BOOKS: Harper Lee Biographer Charles Shields on His Latest Edition

April 26, 2016


Harper Lee Biographer Charles Shields on His Latest Edition

When Charles J. Shields’s biography of Harper Lee came out in 2006, it was hailed as the definitive study of the famously private author and her singular 1960 novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Like so many journalists before him, Mr. Shields (above) was rebuffed when he asked to interview Ms. Lee and her closest relatives. He found surprisingly little correspondence from her in library collections. So to reconstruct her life, he interviewed 80 people, including friends, former classmates and neighbors, and parsed her novel for autobiographical clues. The resulting biography was about as intimate a book as a scholar could write about an author who kept the world at a distance.

But a lot changed over the next decade. After Mr. Shields’s biography was published, Ms. Lee filed lawsuits against her former literary agent and the museum in her hometown of Monroeville, Ala. In 2011, Ms. Lee issued a statement through her lawyer denying that she had authorized another book about her, “The Mockingbird Next Door,” by the journalist Marja Mills. Mr. Shields decided he needed to update his biography.

He was already at work on the new edition in 2015, when Ms. Lee’s publisher, HarperCollins, announced that she would release a second novel, “Go Set a Watchman,” which she wrote in the mid 1950s. The novel, which portrayed Atticus Finch, the hero of “Mockingbird,” as a racist, shocked readers and scholars.

The new edition of “Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee,” out Tuesday, paints a more nuanced and in some ways perplexing portrait of Ms. Lee, who died in February at age 89, leaving many questions unanswered. Below are edited excerpts from a recent phone interview with Mr. Shields.

Q. In the decade since the book was first published, Harper Lee’s career and legacy has changed dramatically. How does your understanding of her now differ from how you saw her when you published the biography?

A. Somehow, she managed to pack a lot into the past 10 years. When I first published the biography, I saw Harper Lee as the sole author of the book, as if it had sprung fully formed for her forehead. After “Go Set a Watchman” came out, that became a touchstone against which to evaluate “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Without the benefit of having another book in hand, I took “To Kill a Mockingbird” at face value. Now I see it in a different light. I see the influence of her editor, Tay Hohoff, much more now. “Go Set a Watchman” is highly autobiographical. I think she exposes more of herself than she really wants to.

When I started looking at the amount of litigation in her life since 2006, it was depressing and very revealing. That was of a piece with the entire third act of Harper Lee’s life, which was endless “he said, she said” and unresolved disputes.

Q. Reviews of “Watchman” were mixed, but even people who found it to be vastly inferior to “Mockingbird” agree that it sheds new light on her creative process and her thoughts on the Civil Rights movement and Southern politics. Where do you come down on the Watchman debate? Should it have been published in her lifetime?

It’s an important cultural document. But I would never hold it up to a class and say, “You must read this, it’s a classic.” If anything, it’s a good book about what not to do. There’s too much exposition and not enough dramatization.

Q. Harper Lee apparently was not a fan of your book about her and told friends not to read it. Did you ever learn what she objected to?

A. The objections were kept very general. I heard she and her sister Alice were not happy with the biography. I heard from a friend of hers that they did not like the portrayal of their mother. They were very sensitive about that. Mrs. Lee was a manic-depressive. I tried to be as discreet as I could, but since it plays into “To Kill a Mockingbird,” I had to answer the question. Where’s the mother in “To Kill a Mockingbird”? She’s in her room, not speaking to anyone, or leaving the house without permission. Harper Lee identified more with her father than her mother.

Q. You discovered a newspaper article that she wrote, without a byline, about the Kansas murders that she helped Truman Capote research. How did you come across it, and what does it suggest about her role in shaping Capote’s “In Cold Blood”?

I went back to look at newspapers in Garden City, Kan., and I stumbled across a little mention in a column that said, our visitor Harper Lee will be writing about what’s been happening on the case for the F.B.I. magazine The Grapevine. Then I contacted The Grapevine. They said, Yeah, there’s been a reference to that over the years but we can’t find anything. I told them to look in the spring of 1960. There indeed was an article than only Harper Lee could have written because it was so full of info that would later appear in “In Cold Blood.” I speculate that there was no byline because she really didn’t want to tread on Truman Capote’s story. It’s a long flattering article about the great work chief investigator Alvin Dewey is doing on the case and how Truman is going to get to the bottom of it. It was an unselfish act from a friend.

She wrote letters to her agent about having a huge crush on the investigator.She uses the phrase “drop-dead handsome.”

Q. Since her death and even in the months leading up to it, there have been batches of her private letters that have come up for sale at auctions. Do you worry that important documents that offer clues about her life and work might be slipping away into private collections, rather than collected at a library where scholars can study them?

A. I would like to see her estate make a genuine effort to round-up some of these letters and put them together in an authoritative text. It adds to the narrative of the life, but if these continue to come out in dribs and drabs, postcards from the Gulf Coast and Christmas cards, as a researcher who prides himself on being very organized, I dislike the sense of things unraveling. I would like to see them collected in a big fat book of letters.

Q. She stopped giving formal interviews for the most part in the 1960s. What questions would you have most liked to ask her, if you could?

A. I would have liked to have asked her whether her father did indeed change his views on segregation at the end of his life because the gentleman was only alive for a short time after “To Kill a Mockingbird” came out. I’d like to know if it was the book and daughter that changed his mind, or did he see the direction things were going?

I would like to know the answer to whether she was every deeply in love with someone. She’s obviously a woman of deep compassion. She’s a keen observer of human drama; that empathy is at the core of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” I would like to know if she had the blessing of ever being in love with someone. Freud said the two components of a contented life are love and work. We know a lot about the work side of Harper Lee and not so much about the love side of Harper Lee.



BOOK REVIEW: Benjamin Disraeli–The Novel Politician

April 21, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Benjamin Disraeli–The Novel Politician

by Norman Gelb

David Cesarani’s succinct new biography of preeminent Victorian statesman and novelist Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881), Disraeli: The Novel Politician, challenges the commonly held view of Disraeli as having played a heroic role in Jewish history. Instead, Cesarani portrays Disraeli as a political opportunist “infused with a contempt for traditional Judaism,” whose literary writings “sketched the first draft of the Jewish world conspiracy theory” and made a “fundamental contribution to modern literary anti-Semitism.” Disraeli, who has erroneously been called Britain’s first Jewish prime minister, was baptized by his father into the Anglican Church when he was 12 years old. However, he never actually denied his Jewish heritage. Instead, he skillfully manufactured a myth of aristocratic Jewish origins that he would pragmatically exploit when convenient and completely ignore when not.

Disraeli: The Novel Politician is the late English historian’s final book. David Cesarani, who died of cancer last October at age 58, was considered the foremost British historian of the modern Jewish experience of his generation.

Countless historians before him have documented Disraeli’s rise to power and his importance as a politician. Disraeli entered the House of Commons in 1837, and in the 1850s and 1860s served first as Chancellor of the Exchequer and then as Leader of the House of Commons. After a brief first term as prime minister in 1868, Disraeli regained office in 1874. A major player on the international stage, Disraeli was enormously popular at home for expanding and consolidating Britain’s position as a worldwide imperial power. He was credited with reuniting the divided Conservative Party and was instrumental in its development as a modern political force. He was the driving force behind legislation that improved social conditions for the most vulnerable populations in Britain, including new laws to regulate public health and others designed to prevent the exploitation of workers and improve the general public’s access to education. He was close personal friends with Queen Victoria, who made him the Earl of Beaconsfield and reportedly wept when he died.

Cesarani’s biography follows a newer trend of historians viewing Disraeli through a more critical lens. Until comparatively recently, with the exception of a few anti-Semites, scholars have fairly uniformly viewed Disraeli as an admirable and effective, if exotic, British statesman. But lately, the perception of him as a worthy public benefactor has come under fire.

British historian Robert Blake, who wrote a very comprehensive biography of Disraeli, conceded that the man’s political career was an impressive one but added that “there is no need to make it seem more extraordinary than it really was,” since other political figures deserved much of the credit for achievements attributed to Disraeli. Another recent biography of Disraeli, by Douglas Hurd and Edward Young, described his contribution to British politics as “vast, transformative and special” but also portrayed Disraeli as a manipulative man for whom politics was “always a game in which pieces were moved about to…outflank the enemy. It had no moral content.” And British historian John Vincent has called Disraeli “a politician of very few principles or beliefs… He spent much of his life scheming.” 

Cesarani, unlike previous biographers of Disraeli, spends relatively little time on his subject’s dynamic and often controversial political life. Instead, he devotes his attention to another key aspect of Disraeli’s persona: his vaunting of his supposedly aristocratic Jewish origins and the special distinction he claimed they conferred on him. But despite Disraeli at times making a calculated use of his Jewish background, Cesarani shows that in actuality Disraeli’s relationship to Judaism and to issues facing Britain’s Jews was a deeply troubled one.

Disraeli was the grandson of Jewish immigrants to Britain from Italy and was born in London to Jewish parents. Even though he converted to Christianity, attended church on a weekly basis and was an avowed champion of the Anglican Church, Disraeli faced anti-Semitism throughout his adult life, including claims that his prime motivation in politics was to “pursue an alien agenda” and advance “Hebrew” causes.

Disraeli’s conversion permitted him, upon election, to evade bans on non-Christians becoming members of Parliament. Disraeli knew when and how to invoke his Jewish origins. At times, he proudly boasted of his exalted “racial” Jewish birthright. When scornfully called a Jew by a fellow parliamentarian, he cuttingly replied that when his accuser’s ancestors “were savages on an unknown Island, mine were priests in the Temple of Solomon.” And Cesarani notes that in his fictional writing, Disraeli sometimes played up “the glories of the Jewish race.”

Cesarani dismisses Disraeli’s public exaltations of his Jewish origins as a mere affectation, stating that as a politician “he was insensitive or insensible to a range of Jewish issues” and was, at best, inconsistent with regard to Jewish matters. In December of 1837, soon after his first election, Disraeli uncharacteristically kept his head down while other MPs heatedly debated whether Sir Moses Montefiore or any other Jew should be allowed to hold political office. And unlike many other British leaders, he remained completely silent during “the Damascus Affair,” a blood libel charge against a dozen prominent Syrian Jews that resulted in widespread riots against the Jewish community in Damascus and triggered protests around the Jewish world.

Even as Prime Minister, says Cesarani, Disraeli chose to completely ignore “vicious [verbal] attacks on the Jews” by establishment figures and, in his many travels to Europe and the Middle East, made no effort to seek out Jewish sites or groups. He generally seemed to have little knowledge of, or interest in, Jewish history. Cesarani notes that Disraeli, in one of his early writings, said Britain enjoyed great freedom under the Plantagenet monarchs, but made no mention of the fact that under Plantagenet rule, Jews “suffered exploitation and massacre.” 

Cesarani offers nuanced revisions and correctives to prior scholarship on the nature of Disraeli’s Jewishness. For instance, in The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt suggests that Disraeli’s “Jewish obsession was a strategy to combat his own sense of social inferiority…as an outsider in upper class Tory circles….” [He invented] “the myth of Jewish racial superiority” to match the perceived nobility of members of the British aristocracy.” Cesarani contends that “the chronology of this explanation does not work” because, he notes, Disraeli was able to “[rub] shoulders with both raffish and respectable aristocrats” early on, “even if he was not yet invited to their country houses.”

Few other historians fully concur with Cesarani’s view on this; Arendt’s suggested explanation for Disraeli’s Jewish exhibitionist behavior is now part of a well-trodden path. In his biography of Disraeli, Columbia University scholar Adam Kirsch says that to find a way to be both English and Jewish, he “had to convince the world, and himself, that the Jews were a noble race, with a glorious past,” turning “his Jewishness from something generally considered disgraceful and embarrassing into a strength.”

In Benjamin Disraeli: The Fabricated Jew in Myth and Memory, Bernard Glassman also agrees that Disraeli exploited his background to demonstrate the nobility of his ancient heritage and the superiority of his ancestral origins over those of his opponents: “Rather than deny his roots, he chose to make them an integral part of his mystique.” In Disraeli’s Jewishness, an anthology of essays edited by Todd Endelman and Tony Kushner, Endelman says his Jewish obsession “constituted a bold, if unusual, strategy to combat his own sense of special inferiority as an outsider in aristocratic Tory circles.”

But in that anthology, Kushner cautions that Disraeli’s parading his Jewish pride is “perhaps in danger of being overstated at the cost of many other features that made up this remarkable figure.” And Glassman asserts that, although Disraeli’s support of Jewish causes was “problematic,” his growing prominence attracted the admiring attention of Anglo-Jews who needed a hero to validate their own Englishness, and that gradually, in spite of Disraeli’s baptism, English Jews (numbering around 50,000 at the time) accepted him as a true representative of their faith and culture. Louise de Rothschild, a member of the famous Jewish banking family and a contemporary of Disraeli, was recorded to have said she felt “a sort of pride in the thought that he belongs to us, that he is one of Israel’s sons.”

Such exculpation does not impress Cesarani, who makes very few references to anything positive in Disraeli’s relationship to Judaism. He concludes his study of Disraeli with a further harsh assessment of his subject: “Ultimately, he fits squarely in modern Jewish history for the worst of reasons: he played a formative part in the construction of anti-Semitic discourse.” Disraeli’s racial stereotyping of Jews became part of the foundation of a prominent theme in modern anti-Semitic writings and speechifying by figures including Adolf Hitler. “At best,” says the implacable Cesarani, Disraeli “was a tragic, transitional figure; at worst, he was a reckless egoist.”

 Norman Gelb is a London-based historian and author. His most recent book is Herod the Great: Statesman, Visionary, Tyrant.

The Days when boys became men

April 4, 2016

The Days when boys became men

Duncan Graham takes a look at a compelling memoir about an uprising — and the power of nationalism in Indonesia. 

The walls against comprehending other nations are high, topped with shards of real or manufactured history, reinforced with rocks of culture. One of the most unassailable is almost close enough to coo-ee – yet despairingly distant.

Indonesians are not like Australians though the Southeast Asian nation is now a democracy, albeit embryonic. It has a robust press and lively social media. After that similarities stumble.

Melbourne Law School Professor Tim Lindsey told a Perspectives: Asia seminar last year: ‘There may be no two neighbouring countries that have such significant differences of language, culture, history, ethnicity and religion as Australia and Indonesia.’

How to diminish these differences?  Along with learning the language, understanding the forces that created modern Indonesia can help.  Like the brutal Battle of Surabaya in late 1945, source of today’s defiant nationalism.

It started as a victory, but like Gallipoli for the Allies in World War I, it turned into a defeat.  British-led Gurkha troops sent to rescue 70,000 European prisoners of the Japanese did not expect resistance.

They laughed off Sukarno’s proclamation of independence on 17 August in Jakarta and set about restoring Dutch rule, even using the hated Japanese troops to maintain order.

The invaders encountered little opposition in the capital and other centres, but the principal port of East Java was no pushover.  It became the real birthplace of the Republic.

Thousands of young men and women who called themselves Arek Suroboyo (Children of Surabaya) launched mass attacks on Japanese armouries.  They used the captured weapons against the British who had been told the Dutch would be welcome back as ‘parents’.

So much for military intelligence and colonial arrogance.  In the first encounter about 600 troops were killed and the British garrison almost destroyed.

The reversal began with the assassination of Brigadier Aubertin Mallaby. The foreign forces started bombing defenceless kampongs and thousands fled south. The fighting climaxed on 10 November, now recognised as National Heroes’ Day.

As Dr Frank Palmos writes in Student Soldiers, his translation of medical student turned street fighter Suhario ‘Kecik’ Padmodiwiryo’s memoirs:  ‘Kecik’s book corrects the common, mistaken assumption that Indonesia was free from the day independence was proclaimed’.

The late journalist and novelist Mochtar Lubis helped found the literary centre Obor (Torch) which has published Student Soldiers.  He urged youngsters to read Kecik’s autobiography to understand the ‘great sacrifices’ made for independence.

With Palmos’ translation that understanding is now accessible – and not to be missed by anyone trying to appreciate the essence of the islands beyond Bali.

Palmos worked as a foreign correspondent in Jakarta before the 1965 coup that brought down Sukarno.  The young reporter had a degree in Indonesian studies from Melbourne University and superior language skills. He used these to interpret the President’s speeches to monolingual diplomats, and get closer to local sources.

Among them was revolutionary leader Dr Roeslan Abdulgani who’d been Foreign Minister in the 1950s and later Ambassador to the UN.  While in New York he was impressed by the way Americans cherished their history and decided this was one Western value worth importing.

His book about the nation’s birth, One Hundred Days in Surabaya that Shook Indonesia (Jakarta Agung Offset), was translated by Palmos into English in 1995. Now we have a guerrilla perspective of the times ‘when boys became men’.

Palmos considers Kecik ‘the brightest literary star to emerge from Surabaya’. He was able to write his memoirs only through the law of unintended consequences applied by Suharto.

The kleptomaniac general overthrew Sukarno, became President and ran his authoritarian Orde Baru administration for 32 years. He maintained power by being staunchly anti-communist which at first won him Western backing.

Kecik had received military training overseas, first in the US, then in Russia.  Despite his revolutionary credentials the fact that he’d been in Moscow made him a suspect fellow traveller when the communist purge was underway.

Instead of being shot or jailed like many others, the Brigadier General was sentenced to home detention. With idle time he set about writing his story.  Meanwhile Suharto was getting others to develop an alternative history with himself at the centre, and his predecessor reduced to being just the fringe-dwelling Proclamator.

Palmos worked with Kecik on the translation and filled the gaps with interviews.  The old man died in 2014 aged 93, satisfied that his story would now get a wider audience.

And what a yarn. Kecik was studying at the Bogor Veterinary School because the Japanese had closed medical colleges.  He made occasional train trips to Surabaya where he found a different mood:  ‘The local people were starting to stand up to them (the Japanese) in sharp contrast to the passivity we experienced in Jakarta’.

It’s a theme that runs through the book – talk in the capital, but action in East Java.  So when the new government of Sukarno ordered the Arek Suroboyo to cease fire there was little chance the instruction would be obeyed.

The rebels were ill disciplined and the many clashes impossible to control.  A boy climbed a flagpole at the Hotel Oranje (now Majapahit) where colonialists were organising their reinstatement.  He ripped down the Dutch tricolour and tore off the bottom blue strip.  The newly-ripped red and white was hoisted and it was game on.

To the colonialists the youngsters were a rabble.  Kecik called them ‘an organic body.’  Strange things happened. When one band entered an armoury they found the Japanese troops guarding the place like robots.  With no orders the men stared ahead while the astonished rebels looted the place.

The book is all the more authentic because it doesn’t paint a monochrome picture. Some of the rebels were sadists, killing and torturing prisoners of war. Casual events triggered major responses. The kids were driven by one cry Merdeka! (Freedom!)  Nothing else mattered.

Indonesia is tagged in the media as Islamic — as though this is the one and only driver of the Republic. Nationalism is more powerful. This book reveals why.

Student Soldiers has also been published by NUS Press in Singapore under the title Revolution in the City of Heroes.

Australian journalist and author Duncan Graham lives in East Java and writes for the Indonesian media.


Book Review: ‘Our Kids,’ by Robert D. Putnam

April 4, 2016

NY Times Sunday Book Review

 ‘Our Kids,’ by Robert D. Putnam

by Jason DeParle

Education is supposed to help level the playing field. Horace Mann called it the “great equalizer.” Now it’s closer to the great fortifier — compounding the advantages of class, since the affluent come better prepared and more able to pay.–Jason DeParle

Robert D. Putnam is technically a Harvard social scientist, but a better description might be poet laureate of civil society. In successive versions of “Bowling Alone” (as a 1995 article and an instant-classic book), Putnam argued, to bipartisan acclaim, that civic life is declining with ominous consequences. Bill Clinton brought him to Camp David. The campaigns of Al Gore and George W. Bush sought his advice. Barack Obama gave him a medal.

Political scientist Bob Putnam is photographed at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Putnam recently wrote a book about the inequality of opportunity for children titled “Our Kids.” (Damian Strohmeyer for The Washington Post)

If rock star status seems improbable for a numbers-crunching academic — well, it is. But by focusing on sports leagues and volunteer work, “Bowling Alone” let liberals highlight social needs without conjuring big government, while conservatives could signal compassion without delving too deeply into racial or class injustice. A catchy title helped.

In “Our Kids,” Putnam brings his talent for launching a high-level discussion to a timely topic — the state of upward mobility. Widening income gaps, he argues, have brought profound but underappreciated changes to family life, neighborhoods and schools in ways that give big advantages to children at the top and make it ever harder for those below to work their way up.

The idea that growing inequality will hurt upward mobility might seem self-evident. But the academic verdict on intergenerational trends is still out, and data on today’s children will lag for decades. Likening the problem to climate change, Putnam says we can’t wait for perfect clarity but must act now to save the American dream.

To make his point, he combines an energetic synthesis of academic studies with contrasting portraits of high- and low-­income families. His research is prodigious. His spirit is generous. His judgments are thoughtful and fair. “Our Kids” belongs on the bookshelf of anyone concerned about equal opportunity. What he omits, however — sometimes maddeningly — is a discussion of the political or economic forces driving the changes he laments.

You’d never know from “Our Kids” just how radically income inequality has grown; how much influence the wealthy now exercise in politics; and how well they protect their stakes. (We do hear a lot, by contrast, about the importance of family dinners.) To frame inequality, as Putnam largely does, as a product of inadequate empathy and weakened civic institutions is to overlook the extent to which it’s also a story about interests and power.

Where Putnam succeeds is in describing the diverging life chances of children in rich and poor families. (“Rich” parents finished college; “poor” parents have high school degrees or less.) The point isn’t just that rich kids have advantages but that their advantages are large and growing.

A majority of rich kids still grow up with two parents. For poor kids that’s increasingly rare. Rich kids get almost 50 percent more nurturing time from their parents, when there used to be no class difference. Rich kids have a growing edge in access to good day care. The children of less ­educated parents “are increasingly entering the world as an unplanned surprise.”

Rich kids don’t just go to better schools. They have a growing edge in access to extracurricular activities — in part because many schools now charge to play sports. Rich families have always outspent the poor on activities like camp, but the spending gap has tripled. Rich and poor kids used to attend church at comparable rates. Now “this class gap, too, is growing.”

On it goes as Putnam charts class advantages that start in the womb and widen at every stage. He is particularly troubled by the class differences in the prevalence of family meals, citing evidence that family dining promotes good grades and behavior.

Education is supposed to help level the playing field. Horace Mann called it the “great equalizer.” Now it’s closer to the great fortifier — compounding the advantages of class, since the affluent come better prepared and more able to pay. A few decades ago, the gap between rich and poor kids in finishing college was 39 percentage points. It’s now 51 percentage points. Even poor kids with high test scores are slightly less likely to get degrees than rich kids with low scores. Putnam rightly calls this “shocking.”

Putnam more than makes his case; no one can finish “Our Kids” and feel complacent about equal opportunity. Still his perspective is modestly skewed by two tendencies. One is nostalgia. In terms of college access, Putnam says there was “no trace of bias against kids from humbler backgrounds” in 1959 when he graduated from high school in Port Clinton, Ohio. None? “Few of our families were poverty-stricken,” he writes, though child poverty was 7.4 percentage points higher nationwide than it is today.

Putnam also invites quibbles by choosing families drawn from extremes to illustrate his case, especially among the poor. They include a girl being raised by her sister after their mother, a prostitute, died, possibly of AIDS; a homeless teenager with nine half-siblings and a father in prison; and a boy raised in the New Orleans projects who committed arson at 13 and who boasts, “I just love beating up somebody.” The rich kids mostly have model dads and Tiger Moms.

The poor families he profiles lead heartbreaking lives, but for most the troubles seem to date back generations. The recent growth of inequality, which began in the 1970s, would be glimpsed better a few rungs up the ladder, among the besieged working class. Oddly in a book about inequality we never learn how much money any of the families have.

Though Putnam is a political scientist, his account is politics-free. He bemoans low turnout among poor voters, but says nothing about new laws that make it harder to vote. He rues the difficulties of a father who earns the minimum wage, with no mention of the opposition to raising it. He criticizes proprietary schools that crank out worthless diplomas, but not the political spending that protects them.

You wouldn’t know from this account that one party’s standard-bearer (Mitt Romney) ran for President while claiming that 47 percent of Americans believe “they are victims,” and “that they’re entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it.”

Brian Stauffer

The discussion doesn’t need partisan spin; some Democrats protect moneyed interests, too. But it’s impossible to understand inequality without understanding the power it gives those at the top to pull up the ladder. Perhaps Putnam’s see-no-politics approach is a wily strategy for reaching the broadest audience. Perhaps it’s just who he is.

His policy suggestions include expanded tax credits for the poor, greater access to quality day care and more money for community colleges. Does this agenda sound familiar? When President Obama proposed it in January, critics on the right said he was waging “class warfare.”

Toward the end of “Our Kids,” Putnam offers a brave confession: Before starting the project, he didn’t understand how hard it had gotten for poor kids to get ahead. He had risen from modest means. Therefore, he writes, “I assumed, so could kids from modest backgrounds today.” Now “I know better.”

It’s alarming to think that the class gaps have widened so quickly, even someone as eminent as Putnam lost track. To his credit, he was moved by the people he met — their intelligence, their resilience, their sheer likability. One downside to a society with a meritocratic gloss is that it encourages the winners to think that life is fairer than it is, to overlook the merit in those left behind. That’s something to talk about at the next family dinner.

Jason DeParle, a reporter for The Times and an Emerson Fellow at New America, is writing a book about immigration.

Book Review: Scholarship and Engagement in Mainland Southeast Asia

March 30, 2016

Book Review: Scholarship and Engagement in Mainland Southeast Asia

by Andrew Alan Johnson

Scholarship_COVER-200x300Oscar Salemink, editor, Scholarship and engagement in Southeast Asia, (Chiang Mai: Silkworm Press, 2016)

Thailand, for all its political stops and starts — or perhaps because of this — has unparalleled publically-engaged academics. Nidthi Eoseewong, Charnvit Kasetsiri, Thanet Aphornsuvan and many others relate academia to public life, pushing forward public discussion in a way that is enviable from a country (the USA, in my case) where scholarship is too often treated like either a business serving students or as a collection of irrelevant exotica.

Of Thailand’s public intellectuals, Chayan Vaddhanaphuti of Chiang Mai University looms large. Over the course of his career, Achan Chayan has worked to advocate for minority rights (risking death threats and accusations of treason) as well as building networks across Southeast Asian academic institutions. He exemplifies the best qualities of a Thai public intellectual, and thus it is no surprise that the essays in the liber amicorum, Scholarship and Engagement in Mainland Southeast Asia, edited by Oscar Salemink, are ringing with fond memories and praise for Achan Chayan across generations of scholars. Indeed, it is telling that even non-Thai-speaking scholars refer to Chayan as “Achan,” the Thai term somehow capturing this sense of Chayan’s public role in ways that “Professor” nowadays fails to.

My engagement with Achan Chayan came 10 years ago, when I was a graduate student doing field research in Chiang Mai. Like the best of mentors, Chayan, rather than imposing his own idea of what was important about my project, helped me think critically about my own work in multiple ways. As Michael Herzfeld remarks in his conclusion to Scholarship and Engagement, it was only later, after having completed my book, that I realised the depth of Chayan’s inspiration.

Overall, the volume is well put together, although a few essays ramble, and could have used another pass to refine and sharpen their general points. The book’s three sub-sections, too, are awkwardly titled. For example, “Politics, Activism, and Cross-Border Politics in the Greater Mekong Subregion” is the second, and “Scholarly Activism in the Greater Mekong Subregion” the third. These sections roughly correspond to an overview of Chayan’s work, its impact upon historical and anthropological work, and the thorny issues surrounding policy and minorities.

Charles Keyes opens the volume with the first section’s solo chapter: a brief biography of Chayan’s work and its impact upon Thailand and Thai studies. In an era when most work on ethnic minority issues was done by foreigners, and in the face of pressure from official state organs, Chayan pursued a principle of “speak[ing] truth to power” (p 17), pushing for a vision of Northern Thailand as a multi-ethnic and environmentally sustainable society with links across the region. It was a work that, as Keyes notes, was not without risk, and his chapter empahsises the personal commitment that Chayan gave to his causes.

In the second section, Olivier Evrard gives an example of socially-engaged history of the sort inspired by Chayan. Looking at French and Siamese records, Evrard charts the changing status of Khmu migrant labourers in the early 20th century. At first, these workers were governed by treaties between Luang Prabang and Chiang Mai, but as colonisation set in (external in the case of Laos, internal in the case of Siam), old relationships and networks became something else from the viewpoint of the central state: labor recruiters became traffickers, and migrant teak workers turned into a threat.

Evrard reminds us that migrants, as a category, are in fact created by state policy. This theme of the mismatch between detailed awareness of local situations and top-down policy returns in Christopher Joll’s chapter on Thai policy-makers’ essentialist understandings of the conflict in the South as compared with a multi-causal approach of the sort emphasised in Chayan’s work.

Shigeharu Tanabe’s chapter also deals with the issue of social engagement, looking at Northern Thai Buddhist meditation practices aimed at extinguishing the self that nonetheless provide a vehicle for addressing social problems and resisting political repression. It’s a welcome rebuttal to too-simplistic characterisations of Buddhist meditation as entirely inwardly-focused (Tanabe takes a well-placed jab at Deleuze here) and shows how practice, especially in the Northern kuba tradition, can be focused on social as well as personal transformation.

Katherine Bowie’s chapter takes a very different turn to more historically-focused studies, focusing instead upon her own experience of engaged scholarship in the 1970s. In an account reminiscent of classic anthropological fieldwork memoirs (see Powdermaker 1966; Levi-Strauss 1955,;Descola 1996), she describes a problematic introduction into a post-military coup Northern Thai field site and the tangled web of village politics that she encountered. As she attempted to assist in the organisation of a mat-weavers’ cooperative, class and other tensions within the community came to the fore in ways that were productive both for her scholarship as well as – eventually — the mat weavers themselves.

In the final major section, contributors address the thorny ground of development interventions, which too often avoid a deep engagement with local civil societies. Rosalia Sciortino, the former regional director for the Rockefeller Foundation (among others), effectively shows that theory is not divorced from practice even on the development side. This was particularly so during the 1990s when new technocratic interventions (the sort of thing dreamed up in TED Talks or Thomas Friedman columns) based around quick solutions and neoliberal integration came to replace civil society-based, locally-informed ones.

This philosophy of intervention oddly recalls those from the 1950s that fetishised the power of Western scientific knowledge to divine all of the solutions to the developing world’s problems. Similarly, in Ronald Renard’s contribution, we also see the fallout from a move in policy away from community-based solutions. He looks at the end of opium eradication projects in the isolated Wa region of Myanmar that emphasisedthe social origins of opium cultivation and addiction solutions focused on improving conditions for farmers, and the rise of a new, top-down approach that focuses upon law enforcement.

Building upon this connection between the assumptions of international (and national) organisations about local communities, Oscar Salemink’s own contribution to the volume examines the issues surrounding Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) in Vietnam. Salemink argues that the discourse of ICH in Vietnam creates certain possibilities and limits others, giving ethnic minorities a space within the state but limiting their role (and, interestingly, forcing the state to promote practices that they had just a few years before denounced).

But this also applies to scholars — in a state where open opposition is unproductive or impossible, Salemink argues that scholars are forced to work within the limits of state discourses. In Myanmar, however, Mandy Sadan shows how both state and resistant approaches carry their own risks. State discourses that present minority studies as “traditional” and (Kachin) minority studies dominated by the Baptist Church and ethnonationalism both fail. As a corrective, Sadan advocates for an as-yet unrealised middle ground along the lines of Chayan’s Regional Center for Social Science and Sustainable Development (RCSD) for the highlands of Myanmar.

Overall, these essays are largely productive in looking at the history and potentiality of engaged scholarship on (for the most part) ethnic minority issues in mainland Southeast Asia, a note driven home by Michael Herzfeld’s excellently-written conclusion. Some essays (Evrard, Tanabe, Saelmink) are useful additions to the scholarly field in their own right. Others (Sciortino, Sadan) are interesting insights into the deeply hierarchical nature of national and international interventions, and some (Joll, Keyes, Bowie) reflect implicitly or directly upon Achan Chayan’s own profound impact on scholarship in Southeast Asia. In addition to the topical focus of each chapter, the book will be of use to those studying activism, development, or fieldwork ethics in the region and beyond.

Andrew Alan Johnson is  Assistant Professor at Yale-NUS College

Review of Scholarship and engagement in mainland Southeast Asia

Niall Ferguson on Kissinger

March 21, 2016

Niall on Kissinger–A Case of Wobbly Logic


Henry Kissinger. That “very name”, Niall Ferguson writes in the first volume of his biography of the former US National Security Adviser and Secretary of State, “hit some neuralgic spot in the collective brain of a generation”. Eric Idle mocked him, the novelist Joseph Heller described him an “odious shlump who made war gladly” and Christopher Hitchens pronounced him guilty of crimes against humanity.

Such “vitriol” is “puzzling”, Ferguson says. Many American policymakers can “just as easily be accused of war crimes”, but it is Kissinger whom critics single out. The journalist William Shawcross blamed Kissinger’s bombing of Cambodia from 1969 to 1973 for giving rise to the genocidal Pol Pot. Recently, Princeton’s Gary Bass accused him of expediting Pakistan’s 1971 genocide in Bangladesh.

Ferguson doesn’t dispute Kissinger’s responsibility for such atrocities, but suggests, in his Introduction, that they shouldn’t bear on how we assess his legacy: “Arguments that focus on loss of life in strategically marginal countries – and there is no other way of describing Argentina, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Chile, Cyprus, and East Timor (Timor Leste)– must be tested against this question: how, in each case, would an alternative decision have affected US relations with strategically important countries like the Soviet Union, China, and the major western European powers?” The US won the cold war, and that means that the “burden of proof” is on critics to show how different policies “would have produced better results”.

The logic is wobbly. How can it be simultaneously true that Cambodia and Bangladesh were strategically marginal and that the outcome of the cold war depended on their destruction? How, exactly, might one prove that a counterfactual past, infinite in its potential variations, would have been better than the present?

But the real problem with this out-of-the-gate defensiveness, for Ferguson, has to do with style. He wants to rescue Kissinger from history’s dock and depict his life “as it actually was”. Yet the tone is litigious, setting the biographer up as barrister. Having established the terms of the defence in this volume – which covers Kissinger’s life until his 1968 appointment as National Security Adviser – Ferguson will have to carry through in the next and show that all of Kissinger’s many initiatives, including assaulting Cambodia and Laos, greenlighting Suharto’s invasion of East Timor, waging proxy war in southern Africa, building up Iran (before its revolution) and Saudi Arabia, supporting Latin American dictators, and pushing, as an influential conservative intellectual, for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, “produced better results” than “different foreign policies that might have been adopted”.

His conclusion previews what is to come. Dozens of pages argue against “a succession of writers” who have charged that Kissinger, in late 1968, leaked confidential information about peace talks taking place in Paris between Washington and North Vietnam to Nixon’s presidential campaign. As told, the intrigue not only launched Kissinger’s public career but kicked off a chain of events with catastrophic consequences: Nixon used Kissinger’s intelligence to urge South Vietnam to reject a potential ceasefire (which might have benefited Nixon’s Democratic rival); the negotiations collapsed; Nixon was elected president, after which he appointed Kissinger national security adviser; in office, Nixon and Kissinger bombed Cambodia to pressure Hanoi to return to the negotiating table; the bombing was illegal, so it had to be done in secret; pressure to keep it secret spread paranoia within the administration, leading to a series of covert actions resulting in the Watergate scandal and Nixon’s resignation. The war, meanwhile, dragged on pointlessly for years.

The Rusputin of Geo-Politics

No vindication of Kissinger can let this story stand, and Ferguson’s narrative is weighed down by hypotheticals and speculations meant to downplay Kissinger’s role in derailing the peace talks. Saigon would have rejected a potential deal without Nixon’s intercession; Nixon would have won without Kissinger’s help; and, anyway, the information Kissinger passed on to Nixon wasn’t very specific. “We can see now,” Ferguson concludes, that Kissinger’s “appointment had nothing to do with mythical leads from Paris.” Readers who keep attention through the many layers of conjecture might not be convinced. The Nixon campaign did, after all, identify Kissinger as a “top diplomatic source who is secretly with us and has access to the Paris talks and other information”. Kissinger himself has been caught on tape a number of times admitting he passed information to Nixon.

The Idealist fills in episodes that were glossed over in Walter Isaacson’s 1992 biography, such as Kissinger’s childhood in Fürth, Germany, and his experience in military intelligence during the second world war. Yet throughout, one wonders why Ferguson didn’t make more of the unprecedented access he had to his subject, not just through his private papers but informal social encounters, including dinners at Kissinger’s home in Kent, Connecticut. For instance, Ferguson reproduces a lengthy passage from Kissinger’s published memoir to describe Kissinger’s first impression, as a teenage refugee, of New York. Why not ask Kissinger?

Ferguson relies heavily throughout on not particularly interesting block quotes, on to which he tags cursory analysis. This isn’t, I think, just laziness; it suggests a reticence to probe his subject’s emotional life lest he confirms already established opinions about Kissinger. The singularity of Kissinger fades as Ferguson shadow boxes with earlier, more unfavourable biographers, such as investigative journalist Seymour Hersh. “The oft-repeated charge that Kissinger was actuated by self-interest,” Ferguson writes, “seems unfair.” Then what did actuate him? Ferguson doesn’t say, but his observations verge on babbitry. “Divorce is indeed expensive,” he writes, on Kissinger’s separation from his first wife in 1964, “but it can be worth every penny:” Kissinger got to move into an “elegant apartment.” The irony is that it has been Kissinger’s sharpest critics who have most appreciated his acute sense of self, who have treated him, however disapprovingly, as a fully dimensional individual with a churning, complex psyche. In contrast, Ferguson, tone deaf to Kissinger’s darker notes, condemns him to a literary fate worse than anything that Hitchens could have meted out: Kissinger, in this book, is boring.

Ferguson tries to goose the narrative. A fact-finding tour of Vietnam in the mid-1960s “awakened the man of action” inside Kissinger. He was, Ferguson writes, like a character out of Mission: Impossible. Yet aside from the inconvenience of having to “fly economy the whole way” to Saigon and paying “for his own upgrades”, nothing really happened on the trip other than Kissinger’s realisation that the war, for Washington, was unwinnable. He “could scarcely have been less responsible for the fateful decision to escalate the war”, Ferguson states, which is fair enough since he didn’t take office until 1969, well after the escalation.

This judgment, though, undercuts Ferguson’s own insistence that ideas matter; that, indeed, they are the true subject of history. He rightly identifies the influence of German idealism on Kissinger – the notion that reality doesn’t exist independently of our perception of that reality – demonstrating his influence, as an a intellectual in the 1950s and 1960s, in shaping our perception of reality, convincing America that there was a missile gap with the Soviets when there was none and urging Washington to confront global communism even in peripheral areas, such as Vietnam. Then, in 1965, having returned from Vietnam, Kissinger threw himself into a campaign to publicly defend the war, though he knew it lost. Ferguson is right to downplay the passing of information to Nixon in 1968. The real historical problem that needs to be explained comes after that episode; why, with every lurch to the militarist right, Kissinger lurched with it, from Nixon to the neocons, from Vietnam to Iraq.

Great statesmen have great critics, and Ferguson could have made a case for Kissinger’s greatness by honestly grappling with his many formidable foes. Instead, he tries to trivialise their arguments by dismissing their motivations. The criticisms of, among others, Hans Morgenthau, the dean of postwar realism; Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling, who helped pioneer game theory; and George Ball, a respected career diplomat (who thought Kissinger’s blind support of the Shah of Iran an “act of folly”) , are described as driven either by resentment, envy, opportunism or antisemitism.

In so doing, Ferguson trivialises his own book: well before mentioning any serious critic, he cites the conspiracy cultist David Icke, who apparently believes Kissinger is one of the human race’s reptile overlords. “No rational people take such nonsense seriously,” Ferguson writes, who nonetheless uses such nonsense to open Kissinger’s life story.

Among Ferguson’s more novel explanations for why so many people disliked Kissinger is that they didn’t appreciate his jokes, which, he writes, owed much to the absurdism of the Marx Brothers; it “was a characteristic feature of the ‘counterculture’ generation of the 1960s and 1970s that it did not find the Marx Brothers funny”. That, to borrow from Groucho himself, is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard. The 60s generation revived the anti-establishment and anti-militarist Marx Brothers, who left their mark on everything from the movies of Woody Allen to the activism of the yippies. Ferguson misses the more interesting point. The new left did get Kissinger’s humour, but recoiled from its use to serve, rather than mock, power.

The US dropped more than 6m tons of bombs on Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, killing hundreds of thousands of people. It was all for nothing, though it did give Kissinger an opportunity to make one of his famous jokes: “We bombed them,” Kissinger said in early 1973, after finally negotiating a peace deal similar to the one on the table in 1968, “into letting us accept their terms.”