Another dismal political reality

“Religious violence is typically different from any other kind of warfare—for the simple reason that for a true believer, there is no compromise about the sacred. Or, to put it in a more monotheistic key: one God, one truth. Tolerance is not an intrinsic part of any of the monotheistic religions. For some believers, the outcome of a conflict cannot be ambiguous. When the issues are sacred demands, there can be no bargaining. The believer cannot compromise on the will of God. Killing becomes an end in itself, rather than one instrument arrayed among nonlethal instruments in a bargaining process. Such believers want a lot of people dead and may not care whether a lot of people are watching, as long as God sees what has been done in His name.” – Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, The Age of Sacred Terror

But the rich have gotten richer, that’s a start

“Despite some success, the industrialized world has done relatively little to alleviate poverty, not just in the Arab and Muslim world, but globally. Indifference is not the full reason. In absolute terms, significant sums are given over to poverty reduction by contributors to multilateral development banks and by bilateral donors. The ineffectuality of aid programs is an equally important explanation for the persistence of poverty. Recipient countries do not have the financial, legal, and social institutions that would allow them to transform financial assistance into lasting economic gains, and donors do not know how to create these institutions. The governments receiving the aid resist the necessary structural reforms because their hold on power is often too fragile to subject their publics to the supposedly short-term pain of reform. The potential recriminations are not worth the uncertain long-term benefits.” – Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, The Age of Sacred Terror

Decline and fall

“History, scholars say, is written in three stages: heroic, with the narratives of great individuals and their feats; revisionist, which turns those accounts on their head; and tragic, where we see how events conspired to bring about an end beyond the reckoning of most actors of the time.” – Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, The Age of Sacred Terror


“There is a schizophrenia about the power of the press. At times, we still think of it as an objective bystander, narrating events—and many of its leading practitioners portray it this way. In American democracy, however, the press is part of the policy process. As Washington reporters from top newspapers and the networks know well, their personal ability to move the wheels of government equals that of almost anyone in the stone and concrete piles that line Pennsylvania and Independence Avenues. The physicist Werner Heisenberg famously noted that observation changes matter at the subatomic level; it does so every bit as much at the political level.” – Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, The Age of Sacred Terror

Not all it’s cracked up to be

“There are few more durable illusions in American life than the omnipotent presidency. For fear of appearing weak, incumbents rarely draw attention to the minimal powers accorded them by the Constitution and established practices of American government. Their critics in Congress and the public avoid mentioning this inconvenient fact because letting the executive off the hook never serves their purposes. Yet anyone who has worked in the White House knows that the office has remarkably little real power, not only when it comes to dealing with Congress and the judiciary but also in running the vast, unwieldy contraption that is the executive branch. A President relies on the loyalty of his appointees in the agencies to overcome the inertia and ingrained predilections of civil servants and the uniform military.” – Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, The Age of Sacred Terror

Making sense of it all

“The political and the non-political, freedom and restriction, fairness and unfairness, ideas and their consequences: these distinctions are all indispensable but contingent. They are working distinctions. We can’t do without them, on pain of intellectual and social incoherence. But what content we give them is determined by our fundamental goals and values, our deepest sense of how things are and who we are. It’s no use saying that there’s no disputing about such questions. Either we discuss them publicly or they’re settled, for public purposes, without discussion.” – George Scialabba, “Debating P.C.”

Making art safe

“Contemporary society, and in particular contemporary criticism, has tamed the arts, gradually deprived them of their prophetic and subversive possibilities. There’s no place in modern life for the mystical or the unpredictable; the arts have been institutionalized and are now managed by a cultural bureaucracy of scholars, critics, patrons, businessmen, and publicists. . . . The techniques of modern management are various: the blockbuster phenomenon and the star system, with their accompanying publicity machines; the centralization of public patronage; the recruitment of artists into universities.” – George Scialabba, “The Arts Without Mystery”

It’s a free country

“A four-letter word beginning with ‘f’ has tragically corrupted the minds of countless innocent Americans. I mean ‘free,’ in the expressions ‘free market’ and ‘free enterprise.’ It is a glorious word, of course, but its association with these morally neutral abstractions generally serves to obscure their often harsh and irrational consequences.” – George Scialabba, “The Market System”


All you need is

“Literature has always been about love; the modern novel has been about love as a problem. More precisely, about love as one instance of the fundamental modern problem: autonomy, individuality, selfhood. Enacting one’s identity, living up to one’s inherited role, offered premoderns plenty of scope for literary heroism; but devising one’s identity, choosing one’s role, is a peculiarly modern difficulty. It has been the burden above all of modern women, the response to which has included several waves of feminism and a line of great novels: Wuthering Heights, Daniel Deronda, The Portrait of a Lady, The House of Mirth, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Women in Love, To the Lighthouse, The Golden Notebook, Wide Sargasso Sea, and others by Meredith, Gissing, Forster, Cather, and more. These novels show women — and men — struggling for self-knowledge, self-reliance, or self-definition against the weight of traditional expectations and dependencies. The terrain of this struggle is love-and-marriage, which is where — at least in the world in which those novels take place — most people have their deepest experiences and meet their most significant fates.” – George Scialabba, “The End of the Novel of Love”

To be disillusioned

“We read the late novels of D.H. Lawrence or the cantos of Ezra Pound, aware that these are works of enormously gifted writers yet steadily troubled by the outpouring of authoritarian and Fascist ideas. We read Bertolt Brecht’s ‘To Posterity,’ in which he offers an incomparable evocation of the travail of Europe in the period between the wars yet also weaves in a justification of the Stalin dictatorship. How are we to respond to all this? The question is crucial in our experience of modernist literature. We may say that the doctrine is irrelevant, as many critics do say, and that would lead us to the impossible position that the commanding thought of a poem need not be seriously considered in forming a judgment of its value. Or we may say that the doctrine, being obnoxious, destroys our pleasure in the poem, as some critics do say, and that would lead us to the impossible position that our judgment of the work is determined by our opinion concerning the author’s ideology. There is, I think, no satisfactory solution in the abstract, and we must learn to accept the fact that modernist literature is often – not in this way alone! – ‘unacceptable.’ It forces us into distance and dissociation; it denies us wholeness of response; it alienates us from its own powers of statement even when we feel that it is imaginatively transcending the malaise of alienation.” – Irving Howe, “The Culture of Modernism”

The silence of the lambs

“A number of gravestones lie fallen; the grass is rank. This is the burial-site of Russian infantry who died at the approaches to Weimar when the war was virtually over. No more, I reckon, than thirty or forty graves. A fair number are those of boy-soldiers, aged sixteen or seventeen, out of the Asian steppe, out of Kazakhstan and Turkmenia, done to death in a land and language of which they could have had no notion, by the insensate, robotic resistance and military skills of a moribund Reich. This unnoticed graveyard makes manifest the moronic waste and waste and waste of war, the appetite of war for children. Yet it expounds no less the mind-numbing affinities between war and high culture, between bestial violence and the noon places of human creativity. The bounds of Goethe’s garden are minutes away to one side. The alleys familiar to Liszt and to Berlioz skirt the rusted gate. There is rest here, but no peace.” – George Steiner, Errata: An Examined Life

Day of locusts

“Humanity today is living in a large brothel! One has only to glance at its press, films, fashion shows, beauty contests, ballrooms, wine bars, and broadcasting stations! Or observe its mad lust for naked flesh, provocative pictures, and sick, suggestive statements in literature, the arts, and mass media! And add to all this the system of usury which fuels man’s voracity for money and engenders vile methods for its accumulation and investment, in addition to fraud, trickery, and blackmail dressed up in the garb of law.” – Sayyid Qutb (quoted by Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon in The Age of Sacred Terror)

Apples and oranges

“The leading British conservative of the 19th century, Benjamin Disraeli, was a legendary wit and a successful novelist whose books are still worth reading. The leading American conservative of the 20th century, Ronald Reagan, was an amiable duffer with a head full of old movies and a shoebox full of old newspaper clippings. The leading British liberal of the 19th century, William Gladstone, read 20,000 books in his lifetime, wrote extensively on Homer, Dante, modern literature, and theology, and was both the greatest financial expert and the greatest orator of the age. The leading American liberal of the 20th century, Franklin Roosevelt, was an amiable dilettante with shrewd political instincts and a dash of noblesse oblige but no political or economic ideas to speak of.” – George Scialabba, “Gladstone”

It’s not in the budget

“Generals are a happily blessed race who radiate confidence and power. They feed only on ambrosia and drink only nectar, except when they are drinking bourbon. In peace, they stride confidently and can invade a world simply by sweeping their hands grandly over a map, pointing their fingers decisively up terrain corridors and blocking defiles and obstacles with the side of their hands. In war, they must stride more slowly because each general has a logistician riding on his back and he knows that, at any moment, the logistician may lean forward and whisper, ‘No, you can’t do that!’ ” – Anonymous, “How Many Logisticians Do You Want?” (quoted by John M. Collins in U.S.-Soviet Military Balance, 1960-1980)

Pretty as a picture

“For all its horror, you can’t help but gape at the awful majesty of combat. You stare out at tracer rounds unwinding through the dark like brilliant red ribbons. You crouch in ambush as a cool, impassive moon rises over the nighttime paddies. You admire the fluid symmetries of troops on the move, the harmonies of sound and shape and proportion, the great sheets of metal-fire streaming down from a gunship, the illumination rounds, the white phosphorus, the purply orange glow of napalm, the rocket’s red glare. It’s not pretty, exactly. It’s astonishing. It fills the eye. It commands you. You hate it, yes, but your eyes do not.” – Tim O’Brien, “How to Tell a True War Story”

Tell it like it is

“A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil.” – Tim O’Brien, “How to Tell a True War Story”