A New Biography Presents Gandhi, Warts and All


October 15, 2018

By Alex von Tunzelmann

GANDHI
The Years That Changed the World, 1914-1948
By Ramachandra Guha
Illustrated. 1,083 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $40.

“The number of books that people write on this old man takes my breath away,” complained the politician B. R. Ambedkar of the proliferation of Gandhiana. That was in 1946.

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Ramachandra Guha  (pic above) must have smiled when he quoted that line in his new book, the second — and final — volume of his biography of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Few figures in history have been so extensively chronicled, including by himself (Gandhi’s own published collected works run to 100 volumes and over 50,000 pages). The really surprising thing is that there is still so much to say.

“Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World, 1914-1948,” encompassing both world wars and the struggle for Indian independence, is a portrait of a complex man whose remarkable tenacity remained constant, even when his beliefs changed. It is also extraordinarily intimate. Gandhi drew no distinction between his private and public life. He made his own body a symbol, mortifying it through fasting or marching for political and spiritual change. He even went public with his sexual life — and the negation of it through brahmacharya, or chastity.

It is difficult to write about a man who was a revered spiritual leader as well as a keen political operator. Guha, the author of “India After Gandhi” and “Gandhi Before India” (the first volume of the monumental biography that this book concludes), approaches Gandhi on his own terms while trying not to gloss over his flaws. Perhaps inevitably, with one who has been regarded almost as a saint, it is the flaws that will capture many readers’ attention. A key theme that emerges is Gandhi’s effort to control himself and those around him. This extended from his own family to his political allies and opponents.

 

The most compelling political relationship Guha reveals is the antagonism between Gandhi and the aforementioned B. R. Ambedkar, the pre-eminent politician of outcaste Hindus then known as “untouchables” and now as dalits. Guha’s book charts the two men’s interactions over decades, along with Gandhi’s own changing views on caste.

Even while he still saw some value in the caste system, Gandhi opposed untouchability. Guha is at pains to refute Arundhati Roy’s dismissal of Gandhi as a reactionary on caste. He details Gandhi’s exhaustive campaigns to allow untouchables into temples, and his many attempts to persuade other Hindus of his caste to accept them. Certainly, Gandhi did much brave and important work. Yet he still characterized untouchables as “helpless men and women” who required a savior — namely, him. As Guha says, Gandhi’s rhetoric “sounded patronizing, robbing ‘untouchables’ of agency, of being able to articulate their own demands and grievances.”

Image result for politician B. R. Ambedkar

Gandhi fought Ambedkar over establishing separate electorates for untouchables, arguing that these would “vivisect” Hinduism. “I want political power for my community,” Ambedkar explained. “That is indispensable for our survival.” Gandhi’s reply, as quoted by Guha, was that “you are born an untouchable but I am an untouchable by adoption. And as a new convert I feel more for the welfare of the community than those who are already there.” Gandhi cared passionately about untouchability: He repeatedly emphasized his willingness to die if that was what it took to end it. What he could not seem to do was let untouchables themselves take the lead.

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Some of the most interesting parts of this book concern another group Gandhi sought to instruct: women. Two sections in particular are likely to raise eyebrows. The first is Guha’s account of Gandhi’s relationship with the writer and singer Saraladevi Chaudhurani in 1919-20. Gandhi was, by then, celibate; both he and Sarala were married to other people. Yet their letters speak openly of desire — “You still continue to haunt me even in my sleep,” he wrote to her — and he told friends, “I call her my spiritual wife.” He signed his letters to her Law Giver, which, as Guha observes, was “a self-regarding appellation that reveals his desire to have Sarala conform to his ways.” Gandhi’s friends appear to have talked him out of making this “spiritual marriage” public. Eventually he distanced himself, confessing that he did not have the “infinitely higher purity” in practice “that I possess in thought” to maintain a “marriage” that was perfectly spiritual.

The secon section that will provoke controversy tackles an even more sensitive subject: Gandhi’s notorious brahmacharya experiments, beginning in 1946. When Gandhi was involved with Sarala, he was 50 and she was 47, a mature woman exercising her own free will. Nearly three decades later, when he was 77, he made the decision to “test” his vow of chastity by sleeping in a bed with his teenage grandniece, Manu Gandhi.

Manu was vulnerable. She had lost her mother at a young age and had been taken in by Gandhi and his wife (who was deceased by the time the “experiments” started). Manu grew up in an ashram in which everyone was devoted to her great-uncle. She wrote a diary mentioning the “experiments” that Guha quotes, though it is a compromised source: Gandhi read it as Manu wrote it and his own writing appears in the margins.

Guha has found a letter written by Horace Alexander, a close friend of Gandhi’s. Alexander said that Gandhi told him Manu wanted to test her own vow of chastity. Guha suggests that this puts a new light on the “experiments,” and that Manu may have become involved partly to deter another man who was pursuing her romantically: “There may have been, as it were, two sides to the story. Both Gandhi and Manu may have wanted to go through this experiment, or ordeal. To be sure, there was a certain amount of imposition — from his side.”

That caveat is important, for, as Guha allows, there was an enormous power differential between Gandhi and Manu. It is not clear that the letter from Alexander changes how we view the “experiments”: He spoke only to Gandhi, not Manu. In the wake of #MeToo, we know that the powerful may delude themselves about the willingness of those they manipulate, and that their less powerful victims may go along with things they do not want because they are overwhelmed by the status of their abuser.

Lest anyone think this applies modern standards to a historical event, Guha provides extensive evidence of the horrified reaction of many of Gandhi’s friends and followers at the time. Most were appalled that a young woman should be used as an instrument in an “experiment,” and some of his political allies, like Vallabhbhai Patel, feared it would become a scandal. At least one, the stenographer R. P. Parasuram, left Gandhi’s entourage when Gandhi refused to stop sharing a bed with Manu.

Guha does as much as any reasonable biographer could to explain the “experiments” with reference to Gandhi’s 40-year obsession with celibacy. Ultimately, though, the reader is left feeling that Gandhi’s own defenses of his behavior are riddled with self-justification, and Manu’s voice may never truly be heard.

Gandhi posed a huge challenge to his world in his time, and still does. Guha’s admiration for his subject is clear throughout this book. He tries to explain controversial aspects of Gandhi’s life by contextualizing them within Gandhi’s own thinking. Some of Gandhi’s fiercer critics may feel this is soft-pedaling, but it does help build a fair, thorough and nuanced portrait of the man. Gandhi spoke for himself more than most people in history, but even the most controlling people cannot control how history sees them. Guha lets Gandhi appear on his own terms, and allows him to reveal himself in all his contradictions.

There is much truth in a verse Guha quotes, written by Gandhi’s secretary, Mahadev Desai:

To live with the saints in heaven
Is a bliss and a glory
But to live with a saint on earth
Is a different story.

Alex von Tunzelmann is the author of “Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire.”

 

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page 15 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Gandhi, Private and Public. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

Khoo Salma Nasution: The Pride of Penang


October 15, 2018

Malaysians Kini

Khoo Salma Nasution: The Pride of Penang

by Koh Jun Lin  |www.malaysiakini.com
  • Khoo Salma

MALAYSIANSKINI | George Town native Khoo Salma Nasution @ Khoo Su Nin, 55, wears many hats in championing the Penang capital’s colonial era heritage.

She was the President of Penang Heritage Trust, and prior to that was involved in the group’s successful lobbying to the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) to list George Town as a World Cultural Heritage Site in 2008.

Khoo Salma has written multiple books about Penang’s history, some of which were published through the publishing house Areca Books that she co-founded with her husband Abdur-Razzaq Lubis in 2004.

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One of her books, The Chulia in Penang that talks about the Indian Muslim community on the island, had gone on to win the International Conference of Asia Scholars (ICAS) book prize in 2015.

She is also a custodian of the Sun Yat Sen Museum in Penang, which was once the house of her grandfather, Ch’ng Teong Swee.

In campaigning to preserve Penang’s heritage, Khoo Salma lobbied against over development, swiftlet nest farming, gentrification and the Penang Pan-Island Link highway project.

She had even served a one-and-half-year stint as Penang city councillor, beginning in 2017 as the representative of the NGO, Penang Forum, in the Penang Island City Council.

But the road to becoming a heritage activist – or indeed what to do at all – wasn’t clear at first when Khoo Salma left Duke University with her liberal arts degree in 1985.

This is her story in her own words:

I was born in Penang – Khaw Sim Bee Road – in 1963, so I’m Penang Hokkien. I have one sister; an elder sister. The lingua franca (in Penang) was Hokkien and it’s very much you feel like this is your hometown; the streets have lots of trees; if you want to go to Seberang Prai you take a ferry; you can do shopping along Penang Road or Campbell Street, in those days there were no shopping malls. Once awhile, you take a beca (trishaw) because that’s the means of transport.

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I went to St George’s Girls’ School, and then I took liberal arts at Duke University – kind of mixture of philosophy, psychology and visual arts.

I always wanted to be a writer, but I have two kinds of… One is visual. I’m a very visual person, but also, I wanted to be a writer. So, there were two things that I wanted to pursue. But in the end, I’m doing more writing but still I’m involved in books, in the design of books, and mapping.

I didn’t mix that much with Malaysians (while in the US), but there was one meeting with Malaysians in Boston where everybody said, “Oh, we must go back to Malaysia and do something.” That’s what I did, but then I found that a lot of people, from that generation, didn’t come back to Malaysia.

So, in the 1980s, many of us took something called Development Studies. Malaysia is depicted as the Third World. So how do you develop the Third World? You try to think about what it is that the country needs. Of course, people who are scientists will contribute in that sense.

But when I came back I knew I wanted to do something for Malaysia, but I wasn’t sure what it was. After a few years I found that, you know, what I wanted to do was to get people to appreciate Malaysian heritage, and especially built heritage. So, my strength is in understanding heritage conservation.

I felt that something that you know… It’s like you really feel that there is a need to do something or a need for something to be recognised, but people don’t recognise it. So, when I came back I wasn’t aware of this and took for granted my surroundings. But after I had travelled a bit came back, I said that, “Actually, Penang has a very nice built environment”.

In the late 1980s, people didn’t really appreciate it. Penang is a port, but by that time we had lost our port status around 1970. I understood that Penang was an important port and that’s why the buildings that were built were quite well-endowed; I mean they were very well built. They were built for people who were very affluent.

We are talking about… Let’s say the late-19th century up to the middle of the 20th century – up to the Second World War. So, you have this kind of Victorian or Edwardian-era buildings – which during the colonial era – the wealth came from the port trade.

But nobody knows. When you ask people, they don’t quite know what this trade was about, or who were the people who came through the port. The city was built because of the trade, but people didn’t quite understand it as a historical process. They were living in it, but they couldn’t describe it because everybody could only see a small part of it.

So, that piqued my curiosity.

I was actually a freelance writer and I was devoting a lot of time to the Penang Heritage Trust, which I joined in 1989. At that time, I was 26 years old. I was the honorary secretary. I was doing a lot volunteer work for the Penang Heritage Trust and was very interested in conservation.

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Although I’m not an architect, I took all these courses on heritage conservation. At that time, not many architects were interested in heritage conservation, but I was very interested. And so I felt that I was spearheading interest in this field.

We organised talks and invited people to speak and introduce this whole idea that all these old buildings are not going to be one day replaced by new buildings. You must learn how to take care of them. That was my main role.

And then in the 1990s we tried to change the tourism paradigm by saying that tourists don’t just want to look at beaches. Actually, they would appreciate looking at the city because the city is different.

In 1998 we invited the Unesco regional advisor for culture to come and look at Penang and he said: “You should do something about it. You have not only cultural diversity, but you have – in some cases – cultures that have blended and fused and it’s something quite unique.” And so, then, we started this whole World Heritage nomination process, which ended with Unesco listing George Town as a World heritage Site in 2008. It took about 10 years to achieve this.

I was doing a lot of freelance writing. It’s kind of very frustrating to wait for opportunities, right? Actually, both my parents are teachers, so I had to learn how to do business the hard way. I’m kind of allergic to numbers… but both my husband and I are writers. My husband wrote this book Sutan Puasa: Founder of Kuala Lumpur. And then we moved on, and set up Areca Books.

We published our friends’ books and sometimes our books because what we write is very specialised and there’s no mainstream publisher who’s willing to publish something like that. Even if they were, they would say, “Oh why is it so specialised? Why don’t you write for a more general audience?” But this is what we don’t want to do.

We know that there are niche things that appeal to certain people. It’s kind of a knowledge that we want to share; certain knowledge that other people have also shared with us, so we ought to share it with other people. And to write narratives about our history, to help shape our understanding of Malaysian history.

I think my most successful book so far is something I wrote in 1993. It’s called Streets of George Town, which, in a way, started up the whole interest in what is now the World Heritage Site. That was 25 years ago.

It was basically telling the story of the streets. At that time, we didn’t have that much, and we didn’t know that much history. I mean it was a bit patchy, right? So, one way of putting it together was to go street-by-street. It’s a mixture of urban legends and some architecture. It’s quite a bit anecdotal.

Anyway, before that I was the editor of Pulau Pinang Magazine. That was a magazine about the culture and local way of life. So, it’s just to make Penang people conscious that they have something. At the time we didn’t think, “Oh it’s a unique product or whatever”, but you know, it’s something that is to be appreciated.

So then, after Streets of George Town, I wrote a few more books. But the one that won the prize is like a serious, a bit academic, book, which took a long time.

It took me like 17 years to write the book. But I did other things during that time. I didn’t just stop for 17 years but I started 17 years earlier and then I couldn’t finish it. So, I abandoned it, did something else, and it came back to it. So that one is called The Chulia in Penang, and that one won ICAS award.

 

Actually, my main passion is urban history. Basically, it’s understanding the built environment and the history of how the whole thing… How the city grew. So, you have to use maps, old pictures, and all that to reconstruct and also understand what were the economic drivers of that urban growth. I have a small group of friends that we’d just get together and then we just talk about these obscure things that nobody else seems to appreciate.

But what is great about George Town is that you could still read it. You know you can read the city like a book. You can look at something and you can try to understand what happened and then, when something was done. In Kuala Lumpur it’s very difficult because it’s been so overdeveloped with highways and all that. With Penang today, you can still get the feeling of… I mean even though things have changed, but the context has remained the same. You can still feel the context.

Moving forward? Oh, I have to work on another book on Penang, actually. I was starting to do that. Like a general book, not… I think Chulia one is too specialised for most people, but a general book on Penang is needed because now I know so much more than I did 25 years ago. And then when this environmental impact assessment report (on the Pan-Island Link) was released, I had to stop and just focus on fighting the highway.

So, I’m working on a general book on Penang, which I hope to bring out… I hope I can still finish it by early next year.


MALAYSIANS KINI is a series on Malaysians you should know

Michael Lewis Makes a Story About Government Infrastructure Exciting


If someone had asked you a few weeks ago whether former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie would ever be depicted as a beleaguered hero in a Michael Lewis book, it would have been reasonable to say the chances were low — lower, even, than Christie’s abysmal approval ratings when he left office earlier this year. Christie, after all, hasn’t done much to endear himself to the American public; early in 2016, his surprise endorsement of Donald J. Trump (who once called Christie a “little boy”) looked like the desperate move of a politician whose office was still smoldering from a payback scandal.

But it’s 2018 in America, where anything can happen and everything is relative, and the opening pages of Lewis’s new book, “The Fifth Risk,” have Christie acting like an upright statesman during the run-up to the 2016 election, hoping to convince a chaotic Trump campaign to devise an orderly transition plan in case of victory. Lewis says this was like trying to persaude Trump that he needed to study for a test he might never take. Christie was soon dismissed from Trump’s team, and the transition proceeded accordingly — which is to say, shambolically. Two years later, out of more than 700 key government positions requiring Senate confirmation, only 361 have been confirmed, and a full 152 have no nominee at all.

“Many of the problems our government grapples with aren’t particularly ideological,” Lewis writes, by way of moseying into what his book is about. He identifies these problems as the “enduring technical” variety, like stopping a virus or taking a census. Lewis is a supple and seductive storyteller, so you’ll be turning the pages as he recounts the (often surprising) experiences of amiable civil servants and enumerating risks one through four (an attack by North Korea, war with Iran, etc.) before you learn that the scary-sounding “fifth risk” of the title is — brace yourself — “project management.”

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CreditPatricia Wall/The New York Times

Lewis has a reputation for taking fairly arcane subjects — high finance, sovereign debt, baseball statistics, behavioral economics — and making them not just accessible but entertaining. He does the same here with government bureaucracy, though “The Fifth Risk” feels a little underdone compared to some of his previous books. Two of its three parts appeared as articles in Vanity Fair; the other as an audiobook original. Those pieces might have been written under deadline, but even with extra time to smooth things out, Lewis has elected to preserve some clunkers: Silence is still “deafening,” poverty still comes “in many flavors” and Lewis still decides “to kill two birds with one stone.”

 

For the most part, though, he keeps the narrative moving, rendering even the most abstruse details of government risk assessment in the clearest (and therefore most terrifying) terms. He asks a handful of former public servants, now living as private civilians, what they fear might happen if Trump continues his haphazard approach to staffing the federal government. Their answers include an accidental nuclear catastrophe and the privatization of public goods, like government loans and drinking water.

One danger to the proper functi


oning of federal agencies is a combination of incompetence and neglect. Lewis reports how the Trump team filled jobs at the Department of Agriculture with a number of decidedly nonagricultural nonexperts, including a country-club cabana attendant and the owner of a scented-candle company.

But this kind of bumbling patronage, according to Lewis, is only one part of the Trump method. The other involves bringing in what looks suspiciously like a wrecking crew. Trump has repeatedly placed essential agencies under the leadership of individuals who have previously called for the elimination of the same agency, or else a radical limit to its authority.

Take, for example, Barry Myers, Trump’s nominee for the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Myers also happens to be chief executive of AccuWeather, his family’s company. As a private citizen, Myers lobbied to prevent NOAA’s National Weather Service from having direct contact with the public, saying that “the government should get out of the forecasting business” — despite the fact that AccuWeather repackaged free government weather data and sold it for a profit.

 

With Myers in charge, Lewis says “the dystopic endgame is not difficult to predict: the day you get only the weather forecast you pay for.”

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Michael LewisCreditTabitha Soren

Lewis leavens all the doomsaying with some (darkly) funny bits. A woman astronaut recalls that male NASA technicians were so flummoxed by the prospect of menstruation in space that they offered her a kit of a hundred tampons for a short journey. The wrappers had been removed and the tampons sealed in little red cases, strung together in an “endless unfurling” that she likened to a “bad stage act.”

What Lewis doesn’t do is delve too deeply into politics, preferring instead to focus our attention on technical functions of government that everyone takes for granted. This tack will undoubtedly make the book more appealing to some of the government skeptics (i.e. conservatives) who are traditionally part of his enormous audience, but it also leaves the book with an analytical weakness. As Lewis’s narrow depiction of Christie inadvertently shows, technical know-how isn’t nearly enough. You can have a detailed understanding of the technocratic workings of government and still be, politically speaking, extremely unhelpful to the public you’re supposed to serve.

Lewis undoubtedly knows this, and as a storyteller he had to put limits somewhere. Besides, when the polar ice caps melt and the world is in flames, Democrat, Republican — none of that will matter anymore. Lewis himself seems to swing from civic optimism to abject nihilism, sometimes within the same perfect sentence. As he says about the imposing, brutalist building that houses the Department of Energy: “It will make an excellent ruin.”

Follow Jennifer Szalai on Twitter: @jenszalai.

The Fifth Risk
By Michael Lewis
221 pages. W.W. Norton & Company. $26.95.

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A version of this article appears in print on , on Page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: Dangers Nestled in Arcana. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper |

Can we choose our own identity?


September 9, 2018

Can we choose our own identity?

Caitlyn Jenner is a trans woman, ‘asexual for now’; Rachel Dolezal identifies as black. Who owns your identity, and how can old ways of thinking be replaced?

Butterfly design by Lee Martin for Review story by Kwame Anthony Appiah
What could be more personal than the question of who you are? Illustration: Lee Martin/Guardian Design Team

In April 2015, after a long and very public career, first as a male decathlete, then as a reality TV star, Caitlyn Jenner announced to the world she was a trans woman. Asked about her sexuality, Jenner explained that she had always been heterosexual, and indeed she had fathered six children in three marriages. She understood, though, that many people were confused about the distinction between sexual orientation and gender identity, and so she said: “Let’s go with ‘asexual’ for now.”

Isn’t it up to her? What could be more personal than the question of who she is – what she is? Isn’t your identity, as people often say, “your truth”? The question is straightforward; the answer is anything but. And that’s because a seismic fault line runs through contemporary talk of identity, regularly issuing tremors and quakes. Your identity is meant to be the truth of who you are. But what’s the truth about identity?

An identity, at its simplest, is a label we apply to ourselves and to others. Your gender. Your sexuality. Your class, nationality, ethnicity, region, religion, to start a list of categories. (Raise your hand if you are a straight, male, working-class, Afro-Latinx evangelical US southerner.) Labels always come with rules of ascription. When we apply a label to ourselves, we’re accepting that we have some qualifying trait – say, Latin or African ancestry, male or female sex organs, attractions to one gender or another, the right to a German passport.

More important, there are things we believe we should feel and think and do as a result. Identities, for the people who have them, are not inert facts; they are living guides. Women and men dress the way they do in part because they’re women and men. Given that we connect these labels with our behaviour, it’s natural to expect other people to do the same. And that means we’re going to have to tell other people not just which labels they can claim, but what they must do if they are to fit our labels. So identities don’t just affect our own behaviour; they help determine how we treat other people.

At the same time, all the ascription conditions here are contested. Are you a trans woman if you haven’t transitioned? Is someone with seven European great-grandparents and one African one truly black? Would a Daughter of the American Revolution who renounced her American citizenship still be an American? So are the associated norms of behaviour: is a reform Jew less Jewish than an orthodox one? Is an effeminate man less of a man? Because identity, in the sense we typically use it these days, is a social category – something shared with vast numbers of other people – everything is up for negotiation and nothing is determined by individual fiat. In this sense, identity is at once loose and tight.

Caitlyn Jenner has always been heterosexual but understands that many people confuse sexual orientation and gender identity.
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Caitlyn Jenner has always been heterosexual but understands that many confuse sexual orientation and gender identity. Photograph: NBCUniversal

To say that the borders are contested is also to say that they are policed. Boys who default from gender norms of behaviour are deemed “sissies”; girls are “tomboys”. Some old-guard radical feminists, such as Ti-Grace Atkinson, Marge Piercy and Faith Ringgold, have suggested that trans women aren’t really women. Black authenticity, too, is a perennial battleground. Here’s Pusha T on Drake, in a recent, widely publicised rap beef: “Confused, always felt you weren’t Black enough / Afraid to grow it ’cause your ’fro wouldn’t nap enough.” Latinos sometimes hurl the insult “coconut” at other Latinos who “act white”, suggesting that deep down they’re not Latino at all.

So, in a liberal spirit, we could wonder: why not ditch the guards and adopt an open-border policy? Why not agree that people are whatever they say they are? We could follow the lead of Humpty Dumpty in Alice in Wonderland:

“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory’,” Alice said. Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t – till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’” “But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’,” Alice objected. “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

By the logic of Humpty Dumpty, everyone should be able to assume whatever identity they choose. There’s glory for you.

Or maybe not. Like all the words in our language, the identity labels we use are a common possession. Were everybody to follow Humpty Dumpty’s example, we simply couldn’t understand one another. If Toni Morrison isn’t a black woman, the term isn’t doing any work. The ability to apply identity labels in a broadly consistent way is what allows us to use them to tell people who someone is, and so, in particular, to tell others who we are ourselves. It’s because there’s some agreement about menswear that “man” is a useful label when you’re shopping. And labelling ourselves only helps others if it can guide expectations about what we will think, or feel, or do. “Lesbian” isn’t much use if you’re looking for a partner on Bumble unless it signifies a woman who might be open to sex with another woman.

If identity continues to vex us, we should bear in mind that this usage of the term is historically recent. Until the middle of the 20th century, in fact, nobody who was asked about a person’s identity would have mentioned race, sex, class, nationality, region or religion. When George Eliot writes in Middlemarch that Rosamond “was almost losing the sense of her identity”, it’s because she is faced with profoundly new experiences when she learns that the man she thinks she loves is hopelessly devoted to someone else. Identity here is totally personal.

Then sociologists such as Erik Erikson and Alvin Gouldner introduced the modern sense of the term in the 1950s and 60s. In recent decades, identity has exploded as a political theme; identity groups, especially marginalised ones, sought recognition and respect precisely as bearers of an identity. Yet talk of social identities – the identity of “identity politics” – often rubbed up against these earlier notions of authenticity. Hence the faultline I mentioned. Don’t try to tell me who I am: this motto will have power as long as Eliot’s sense of an innermost self contends with the modern sense of identity as a vehicle and vector of recognition.

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Not all identities fit their bearers like a glove; sometimes we’re talking oven mitts. Over the years and around the world, taxi drivers, putting their expertise to the test, have sized me up. In São Paulo, I’ve been taken for a Brazilian and addressed in Portuguese; in Cape Town, I’ve been taken for a “Coloured” person; in Rome, for an Ethiopian; and one London cabbie refused to believe I didn’t speak Hindi. The Parisian who thought I was from Belgium perhaps took me for a Maghrebi; and, wearing a kaftan, I’ve faded into a crowd in Tangier. Puzzled by the combination of my accent and my appearance, once our ride is under way, taxi drivers regularly ask me where I was born. “In London,” I tell them, but that’s not what they really want to know. What they mean to ask is where my family came from originally. They’re wondering about my ancestry and all that might come with it.

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‘Not all identities fit their bearers like a glove; sometimes we’re talking oven mitts’ … Kwame Anthony Appiah. Photograph: Richard Ansett/BBC

The answer to the question of origins is that I come from two families in two places pretty far apart. My mother was English, a countrywoman at heart, who in the 1950s was working for an anti-racist organisation in London that supported colonial students. It was called Racial Unity. That was how she met my father, a law student from Ghana (then the Gold Coast). He was an anticolonial activist, the president of the West African Students’ Union, and a British representative of Dr Kwame Nkrumah, who was to lead Ghana to independence in 1957. You might say she practised what she preached.

My father raised us with stories of his family, and one of the names he gave me, Akroma-Ampin, was that of the illustrious 18th-century general who founded his lineage. In a sense, though, it wasn’t really our family. Just as my mother’s people, being patrilineal, thought you belonged to your father’s family, my father’s, being matrilineal, thought you belonged to your mother’s. I could have told those taxi drivers I had no family at all.

“Identities,” the cultural theorist Stuart Hall once observed, “are the different names we give to the different ways we are positioned by, and position ourselves within the narratives of the past.” Yet it’s also true that the labels can sometimes displace the narrative. In the case of my “racial” ancestry, efficient identity experts come up with a summary: black father, white mother, grew up in Ghana and England – got it. I recall attending a sports day, a few decades ago, at a school in Dorset I’d attended as a preteen, and meeting the now elderly man who had been headmaster in my day. “You won’t remember me,” I apologised, as I introduced myself to him. Hearing my name, he brightened and took my hand warmly. “Of course I remember you,” he said. “You were our first coloured head boy.” That wasn’t a formulation that would have occurred to me at the time; but inasmuch as identities are social, my formulations weren’t the only ones that mattered.

And precisely because social identities continue to be shadowed by that precursor sense of an innermost self, the dance on the borderlines of identity can be delicate. Shaun King, the Black Lives Matters activist, speaks, dresses and wears his hair in ways that are marked as black. When reports circulated that both the parents cited on his birth certificate were white (though, not his biological father), his wife responded with an artful online post, calling his story “beautifully difficult”, and declaring: “What’s white about him is white, and what’s Black about him is Black and always has been from the time he was a child.” In other words, accept the mystery.

Mostly, people have. But there are limit cases. A much-loved episode of Donald Glover’s TV series Atlanta presents a mock reported segment about “Harrison Booth”, a black teenager (birth name: Antoine Smalls), who identifies as a 35-year-old white man. Preparing for his transition, he wears a button-down Oxford shirt, wanders through farmers’ markets, plays golf, and asks a bartender: “What IPA do you have on tap?”

In the real world, the German model Martina Adam has announced that she has transitioned to black (with the help of melanin-promoting hormones and various filler injections) and, citing a baptismal ceremony she underwent in Kenya, is to be called Malaika Kubwa. The public response was no more supportive than that which greeted the retired baseball great Sammy Sosa when he dramatically whitened his once dark visage.

There is a rich imaginative literature on African American “passing”, a groaning shelf that includes James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex‑Colored Man (1912), Nella Larsen’s Passing (1929) and Philip Roth’s The Human Stain (2000). There’s also a rich tradition of such passing; millions of white Americans have unsuspected black ancestry. Going from white to black isn’t nearly as common. But most people knew how they felt about Rachel Dolezal, who, carefully permed and tanned, had officially identified herself as black and spent a year running the Spokane chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, until she resigned amid suspicions that she’d fabricated reports of hate crimes she’d suffered. When her white midwestern parents outed her and sparked headlines, one black commentator suggested that Dolezal embraced “an a la carte blackness, in which you take the best parts, and leave the pain aside”. Dolezal now says she identifies as black, but not as African American. That’s a bid, though; it doesn’t count if there are no takers.

That identity is contested, then, doesn’t mean it’s up for grabs. We don’t own our words; other people get a say.

***

Identity norms are enforced in myriad ways, and the work that goes into entrenching them reveals their vulnerability. The fact that identities need to have some common meaning doesn’t require that we leave them just as they are. It’s obvious that conceptions of gender half a century ago suited some people better than others. No doubt many middle-class women were and are perfectly happy as managers of households and primary caregivers for children. (No doubt this arrangement suited many men, too.) But it left lots of women unsatisfied. The women’s movement challenged ideas about the proper places of women in the home and outside. Now, in much of the developed world, we mostly agree that sharing parenting more equally doesn’t make a woman less of a woman, or a man less of a man, and though the ideal of workplace equality remains unrealised, it is no longer controversial.

Rachel Dolezal at home in Spokane, WA, on 4 December 2015
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Rachel Dolezal says she identifies as black but not as African American. Photograph: Annie Kuster for the Guardian

Being a real man or woman once meant being straight. That suited many people, but it was deeply unsatisfactory for those women and men who found their erotic attractions were to people of their own sex. A movement gained momentum in the North Atlantic world, and engaged in a long project of reshaping the general understanding of gender, so that being homosexual was no longer a defective way of being a man or woman. But in those long struggles, the advance guard of these movements couldn’t simply declare a new meaning for womanhood or manhood. They had to negotiate with others, women with men but also with other women, gay people with straight people but also with one another, to try to reconfigure the shared understandings that shape the opportunities available to us. The trans movement is a predictable extension of these earlier struggles.

When people responded to Jenner by saying she was just a man pretending to be a woman, they weren’t just being discourteous and unkind: they were taking the meaning of the words “man” and “woman” as fixed and non-negotiable and insisting on their right to use them as they always had. That’s what Republican legislators in North Carolina were doing when they passed a law in March 2016 denying trans people the right to use public bathrooms of the identity they claimed for themselves. When the Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump declared that Jenner could use any bathroom she chose at Trump Tower, Jenner, who supported him in the race, took him up on his offer, posting a video of herself entering a women’s room. It was an argument about rights, but it was also an argument about language.

At the same time, talk of the “LGBTQ community” sometimes runs aground because it seems to treat gender identity as akin to sexual orientation, and many trans activists are especially concerned to head off any confusion between the two. That’s why many transgender people would like to remove the “T” in “LGBT”. In the words of one Belfast-based trans woman columnist: “It’s not a sexuality. It’s a gender. It makes no more sense being included with LGB than if you were to add ‘female’ in there.” She explains that she’s now heterosexual, and asks, “when talking about issues that concern sexuality why is transgender included?” When trans women such as Jenner or the Wachowskis, the illustrious film-making siblings, decline to identify as lesbian, they may be responding to a sense that their gender identity should be considered separately from their sexual or affectional orientation.

***

“What I want to do is to widen the bandwidth of gender,” says Alex Drummond, the Cardiff psychologist and author and a trans woman, who decided to keep her beard, while also forgoing surgery or hormones. Drummond, who identifies as lesbian, told BuzzFeed: “If all you ever see is trans women who completely pass and are completely convincing as natal females, then those of us who just don’t have that kind of luck won’t have the confidence to come out.” (Most trans women have not had genital surgery, according to a recent survey by the American National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.) Her project of “gender queering” hasn’t met universal acceptance; one trans woman writer has likened her to “the older, oversized bully” who “throws himself into the toddlers’ sandpit and kicks everyone else out”. Did I mention quakes and tremors?

But a conversation – a negotiation – has begun, gloriously. Every day, men negotiate with one another about what masculinity means. And not just men. “Man” and “woman” are part of a system of interacting identities. Nor, for that matter, can black and white and Asian and brown racial identities be negotiated separately by black and white and Asian and brown people. That’s why we have to resist the liberal fantasy in which identities are merely chosen, so we are all free to be what we choose to be. In truth, identities without demands would be lifeless. Identities work only because, once they get their grip on us, they command us, speaking to us as an inner voice; and because others, seeing who they think we are, call on us, too. If you do not care for the shapes your identities have taken, you have to work with others inside and outside the labelled group in order to reframe them so they fit you better; and you can do that collective work only if you recognise that the results must serve others as well.

Butterfly design by Lee Martin for Review story by Kwame Anthony Appiah
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Photograph: Lee Martin/Guardian Design Team

There will soon be 8 billion of us on this planet, and the chances are slim that every one of us will find that the particular set of identities in the society into which we are born perfectly fits our needs. Conflicts are inevitable, because a system of identities that fits snugly around me will not perfectly suit everyone else. Changing the old gender system that gave pride of place to the middle-class female homemaker and the male breadwinner involved making some people uncomfortable not least because, in the new configuration, their existing options were no longer seen as the unique and honoured ideal. The old racial system that we have gradually tried to dismantle in the United States offered something to all white people, namely the sense that, however little money or power or status they had, they were, at least, better than black people. This was not, evidently, great for black people. Not a few white people were discomfited by it, too; their sense of justice was offended by it – they didn’t want whiteness to mean that. In some of the darker recesses of the internet, meanwhile, enthusiasts for the idea of Anglo-America as the home of the white race make it plain that the old dispensation suited them better. You might think there is no space here for compromise.

But in our renegotiations of race, there are in fact compromises available. White people are entitled to ask that they not be assumed to be bigots or blamed for the racism of other whites. They can choose to distance themselves from the privileges of whiteness by refusing them when they see them – and by learning to see them more often. Black people can recognise that, since the system of racial identities is made by all of us, it’s absurd to blame individual white people for the privileges they experience. Privilege is not something an individual is guilty of. But, when it’s unjust, it is something you ought to help undo. And in that process you’ll discover that our identities can only become more livable for everyone if we work on the task of reshaping them together.

So, too, when Caitlyn Jenner offered to “go with ‘asexual’ for now”, she was recognising that to get to where she wanted to go, she might have to compromise with others. It may not have been the best offer to make, but she was right to see that she had to start the bidding. Let’s see what we can negotiate tomorrow.

Kwame Anthony Appiah’s The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity is published by Profile. To order a copy for £12.74 (RRP £14.99) go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

New York Times Book Review: What is Identity?


August 28, 2018

New York Times Book Review: What’s Identity?

IDENTITY
The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment
By Francis Fukuyama
218 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $26.

THE LIES THAT BIND
Rethinking Identity: Creed, Country, Color, Class, Culture
By Kwame Anthony Appiah
256 pp. Liveright Publishing. $27.95.

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A Japanese-American political scientist and a Ghanaian-British-American philosopher (picture above) walk into a bar where a brawl over identity is underway. “Stop fighting!” the philosopher cries. “The identities you’re fighting for are lies.” The political scientist steps forward. “They’re not lies,” he says. “They’re just the wrong identities to be fighting for!”

The scholars succeed in ending the conflict, because the brawlers leave for a less contentious bar.

The political scientist in my meh joke is Francis Fukuyama, who famously declared “the end of history,” and then, when history continued, said it depends on what the meaning of the word “end” is. The philosopher is Kwame Anthony Appiah, a cosmopolitan by background and choice who argues that we are all citizens of the world. The bar, sadly, is our brawling country — and others like it.

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Here are a couple of sage Ph.D.s seeing if they might intervene in the identity wars now plaguing so many nations. Both books belong to one of today’s most important genres: the Not-About-Trump-But-Also-Sort-Of-About-Trump, or N.A.T.B.A.S.O.A.T., book. There is a hunger to understand this moment, but from a remove.

And both books help explain so much more than Trump. #MeToo. White nationalism. Hindu nationalism. Black Lives Matter. Campus debates about privilege and appropriation. Syria. Islamism. The spread of populism and retreat of democracy worldwide. The rise of the far right in Europe. The rise of the far left in the United States. All these phenomena throb with questions of identity, of “Who am I?” and “To what do I belong?” Appiah and Fukuyama seek out answers.

Appiah believes we’re in wars of identity because we keep making the same mistake: exaggerating our differences with others and our similarities with our own kind. We think of ourselves as part of monolithic tribes up against other tribes, whereas we each contain multitudes. Fukuyama, less a cosmopolitan and more a nation-state guy, has greater sympathy for people clinging to differences. He thinks it a natural response to our age — but also seems to believe that if we don’t find a way to subsume narrow identities into national ones, we’re all going to die.

Appiah begins “The Lies That Bind” by observing that he, a man of ambiguous identity, is constantly asked, “What are you?” His book is an exploration of why people feel a need to pin identities down — to essentialize — and how to escape the pinning.

Appiah’s project is to point out our most common errors in thinking about five types of identity, all conveniently beginning with the letter “c”: creed, country, color, class and culture. (This gimmick lends proof to his cosmopolitan idea: A British-born philosopher can also be an American salesman.)

Among the errors we make: On “c” No. 1, creed, we tend to think of religions as “sets of immutable beliefs” instead of as “mutable practices and communities.” We make religion a noun when it should really be a verb, which gives rise to fundamentalism. When religion is “revealed as an activity, not a thing,” it is easier to accept that “it’s the nature of activities to bring change.”

On country, we create “a forced choice between globalism and patriotism.” We prefer people with simple answers to the question “What are you?”; we disparage and deport those Appiah calls “the confessors of ambivalence.” We often forget that a modern, pluralist, liberal democracy like America is “not a fate but a project.”

On culture, he argues that we should “give up the very idea of Western civilization,” because the notion of a distinct Western essence — “individualistic and democratic and liberty-minded and tolerant and progressive and rational and scientific” — ignores basic facts about the West and everywhere else. But just as people on the left finish clapping at that, he decries the left’s complaints about “cultural appropriation,” because culture is too complex to have a clear chain of title and, he says, because “those who parse these transgressions in terms of ownership have accepted a commercial system that’s alien to the traditions they aim to protect.”

Appiah’s writing is often fresh, even beautiful: 19th-century scientists who tried to make the non-thing of race a thing were being “recruited to give content to color.” Fair warning, however: This book also traffics in a disconcerting amount of philosopher-speak — both the signposting tics of “I aim to persuade you that…” and substantive sentences like “Scholarly exegesis can also run athwart older ecclesiastic interpretations,” which risk turning away many who need this book.

If Appiah has a blind spot, it is in assuming that everyone can be as comfortably cosmopolitan as he. He quotes the Roman playwright Terence: “I am human, I think nothing human alien to me.” “Now there’s an identity that should bind us all,” he writes. But this vision is afflicted by the same misappraisal of others that Barack Obama’s father made when he returned to Kenya and dismissed its tribalisms as parochial and ended up a failure, according to Obama’s aunt. “If everyone is family, no one is family,” she told the future president. People like to belong to things small enough to feel.

Fukuyama is more sympathetic to that need in “Identity.” The assertion of particular identities, and the insistence that respect be paid to them, is a hallmark of our age. And it is, in his telling, not because people are bad at reasoning or narrow, but because of how discombobulating our age has been.

 

Globalization, the internet, automation, mass migration, the emergence of India and China, the financial crisis of 2008, the rise of women and their displacing of men in more service-oriented economies, the civil rights movement and the emancipation of other groups and the loss of status for white people — these are just some of what we have lived through of late. Yes, the world has gotten better for hundreds of millions. But Fukuyama reminds us that across much of the West, people have suffered dislocation and elites have captured the fruits.

Amid these changes, Fukuyama writes, identity politics has come to the fore, and it has become our common culture, no longer the province of a party or side. In American politics, for example, the left used to focus on economic equality, he argues, and the right on limited government. Today, the left concentrates on “promoting the interests of a wide variety of groups perceived as being marginalized,” whereas the right “is redefining itself as patriots who seek to protect traditional national identity, an identity that is often explicitly connected to race, ethnicity or religion.”

Fukuyama suggests that we are living in an era in which the sense of being dismissed, rather than material interest, is the locomotive of human affairs. The rulers of Russia, Hungary and China are driven by past national humiliations. Osama bin Laden was driven by the treatment of Palestinians. Black Lives Matter has been driven by the fatal disrespect of the police. And a large swath of the American right, which claims to loathe identity politics, is driven by its own perception of being dissed.

Unlike many avuncular critics of identity politics, Fukuyama is sympathetic to the good such politics does — above all, making the privileged aware of their effect on marginalized groups. “Outsiders to those groups often fail to perceive the harm they are doing by their actions,” he writes.

Fukuyama does have his criticisms, however. He fears identity politics “has become a cheap substitute for serious thinking about how to reverse the 30-year trend in most liberal democracies toward greater socioeconomic inequality.” Fukuyama worries that the “woker” the left gets on identity issues, the weaker it gets on offering a critique of capitalism.

Unlike Appiah, Fukuyama doesn’t seem to think it’s possible or desirable for humans to see themselves as human before all else. He is a believer in the nation-state as a healthy unit of human affairs, and he spends the final part of his smart, crisp book exploring how countries can cultivate “integrative national identities” that are rooted in liberal and democratic values — identities large enough to be inclusive, but small enough to give people a real sense of agency over their society.

 

Fukuyama is more sympathetic to that need in “Identity.” The assertion of particular identities, and the insistence that respect be paid to them, is a hallmark of our age. And it is, in his telling, not because people are bad at reasoning or narrow, but because of how discombobulating our age has been.

Globalization, the internet, automation, mass migration, the emergence of India and China, the financial crisis of 2008, the rise of women and their displacing of men in more service-oriented economies, the civil rights movement and the emancipation of other groups and the loss of status for white people — these are just some of what we have lived through of late. Yes, the world has gotten better for hundreds of millions. But Fukuyama reminds us that across much of the West, people have suffered dislocation and elites have captured the fruits.

Amid these changes, Fukuyama writes, identity politics has come to the fore, and it has become our common culture, no longer the province of a party or side. In American politics, for example, the left used to focus on economic equality, he argues, and the right on limited government. Today, the left concentrates on “promoting the interests of a wide variety of groups perceived as being marginalized,” whereas the right “is redefining itself as patriots who seek to protect traditional national identity, an identity that is often explicitly connected to race, ethnicity or religion.”

Fukuyama suggests that we are living in an era in which the sense of being dismissed, rather than material interest, is the locomotive of human affairs. The rulers of Russia, Hungary and China are driven by past national humiliations. Osama bin Laden was driven by the treatment of Palestinians. Black Lives Matter has been driven by the fatal disrespect of the police. And a large swath of the American right, which claims to loathe identity politics, is driven by its own perception of being dissed.

Unlike many avuncular critics of identity politics, Fukuyama is sympathetic to the good such politics does — above all, making the privileged aware of their effect on marginalized groups. “Outsiders to those groups often fail to perceive the harm they are doing by their actions,” he writes.

Fukuyama does have his criticisms, however. He fears identity politics “has become a cheap substitute for serious thinking about how to reverse the 30-year trend in most liberal democracies toward greater socioeconomic inequality.” Fukuyama worries that the “woker” the left gets on identity issues, the weaker it gets on offering a critique of capitalism.

Unlike Appiah, Fukuyama doesn’t seem to think it’s possible or desirable for humans to see themselves as human before all else. He is a believer in the nation-state as a healthy unit of human affairs, and he spends the final part of his smart, crisp book exploring how countries can cultivate “integrative national identities” that are rooted in liberal and democratic values — identities large enough to be inclusive, but small enough to give people a real sense of agency over their society.

 

A low-key shortcoming of Fukuyama’s book is that, like Appiah’s, it is a book about books about books. On the one hand, theorists gotta theorize. On the other, with an issue so fraught and a world so full of rage, each author could have made good use of a rental car and the Voice Memos app. For all their strengths, both books lack the earth and funk and complexity of dreaming, hurting human beings.

We need more thinkers as wise as Appiah and Fukuyama digging their fingers into the soil of our predicament. And we need more readers reading what they harvest.

Anand Giridharadas is the author of “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World.”

 

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page 1 of the Sunday Book Review. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

Woodward and Bernstein: Watergate echoes loud in Donald Trump era


August 13, 2018

Woodward and Bernstein: Watergate echoes loud in Donald Trump era

Veteran journalists may have thought their biggest story was behind them, then Trump came along. ‘This is worse than Watergate’, says Bernstein

Bob Woodward, left, and Carl Bernstein appear at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in Washington on 29 April 2017. Photograph: Cliff Owen/AP

Carl Bernstein received an email from Bob Woodward the other day. “Can you believe this?” it read, “44 years!”

It was a reference to President Richard Nixon’s resignation on 8 August 1974, following years of dogged reporting by the Washington Post’s Woodward and Bernstein into the Watergate break-in and cover-up.

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The most famous double act in journalism were in their early 30s at the time and, like the Beatles when they broke up, could have been forgiven for assuming that the biggest story of their career was behind them. But then along came Donald Trump with Watergate echoes too loud to ignore. “Woodstein”, as the affectionate compound noun has them, are elder statesmen now but the hunger is still there.

Woodward’s upcoming book, Fear: Trump in the White House, shot to number one on Amazon.com within a day of its announcement. It is expected to be the most authoritative account yet of the first 18 months of the administration.

Bernstein was among three CNN reporters who recently broke the story of former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen’s allegation that the Republican candidate knew in advance of the June 2016 meeting between his son, Don Jr, and Russian representatives.

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Bernstein is clearly galvanised by covering a big story again but there is no hint of glee. “I would hardly call covering Trump a joyous experience,” he told the Guardian. “I think that this is a dangerous time for America, that we have a president with no regard for the rule of law or for the truth. I say those things not pejoratively. It’s reportorially established and I think that’s what’s so extraordinary.”

Some parallels with Watergate are inescapable, he said. “Obviously there are similarities, not least of which is part of the story is about undermining the electoral process. You’re also dealing with cover-ups in both instances and special prosecutors.”

But the differences from that era appear more profound to him. Bernstein explained: “This is worse than Watergate in the sense that the system worked in Watergate and it’s not apparent yet that the system is working in the current situation. No president has done anything like Trump to characterise the American press and its exercise of the first amendment as the enemy of the people, a phrase associated with the greatest despots of the 20th century.”

 
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Reporters Bob Woodward, right, and Carl Bernstein, whose reporting of the Watergate case won them a Pulitzer Prize, in the Washington Post newsroom in 1973. Photograph: AP

Currently writing a memoir of growing up in the newspaper business from age 16 to 21, Bernstein has seen many presidents come and go but Trump is “sui generis”, he believes. “One might have thought that Richard Nixon was but they’re very different. Even using the word demagogue and saying that the president of the United States is a habitual liar, one would not have said that about Nixon. He lied often to hide his criminality but what sounds pejorative when I’m on the air is reportorially about him being a habitual liar, about what demagoguery is.

Woodward, 75, and Bernstein, 74, never stopped reporting or writing. Bernstein is a political commentator for CNN whose books include A Woman in Charge: The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton. Woodward has worked at the Post for nearly half a century and is now associate editor. He has written several bestselling chronicles of presidencies from Nixon to Barack Obama.

Fear: Trump in the White House, out next month, is his 19th book and one of most eagerly awaited. Publisher Simon & Schuster teases that it will show the “harrowing life” of the Trump administration, drawing upon “hundreds of hours of interviews with firsthand sources, contemporaneous meeting notes, files, documents and personal diaries”.

The title is based on a remark that Trump made to Woodward and another Post reporter in a 2016 interview: “Real power is through respect. Real power is, I don’t even want to use the word, fear.”

Former Defence Secretary Leon Panetta, who in May chaired a panel discussion with Woodward, Bernstein and Trump’s first Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, said: “I think a lot of the old juices are flowing. The experience both of them had with Watergate in many ways has prepared them to deal with the challenges of the Trump administration. They’re now in the same position as they were before as young reporters.”

Yet the political and media environment has changed in unthinkable ways. The Post office where, under swashbuckling editor Ben Bradlee, Woodward and Bernstein hammered out reports on typewriters, and where newspapers ran off underground presses, has been demolished. Now owned by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos, the Post has moved into hi-tech headquarters geared up for the digital age. From Facebook to Fox News, the media is fragmented and polarised with disputes over what constitutes truth itself.

Panetta said of Woodward and Bernstein: “Their basic expertise was in trying to find the truth but we’re in a time when facts are under attack. They’re dealing with a more challenging world where the mere fact of who they are doesn’t carry the kind of respect it once did.”

In 1974 they co-wrote the book All the President’s Men, which was turned into a Hollywood film starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman and featuring gloomy car park meetings with the mysterious source “Deep Throat”. It might now be tempting for Trump-weary liberals to fantasise about Woodward and Bernstein reuniting to save the republic again.

Asked if there is any prospect of another collaboration, Bernstein replied: “I wouldn’t rule anything out altogether. There’s certainly no plans but we run things by each other and we counsel each other.”

The men’s professional and personal relationship was said to have become strained for a time in the 1970s but they are otherwise very close. “We talk a couple times a week and have for years and obviously there’s some things we can’t share with each other but we have a pretty good idea. We keep a dialogue going about Trump and the story and the presidency. We’ve been doing this for 45, 46 years.”

And does it trouble Bernstein that, as automatically as Laurel and Hardy or Lennon and McCartney, the duo is commonly referred to as Woodward and Bernstein rather Bernstein and Woodward? “Not in the least,” he said cheerfully. “I don’t think you worry about that sort of thing.”