Rachel Carson: An Inspiring Intellectual Life–The Right Way to remember her

March 21, 2018

Rachel Carson: An Inspiring Intellectual Life–The Right Way to remember her

Not until the end of her life did she write the work for which she is now known. Before then, she had always thought of herself as a poet of the sea.




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The house, on an island in Maine, perches on a rock at the edge of the sea like the aerie of an eagle. Below the white-railed back porch, the sea-slick rock slopes down to a lumpy low tideland of eelgrass and bladder wrack, as slippery as a knot of snakes. Periwinkles cling to rocks; mussels pinch themselves together like purses. A gull lands on a shaggy-weeded rock, fluffs itself, and settles into a crouch, bracing against a fierce wind rushing across the water, while, up on the cliff, lichen-covered trees—spruce and fir and birch—sigh and creak like old men on a damp morning.

“The shore is an ancient world,” Rachel Carson wrote from a desk in that house, a pine-topped table wedged into a corner of a room where the screen door trembles with each breeze, as if begging to be unlatched. Long before Carson wrote “Silent Spring,” her last book, published in 1962, she was a celebrated writer: the scientist-poet of the sea. “Undersea,” her breakout essay, appeared in The Atlantic in 1937. “Who has known the ocean?” she asked. “Neither you nor I, with our earth-bound senses, know the foam and surge of the tide that beats over the crab hiding under the seaweed of his tide-pool home; or the lilt of the long, slow swells of mid-ocean, where shoals of wandering fish prey and are preyed upon, and the dolphin breaks the waves to breathe the upper atmosphere.” It left readers swooning, drowning in the riptide of her language, a watery jabberwocky of mollusks and gills and tube worms and urchins and plankton and cunners, brine-drenched, rock-girt, sessile, arborescent, abyssal, spine-studded, radiolarian, silicious, and phosphorescent, while, here and there, “the lobster feels his way with nimble wariness through the perpetual twilight.”


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“Silent Spring,” a landlubber, is no slouch of a book: it launched the environmental movement; provoked the passage of the Clean Air Act (1963), the Wilderness Act (1964), the National Environmental Policy Act (1969), the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act (both 1972); and led to the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency, in 1970. The number of books that have done as much good in the world can be counted on the arms of a starfish. Still, all of Carson’s other books and nearly all of her essays concerned the sea. That Carson would be remembered for a book about the danger of back-yard pesticides like DDT would have surprised her in her younger years, when she was a marine biologist at the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, writing memos about shad and pondering the inquiring snouts of whales, having specialized, during graduate school, in the American eel.

Carson was fiercely proud of “Silent Spring,” but, all the same, it’s heartbreaking to see that a new collection, “Silent Spring and Other Writings on the Environment,” edited by Sandra Steingraber (Library of America), includes not one drop of her writing about the sea. Steingraber complains that, “while Carson’s sea books occasionally allude to environmental threats, they call for no particular action,” and, with that, sets them aside. Political persuasion is a strange measure of the worth of a piece of prose whose force lies in knowledge and wonder. In her first book, “Under the Sea-Wind” (1941), Carson wrote, “To stand at the edge of the sea, to sense the ebb and the flow of the tides, to feel the breath of a mist moving over a great salt marsh, to watch the flight of shore birds that have swept up and down the surf lines of the continents for untold thousands of years, to see the running of the old eels and the young shad to the sea, is to have knowledge of things that are as nearly eternal as any earthly life can be.” She could not have written “Silent Spring” if she hadn’t, for decades, scrambled down rocks, rolled up her pant legs, and waded into tide pools, thinking about how one thing can change another, and how, “over the eons of time, the sea has grown ever more bitter with the salt of the continents.” She loved best to go out at night, with a flashlight, piercing the dread-black dark.

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All creatures are made of the sea, as Carson liked to point out; “the great mother of life,” she called it. Even land mammals, with our lime-hardened skeletons and our salty blood, begin as fetuses that swim in the ocean of every womb. She herself could not swim. She disliked boats. In all her childhood, she never so much as smelled the ocean. She tried to picture it: “I used to imagine what it would look like, and what the surf sounded like.”

Carson was born in 1907 in western Pennsylvania, near the Allegheny River, in a two-story clapboard house on a sixty-four-acre farm with an orchard of apple and pear trees and a barnyard of a pig, a horse, and some chickens and sheep, a place not unlike the one she conjures up in the opening lines of “Silent Spring”:

There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings. The town lay in the midst of a checkerboard of prosperous farms, with fields of grain and hillsides of orchards where, in spring, white clouds of bloom drifted above the green fields. In autumn, oak and maple and birch set up a blaze of color that flamed and flickered across a backdrop of pines. Then foxes barked in the hills and deer silently crossed the fields, half hidden in the mists of the fall mornings.

The youngest of three children, she spent her childhood wandering the fields and hills. Her mother taught her the names of plants and the calls of animals. She read Beatrix Potter and “The Wind in the Willows.” At age eight, she wrote a story about two wrens, searching for a house. “I can remember no time, even in earliest childhood, when I didn’t assume I was going to be a writer,” she said. “I have no idea why.” Stories she wrote in her teens chronicled her discoveries: “the bobwhite’s nest, tightly packed with eggs, the oriole’s aerial cradle, the frame-work of sticks which the cuckoo calls a nest, and the lichen-covered home of the humming-bird.”

And then: something of the coal-pit blight of smokestacked Pittsburgh invaded Carson’s childhood when her father, who never made a go of much of anything except the rose garden he tended, began selling off bits of the family’s farm; meadows became shops. It wasn’t the scourge of pesticides, but, to Carson, it was a loss that allowed her to write with such clarity, in the opening of “Silent Spring,” about the fate of an imagined American town sprayed with DDT:

Then a strange blight crept over the area and everything began to change. Some evil spell had settled on the community: mysterious maladies swept the flocks of chickens; the cattle sickened and died. Everywhere was a shadow of death. The farmers spoke of much illness among their families. In the town the doctors had become more and more puzzled by new kinds of sickness appearing among their patients. There had been several sudden and unexplained deaths, not only among the adults but even among children, who would be stricken suddenly while at play and die within a few hours.

Carson left home for the Pennsylvania College for Women, to study English. She sent poems to magazines—Poetry, The Atlantic, Good Housekeeping, The Saturday Evening Post—and made a collection of rejection slips, as strange as butterflies. Her mother sold apples and chickens and the family china to help pay the tuition and travelled from the farm to the college every weekend to type her daughter’s papers (she later typed Carson’s books, too), not least because, like so many mothers, she herself craved an education.

Carson, whose friends called her Ray, went to a college prom in 1928, but never displayed any romantic interest in men. She was, however, deeply passionate about her biology professor, Mary Scott Skinker. She changed her major, and followed Skinker to Woods Hole for a summer research project, which was how she came, at last, to see the ocean. By day, she combed the shore for hours on end, lost in a new world, enchanted by each creature. At night, she peered into the water off the docks to watch the mating of polychaete worms, bristles glinting in the moonlight.

Carson began graduate study in zoology at Johns Hopkins, completed a master’s degree, and entered a Ph.D. program in 1932. Her entire family moved to Baltimore to live with her: her mother, her ailing father, her divorced sister, and her two very young nieces. Carson, the family’s only wage earner, worked as a lab assistant and taught biology and zoology at Johns Hopkins and at the University of Maryland. As the Depression deepened, they lived, for a while, on nothing but apples. Eventually, Carson had to leave graduate school to take a better-paying job, in the public-education department of the Bureau of Fisheries, and brought in extra money by selling articles to the Baltimore Sun. Her best biographer, Linda Lear, writes gravely that one concerned oyster farming, while “three others continued her investigation into the plight of the shad.”

Carson’s father died in 1935, followed, two years later, by her older sister, leaving Carson to care for her mother and her nieces, ages eleven and twelve; she later adopted her grandnephew, when he was orphaned at the age of four. These obligations sometimes frustrated Carson, but not half as much as they frustrate her biographers. For Lear, the author of “Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature” (1997) and the editor of an excellent anthology, “Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson” (1998), Carson’s familial obligations—in particular, the children—are nothing but burdens that “deprived her of privacy and drained her physical and emotional energy.” Lear means this generously, as a way of accounting for why Carson didn’t write more, and why, except for her Sun articles, she never once submitted a manuscript on time. But caring for other people brings its own knowledge. Carson came to see the world as beautiful, wild, animal, and vulnerable, each part attached to every other part, not only through prodigious scientific research but also through a lifetime of caring for the very old and the very young, wiping a dying man’s brow, tucking motherless girls into bed, heating up dinners for a lonely little boy. The domestic pervades Carson’s understanding of nature. “Wildlife, it is pointed out, is dwindling because its home is being destroyed,” she wrote in 1938, “but the home of the wildlife is also our home.” If she’d had fewer ties, she would have had less insight.


Early in her time at the Bureau of Fisheries, Carson drafted an eleven-page essay about sea life called “The World of Waters.” The head of her department told her that it was too good for a government brochure and suggested that she send it to The Atlantic. After it was published, as “Undersea,” Carson began writing her first book under the largesse of F.D.R.’s New Deal, in the sense that she drafted it on the back of National Recovery Administration stationery, while working for what became, in 1939, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “Under the Sea-Wind” appeared a few weeks before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and sank like a battleship.

Carson, who spent the meat-rationed war instructing housewives in how to cook little-known fish, grew restless. She pitched a piece to the Reader’s Digest about DDT. During the war, chemical companies had sold the pesticide to the military to stop the spread of typhus by killing lice. After the war, they began selling DDT and other pesticides commercially, to be applied to farms and gardens. Carson, reading government reports on fish and wildlife, became alarmed: DDT hadn’t been tested for civilian use, and many creatures other than insects appeared to be dying. She proposed an article on the pesticide, investigating “whether it may upset the whole delicate balance of nature if unwisely used.” The Reader’s Digest was not interested.

Writing at night, Carson began another book, hoping to bring to readers the findings of a revolution in marine biology and deep-sea exploration by offering an ecology of the ocean. “Unmarked and trackless though it may seem to us, the surface of the ocean is divided into definite zones,” she explained. “Fishes and plankton, whales and squids, birds and sea turtles, are all linked by unbreakable ties to certain kinds of water.” But the state of research also meant that mysteries abided: “Whales suddenly appear off the slopes of the coastal banks where the swarms of shrimplike krill are spawning, the whales having come from no one knows where, by no one knows what route.”

Carson had taken on a subject and a field of research so wide-ranging that she began calling the book “Out of My Depth,” or “Carson at Sea.” She was haunted, too, by a sense of foreboding. In 1946, she’d had a cyst in her left breast removed. In 1950, her doctor found another cyst. After more surgery, she went to the seashore, Nags Head, North Carolina. “Saw tracks of a shore bird probably a sanderling, and followed them a little, then they turned toward the water and were soon obliterated by the sea,” she wrote in field notes that she kept in spiral-bound notebooks. “How much it washes away, and makes as though it had never been.”

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When Carson finished the book, The Atlantic declined to publish an excerpt, deeming it too poetic. William Shawn, the editor of The New Yorker, did not share this reservation. “The Sea Around Us” appeared in these pages, in 1951, as a three-part Profile of the Sea, the magazine’s first-ever profile of something other than a person. Letters from readers poured in—“I started reading with an o-dear-now-whats-this attitude, and found myself entranced,” one wrote—and many declared it the most memorable thing ever published in the magazine and, aside from John Hersey’s “Hiroshima,” the best.

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The Sea Around Us” won the National Book Award, and remained on the New York Times best-seller list for a record-breaking eighty-six weeks. Reissued, “Under the Sea-Wind” became a best-seller, too. “Who is the author?” readers wanted to know. Carson’s forcefully written work drew the supposition from male reviewers that its female author must be half-man. A reporter for the Boston Globe wrote, “Would you imagine a woman who has written about the seven seas and their wonders to be a hearty physical type? Not Miss Carson. She is small and slender, with chestnut hair and eyes whose color has something of both the green and blue of sea water. She is trim and feminine, wears a soft pink nail polish and uses lipstick and powder expertly, but sparingly.”

Carson shrugged that off and, resigning from her government post, began to question federal policy. When Eisenhower’s new Secretary of the Interior, a businessman from Oregon, replaced scientists in the department with political hacks, Carson wrote a letter to the Washington Post: “The ominous pattern that is clearly being revealed is the elimination from the Government of career men of long experience and high professional competence and their replacement by political appointees.”

But the greatest change wrought by Carson’s success came when, with the earnings from her biography of the ocean, she bought a tiny patch of land atop a rock in Maine, and built a small cottage there, a Walden by the sea. Carson once dived underwater, wearing an eighty-four-pound sea-diving helmet, and lasted, eight feet below, for only fifteen clouded minutes. Her real love was the shore: “I can’t think of any more exciting place to be than down in the low-tide world, when the ebb tide falls very early in the morning, and the world is full of salt smell, and the sound of water, and the softness of fog.” To fathom the depths, she read books; the walls of her house in Maine are lined with them, crammed between baskets and trays filled with sea glass and seashells and sea-smoothed stones. She wrote some of her next book, “The Edge of the Sea,” from that perch.

“My quarrel with almost all seashore books for the amateur,” she reflected, “is that they give him a lot of separate little capsules of information about a series of creatures, which are never firmly placed in their environment.” Carson’s seashore book was different, an explanation of the shore as a system, an ecosystem, a word most readers had never heard before, and one that Carson herself rarely used but instead conjured, as a wave of motion and history:

In my thoughts these shores, so different in their nature and in the inhabitants they support, are made one by the unifying touch of the sea. For the differences I sense in this particular instant of time that is mine are but the differences of a moment, determined by our place in the stream of time and in the long rhythms of the sea. Once this rocky coast beneath me was a plain of sand; then the sea rose and found a new shore line. And again in some shadowy future the surf will have ground these rocks to sand and will have returned the coast to its earlier state. And so in my mind’s eye these coastal forms merge and blend in a shifting, kaleidoscopic pattern in which there is no finality, no ultimate and fixed reality—earth becoming fluid as the sea itself.

Paul Brooks, Carson’s editor at Houghton Mifflin, once said that, as a writer, she was like “the stonemason who never lost sight of the cathedral.” She was a meticulous editor; so was he. “Spent time on the Sand chapter with a pencil between my teeth,” he wrote to her. But she didn’t like being fixed up and straightened out, warning Brooks, “I am apt to use what may appear to be a curious inversion of words or phrases”—her brine-drenched jabberwocky—“but for the most part these are peculiar to my style and I don’t want them changed.”

“The bathroom? Ah, yes, the bathroom—well, let me tell you about the bathroom.”

Writing by the edge of the sea, Rachel Carson fell in love. She met Dorothy Freeman in 1953 on the island in Maine where Carson built her cottage and where Freeman’s family had summered for years. Carson was forty-six, Freeman fifty-five. Freeman was married, with a grown son. When she and Carson weren’t together, they maintained a breathless, passionate correspondence. “Why do I keep your letters?” Carson wrote to Freeman that winter. “Why? Because I love you!” Carson kept her favorite letters under her pillow. “I love you beyond expression,” Freeman wrote to Carson. “My love is boundless as the Sea.”

Both women were concerned about what might become of their letters. In a single envelope, they often enclosed two letters, one to be read to family (Carson to her mother, Freeman to her husband), one to be read privately, and likely destined for the “Strong box”—their code for letters to be destroyed. “Did you put them in the Strong box?” Carson would ask Freeman. “If not, please do.” Later, while Carson was preparing her papers, which she’d pledged to give to Yale, Freeman read about how the papers of the writer Dorothy Thompson, recently opened, contained revelations about her relationships with women. Freeman wrote to Carson, “Dear, please, use the Strong box quickly,” warning that their letters could have “meanings to people who were looking for ideas.” (They didn’t destroy all of them: those that survive were edited by Freeman’s granddaughter and published in 1995.)

After the publication of “The Edge of the Sea” (1955), another best-seller that was also serialized in The New Yorker, Shawn wanted Carson to write a new book, to appear in the magazine, on nothing less than “the universe.” And she might have tackled it. But, when her niece Marjorie died of pneumonia, Carson adopted Marjorie’s four-year-old son, Roger, a little boy she described as “lively as seventeen crickets.” She set aside longer writing projects until, with some reluctance, she began work on a study whose title, for a long time, was “Man Against the Earth.”

In January, 1958, members of a citizens’ Committee Against Mass Poisoning flooded newspapers in the Northeast with letters to the editor calling attention to the dire consequences of local and statewide insecticide aerial-spraying programs: the insects weren’t dying, but everything else was. One Massachusetts housewife and bird-watcher, Olga Owens Huckins, who called the programs “inhumane, undemocratic and probably unconstitutional,” wrote a letter to Carson. The committee had filed a lawsuit in New York, and Huckins suggested that Carson cover the story.

Carson had wanted to write about the destruction of the environment ever since the bombing of Hiroshima and the first civilian use of DDT, in 1945. Nevertheless, she couldn’t possibly leave Roger and her ailing mother to report on a trial in New York. In February, she wrote to E. B. White, “It is my hope that you might cover these court hearings for The New Yorker.” White demurred—he later told Carson that he didn’t “know a chlorinated hydrocarbon from a squash bug”—and said that she should write the story, forwarding Carson’s letter to Shawn. In June, Carson went to New York and pitched the story to Shawn. “We don’t usually think of The New Yorker as changing the world,” he told her, “but this one time it might.”

Freeman, wise woman, was worried that the chemical companies would go after Carson, relentlessly and viciously. Carson reassured her that she had taken that into account, but that, “knowing what I do, there would be no future peace for me if I kept silent.” Marjorie Spock, the daughter of the pediatrician, sent Carson reports from the trial, while Carson did her research from home, in Maryland and Maine, often with Roger at her side. She absorbed a vast scientific literature across several realms, including medicine, chemistry, physiology, and biology, and produced an explanation written with storybook clarity. Freeman wrote to Carson that she was “like the Mother Gull with her cheese sandwich,” chewing it up before feeding it to her young. Carson wrote back, “Perhaps a subtitle of Man Against the Earth might be ‘What the Mother Gull Brought Up.’ ”

In the fall of 1958, her mother had a stroke. Carson cared for her at home. Carson’s mother had taught her birdsongs; the first time they visited Maine together, Carson had taken an inventory: “And then there were the sounds of other, smaller birds—the rattling call of the kingfisher that perched, between forays after fish, on the posts of the dock; the call of the phoebe that nested under the eaves of the cabin; the redstarts that foraged in the birches on the hill behind the cabin and forever, it seemed to me, asked each other the way to Wiscasset, for I could easily twist their syllables into the query, ‘Which is Wiscasset? Which is Wiscasset?’ ”

Late in the autumn of Carson’s mother’s illness, Spock sent her a record album of birdsongs. Carson listened with Roger, teaching him each song. “He has a very sweet feeling for all living things and loves to go out with me and look and listen to all that goes on,” she wrote to Spock. Carson’s mother died that December, at the age of eighty-nine. The spring of 1959 was Carson’s first spring without her mother. “Over increasingly large areas of the United States, spring now comes unheralded by the return of the birds, and the early mornings are strangely silent where once they were filled with the beauty of bird song,” Carson would write. It was Paul Brooks who had the idea of using the title of the chapter on birds as the title for the entire book: “Silent Spring.” A season of grief.

And, still, Carson worried that she herself might be silenced. She grew sick; she and Freeman told hardly anyone, not even Brooks. Early in 1960, while immersed in a growing scientific literature on the consequences for humans “of the never-ending stream of chemicals of which pesticides are a part, chemicals now pervading the world in which we live, acting upon us directly and indirectly, separately and collectively,” as if we were all fish, swimming in a poisoned sea, she found more lesions on her left breast.

On April 4, 1960, Carson had a radical mastectomy. Her surgeon provided her with no information about the tumors or the tissue he’d removed and recommended no follow-up treatment; when she asked him questions, he lied to her, as was common practice, especially with female patients. The surgery had been brutal and the recovery was slow. “I think I have solved the troublesome problem of the cancer chapters,” she wrote to Brooks from Maine in September. But by November she’d found more lumps, this time on her ribs. She consulted another doctor, and began radiation treatments. In December, she finally confided in Brooks.

Carson kept her cancer secret because she was a private person, but also because she didn’t want to give the chemical companies the chance to dismiss her work as having been motivated by her illness, and perhaps because, when the time came, she didn’t want them to pull their punches; the harder they came after her, the worse they’d look. This required formidable stoicism. Beginning early in 1961, she was, on and off, in a wheelchair. One treatment followed another: more surgery, injections (one doctor recommended injections of gold). One illness followed another: the flu, staph infections, rheumatoid arthritis, eye infections. “Such a catalogue of illnesses!” she wrote to Freeman. “If one were superstitious it would be easy to believe in some malevolent influence at work, determined by some means to keep the book from being finished.”

Early on, Carson was told that she had “a matter of months.” She was afraid of dying, but she was terrified of dying before she could finish the book. Freeman, who thought the work itself was killing Carson, or at least impeding her ability to fight the cancer, urged her to abandon the book she’d planned and to produce, instead, something much shorter, and be done with it. “Something would be better than nothing, I guess,” Carson mused, weighing the merits of recasting her pages into something “greatly boiled down” and “perhaps more philosophic in tone.” She decided against it, and in January, 1962, submitted to The New Yorker a nearly complete draft of the book.

Shawn called her at home to tell her that he’d finishing reading and that the book was “a brilliant achievement.” He said, “You have made it literature, full of beauty and loveliness and depth of feeling.” Carson, who had been quite unsure she’d survive to finish writing the book, was sure, for the first time, that the book was going to do in the world what she’d wanted it to do. She hung up the phone, put Roger to bed, picked up her cat, and burst into tears, collapsing with relief.

“Silent Spring” appeared in The New Yorker, in three parts, in June, 1962, and as a book, published by Houghton Mifflin, in September. Everything is connected to everything else, she showed. “We poison the caddis flies in a stream and the salmon runs dwindle and die,” Carson wrote:

We poison the gnats in a lake and the poison travels from link to link of the food chain and soon the birds of the lake margins become its victims. We spray our elms and the following springs are silent of robin song, not because we sprayed the robins directly but because the poison traveled, step by step, through the now familiar elm-leaf-earthworm cycle. These are matters of record, observable, part of the visible world around us. They reflect the web of life—or death—that scientists know as ecology.

Its force was felt immediately. Readers wrote to share their own stories. “I can go into the feed stores here and buy, without giving any reason, enough poison to do away with all the people in Oregon,” one gardener wrote. They began calling members of Congress. E. B. White wrote to Carson, declaring the pieces to be “the most valuable articles the magazine had ever published.” At a press conference at the White House on August 29th, a reporter asked President Kennedy whether his Administration intended to investigate the long-range side effects of DDT and other pesticides. “Yes,” he answered. “I know that they already are, I think particularly, of course, since Miss Carson’s book.”

“What she wrote started a national quarrel,” “CBS Reports” announced in a one-hour special, “The Silent Spring of Rachel Carson,” in which footage of Carson was intercut with footage of government and industry spokesmen, to create a de-facto debate. (Carson refused to make any other television appearance.) In the program, Carson sits on the porch of her white-railed house in Maine, wearing a skirt and cardigan; the chief spokesman for the insecticide industry, Robert White-Stevens, of American Cyanamid, wears thick black-framed glasses and a white coat, standing in a chemistry lab, surrounded by beakers and Bunsen burners.

“Well, Martha, I certainly hope your Scrabble victories keep you warm at night!”

White-Stevens questions Carson’s expertise: “The major claims of Miss Rachel Carson’s book, ‘Silent Spring,’ are gross distortions of the actual fact, completely unsupported by scientific experimental evidence and general practical experience in the field.”

Carson feigns perplexity: “Can anyone believe it is possible to lay down such a barrage of poisons on the surface of the earth without making it unfit for all life?”

White-Stevens fumes: “Miss Carson maintains that the balance of nature is a major force in the survival of man, whereas the modern chemist, the modern biologist and scientist believes that man is steadily controlling nature.”

Carson rebuts: “Now, to these people, apparently, the balance of nature was something that was repealed as soon as man came on the scene. Well, you might just as well assume that you could repeal the law of gravity.”

He may be wearing the lab coat, but, against Carson’s serenity, it’s White-Stevens who comes across as the crank. Carson wasn’t so much calm, though, as exhausted. She was fifty-five; she looked twenty years older. (She told Freeman she felt ninety.) She begged Freeman not to tell anyone about the cancer: “There is no reason even to say I have not been well. If you want or think you need give any negative report, say I had a bad time with iritis that delayed my work, but it has cleared up nicely. And that you never saw me look better. Please say that.” But, if no one knew, it was not hard to see. When Carson was interviewed by CBS, she wore a heavy wig; she had lost her hair. She was not shown standing, which would have been difficult: the cancer had spread to her vertebrae; her spine was beginning to collapse. After the CBS reporter Eric Sevareid interviewed Carson, he told his producer Jay McMullen that the network ought to air the program as soon as possible. “Jay,” he said, “you’ve got a dead leading lady.”

In December, while shopping for a Christmas present for Roger—a record-player—Carson fainted from pain and weakness. The tumors kept spreading. “CBS Reports” aired “The Silent Spring of Rachel Carson” in April, 1963. The following month, Carson testified before Congress.

By fall, the cancer had moved into her pelvic bone. She wrote, “I moan inside—and I wake in the night and cry out silently for Maine.” When Carson delivered what would be her final public speech, “Man Against Himself,” hobbling to the stage with the use of a cane, a local newspaper described her as a “middle-aged, arthritis-crippled spinster.” She wrote to Freeman that returning to Maine “is only a dream—a lovely dream.”

Rachel Carson did not see the ocean again. Nor would she be remembered for what she wrote about the sea, from its shore to its depths. “The dear old Sea Around Us has been displaced,” Freeman wrote, with sorrow. “When people talk about you they’ll say ‘Oh yes, the author of Silent Spring,’ for I suppose there are people who never heard of The Sea Around Us.”

Early on the morning of April 14, 1964, Freeman wrote to Carson, wondering how she’d slept and wishing her the beauty of spring: “I can be sure you wake up to bird song.” Carson died before dusk. Three weeks later, on their island in Maine, Freeman poured Carson’s ashes into the sea. “Every living thing of the ocean, plant and animal alike, returns to the water at the end of its own life span the materials which had been temporarily assembled to form its body,” Carson once wrote. Freeman sat on a rock and watched the tide go out.

Before Carson got sick, and even after, when she still believed she might get better, she thought that she’d take up, for her next book, a subject that fascinated her. “We live in an age of rising seas,” she wrote. “In our own lifetime we are witnessing a startling alteration of climate.” She died before she could begin, wondering, till the end, about the swelling of the seas.

This spring, in the North Atlantic, not a single newborn right whale has been spotted: the water, it seems, is too warm; the mothers have birthed no calves. The sea is all around us. It is our home. And the last calf is our, inconsolable, loss. ♦

This article appears in the print edition of the March 26, 2018, issue, with the headline “The Shorebird.”

  • Jill Lepore is a staff writer and a professor of history at Harvard University. Her latest book, “These Truths: A History of the United States,” will come out in September.


NY Times Book Review: Can the 45th President of the United States be impeached?

March 17, 2018

NYTimes Book Review: Can the 45th President of the United States be impeached?

by Andrew Sullivan

A Citizen’s Guide
By Cass R. Sunstein
199 pp. Harvard University. Paper, $7.95.

Authoritarianism in America
Edited by Cass R. Sunstein
481 pp. Dey St./Morrow. Paper, $17.99.

It’s really hard to impeach a President.

The founders included the provision, from the very start, as the weakest, “break the glass in case of emergency” mechanism for reining in an out-of-control executive. He was already subject to a four-year term, so he would remain answerable to the people, and to two other branches of government, which could box him in constitutionally. But the founders’ fear of creeping monarchism — the very reason for their revolution — and their deep realism about human nature led them to a provision, rooted in English constitutional precedent, whereby a rogue President could be removed from office by the legislature during his term as well. At the same time, it’s clear they also wanted a strong executive, not serving at the whim of Congress, or subject, like a Prime Minister, to a parliamentary vote of “no confidence.” He was an equal branch of government, with his own prerogatives, empowered, in Hamilton’s words, to conduct his office with “decision, activity, secrecy and dispatch.” He stood very much on his own feet.

“…if he was to start acting like an idiot, he could not be impeached. If he was psychologically disturbed but not mentally incapacitated, ditto. If he pursued ruinous policies, or faced enormous unpopularity, or said unspeakably reckless things, he could not be impeached. If he committed a whole slew of crimes in his personal capacity, he’d be answerable to public opinion and regular justice, but not subject to losing his job. If his judgment was unstable, his personal behavior appalling or if he were to make the United States a laughingstock in the opinion of mankind, the impeachment provision did not apply.”–Andrew Sullivan

And so the impeachment power was both strong and weak. Strong as it hovered as the ultimate sanction for any President who might push his luck, but weak insofar as it was deliberately limited to the offense of subverting the Constitution itself or betraying the United States in foreign affairs: the famously grave and yet vague Anglo-American terminology of “high crimes and misdemeanors,” which included “great and dangerous offenses.” These were essentially serious political crimes, which was why they had to be dealt with in the political arena rather than the courts. They amounted to one core idea: If the President was to start acting like a king, he could be dispatched.

But if he was to start acting like an idiot, he could not be impeached. If he was psychologically disturbed but not mentally incapacitated, ditto. If he pursued ruinous policies, or faced enormous unpopularity, or said unspeakably reckless things, he could not be impeached. If he committed a whole slew of crimes in his personal capacity, he’d be answerable to public opinion and regular justice, but not subject to losing his job. If his judgment was unstable, his personal behavior appalling or if he were to make the United States a laughingstock in the opinion of mankind, the impeachment provision did not apply.

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And even then, the bar for impeachment was very high, as Cass R. Sunstein’s elegant new monograph, “Impeachment: A Citizen’s Guide,” explains: Both House and Senate would have to be involved and in favor; and conviction would require a two-thirds majority in the Senate, ensuring that a clear national consensus was necessary if a president was to be judged to be gravely violating his oath of office, or betraying the country. This is why in well over two centuries the impeachment power has been invoked against sitting Presidents only four times, and never actually pursued to conviction. The attempted impeachment of John Tyler in 1842 was rightly rejected by the House of Representatives by a margin of 127-83 (he was guilty of innovating the use of the veto on policy grounds alone), and the impeachment of Andrew Johnson in 1868 (on the preposterous grounds that he had no right to appoint his own secretary of war) was turned back by a single vote in the Senate. The impeachment of William Jefferson Clinton in 1998 because of a civil sexual harassment suit squeaked through the House on partisan lines, 221-212, but failed in the Senate, with conviction on the least ludicrous obstruction of justice charge reaching only 50 votes out of a needed 67.

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Richard Nixon resigned before a vote in the full House could be taken. Sunstein assesses his articles of impeachment thus: not impeachable for evading taxes (too personal a crime); probably impeachable for resisting a congressional subpoena (but a President could potentially make a legitimate, if dubious, claim about executive privilege); definitely impeachable for covering up an impeachable offense (abusing the powers of the F.B.I., the C.I.A. and the Department of Justice to conceal evidence of an attempt to subvert an election by burglarizing the Democratic National Committee).

Where does this leave us with respect to Donald Trump? Sunstein smartly doesn’t answer the question directly — instead teasing out various hypotheticals with some similarities to our current concerns. Here are a few: directing the Justice Department to prosecute someone for political reasons; pledging in advance to pardon anyone in law enforcement who commits a crime; using the F.B.I. or C.I.A. to get evidence of criminality against a political opponent; egregiously defaulting on his core presidential responsibilities; secretly bribing others in a direct quid pro quo or similarly receiving bribes; and secretly cooperating with a foreign power to promulgate false information against a political opponent. Sunstein thinks each of these is an impeachable offense — as they almost certainly are.

With Trump, these analogies are tantalizingly close but probably not close enough. Firing an F.B.I. Director for an investigation into a President’s campaign, for example, is deeply suspicious, but technically kosher, since the F.B.I. Director serves at the president’s pleasure. Campaigning to “lock her up” and initiating a new Justice Department investigation into possible illegality by Hillary Clinton likewise could be described, in a pinch, as mere excessive campaign rhetoric or a genuine pursuit of justice. Spending hours watching cable television, refusing to read his daily intelligence briefing, disrupting negotiations with Congress by constantly shifting positions and dictating policy by declarative tweets are all clearly outside what the founders would regard as good executive leadership, but they are too subjective to be a reliable basis for impeachment. Pardoning Sheriff Joe Arpaio for violating the Constitution could be defended, however dubiously, as merely an act of compassion for an old man. Failing to abide by clear ethical rules by refusing to divest all business projects is an egregious outrage, but not provable bribery. Venting at an attorney general for recusing himself from a case in which he was involved (but not actually firing him) doesn’t make the cut either.

What about passively cooperating with a foreign power to subvert an American election and then, after clear proof of such interference, refusing to counter that foreign power’s intent to disrupt the next election too? If a President unwittingly benefited from a foreign foe’s meddling (“no collusion!”), and he’s merely guilty of failing to do enough to counter that power’s continuing assault on the American democratic process, he’s in the clear. But if he is actively neglecting a defense of this country’s electoral integrity because he believes the Kremlin helped him win an election in the past, and will almost certainly help him and his party in the near future, then impeachment is a no-brainer. If he knew of the meddling at the time and encouraged it, ditto. In those cases, you have a combination of treason and defaulting on the core responsibilities of his office — at the center of the founders’ concerns (especially being too close to a foreign government). The trouble here is that we have, so far, no proof of anything but a willingness to collude with a foreign power’s interference; and no clear evidence at all of the President’s personal involvement with foreign actors.

Yet even if that evidence were incontrovertible (and that could still emerge in Mueller’s investigation), impeachment remains a political decision. Which means that unless we experience some kind of unprecedented sea change in the pathological tribalism that now defines our politics, impeachment is a dead letter. What makes Trump immune is that he is not a President within the context of a healthy republican government. He is a cult leader of a movement that has taken over a political party — and he specifically campaigned on a platform of one-man rule. This fact permeates “Can It Happen Here? Authoritarianism in America,” a collection of essays by a number of writers that has been edited by Sunstein, which concludes, if you read between the lines, that “it” already has.

Image result for donald trump impeachmentThe 45th POTUS Donald J. Trump: “I am the only one who matters.”

No, Trump is not about to initiate a coup, or suspend elections or become a dictator. The more likely model for American authoritarianism is that of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey or the Fidesz party in Hungary. The dismemberment of a public discourse centered on objective truth is a key first step, fomented by unceasing dissemination of outright lies from the very top, metabolized by tribal social media, ever more extreme talk radio and what is essentially a state propaganda channel, Fox News. The neutering of the courts is the second step — and Trump is well on his way to (constitutionally) establishing a federal judiciary whose most important feature will be reliable assent to executive power. Congress itself has far less approval than Trump; its inability to do anything but further bankrupt the country, enrich the oligarchy and sabotage many Americans’ health care leaves an aching void filled by … a President who repeatedly insists that “I am the only one who matters.”

I don’t think Trump has a conscious intent to vandalize liberal democracy — he doesn’t even understand what it is. Rather, his twisted, compulsive insecurity requires him to use his office to attack, delegitimize and weaken every democratic institution that may occasionally operate outside his own delusional narcissism. He cannot help this. His tweets are a function of spasms, not plots. But the wreckage after only one year is extraordinary. The F.B.I. is now widely discredited; the C.I.A. is held in contempt; judges, according to the president, are driven by prejudice and partisanship (when they disagree with him); the media produce fake news; Congress is useless (including both Republicans and Democrats); alliances are essentially rip-offs; the State Department — along with the whole idea of a neutral Civil Service — is unnecessary. And the possibility of reasoned deliberation at the heart of democratic life has been obliterated by the white-hot racial and cultural hatreds that Trump was able to exploit to get elected and that he constantly fuels.

The Democrats find themselves in opposition a little like Marco Rubio in the primaries. Take the high road and you are irrelevant; take the low road and you cannot compete with the biggest bully and liar on the block. The result is that an unimpeachable President is slowly constructing the kind of authoritarian state that America was actually founded to overthrow.

There is nothing in the Constitution’s formal operation that can prevent this. Impeachment certainly cannot. As long as one major political party endorses it, and a solid plurality of Americans support such an authoritarian slide, it is unstoppable. The founders knew that without a virtuous citizenry, the Constitution was a mere piece of paper and, in Madison’s words, “no theoretical checks — no form of government can render us secure.” Franklin was blunter in forecasting the moment we are now in: He believed that the American experiment in self-government “can only end in despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people become so corrupted as to need despotic government, being incapable of any other.” You can impeach a President, but you can’t, alas, impeach the people. They voted for the kind of monarchy the American republic was designed, above all else, to resist; and they have gotten one.

NY Times Book Review: Steven Pinker’s Latest Book, Enlightenment Now

March 4, 2018

NY Times Book Review: Steven Pinker’s Latest Book, Enlightenment Now

The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress
By Steven Pinker
556 pp. Viking. $35.

Optimism is not generally thought cool, and it is often thought foolish. The optimistic philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote in 1828, “I have observed that not the man who hopes when others despair, but the man who despairs when others hope, is admired by a large class of persons as a sage.” In the previous century, Voltaire’s “Candide” had attacked what its author called “optimism”: the Leibnizian idea that all must be for the best in this best of all possible worlds. After suffering through one disaster after another, Candide decides that optimism is merely “a mania for insisting that all is well when things are going badly.”

Yet one might argue (and Steven Pinker does) that the philosophy Voltaire satirizes here is not optimism at all. If you think this world is already as good as it gets, then you just have to accept it. A true optimist would say that, although human life will never be perfect, crucial aspects of it can improve if we work at it, for example by refining building standards and seismological predictions so that fewer people die in earthquakes. It’s not “best,” but it is surely better.

This optimist’s revenge on “Candide” is one of the passing pleasures in “Enlightenment Now,” Pinker’s follow-up to his 2011 book “The Better Angels of Our Nature.” The earlier work assembled banks of data in support of his argument that human life is becoming, not worse as many seem to feel, but globally safer, healthier, longer, less violent, more prosperous, better educated, more tolerant and more fulfilling. His new book makes the same case with updated statistics, and adds two extra elements. First, it takes into account the recent rise of authoritarian populism, especially in the form of Donald Trump — a development that has led some to feel more despairing than ever. Second, it raises the polemical level with a rousing defense of the four big ideas named in the subtitle: progress, reason, science and humanism — the last being defined not mainly in terms of non-theism (though Pinker argues for that, too), but as “the goal of maximizing human flourishing — life, health, happiness, freedom, knowledge, love, richness of experience.” Who could be against any of that? Yet humanism has been seen in some quarters as unfashionable, or unachievable, or both. Pinker wants us to take another look.

Much of the book is taken up with evidence-based philosophizing, with charts showing a worldwide increase in life expectancy, a decline in life-shattering diseases, ever better education and access to information, greater recognition of female equality and L.G.B.T. rights, and so on — even down to data showing that Americans today are 37 times less likely to be killed by lightning than in 1900, thanks to better weather forecasting, electrical engineering and safety awareness. Improvements in health have bettered the human condition enormously, and Pinker tells us that his favorite sentence in the whole English language comes from Wikipedia: “Smallpox was an infectious disease caused by either of two virus variants, Variola major and Variola minor.” The word “wasis what he likes.


Credit Alessandra Montalto/The New York Times

He later adds that he could have ended every chapter by saying, “But all this progress is threatened if Donald Trump gets his way.” Trumpism risks knocking the world backward in almost every department of life, especially by trying to undo the international structures that have made progress possible: peace and trade agreements, health care, climate change accords and the general understanding that nuclear weapons should never be used. All this is now in question. Pinker is particularly sharp on the dangers of ignoring or overriding the systems that make nuclear war unlikely.

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This book will attract some hammering itself: It contains something to upset almost everyone. When not attacking the populist right, Pinker lays into leftist intellectuals. He is especially scathing about newspaper editorialists who, in 2016, fell over themselves in their haste to proclaim the death of Enlightenment values and the advent of “post-truth.” His (rather too broadly painted) targets include humanities professors, postmodernists, the politically correct and anyone who has something nice to say about Friedrich Nietzsche. “Progressive” thinkers seem to consider progress a bad thing, he claims; they reject as crass or naïve “the notion that we should apply our collective reason to enhance flourishing and reduce suffering.”

In fact, there may already be signs of a change in mood, with chirps of optimism being heard from varied directions. The musician David Byrne has just launched a web project entitled “Reasons to Be Cheerful,” celebrating positive initiatives in the realms of culture, science, transportation, civic engagement and so on. Quartz, a business journalism site, ended 2017 with a list of 99 cheerful links to the year’s good news: snow leopards being taken off the endangered species list; a province in Pakistan planting a billion trees over the last two years as a response to the 2015 floods; a dramatic fall in sufferers from the hideous Guinea worm (from 3.5 million in 1986 to just 30 in 2017); and a slow but steady increase in women holding parliamentary seats worldwide, from 12 percent in 1997 to 23 percent now.

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Bertrand Russell once pointed out that maintaining a sense of hope can be hard work. In the closing pages of his autobiography, with its account of his many activist years, he wrote: “To preserve hope in our world makes calls upon our intelligence and our energy. In those who despair it is frequently the energy that is lacking.” Steven Pinker’s book is full of vigor and vim, and it sets out to inspire a similar energy in its readers.

He cites one study of “negativity bias” that says a critic who pans a book “is perceived as more competent than a critic who praises it.” I will just have to take that risk: “Enlightenment Now” strikes me as an excellent book, lucidly written, timely, rich in data and eloquent in its championing of a rational humanism that is — it turns out — really quite cool.

Samuel Huntington, a Prophet for the Trump era

March 3, 2018

Sometimes a prophet can be right about what will come, yet torn about whether it should.

Robert Carter for The Washington Post; based on photos by Steve Liss/The Life Images Collection/Getty Images (Huntington) and Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters (Trump)

President Trump’s speech in Warsaw, in which he urged Europeans and Americans to defend Western civilization against violent extremists and barbarian hordes, inevitably evoked Samuel P. Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” — the notion that superpower rivalry would give way to battles among Western universalism, Islamic militance and Chinese assertiveness. In a book expanded from his famous 1993 essay, Huntington described civilizations as the broadest and most crucial level of identity, encompassing religion, values, culture and history. Rather than “which side are you on?” he wrote, the overriding question in the post-Cold War world would be “who are you?”

So when the President calls on the nations of the West to “summon the courage and the will to defend our civilization,” when he insists that we accept only migrants who “share our values and love our people,” and when he urges the transatlantic alliance to “never forget who we are” and cling to the “bonds of history, culture and memory,” I imagine Huntington, who passed away in late 2008 after a long career teaching at Harvard University, nodding from beyond.

It would be a nod of vindication, perhaps, but mainly one of grim recognition. Trump’s civilizational rhetoric is just one reason Huntington resonates today, and it’s not even the most interesting one. Huntington’s work, spanning the mid-20th century through the early 21st, reads as a long argument over America’s meaning and purpose, one that explains the tensions of the Trump era as well as anything can. Huntington both chronicles and anticipates America’s fights over its founding premises, fights that Trump’s ascent has aggravated. Huntington foresees — and, frankly, stokes — the rise of white nativism in response to Hispanic immigration. He captures the dissonance between working classes and elites, between nationalism and cosmopolitanism, that played out in the 2016 campaign. And he warns how populist demagogues appeal to alienated masses and then break faith with them.

This is Trump’s presidency, but even more so, it is Huntington’s America. Trump may believe himself a practical man, exempt from any intellectual influence, but he is the slave of a defunct political scientist.

Huntington’s books speak to one another across the decades; you find the origins of one in the unanswered questions of another. But they also reveal deep contradictions. More than a clash of civilizations, a clash of Huntingtons is evident. One Huntington regards Americans as an exceptional people united not by blood but by creed. Another disowns that idea in favor of an America that finds its essence in faith, language, culture and borders. One Huntington views new groups and identities entering the political arena as a revitalization of American democracy. Another considers such identities pernicious, anti-American.

These works embody the intellectual and political challenges for the United States in, and beyond, the Trump years. In Huntington’s writings, idealistic visions of America mingle with its basest impulses, and eloquent defenses of U.S. values betray a fear of the pluralism at the nation’s core. Which vision wins out will determine what country we become.

To understand our current turmoil, the most relevant of Huntington’s books is not “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order” (1996) or even “Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity” (2004), whose fans reportedly include self-proclaimed white nationalist Richard Spencer. It is the lesser-known and remarkably prescient “American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony,” published 36 years ago.

In that work, Huntington points to the gap between the values of the American creed — liberty, equality, individualism, democracy, constitutionalism — and the government’s efforts to live up to those values as the central tension of American life. “At times, this dissonance is latent; at other times, when creedal passion runs high, it is brutally manifest, and at such times, the promise of American politics becomes its central agony.”

Whether debating health care, taxes, immigration or war, Americans invariably invoke the founding values to challenge perceived injustices. Reforms cannot merely be necessary or sensible; they must be articulated and defended in terms of the creed. This is why Trump’s opponents attack his policies by declaring not only that they are wrong but that “that’s not who we are.” As Huntington puts it, “Americans divide most sharply over what brings them together.”

[Yes, Trump is a populist. But what does that mean?]

The book looks back to the Revolutionary War, the Jacksonian age, the Progressive era and the 1960s as moments of high creedal passions, and Huntington’s descriptions capture America today. In such moments, he writes, discontent is widespread, and authority and expertise are questioned; traditional values of liberty, individualism, equality and popular control of government dominate public debates; politics is characterized by high polarization and constant protest; hostility toward power, wealth and inequality grows intense; social movements focused on causes such as women’s rights and criminal justice flourish; and new forms of media emerge devoted to advocacy and adversarial journalism.


Huntington’s clash has been caricatured as a single-minded call to arms against Muslims, and certainly the argument is neither so narrow nor so simple. He is probably more concerned with China and fears a “major war” if Washington challenges Beijing’s rise as Asia’s hegemon. Yet the threat Huntington sees from the Muslim world goes far beyond terrorism or religious extremism. He worries of a broader Islamic resurgence, with political Islam as only one part of “the much more extensive revival of Islamic ideas, practices, and rhetoric and the rededication to Islam by Muslim populations.” Huntington cites scholars warning of the spread of Islamic legal concepts in the West, decries the “inhospitable nature of Islamic culture” for democracy and suggests that Islam will prevail in the numbers game against Christianity. In the long run, “Mohammed wins out,” he states. “Christianity spreads primarily by conversion, Islam by conversion and reproduction.”

[Why America is terrible at making the world a better place]

The vision evokes the zero-sum rhetoric of Trump political strategist Stephen K. Bannon, who was a force behind the administration’s travel ban targeting Muslim-majority countries, and of former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who authored a 2016 book heralding a multi-generational U.S. conflict against Islam’s “failed civilization.” Huntington, at least, has the grace to consider two sides of the clash.

“The underlying problem for the West is not Islamic fundamentalism,” he writes. “It is Islam, a different civilization whose people are convinced of the superiority of their culture and are obsessed with the inferiority of their power. The problem for Islam is not the CIA or the U.S. Department of Defense. It is the West, a different civilization whose people are convinced of the universality of their culture and believe that their superior, if declining, power imposes on them the obligation to extend that culture throughout the world.”

He does not regard Western values as universal. They are ours alone.

While Huntington foresees an America roiled by self-doubt, white nationalism and enmity against Islam, he does not predict the rise of a Trump-like leader in the United States.

But he would have recognized the type.

Consider his earliest books. In “Political Order in Changing Societies” (1968), Huntington examines how Latin American, African and Asian countries in the throes of economic modernization struggled to adapt their politics and incorporate new groups with new demands. The result, Huntington explains, was not political development but “political decay.”

And what sort of authorities personify this decay? Across the developing world, Huntington saw “the dominance of unstable personalistic leaders,” their governments rife with “blatant corruption . . . arbitrary infringement of the rights and liberties of citizens, declining standards of bureaucratic efficiency and performance, the pervasive alienation of urban political groups, the loss of authority by legislatures and courts, and the fragmentation and at times complete disintegration of broadly based political parties.”

These self-styled revolutionaries thrive on divisiveness. “The aim of the revolutionary is to polarize politics,” Huntington explains, “and hence he attempts to simplify, to dramatize, and to amalgamate political issues into a single, clear-cut dichotomy.” Such leaders attract new rural voters via “ethnic and religious appeals” as well as economic arguments, only to quickly betray their aspirations.

“A popular demagogue may emerge,” Huntington writes, “develop a widespread but poorly organized following, threaten the established interests of the rich and aristocrats, be voted into political office, and then be bought off by the very interests which he has attacked.” Such interests include those of the leaders’ close relatives, he explains, because for them “no distinction existed between obligations to the state and obligation to the family.”

Huntington’s “The Soldier and the State” (1957), a study of civilian-military relations, is instructive on the self-regard of such leaders, especially when the author contrasts the professionalism of military officers with the imperiousness of fascist strongmen. “Fascism emphasizes the supreme power and ability of the leader, and the absolute duty of subordination to his will,” Huntington writes. The fascist is intuitive, with “little use or need for ordered knowledge and practical, empirical realism. He celebrates the triumph of the Will over external obstacles.”

[How does Donald Trump stack up against American literature’s fictional dictators?]

Such obstacles take the form of popular protests against unpopular leaders. Today, some writers even find solace in our national upheaval, arguing that the activism and energy Trump’s election has wrought will strengthen U.S. democracy. But in a book titled “The Crisis of Democracy” (1975), Huntington examines a time of similar civic resurgence, and is not encouraged by the outcome.

“The 1960s witnessed a dramatic renewal of the democratic spirit in America,” Huntington writes. Not yet dismissive of identity politics, he praises the “markedly higher levels of self-consciousness” and mobilization on the part of African Americans, Latinos, students and women in that era, noting that “the spirit of equality [and] the impulse to expose and correct inequities were abroad in the land.” The problem, he explains, is that the political system also became weighed down by popular mistrust, however deserved, of American institutions. “The vitality of democracy in the 1960s,” he writes, “raised questions about the governability of democracy in the 1970s.”

The biggest questions involved the highest office. “Probably no development of the 1960s and 1970s has greater import for the future of American politics than the decline in the authority, status, influence, and effectiveness of the presidency,” Huntington writes. He fears that a delegitimized executive threatened not just national cohesion but national security. “If American citizens don’t trust their government, why should friendly foreigners? If American citizens challenge the authority of American government, why shouldn’t unfriendly governments?”

Huntington was writing in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal, and now the current White House faces its own crisis of credibility. Trump, so obsessed with his electoral victory that a framed map of the 2016 results was recently spotted in the White House, would do well to heed warnings about governability.

“Once he is elected president,” Huntington writes, “the president’s electoral coalition has, in a sense, served its purpose. The day after his election the size of his majority is almost — if not entirely — irrelevant to his ability to govern the country. . . . What counts then is his ability to mobilize support from the leaders of the key institutions in society and government.”

It feels odd to write of Trump as a Huntingtonian figure. One is instinctual and anti-intellectual; the other was deliberate and theoretical. One communicates via inarticulate bursts; the other wrote books for the ages. I imagine Huntington would be apprehensive about a commander-in-chief so indifferent to a foreign power’s assault on the U.S. electoral system, and one displaying so little of the work ethic and reverence for the rule of law that Huntington admired.

What makes the professor a prophet for our time is not just that his vision is partially reflected in Trump’s message and appeal, but that he understood well the dangers of the style of politics Trump practices.

Where they come together, I believe, is in their nostalgic and narrow view of American uniqueness. Huntington, like Trump, wanted America to be great, and came to long for a restoration of values and identity that he believed made the country not just great but a nation apart. However, if that path involves closing ourselves off, demonizing newcomers and demanding cultural fealty, then how different are we, really, from anywhere else? The central agony of the Trump era is that rather than becoming great, America is becoming unexceptional.

And that’s not a clash of civilizations. It’s a civilization crashing.

Books cited in this essay:

  • The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations by Samuel P. Huntington. Belknap Press. 534 pp. 1957.
  • Political Order in Changing Societies by Samuel P. Huntington. Yale University Press. 488 pp. 1968.
  • The Crisis of Democracy: Report on the Governability of Democracies to the Trilateral Commission by Michel Crozier, Samuel P. Huntington and Joji Watanuki. New York University Press. 220 pp. 1975.
  • American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony by Samuel P. Huntington. Belknap Press. 303 pp. 1981.
  • The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order by Samuel P. Huntington. Simon & Schuster. 368 pp. 1996.
  • Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity by Samuel P. Huntington. Simon & Schuster. 428 pp. 2004.
*Carlos Lozada is the nonfiction book critic of The Washington Post. He has also served as The Post’s economics editor, national security editor and Outlook editor. Previously, he was managing editor of Foreign Policy magazine. Follow @CarlosLozadaWP

Political Tribes review – an unreliable guide to the American Dream

March 2, 2018

Political Tribes review – an unreliable guide to the American Dream

Tiger mother Amy Chua is adept at spotting tribal behaviour, but less clear about what it all means

by Andrew Anthony

Amy Chua: looking at the role played by ethnic and tribal identity.
Amy Chua: looking at the role played by ethnic and tribal identity. Photograph: Steve Schofield for the Observer


To most readers who recognise the name, Amy Chua is the author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, the bestselling memoir about bringing up children under a strictly traditional regime of Chinese parenting. The book seemed to repel and inspire in equal measure. But leaving aside its personal testimony, it was a work that dared to tread on disputed and dangerous terrain: the advantage of certain ethno-cultural traits.

It’s an issue that can be found to varying degrees in all five of Chua’s books, including her latest, Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations. Chua, a Professor of Law at Yale Law School, believes that ethnic and tribal identity plays a more powerful role in national politics than has been previously acknowledged, at least by American foreign policy.

She cites the wars in Vietnam and Iraq as classic examples in which intranational differences were underestimated with catastrophic results. In Vietnam, she notes, “a hugely disproportionate number” of the country’s “capitalists” were ethnic Chinese, who were despised by the Vietnamese, both northern and southern.


Therefore, America’s pro-capitalist initiatives served mainly to inflame existing resentments. The mistake was repeated in Iraq, but this time with religious divisions. The reason for this political dereliction, she argues, is because of the self-image America blindly projects on to the rest of the world.

America tends to see itself as a democratic polity in which ethnic differences are subsumed into a shared identity. Which is to say that there may be African Americans, Chinese Americans and Italian Americans, but what counts above all is that they are Americans.

As she observes elsewhere in the book, this is as much a myth as a reality. Many African Americans do not feel “American” in the way that many white Americans take for granted. And here she suggests that while America has enjoyed great success as a melting pot, its failures – discrimination, injustice, inequality – stem from this unwillingness to recognise the importance of ethnic and tribal affinities.


As far as it goes, that’s a thesis that is unlikely to provoke a storm of dissent for the good reason that it’s large incontrovertible. However, it’s when Chua attempts to expand her argument into the ever more complex world of identity politics that the book begins to lose its way or, rather, the picture blurs into a series of on-the-one-hand, on-the-other hedges.

It’s partly because Chua tries to shoehorn international relations, domestic strife and campus activism into one overarching category of tribal impulses. But it’s also because that while she’s adept enough at diagnosing tribal behaviour, she doesn’t seem to have a clear idea about what to do about it beyond acknowledging its existence.

So yes, we can ruefully nod our heads when she quotes President Obama saying: “The degree of tribal division in Libya was greater than our analysts had expected”, but that doesn’t really tell us about how to deal with tribal societies other than, perhaps, to stay away from them. And it doesn’t tell us anything about the more modern kind of tribalism that is increasingly a feature of Anglo-American politics. As Chua notes: “Once identity politics gains momentum, it inevitably subdivides, giving rise to ever-proliferating group identities demanding recognition.” But should these identities – the “more than 50 gender designations”, for example, that Facebook now lists – be given recognition, much as the Obama administration recognised the 140 tribes that make up the Libyan people?

Image result for Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations by Amy Chua


She seems to imply that the current fragmentation of society, its breaking down into ever more tightly defined groups competing for recognition and power, is a recipe for conflict. And certainly there is little doubt that the progressive forces of the left that once sought an inclusive universalism are now increasingly devoted to an exclusionary discourse in which various markers of privilege – whiteness, maleness, able-bodiedness – are deemed as barriers to understanding and participation.

But if there is a way out of this cul-de-sac of victimhood, Chua hasn’t found it. “What holds the United States together,” she concludes in a confusing epilogue, “is the American Dream. But it must be a version of the dream that recognises past failure instead of denying it.”

It’s a suitably lame note on which to end a well-intentioned book that never quite comes together.

Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations by Amy Chua is published by Bloomsbury (£20).


BOOK REVIEW: David Frum–Trumpocracy: The Corruption of The American Republic

February 28, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: David Frum–Trumpocracy: The Corruption of The American Republic

by David Shribman



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Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic

Author: David Frum
Genre: Non-fiction
Publisher: Harper
Price: $28.75
Year: 2018

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Those six words, which could have been uttered by Paul Revere in 1775 or Winston Churchill in 1938, are an efficient summary of what David Frum, the Canadian-born conservative commentator, argues in Trumpocracy, written as a jeremiad against Donald Trump’s Presidency but fated to be a philosophical bookend to Fire and Fury, Michael Wolff’s sensational insider account of the Trump White House.

“The crisis is upon Americans, here and now,” Mr. Frum asserts in only the fourth paragraph of his new book, which carries the foreboding subtitle The Corruption of the American Republic. For the next 235 pages, Mr. Frum sets out his case against Mr. Trump, his worldview, his associates, his supporters, his enablers, his funders and his publicists. The result is a breathless but also breathtaking compilation of the mendacity and mistakes of the first year of the Trump ascendancy, a J’accuse for the second decade of the 21st century, a dark portent for the future – and a warning that despotism doesn’t necessarily begin with violent disruption.

It can come on little cat feet.



“The thing to fear from the Trump Presidency,” Mr. Frum asserts, “is not the bold overthrow of the Constitution, but the stealthy paralysis of governance; not the open defiance of law, but an accumulating subversion of norms; not the deployment of state power to intimidate dissidents, but the incitement of private violence to radicalize supporters.”

Verbatim: David Frum writes about how Trump turned his country into a headless giant

Mr. Frum is not, like Mr. Wolff, a gadfly with big ears and maybe a big Pinocchio nose. He is the rarest of alchemies: Canadian royalty (son of a beloved CBC broadcast journalist, brother of a Canadian senator) and American political analyst, known popularly for inserting the phrase “axis of evil” into George W. Bush’s 2002 State of the Union Address delivered before Congress and a nationally televised audience but also known, in the parlours of Washington, as a contemplative theorist. All of which makes the tone of Trumpocracy extraordinary. In the power corridors of the American capital, Mr. Frum whispers. In the pages of this book, he shouts.

He portrays Mr. Trump as an amateur, a charlatan, a con artist, a manipulator, a poseur, a serial fibber if not outright liar, a vulgarian, a swindler, a skimmer and a trimmer, a man-child lacking character, intelligence, integrity, judgment, clarity of thought, a coherent philosophy or a worldview and management and organizational skills.

His White House entourage, Mr. Frum argues, consists of a toxic combination of “bad people” and “weak people.” Plus this: “The Trump White House is a mess of careless slobs.” Mr. Frum has special enmity for conservatives he believes should have known better, for congressional leaders he believes should have stood stronger and for Republicans who should have thought harder about the man – hardly a conservative, contemptuous of congressional leaders, barely a Republican – to whom they delivered their greatest and most coveted prize, the Republican presidential nomination. Too late for that, of course.

While generally deriding or mocking TrumpWorld’s assault on the press – an especially raw topic both for writers of books and reviewers of them – Mr. Frum nonetheless sees the media as an unwitting accomplice to Trumpocracy, an unfelicitous but perhaps enduring term. “The traditional media’s commitment to ‘both sides of the story,’ ” he argues, “created within them an insatiable internal demand for positive comments about a president for whom there was otherwise so little good to say.” That is a topic for another book, and surely there is one – no, several – in the works. Watch this space.

On foreign policy, Mr. Frum is relentlessly critical of the President, arguing that Mr. Trump has made a dangerous departure from the post-Second World War consensus and, moreover, that the architects of that worldview “intended exactly the things that Donald Trump now complains about: that the United States would have to make concessions to smaller partners, that it would not act as judge in its own cases, that it would subordinate its parochial and immediate national interests to the larger and more enduring collective interest.” If this book had been written for a Canadian publisher rather than an American house, the name Lester B. Pearson might then immediately appear, perhaps weeping.

The isolationist President is himself isolated, a notion that even his staunchest defenders have not been able to wipe away. He is, in Mr. Frum’s view, “locked in a tiny circle by his distrust of outsiders.” In this – the isolation, not the isolationism – Mr. Trump is not alone, and here Richard Nixon comes to mind. And George W. Bush. And Barack Obama. And probably Mr. Trump’s successor, too, whenever that might occur. It’s an occupational hazard, even – perhaps especially – for populists.

Books like Mr. Frum’s are not unknown in every administration, though seldom produced so early in a presidency, seldom put forth by fellow party followers and seldom written with such mastery of the broader American political landscape. (Another is coming next week: How Democracies Die, from the Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt.) As a creditable part of that literary genre – a cri de coeur married to a call to action – the principal flaw of Mr. Frum’s book is that he is frustratingly stingy in relating his own role in conservative politics during the 2016 election season. Even so, he does offer a prescription for American redemption, which can be distilled down to this: Remember that a bully is a coward, and that democracy requires direct public involvement.

Through all of this – and truly this is a dark read – Mr. Frum does harbour some hope, a kind of Newtonian third law of physics applied to politics, with every Trump action inspiring an equal and opposite Resister reaction. “A new spirit of citizen responsibility,” Mr. Frum says, “is waking in the land.” If so, Mr. Frum may be remembered as one of the trumpeters playing Reveille.