American playwright Edward Albee: The character of his opposition to the status quo


By David Walsh
22 September 2016

Edward Albee, one of the most prominent figures in the postwar American theater, died at his home in Montauk, New York on September 16. He was 88 years old.

Albee is best remembered for works he wrote a half century ago or more, including The Zoo Story (1959), The Death of Bessie Smith (1960), The Sandbox (1960), The American Dream (1961), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962) and A Delicate Balance (1966). Out of critical and popular favor for decades, Albee experienced a degree of renewed success with Three Tall Women (1991) and The Goat or Who is Sylvia? (2000). During his lengthy career, Albee won numerous awards, including three Pulitzer Prizes for Drama and two Tony Awards for Best Play.

Albee was an immensely gifted and articulate writer, with a genuine feeling for the rhythm of language and an obvious flair for the dramatic. His early works, including The Zoo Story, a one-act play, and, most especially, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a full-length work, made a strong impression on the public when they were first performed. In these works, and others of the time, Albee launched fierce attacks on middle-class complacency and hypocrisy, and the moral failure of American society.

The playwright described himself on many occasions as an enemy of the status quo. This was entirely to his credit. However, if Albee’s conception of this enmity remained quite limited, as we shall discuss, this was bound up with the social-cultural environment in which he matured in Cold War America and the milieu in which he circulated.

Albee’s family background is a singular one. He was born in Washington, DC in March, 1928 to a woman who could not support a child. The father had “deserted and abandoned both the mother and child,” according to the subsequent adoption papers. When he was 18 days old, the child was adopted by Reed A. Albee and Frances C. Albee, a wealthy, childless couple. Reed Albee’s money came from his father, the head of the Keith-Albee chain of vaudeville theaters. The Albees lived in luxury in Larchmont, New York on the Long Island Sound.

The writer later claimed that he always felt like an interloper in the household. “They bought me. They paid $133.30”—i.e., the cost of the adoption services. His “outsider” status in his own family and his discovery of his homosexuality at an early age no doubt helped distance Albee from the American mainstream. He had a difficult time in school, being expelled or dismissed from several high schools and colleges. He left home for good in his late teens. Toward the end of his life, Albee told an interviewer he had been “thrown out” of the family home because he refused to become the “corporate thug” his parents desired him to be.

During the 1950s, Albee lived in Greenwich Village in New York City and worked at numerous odd jobs. He also received money from a trust fund. He wrote poems, plays and novels that were not published.

Albee wrote The Zoo Story in three weeks in 1958. It was first performed in West Berlin in 1959 on a double bill with Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape.

The short play takes place in Central Park in New York. There are two characters. Peter, a middle-aged man, an executive with a small publishing house, who “wears tweeds, smokes a pipe, carries horn-rimmed glasses.” We eventually learn that he has a wife, two daughters, two cats and two parakeets, the perfect, contented American family. Peter is peacefully reading his newspaper on a park bench on a Sunday afternoon when Jerry enters into conversation with him. The latter is younger, poorer and suffering, according to Albee’s description, from “great weariness.”

The conversation begins innocently, if oddly, enough, with Jerry’s now-famous line: “I’ve been to the zoo. (PETER doesn’t notice) I said, I’ve been to the zoo. MISTER, I’VE BEEN TO THE ZOO!” Peter responds politely enough, but Jerry becomes more and more intrusive, asking personal questions and revealing the character of his own lonely existence. When Peter has had enough and tries to leave, Jerry becomes aggressive and pulls out a knife. He drops it and tells Peter, “There you go. Pick it up.” The other man does so and Jerry eventually impales himself on the blade. In his final, dying words, he thanks Peter.

Something about the coldness and isolation, and inequality, of modern urban life emerges. Jerry lives in a rooming house, with a “few clothes, a hot plate that I’m not supposed to have, a can opener.” His neighbors are the marginalized. His closest relationship, aside from those with prostitutes, is with his landlady’s dog, about whom he speaks in a lengthy monologue.

Years later, Albee would explain, “Jerry is a man who has not closed down, … who during the course of the play is trying to persuade Peter that closing down is dangerous and that life for all its problems, all of its miseries, is worth participating in, absolutely fully.”

Albee was attacked for his play in establishment circles. On the floor of the US Senate, Prescott Bush (father and grandfather of two US presidents) denounced The Zoo Story as “filthy.”

The influence of Beckett, Eugene Ionesco and the “theater of the absurd” is evident in The Zoo Story, which is to say, Albee was under the influence of some of the same social and intellectual tendencies as those writers. British playwright Harold Pinter, born in 1930, was an almost exact contemporary. Pinter’s first play, The Room, was written and performed in 1957.

The intellectuals of the time, or the more sensitive ones, were appalled by contemporary society, by the giant corporations and institutions that had emerged in the aftermath of World War II, by the Cold War, by the threat of nuclear destruction, by the officially sponsored conformism and pursuit of material wealth.

On the other hand, for the most part they saw no way out of the situation. Stalinism and its crimes, widely identified with communism and socialism, seemed to many to have closed off the possibility of revolutionary change. The various counterrevolutionary “labor” bureaucracies suppressed the working class politically. Existentialism and other forms of irrationalism suggested that the human condition was absurd, but that one had to endure and find some meaning in what was perhaps a meaningless existence. Abstract expressionism in painting and the “Beat” movement emerged from these general ideological conditions.

In The Death of Bessie Smith Albee paid oblique tribute to the civil rights movement and the suffering of African Americans. The short play takes place in Memphis, Tennessee in 1937, in a hospital. An overworked white nurse, a white intern and a black orderly feature prominently. The premise of the play is that Bessie Smith, the great blues singer (who never appears in the play), dies following a car crash because she is refused admittance to a whites-only hospital. This was generally believed at the time. In fact, Smith was taken directly to a hospital in Clarksdale, Mississippi where she died seven hours after the accident. But Albee’s play concerns itself with race and class relations in America, and retains much of its power. The character of the Nurse stands out in particular.

Albee reserved much of his venom for the American upper-middle-class, nuclear family. In The American Dream, an absurdist satire, the central characters are Mommy, Daddy and Grandma. The couple, we discover, had once adopted a son. Unhappy with it, they mutilated the child and ultimately killed it. As Grandma, a sympathetic character, explains, “Well, for the last straw, it finally up and died; and you can imagine how that made them feel, their having paid for it and all. … They wanted satisfaction; they wanted their money back.”

A Young Man shows up, whom Grandma names “The American Dream,” who turns out to be the original boy’s twin. The old woman moves out and the psychologically damaged Young Man moves in. He will take the place of the original adopted child. The dialogue consists largely of a series of clichés and banalities. In typical Albee fashion, a well-to-do family conceals all the brutal realities.

Albee later asserted that the play “is an examination of the American Scene, an attack on the substitution of artificial for real values in our society, a condemnation of complacency, cruelty, emasculation, and vacuity; it is a stand against the fiction that everything in this slipping land of ours is peachy-keen. Is the play offensive? I certainly hope so.”

The work for which Albee is best known, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (made into a film with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, released in 1966)opened in October 1962, only a few days before the eruption of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the confrontation between the US and the USSR over the deployment of Soviet missiles in Cuba. The often intangible and even unnamable psychological menace and paranoia generated by the threat of nuclear annihilation are woven into Albee’s early plays, as they are in many writers’ and filmmakers’ work of the time.

In its framework and episodes, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (borrowed from a bit of “intellectual’s” graffiti found on a wall) is more naturalistic than Albee’s previous efforts. George is a middle-aged associate professor of history at a small New England College; his wife, Martha, six years his senior, is the daughter of the college president. They return home late at night after a party, where they have already had a good deal to drink. Two guests arrive, a younger couple: Nick, a biology professor, and his wife, Honey.

For the rest of the night, George and Martha engage in furious, non-stop and occasionally amusing abuse of one another in front of the younger pair. Martha relentlessly taunts George and humiliates him. She dismisses her husband as “a FLOP! A great … big … fat FLOP!” In response, George breaks a bottle and holds the remains, like a weapon. Martha remarks, “I hope that was an empty bottle, George. You don’t want to waste good liquor … not on your salary.” It goes on like this.

At one point he pretends to shoot her. “GEORGE: Did you really think I was going to kill you, Martha? MARTHA (Dripping with contempt): You? … Kill me? … That’s a laugh. GEORGE: Well, now, I might … some day.”

The hosts play various vicious games, some on each other, some on their guests. When one of his games turns cruel, George explains calmly, “I hate hypocrisy.” George and Martha also claim to have a son, who is coming home that day. In the end, it turns out that they have no child and the fantasy that they do is one of the great lies sustaining their lives and marriage.

The play, above all, suggests America’s decline into something miserable, sick and full of self-deception. Again, the fear and selfishness under the surface of middle class existence come out, along with that social layer’s hypocrisy and servility. Success and stature, the jockeying for position, on this wretched, unimportant little campus absorb much of the time and thought of all four characters. Whatever was promising about America and the American Dream (and George and Martha, of course, are the names of the first president of the US and his wife) has somehow come down to this: stupid, petty and sterile infighting, an endless drunken, malicious quarrel in the middle of the night. All this expenditure of energy … for what?

The characters are not so much hateful, as pitiful. Toward the end of the play, Martha laments, “I do not wish to be happy, and yes I do wish to be happy. George and Martha, sad, sad, sad.”

In A Delicate Balance, a well-to-do couple, Agnes and Tobias live with Agnes’s alcoholic sister, Claire. Their daughter Julia is expected to arrive home soon, fleeing her fourth unsuccessful marriage. Friends of Agnes and Tobias’s, Harry and Edna, arrive and ask if they can stay. A terrible, intangible fear has overtaken them.

What to do with Harry and Edna, whether to ask them to leave or accept them and accept responsibility for them in their plight, becomes a central question in the play. The strongest element of A Delicate Balance, once again, is the contrast between the well-established rules of conduct of these polite, educated people and the painful, contradictory realities of life.

Albee wrote many other plays, including adaptations of works by Carson McCullers (The Ballad of the Sad Café) and Vladimir Nabokov (Lolita), but these early works contain the most compelling expression of his artistic ideas and social concerns.

Albee insisted until the end of his life that he was an enemy of existing conditions. In his introduction to Box and Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung (1968), Albee argued that one of the chief obligations of the playwright was to “try to alter his society,” since, as he explained, “very few serious plays are written to glorify the status quo.” In an interview in 2009, he told a journalist, along the same lines, that “A play should be an act of aggression against the status quo.”

Nor did Albee have much use for fashionable and marketable “identity politics.” Defending his decision to write about a host of characters, he told an interviewer, fellow playwright Craig Lucas, in 1992, “After all, there are a number of things we have not been, you and I. We’ve not been women, we’ve not been 80 years old, we’ve not been black. A lot of things we haven’t been. But its our responsibility to be able to be them, isn’t it?”

Albee attracted criticism for rejecting the term “gay writer.” In a May 2011 speech, he commented, “A writer who happens to be gay or lesbian must be able to transcend self. I am not a gay writer. I am a writer who happens to be gay. … Any definition which limits us is deplorable.” After his comments were attacked, he told National Public Radio, “Maybe I’m being a little troublesome about this, but so many writers who are gay are expected to behave like gay writers and I find that is such a limitation and such a prejudicial thing that I fight against it whenever I can.”

Albee’s criticism of the “status quo” could be quite fierce. He was quoted in 1980 as saying, “I think television is the destruction of the United States. I mean, that and the Republican Party … And the Democratic Party, for that matter, come to think of it.”

In Everything in the Garden (1967), Albee’s American adaptation of a black comedy by British playwright Giles Cooper, a group of respectable suburban housewives turn to prostitution en masse (although unbeknownst to one another) to supplement their husbands’ incomes. When one of the wives is caught out, she turns on her husband and decries the corrupt, even criminal manner in which each of the men earns a living. She sums it up: “You all stink, you’re all killers and whores.”

Albee’s sincerity was unquestionable. However, when the playwright spoke of opposition to the status quo, he meant primarily the moral, sexual and psychological status quo. To many intellectuals and artists in the US, and this view was encouraged by the various academic left tendencies (the Frankfurt School and so forth), capitalism had resolved its economic contradictions. What remained were the problems of alienation, aloneness, conformism and sexual repression.

Continuing to engage exclusively with these issues and ignoring the explosive questions that emerged in the 1970s and beyond, including the growing impoverishment of masses of Americans and the overall economic-cultural decline of the US, meant that Albee’s work failed to treat much of what was new and challenging, and urgently in need of artistic description, in American life.

Many of Albee’s later plays, and even some of the early ones, are not strong or convincing. Plays like Tiny Alice (1964), Malcolm (1966), Seascape (1975),Counting the Ways (1976), The Man Who Had Three Arms (1982) and others are not particularly engaging. The self-conscious “absurdism” often wears thin. There is a great deal of repetition, between and even within plays. The ideas are often murky and secondary, or commonplace.

Albee was at war with hostile critics for many years, and the critics were often obtuse, but the lack of success of many of his plays with the general public was not principally due to the reviewers’ shortcomings. He wrote numerous tedious and almost pointless plays. He seemed to have run out of important things to say at a relatively young age.

Albee returned time and time again to his early family relations. The ineffectual, “castrated” father, the domineering mother, the victimized son … There are only so many times one can cover the same ground. Did Albee have a childhood that was so excruciating, or that was of such world-historical significance that it needed to be treated over and over again, from different angles, during the course of 40 years?

No, that is not the case. It is rather that there are social and political conditions in which the artist’s individual psychological problems and traumas take on “world-historical” importance to him or her. There are periods when one’s family life dominates, when what one’s mother and father did or didn’t do years ago continues to be a central obsession in later life. This was the type of historical period in which Albee matured, when the class struggle apparently receded into the background.

Albee was no Henrik Ibsen, the Norwegian playwright, but some of the comments that Russian Marxist Georgi Plekhanov made on the subject of Ibsen in a 1908 essay (“Ibsen, Petty Bourgeois Revolutionist”) seem appropriate. Plekhanov noted that at the time when “Ibsen’s opinions and ideals were being formulated, a working class, in the present sense of the term, had not yet developed … and was, therefore, nowhere evident in public life.” This encouraged in Ibsen, “individual protests against the hypocrisy and vulgarity which surrounds him.” His was “the revolt of the modern spirit.”

Plekhanov goes on, “Now if a man teaches revolt simply because it is revolt, not knowing himself to what end it should lead, then his teaching will take on a rather nebulous character. If he is an artist, and thinks in terms of images and forms, then the vagueness of his thinking will necessarily result in vague artistic images. An abstract and schematic element will creep into his creative work. … The ‘revolution of the spirit of man’ leaves everything unchanged. The pregnant mountain has again given birth to a tiny mouse.”

Unhappily, for much of his later career, as a result of the nebulousness of his ideas and the formlessness of his opposition to the status quo, Albee gave birth to nothing but “tiny mice.”

Robert Brustein, the distinguished critic, producer and academic, once referred to Albee “as one who sympathized profoundly with the oppressed of the world.” One has no reason to doubt this, but it is not distinctly and sharply present in his work or public utterances. It is worth noting that in Mel Gussow’s biography,Edward Albee: A Singular Journey (1999), there is a single reference to the Vietnam War in the index. According to an August 1968 New York Timesarticle, Albee did lend his name as a sponsor of the anti-war “Summer of Support,” aimed at US servicemen, along with Pete Seeger, Dustin Hoffman, Phil Ochs and others.

Overall, however, as one commentator notes, Albee’s plays in the 1970s spoke to “personal” rather than “social” disillusionment.

One has to look to the general features of Albee’s time, the postwar economic expansion and the Cold War, for the conditions that shaped his thinking. He traveled to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and certainly distinguished himself from the extreme right confrontationists, but his comments on the USSR do not rise above the level of garden variety anticommunist liberalism. His facile use of selections from Mao’s “Little Red Book” in Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung, either wooden truisms or Stalinist falsifications, gives some sense of his attitude toward what he took to be “Marxism” and “revolutionary theory.”

The “abstract and schematic element” in Albee’s work also manifests itself in the ahistorical character of his plays, and the often nameless characters: Mommy and Daddy, Young Man and Grandma, He and She, A B and C. He once told an interviewer, “Most of my plays are not tied to time, particularly.” He didn’t care for having the phrase “timeless” applied to his work, he explained, “but I don’t think they [the plays] are beholden to specific dates.”

Unfortunately, there is nothing that becomes dated more rapidly than the “dateless.” Abstract psychological characterizations and speculations and, frankly, the obsession with oneself do not generally lead to the most rewarding, enriching art. “We all wish to devour ourselves, enter ourselves, be the subject and object all at once,” asserts a character in Albee’s Listening (1976). But the artist seriously attuned to the world and life has more compelling things to do.

Albee’s great strength lay in his ability to represent his upper-middle-class figures, to reveal their inner lives. He helped demystify and discredit the affluent layers who thought themselves fully in control. Moreover, his rejection of corruption and cowardice, his insistence on unpleasant truths about American society in the late 1950s and early 1960s unquestionably contributed to the mood of radicalism and opposition that emerged later in the decade.

To paraphrase Plekhanov, drab, postwar American reality showed Albee what had to be opposed, but it could not by itself show him which road to pursue.


Che Guevara: A flawed revolutionary icon

Mike Gonzalez looks at the important lessons to be drawn from Samuel Farber’s new book, The Politics of Che Guevara, in a review first published at the revolutionary socialism in the 21st century website.

Che Guevara in 1959 (Museo Che Guevara)

Che Guevara in 1959 (Museo Che Guevara)

FOR TWO generations of activists, Ernesto Che Guevara has symbolized a kind of selfless heroism. His relative youth at his death in 1967 (he was 38) conserved his air of rebelliousness and the image of a man interested only in the struggle, rather than in power.

Yet Sam Farber who acknowledges these qualities, describes him early in his new book, The Politics of Che Guevara, as “irremediably undemocratic.” The contradiction is striking and central to Farber’s critical analysis of Che’s life as a revolutionary.

Farber’s starting point is the understanding of socialism as the self-emancipation of the working classes, with the emphasis on self. In other words, revolution is, as Marx says (in his Theses on Feuerbach) the “coincidence of the changing of self and the changing of circumstances.” It is in acting collectively in the world that the majority come to recognize their own power and become subjects of history rather than merely its objects. That is the central idea of Marxism.

Yet Che Guevara’s politics and his practice were based on a very different idea–that it is revolutionaries who make the revolution. And they do so irrespective of the circumstances in which they operate, because it is the will of the revolutionary vanguard that is the key.

This voluntarist view is not just misguided; it is alien to the revolutionary tradition to which Farber (and myself) belong. The substitution of the leaders for the mass movement, points ahead to a very different future prefigured in the guerrilla method.

Farber explains that Edward Bellamy’s 19th century utopian novel Looking Backward was one of Guevara’s inspirations. Interestingly the future state that Bellamy imagines was modeled on an army.

Farber reminds us that revolutions do not automatically lead either to dictatorship or democracy; their outcome will depend on the “leading politics” of the movement. In the case of Cuba after 1959, the state was shaped around the command model–a pyramid of orders delivered from above and accepted without question–in which democracy appeared as a risk to the authority of leadership.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

IT SEEMS curious at first that someone with Guevara’s background should have come not just to accept, but to vigorously advocate that inescapably Stalinist project–to dismiss the right to strike and the independent organization of workers as mere obstacles on the road to revolution and to scorn the “false prophets of mass democracy”.

Born in Argentina to left wing parents influenced by the especially Stalinist Argentine communist party, Guevara grew up as a radical Bohemian, a life-style rebel who spurned what he saw as bourgeois habits, from cleanliness to ostentatious consumption. His protest against that culture took the form of a kind of a puritanical asceticism.

The politics would come later, though he was a visceral anti-imperialist from early on. And by the time he reached Mexico, where he met the Cuban rebels for the first time, he had begun to steep himself in Marxism. But it was a Marxism in the abstract, not linked to activism of any kind.

The members of the 26th July Movement with whom Che landed in Cuba in December 1956 to launch the guerrilla campaign were, as Farber describes them, rightly in my view, “déclassé”–political rebels from mainly middle class backgrounds with few roots in the mass movement. Guevara shared that dislocation.

With the victory of the revolution in January 1959, Che joined the Castro brothers in its leadership. It may surprise many readers that Che was–and Farber marshals a powerful body of evidence to prove his case–together with Raúl, the architect of the new state, though ultimately the political skills of Fidel carried him to the top of the pyramid.

It was not a search for personal power that made Che the unconditional supporter of a one-party state–unlike Fidel, for whom it was his driving impulse. But it reflected an admiration for the Stalinist state in its most sectarian and undemocratic manifestations–the state as the exclusive vanguard.

That model drove Che’s critically important interventions in the economy in the early years, based on rapid industrialization, but taking no account of the realities of the Cuban economy. By 1962, Che acknowledged how mistaken those economic policies were, but by then it was too late to turn the clock back.

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WHAT THIS “economic voluntarism”, as Farber calls it, illustrated was not just the single-minded dedication to the immediate creation of a communist state along Stalinist lines, but also a central feature of Guevara’s politics that Farber calls his “political tone-deafness” or his “schematism”.

It was already implicit in his early (1960) manual on Guerrilla Warfare, and definitive especially in his later activities in the Congo and Bolivia. For Guevara, political strategy was not shaped by the specific circumstances in which it unfolded.

So in a Bolivia with an extraordinary tradition of working-class militancy, and which was in the throes of a bitter strike wave when he arrived in 1966, he was insistent on creating a rural guerrilla force and paid no attention to the working-class movement except to call on its militants to join the guerrillas (which no more than a handful did). A year later Che was dead, together with most of his comrades.

In the Congo the failure of the movement there was attributed by Guevara to the lack of a vanguard leadership. And in his arguments with the French agronomist Rene Dumont over the right to strike, Guevara angrily rejected Dumont’s insistence that it was fundamental to a socialist democracy, just as he did in his famous essay Socialism and man in Cuba, insisting that “a mass party was only possible when the masses have attained vanguard consciousness”.

By the mid-sixties Che was increasingly critical of the Soviet economy’s drift towards capitalism, but at no point did that lead him to a criticism of the bureaucratic state. How could it, after all, when he had been an architect of the one-party state in Cuba?

What impresses in Farber’s book is the way in which he interweaves a critical assessment of Guevara’s politics with general arguments about the meaning of socialism. And at its heart, that socialism is democracy of the most radical and profound kind.

The one-party state that Che forged with Raúl Castro continues in Cuba today, overseeing the restoration of a capitalist economy. The lack of resistance to its inevitable effects are a product of a one-party regime that denied the diversity of working-class politics and imposed a system in which the majority had no freedom to act, criticize or generate alternative socialist projects.

Would Che have been happy with the outcome, and the corruption and manipulation of power it has produced? His role in creating the system suggests that he would, albeit perhaps with some misgivings. And he would have despised the yearning for a materially better life among the majority as the unacceptable infiltration of capitalist values.

So what should we do with this flawed revolutionary icon? Recognize that his high moral standards, his resolute internationalism, and his egalitarianism were qualities to cherish. But the one-party state he favored and its repression of democracy consigned the subjects of revolution to a position in which self-emancipation became impossible, as the self-proclaimed vanguard usurped their role, at first in the name of revolution but soon, and in the absence of any possibility of control from below, in their own self-interest.

First published at the revolutionary socialism in the 21st century website.

The Alternative to Fervent Nationalism Isn’t Corporate Liberalism—It’s Social Democracy

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Barack Obama and Senator Hillary Clinton. (Photo: Jim Bourg/Reuters)

In his 1946 essay reviewing former Trotskyist-turned-reactionary James Burnham’s book The Managerial Revolution, George Orwell made several observations that resonate just as powerfully today as they did when they were first published.

“The real question,” he wrote, “is not whether the people who wipe their boots on us during the next fifty years are to be called managers, bureaucrats, or politicians: the question is whether capitalism, now obviously doomed, is to give way to oligarchy or to true democracy.”

Orwell recognized what many today fail to perceive: That free market capitalism is, in the words of Karl Polanyi, a “stark Utopia,” a system that does not exist, and one that would not survive for long if it ever came into existence.

But for Orwell, the question was not how (or whether) the crises of capitalism that rocked both Europe and the United States in the 20th century would be solved — the question was: what would take the place of an economic order that was clearly on its way out?

Read today, his prediction of the world to come emanates prescience.

“For quite fifty years past the general drift has almost certainly been towards oligarchy,” Orwell argued. “The ever-increasing concentration of industrial and financial power; the diminishing importance of the individual capitalist or shareholder, and the growth of the new ‘managerial’ class of scientists, technicians, and bureaucrats; the weakness of the proletariat against the centralised state; the increasing helplessness of small countries against big ones; the decay of representative institutions and the appearance of one-party regimes based on police terrorism, faked plebiscites, etc.: all these things seem to point in the same direction.”

This year has in some ways marked the peak of these trends — trends that are currently being exploited (as they always have been) by both genuine nationalists and political opportunists looking to capitalize on the destabilizing effects of the international economic order.

Globally, the concentration of income at the very top is obscene: As a widely cited Oxfam report notes, 62 people own the same amount of wealth as half of the world’s population. The report also found that as the wealth of the global elite continues to soar, “the wealth of the poorest half of the world’s population has fallen by a trillion dollars since 2010, a drop of 38 percent.”

And such trends have not just inflicted the poorest. The middle class in the United States, for instance, has been steadily eroding over the past several decades in the face of slow growth and stagnant wages. Meanwhile, top CEOs have seen their incomes rise by over 900 percent.

People are reacting. From the rise of Donald Trump and right-wing nationalists throughout Europe to the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union, people are using the influence they still have to express their contempt for a system that has failed them and their families.

Some of the discontent is undoubtedly motivated by racial animus and anti-immigrant sentiment, both of which have been preyed upon by charlatans across the globe. But it has also been motivated by class antagonism, by a general feeling that economic and political elites are making out like bandits while the public is forced to scramble for an ever-dwindling piece of the pie.

Responses to these developments by apologists for elites and by elites themselves have been varied, but all have had a common core: The United States and Europe are, contrary to popular perception, suffering from too much democracy.

The leash restraining the people, the argument goes, has been excessively loosened, and, consequently, the “ignorant masses” have wreaked havoc. More or less, the proposed solution has been to tighten the leash.

In a recent piece for Foreign Policy, James Traub calls on “elites to rise up against the ignorant masses.” They must put the people in their place with facts and reason, with the decent sense that “the mob” lacks by definition.

Traub’s was perhaps the most explicit and aggressive call to action, and, as he notes in his latest work for the same outlet, he has reaped a storm of criticism.

With a hint of regret, Traub insists that his point was misunderstood. The notion, Traub explains, that “people who take issue with the forces of globalization, whether from the left or the right, should defer to elites” is “repellent.”

This latest piece was, when it was first published, provocatively titled “Liberalism Isn’t Working.” The title has since been altered, but the core point remains: Europe and the United States, Traub argues, are experiencing “the breakdown of the liberal order.”

In Traub’s view, irrationality is prevailing over reason — noticeable in, for instance, popular disdain for “experts” — and illiberal democracy is taking the place of what was previously liberal democracy. Intolerance is replacing tolerance. Those who “can’t stand the way the world is going and want to return to a mythical golden age where women and Mexicans and refugees and gays and atheists didn’t disturb the public with their demands” are defeating those who favor diversity and free thought.

It is heartening to see Traub walk back his elitist war cry, and he is correct that liberalism in its current form — that is to say, corporate liberalism, or neoliberalism — has failed to muster an adequate response to the various crises facing global society.

But this is not because liberals have no desire to do so; it is because their ideological system is utterly bankrupt, divorced from the needs of the masses and subservient to the needs of organized wealth.

Traub notes, perhaps correctly, that President Obama’s “remote, cerebral manner has…whetted the public’s appetite for a snake-oil salesman like Trump.”

More than his “manner,” though, Obama’s ideological bent — largely shared by Hillary Clinton and other corporate Democrats — has left a vacuum into which phony populists like Trump have emerged.

And this is what Traub fails to consider: The alternative to Trumpism is not more smug, corporate liberalism that manages the decline and tempers the expectations of the masses; it is, rather, an ambitious social agenda that utilizes mass politics to create an economic and political order that is responsive to the material needs of the population.

Contrary to the urgent warnings that we are suffering from an excess of democracy, the United States and Europe have for too long been gripped by a democratic deficit.

“If we want to avert the sense of powerlessness among voters that fuels demagogy,” writes Michael Lind, “the answer is not less democracy in America, but more.”

Traub and others like him have succeeded in putting forward critiques of the movements responding to the discontent of the masses, but they have failed to criticize the economic order whose failures have sparked this discontent. As a result, they have failed to offer a compelling alternative to the surging nationalism they profess to fear.

And as Luke Savage notes in a recent piece for Jacobin, the self-styled experts have often done much worse than that.

He points to the fact that “beyond a few largely anecdotal comments about globalization, Traub offers no real analysis of the causes driving the polarization he so detests. In familiar tones, he conflates the populist right and the populist left, and characterizes anti-establishment sentiment as the product of sheer, mindless democratic stupidity.”

In effect, the expert class has — predictably — erased from view the agendas of figures like Bernie Sanders, figures who represent an alternative to both fervent nationalism and neoliberalism.

And far from putting forward radical and unworkable proposals, the ideas on which the Sanders campaign has been based have far-reaching appeal.

Ultimately, Savage concludes, “the real political schism of our time” is “not one between ‘the sane and the mindlessly angry,’ but between democrats and technocratic elites.”

It is, for instance, elite opinion, not public opinion, that stands in the way of the implementation of single-payer healthcare.

Most of the public, furthermore, believes that “major donors sway Congress more than constituents,” but it is elites — including self-styled progressives — who stand in the way of campaign finance reform.

The so-called “ignorant masses” understand that “there is too much power concentrated in the hands of a few big companies,” and that “the government doesn’t do enough for older people, poor people or children.” But it is elites whose entrenched interests undercut any attempt to remedy these trends.

There is, in short, an appetite for social democracy in the United States, but it is elites — economic and political — who stand in the way and insist that such an appetite is the result of excessive imagination.

Conservatives — including Trump — continue to fight unabashedly for the needs of corporate America, while neoliberals like President Obama and Hillary Clinton insist that progressive initiatives must be curbed in the interest of “getting things done.”

But such a commitment to “pragmatism” is, in reality, a lack of commitment to the systemic change necessary in the midst of unprecedented inequality, horrific levels of child poverty, an intolerably high rate of infant mortality, neglected communities, and other crises that require radical action.

Interestingly, in his essay James Traub cites George Orwell as one of the “great exponents” of liberalism and anti-totalitarianism.

But he fails to mention what Orwell, himself, wrote about his own political motivations, which he expressed in his 1946 essay “Why I Write.”

“Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936,” Orwell notes, “has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism, as I understand it.”

Needless to say, Orwell’s vision was not a hierarchical one that placed technocratic elites and self-proclaimed experts at the helm; it was one that warned of totalitarianism of all forms and proposed a more egalitarian alternative.

By ignoring this — deliberately or otherwise — and by establishing a status quo of austerity, intolerable inequality, environmental degradation, and endless war, elites have fostered the reaction they are now attempting to beat back.

But their proposed alternative is, effectively, more of the same. That, as much of the world’s population recognizes, is not enough.

“It’s not about the EU,” notes Mark Blyth in an assessment of the European economy that applies just as well to the United States. “It’s about the elites. It’s about the 1%. It’s about the fact that your parties that were meant to serve your interests have sold you down the river.”

We Are Witnessing the Death of San Francisco’s Revolutionary Spirit

The tech boom is not-so-slowly colonizing the entire city.

Photo Credit: Emily Lin Scott/Flickr Creative Commons

Once on a flight home to San Francisco for a visit from college in Boston, I sat next to an anarchist couple in their 60s. They were dressed all in black with matching fedoras over long, gray hair, and came armed with giant sketchpads. They were warm, happy people, who spent the trip sketching and encouraging each other. When not drawing, they turned their attention to me, and we chatted, pleasantly exchanging conflicting political and artistic ideals. They told me they admired my studies; I said I admired their sketches. I don’t believe any of us were lying.

Ten years later, in the English class I now teach at Brooklyn College, we were discussing Colson Whitehead’s “City Limits.” The conversation was animated—New York natives and transplants alike connected to Whitehead’s meditation on the changeable nature of the five boroughs. As we considered the many ways in which the city was re-inventing itself now, one student, a native of Bed-Stuy, said her parents were selling their house. She added, with a bemused shrug, that “I guess now people want brownstones in Bed-Stuy.”

I remember having this reaction on the phone with a friend a few years after my interaction with my anarchist seatmates. Then, she had told me they were building condos in a squalid area of downtown that had been re-branded as “SOMA.”

“SOMA?!” we had both laughed in disbelief. Calling that stretch of empty warehouses, urban crime, and homelessness near the train depot by a trendy acronym seemed like nothing more than a crude marketing ploy. And yet, only a few short years later, those condos, like the Bed-Stuy brownstones, were selling for millions of dollars; the tech takeover of San Francisco had begun in earnest.

Unlike New York, San Francisco has a somewhat parochial history. Each new group entering the city can be singled out, and conclusions can be drawn about that population’s contribution to the texture of the city as a whole. To name but a few, there were ’49ers in the gold rush, the beats, the hippies, the gays, and now the techies. And then, of course, there have been influxes of various ethnic and immigrant groups that have played a significant role in shaping the city.

Something many of these movements had in common was a flocking to a city where thought could be freer, conventions more challenged. One need only skim through the great chroniclers of San Francisco—John Steinbeck, Jack Kerouac, William Vollmann, Gary Kamiya, Armistead Maupin, Amy Tan, Rebecca Solnit—to glean that the allure of San Francisco is not any one promise or movement in particular, but a revolutionary spirit that the city has always abided, one ideal after another.

It would take a much longer essay than this to really delve into the various transplant movements in San Francisco and how each was received and embedded in the city’s existing culture. But if we consider only a few of the most instantly recognizable ones, it’s easy to see how each vociferous counter-culture was able to change the city’s dialogue and image while remaining somewhat insular. Where were the hippies? The Haight. The gays? The Castro. The beats? North Beach.

I present this cordoning off as a mere fact—not to say that those challenging the status quo should keep themselves to themselves, but that one of the ways San Francisco has been repeatedly successful in accommodating strong-convicted and sometimes conflicting viewpoints is that each has been able to stake out its own little space without being forced to conform or compete with its neighbors.

In many ways, it makes a lot of sense that the tech movement has its roots in the Bay Area. Where else but San Francisco would a corporation take pride in thinking “different,” or bright young dropouts be accepted as pioneering geniuses instead of family screw-ups? On its face, startup culture seems a natural fit for the city’s other transplant movements—it claims to buck convention, be curious, and create a community of like-minded people.

But, as we know, the tech community has not “merely” gentrified “SOMA” and contributed its new voice to the larger conversation in San Francisco. With its attendant wealth and heady feelings of power, the tech boom is not-so-slowly colonizing the entire city, driving out whole communities and stamping out the possibility of pushback to its ideals from other populations. The harm of the tech takeover is not that this movement has turned out to be more square, nerdy, or moneyed than the city’s other revolutionary movements, but that under the guise of “improving” the city, it is literally bulldozing physical space for living, debate, and the exchange of ideas, thus ridding the city of its generations-long ability to support its local residents and receive non-conformers. The Tenderloin, a hub for cutting-edge social programming since single room occupancy hotels were established for family-less prostitutes after the 1906 earthquake, is now the subject of myopic open letters accusing it of being a blight on the sort of San Francisco the tech industry desires.

The tech takeover is also fundamentally changing a city that, not so long ago, was considered an “island of diversity.” Startlingly, it’s projected that by 2040, San Francisco County will have a non-Hispanic white majority—jumping from 42 percent in 2013 to 52 percent in 25 years. The percentage of Asians is expected to fall from 34 percent to 28 percent, and the Latino population from 15 percent to 12 percent. The city’s already-declining African-American population, currently at just 6 percent, is expected to remain about the same. How will these shifting demographics further erode what once made the city great?

On a plane a few weeks ago from New York to San Francisco, I chatted with my seatmate, a nice woman from Long Island on her way to visit her son, who works in tech. By the time we had reached cruising altitude I knew about his education, his career goals, and the current housing hunt he and his fiancée were on for a place to accommodate their planned family of four.

This was a genuinely kind woman who spoke well of her son. A man who is, by her account, successful and in a happy relationship, and she is rightly proud of him. But our conversation introduced no viewpoint I had never encountered before, and was merely a way to idly pass time talking about nothing but the particulars of one’s own success. It brought in stark relief my experience 10 years ago, when the topics of conversation had been public funding for the arts, the difference between a democracy and a republic, and anecdotes about Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The contrast makes me wonder how often in the future I will encounter fellow travelers like that couple, and be confronted with people who think differently than I do and talk about subjects I do not normally consider. Or if whether, someday soon, they’ll disappear from planes to San Francisco altogether, when there is no longer a single neighborhood at the flight’s destination willing to keep them around.


Emma Bushnell is a writer and editor in Brooklyn, New York. Her work has appeared in Bodega Magazine, Bustle, Full Stop, and elsewhere. She is completing her MFA in fiction at Brooklyn College and is at work on a novel.

The long, winding road to marriage equality

From the Mattachine Society to ACT UP to “Ellen,” they all helped make it possible

Countless gay rights advocates worked the legal as well as the cultural angles to get us to where we are today

The long, winding road to marriage equality: From the Mattachine Society to ACT UP to "Ellen," they all helped make it possible
Marchers carry signs during New York’s annual Gay Pride Day parade, June 28, 1981. (Credit: AP/G. Paul Burnett)

The path to marriage equality did not begin, of course, with Evan Wolfson’s Harvard Law School paper. The very fact that Wolfson could conceive of such a paper was itself testament to the efforts of countless gay and lesbian advocates before him, operating in far more difficult circumstances.

A good place to start in assessing the prehistory of the marriage equality movement is the Mattachine Society, one of the first gay organizations in the United States. Founded in Los Angeles in 1950, the Mattachine Society ultimately included chapters around the country, and in the 1950s and 1960s was the nation’s leading gay organization. It took its name from masked critics of ruling monarchs in medieval France. At its inception, the very idea of a gay organization was so radical that the group met only in secret.

The  Mattachine  Society’s  most illustrious  member was Frank Kameny, a Harvard-educated astronomer who was fired by the US Army Map Office in 1957 when an FBI investigation revealed that he was gay. Kameny appealed his firing all the way to the Supreme Court, without success. But the experience prompted him to become one of the nation’s first openly gay activists. He founded the Washington, DC, chapter of the Mattachine Society in 1960, and also launched a systematic attack on the federal government’s discrimination against gay and lesbian employees. Notwithstanding his lack of legal training, Kameny operated as a “lawyer without portfolio,” assisting hundreds of employees in administrative appeals of their dismissals and shepherding their cases through the courts. With the support of the ACLU, he won his first victory in 1965, when the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit  reversed the Civil Service Commission’s disqualification of Bruce Scott from the civil service on grounds of “immoral conduct.” In 1975, after many more battles with Kameny, the Civil Service Commission reversed its policy of categorically disqualifying gay and lesbian applicants. Kameny also took on the Defense Department for denying security clearances to gays and lesbians, and in 1975 it, too, abandoned that practice.

The first challenge Kameny and the Mattachine Society faced was simply to be free to associate as gay men. Sodomy statutes made intimate relations between same-sex couples a crime. Psychiatrists considered homosexuality a mental illness. Admitting publicly that one was gay or lesbian could result in ridicule, harassment, assault, isolation from one’s family, the loss of a job, or worse. Most gays and lesbians understandably chose to keep their sexual orientation hidden.

The invisibility of the “closet” made mobilizing for lesbian and gay rights all but impossible. Thus, the first strategic step toward achieving equality was, as gay rights scholar and advocate Bill Eskridge  has called it, a “politics of protection.” The aim was to create space for gays and lesbians to come together without fear of official harassment. Gay and lesbian community centers, bars, and bathhouses all served this function. The Stonewall riots of 1969, in which gay patrons at a Greenwich Village bar turned on police and collectively asserted their right to be out, gay, and together in a public place, were the most dramatic and historic manifestation of this initial phase.

The  next step was to make it  safe—or at least, less costly—to “come out” by publicly identifying oneself as lesbian or gay. Gay rights groups fought for legal protections that would make it more likely that gay men and lesbians might feel sufficiently comfortable to identify themselves publicly. The ACLU Lesbian and Gay Rights Project, for example, invoked the First Amendment to protect the rights of students to form gay and lesbian student associations, first in colleges and later in high schools. And gay rights advocates argued for expanding anti-discrimination laws to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in employment, housing, and other fields.

In the 1980s, the AIDS crisis transformed the gay community. Many men were in effect outed by the disease itself as it afflicted them or their lovers. The life-or-death necessity for research and treatment spawned the creation of new advocacy organizations,  such as Gay Men’s Health Crisis and ACT UP, as gay men and lesbians increasingly recognized the pressing need for nondiscriminatory health services, and came to understand that only through political organizing could they convince the government to invest sufficient resources in developing effective treatments. In a tragic but real sense, gay rights came out and of age during the AIDS crisis, as growing numbers of gays and lesbians proclaimed their sexual orientation publicly, joined political associations, and en- gaged in collective action to demand equal care and respect.

The AIDS crisis also set the stage for the fight for marriage equality. It urgently revealed the many problems that gay couples confronted when the states did not recognize their relationships. Gay employees whose partners were sick and dying could not get health insurance for them through their work. Gay men were denied visitation with their partners at hospitals because they had no officially sanctioned relation- ship with the patient. They often were not authorized to make end-of-life decisions for their partners. They faced difficulties dealing with funerals, estates, and the like, again because their relationships, even if longstanding, lacked formal status. The importance of “relationship recognition” became painfully evident, and the press ran many stories about the obstacles gay men faced  as they navigated the ends of their partners’ lives.

When advocates began to address the myriad problems gay couples faced in dealing with AIDS, they did not at first demand marriage, still an unthinkable option. Instead, they requested lesser forms of domestic partnership recognition and benefits. They began by approaching sympathetic private corporations, universities, and cities. Over time the concept of same-sex domestic partnerships took hold in a wide range of private and public settings. The same pattern is evident with respect to legal protection from discrimination.

These developments, vitally important on their own terms, also contributed to making a marriage equality campaign possible. The care and support offered,  and devastating losses suffered, by surviving partners became familiar to many straight Americans. As discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation was more widely prohibited, gay men and lesbians were more free to come out. It became increasingly common for straight people to learn that a family member, friend, colleague, or acquaintance  was gay or lesbian—and deeply human and vulnerable. That knowledge in turn made it less likely that straight people would demonize, and more likely that they would empathize with, gay men and lesbians.

Some of the most important early gay rights advocacy focused not on legal and political change but on cultural transformation. In the midst of the AIDS crisis, gay activists founded Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, now known simply as GLAAD. Their mission was to promote accurate and positive portrayals of gay men and lesbians in the news and entertainment media. Among other accomplishments, GLAAD helped persuade CBS’s 60 Minutes to suspend commentator Andy Rooney for three months without pay when he made homophobic remarks on air. It blocked a planned television show to be hosted by Dr. Laura Schlesinger,  a radio talk show host who had described homosexuality as a “biological mistake.” GLAAD also encouraged comedian Ellen DeGeneres to have the character she played on her television show, Ellen, come out as  lesbian, and helped to convince the news media to shift their terminology from “homosexual” to “gay and lesbian,” and from “sexual preference” to “sexual orientation.”

There  is no precise way to measure the effects of these wide-ranging efforts. But nearly all of the advocates, lawyers, and activists with whom I spoke agreed that each of the developments summarized here provided an important foundation for the marriage equality campaign. They helped make it possible for Evan Wolfson to write his law school paper, and for the many initiatives that would be necessary, inside and outside of courts, before the right to marriage equality that Wolfson envisioned could be realized.

Excerpted with permission from “Engines of Liberty: The Power of Citizen Activists to Make Constitutional Law,” by David Cole.  Available from Basic Books, a member of The Perseus Books Group.  Copyright © 2016.

David Cole is a law professor at Georgetown University, and author, with Jules Lobel, of“Less Safe, Less Free: Why America is Losing the War on Terror” (New Press, September 2007).

Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See: All the history the novelist cannot see

By Leah Jeresova
23 March 2016

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (Scribner, 2014)

All the Light We Cannot See, a historical novel by Anthony Doerr, set during the Nazi occupation of France in World War II, is a runaway best seller (it remains on the New York Times Best Sellers list after 97 weeks). It has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the Australian International Book Award, and was shortlisted for the National Book Award. The American Library Association awarded Doerr its highest honor, the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction.

Cover of All the Light We Cannot See

Doerr (born in Cleveland in 1973) is the author of two previous collections of short fiction, The Shell Collector (2002) andMemory Wall (2010), a novel, About Grace(2004), and a memoir, Four Seasons in Rome: On Twins, Insomnia and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World (2007).

All the Light We Cannot See opens during the US bombing of Saint-Malo, a historic, walled port city in Brittany on the northwestern coast of France, in August of 1944—two months after D-Day. The narrative then backtracks ten years to 1934. In a time-worn “Romeo and Juliet” plot, the story follows the lives of the two principal characters: Marie-Laure LeBlanc, a Frenchwoman eventually fighting for the Resistance, who is totally blind; and Werner Pfennig, a German soldier and electronics expert who ends up in France as a member of the Wehrmacht.

In Marie-Laure, Doerr wanted to create a heroine who loves to read and loves the sea. He conducted extensive research on the visually impaired. Blind from the age of six, Marie-Laure is fortunate to have a father who is compassionate and loving, designing intellectually challenging puzzles for her and encouraging her to read classic French novels in Braille. She grows into a self-reliant young woman, undeterred by her handicap. When World War II comes, she doesn’t hesitate to join the Resistance to the German forces, taking the code name “the whelk”—an aggressive little snail.

In a novel that takes human empathy as its central theme, Doerr writes with sensitivity and compassion of the plight of refugees, as Marie-Laure and her father join the mass exodus of Parisians fleeing the German occupation. In the most difficult circumstances, Doerr believes, it is important for people to hold onto their basic humanity.

Werner Pfenning, the German soldier, is an anti-hero, a familiar type in American literature, struggling in a world without meaning. He is deeply conflicted, repulsed by the cruelty of Nazi racial practices, yet willing to shout “Heil, Hitler!” on cue to further his ambitions.

Werner is an orphan from Zollverein, a coal mining complex in an economically deprived region of Germany, which has no future. His innate moral decency was formed in his childhood. He and his sister Jutta were raised by a kind foster mother. Both listened to forbidden radio broadcasts about Nazi atrocities.

Werner’s experience as a cadet in an elite paramilitary school for Hitler Youth, and the school’s cruel curriculum, will be of great interest to readers. Forced into the German military, Werner’s job is to identify enemy radio signals. The partisans broadcasting them are then hunted down and killed. Werner, suffering a profound sense of alienation, is haunted by the specter of their faces.

While Doerr creates compelling characters, the story feels divorced from its settings. There is little sense of the historical process—for example, that German life changed in any fundamental way under the Nazis, particularly in the German coal mining area where Werner is raised. In Brittany, the author introduces some colorful scenes portraying the neighborhood housewives organizing to help the Resistance. But even here, he does not capture the heartbeat of Saint-Malo.

Doerr presents war as a moral issue—a struggle between good and evil. The Nazis—and, as we shall see, ISIS—are evil and their myths stem from evil. What, then, causes evil? This is the question that Doerr cannot answer, and it damages his fiction. For example, expanding the rogues’ gallery of evil-doers, Doerr takes some cheap shots at the Soviet forces. Red Army soldiers make a brief appearance, drunk and foul-smelling, only to rape Werner’s sister.

Interviewed in Publishers Weekly, Doerr said he wanted readers to learn “that war is more complicated than they might have thought, that there were civilians on both sides making really complicated moral decisions.” This is fairly banal stuff.

In Doerr’s worldview there are neither powerful economic forces nor any ambitions of the competing major capitalist powers that would help explain the war.

A major defect of the novel is Doerr’s inability to analyze the roots of the catastrophe of the Second World War. Interviewed for the American Library Association, Doerr elaborated his view of history: “History is about studying how, when, and where large numbers of human beings fell under the spell of various myths,” he said. He elevates myth to the level of a titanic force that drives history.

Expanding on this conception in another interview, Doerr blames myth for the rise of ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria): “Myths are still used to foment nationalism in all sorts of places, and the Internet is being used to transmit myths in much the same way radio was used in the 1930s and 1940s.” ISIS extremists “upload acts of horrifying violence to YouTube to wage psychological terror,” he told the interviewer.

Another critical problem in the novel is Doerr’s use of the radio as a communicator of myth. Employing the postmodern technique of internal paratext (i.e. text-within-a-text), Nazi propaganda is broadcast throughout the novel, e.g., “Only through the hottest fires can purification be achieved. Only through the harshest tests can God’s chosen rise.

The novel’s dominant myth surrounds the “Sea of Flames,” a 133-carat diamond the size of a pigeon’s egg that carries an ancient curse: anyone in possession of the diamond will live forever while everyone dear to her or him will experience tragedy or death. The Sea of Flames drives the dramatic tension in the novel. The diamond is the subject of an intense pursuit by Sergeant Major Reinhold von Rumpel, the Nazi villain.

A cursed jewel has long been a stock element in second-rate movies. Did the Sea of Flames cause the American bombardment, the arrest of Marie-Laure’s father by the Gestapo and all the heroine’s other misfortunes? Doerr keeps us guessing.

Writers and film directors have long known how to use blind orphan children and virtuous, endangered heroines to milk the sympathies of an audience. Various trends in contemporary fiction, with facile, postmodern elements, easily absorb the genre of melodrama, popular in the nineteenth century. In the novel’s climactic rescue scene, after a remarkable series of coincidences, Werner responds to Marie-Laure’s desperate call for help broadcast over the radio, saving her from the clutches of von Rumpel, who would murder her to get his hands on the Sea of Flames.

The clear distinction between “good” and “evil” and the tightly structured, just-in-time rescue format in melodrama suit Doerr’s purposes.

The novel also suffers artistically from Doerr’s reliance on fashionable narrative techniques. The non-linear narrative moves forward in short chapters, out of order chronologically, giving, intentionally or not, a fragmented view of reality, and forcing the reader to flip back and forth and participate in the development of the story. Some readers have found this annoying.

Intertextuality is the postmodern technique of referencing or re-telling other literary works. The novel’s title is a reference to the biblical story of Jesus healing the blind man. Doerr’s text, “a world full of light” echoes the biblical description of Jesus as “the light of the world.” The blind man is healed by faith. Werner, suffering from spiritual blindness, is exhorted to “open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever.”

Werner experiences a spiritual awakening and transformation. Through his love and his violent death, he is transformed into a Christ-like figure: “His soul glowed with some fundamental kindness.”

Anthony Doerr’s strong suit is his attention to the theme of human empathy. The writing’s beauty is impressive, particularly the descriptions of the Breton coast and marine life. He creates memorable characters and intricate plots, but the novel feels contrived, relying on coincidences and props, e.g., the role of radio and the Sea of Flames. He thereby avoids facing the great historical issues behind the war. Doerr has largely created a fantasy world and a phony war.

The legacy of World War II is still with us. France today faces the growth in influence of the neo-fascist National Front (FN) headed by Marine Le Pen; while in Germany, certain reactionary historians are attempting to rehabilitate Hitler’s reputation. Humanity faces a gathering storm—the threat of another world war. Doerr has nothing to offer his readers about the tremendous historical impact of this war, except spiritual panacea. His approach, focusing on the supposed moral complexity of personal choice, does not represent a broad social and historical view.

Alone in Berlin—a working class couple opposes the Nazis

By Bernd Reinhardt
7 March 2016

Hans Fallada’s novel Every Man Dies Alone (published posthumously in 1947), about a Berlin working class couple who issue a call for resistance to the Second World War and to Hitler via the medium of handwritten postcards, has been adapted several times for film and television (in both East and West Germany during the 1960s and 1970s).

Fallada’s novel gained renewed attention following its translation into English in 2009. The great success of the book—the translation was a “surprise UK bestseller” in 2010, selling hundreds of thousands of copies—reflects a strong interest in the era of fascism and a craving for truth about history.

The author’s aim was not to reconstruct the real case of Otto and Elise Hampel, from Berlin’s Wedding district, who were executed in 1943 by the Nazis. Rather he used their remarkable story as the framework of a social portrait of the German capital under Hitler, drawing the picture of many characters from different milieus. Each has his or her own point of view and attitude towards Nazism.

Brendan Gleeson and Emma Thompson in Alone in Berlin

The real-life Hampels have become in the book and film the fictional Otto (Brendan Gleeson) and Anna (Emma Thompson) Quangel. Other characters often come from the petty bourgeoisie, including those who have experienced social decline and deliberately placed themselves at the service of the Nazis.

For example, there is the ruined bar manager Persicke (Uwe Preuss), who got back on his feet thanks to the Nazi Party. Two of his sons are now in the SS [the murderous Nazi paramilitary organization]. His youngest, Baldur (Sammy Scheuritzel), is a candidate for a Napola [National Political Institute of Education], an elite school for young fascist leaders. The son of Eva Kluge (Katrin Pollitt), the post office employee, is also with the SS. When she learns, however, that he has been involved in killing Jewish children at the front, she breaks off all contact. He is no longer her son.

Frau Kluge has long ago kicked out her husband, Enno (Lars Rudolph). He is unable to hold down a job and gambles away his wife’s money on the horses. He doesn’t want anything to do with politics. But he knows a Jewish doctor who, out of fear, writes sick notes for anyone who asks for one. Massive speedup has been implemented in the factories. Those who give the impression they are not devoting all their energy to “ultimate victory” (“Endsieg”), quickly find themselves clapped in a concentration camp.

The unemployed petty criminal Emil Barkhausen (Rainer Egger), who ruthlessly extorts people and is not afraid of betraying them to the Gestapo, is aware of the causes of the anxiety: “Most people today are afraid, basically everyone, because they’re all up to something forbidden, one way or another, and are worried that someone will get wind of it”. After Otto Quangel learns of his son’s death and expresses his grief to Barkhausen, the latter immediately tries to extort him, using the threat of the camps.

Fallada’s nuanced picture of daily life in the Third Reich shows the falsity of the thesis of Daniel Goldhagen and his supporters, holding that all Germans uniformly supported Hitler and the extermination of the Jews. The latest remake of Alone in Berlin (directed by Swiss actor Vincent Pérez) also rejects a collective guilt thesis. “I wanted to present this fear which was omnipresent. It was so thick you could cut it with a knife”, the director said.

Gestapo inspector Escherich (Daniel Brühl) takes his time finding out who is behind the amateurishly written postcards with their anti-Hitler slogans. He is convinced the postcards will not be passed on. Everyone will report them to the police—out of fear, rather than loyalty to the Führer. The guillotine stands out symbolically toward the end of the film (the Hampels were beheaded). The following scene shows a tenement building with countless empty windows.

Daniel Brühl and Gleeson

In the novel, this fear has a pre-history. Almost every adult in the Weimar Republic period (1919-33) had contact with people who were later regarded as “enemies of the people” under the Nazi regime. The German Communist Party (KPD) and Social Democratic Party (SPD) were parties with millions of members and sympathisers: workers, artisans, intellectuals, journalists and artists, including many Jews. Jews could be found in all social circles. Virtually every adult was vulnerable to official persecution at some point in the Nazi period, if one only dug deep enough into his or her past.

The scene in Fallada’s book between the prominent film actor and his lawyer is telling. The actor is thankful that he can continue performing under Hitler despite the fact his previous directors were often Jewish. He had also acted in pacifist films. The lawyer is an old school friend. When the movie star finds one of the Quangels’ postcards in the hallway and shows it to the lawyer, distrust suddenly arises. Each fears the other has laid a trap. They give the postcards to a Nazi functionary and their anger is now directed against those who wrote the anti-Hitler messages.

This concrete social mechanism of terror and the realism and sophistication of the novel in general are missing from the film. It focuses entirely on the couple, the Quangels, well performed by Gleeson and Thompson. The environment recedes into the background, is sterile and resembles a stage set. Many important episodes in the novel are missing. Characters have been deleted or smoothed over. The KPD underground resistance, in the environs of which Fallada locates some of his characters, has been carefully removed from the film.

Persicke’s telling history is presented in a positively false light. His glorification of the Führer in the book is accompanied by a profound social contempt for all those weaker than he is. The figure of Baldur also jars in the film. Perez turns the fanatical Hitler Youth leader into a fairly harmless young person in a youth organisation uniform, who is embarrassed when the elderly, Jewish Frau Rosenthal (Monique Chaumette) reminds him that as a child he always liked to eat her cakes.

The character of Escherich is interesting. One can imagine him as a criminologist during the Weimar Republic. Fallada leaves no doubt that his social indifference, his hunter’s nature was decisive for his Nazi career. Emotionless and with perseverance, he chases his “game”, the unknown postcard writer.

In Pérez’s film version, the cynical Gestapo officer, feared on all sides, is turned into a victim of violence. Only out of fear of his brutal superiors does he act violently. Before he takes desperate action, he throws the Quangels’ postcards out the open window of his office. Do the postcards fluttering outside, an image with which the film closes (the scene does not exist in the novel), indicate a twinge of conscience on Escherich’s part?

Each previous adaptation of the Fallada novel inevitably reflected a certain Zeitgeist [spirit of the time]. In the 1975 West German film (directed by Alfred Vohrer), Anna was the stronger character and the initiator of the postcards protest, in the spirit of the women’s movement of the day. The detailed five-hour, three-part television miniseries made in 1970 in East Germany (Hans-Joachim Kasprzik) made concessions to the Stalinist state censor. Otto Quangel was depicted as politically immature because he did not join the political opposition of the Stalinist Communist Party but instead acted as an apolitical loner.

Alone in Berlin

The new Franco-German production appears at a time when far-right movements such as the National Front in France and Pegida and Alternative for Germany are on the rise and state violence increasingly dominates everyday life. Undoubtedly, the film is a concerned response. Today’s youth should know the history of the Quangels, argues leading actor Daniel Brühl. At the same time, we are witnessing today an enormous intensification of social inequality.

Among the most notable scenes in Alone in Berlin is one pointing to economic inequality in the Nazi state: Anna Quangel, a member of the Nazi Women’s Association, visits a wealthy “people’s comrade” (Katarina Schüttler) in her luxury apartment and asks her, as she would anyone else, to comply with the general obligation to work. The women is indignant at the arrogance. Her husband, a senior Nazi official, ensures that Anna is dismissed from the Women’s Association.

It may sound surprising when Brühl explains that the film is innovative in featuring no die-hard Nazis. In fact, even in Fallada’s novel there are no figures corresponding to the usual Nazi stereotypes advocating an irrational “Master Race” and exhibiting the individual, sadistic lust to torture people.

What distinguishes the Nazi youth Baldur Persicke and the other petty-bourgeois characters, whom one could well imagine participating in today’s Pegida or the National Front, is the social attitude aptly and ironically described by Leon Trotsky in his brilliant essay “What is National Socialism?”, written shortly after the Nazi takeover in 1933: “What must be done in order to improve things? First of all, throttle those who are underneath”.

One can sense new social questions and emphases being explored in the film. Perhaps there were many more who thought like the Quangels. But ultimately, unfortunately, Perez’ effort to remodel Fallada’s realistic and multifaceted novel into a pacifist appeal for individual moral courage fails to convince.