill through Congress.

Kennedy as Arthurian hero is also a feature of what has been called “pundit lit” by the historian and journalist David Greenberg. The purpose of this genre (books by writers who themselves are famous) is, in Greenberg’s words, “to extend their authors’ brands — to make money, to be sure, and to express some set of ideas, however vague, but mainly to keep their celebrity creators in the media spotlight.”

The champion in this growing field is Bill O’Reilly, who has milked the Kennedy assassination with unique efficiency. O’Reilly’s latest contribution, “Kennedy’s Last Days,” is an illustrated recycling, for children, of his mega-best seller “Killing Kennedy.” This new version, it must be said, distinctly improves on the original, whose choppy sentences, many written in the present tense, lose nothing when recast for younger readers. “He is on a collision course with evil,” O’Reilly declares.

No less elevated is his discussion of Kennedy’s decision to visit Dallas despite warnings of roiling violence, including the physical assault on his United Nations ambassador, Adlai Stevenson, who had given a speech in the city in October 1963. “J.F.K. has decided to visit Big D,” O’Reilly writes. “There is no backing down.” Happily, the wooden prose is offset by the many illustrations. My favorite is a spread on the first family’s pets, including puppies and a pony.

Bad books by celebrity authors shouldn’t surprise us, even when the subject is an American president. The true mystery in Kennedy’s case is why, 50 years after his death, highly accomplished writers seem unable to fix him on the page.

For some, the trouble has been idolatry. Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who wrote three magisterial volumes on Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, attempted a similar history in “A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House.” Published in 1965, it has the virtues of immediacy, since Schlesinger, Kennedy’s Harvard contemporary, had been on the White House staff, brought in as court historian. He witnessed many of the events he describes. But in his admiration for Kennedy, he became a chief architect of the Camelot myth and so failed, in the end, to give a persuasive account of the actual presidency.

In 1993, the political journalist Richard Reeves did better. “President Kennedy: Profile of Power” is a minutely detailed chronicle of the Kennedy White House. As a primer on Kennedy’s decision-making, like his handling of the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban missile crisis, the book is fascinating.

What’s missing is a picture of Kennedy’s personal life, though Reeves includes a passing mention of Marilyn Monroe being sewn into the $5,000 flesh-colored, skintight dress she wore to celebrate the president’s birthday at Madison Square Garden in 1962. (This is the place to note that Reeves edited “The Kennedy Years,” The New York Times’s own addition to the ever-­expanding Kennedy cosmos, and I wrote the foreword.)

Balancing out, or warring with, the Kennedy claque are the Kennedy haters, like Seymour M. Hersh and Garry Wills. In “The Dark Side of Camelot,” Hersh wildly posits connections between the Kennedys and the mob, while Wills, though he offers any number of brilliant insights into Kennedy and his circle of courtiers, fixates on the Kennedy brothers’ (and father’s) sexual escapades in “The Kennedy Imprisonment.”

The sum total of this oddly polarized literature is a kind of void. Other presidents, good and bad, have been served well by biographers and historians. We have first-rate books on Jefferson, on Lincoln, on Wilson, on both Roosevelts. Even unloved presidents have received major books: Johnson (Caro) and Richard Nixon (Wills, among others). Kennedy, the odd man out, still seeks his true biographer.

Why is this the case? One reason is that even during his lifetime, Kennedy defeated or outwitted the most powerfully analytic and intuitive minds.

In 1960, Esquire magazine commissioned Norman Mailer’s first major piece of political journalism, asking him to report on the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles that nominated Kennedy. Mailer’s long virtuoso article, “Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” came as close as any book or essay ever has to capturing Kennedy’s essence, though that essence, Mailer candidly acknowledged, was enigmatic.

Here was a 43-year-old man whose irony and grace were keyed to the national temper in 1960. Kennedy’s presence, youthful and light, was at once soothing and disruptive, with a touch of brusqueness. He carried himself “with a cool grace which seemed indifferent to applause, his manner somehow similar to the poise of a fine boxer, quick with his hands, neat in his timing, and two feet away from his corner when the bell ended the round.” Finally, however, “there was an elusive detachment to everything he did. One did not have the feeling of a man present in the room with all his weight and all his mind.”

Mailer himself doesn’t know “whether to value this elusiveness, or to beware of it. One could be witnessing the fortitude of a superior sensitivity or the detachment of a man who was not quite real to himself.”

And yet Kennedy’s unreality, in Mailer’s view, may have answered the particular craving of a particular historical moment. “It was a hero America needed, a hero central to his time, a man whose personality might suggest contradiction and mysteries which could reach into the alienated circuits of the underground, because only a hero can capture the secret imagination of a people, and so be good for the vitality of his nation.” Those words seemed to prophesy the Kennedy mystique that was to come, reinforced by the whisker-thin victory over Nixon in the general election, by the romantic excitements of Camelot and then by the horror of Dallas.

Fifty years later we are still sifting through the facts of the assassination. The Warren Commission concluded in 1964 that Kennedy had been killed by a lone gunman, Lee Harvey Oswald. Edward Jay Epstein and Mark Lane were among the first writers to challenge that finding, and their skepticism loosed a tide of investigations. The 50th anniversary has washed in some new ones. Among the more ambitious is “A Cruel and Shocking Act: The Secret History of the Kennedy Assassination,” a work of more than 500 pages. Its author, Philip Shenon, a former New York Times reporter, uncovered a new lead, in the person of a heretofore overlooked woman who may have had suspicious ties to the assassin. But when Shenon finds the woman, now in her 70s, in Mexico, she denies having had a relationship with Oswald, and Shenon’s encounters with her prove more mysterious than illuminating.

Kennedy’s murder was bound to attract novelists, and some have approached the subject inventively, if with strange results. Stephen King’s “11/22/63,” a best seller published in 2011, takes the form of a time-travel romp involving a high school English teacher who finds romance in Texas while keeping tabs on Oswald. At more than 800 pages, the novel demands a commitment that exceeds its entertainment value.

I rather like Mailer’s “Oswald’s Tale,” published in 1995. It is, like his earlier masterpiece “The Executioner’s Song,” a work of “faction,” which is Mailer’s term for his hybrid of documented fact and novelistic elaboration. Mailer and his colleague, Lawrence Schiller, spent six months in Russia examining Oswald’s K.G.B. files, and the huge quasi novel that came out of it contains a good deal of engrossing material about Oswald and his Russian wife, Marina, as well as the odd assortment of people the couple mixed with in Texas. Mailer’s narrative skills are prodigious, but in the end he has little to tell us that wasn’t already uncovered by Priscilla Johnson McMillan in “Marina and Lee,” her nonfiction portrait of the troubled couple from 1977. (Mailer properly credits McMillan’s book.)

Most critics seem to think the outstanding example of Kennedy assassination fiction is “Libra,” Don DeLillo’s postmodern novel, published in 1988. The narrative is indeed taut and bracing. But the challenge DeLillo set for himself, to provide readers with “a way of thinking about the assassination without being constrained by half-facts or overwhelmed by possibilities, by the tide of speculation that widens with the years,” exceeds even his lavish gifts.

It is telling that DeLillo reverts to the shadowy realm of “half-facts.” Their persistence raises the question of just how many secrets remain, not only about Kennedy’s death but also about his life. And if there are secrets, who is guarding them, and why?

One clue has been furnished by the historian Nigel Hamilton, whose book “JFK: Reckless Youth,” published in 1992, was the first in a planned multivolume biography that promised to be a valuable addition to the current literature. (He has since dropped the project.) While the book was gossipy, especially on the subject of the young Kennedy’s sexual adventures, Hamilton also provided a vivid and lively account of Kennedy’s successful 1946 campaign for Congress. But when Hamilton began work on the next volumes, he said he came under a sustained barrage by Kennedy loyalists. “The family leaned upon well-known historians such as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Doris Goodwin to write protest letters to the press,” Hamilton wrote in 2011 in The Huffington Post. “I was warned that no Kennedy-era official or friend would be ‘allowed’ to speak to me for my proposed sequel.”

Kennedy may have enjoyed the company of writers, but the long history of secrecy and mythmaking has surely contributed to the paucity of good books. The Kennedys — especially Jackie and Bobby — were notoriously hard on authors whose books they didn’t like. And they enlisted Schlesinger, Theodore Sorensen and other intimates to act as a kind of history police, not only withholding primary materials but also bullying writers.

A prominent historian recently told me he was once warned by Schlesinger, with whom he had been friendly, that because he had invited Hamilton to a meeting of the American Historical Association he might himself be banished from the organization. In recent years, the protective seal seems to have loosened. The Kennedy family, including Edward Kennedy and his sister Jean Kennedy Smith, gave unfettered access to their father’s papers to David Nasaw, the author of “The Patriarch,” a well-received biography of Joseph P. Kennedy that appeared last year.

Caroline Kennedy has been even more open to the claims of history. She herself was involved in the publication of two books and the release of accompanying tapes. One of them, “Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life With John F. Kennedy,” contains the transcripts of the first lady’s interviews about her husband with Schlesinger, conducted in 1964 but kept secret until 2011. They are revealing and mesmerizing. The other, “Listening In,” offers White House conversations captured in a secretly installed taping system in the Oval Office.

Since Kennedy controlled the device, these conversations are more guarded, but the book includes at least one memorable moment, when the president hilariously loses his temper over unflattering press about the $5,000 cost of Mrs. Kennedy’s hospital maternity suite — “Are they crazy up there? Now you know what that’s gonna do? Any congressman is going to get up and say, ‘Christ, if they can throw $5,000 away on this, let’s cut ’em another billion dollars.’ You just sank the Air Force budget!”

Jack and JackieThe most disturbing case of the family’s attempts to control history came early on, and it involved William Manchester, the historian chosen by the Kennedys a few weeks after the assassination to write the authorized account, “The Death of a President.” Manchester was selected because of a previous, and fawning, book he had written about Kennedy, “Portrait of a President.” (In a bizarre twist, this was one of the books Lee Harvey Oswald checked out of a New Orleans public library just months before the assassination.)

Manchester was given sole access to almost all the president’s men as well as to his widow and virtually every principal figure. (Lyndon Johnson submitted answers in writing through his staff.) It seemed the ideal arrangement — until Manchester presented a manuscript to the Kennedys.

In a gripping piece from his 1976 collection of essays, “Controversy,” Manchester described what happened next. First there were the many insertions and deletions made by various Kennedy minions, who applied so much pressure that Manchester became a nervous wreck. An especially low point came when Robert Kennedy hunted Manchester down in a New York hotel room and banged on the door, demanding to be let in to argue for still more changes.

Next, Jackie Kennedy, who had not bothered to read the manuscript, accepted the view of her factotums that many of its details, like the fact that she carried cigarettes in her purse, were too personal. Further angered by the $665,000 Manchester had received from Look magazine for serial rights, Mrs. Kennedy went to court to enjoin the author from publishing the book. Eventually, she settled out of court and finally read “The Death of a President” when it was published in 1967. She deemed it “fascinating.”

Nevertheless, the Kennedy family, which controlled publication rights to “The Death of a President,” allowed it to go out of print, and for a number of years copies could be found only online or at rummage sales. The good news, maybe the best, of the 50th anniversary is that Little, Brown has now reissued paperback and e-book editions.

It’s good news because, remarkably, and against all odds, Manchester (who died in 2004) wrote an extraordinary book. There are obvious defects. Predictably, he blares the trumpets of Camelot, and he has a weakness for melodrama. It’s hard to believe, even at the time of Kennedy’s murder, that to the world it was “as though the Axis powers had surrendered and Adolf Hitler and Franklin Roosevelt had died in the hours between noon and midafternoon in Washington of a single day in 1945.” But these excesses don’t really matter, thanks to Manchester’s vivid reporting, masterly narrative and authentically poetic touches.

It is in small, quiet scenes that Manchester’s chronicle accumulates its greatest force. When it is time for Dave Powers, the slain president’s aide and sidekick, to pick out the clothes Kennedy will wear to his grave, he selects from eight suits and four pairs of shoes brought out by Kennedy’s valet, George Thomas. Powers settles on a blue-gray suit, black shoes and “a blue tie with a slight pattern of light dots.”

An embroidered “JFK” on the white silk shirt is hidden from view. The valet remembered that Kennedy’s “dislike of flamboyant monograms had extended to handkerchiefs,” Manchester writes. The president “had carefully folded them so that the initials would not show, and Thomas did it for him now, slipping the handkerchief into his coat pocket.”

Of all that has been written and that will be read on this 50th anniversary, it is the last paragraphs of “The Death of a President” that deserve to stand out from everything else. Manchester describes viewing the bloodstained pink suit Jackie Kennedy wore on November. 22, 1963, which had since been stowed in a Georgetown attic:

Unknown to her, the clothes Mrs. Kennedy wore into the bright midday glare of Dallas lie in an attic not far from 3017 N Street. In Bethesda that night those closest to her had vowed that from the moment she shed them she should never see them again. She hasn’t. Yet they are still there, in one of two long brown paper cartons thrust between roof rafters. The first is marked “September 12, 1953,” the date of her marriage; it contains her wedding gown. The block-printed label on the other is “Worn by Jackie, November 22, 1963.”

Inside, neatly arranged, are the pink wool suit, the black shift, the low-heeled shoes and, wrapped in a white towel, the stockings. Were the box to be opened by an intruder from some land so remote that the name, the date and photographs of the ensemble had not been published and republished until they had been graven upon his memory, he might conclude that these were merely stylish garments which had passed out of fashion and which, because they were associated with some pleasant occasion, had not been discarded.

If the trespasser looked closer, however, he would be momentarily baffled. The memento of a happy time would be cleaned before storing. Obviously this costume has not been. There are ugly splotches along the front and hem of the skirt. The handbag’s leather and the inside of each shoe are caked dark red. And the stockings are quite odd.

Once the same substance streaked them in mad scribbly patterns, but time and the sheerness of the fabric have altered it. The rusty clots have flaked off; they lie in tiny brittle grains on the nap of the towel. Examining them closely, the intruder would see his error. This clothing, he would perceive, had not been kept out of sentiment. He would realize that it had been worn by a slender young woman who had met with some dreadful accident. He might ponder whether she had survived. He might even wonder who had been to blame.

Unfortunately, the tapes of Manchester’s two five-hour interviews with Jackie Kennedy, who seems to have regretted her frankness, remain under seal at the Kennedy Library until 2067. This is a final sadness for a reader sifting through these many books. Taken together, they tell us all too little about this president, now gone 50 years, who remains as elusive in death as he was in life.

Related:

A version of this article appears in print on October 27, 2013, on page BR1 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: The Elusive President.

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/27/books/review/the-elusive-president.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1&

Tribute to Albert O Hirschman


July 23, 2013

Tribute to Albert O Hirschman: Worldly Philosopher and Original Thinker

by Cass R. Sunstein

Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman
by Jeremy Adelman
Princeton University Press, 740 pp., $39.95

k9935Albert O Hirschman

Albert Hirschman, who died late last year, was one of the most interesting and unusual thinkers of the last century. An anti-utopian reformer with a keen eye for detail, Hirschman insisted on the complexity of social life and human nature. He opposed intransigence in all its forms. He believed that political and economic possibilities could be found in the most surprising places.

Hirschman is principally known for four remarkable books. The most influential, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty (1970), explores two ways to respond to unjust, exasperating, or inefficient organizations and relationships. You can leave (“exit”) or you can complain (“voice”). If you are loyal, you will not exit, and you may or may not speak out. The Passions and the Interests (1977) uncovers a long-lost argument for capitalism in general and commercial interactions in particular. The argument is that trade softens social passions and enmities, ensuring that people see one another not as members of competing tribes, but as potential trading partners. Shifting Involvements (1982) investigates the dramatically different attractions of political engagement and private life, and shows how the disappointments of one can lead to heightened interest in the other. For example, the protest movements of the 1960s were inspired, at least in part, by widespread disappointment with the experience of wealth-seeking and consumption, emphasized in the 1950s.

Albert O HirschmanFinally, The Rhetoric of Reaction (1991) is a study of the reactionary’s tool kit, identifying the standard objections to any and all proposals for reform. The objections are “perversity” (the reform will make the problem even worse), “futility” (the reform will do nothing to solve the problem), and “jeopardy” (the reform will endanger some hard-won social gain). Hirschman (left) shows that these objections are stupefying, mechanical, hyperbolic, and often wrong. In 1845, for example, the historian Jacob Burkhardt deplored the rise of democracy and the expansion of the right to vote on the ground that he did not “expect anything from the despotism of the masses but a future tyranny, which will mean the end of history.”

Hirschman’s work changes how you see the world. It illuminates yesterday, today, and tomorrow. His categories become your categories. A lot of moderate Republicans are disenchanted with the Republican Party. Do they “exit” or do they use their “voice” to try to change the party? In much of the world, nations and regions are now riven by religious and ethnic tensions. Should they emphasize how much their citizens can gain through trading with one another? If people are willing to buy your product, you might not care which god they worship. The Arab Spring saw an extraordinary outburst in political engagement. Is disappointment with the early results shifting people’s involvement toward the private sphere?

The current debate over gun control is a case study in “the rhetoric of reaction.” Those who object to legal restrictions urge that far from decreasing the risk of violence, such restrictions will actually increase it. For Hirschman, this objection would be an example of “perversity.” Opponents also contend that if we want to save lives, gun control will have essentially no effect—the argument from futility. We can find precisely the same rhetorical gambits in countless other debates, including those over Obamacare, increases in the minimum wage, affirmative action, and same-sex marriage.

Hirschman, born in 1915 in Berlin, was an economist by training, and he spent a lot of time reading Adam Smith, but his great intellectual loves were Montaigne (with his advice to “observe, observe perpetually”) and Machiavelli. To support his points, Hirschman drew on Dante, Jane Austen, Flaubert, Chekhov, and Yeats. He had a keen interest in social psychology. Crossing Boundaries is the title of one of his books; another is called Essays in Trespassing.

Part of what made Hirschman distinctive, even unique, was his ability to develop large themes from sharp observations of particular practices, and thus to connect apparently unrelated social phenomena. It was an observation of the behavior of motorists in a tunnel in Boston—who honked with outrage when people in an adjacent lane started to move while their lane remained stuck—that helped him to develop a general theory of disappointment and indignation. He was also wry and mischievous. As he wrote in the preface to Exit, Voice, and Loyalty:

Having found my own unifying way of looking at issues as diverse as competition and the two-party system, divorce and the American character, black power and the failure of “unhappy” top officials to resign over Vietnam, I decided to let myself go a little.

As Jeremy Adelman shows in his astonishing and moving biography, Hirschman sought, in his early twenties and long before becoming a writer, to “prove Hamlet wrong.” In Shakespeare’s account, Hamlet is immobilized and defeated by doubt. Hirschman was a great believer in doubt—he never doubted it—and he certainly doubted his own convictions. At a conference designed to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of his first book, who else would take the opportunity to show that one of his own central arguments was wrong? Who else would publish an essay in The American Economic Review exploring the “overproduction of opinionated opinion,” questioning the value of having strong opinions, and emphasizing the importance of doubting one’s opinions and even one’s tastes? Hirschman thought that strong opinions, as such, “might be dangerous to the health of our democracy,” because they are an obstacle to mutual understanding and constructive problem-solving. Writing in 1989, he was not speaking of the current political culture, but he might as well have been.

In seeking to prove Hamlet wrong, Hirschman was suggesting that doubt could be a source not of paralysis and death but of creativity and self-renewal. One of his last books, published when he was about eighty, is called A Propensity to Self-Subversion. In the title essay, Hirschman celebrates skepticism about his own theories and ideas, and he captures not only the insight but also the pleasure, even the joy, that can come from learning that one had it wrong.

He insisted that human history provides “stories, intricate and often non-repeatable,” which “look more like tricks history has up its sleeve than like social-scientific regularities, not to speak of laws.” He was interested in “the many might-have-beens of history,” including “felicitous and surprising escapes from disaster.” One of his most important essays is called “Against Parsimony,” which argues that people sometimes choose to change their own preferences (consider, for example, efforts to quit smoking), and that some resources, such as love or public spirit, “may well increase rather than decrease through use.”

Hirschman was delighted by paradoxes, unintended consequences (especially good ones), the telling detail, inventories of actual practices (rather than big theories), surprises, and improvisation. In his view, “history is nothing if not farfetched.” He invented the term “possibilism,” meant to draw attention to “the discovery of paths, however narrow, leading to an outcome that appears to be foreclosed on the basis of probabilistic reasoning alone.” In his lifetime, one of many such outcomes was the abrupt collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, which almost no one anticipated. Speaking of paradoxes: an economist by profession, he wasn’t great at math, and he wrote with remarkable clarity and subtlety.

Hirschman’s work is more than interesting enough to justify a book (or two, or ten), but Adelman’s achievement is to demonstrate, in novelistic detail, that he also lived an astounding life, full of narrow paths and ridiculously improbable twists and turns. Brought up in Berlin, he was raised during the better days of the Weimar Republic, when Berlin was alive with the avant-garde. Both of his parents’ families had converted from Judaism to Protestantism, and the family celebrated Christmas, not as a religious occasion but as a social one, with gifts for the children. Hirschman was baptized but declined to be confirmed: “Somehow I wasn’t impressed by the Minister, and I asked my parents to stop.”

At the age of nine, he was sent to the Französisches Gymnasium, an intellectual hothouse from which he graduated in 1932. In the early 1930s, of course, the influence of the Nazi party was swiftly expanding. Hirschman engaged in countless discussions with his Nazi classmates; his physical education teacher wore a swastika. Communism was also an important presence, and so Hirschman had early and close experience with intransigence on both the left and the right. The topic of his final exam was a quotation from Spinoza: “One should neither laugh nor cry at the world, but understand it.”

After graduation, Hirschman began to study economics at the University of Berlin, which was of course in the midst of intense political conflict, and which contained a large number of Hitler supporters. In his own account, the situation did not seem truly grave until “the Reichstag fire, which really marked the beginning of the political horror.” Hirschman faced personal horror as well. His father, a physician, was diagnosed with terminal cancer and quickly died. Confronted by a new law that threw Jews out of universities, Hirschman chose to exit while still in his teens and left for Paris, where he formed relationships with a number of refugees from Russia, Italy, and Germany.

As Adelman tells the tale, Paris left an indelible mark on Hirschman. Surrounded by political dogmas of many different kinds but rejecting every “guiding ism,” he developed an immense enthusiasm for what he called “petites idées”—small ideas and little observations that, for the rest of his life, he would write down in notebooks or on scraps of paper. In Paris he developed the habit of rejecting abstract theories in favor of close observations of actual practices.

In dealing with events during the difficult period between 1935 and 1938, Hirschman showed a great deal of resilience and bravery. He decided to fight in the Spanish civil war against Franco with the very first Italian and German volunteers, some of whom were killed on the battlefield. For the rest of his life, Hirschman remained entirely silent about this experience, even with his wife, though “the scars on his neck and leg made it impossible for her to forget.” Returning from the war, he worked closely with the anti-Fascist Italian underground, carrying secret letters and documents back and forth from Paris.

As war loomed between France and Germany, Hirschman became a soldier for a second time, ready to fight for the French in what many people expected to be a prolonged battle. After the French defense quickly collapsed, Hirschman lived under German occupation and engaged in what was probably the most courageous and hazardous work of his life. Along with Varian Fry, a classicist from Harvard, he labored successfully to get stateless refugees out of France. In 1939 and 1940, they created a network that would enable more than two thousand refugees to exit. As Adelman writes, the “list of the saved reads like a who’s who.” It included Hannah Arendt, André Breton, Marc Chagall, Marcel Duchamp, and Max Ernst. Meticulous logistical planning was required to work out the right routes and to obtain the necessary exit and transit visas. Hirschman’s “colleagues marveled at his skill; for all his youth he was a font of devious ingenuity and seasoned wisdom.”

It was inevitable that Hirschman would find himself at serious personal risk. The Vichy Government was helping agents of the Gestapo to find German Jews. It was time to run, taking one of the same routes that he had devised for so many others. Hirschman threw away everything he owned except what he could fit in a little bag (including his precious copy of Montaigne’s Essais and an extra pair of socks). With two other refugees, he started the long, grueling walk through the Pyrenees. Hirschman had to carry one of his exhausted companions for a part of the way.

After seven hours on foot, they crossed into Spain, and Hirschman made it into Portugal, where he waited for five weeks for the SS Excalibur, the ship that would take him to New York. In his mid-twenties, he wrote his mother, still in Germany, from the ship:

I shall enter this country with the will of getting to something, of showing that I have merited the extraordinary chain of lucky incidents which have led me here. Though I still love France, I am of course disappointed in many ways, and this makes my fourth—or is it the fifth?—emigration easier for me.

Hirschman had of course experienced plenty of horrific bad luck as well, but his characteristic hopefulness stood him in good stead. (One of his books is called A Bias for Hope.) Courtesy of the Rockefeller Foundation, he accepted a two-year fellowship at the University of California at Berkeley. Soon after his arrival there, he met Sarah Chapiro in the cafeteria at International House. Instantly captivated by her, he proposed eight weeks later, and she accepted.

At Berkeley, Hirschman focused on the effects of international trade on national economies. As part of his research, he developed statistical indices designed to measure market concentration (the degree to which a market is dominated by a limited number of firms) and market power. In a letter to his sister, Hirschman described his results as “pretty interesting”—a lovely understatement in view of the fact that those results continue to have basic importance for many areas of economics (including antitrust), under the name of the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index, which measures the level of concentration in industries, and thus helps show how competitive they are. (Orris Herfindahl is often given credit for the index, but Hirschman got there first.)

Exploring the consequences of national power for the structure of foreign trade, Hirschman published his first book in 1945. Among other things, it addressed an interesting puzzle: Nazi Germany shifted from commerce with other wealthy nations to dealing with its smaller and less prosperous neighbors (Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania). Hirschman explained that it did so in order to achieve economic and thus political dominance over them. The problem is that when some nations are wealthier than others, national sovereignty can produce economic sovereignty over entire regions. Hirschman’s first book, largely ignored in its own time and also ours, helps to explain a number of current predicaments. Consider China’s growing economic power and the political dominance that is resulting from that power.

As the book was being completed, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, and the young German economist, so recently a soldier in Spain and France, promptly enlisted in the US Army. Originally assigned to a combat unit, Hirschman was shifted to the Office of Strategic Services, where he worked as an interpreter. He read voraciously, including Albert Camus and Friedrich Hayek, whose great work, The Road to Serfdom, he found “very useful for someone like me who grew up in a ‘collectivist’ climate—it makes you rethink many things….” Notwithstanding his extensive reading, he abandoned the idea of an academic career, believing that he had no future in it.

After the war ended, Hirschman was assigned to be the interpreter in the first Allied war crimes trial, brought against the German General Anton Dostler, who had ordered the execution of prisoners in plain violation of conventions of war. Hirschman sat next to Dostler through the dramatic five-day trial. What must this have been like for him? The only record of his feelings is a single sentence in The New York Times, which reported that the nameless American “interpreter turned pale as he had to utter the death sentence” to the German general. Home in California, Sarah came across a black-and-white photo of her husband, leaning close to the Nazi general. Reading about how the interpreter went pale, she “breathed a sigh of relief that the war had not destroyed her husband’s sensitivity.”

After returning to Washington, Hirschman was hired by the Federal Reserve Board and then the Economic Cooperation Administration (ECA), where he emphasized the need for multilateral trading and helped to develop the thinking behind the Marshall Plan. With his ECA office just a few blocks from the White House, Hirschman argued vigorously against postwar austerity and for opening rather than closing markets. (It is reasonable to speculate that in the current economic situation, he would be a strong opponent of both austerity and protectionism.) Notwithstanding the high quality of his work, McCarthyism hit him directly and hard. A security review wrongly concluded, on the basis of unsubstantiated rumors, that he had some sympathy with communism. As a result, he was dismissed from the federal government in 1951. Adelman shows that false rumors about his past had dogged him since he joined the army.

Now with two daughters, Hirschman and his wife made their way to South America and to Colombia. There he went to work for the World Bank, acquired a lifelong interest in Latin America, and shifted the focus of his work to economic development. Advising Colombia’s president, he found a large disconnect between standard economic theory and actual practice. He produced a paper called “Case Studies of Instances of Successful Economic Development in Colombia,” which emphasized surprising success stories, including that of a bank specializing in small loans to individuals, artisans, and small firms, “which has experienced remarkable expansion recently due to novel methods and political support.”

In 1956, possibilism struck home. He received an unexpected letter from the chair of Yale’s economics department, who asked him whether he might be willing to come to New Haven as a visiting research professor. He accepted immediately, and his academic career started in his forties.

In New Haven, he produced his second book, The Strategy of Economic Development, which attacked the prevailing wisdom in favor of “balanced growth” and top-down planning. He argued instead for providing economic support to industries with strong “linkages,” understood as economic relationships with others. If one sector is closely linked to others, its own development, however unbalanced, can spur additional development and promote growth. Hirschman showed that in underdeveloped countries, the iron and steel industry tends to have high linkages; for that reason, it makes sense for such countries to support that industry. He contended that development depends “on calling forth and enlisting for development purposes resources and abilities that are hidden, scattered, or badly utilized.” In Hirschman’s account, history had no single course and could not be planned.

As he completed The Strategy of Economic Development, his exhilaration was palpable. He wrote his sister that an old teacher had explained

that I shouldn’t worry about love—and she stretched out her arms and then slowly brought her two index fingers together from afar—as sure as that, she said, would the girl that I will love get together with me one day. As it may be, along the lines of the example I think that there exists for each of us a personal (and nevertheless general) truth, we only have to trace it and then follow it deliberately and courageously. And I just had these last months the exciting feeling that I am about to succeed in following my truth.

Though the book received favorable reviews (and was destined to become a classic), Hirschman’s visiting professorship had run out at Yale. But in relatively short order, Columbia offered him his first real academic appointment. The only problem was that he hated teaching (and seemed to have a phobia about it throughout his life). In 1963, he moved to Harvard. Influenced by the protest movements of the 1960s, and seeking to challenge the view that market competition was a cure-all, he wrote Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, which became an immediate sensation. As Adelman notes, the immense influence of the book stems in part from the familiarity and wide application of the master concepts. Faced with a difficult nation, employer, credit card company, religion, or personal relationship, does one leave, protest, or keep quiet? All of us have had to answer that question, and Hirschman offered a new set of categories with which to answer it.

Despising teaching as much as he loved writing, Hirschman longed to spend time at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. In 1971, he asked whether he could visit there for the following year. He was indeed invited and the move became permanent. At the institute, Hirschman became keenly interested in the origins of capitalism and embarked on the project that became The Passions and the Interests. In that work, he rejected the nostalgia, current at the time, for a supposedly lost world of republican virtue, free of commercial avarice. He also rejected the suggestion, prominent then and now in the economics profession, that markets simply take human beings as they are, with their inevitable self-interest.

Instead he observed that the early theorists of free markets thought that commerce would transform people, by cooling our passions and making us gentler. In the words of Samuel Ricard in 1704, commercial interactions would encourage citizens “to be honest, to acquire manners, to be prudent and reserved in both talk and action.” At the same time, however, Hirschman worried that efforts to focus people on economic gain could “have the side effect of killing the civic spirit and of thereby opening the door to tyranny.”

Hirschman’s thinking about the alternating ease and difficulty of getting people to participate in public life led him to Shifting Involvements—a small masterpiece that illuminates the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, and protest movements of diverse kinds. Hirschman emphasized that human beings are often choosing between private and public life, and thus between the different forms of happiness that are associated with each of them. He described “pendular motions of collective behavior,” in which people swing from happiness to disappointment in one kind of activity, and then to the other. For example, the disappointments and frustrations of the student rebellions of the late 1960s encouraged a return to private life in the 1970s and 1980s. Rejecting the highly influential idea that the problem of collective action has a kind of invariable, ahistorical “logic,” Hirschman drew attention to the immense importance of history and timing as, in Adelman’s words, “people leave the streets and plazas disenchanted with politics to seek happiness in the shopping malls”—and vice versa.

The Rhetoric of Reaction, written in his mid-seventies, was an outgrowth of the conservative ascendancy of the 1980s, and it speaks directly to our current debates. Hirschman was struck by the routine, stylized, even mechanical character of much conservative thinking—and its close connection, in its rhetoric, to arguments that have been made for hundreds of years. Indeed, conservative rhetoric is the book’s target, perhaps above all in the person of Edmund Burke, who deplored the French Revolution and its emphasis on the rights of men, and who exclaimed, “Massacre, torture, hanging! These are your rights of men!” But in a fascinating flip, the book ends with a demonstration that the left has its own, closely related rhetorical moves. Where conservatives argue that further reforms will jeopardize precious accomplishments, the left throws “caution to the wind, to disregard not only tradition but the whole concept of unintended consequences of human action,” and hence “progressives are forever ready to mold and remold society at will and have no doubt about their ability to control events.”

Commenting on this aspect of his project, Hirschman refers to the

sheer fun in pursuing my argument into this originally unexpected direction. As is well known, criticizing one’s friends is more demanding and therefore more interesting than to expose once again the boring errors of one’s adversaries. So there was some intellectual exhilaration in my exercise at self-subversion.

That exercise was intended to challenge intransigence on the part of both the right and the left—and to get people to listen to one another in a spirit of humility, rather than making their standard, mind-numbing rhetorical moves.

Hirschman was sharp and productive into his eighties, but his faculties started to fail him, and by 1997, he had lost the ability to write or read. Ultimately he withdrew entirely into himself. In Adelman’s words, he was forced “to gaze in silence from a wheelchair” while Sarah “comforted and accompanied an increasingly spectral husband through his decline.” In 2011, Sarah herself fell ill with cancer and notwithstanding “her determination to be there until his end, the cancer would not be stopped.” The morning after her death, their daughter Katia delivered the news. “Albert’s head jerked up and for a moment his body shook before settling back into his remove.”

Of his many books, Hirschman’s personal favorite was The Passions and the Interests. His explanation is illuminating:

It really was the fruit of free creation. I did not write it against anybody…. That book gave me prolonged pleasure: to write, feeling free to discover things without having to prove someone wrong. A very special case.

That special case has proved to be an enduring achievement, not only because of its eye-opening exploration of the softening power of commerce, but also because of its own gentle and capacious spirit. But if The Passions and the Interests was his favorite, and Exit, Voice, and Loyalty his most important, there can be no question about his most characteristic: The Rhetoric of Reaction. The sustained attack on intransigence, the bias in favor of hope, the delight in paradox, the insistence on the creative power of doubt—all these prove a lot of people wrong, not just Hamlet.

http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2013/may/23/albert-hirschman-original-thinker/?pagination=false

Margaret Thatcher by Charles Moore; Not for Turning by Robin Harris – Review


April 28, 2013

Margaret Thatcher by Charles Moore; Not for Turning by Robin Harris – Review

Andy Beckett of The Guardianby Andy Beckett, The Guardian, Wednesday 24 April 2013 13.57

Two authorised biographies have lots of new material. Do they have a new honesty too, asks Andy Beckett

How much more is there to say about Margaret Thatcher? That these biographies have the same phrase in their title is not a promising start. Nor is it a title – taken from one of her most self-mythologising moments, her studiedly defiant speech to the doubting 1980 Conservative conference – that suggests these heavy volumes will be leavened with too much fresh or independent thinking. Robin Harris worked with Thatcher, often “closely” in his words, for a quarter of a century from the late 70s, as a speechwriter, ghostwriter, adviser, organiser and diehard supporter.

In her memoirs, she calls him “my indispensable sherpa”. Charles Moore has been one of Britain’s best-known right wing journalists for equally long. Since Thatcher’s death, he has seemed happy to mix his promotional duties as an author with defending her against, as he put it on Question Time, “People who are horrible … promoting the idea that she is [sic] very divisive.”

the-margaret-thatcher-the-authorized-biographyMoore was chosen by Thatcher to be her official biographer in 1997. It was the year her party finally lost power: her reputation, it was reasonable to assume, was going to need some protecting. “The arrangement that Lady Thatcher offered me,” writes Moore, “was that I would have full access to herself … and to her papers. She would assist all my requests for interviews with others … As a result of her support … the then Cabinet Secretary, Sir Richard Wilson, gave permission for all existing and former civil servants to speak freely to me about the Thatcher years, and allowed me to inspect government papers, held back from public view under the thirty-year rule.”

Moore has exploited this unique access with thoroughness and skill; but a sense of the British establishment granting favours to one of its own hangs over this book, and is never quite dispelled.

Harris began his book in 2005, the year of another post-Thatcher Tory general election defeat. Despite the existence of the Moore project, it appears she was keen to collaborate with Harris too.

He reprints a letter from her: “I can think of no one better placed than you to tackle the subject … You know, better than anyone else, what I wanted our reforms to achieve.” Elsewhere in his preface, Harris pointedly describes Moore’s book as “a further, ‘authorized’ work”.

As Prime Minister, one of Thatcher’s ambitions was to make Britain more competitive; posthumously, it’s clear that included her biographers.

Yet as in the utilities she privatised, competition sometimes doesn’t produce much choice for consumers. Both these books begin, as almost every Thatcher biography has for decades, with a reverent depiction of her Grantham childhood, all formative hard graft and small town English virtues, which in the retelling – not least by Thatcher as a rising politician – has long become as sepia-tinted as a rustic Hovis advertisement.

Moore describes her ambitious shopkeeper father as “tall, with piercing blue eyes and wiry blond hair”; Harris calls him “tall, blond and blue-eyed”. As a young girl, writes Harris, Thatcher had “a sweet smile, beautiful hair, flashing blue eyes”. Here, as in much of the rightwing writing about her since her death, Thatcher seems to be becoming a sort of Tory Evita.

Robin Harris' Thatcher

But then Harris’s book wakes up. In Grantham and afterwards, he abruptly remarks, Thatcher “would never be very interested in people’s personalities … only in their actions – and specifically those of their actions that directly concerned her.” Further tart assertions about her personality and habits quickly follow.

When she ate, food would be “hoovered up as quickly as possible”. When she worked on official papers as Prime Minister, she often sat “in her [Downing Street] study in a high-backed chair … Over the years her feet wore a hole in the carpet. She refused to have a new one and had a patch inserted.”

In political conversation, “She had no real sense of place … adopting even in private discussion the same aggressive and self-justificatory stance as she would in a hostile television interview.” As a thinker, although she carried a collection of excerpts from Winston Churchill’s speeches and broadcasts in her handbag, Harris writes, she “did not have much historical sense, merely some rather romantic and fanciful historical notions”.

After all the eulogies, it is refreshing to read about an odd, driven, believable person – rather than some abstract national saviour or demon. In his confident generalisations about Thatcher, Harris is like a long-faithful courtier freed by a monarch’s death to speak the truth about them. He is not that interested in piling up evidence for his assertions. Like an article in the Spectator, the writing can be lordly rather than logical, and the word “probably” appears more often than in most biographies. Much of the book is closer to memoir or polemic – you need to take it on trust.

The recounting of Thatcher’s dark-horse dash through the Conservative party pack and tumultuous premiership is efficient rather than revelatory. There are slow stretches where Harris summarises and justifies her policies, one by one; and equally relentless but more quotable attacks on Thatcher’s many Tory enemies and allies-turned-nemeses, such as her chancellors Nigel Lawson (“too clever by half”) and Geoffrey Howe (“raddled with bitterness”).

Moore is more measured. His dense, intricate volume, the first of an intended two, follows Thatcher only up to the autumn of 1982, less than a third of the way into her premiership. For now at least, this cut-off date robs his version of her story of the always-compelling element of rise and fall – the latter vividly and emotionally depicted by Harris – and instead makes Moore’s Thatcher narrative like one of the economic graphs in Thatcherism’s boom years: jagged but generally upward.

There are some surprises, though. Thatcher’s sister Muriel, barely mentioned by other biographers, is revealed as the recipient of frank letters from the teenage Margaret. Of an Oxford university boyfriend, pre-Denis, also previously undetected by biographers, she writes: “Tony hired a car and we drove out to Abingdon to the country inn ‘Crown and Thistle’. I managed to borrow a glorious royal blue velvet cloak … I felt absolutely on top of the world as I walked through the lounge … and everyone looked up.” That Thatcher had a bit of a life before parliamentary politics claimed her in the early 50s is a less sensational discovery than some of the publicity around this book has trumpeted; but Moore, with typical care and perceptiveness, produces a clever coda to his account of the Tony relationship.

In 1974, long after it was over, Tony, now a stockbroker with a professional interest in the housing market, produced a scheme for council tenants to buy their homes. As the shadow minister responsible for housing, Thatcher invited him to the Commons. “She made only the most glancing acknowledgement of their old acquaintance and got straight down to the policy, towards which she was very receptive.”

Margaret Thatcher Blackpool 1972 Jamie Hodgson/Getty Images

This is Moore’s first book (Harris has written or ghostwritten half a dozen), and its prose is understated and less partisan than his journalism. Occasionally, the long, controlled paragraphs curl almost imperceptibly into dry wit. In the mid-60s, he writes, “At the highest levels of the [Tory] party … suspicions were aroused that the rise of Margaret Thatcher might represent some sort of threat to male peace and tranquility.” Nor is Moore a total prisoner of his many sources.

Their testimony is weighed, and sometimes contradicted. Even Muriel, who granted a rare interview, is corrected when she claims that Margaret was too busy to go to their father’s funeral, with reference to Margaret’s “two engagement diaries of the period” and a report in the Grantham Journal.

There is a downside to all this neat dovetailing of material and elegantly murmuring, High Tory style. Thatcherism was in many ways an unsubtle, unstable political project, exhilarating or brutal depending on where you stood; yet only the exhilaration feels fully present in Moore’s narrative, for all his conscientious detailing of Thatcherism’s 70s and 80s ups and downs. Part of the problem may be the slightly sketchy way he deals with the world beyond.

There is not quite enough sense of the social texture of Britain, and how that changed, as Thatcher rose, and how that change helped her. Similarly, events outside Westminster that proved pivotal for her – the 1978-9 winter of discontent that probably won her the 1979 election; the 1981 urban riots that so undermined her early premiership – are recorded too briefly and cursorily. Meanwhile, Moore’s politics surface unhelpfully when he caricatures postwar Britain as in “steep decline”, the economy under Labour in the 60s as a “car crash”, and the IMF that eagerly helped do away with British social democracy in the 70s as “impartial”.

As much of the debate since her death has shown, there are still plenty of takers for this doomy, simplistic view of pre-Thatcherite Britain. But present-day historians are becoming steadily less keen on it, and the struggles of our Thatcherised economy since 2007 don’t augur too well for the long-term reputation of books that present her rule as having solved all our problems.

Moore is more nuanced than that; unlike Harris, he offers a few quiet but stinging criticisms of her policies, for example on council house sales, which led to “the gradual build-up of a housing shortage which, in 1979, had not existed, and the stoking, for the future, of a housing bubble”.

Hari Keputeraan Duli Tuanku Sultan Kedah Darul Aman Yang Ke-85: Dirgahayu Tuanku


January 19, 2013

Hari Keputeraan Duli Tuanku Sultan Kedah Darul Aman Yang Ke-85: Dirgahayu Tuanku

by Din Merican, DSDK

sultan-kedah-tuanku-abdul-halim-muadzam-shah-yang-di-pertuan-agong-ke-14

Tomorrow, Sunday January 20, 2013 is a very special day for all Kedahans at home and abroad. It is the Official Birthday of His Majesty the Yang Di-Pertuan Agong and the Sultan of Kedah Darul Aman, Al Sultan Almu’tasimu Billahi Muhibbuddin Tuanku Alhaj Abdul Halim Mu’adzam Shah ibni Almarhum Sultan Badlishah.

We, His loyal subjects, take this opportunity to wish Duli Tuanku Selamat Ulang Tahun Hari Keputeraan yang ke 85. May Duli Tuanku and Your Gracious Consort Tuanku Raja Permaisuri Agong and Sultanah Kedah, Tuanku Hajjah Haminah Hamidon, continue to be in good health, happiness and prosperity. May Duli Tuanku also Guide our country and our leaders with wisdom and compassion during these challenging times.

According to Tunku Sofiah Jewa, Royal Chronicler, Tuanku’s cousin, and author of the fine coffee table book titled The Return*, which was published in collaboration with the National Archives  of Malaysia to commemorate the coronation of Duli Tuanku as the 14th Yang Di-Pertuan Agong:

“His Majesty Tuanku Abdul Halim Mu’adzam Shah is every inch a King—aDuli Tuanku Sultan Kedah Darul Aman great Ruler who commands the love and respect of the Rakyat. and a King to whom the nation owes its political stability. Many in Kedah would attribute the political stability in the State to His Majesty’s understanding of the responsibilities of Monarchy within a constitutional setting, as well as a firm grasp of the fundamentals of democratic governance, as expressed in the concept of separation of powers and Rule of Law (p. 151)…

“As Sovereign of Kedah, He was able to  perform His duties admirably, and has never yielded to anyone’s demands, nor subjected Himself to their whims and fancies, thanks to the fact that He has never been partisan on political matters, nor has He had to ask for favors from anyone, including the ruling government. But He is not a wealthy person either... (p.152)…

“In his dealings with His subjects, His Majesty Tuanku displays a great measure of wisdom, holding counsel with officials and elected representatives in His usual calm manner, thereby earning Him the respect and admiration of all those who have served in Kedah, be they civil servants. members of the judiciary or  His subjects at large…”(p.154)

As Destiny would have it, Duli Tuanku is our King for a second time, making Him the first Sultan in our nation’s history to earn that rare distinction. Kedahans are proud of Duli Tuanku’s Return, one that is full of symbolic significance and good tidings for Kedah and our country.

According to Tunku Sofiah, “[T]he concept of Return relates to  a promise. It is a promise of change…In our own context, the Return of the King promises a return to our dream of freedom and a return to the euphoria and vision of Merdeka.” (p.185).

Allow me to reproduce a poem in The Return by my grand niece Puteri Arina Merican (below) to celebrate His Majesty’s 85th Birthday. If you watch the youtube on the book launch ceremony at Istana Negara, Puteri Arina is the young lady who read the poem before Duli Tuanku and other dignitaries.  Semoga Allah lanjutkan Usia Duli Tuanku and semoga Negara kita selamat, aman, berjaya,  dan maju dibawah naungan Duli Tuanku.

The Return

Lo and Behold,
The King has Returned
to the Throne of Glory
to be Crowned a second time
at four score and five,
heralding a new era
of hope and promise
against the ravage of age
and the tyranny of Time.

Of old it hath been said
That a King is first servant,
and first magistrate
of the State;
and that Majesty
there is none so lofty
nor noble
as that of a righteous King
who wields not the sword of power,
but Reigns over the hearts of men,
with the sceptre of justice and the mantle of love.

The Return
of the Ruler
represents A Return
of the Rights to the Rakyat
for whom the Ruler represents
all that is Noble, Fair, Just and Right.

Returned He has,
As symbol
of a new Cycle
in the life of the Nation.

The millennial Return this may not be,
but a Return of Springtime this must be;
a fulfillment, a culmination
of dreams and vision.

A Return it is
to the euphoria and ideals of Merdeka,
A Return it is
to our Dream of Freedom, and
A Return it is
to the Golden Age of Ancient Glory.

So Rejoice, Rejoice
O Ye People of the Land, Rejoice
For the King has returned,
Look within!
For He is Enthroned
in the Hearts of Men.

–Puteri Arina Merican

* The Return–An Authorised Biographical rendition of the life, times and thoughts of His Majesty Al Sultan Almu’tasimu Billah Muhibbuddin Tuanku Alhaj Abdul Halim Ibni Almarhum Sultan Badlishah, the Fifth and Fourteenth King of Malaysia by Tunku Sofia Jewa in conjunction with Akib Negara Malaysia (The National Archives of Malaysia), (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 2012)