A New Form of Autocracy


Moisé Naím, The Revenge of Power:

How Autocrats Are Reinventing Politics for the 21st Century

(St. Martin’s Press)

Less than a week before the recent mid-term elections in the United States, President Joe Biden delivered an address in which he declared that democracy itself was on the ballot in the upcoming elections.  Invoking both the assault on the United States Capitol on January 6, 2021, and an attack the previous week on the husband of the Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi by a hammer-wielding assailant seeking to kidnap the speaker herself, the president traced the violence in each case to what he termed the “Big Lie” of former president Donald Trump that the 2020 presidential election had been stolen. Biden’s immediate concern was the large number of “election deniers” running for state and federal office who would not commit to accepting the results of their upcoming electoral contests.  He asked his fellow citizens to “make the future of our democracy an important part of your decision to vote and how you vote,” warning that we “can’t take democracy for granted any longer.”

So, with (most of) the votes now tabulated, did democracy win in the 2022 American mid-term elections?  The emerging consensus:  it didn’t lose.  Thomas Friedman, writing in the New York Times, opined that the American constitutional system “looks to have come through — a little dinged up, but OK . . . [W]e may have just dodged one of the biggest arrows ever aimed at the heart of our democracy.”  American democracy, Tom Nichols wrote in the Atlantic Monthly, “now has some breathing room.” Iin the view of a commentator for Vox, there is “no question that the forecast for American democracy is looking better today than it was heading into the election.”

But no one seems ready to pronounce the United States’ democratic crisis over, and with good reason.  The United States remains one of a startlingly high number of nations around the world where democracy, measured by objective criteria, is ceding ground to various forms of authoritarianism.  Autocracy, as President Biden put it, is the “opposite of democracy. It means the rule of one, one person, one interest, one ideology, one party.”

It should therefore be no surprise that an ever-growing number of books seeking to explain this global trend are competing for bookstore shelf space.   Among the most imaginative and wide-ranging is Moisé Naím’s The Revenge of Power: How Autocrats Are Reinventing Politics for the 21st Century, which places special emphasis upon how 21st century autocrats differ from their 20th-century predecessors.  One of the many strengths of Naím’s account is that it draws upon a broad array of autocrats from all points across the political spectrum and from all parts of the globe to support its theorizing.  And like most y books in this genre, The Revenge of Power supplements its analysis with proposed solutions for checking the rise of autocracy and strengthening democratic institutions.

Naím brings extensive and varied experience to this all-too-timely subject.  He is presently a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C.   Previously, he served as editor-in-chief of Foreign Policy, was an executive director at the World Bank, and a cabinet minister in Venezuela, his native country. Although he writes in a breezy, informal style that will appeal to general readers, Naím also brings an unmistakable sense of urgency to his subject.  Free societies around the world, he declares at the outset, now face an “implacable new enemy” which he describes with his own emphasis as “power, in a malignant new form” (p.xi) — a form of executive power which arises in democratic contexts but “mimics democracy while undermining it, scorning all limits” (p.xi).

This new form of power relies upon a “compact core of strategies to weaken the foundations of democracy and cement its malignant dominance” (p.xii).   Naím reduces these strategies to what he terms the “3Ps”:  populism, polarization, and post-truth which, working together, enable what he terms “3P autocrats” to “gain, wield, and keep power” (p.xv).  Although 3P autocrats arise in different political contexts, “their playbooks look uncannily similar,” (p.xiv).  Their  innovations have “deeply altered the way power is conquered and retained in the 21st century.” (p.xiii).

Contemporary autocrats frequently wield power by stealth rather than openly and brutally, Naím argues, in a manner that might be termed the “boiled frog” approach: according to popular understanding, a frog dropped into boiling water will jump out immediately, while one placed in lukewarm water gradually heated to a boil will fail to realize what is happening.  Although “zoologically suspect,” the boiled frog approach has “real psychological underpinnings” (p.66-67) in explaining modern autocratic power consolidation.  3P autocrats “cloak their autocratic plans behind walls of secrecy, bureaucratic obfuscation, pseudo-legal subterfuge, manipulation of public opinion, and the repression of critics and adversaries. Once the mask comes off, it’s too late” (p.xv).

While we usually think of contemporary autocracy as a phenomenon of the political right, Naím’s eclectic perspective accords ample space to left-wing autocrats, particularly the regime of Hugo Chavez and his successor Nicolás Maduro in his native Venezuela. He returns frequently to such familiar names as the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, India’s Narendra Modi, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and Turkey’s Recept Tayip Erdogan.  Autocratic practices if not their practitioners from countries as diverse as Thailand, Sri Lanka, Bolivia, Argentina, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, along with China and multiple African countries, also buttress Naím’s points.  But the most regularly cited practitioners of 21st century autocracy are Silvio Berlusconi, Donald Trump, Viktor Orbán, and Vladimir Putin.

Berlusconi and Trump exemplify how 21st century autocrats exploit modern entertainment techniques to advance their political fortunes, blurring the lines between celebrity culture and politics.  Orbán offers a textbook example of the boiled frog approach, which he proudly terms “illiberal democracy,” pursuing in small steps, often cloaked in stealth, “some of the most comprehensive programs of 3P autocracy in recent memory” (p.25), with the effect of undermining Hungary’s fragile democratic institutions.  Orbán, however, is merely the star pupil of Vladimir Putin, who represents 21st century autocracy in its rawest and most brutal form.  Writing before this year’s invasion of Ukraine, Naím contends that more than any other 3P autocrat, Putin has turned his country into a gangster state.

* * *

What unites today’s autocrats is that all “want power with no strings attached, and they want it for keeps”  (p.xiv).  The 3Ps constitute Naím’s framework for explaining the strategies they employ in their quest for no-strings-attached power.  Taken together, the 3Ps “sketch out a recipe for pursuing and maintaining power” that Naím describes as “fundamentally undemocratic, uncontained by constitutional principles or institutional restraint” (p.xix).

Populism, the first of the 3Ps, is a versatile, anti-elitist strategy that champions the cause of the “people” – “noble and pure” yet “betrayed and aggrieved” (p.xvi) — whose problems can be attributed to the decisions, invariably corrupt and often conspiratorial, of a venal elite. Rather than being an ideology like socialism or liberalism, populism can be made compatible with “virtually any governing ideology or no ideology at all” (p.xvi).  Populism fuels polarization through a politics of resentment and grievance, dividing the political realm into “us” and “them,” with little middle ground between the two.

But resentment, Naím argues, is only a euphemism for revenge, the “longing to hurt those you believe have wronged you” (p.70), making revenge the central source of modern political polarization (as well as the source of the book’s title).  As polarization advances, “political rivals come to be treated as enemies” (p.xviii).  The enemy can be a rival political leader or party, or a social, racial, or ethnic group.  Polarization generally feeds on the collapse of the political center, pulling societies apart and solidifying 3P autocrats’ grip over their followers. Both populism and polarization have long histories, “amply documented by scholars dating back to antiquity” (p.158). The third ‘P’, post-truth politics, by contrast, is a distinctly 21st century phenomenon, one that goes beyond traditional propagandizing and lying.

Post-truth politics center on the uses that can be made of the internet and related technologies to sow misinformation that “deepens the polarization that divides societies” (p.130).  Rather than getting lies accepted, post-truth politics aim at “muddying the waters to the point where it is difficult to discern the difference between truth and falsehood in the first place” (p.xix).  This “strategic use of confusion” (p.159), as Naím phrases it, makes post-truth politics:

much darker than the run-of-the-mill mendaciousness of the powerful. It is not about the spread of this lie or that lie but about destroying the possibility of truth in public life.  By shaking our shared sense of reality, post-truth elevates populism and polarization from a normal kind of political nuisance into something different and more fundamental: an existential threat to the continuity of free governments and free societies (p.159).

* * *

The Covid-19 pandemic of 2020 proved to be itself an existential threat to the continuity of democratic institutions across the globe, offering autocrats an unparalleled opportunity to enhance their hold on power.  For entirely legitimate health reasons, the use of emergency state powers increased during the pandemic. But as issued by 3P autocrats, declarations of a state of emergency “all but openly trumpeted their authoritarian intent” (p.237).  In Hungary, Viktor Orbán’s declaration of emergency, limited in neither time nor scope, provided a justification to shut down parliament and gain full control of the state apparatus, allowing him to rule by decree.

There were an unusually high number of election postponements in 2020.  Some of course were motivated by genuine health concerns, precisely why the pretext is “credible enough to be useful to those exploiting the pandemic for political gain” (p.234).  The early months of the pandemic also saw its own “global pandemic of censorship,” with autocratic governments around the world “cracking down on dissent under the guise of banning disinformation about the virus” (p.235).

In every case, Naím notes, governments “claimed to be moving in the interest of public health to snuff out untrue stories about the virus. In a suspiciously high proportion of cases, those ‘untrue stories’ happened to unveil the ineptitude of the government’s handling of the crisis” (p.235).   In the United States and Brazil, public statements made by Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro were “riddled with scientific denial, appeals to magical thinking, and straight-up lies” (p.241).   Unlike the blatant falsehoods propagated by the Chinese and Russian governments, Trump and Bolsonaro “appeared personally convinced of some of the most far-fetched conspiracy theories they peddled” (p.242).

More than their 20th century predecessors, today’s autocrats gain and maintain power by utilizing what Naím terms the “entertainment values of our age” (p.31).   What is new in the 21st century, he argues, is the extent to which people now look at politics as spectacle, relating to their political leaders in the same way they relate to their favorite entertainers and sports stars.  Politics as spectacle “devalues mastery of policy details, expertise, the ability to strike bargains and to move toward messy pragmatic compromise” (p.55).  These basic democratic values “lose space to their opposites: invectives, demonization of opponents, maximalism, and intolerance” (p.56),

Silvio Berlusconi, who served three terms as Italy’s Prime Minister from 1994 to 1995, 2001 to 2006, and 2008 to 2011, provided one of the earliest demonstrations of how entertainment values can be leveraged for political gain.  Berlusconi first built a media empire, transforming Italian television into a “crassly commercial profit engine,” then “did the same to the country’s politics” (p.41).  Once Italian voters had a taste for politics that shared the look and feel of show business, there was “no going back” (p.50).  Italian politics were no longer boring.  “[E]xtreme  positions and made-for-the-camera antics came to be the stock in trade of the political realm – just what the voting public expected”  (p.50).

Donald Trump picked up where Berlusconi left off in his improbable bid for the presidency in 2015-16 and the chaotic presidential term that followed from 2017-2021. Trump’s world was “shot through with entertainment values” where “ratings are everything” (p.35).  Having been “steeped for four decades in celebrity culture and the entertainment industry,” Trump had developed an “unrivaled sixth sense for what it took to get noticed, written about, talked about, covered” (p.32).  Unlike other entertainers who entered politics, such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Al Franken, Trump never saw a need to remake himself as a serious politician.

Less well known is the extent to which Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez also adeptly utilized the politics of fandom “in the service of full 3P strategy to grab and maintain power” (p.50).  Usually treated as an archetypal 20th-century left wing strongman, Chávez’s political style owed more to Berlusconi than Fidel Castro, Naím contends.  Chávez grasped that ideology matters less than celebrity status and that folksy television performances could create a world where style was substance.  He used his star power to dismantle the checks and balances at the heart of Venezuela’s constitution.

Naím, who grew up in Venezuela and had served in its government in the pre-Chávez era, initially dismissed Chávez as merely “another populist demagogue, a clown too hapless to do any real damage,” failing to grasp how his fandom had “set the stage for the logic of tribalism that drives polarization” (p.52).  Years later, he watched Donald Trump’s quest for the presidency in the United States with a “horror suffused in déjà vu… I had seen this movie before. Just never in English” (p.52).

Berlusconi, Trump and Chávez relied upon a “debased charisma emptied of genuinely political content,” propelled by the “same thirst for entertainment that saturates the rest of our culture”  (p.42-43).   Where the line between power and spectacle “vanishes completely,” Naím warns, “freedom cannot hold out for long” (p. 45).  Mafia states, predicated upon a “criminal takeover of the state” (p.186), may seem like anything but politics as entertainment. But they pose similar dangers.

Mafia states are “designed to allow its leaders maximum latitude to enrich themselves with impunity”  (p.189).  Unsurprisingly, Vladimir Putin has created what Naím considers the world’s “most ambitious, ruthless, and effective mafia state” (p.194).  In Putin’s Russia, the entire economy is for all intents and purposes beholden to him. “Criminality and racketeering aren’t departures from the norm: they are a central feature of the system that Putin built” (p.197).  Democracy cannot work, Naím warns, in “mafia states that rely on organized crime’s strategies, tactics, and methods and have the backing of a sovereign state.” (p.252).  Even more perniciously, the mafia state operating out of the Kremlin uses relatively inexpensive online communications technologies to undermine and destabilize democracies abroad.

The Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election was merely one in a long line of Russian online interventions outside its borders. The Russian government has also been accused of meddling in the 2017 Spanish elections and the Catalonian separatist movement’s ill-fated independence referendum of the same year, working with the government of Venezuela.  Catalonian independence was “precisely the kind of social fault line the Kremlin loves to expose and exploit” (p.212), Naím writes. For Russia, “manufacturing reality is a tool of statecraft” (p.166), he observes. He terms this relatively inexpensive form of meddling abroad “sharp power,” which he considers perhaps the “most unprecedented and insidious” (p.254) among the 21stcentury forms of disruption discussed in his book and one of the principal reasons that a mafia state “anywhere is a threat to democracy everywhere” (p.252).

But Naím now needs to consider whether Russia’s brazen invasion of Ukraine earlier this year represents the natural extension of the autocratic tendencies he describes.  Putin’s pre-2022 incursions into Ukraine were coated with what Naím terms a “paper-thin patina of pseudo-legal legitimacy to what everyone could see was a Russian military land grab” (p.220).  In the 21st century, he argues, it is “diplomatically untenable for a country to project its military power into a neighbor’s territory openly” (p.221).

This year’s Ukraine invasion lacked even these thin pretenses, recalling Mussolini’s incursion into Ethiopia and Hitler’s attacks on Czechoslovakia and Poland in the 1930s. The glorification of war and conquest was a key element of 20th century Fascism but until now has not been a central part of 21st-century 3P autocracy.  Is naked military conquest the logical next step for autocrats once they have fully consolidated power in their own countries?  Or is Putin’s Ukraine incursion the result of one autocrat’s idiosyncratic megalomania working overtime?  These are among the many Ukraine-related questions that Naím and other theorists of autocracy will hopefully address in future works.

* * *

Naím cautions democrats to pick their battles carefully if they are to be effective in countering 3P autocrats.  The most critical battle for Naím involves post-truth politics, the battle against strategic uses of misinformation.  Focusing intently on Donald Trump and his denial of the outcome of the 2020 presidential election, Naím argues that informed and responsive citizens are the “first line of defense against the Big Lie” (p.251).  Any strategy to defend democracies and ensure that the political system works for the good of society “hinges on restoring the ability of citizens to differentiate truth from lies… No democracy can survive if the propagation of Big Lies is consistently rewarded with power” (p.247).

Most of the election deniers whom President Biden targeted in his speech lost their bids for public offices in this month’s midterms.  Can Americans now permit themselves to think they’ve turned the corner in this crucial battle to safeguard democracy?   My guess is that Naím would answer that question with a definite maybe, to which he might add, as he does throughout The Revenge of Power, that democracy’s survival is never guaranteed.

Thomas H. Peebles

Paris, France

November 22, 2022






Filed under American Politics, American Society, Politics

Restitution of African Artworks as a Moral Imperative


Dan Hicks, The Brutish Museums:

The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution (Pluto Press)


Bénédicte Savoy, Africa’s Struggle for Its Art:

History of a Postcolonial Defeat, translated by Susanne Meyer-Abich

(Princeton University Press)

Should European and North American museums return to their places of origin those artworks, artifacts, and other cultural items in their collections that originated in former European colonies? This is the “restitution question,” a question that Western museum officials face increasingly today.  It is a question enmeshed in the broader debate over how European states should reckon with the legacies of imperialism and what former colonial powers might owe to the descendants of those they once colonized. Two recent books shed needed light on the restitution question: Dan Hicks, The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution; and Bénédicte Savoy, Africa’s Struggle for Its Art: History of a Postcolonial Defeat, originally in German and ably translated by Susanne Meyer-Abich.  Although approaching the question from entirely different angles, the two authors reach identical conclusions:  restitution is a moral imperative, a step that former colonial states need to take to acknowledge and make amends for the racism, exploitation, and violence that underlay colonialism.  As Savoy writes, “Restitution, decolonization, social justice and the question of racism go hand in hand” (S.3).

Hicks, Professor of Contemporary Archaeology at the University of Oxford and curator at Oxford’s Pitt-Rivers Museum, focuses on a single episode, the British invasion in February 1897 of the City of Benin, located in today’s Nigeria.  In what was officially called a “punitive expedition,” British soldiers leveled the city in retaliation for the killing of as many as nine British officials the previous month.  They and their commanding officers took with them more than 10,000 items that came to be known as the “Benin Bronzes,” a treasure trove of sculptures, plaques and cultural items, ivory as well as bronze. Hicks estimates that works taken from Benin City in 1897 can now be found in 161 museums, galleries and private collections across Europe and North America.

Savoy, professor of Art History at the University of Berlin and former professor at the College de Francein Paris, details the formative years of the restitution debate, the 1970s and early 1980s, a time when newly independent sub-Saharan African states began requesting that former European colonial powers return African artworks.  These restitution requests attracted some sympathetic reaction in Europe but also precipitated fierce resistance, with West German museums in particular stridently opposing restitution.  By the mid-1980s, the restitution debate had gone into hibernation with little tangible progress – hence Savoy’s subtitle History of a Colonial Defeat – only to be revived in almost identical form in the second decade of the 21st century.  “Nearly every conversation today about the restitution of cultural property to Africa already happened 40 years ago” (S.139), she writes.

Hicks describes his passionately written account as “self-consciously ‘anglo-specific’” (H.xiii), concentrated almost exclusively on Great Britain and the Benin Bronzes.  His central argument is that museums that retain and display artworks and artifacts taken from formerly colonized communities remain complicit in and perpetrate the original injustice, making them the “brutish museums” of his title.  Their display of stolen goods is enduring damage that is “renewed every day that the museum doors are unlocked, and these trophies are displayed to the public” (H.xiv).  Savoy focuses primarily on the restitution debate in West Germany during the Cold War, although Britain and the Benin Bronzes also figure in her analysis.  Her prose is less fiery and more measured, but she echoes Hicks’ central argument in describing museums with non-European art in the heart of Europe as “walk-in show cases of colonial approbation practices. There is no way around it” (S.140).

* * *

The Brutish Museums places the 1897 punitive expedition in the broader context of late 19th century British colonialism, from roughly the 1884 Berlin Conference, when European powers sought to set the terms for what was famously termed the “scramble for Africa,” until the outbreak of World War I in 1914.  During this period, Hicks argues, widespread looting of artworks and cultural artifacts became common practice, one aspect of the appalling violence European powers unleashed while claiming to advance what were sometimes termed the “3 Cs,” civilization, Christianity, and commerce.

The official justification for the 1897 punitive expedition was as a retaliation for the killing of nine British officials who had tried to meet with the Oba (king) of Benin City to negotiate more favorable trade terms. Britain further claimed that the mission had been designed to help suppress slavery, the slave trade, cannibalism, and other forms of barbarism.  Hicks demonstrates convincingly that these justifications were pretextual.  The attack on Benin City had been “planned for years,” he argues, part of a “wholly new phase of colonial violence” (H.84), in which large-scale, high-profile British military interventions in Africa focused on regime change and the “active removal of long-standing powerful kings” (H.81) who posed unacceptable impediments to trade.

Hicks’ “smoking gun,” the most persuasive item of proof that regime change for more favorable trade terms was the driving force behind the punitive expedition, is a letter of mid-November 1896 from the Acting Counsel of the Niger Coast Protectorate to the British Foreign Office calling explicitly for the Oba’ s removal.  “I am convinced,” the Acting Counsel wrote, that “pacific measures are now quite useless.” (H.89).  He therefore asked permission to “depose and remove the King of Benin and to establish a native council in his place and to take such further steps for the opening up of the country as the occasion may require” (H.89-90).  The Foreign Office approved the request in December 1896, two months before the punitive expedition.

The punitive expedition unleashed not just pillaging and looting but also the indiscriminate massacre of civilians, including women and children, through the “bombardment of towns and villages from the air and thus … across the whole of the Benin Kingdom, scorching the earth with rockets, fire and mines” (H.123).  Tellingly, in the aftermath of the attack, no official or informational reports were compiled on matters such as prisoners of war, injured African casualties, the spread and effect of diseases, or hospital operations for Africans.  The 1897 mission was an “act of vandalism and cultural destruction,” Hicks concludes, which possessed “no logic of salvage, or of saving culture for the world,” (H.142), rising to the level of a “crime against humanity” as that term would be defined just two years later in the 1899 Hague Convention.

Pillaging and looting of artworks in late 19th century colonialism should not be dismissed as merely an unfortunate “side effect of empire,” (H.23), Hicks argues.  Yet, in the century and a quarter since 1897, the scale of British violence and the loss of native life have too often been minimized, “as if these misrepresentations were themselves a sacred and delicate artifact demanding our conservation.” (H.40).  This minimization of violence underpins one of the primary arguments against restitution, that items were taken in accordance with the values of the time, thereby rendering present ownership legitimate.  No, Hick counters, the violence endures; it is not some past relic to be “revisited on the curator’s own terms” (H.164).

More recently, institutions like the British Museum have contended that they are “world culture museums,” tasked with caring for a “universal, supranational material heritage … for the people of every nation” (H.200).  But this notion, which Savoy dismisses as a  “generalized form of Eurocentrism” (S.110), is for Hicks another form of license for pretending that “this violence and loss is in the past,” and avoiding the reality that it is “here in front of us in debts that need to be paid for things that were taken” (H.215). Resistance to restitution also relies upon arguments that Africans do not have the capacity to care for their own cultural items, thus endangering them, and that claims for such items are themselves “political.”

Going forward, Hicks hopes to see museums in Britain use their status as “unique public spaces” to “change the stories that we tell ourselves about the British Empire, while taking action in support of communities across the Global South in building museums on a totally new kind of model” (H.35).  Such reconfigured museums should bring “other ways of seeing, knowing, living and making into the Euro-American consciousness, including an awareness of the universal importance of material cultural in human lives.”  But they can fulfill this function only when nothing on display is present “against the will of others” (H.228).

* * *

Savoy’s work is derived in large measure from documentation she uncovered while co-authoring a highly acclaimed report, “The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage: Toward a New Relational Ethics” with the Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr.  French President Emanuel Macron commissioned the report in connection with his ground-breaking address at the University of Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, in November 2017, in which he acknowledged that many if not most African artworks and cultural artifacts held in French museums had been stolen during France’s colonial period and should be returned to their places of origin.

The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage consists of 16 short chapters, each using a year as its title.  Most are centered on an event that occurred in the particular year, such as a speech, conference, published paper, or film.  Collectively, the chapters reveal a stark dichotomy emerging during the 1970s as increased calls for restitution, particularly from newly independent African nations, were met with efforts by administrators at influential museums to prevent the return of stolen artworks.   Especially in West Germany and secondarily in Great Britain, key museum administrators deliberated behind closed doors to oppose restitution and stifle public debate.  The West German opposition, Savoy reveals, included former members of  Adolph Hitler’s National Socialist party who had moved seamlessly into influential positions in post-war West Germany.

Intense closed-door deliberations began in West Germany in 1972 after the Government of Nigeria asked the West German Foreign Office for a “permanent loan” of some of the Benin Bronzes held in West Berlin’s Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbeseitz (SPK, the Foundation for Prussian Cultural Heritage), the world’s second largest collection of the bronzes after the British Museum in London.  Desiring good relations with Nigeria and other recently independent African countries, the Foreign Office looked favorably upon the request, which it passed to SPK senior management.  But SPK had an altogether different view, as set forth in an extensive letter from SPK Director-General Hans-Georg Wormit to Carl Gussone, head of the West German Ministry of Interior’s Matters of Cultural Conservation, who had played a key role in the founding of SPK in 1957.

Wormit described the request as “dangerous” and “facile” (S.23), stressing how SPK was competing for rank and reputation in the Cold War world of the 1970s not only with its counterparts in London and Paris but also with East German museums.  German museums, he argued, had suffered enough from World War II, and could not afford to return anything from their collections.  He advocated a strategy of delay that worked: the German public “never heard anything about this [Nigerian] request and its outcome” (S.28), Savoy writes.  Wormit and Gussone, she notes, were among those high-level West German officials who had been members and fervent supporters of the Nazi party during its time in power. Was their hardline resistance to restitution related to the racist thinking of the Nazi regime? Without hazarding a direct answer, Savoy notes that this is a “legitimate question” (S.22).

If Wormit and Gussone were able to circumvent the restitution issue in 1972, it came to the attention of the German public and the world at large the following year, when Zaire’s President Sese Seko Mobutu placed restitution on the global agenda through an address at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA).  The address, which Savoy characterizes as a “legendary full-frontal attack on the Western industrial nations” (S.31), articulated the moral basis for restitution:

During the colonial period we suffered not only from colonialism; slavery, economic exploitation, but also and above all from the barbarous, systematic pillaging of all our works of art.  In this way the rich countries appropriated our best, our unique works of art, and we are therefore poor not only economically but also culturally. Those works of art, which are to be found in the museums of the rich countries are … the finished products of our ancestors. Those works, which were acquired for nothing, have increased in value so much that none of our countries has the material means to recover them (S.31).

Later that year, the UNGA adopted Resolution 3187, “Restitution of Works of Art to Countries Victims of Expropriation,” with 113 countries voting in favor.

Mobutu’s address prompted enough interest in Germany that the West German Foreign Office asked leading museums to present their views on restitution, giving rise to another round of opposition to restitution claims that Savoy characterizes as “fundamental and harsh, both in tone and in content” (S.37).   She focuses on the response of Stephan Waetzoldt, Director General of Staatlich Museen zu Berlin (Berlin State Museum), who wrote that he had difficulty understanding the rationale for what he described as the “absurd demand for the return of practically the entire collection holdings which come from the Third World and are now in Western museums” (S.37).  Waetzoldt cited the “appalling condition” of “Third World” museums, which were incapable of preserving their own heritage.  Cosmopolitan West German collections, he contended, constituted the “main reason why the German public was interested in foreign cultures at all” (S.38).  Waetzoldt thus recommended that West German museums treat the Foreign Office request “as dilatorily as possible” (S.38).

But by the mid-1970s, a pro-restitution voice had surfaced in the West German museum microworld, that of Herbert Ganslmayr, Director-General of the Übersee-Museum in Bremen.  Born in 1937 and belonging to a younger generation than Wormit, Gussone and Waetzoldt, Ganslmayr came to public attention through a 1976 article in the American newspaper Christian Science Monitor entitled “German Debate: Should Art Return to Former Colonies?” The article quoted Ganslmayr as arguing that Germany had both a legal and moral obligation to “hand things back” (S.48).  Full enjoyment of cultural heritage, he contended, was “for each people an indispensable condition for its self-realization” (S.48).

Later that year, Ganslmayr presented a paper, entitled “Return of Cultural Property,” which inspired a journalist from Bremen to produce a hard-hitting radio documentary on restitution which probed museum officials on what they meant when they contended that African artworks in their possession had been “acquired correctly” (S.52).  The radio program attracted the attention of leading West German museum officials, who formed what Savoy describes as a “clear front” (S.55) against Ganslmayr, conspicuously excluding him from further meetings and agreements.  Moreover, she notes, Ganslmayr also received threatening letters.  Throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, this clear front remained “smug” and “uncompromising” (S.81) in its assertions of ownership of cultural assets from formerly colonized countries.

Savoy also identifies an “almost unbearable institutional smugness” (S.113) in the way the British Museum systematically rejected restitution requests in the same time frame.  She zeroes in on Nigeria’s request that the museum release one of its most highly valued Benin Bronzes, the Queen Idia mask, in connection with the renowned 1977 Pan-African World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture.  Known simply as “Festac ’77,” the month-long festival took place in Lagos, Nigeria and is now regarded as “one of the greatest cultural events of the twentieth century on the African continent” (S.58).  The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), like its counterpart in West Germany, wanted to cultivate good relations with Nigeria and supported the request for the return of the mask.

But without any indication of overt collaboration between British Museum principals and their hardline West German counterparts, the museum raised strikingly similar arguments in response to the request.  An FCO official who met with British Museum officials noted that they “do not entirely trust the Nigerians to return [the mask]” (S.62).  They anticipated that the Nigerians “would not treat it with the care it demands, especially since the Nigerians would tend to think of it as their own property” (S.62).  That the Nigerians might dare to think of the mask as “their own property,” and therefore neglect to care for it, Savoy wryly observes, “speaks volumes about the self-perception of Western institutions” (S.62).

Savoy documents a spell of restitution-fatigue in the aftermath of Festac ’77, with African elites losing faith in the “capability of the ‘possessing’ countries to recognize the cultural needs of poorer nations” (S.89).  By 1982, she writes, the first postcolonial restitution debate was “long over” from an African perspective, even though the tide seemed to have turned in most of Europe in favor of restitution.  The Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, France and Italy all took positions favoring restitution at a UNESCO-sponsored “World Conference on Cultural Policies,” held in Mexico City in 1982, a conference which represented the “peak of the restitution debate of the 1970s and ‘80s” (S.118).  Only West Germany and Great Britain adhered to their hardline positions.

Greek actress Melina Mercouri drew attention at the conference when she pled for return of the famous Elgin Marbles from Great Britain to Greece, a plea  supported for a time by then Oxford Union President and future British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.  The restitution issue, which “until then had been publicly perceived mainly as an issue for ‘undeveloped’ countries – and for that reason often dismissed – now touched the Parthenon at the heart of Europe” (S.121).   It remains an open question, however, whether Mercouri rekindled the restitution flame or simply refocused the question away from Africa and on Greece.  Either way, Mercouri’s plea marked the “final end of European solidarity against restitution claims from the “‘Third World,’” (S.121), Savoy writes.  Sometime thereafter, the restitution debate “fizzled” (S.1), only to resurface with renewed intensity within the last ten years.

* * *

Both Savoy and Hicks acknowledge that restitutions have taken place with increasing frequency in recent years (last month, the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C. agreed to return a substantial number of  its Benin Bronzes to Nigeria).  Restitution claims nonetheless continue to trigger “compulsive instances of institutional defense,” Savoy cautions, “as if the search for an equitable approach to collections created in an inequitable contest was one of the greatest threats to European cultural heritage” (S.142).  The time is now ripe, she concludes, to “assume responsibility and to finish the work that museums directors and culture officials of the 1970s and ’80s deliberately left undone: a sincere and swift restitution of objects bought to Europe in a context of wrongdoing during colonial occupation” (S.140).  Hicks for his part exhorts his readers to “stand up from their chair[s], walk out of the door, and take action to make the 2020s a decade of restitution” (H.242).  Although presenting compelling cases for restitution in their complementary works, both authors thus foresee additional battles ahead.  Neither is ready to declare victory.

Thomas H. Peebles

Paris, France

October 27, 2022








Filed under Art, European History, German History, History

When Paris Was Full of Russians


Helen Rappaport, After the Romanovs:

Russian Exiles in Paris From the Belle Epoque Through Revolution and War

 (St. Martin’s Press, 2022)

Paris is “full of Russians at present.” That was how a recently-minted European correspondent for the Toronto Starbegan his report that appeared on February 25, 1922— by an odd coincidence almost exactly one hundred years prior to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked attack upon neighboring Ukraine on February 24 of this year.  The correspondent, an eager young journalist and writer from the American Midwest, Ernest Hemingway, had only arrived in Paris the previous December. He went on to inform his readers that the Russians were “drifting along in Paris in a childish sort of hopelessness that things will somehow be all right … No one knows just how they live except by selling off jewels and gold ornaments and family heirlooms that they brought with them to France.”

Most of the Russians whom Hemingway had encountered were refugees fleeing the October 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and the civil wars that ensued after the Bolshevik takeover in Russia.  Many arrived without jewels, ornaments, heirlooms, or much else.  Describing “just how they lived” in Paris is precisely the task British freelance-writer Helen Rappaport sets for herself in After the Romanovs: Russian Exiles in Paris from the Belle Epoque Through Revolution and War.  Rappaport’s work revolves around a series of portraits of the personal lives of several dozen Russians who found themselves in Paris during the first four decades of the twentieth century, with key personalities appearing and reappearing across a loosely chronological narrative.    

Between October 1917 and mid-1921, Paris became the destination of choice for thousands of refugees from Russia.  By 1930, according to one source, the Russian community living in Paris reached about 43,000 members, with another 9,500 living in the suburbs.  Yet, as her sub-title suggests, Rappaport starts well before the post-1917 surge in Russian refugees, during Paris’ “belle époque”— the last decades of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century, up to the outbreak of World War I, when vibrant manifestations of Russian cultural life flourished in Paris.  It was also a time when ostentatious Russians—Romanovs as well as others of aristocratic stock and the just plain wealthy—made the city their personal playground.

After early chapters on the Russian impact on belle époque Paris, Rappaport’s middle chapters, the heart of her story, show how the wave of émigrés arriving in Paris in the years following the 1917 revolution transformed the city and its Russian community. Although arriving “penniless and traumatized but grateful to have escaped the Russian civil war,” most Russians fared better during the 1920s than the 1930s. During the latter decade, the worldwide economic downturn not only fragilized the émigrés’ already fragile circumstances but also gave rise to the view that they were stealing jobs from native French.  Rappaport’s story ends with the German occupation of 1940, as the lights in the City of Lights went out— or at least dimmed considerably.

Broadly speaking, the émigrés Rappaport portrays fall into three groups: 1. the Romanov family and other aristocrats and nobles; 2. artistic, intellectual, and cultural figures; and 3. ‘everyday’ Russians.  Russians in Paris were known for being disputatious, turning “quarreling into an art form” (p.45), Rappaport writes. They were too diverse to be labeled “White Russians” in the sense of being uniformly monarchists, political reactionaries or counter-revolutionaries who favored the restoration of the Tsar.  But one of the few threads linking the heterogenous community was that almost all Russian émigrés were vehement and outspoken anti-Bolsheviks.

Many Russians were otherwise apolitical.  Some were socialists and liberal democrats who had supported the 1905 Revolution in Russia and the Provisional Government that came to power in March 1917, after the abdication of Romanov Tsar Nicolas II. Despite internal differences, moreover, Russian émigrés in Paris remained culturally and emotionally attached to Mother Russia, even though in the eyes of most the Bolshevik regime had rendered their country unrecognizable.  Furthermore, almost all émigrés found themselves in difficult financial straits.  Rappaport gives special attention to the plight of former aristocrats and nobles forced to eke out a living, a favorite subject of the press at the time.

The book’s individual portraits are the fruit of Rappaport’s dazzling excavation of a wide array of original source material, much of it focused on the Romanovs and others from Russia’s highest social strata.  Rappaport also draws on the extensive paper trail created by Russian writers, artists, and cultural figures, leaving a source gap for the everyday Russians who found themselves in Paris—“few voices of ordinary Russians have been recorded” (p.269), Rappaport indicates.  In what is probably the book’s most original contribution, she valiantly seeks to fill this gap.

Rappaport’s narrative sometimes succumbs to the ‘TMI’ syndrome: ‘Too Much Information,’ the often-irresistible tendency of authors to utilize too many of the details they unearth, giving much of the book a gossipy flavor.  But her book gained unanticipated resonance earlier this year after Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine, which triggered another wave of emigrants out of the Russian neighborhood and into Western Europe, including France—a century after Hemmingway reported on the exiles who had arrived in Paris fleeing the Bolshevik revolution in Russia.

* * *

Rappaport’s initial focus on Russians during the Parisian belle époque of the late-nineteenth and early twentieth century serves as valuable contrast to the émigrés who arrived more precariously in the years  following the 1917 Revolution.  The belle époque was, Rappaport writes, a “golden age of rapprochement” (p.3) between Russia and France, with Russian literature and culture attracting great interst and attention throughout France.  For Russian aristocrats and those with considerable wealth, Paris in 1900 was the “capital of Russia out of Russia,” a “home way from home, a safe haven in winter from the bitter cold of the northern Russian climate and the rising threat of revolution that was increasingly targeting their class” (p.1-2).

Romanov grand dukes gained notoriety during the belle époque for taking advantage of all that Paris had to offer, with the gossipy French press eagerly following their salacious adventures and misadventures.  Grand Duke Vladimir—Tsar Nicholas II’s most senior uncle—stood out among them, earning the sobriquet “Le Grand Duc Bon Vivant” for indulging in what Rappaport terms “libidinous and sometimes violent behavior” while making little effort to hide his “colossal appetite for food and wines, and his extravagant spending habits” (p.6), which included lavish tips.  But Grand Duke Vladimir was also a generous patron of the arts.

In a city considered Europe’s cultural capital, Vladimir’s best-known beneficiary, Sergey Diaghilev, dominated the Parisian cultural scene during the twentieth century’s first two decades.  In 1906, Diaghilev pulled together an unprecedented cross section of Russia’s best artwork since the eighteenth century.  Until that time, icon painting had been the primary Russian artform known in France.  Diaghilev also set out to familiarize Parisian audiences with innovative new Russian music beyond Tchaikovsky, “the only Russian composer with whom they were familiar” ” (p.24).

But Diaghilev was best known for creating the magnetic dance company Ballets Russe, which stormed the citadel of high Parisian culture by introducing an exotic form of dance frequently described as “crazy” or “mad” (p.28).  Diaghilev hired his former teacher Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov as a conductor for the Ballets Russe and introduced the Parisian public to Vaslav Nijinsky.  Imparting a “new direction and style” to the art of ballet with his “soaring flights” (p.30), Nijinsky elevated the male dancer to an equal footing with the ballerina. His 1910 performance for The Firebird Suite drove audiences into “raptures,” Rappaport writes. The next day, Paris talked of nothing but the “soaring angel” (p.33).

Russian writers and artists of the belle époque era, forced to flee Tsarist Russia in search of greater freedom of expression, frequented the legendary cafés of Montparnasse more than a decade before Hemingway made Montparnasse his personal playground.   Dubbed “penny universities” which taught “bohemian lifestyle, contempt for the bourgeois, sense of humor and heavy drinking” (p.47), Montparnasse cafés were refuge points for the impoverished Russian writers whom Rappaport describes as “rebels, misfits and down-and-outs;” and for creative artists “long on talent but short on money and struggling to become established” (p.42).  According to a popular view at the time, the more “Bohemian” a Montparnasse patron looked, the more likely he was to be Russian.

Paris before World War I was also full of rival anti-Tsarist political groups and factions: Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, anarchists, social revolutionaries, and Jewish trade unionists. Vladimir Lenin, unlike the stereotypical disheveled Russian revolutionary, lived conventionally with his wife and mother-in-law in Paris from 1909 to 1912, where he kept a low profile and stayed away from Montparnasse cafés.  Focused obsessively on the cause of revolution in Russia, Lenin “despised the sloppy, bohemian lifestyle of some of his fellow political exiles” who in his view had allowed Paris to divert them “too easily” from the cause (p.44-45).

After World War I broke out in the summer of 1914, many aristocrats, writers and artists headed back to Russia. Artist Marc Chagall left so quickly that he was unable to lock his studio, leaving a stack of paintings inside which he never saw again. A substantial number of the émigrés who remained behind in Paris sought to enlist in the war. But it was the events of 1917 in Russia, beginning with the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II in March, followed by the Bolshevik Revolution in November and ensuing civil wars, that precipitated the sweeping transformation of the émigré community in Paris at the heart of Rappaport’s story.

 * * *

The wave of refugees arriving in Paris between November 1917 and March 1921 came from a “much wider cross-section of [Russian] society, with loyalties to a wide range of political parties, social classes, and religions” (p.89), Rappaport writes. Most had left Russia through Odessa, in Crimea, sailing under abysmal conditions to Constantinople. Those who made it to Paris were hopeful that the city would offer something better than harsh Bolshevik rule and civil wars back home. But survival in the early 1920s was hard.  The ‘help wanted’ ads in the French press were “full of menial jobs that required none of the skills that the cream of the former intelligentsia had to offer” (p.130).  A “great deal of valuable Russian talent and expertise failed to find an outlet” (p.133).

Because of French employment regulations and the requirement of French nationality, only a small portion of Russian doctors, dentists, lawyers, and university lecturers were able to find work in their professions in Paris. Some circumvented the rules by working exclusively for the Russian émigré colony.  French-speaking Russians sometimes managed to find jobs in banks and offices as clerks and bookkeepers. Those with English language skills were able to work in hotels and department stores with English-speaking clientele.  An esteemed Russian general worked as a valet, opening car doors for rich Americans.   One of the more enterprising Romanovs, Grand Duke Dimitri Pavlovich, suddenly destitute, found a way to exploit his single remaining asset: he was a “handsome, seductive ladies’ man, and women fell for him with predictable regularity” (p.115).

One of those women was Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, who was then dominating the Paris fashion world.  The gossipy French press followed the affair closely while dismissing Chanel as a “little shop girl” (p.116).  Chanel No. 5, Coco’s most famous brand, took off while she and Dimitri were linked romantically, making a fortune for Coco.  Dimitri’s lack of money probably doomed the relationship. He was just like other dispossessed Russian grand dukes, Coco concluded, “diminished, almost emasculated by their poverty in exile … tall and handsome and splendid, but behind it all—nothing; just vodka and the void”  (p.118).

Most male refugees were forced to take “fairly low-grade and drab jobs” (p.136), such as washing dishes, waiting tables, cleaning windows, working in factories or, especially, driving a taxi.  In an environment where just about everyone needed to find new means to survive, Russian taxi drivers were the “aristocrats of the émigré work force” (p.136); many were actual aristocrats. For women, sewing, millinery and knitting proved to be the “quickest, easiest and most immediate route of out of poverty” (p.127).  The economic plight of the émigrés arriving in Paris in the early 1920s was reduced to an aphorism: “The men drive taxis and women sew for a living” (p.130).

Taxi driving was “greatly to be preferred for the autonomy and independence it allowed”  (p.136).  The French public, Rappaport indicates, perceived Russian taxi drivers as more dependable than their French counterparts.  The French automotive assembly line became a mainstay for those Russian men not lucky enough to land taxi-driving opportunities, especially at the Renault factory at Billancourt. Paid only about two dollars a day in the late 1920s, at a time when Ford workers in the United States were earning a stunning five dollars per day, many Russian auto workers saw the assembly line as “only a stopgap on the way to something better—in most cases, taxi driving” (p.147).

Women gravitated to all levels of the fashion trade. One of the most enterprising was Grand Duke Dimitri’s sister, Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna. Although destitute, Maria was skilled at needle working and started fashioning clothes. After her brother introduced her to Coco Chanel, she opened a shop with its own brand name, and for a while sold exclusively to Chanel. Younger Russian women, especially those from an aristocratic background, became fashion models. But scores of Russian women earned a “pittance doing piecework at home” (p.127).   In his 1933 work Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell described one such woman living in the hotel where he resided who “worked sixteen hours a day, darning socks at twenty-five centimes a sock, while [her] son, decently dressed, loafed in the Montparnasse cafés” (p.127-28).

In 1924, France officially recognized the Bolshevik Regime, by then known as the Soviet Union, much to the dismay of the Russian émigré community. Russian writers and intellectuals were further dismayed that their French counterparts, whose support and patronage they needed in their “fight against the communist suppression of freedom of expression,” were all-too-often “fascinated by the new, and politically fashionable, socialist experiment in Russia and keen to champion what they saw as its progressive policies” (p.170).   By the late 1920s, Russian writers, in a “constant battle between a longing for the inspiration of Russia and the need to be free,” encountered a “tide of indifference” in which their work was viewed as “rooted in the past and reactionary” (p.171).

The most prominent Russian writer in Paris was Ivan Bunin, a master of the short story in the tradition of Anton Chekov, whose stories of “aging, solitary people in emigration” (p.176) distilled the grim realities of everyday life in Paris.  In 1933, Bunin won the Nobel Prize in Literature, the first Russian to do so.  It was undoubtedly the “single most important event in the cultural and literary life of the Russian emigration” (p.228), Rappaport writes, but an event that infuriated Soviet authorities back in Moscow. Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya, a popular female satirist who wrote short stories under the name Teffi, tuned into the “sense of abandonment and despair shared by so many newly arrived Russians” (p.150).  Teffi ‘s writings expressed her “dismay at how the emigration had divided rather than united people, how hardship and uncertainty about their status had eaten away at them like a malady and eroded the grandeur of spirt once admired in them” (p.150).

By 1930, the “charm and seductive romance of ‘Russianness’ had begun to wear thin”  (p.230). The economic downtown following the 1929 stock market crash not only reduced the need for foreign labor in Paris but also precipitated a “xenophobic backlash” (p.234) against émigrés, with right-wing, nationalist French politicians assailing Russians as a “drain on resources at a time of economic hardship” (p.234). A volatile period of strikes and demonstrations in 1930s Paris, followed by food shortages, brought “painful reminders” of 1917 to the fearful emigrants, who “prepared for another Armageddon” (p.234).  Rappaport documents a wave of suicides which overtook some of the community’s most vulnerable members in the latter portion of the 1930s, the “only answer to dealing with the wounds of separation and cultural disinheritance that stubbornly refused to heal” (p.248).

The German occupation of Paris, which began in June 1940, was a grim time for the Russian emigrant community, marked by “extreme poverty and hunger for most” (p.264).  By August 1940, “all the old émigré life of Russian Paris had been closed down with the enforced disbanding of cultural, educational and charitable bodies” (p.268).  Some Russians remained but more sought to flee again, with Spain and the United States being the preferred destinations. A few even went to Berlin to fight against Stalin’s Soviet Union.

* * *

Rappaport’s account belies Hemmingway’s notion of a “childish sense of hopelessness” prevailing among the Russians who found themselves in Paris in the period between the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and the German invasion of France.  Rappaport uses the term “stoic endurance” (p.231) to describe how everyday Russians survived during their Paris years. “Stoic endurance” also aptly describes both the resourceful adaptations of many Romanovs and the painful reflections of the writers, poets and artists depicted in this fascinating account.


Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

September 24, 2022

NOTE:  A  nearly identical version of this review has been posted on the American University of Paris’ Tocqueville 21 blog.



Filed under French History, History, Russian History

Liberal Democracy’s Pragmatic Advocate


Kati Marton, The Chancellor:

The Remarkable Odyssey of Angela Merkel

(Simon & Schuster, 2021)

Many can plausibly claim to have had a hand in Germany’s remarkable transition from pariah state of the first order in 1945 to what British scholar Timothy Garton Ash termed in 2013 “about as solid a liberal bourgeois democracy as you can find on earth. . . civilized, free, prosperous, law abiding, moderate and cautious.”  But on any list of contributors to Germany’s transformation, Angela Merkel would surely be at or near the top.  A consistent and firm defender of the European Union and NATO, Merkel has also been arguably the 21st century’s most consequential advocate for “liberal bourgeois democracy,” to use Ash’s phrase.  In December 2021, Merkel stepped off the national and world stage as Germany’s first female Chancellor after holding her position continuously since 2005.

In the first biography to assess Merkel’s 16 years in power, The Chancellor: The Remarkable Odyssey of Angela Merkel, Kati Marton portrays Merkel as the personification of the Germany Ash described.  No leader on the world stage in our era “protected the post-World War II liberal democratic order as fiercely as [Merkel] did,” Marton contends, transforming Germany “into the leader of Europe – not just an economic leader but a moral one too” (p.xii).   In her sixteen years as Chancellor (roughly the equivalent of a Prime Minister in Germany’s parliamentary system), Merkel pursued liberal democratic ideals pragmatically: she learned from her own mistakes, was “not wedded to ideology or dogma, in politics or in economics,” and was “open to new ideas regardless of their source – as long as they work” (p.285).

Marton seems ideally situated to offer a comprehensive picture of Merkel.  She was born and spent her early years in Hungary, until her parents were forced to flee the country in 1956 when the Soviet Union invaded the country to squelch an apparent liberal democratic uprising.  Marton’s childhood experience with Eastern European communism undoubtedly looms in the background as she seeks to cast light on how Merkel’s upbringing in the altogether undemocratic German Democratic Republic, as communist East Germany was officially termed, shaped her character and approach to governance.  Freedom of expression and movement are “more than hackneyed phrases for a politician who spent her first thirty-five years lacking both,” (p.77), Marton observes.  Surviving the East German police state unbroken is an “accomplishment in itself and offers the key to her personal and political resilience”  (p.xvi).  Merkel’s “deepest conviction” is that democracy is “fragile and if treated carelessly, can slip away” (p.302).

To a degree unusual among contemporary politicians, Merkel guarded her privacy zealously and for the most part successfully throughout her years in the political limelight, a practice that can be attributed at least in part to her East German background.   Characteristically, Merkel refused Marton’s request for an interview for the book.  With no pretense of producing a “tell all” exposé, Marton nonetheless makes some headway in peeking behind Merkel’s personal iron curtain, providing her readers with a fuller picture of the woman who dominated German and European politics for a decade and a half.

Marton follows a generally chronological approach in her easy-to-read biography.  She starts with Merkel’s youth and early adult years as a professional scientist in East Germany, then tracks her rise in politics in the 1990s after the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall.   In the last two thirds of the book, Marton zeroes in on the defining events of Merkel’s Chancellorship years, 2005-2021.  Although plainly impressed with her subject, Marton does not hesitate to point out Merkel’s weaknesses and missed opportunities along with her strengths.  The “supremely rational scientist” frequently failed to appreciate the “irrational, emotional elements behind human behavior” (p.245), Marton notes.

Marton gives Merkel highest marks for her handling of the 2015 refugee crisis, when Germany admitted close to a million people fleeing from wars in the Middle East.  Less praiseworthy are the austerity policies which Merkel insisted upon to deal with the 2008-10 economic downtown, often termed the Great Recession, and the accompanying crisis of the euro, the European common currency.  Merkel became the West’s lead negotiator in dealing with Russian president Vladimir Putin in 2014 after Russia annexed Crimea and invaded two provinces of Eastern Ukraine in what now appears almost as a dress rehearsal for its full-scale invasion of February 2022.  Writing a few months before this year’s invasion, Marton concludes that Merkel, although far from fully successful if one is to judge by results, did about the best she could under the circumstances.

Marton provides much insight into Merkel’s relationship with Putin, who rates an entire chapter, “Dictators.”  There are also full chapters on George W. Bush (“Her First American President”), Donald Trump (“Enter Trump”), and Emmanuel Macron (“A Partner at Last!”).  To round out her portrait, Marton adroitly weaves in observations about Merkel’s unique leadership style and her methodical, understated and sometimes perplexing character.

* * *

Merkel’s father, Horst Kasner, was a Lutheran pastor whom Marton describes as an “austere, demanding man of God” (p.2).    Shortly after his oldest child Angela was born in Hamburg, West Germany, in 1954, he moved his family to officially atheist East Germany to further the church’s mission on the other side of Germany’s iron curtain.  Although young Angela was a precocious and exceptionally high-performing schoolgirl, excelling in math, science and Russian, she faced many forms of petty discrimination at her primary and secondary schools because of her family’s “bourgeois” background.  Even after earning a PhD in physics and establishing unquestioned brilliance in that field, Merkel found prestigious university level teaching positions closed to her because of the same “bourgeois” background.

Merkel’s start in politics followed in short order after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.  Bored with her position in a Leipzig research laboratory and attracted to the opportunities which open political life seemed to offer, she abandoned physics for politics.  Fueled by “self-control, strategic thinking and, when necessary, passive aggression” (p.49), Merkel and a handful of fellow East Germans formed an Eastern center-right party, the Demokratischer Aufbruch (DA, Democratic Awakening).  The fledgling party went on to merge with then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU), a mostly male, Catholic and conservative organization.  After Germany reunited in 1991, Merkel as an Easterner and a woman proved to be precisely what Kohl was looking for in his cabinet.

Kohl, the primary architect of German unification who had been Germany’s chancellor since 1982, considered Merkel a “trophy” or “talking point” from East Germany.  What the “garrulous and normally shrewd Kohl did not calculate,” Marton writes, was that “his ‘trophy’ had plans and ambitions of her own and was willing to bide her time to realize them” (p.59).  Kohl nominated Merkel initially to the position of Minister for Women and Youth and subsequently to the higher-visibility Minister for Environment and Nuclear Safety.  In the latter position, at age 41, she presided over a 1995 Climate Conference held in Berlin which attracted representatives from 160 nations and produced the foundation for the landmark Kyoto Protocol two years later.  This was Merkel’s debut on the world stage.

In 1998, Kohl was defeated in his 5th run for Chancellor after 16 years in office (as it turned out, his term of office was one week longer than that of Merkel).  When he was caught a year later in a financial scandal, Merkel, in “one of the boldest acts in contemporary German politics” (p.68), wrote in a Frankfurt newspaper opinion piece that Kohl’s actions had damaged the party and that it was time for him to step aside as party leader.  Merkel, the only one within her party willing to take on the man who had jumpstarted her political career, thereby demonstrated that “beneath her stolid façade lay a fierce will”  (p.68).  Two years later, at age 45, Merkel nominated herself for CDU chairmanship and was elected without opposition.  When Social Democratic Chancellor Gerhard Schröder called for early elections in 2005, Merkel was the CDU’s unanimous choice as the party’s standard bearer.

As a fresh political face, Merkel appealed to the German public for her “humility, her plain but direct style, her absence of theatrics, and the fact that she had made the transition from East to West with seeming ease,” Marton writes.  “Little more was really known about her beyond the remarkable sangfroid with which she had dispatched Kohl”  (p.73).  In an election that turned out to be closer than early polls predicted, Merkel’s CDU edged Schröder’s Social Democrats with barely enough votes to control the Bundestag, Germany’s national parliament, and form a government for Merkel to lead.

Rather than a program of specific policies, Merkel brought to the Chancellorship her steadfast character and a singular leadership style, “working sideways,” as Marton puts it, “indirectly and without calling attention to herself”  (p.xiii).  She repeatedly demonstrated “how much a leader can get done quietly, without boasting of her achievements” (p.xiv).  The Chancellor’s public allocutions were anything but inspiring.  Marton characterizes Merkel as an “almost aggressively dull speaker.  Her relationship to words is one of wariness: the fewer the better; it’s results that matter.  Thus, she sometimes fails to capture a distracted world’s attention, however urgent her message” (p.140-41).

But if less than inspiring at the podium, Merkel was a fearsome negotiator, almost invariably the best-informed person in the room whose grasp of minutiae was her own form of intimidation.  A master of face-to-face diplomacy, she was highly skilled at careful reading of unspoken cues, body language, and silences.  Her “near-photographic memory, her trained scientific ability to break down problems to their component parts, and her ravenous appetite for work” (p.xvi) all helped her gain or hold the upper hand in meetings and negotiations.  But the Great Recession of 2008, Merkel’s first major international test, demonstrated the limits to these qualities in dealing with the messy realities of politics and economics on a global scale.

At the time of the 2008 economic downturn, Germany, like Merkel herself, believed deeply in the “virtues of hard work, thrift, and living within one’s means” (p.156), one of the reasons Europe’s wealthiest country and its Chancellor were ill equipped to help the continent’s lesser economies, especially Greece.  Merkel thought a bailout for Greece would build dependency and prescribed belt tightening instead, with no financial assistance until the country demonstrated more responsible behavior. When she went to Athens, she was met with overt hostility – and Nazi swastikas.   Her “stern mien and her pieties sent exactly the wrong signal to Europe’s hardest hit economies” (p.160), Marton writes.

Merkel’s insistence on austerity seemed oblivious to the role of the banks in the crisis.  Her policies appeared to punish ordinary people for the wrongs of their governments and the international financial system.  Merkel and her hyperactive French counterpart Nicolas Sarkozy — an “impulsive publicity hound” who seemed to “embody everything Merkel scorned” (p.160) — finally worked out a series of bailouts for Europe’s most beleaguered economies.  But she had “dawdled as millions suffered and took too long to appreciate the human cost of the global recession” (p.161).   Her excess caution “gave the impression that she was impervious to human suffering” (p.161).

By contrast, Merkel’s “breathtakingly bold decision” (p.185) in 2015 to admit close to one million refugees, mostly from Syria, but also from Iraq and Afghanistan, transformed Germany into what Marton terms the “moral center of the world” (p.185).  No other leader in Europe or elsewhere “spoke with such moral clarity about the West’s obligation toward the causalities of its never-ending wars”  (p.189).  With nations across the globe increasingly succumbing to xenophobia, Merkel’s three-word explanation of why she had gone against the current in a refugee-weary Europe became famous worldwide: “Wir schaffen das,” “We can handle this,” which Marton characterizes as “pure Merkel in its undramatic, calming tone” (p.195).

Germans turned out the welcome mat for arriving refugees in numbers that surprised even themselves.  But not all Germans were welcoming.  The German Alternative Party, Alternative für Deutschland or AfD, a party with neo-Nazi tendencies, arose in response to the Syrian immigrant crisis.  In parliamentary elections of 2017, AfD gained a previously unthinkable 94 seats in the Bundestag, enough to make their voices difficult to ignore.  Merkel ruled out any collaboration with AfD, even if her party needed its support on a particular issue.  But the AfD “did not vanish just because she refused to acknowledge its presence” (p.239).  AfD’s followers were among the hardest hit by the 2008 economic crisis.  By insisting that the AfD’s rise required no change of approach, Merkel missed an opportunity to “connect with people whose grievances – imagined and real – made them ripe for populist exploitation” (p.238), Marton writes.

It was no coincidence, moreover, that AfD was concentrated geographically in the former East Germany.  AfD’s rise highlighted the extent to which the two Germanies were still separate and unequal.  Until late in her tenure, Marton indicates, Merkel underestimated how rocky the road since unification had been for many of her fellow East Germans.  In her relationship with the former East Germany, she appeared “cut off from a segment of her population and unwilling or incapable of dealing with the emotional content of their dissatisfaction” (p.238-39).   But the Covid pandemic of 2019-2020, which she described as her country’s “greatest crisis since World War II” (p.280), provided an opportunity to clip AfD’s wings.

Merkel insisted that rapid and coordinated transnational relief was the only way to confront a contagion that had no respect for international borders.  She seized the global health crisis to “forge a new solidarity among European nations” (p.286), sending a powerful message to authoritarians, populists and nationalists around the world.  Her competence in fighting the Covid-19 crisis “temporarily silenced the AfD’s empty bluster” (p.286).  A party fueled by rage “found little political traction in indignation against a virus” (p.286),   Marton suggests that Merkel’s handling of the Covid pandemic sealed her legacy for calm, fact-based leadership.

Today, however, assessments of Merkel’s legacy gravitate inescapably to her handling of the 2014-15 Ukraine crisis and her relationship with Vladimir Putin.  The two are contemporaries, less than two years apart, with similar backgrounds but opposite world views.  Each speaks fluently the language of the other.  In one of the pair’s earliest meetings on the Black Sea, Putin seemed to have sensed that the German Chancellor would be a tough match for him.  Having learned of her childhood fear of dogs (she was bitten twice), Putin brought his Labrador retriever to the meeting. The childish maneuver annoyed but did not intimidate Merkel.  “He has to do this, to show his manhood,” she reportedly told her staff subsequently.  “Russia has no successful politics or economy” (p.109).

Merkel became the West’s lead negotiator on Ukraine in 2014 after American president Barack Obama concluded he could no longer deal effectively with the duplicitous Putin (Merkel’s uneven relationship with Obama is one of the book’s more surprising revelations).  It was not a role Merkel sought for herself or Germany, but one she pursued doggedly.  During Russia’s 2014 offensive in Ukraine, Merkel spoke to Putin several times a week. “Seething quietly” on each call, she was nonetheless “determined to provide Putin with an off-ramp from what she saw as a fundamentally nefarious and unprovoked war” (p.171).

Merkel ruled out the use of force and resisted growing calls for increasing arms shipments to Ukraine.  Her main weapons in dealing with Putin were her own “focus and steely determination” (p.173), as Marton puts it.  By talking, she felt she might “eventually bring Putin back to reality” (p.171).   Merkel’s resistance to more bellicose measures was influenced in part by the German public’s pacifist streak and its memory of the dark consequences of militarism.  But Merkel was even more influenced by Germany’s Cold War experience, in which the West “ultimately defeated the Soviet Empire through containment, patience and strategy” (p.173).   Yet pursuit of a bargain with Putin revealed the limits of Merkel’s negotiation skills in an “increasingly lawless, authoritarian era” (p.165).

Merkel expended considerable political capital to talk German businesses into imposing sanctions on Russia, at a significant cost to the German economy, and persuaded all EU members except Hungary and Italy to join in a coordinated sanction effort.  Two major agreements, the “Minsk Accords” and “Minsk II,” sought to end the fighting in Eastern Ukraine and restore Ukraine’s territorial integrity but were never fully implemented and failed to put an end to the conflict.  In Marton’s estimation, Merkel nevertheless emerged from the 2014-15 Ukraine crisis as the West’s “most determined defender of established democratic norms,” proving that she could “stand up to Putin when others would not (or could not)” (p.165), an unsubtle dig at Obama.  In a passage that she would probably excise were she writing today, Marton writes that Putin “seems to have learned his lesson, so for now, at least, the other countries that made up the former Russian Empire are safe” (p.180).

In June of this year, in her first public interview since leaving the Chancellorship, Merkel reflected upon the lessons she learned from her Ukraine experience in 2014-15.  Relying upon her penchant for understatement when a little more emotion might have been warranted, she described the 2022 invasion as a “big mistake on Russia’s part.”  Asked whether she should apologize for having been too soft on Putin seven years earlier, the ex-Chancellor responded, “I tried to work toward calamity being averted, and diplomacy was not wrong if it doesn’t succeed . . . It is a matter of great sorrow that it didn’t succeed, but I don’t blame myself now for trying.”  The sanctions imposed in 2015 “could have been stronger,” the ex-Chancellor conceded, but added that there was no majority sentiment for strengthening them at the time.

* * *

The world, Marton writes in conclusion, is in many ways a “much rougher place than the one [Merkel] inherited as chancellor in 2005” (p.301).  After Putin’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine earlier this year, the world seems to be a rougher place still than the one Merkel left when she stepped down in December 2021 after 16 years of battling in her methodical, understated manner for democratic norms and values, internationally and domestically.  More Merkel biographies are likely to follow what Kati Morton has produced here, some longer and more granular.   Merkel might even provide an interview to a fortunate future biographer and, with or without a Merkel interview, a 900-page Robert Caro-type doorstopper may see the light someday.  Until then, Morton’s initial effort to assess the ex-Chancellor’s full tenure and pierce her personal space will serve as the lodestar for readers hoping to gain more insight into this still-enigmatic figure.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

August 17,  2022




Filed under Biography, European History, German History

Our Word


George Makari, Of Fear and Strangers:

A History of Xenophobia (W.W. Norton and Company)

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “xenophobia” as a “fear and hatred of strangers or foreigners or of anything that is strange or foreign.”  As a university student and young adult, psychiatrist and historian George Makari considered xenophobia to be a term applying mainly to the past, at least in the comfortable New Jersey world in which he grew up as the son of Lebanese immigrants.  The young Makari assumed that the proverbial long arc of history was tilting, slowly perhaps but still surely, away from the irrational fear and hatred of strangers and foreigners that the word xenophobia appeared to refer to.

Makari maintained this reassuring view well into his adult years, as he forged his career as a psychiatrist and academic.  Then came Brexit and the election of Donald Trump in 2016, two illusion-shattering events which, as he writes in Of Fear and Strangers: A History of Xenophobia, “seemed to contradict assumptions I had held for most of my adult life” (p.247).  Trying to make sense out of these events led him to reassess his own thoughts about the word xenophobia, dig into the word’s history, and consider its implications and ramifications.  The result is a wide-ranging, erudite work that combines intellectual history, psychological analysis, and social commentary.

Makari starts with a study of how the word xenophobia emerged, in French in the late 19th century, then in English and other European languages, and the settings in which it has since been used.  French print journalism initially linked the two Greek words, xénos and phobos, in a manner that seemed to be associated with medicine and science, but actually referred to a “new kind of political antipathy,” a “malady called ‘nationalism’” (p.41), arising in the context of European colonization and closely related to racism and hostility toward foreigners.

Makari then dons his psychoanalytic hat to explore whether the cluster of attitudes and habits that we group under the word xenophobia tells us anything meaningful about the human character: are there generalizations we can make about why people fall into a fear and hatred of strangers and foreigners?  And what about the objects of that fear and hatred — what psychologists and social commentators often lump together as “The Other.”  Here, Makari ambitiously presents his own synthesis of the diverse explanations about the nature of xenophobia.  In the book’s final portion, he zeroes in on how the word’s history and its psychological implications might assist us in understanding Brexit, Trump, and related contemporary phenomena.

No reader should be surprised to learn that the Merriam-Webster definition provides us with at best only a partial understanding of the word xenophobia.  Digging deeply below the surface of the dictionary definition, as Makari has done here, reveals a surfeit of complexity.  New words gather new meanings over time, Makari notes.  They “grow and mutate . . . words transform . . . they suddenly travel and pop up amid new signs and symbols . . . The story of xenophobia has been of a word that has gone through a series of alternations and migrations” (p.246).

As he guides us through these alterations and migrations, Makari provides short biographical sketches of numerous thinkers who have in one way or another contributed to our understanding of the word xenophobia.  These include such familiar 20th century figures as Sigmund Freud, Walter Lippman, Richard Wright, Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Franz Fanon.  But the lead figure among the luminaries whom Makari portrays is Bartolomé de las Casas, a 16th century Spanish Dominican priest.

Las Casas gained notoriety in his time by calling attention to the barbarity committed on the island of Hispaniola and elsewhere in the Caribbean in the name of the fledgling Spanish empire.  His best-known work, A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, which came out at a time when religious wars were tearing Europe apart, reached a startling conclusion: “everyone should be judged by the same principles; therefore, strangers were not necessarily the enemies of righteousness. We, the Christians, may be” (p.30).

* * *

As he started his etymological dig, Markari was surprised to learn that the word xenophobia could not be traced to the ancient Greeks, even though it is derived from Greek components, xénos and phobos.  Xénos in ancient Greek means “foreigner” or “stranger,” but mostly in a relational sense to a host, like “guest;” phobos means “fear” or “dread.”  But Malaki could find no indication that the Greeks or their counterparts ever put the two words together.  Although much ancient literature has been lost, those who assume that our word xenophobia descended from ancient Greece are “simply wrong” (p.10; of course, there are ample examples of Greeks acting in ways we would today describe as xenophobic, many ascribed to Aristotle).

Rather, the emergence of the word xenophobia can be pinpointed to the last third of the 19th century.  At a time when medicine was beginning to affix the word “phobia” to a host of disorders, such as “agoraphobia,” which came into use in 1871, and “claustrophobia,” which appeared in 1879, a medical dictionary from this decade defined xenophobia as the “morbid dread of meeting strangers” (p.40).  But this early usage never caught on.  As a medical diagnosis, “xenophobia was a flop, perhaps due to the proliferation of phobias that brought many others into disrepute” (p.48).

The triggering event linking the word xenophobia to its modern usages was the “Boxer Rebellion” in Northern China, an uprising that took place between 1899 and 1901.  The work of young Chinese began as what Makari terms a “loose cluster of thugs who indulged in looting and thievery” (p.56) with the announced mission of attacking and destroying foreigners (they were called “Boxers” because their mastery of Chinese martial arts seemed to Westerners similar to the sport of boxing).  In 1900, Makari discovered, a French newspaper reported from Shanghai on an ominous xénophobie movement afoot in China.  Three days later, future French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau used the term.  French newspapers were soon all over the idea that xénophobie was out of control in China.

In less than a year, the word xénophobie became “part of the French vocabulary” (p.50).  As news of the Boxer uprising spread, “xénophobie” migrated to English, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and other languages, with readers throughout the West suddenly aware of a “new kind of beastly hatred for foreigners” (p.62) emanating from China.  The Boxers “promoted a violent hatred of all those from other lands and made no effort to distinguish the beneficent from the rapacious ones”  (p.63).

Several European nations joined with the United States and Japan to crush the uprising and topple the Chinese government, but the memory of the rebellion persisted in the age of Western imperialism.  It was, Makari writes, “as if cognoscenti around the world awoke from some confusion, and all at the same time fastened to a clarifying word that spelled out something they had vaguely suspected but never named” (p.62).  In the wake of the Boxer Rebellion, xenophobia now referred to an “overheated hatred” (p.43) of Western foreigners, immigrants, strangers, and travelers.

By the early 1900s, as European empires stretched across the globe, seeking new markets, cheap resources and forced labor, xenophobia had become a “powerful biopolitical tool tied to science and race” (p.67).  The term defined who was “primitive” and who was “civilized.”  Discrimination against immigrants or minorities was “not based on the ancient notion that the ‘stranger is my enemy’; this was not a phobia, tribalism, or emotional partiality.  It was predicated on cold, hard facts” (p.100).  Thus, the concept of xenophobia “went to work for expanding Western empires” (p.70).

As powerful Western nations spread across the globe, journalists, diplomats, and racial scientists linked xenophobia to a “kind of primitivity that afflicted only the colonized, non-Europeans” (p.67).   In this “up-is-down” world, as Makari aptly terms it, the “primitive hosts were mistreating the civilized immigrants – that is, the Western missionaries, traders and colonists” (p.67-68).  Primitive “races,” so the conventional wisdom held, were “instinctively fearful of outsiders and perceived all strangers as enemies” (p.66).  Xenophobia was said to be ingrained in Africans, Asians, and other non-Westerners.  But the age of imperialism also gave rise to attacks upon these legitimizing narratives of colonialism.

Writers as diverse as Leo Tolstoy, Joseph Conrad and Mark Twain played lead roles in undercutting the notion that xenophobia was a primitive reaction by non-Westerners.  Harvard philosopher Josiah Royce asked whether the problem was not the yellow or black peril, but the “white peril” (p.97).  A journalist writing in The Nation coined the term “xenophobic imperialism” (p.85).  As World War I approached, those seeking to justify beneficent white rule over hostile communities “began to lose their credibility, and were thrown open to accusations of deception, hypocrisy, and the justification of rapacious cruelty” (p.81).  Much of the world knew by then what Las Cassas had emphasized in the 16th century, that “behind the moralizing cliches and race science, evil of stunning proportions had transpired” (p.80).

Xenophobia thus mutated again, from “being a convenient accusation by Westerners against foreigners to the failure of the ethic of toleration among those Westerners themselves” (p.98).  The tribulations of minorities and immigrants in Great Britain, France, and the United States, the “supposed standard bearers of liberalism, toleration, and individual rights,” exposed xenophobia as a phenomenon that “thrived in these Western democratic lands” (p.96).   The term came to be pressed into service, Makari writes, to “make sense of British and French anti-Semites, French haters of Italians, the Ku Klux Klan, anti-Chinese Americans, and others who, while championing equality for themselves, seemed all too eager to deny it to others” (p.98).

Xenophobia became official state policy when the Nazis rose to power in Germany in the 1930s, wrapping into an ideology the virtues of “treating minorities like serfs, or finding ways to dispossess and eliminate them” (p.115).  As the crimes committed pursuant to this ideology were revealed in all their immensity after the Nazi defeat in 1945, the word xenophobia appeared infuriatingly inadequate.  The Nazi crimes seemed to have “broken the back of language itself” (p.118), Makari observes.  Dismissing Nazi crimes as xenophobia “simply would not do.  This was not some mere act of bias against strangers” (p.119).

Yet, the Holocaust raised innumerable discomforting questions about human nature, with something akin to xenophobia seeming to be part of every answer: what was the source of the malicious desires that led to mass murder on an unprecedented scale? Where did such inhumane hate come from?  Was it something that remained latent in most of us most of the time, but surfaced at times of strain and stress?  When and where would it start again?  Despite numerous efforts to provide answers to these and related questions, the word xenophobia in the post-World War II era seemed to lurk in the “cracks of history” (p.124), Makari writes.  The “nature of this beast remained elusive” (p.124).

Three major lines of inquiry sought to pin down the elusive beast: the nature of human identity, its relation to emotions like fear and aggression, and the nature of groups.  But the three lines became siloed in the post-World War II era; they were separate areas of research and thought, with little interaction between them.  There was no theoretician, no one to tell us why or provide “explanations that might make sense of this trouble’s origins and menacing power” (p.129).  And so it remains.  “No grand synthesis or novel paradigm has since emerged” (p.232).

* * *

Makari seeks fill the void by constructing a synthesis of the diverse explanations about the nature of xenophobia.  Drawing upon a host of 20th century thinkers who proffered their own interpretations, Makari’s proposed synthesis turns on distinctions between Other anxiety, overt xenophobia and covert xenophobia.  Other anxiety is a normal and familiar human reaction, one that “can be managed” (p.240).  Social mixing and integration can diminish conditioned reflexes; unconscious biases can be reworked through relearning.  “Dialogue with the Other can restore the capacity for empathy and the possibility of mutual recognition” (p.240),  he writes.  But Other anxiety can slip into overt xenophobia, in which “fear and hatred of the Other has solidified into more than an errant anxiety or a cognitive error” (p.241).

Overt xenophobes, Makari notes,need their villain; they hate the xénos so as to stabilize themselves” (p.241).  Overt xenophobia is marked by stereotypes that are more rigid than those of Other anxiety, and more difficult to alter.  Signs that suggest that an individual’s Other anxiety may be heading toward overt xenophobia include a vanishing capacity to consider interim positions; an inability to tolerate ambivalence; and the loss of a capacity for guilt.  In between arguments are “swept aside as weak.  Shaming the offender only provokes rage.  Sadism is prominent in overt xenophobia” (p.241).  If the social conditions are right, xenophobic groups can grow quickly.  The “ameliorative effects that quell Other anxiety fail here .  . . Exposure and habituation with this population go nowhere” (p.242).

Makari cites the famous pediatrician and Vietnam war critic Dr. Benjamin Spock as having found a promising potential answer to overt xenophobia.  Social groups that emulate Spock’s call for less harsh, shame-driven forms of child rearing, Makari suggests, “may be less prone to authoritarian solutions” (p.242-43).  Radical egalitarianism, he goes on to argue, poses the greatest threat to xenophobia.  Toleration must be a rule for all, not simply a liberal value.  We “therefore confront bigotry while offering acceptance to all, except those who, as Karl Popper argued, would destroy toleration” (p.243).

Covert xenophobia, by definition, “operates in the shadows” (p.243).  One of French philosopher Michel Foucault’s principal insights was that highly socialized and accepted forms of xenophobia “disappear into norms, conventions, and discourses” (p.243) of any given society.  Resistance to change then becomes a defense of xenophobia.  No individual need take responsibility for covert xenophobia.  “Rule-based dictums inscribe hierarchies, logical relations and differentials, all of which support discrimination against the degraded group” (p.244).  The trap of covert xenophobia ensnares “not just France’s anti-Semites, American racists, colonizers, patriarchal men, and homophobes but, in ways hard to acknowledge, you and me” (p.227).

Makari does not need to embrace the full implications of covert xenophobia to reach his conclusion – the synthesis of his synthesis — that xenophobia is a “form of darkness” that lurks in the “most destructive corner of the everyday mind” (p.232).  Xenophobia is “not literally an illness;” it cannot be reduced to “some genetic defect or neural pathology”; it is not “hardwired in some subset of the human population” (p.237).  Rather, and more disturbingly, it is “part of the psychic violence of everyday life” (p.237).

The word xenophobia, Makari finds, is sufficiently sturdy – both broad enough and specific enough — to embrace such manifestations of stranger hatred as ethnocentrism, ultranationalism, racism, misogyny, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, transphobia, and Islamophobia.  By recovering the word’s rich past, he argues, and by “examining the numerous concepts of stranger hatred to which it is linked, we may repurpose this term so that it serves to organize and promote attempts at synthesis” (p.237).

Makari’s intrepid effort to construct a synthesis around diverse interpretations of the word xenophobia might have seemed like an interesting academic exercise in the 1990s.  But the election of Donald Trump in 2016, a “would-be demagogue” who seemed to be “searching for whatever negative stereotypes of the Other would stick” led Makari and many others to discover “to our shock that a startling number had done just that” (p.262).

Makari’s suggestion that 2016 was the year when he awoke to realize that xenophobia had not been confined to the dustbin of history need not be taken literally.  Events such as the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, the worldwide economic downturn of 2008, and the Syrian refugee crisis of 2015, he acknowledges, allowed overt xenophobes to emerge from the shadows to vilify minorities and vulnerable groups as the alien Other.

* * *

If the words racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment does not quite capture what has been happening in the 21st century,  the word xenophobia may suffice, Makari suggests, in no small part because it is not “some antiquated, classical term.”  Rather, xenophobia is “our word” (p.270), a point he drives home convincingly in this deeply serious yet eminently readable work.

Thomas H. Peebles

Le Bois-Plage-en-Ré, France

July 13,  2022



Filed under History, Language, Science

Reinventing the International Order

Adom Getachew, Worldmaking After Empire:

The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination

(Princeton University Press)

As World War II ended, European colonial empires of the 19th and 20th centuries — British and French especially, but also Belgian, Italian, and Portuguese — were breaking apart, to be replaced in the post war period by newly independent nation-states throughout Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean.   The United Nations counted 51 member states when its founding charter was signed in June 1945.  By 1970, UN membership had more than doubled to 127 member states.  But serious theorizing about potential pathways to decolonization and independence had been underway at least since the World War I era.  In Worldmaking After Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination, Adom Getachew, an Ethiopian-born scholar presently teaching at the University of Chicago, seeks to capture the multiple and often conflicting strands of thought that aspired to define the direction of the 20th century anticolonial independence movement.

Uniting these strands, as Getachew’s sub-title suggests, was the notion of “self-determination,” roughly the notion that the newly independent states themselves and not their former colonizers should determine the terms of independence.  Getachew highlights a bold strand of thinking about self-determination, developed in the 1930s by a handful of thinkers from what she terms the “Black Atlantic,” i.e. Western sub-Saharan Africa and the black Caribbean.  These thinkers emphasized the racial disparities and economic inequalities that had shaped the international global order.

Anglophone Black Atlantic” is a more precise term for the world Getachew depicts.  The thinkers she focuses upon were all English speakers, schooled in the United States or Great Britain and, with one exception, became early leaders of newly independent English-speaking countries while doubling as political theorists.  That exception was W.E.B. DuBois, the ubiquitous American scholar and educator who functions as Getachew’s lead character.  Over the course of more than a half century, DuBois provided the intellectual glue for the Black Atlantic vision of self-determination.

Prominent francophone anticolonial nationalists from the Black Atlantic, such as Aimé Césaire of Martinique and Léopold Senghor of Senegal, do not figure in Getachew’s analysis.  They favored retaining strong administrative ties to France, both as an “effort to ward off the limits of independent statehood,” and as a “demand for an equal share in the wealth the colonies had produced” (p.116).  Martinique, along with its Caribbean neighbor Guadeloupe, became an administrative department of the French state in 1946.  Senegal and most of the French colonies in sub-Saharan West Africa, by contrast, became independent states in the early 1960s.  Getachew also refers to Asia intermittently, but her focus is not there.  India’s Mohandas Gandhi, arguably the most consequential single figure of the 20th century anti-colonial movement, is nowhere mentioned.

For Getachew’s Black Atlantic thinkers, the right to self-determination was “never conceived as the culmination of their worldmaking aspirations,” but rather as a “first step in political and economic transformations, both domestically and internationally” (p.92).  Their goal was a “thorough-going reinvention of the legal, political and economic structure of the international order” (p.25). That reinvention began by recognizing the “foundational role of New World slavery in the making of the modern world” (p.25).

When DuBois famously observed at the first Pan-African Congress in 1900 that the “problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line” (p.6), he had in mind the entire colonized world, not simply the Jim Crow American South or the United States more generally.  Over the course of the century, Black Atlantic thinkers went on to reiterate and amplify DuBois’ insight, “centered on a critique of colonialism as a dual structure of slavery and racial hierarchy” (p.67).  Getachew returns continually to DuBois’ insight and its ramifications.

This emphasis does not quite make her work an international version of the New York Times’ 1619 Project, the project spearheaded by Nikole Hannah-Jones that seeks to demonstrate the centrality of slavery to the founding and subsequent history of the United States.  But by highlighting what she terms the “racial hierarchy” of European colonization, Getachew lays a foundation for a subsequent work that would globalize the perspective of the Times’ project.

The most concrete manifestation of Black Atlantic “worldmaking after empire” was a quest to build supra-national institutions that would link if not bind newly independent states together.  National independence required international institutions, some Black Atlantic thinkers reasoned.  Getachew zeroes in on two short-lived and unsuccessful projects, the West Indian Federation and the Union of African States.  Both faltered in the 1960s due to “deep disagreements about the precise balance between federal union and independence of member states” (p.110).

Getachew’s Black Atlantic thinkers also manifested their commitment to worldmaking through two resolutions of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) which they championed: Declaration 1514, “Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples,” and the “New International Economic Order” (NIEO).  The former, passed in 1960, served as the political declaration of independence for the emerging independent states, placing colonization outside the boundaries of the international legal order.  The NIEO, adopted in 1974, sought to “reestablish economic equality as the central ideal of the postimperial world” (p.9).

Worldmaking After Empire began as Getachew’s dissertation at Yale University and is written in dense academic prose that some readers may find slow going.  But those willing to take the time will find a rigorous analysis of an influential strand of anti-colonial thinking which, with its emphasis upon the global order’s racial disparities and structural economic inequalities, remains salient today.  Getachew’s narrative is roughly chronological, starting with World War I and the version of self-determination which American president Woodrow Wilson brought to the 1919 Versailles Peace Conference.

* * *

In his famous 14 points presented to the US Congress prior to traveling to Versailles, Wilson called for a “free, open-minded and absolutely impartial” adjudication of colonial claims, in which colonized peoples should have an equal say in determining their future.  But Wilsonian self-determination proved to be a highly qualified principle, predicated upon “preparation for self-rule” (p.177).

Self-determination was “not a given right,” as Wilson put it, but one “gained, earned, [and] graduated into from the hard school of life” (p.45), his way of saying that self-determination was a principle reserved mainly for people of European descent.  Getachew terms Wilson’s version of self-determination a “racially differentiated principle,” fully compatible with continued colonial rule, a principle to be used primarily to ward off worldwide Bolshevik revolution and preserve “white supremacy on the planet” (p.43).

Wilson’s 14 points also proposed the creation of a League of Nations, a recommendation adopted by the Versailles conference but subsequently rejected by the United States Congress in a humiliating rebuke to Wilson.  Arthur Balfour, Britain’s representative to the conference, expressed what Getachew considers the League’s de facto official view of race and racial hierarchy at the conference: if it was “true in a certain sense that all men of a particular nation were created equal,” Balfour opined, that did not mean that “a man in Central Africa was created equal to a European” (p.22).

Yet, Ethiopia, and Liberia, two African nations not part of European empires, managed to become members of the League.   From the start, they were plainly second-class members, primarily because of the continued existence of slavery within both states.  Although slavery had been explicitly banned by the 1926 Anti-Slavery Convention, forced labor – not quite slavery, but close — remained a central practice in every colony.  Britain and France successfully lobbied for the exemption of forced labor from the 1926 convention.  Slavery was thus “disconnected from colonial labor and cast as an atavistic holdover in backward societies” (p.53), Getachew writes.

For the League, the continued existence of slavery in two of its member-states served as evidence that Africans “could not rule themselves and their territories in ways that conformed to the standards of modern statehood,” making European oversight and intervention the “only mechanism that could secure humanitarian norms in Africa”  (p.59). Perversely, Benito Mussolini justified the 1936 Italian invasion of Ethiopia, in which Italy engaged in overwhelming and unnecessary violence that included illegal use of mustard gas, indiscriminate killing of noncombatants, and the torture of captured soldiers, as the logical fulfillment of the League’s aims of abolishing slavery and developing backward states.

For DuBois, Italy’s invasion confirmed that “economic exploitation based on the excuse of race prejudice is the program of the white world.” (p.68).  The League of Nation’s concern with slavery in Ethiopia and Liberia was a thin pretext to permit European powers to “dominate native labor, pay it low wages, give it little political control and small chance for education or even industrial training,” while extracting the “largest possible profit out of the laboring class” (p.68).

As World War II ended and the United Nations came into being in 1945, DuBois found the situation eerily reminiscent of 1919, with abundant reference to universal principles that again applied differently to the colonized world and did not foresee the end of colonial rule.  The United Nations Charter, for example, contained only two references to self-determination, both of which were subordinated to the larger aim of securing “peaceful and friendly relations among nations.”  DuBois worried that by not addressing international racial hierarchy and colonial domination, the world had not yet learned the lesson of two world wars.  We have conquered Germany, he wrote, “but not their ideas” (p.72).

 By 1960, worldmaking in the form of federation had become a “central strategy for securing international nondomination” (p.108).  But the two Black Atlantic federation projects that Getachew describes, in the Caribbean and Africa, both failed to overcome concerns over ceding too much sovereignty to central authorities (surprisingly, both sides developed arguments based on the 18th century experience of the American colonists breaking away from Britain to form the United States).

The West Indian Federation came into being in 1958, with a federal parliament and executive authority that governed ten Caribbean island states.  But the federation vested only limited powers in the federal government, with no independent sources of revenue.  With the federation’s constitution under reconsideration in 1962, Eric Williams, Trinidad and Tobago’s president, advocated a stronger federal state as the best means to achieve both independence and national unity.  Jamaica’s Prime Minister, Michael Manley, successfully lead the opposition to Williams’ push for more centralization, signaling the federation’s demise.

Across the Atlantic, Ghana’s president Kwame Nkrumah insisted that only a continent-wide government could ensure Africa’s place in world affairs.  Total surrender of sovereignty was “not necessary to create a strong and effective union”  he contended.  Equality among states “could be maintained within the union” (p.136).  Rejecting the French model of some sort of fusion with the colonizer, Nkrumah further argued that any integration that included European states would “preserve and deepen economic dependence” (p.117).   

Nkrumah’s proposed draft constitution for a Union of African States closely resembled the robust federal government which Williams had unsuccessfully proposed for the Caribbean.  It ran into a similar opposition, led by Nigerian president Nnamdi Azikiwe.  Speaking for many African leaders, Azikiwe feared that a centralized organization would “undermine the independence anticolonial nationalists had sought to secure” (p.134), weakening the sovereignty of individual, independent African states and, with it, their legal, national, and cultural pluralism.

1960 was also the year the UN General Assembly passed Declaration 1514.   A “watershed moment in the history of decolonization” (p.107), Declaration 1514 was viewed as correcting the omissions of the UN Charter and superseding the Wilsonian version of self-determination.   Its effect, Getachew contends, was to make self-determination a human right and colonialism itself an international crime. She characterizes Declaration 1514 as the instrument through which colonial domination became “illegitimate for the first time in modern international society” (p.99), with racial hierarchy abolished and sovereign equality extended to all members states.

As a supplement to the political independence which Declaration 1514 recognized, Jamaica’s Manley and Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere spearheaded the push for the NIEO, which passed the UNGA in 1974.  In what Getachew terms the “biggest departure for the postwar international legal order” (p.145), Manley and Nyerere contended that the formal political independence and legal equality attained over the course of the prior two decades had “masked the material inequality through which powerful states reproduced their dominance” (p.163).   Rebalancing these inequalities required a more equitable share of the wealth which newly independent states had helped to produce.

Manley and Nyerere focused on ownership of natural resources, the relationship of newly independent states to multi-national corporations (which Manley saw as the 20th century heir to imperial-era trading companies), and unequal trade relations between developing and developed nations.  For Manley and Nyerere, NIEO was the “international corollary to the effort to institute socialism at home” (p.168).   But the NIEO’s demand for greater international equality and equity proved to be a step too far for the world’s economic powers.

Daniel P. Moynihan, United States Ambassador to the United Nations in the mid-1970s, became one of the NIEO’s most vocal and visible critics.  Moynihan derided the NIEO as the product of former British colonial subjects who had over-imbibed in the doctrines of Fabian socialism under Harold Laski at the London School of Economics, and were “seeking to internationalize the lessons of British welfarism” (p.176).  The impoverished economic conditions of the world’s underdeveloped countries, Moynihan contended scornfully, were “of their own making and no one else’s” (p.177).

Critics to the left of Moynihan pointed out that the NIEO had nothing to say about the domestic distribution of wealth and resources.  Self-determination, they argued, had been “concerned solely with the absence of alien rule and disconnected from democratic self-government”  (p.177).  Civil wars in Nigeria and the Congo led many newly independent states to prioritize zealous protection of sovereign prerogatives, raising questions about their internal stability and capacity to respect such democratic norms as pluralism, political dissent, and human rights.  John Rawls’ influential 1971 work A Theory of Justice spurred many advocates of global justice to shift their focus from protecting the sovereignty of newly independent states to protecting the rights of individuals within those states.

Further undermining the Black Atlantic vision of self-determination was the United States, the principal architect of the post-World War II international order.  Getachew notes America’s “gradual abandonment” (p.178) in the 1970s of the United Nations and other key multilateral institutions.  The end of the Cold War in the following decade gave rise to what she terms a “new era of unrestrained American imperialism where the principle of sovereign equality was curtailed, and the United States was freed from even a rhetorical commitment to a rule-bound international order” (p.179). Three decades after the end of the Cold War, Getachew perceives a “striking return to and defense of a hierarchical international order” (p.179).

* * *

The Black Atlantic vision of a reinvented international order did not survive the neo-liberalism of the 1980s.  But a host of contemporary global crises hitting former colonies much harder than their colonizers — climate change and access to Covid-19 vaccines come immediately to mind – serve as reminders that vestiges of 19th and 20th century colonial domination remain part of today’s international order.  The time may therefore be ripe, Getachew concludes with a slight hint of optimism, for “reformulating the contours of an anti-imperial future and enacting new strategies to realize this vision” (p.181) – a time in other words for another reinvention of the international order akin to what Black Atlantic thinkers boldly set in motion in the 1930s.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

June 9, 2022



Filed under Politics, Rule of Law, World History

Criticizing Government Was What They Knew How To Do


Paul Sabin, Public Citizen:

The Attack on Big Government and the Remaking of American Liberalism

(W.W. Norton & Co., 2021)

1965 marked the highpoint for Democratic President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society program, an ambitious set of policy and legislative initiatives which envisioned using the machinery of the federal government to alleviate poverty, combat racial injustice and address other pressing national needs.  Johnson was coming off a landslide victory in the November 1964 presidential election, having carried 44 states and the District of Columbia with the highest percentage of the popular vote of any presidential candidate in over a century.  Yet a decade and a half later, in January 1981, Republican Ronald Reagan, after soundly defeating Democratic incumbent Jimmy Carter,  took the presidential oath of office declaring “government is not the solution, it is the problem.”

How did government in the United States go in a fifteen-year period from being the solution to society’s ills to the cause of its problems?  How, for that matter, did the Democratic Party go from dominating the national political debate up through the mid-1960s to surrendering the White House to a former actor who had been considered too extreme to be a viable presidential candidate?  These are questions Yale University professor Paul Sabin poses at the outset of his absorbing Public Citizens: The Attack on Big Government and the Remaking of American Liberalism.  Focusing on the fifteen-year period 1965-1980, Sabin proffers answers centered on Ralph Nader and the “public interest” movement which Nader spawned.

1965 was also the year Nader rocketed to national prominence with his assault on automobile safety, Unsafe at Any Speed.  General Motors notoriously assisted Nader in his rise by conducting a concerted campaign to harass the previously obscure author.  From there, Nader and the lawyers and activists in his movement – often called “Nader’s Raiders” — turned to such matters as environmentalism, consumer safety and consumer rights, arguing that the government agencies charged with regulating these matters invariably came to be captured by the very industries they were designed to regulate, without the voice of the consumer or end user being heard.  “Why has business been able to boss around the umpire” (p.86) was one of Nader’s favorite rhetorical questions.

Because of both industry influence and bureaucratic ineffectiveness, government regulatory authority operated in the public interest only when pushed and prodded from the outside, Nader reasoned.  In Nader’s world, moreover, the Democratic and Republican parties were two sides of the same corrupt coin, indistinguishable in the degree to which they were both beholden to special corporate interests — “Tweddle Dee and Tweddle Dum,” as he liked to put it.

Reagan viewed government regulation from an altogether different angle.  Whereas Nader believed that government, through effective regulation of the private sector, could help make consumer goods safer, and air and water cleaner, Reagan sought to liberate the private sector from regulation.  He championed a market-oriented capitalism designed to “undermine, rather than invigorate, federal oversight” (p.167).  Yet, Sabin’s broadest argument is that Nader’s insistence over the course of a decade and a half that federal agencies used their powers for “nefarious and destructive purposes” (p.167) — — the “attack on big government” portion of his  title – rendered plausible Reagan’s superficially similar attack.

The “remaking of American liberalism” portion of Sabin’s sub-title might have better been termed “unmaking,” specifically the unmaking of the political liberalism rooted in Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal – the liberalism which Johnson sought to emulate and build upon in his Great Society, based on a strong and active federal government. Following in the New Deal tradition, Roosevelt’s Democratic party controlled the White House for all but eight years between 1933 and 1969.  Yet, when Reagan assumed the presidency in 1981, New Deal liberalism had clearly surrendered its claim to national dominance.

Most interpretations of how and why New Deal liberalism lost its clout are rooted in the 1960s, with the decade’s anti-Vietnam war and Civil Rights movements as the principal actors.  The Vietnam war separated older blue-collar Democrats, who often saw the war in the same patriotic terms as World War II, from a younger generation of anti-war activists who perceived no genuine US interests in the conflict and no meaningful difference in defense and foreign policy between Democrats and Republicans.  The Civil Rights movement witnessed the defection of millions of white Democrats, unenthusiastic about the party’s endorsement of full equality for African Americans, to the Republican Party.

Nader and the young activists following him were also “radicalized by the historical events of the 1960s, particularly the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War” (p. p.48), Sabin writes.  These were their “defining issues,” shaping “their view of the government and their ambitions for their own lives” (p.51).   We cannot imagine Nader’s movement “emerging in the form that it did separate from civil rights and the war” (p.48).  But by elaborating upon the role of the public interest movement in the breakdown of New Deal liberalism and giving more attention to the 1970s, Sabin adds nuance to conventional interpretations of that breakdown.

The enigmatic Nader is the central figure in Sabin’s narrative.  Much of the book analyzes how Nader and his public interest movement interacted with the administrations of Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter, along with brief treatment of the Reagan presidency and that of Bill Clinton.  The Carter years, 1977-1981, revealed the public interest movement’s most glaring weakness: its “inability to come to terms with the compromises inherent in running the executive branch” (p.142), as Sabin artfully puts it.

Carter was elected in 1976, when the stain of the Watergate affair and the 1974 resignation of Richard Nixon hovered over American politics, with trust in government at a low point.  Carter believed in making government regulation more efficient and effective, which he saw as a means of rebuilding public trust.   Yet, he failed to craft what Sabin terms a “new liberalism” that could “champion federal action while also recognizing government’s flaws and limitations” (p.156).

That failure was due in no small measure to frequent and harsh criticism emanating from public interest advocates, whose critique of the Carter administration, Sabin writes, “held those in power up against a model of what they might be, rather than what the push and pull of political compromise and struggle allowed” (p.160).  Criticizing government power was “what they knew how to do, and it was the role that they had defined for themselves”  (p.156). Metaphorically, it was “as if liberals took a bicycle apart to fix it but never quite figured out how to get it running again” (p.xvii).

 * * *

Sabin starts by laying out the general parameters of New Deal liberalism: a technocratic faith that newly created administrative agencies and the bureaucrats leading them would act in the public interest by serving as a counterpoint to the power of private, especially corporate, interests.  By the mid-1950s, the liberal New Deal conception of “managed capitalism” had evolved into a model based on what prominent economist John Kenneth Galbraith termed “countervailing powers,” in which large corporations, held in balance by the federal regulatory state, “would check each other’s excesses through competition, and powerful unions would represent the interests of workers.  Government would play a crucial role, ensuring that the system did not tilt too far in one direction or the other” (p.7-8).

Nader’s public interest movement was built around a rejection of Galbraith’s countervailing power model.  The model failed to account for the interests of consumers and end users, as the economist himself admitted later in his career.  If there was to be a countervailing power, Nader theorized, it would have to come through the creation of “independent, nonbureaucratic, citizen-led organizations that existed somewhat outside the traditional American power structure” (p.59).  Only such organizations provided the means to keep power “insecure” (p.59), as Nader liked to say.

Nader’s vision could be described broadly as “ensuring safety in every setting where Americans might find themselves: workplace, home, doctor’s office, highway, or just outside, breathing the air”  (p.36).  In a 1969 essay in the Nation, Nader termed car crashes, workplace accidents, and diseases the “primary forms of violence that threatened Americans” (p.75), far exceeding street crime and urban unrest.  For Nader, environmental and consumer threats revealed the “pervasive failures and corruption of American industry and government” (p.76).

Nader was no collectivist, neither a socialist nor a New Dealer.  He emphasized open and competitive markets, small private businesses, and especially an activated citizenry — the “public citizens” of his title.  More than any peer, Nader sought to “create institutions that would mobilize and nurture other citizen activists” (p.35).  To that end, Nader founded dozens of public interest organizations, which were able to attract idealistic young people — lawyers, engineers, scientists, and others, overwhelmingly white, largely male — to dedicate their early careers to opposing the “powerful alliance between business and government” (p.24).

Nader envisioned citizen-led public interest organizations serving as a counterbalance not only to business and government but also to labor.  Although Nader believed in the power of unions to represent workers, he was “deeply skeptical that union leaders would be reliable agents for progressive reform”  (p.59).  Union bosses in Nader’s view “too often positioned themselves as partners with industry and government, striking bargains that yielded economic growth, higher wages, and unions jobs at the expense of the health and well-being of workers, communities, and the environment” (p.59).   Nader therefore “forcefully attacked the unions for not doing enough to protect worker safety and health or to allow worker participation in governance” (p.64).

Nader‘s Unsafe at Any Speed was modeled after Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking environmental tract Silent Spring, to the point that it was termed the “Silent Spring of traffic safety”  (p.23).  Nader’s auto safety advocacy, Sabin writes, emerged from “some of the same wellsprings as the environmental movement, part of an increasingly shared postwar concern about the harmful and insidious impacts of new technologies and processes” (p.23).  In 1966, a year after publication of Unsafe at Any Speed. Congress passed two landmark pieces of legislation, the Traffic Safety Act and the Highway Safety Act, which forced manufacturers to design safer cars and pressed states to carry out highway safety programs.  Nader then branched out beyond auto safety to tackle issues like meat inspection, natural-gas pipelines, and radiation safety.

Paradoxically, the Nixon years were among the most fruitful for Nader and the public interest movement.  Ostensibly pro-business and friendly with blue-collar Democrats, Nixon presided over a breathtaking expansion of federal regulatory authority until his presidency was pretermitted by the Watergate affair.  The Environmental Protection Agency was created in 1970, consolidating several smaller federal units.  New legislation which Nixon signed regulated air and water pollution, energy production, endangered species, toxic substances, and land use — “virtually every sector of the US economy” (p.114), Sabin writes.

The key characteristics of Nader-influenced legislation were deadlines and detailed mandates, along with authority for citizen suits and judicial review, a clear break from earlier regulatory strategies.  The tough legislation signaled a “profound and pervasive distrust of government even as it expanded federal regulatory powers” (p.82).   Nader and the public interest movement went after Democrats in Congress with a fervor at least equal to that with which they attacked Republican-led regulatory agencies.  Nader believed that “you didn’t attack your enemy if you wanted to accomplish something, you attacked your friend”  (p.82).

In the early 1970s, the public interest movement targeted Democratic Maine Senator Edmund Muskie, the party’s nominee for Vice-President in 1968, whose support for the environmental movement had earned him the moniker “Mr. Pollution Control.” Declaring his environmental halo unwarranted, the movement sought to take down a man who clearly wanted to ride the environmental issue to the White House.  Nader’s group also went after long-time liberal Democrat Jennings Randolph of West Virginia over coal-mining health and safety regulations.  The adversarial posture toward everyone in power, Democrat as well as Republican, continued into the short interim administration of Gerald Ford, who assumed the presidency in the wake of the Watergate scandal.  And it continued unabated during the administration of Jimmy Carter.

As the Democratic nominee for president, Carter had conferred with Nader during the 1976 campaign and thought he had the support of the public interest movement when he entered the White House in January 1977.  Many members of the movement took positions in the new administration, where they could shape the agencies they had been pressuring.  The new president sought to incorporate the public interest movement’s critiques of government into a “positive vision for government reform,” promoting regulatory approaches that “cut cost and red tape without sacrificing legitimate regulatory goals” (p.186).

Hoping to introduce more flexible regulatory strategies that could achieve environmental and health protection goals at lower economic cost, Carter sacrificed valuable political capital by clashing with powerful congressional Democrats over wasteful and environmentally destructive federal projects. Yet, public interest advocates faulted Carter for his purported lack of will more than they credited him for sacrificing his political capital for their causes.  They saw the administration’s questioning of regulatory costs and the redesign of government programs as “simply ways to undermine those agencies.” (p.154).   Their lack of enthusiasm for Carter severely undermined his reelection bid in the 1980 campaign against Ronald Reagan.

Reagan’s victory “definitively marked the end of the New Deal liberal period, during which Americans had optimistically looked to the federal government for solutions” (p.165), Sabin observes.  Reagan and his advisors “vocally rejected, and distanced themselves from, Carter’s nuanced approach to regulation”  (p.172). To his critics, Reagan appeared to be “trying to shut down the government’s regulatory apparatus” (p.173).

But in considering the demise of New Deal liberalism, Sabin persuasively demonstrates that the focus on Reagan overlooks how the post-World War II administrative state “lost its footing during the 1970s” (p.165).    The attack on the New Deal regulatory state that culminated in Reagan’s election, usually attributed to a rising conservative movement, was also “driven by an ascendant liberal public interest movement” (p.166).   Sabin’s bottom line: blaming conservatives alone for the end of the New Deal is “far too simplistic” (p.165).

* * *

Sabin mentions Nader’s 2000 presidential run on the Green Party ticket only at the end and only in passing.  Although the Nader-inspired public interest movement had wound down by then, Nader gained widespread notoriety that year when he gathered about 95,000 votes in Florida, a state which Democratic nominee Al Gore lost officially by 537 votes out of roughly six million cast (with no small amount of assistance from a controversial 5-4 Supreme Court decision).  Nader’s entire career had been a rebellion against the Democratic Party in all its iterations, and his quixotic run in 2000 demonstrated that he had not outgrown that rebellion.  His presidential campaign took his “lifelong criticism of establishment liberalism to its logical extreme” (p.192).

Thomas H. Peebles

Paris, France

May 13, 2022



Filed under American Politics, Political Theory, Politics, United States History

Taking Exception To American Foreign Policy

Andrew Bacevich, After the Apocalypse:

America’s Role in a World Transformed (Metropolitan Books 2020)

Andrew Bacevich is one of America’s most relentless and astute critics of United States foreign policy and the role the American military plays in the contemporary world.  Professor Emeritus of History and International Relations at Boston University and presently president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, Bacevich is a graduate of the United States Military Academy who served in the United States Army for over 20 years, including a year in Vietnam.  In his most recent book, After the Apocalypse: America’s Role in a World Transformed, which came out toward the end of 2020, Bacevich makes an impassioned plea for a smaller American military, a demilitarized and more humble US foreign policy, and more realistic assessments of US security and genuine threats to that security, along with greater attention to pressing domestic needs.  Linking these strands is Bacevich’s scathing critique of American exceptionalism, the idea that the United States has a special role to play in maintaining world order and promoting American democratic values beyond its shores.

In February 2022, as I was reading, then writing and thinking about After the Apocalypse, Vladimir Putin continued amassing soldiers on the Ukraine border and threatening war before invading the country on the 24th.  Throughout the month, I found my views of Bacevich’s latest book taking form through the prism of events in Ukraine.   Some of the book’s key points — particularly on NATO, the role of the United States in European defense, and yes, Ukraine – seemed out of sync with my understanding of the facts on the ground and in need of updating. “Timely” did not appear to be the best adjective to apply to After the Apocalypse. 

Bacevich is a difficult thinker to pigeonhole.  While he sometimes describes himself as a conservative,  in After the Apocalypse he speaks the language of those segments of the political left that border on isolationist and recoil at almost all uses of American military force (these are two distinct segments: I find myself dependably in the latter camp but have little affinity with the former).  But Bacevich’s against-the-grain perspective is one that needs to be heard and considered carefully, especially when war’s drumbeat can be heard.

* * *

Bacevich’s recommendations in After the Apocalypse for a decidedly smaller footprint for the United States in its relations with the world include a gradual US withdrawal from NATO, which he considers a Cold War relic, an “exercise in nostalgia, an excuse for pretending that the past is still present” (p.50).  Defending Europe is now “best left to Europeans” (p.50), he argues.   In any reasoned reevaluation of United States foreign policy priorities, moreover, Canada and Mexico should take precedence over European defense.  Threats to Canadian territorial sovereignty as the Artic melts “matter more to the United States than any danger Russia may pose to Ukraine” (p.169).

I pondered that sentence throughout February 2022, wondering whether Bacevich was at that moment as unequivocal about the United States’ lack of any geopolitical interest in Ukraine as he had been when he wrote After the Apocalypse.  Did he still maintain that the Ukraine-Russia conflict should be left to the Europeans to address?  Was it still his view that the United States has no business defending beleaguered and threatened democracies far from its shores?  The answer to both questions appears to be yes.  Bacevich has had much to say about the conflict since mid-February of this year, but I have been unable to ascertain any movement or modification on these and related points.

In an article appearing in the February 16, 2022, edition of The Nation, thus prior to the invasion, Bacevich described the Ukrainian crisis as posing “minimal risk to the West,” given that Ukraine “possesses ample strength to defend itself against Russian aggression.”  Rather than flexing its muscles in faraway places, the United States should be “modeling liberty, democracy, and humane values here at home. The clear imperative of the moment is to get our own house in order” and avoid “[s]tumbling into yet another needless war.”   In a nutshell, this is After the Apocalypse’s broad vision for American foreign policy. 

Almost immediately after the Russian invasion, Bacevich wrote an OpEd for the Boston Globe characterizing the invasion as a “crime” deserving of “widespread condemnation,” but cautioning against a “rush to judgment.”  He argued that the United States had no vital interests in Ukraine, as evidenced by President Biden’s refusal to commit American military forces to the conflict.  But he argued more forcefully that the United States lacked clean hands to condemn the invasion, given its own war of choice in Iraq in 2003 in defiance of international opinion and the “rules-based international order” (Bacevich’s quotation marks).  “[C]coercive regime change undertaken in total disregard of international law has been central to the American playbook in recent decades,” he wrote.  “By casually meddling in Ukrainian politics in recent years,” he added, alluding most likely to the United States’ support for the 2013-14 “Euromaidan protests” which resulted in the ouster of pro-Russian Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, it had “effectively incited Russia to undertake its reckless invasion.”

Bacevich’s article for The Nation also argued that the idea of American exceptionalism was alive and well in Ukraine, driving US policy.  Bacevich defined the idea hyperbolically as the “conviction that in some mystical way God or Providence or History has charged America with the task of guiding humankind to its intended destiny,” with these ramifications:

We Americans—not the Russians and certainly not the Chinese—are the Chosen People.  We—and only we—are called upon to bring about the triumph of liberty, democracy, and humane values (as we define them), while not so incidentally laying claim to more than our fair share of earthly privileges and prerogatives . . . American exceptionalism justifies American global primacy.

Much  of Bacevich’s commentary about the Russian invasion of Ukraine reflects his impatience with short and selected historical memory.  Expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe in the 1990s, Bacevich told Democracy Now in mid-March of this year, “was done in the face of objections by the Russians and now we’re paying the consequences of those objections.”  Russia was then “weak” and “disorganized” and therefore it seemed to be a “low-risk proposition to exploit Russian weakness to advance our objectives.”  While the United States may have been advancing the interests of Eastern European countries who “saw the end of the Cold War as their chance to achieve freedom and prosperity,” American decision-makers after the fall of the Soviet Union nonetheless  “acted impetuously and indeed recklessly and now we’re facing the consequences.”

* * *

“Short and selected historical memory” also captures Bacevich’s objections to the idea of American exceptionalism.  As he articulates throughout After the Apocalypse, the idea constitutes a whitewashed version of history, consisting “almost entirely of selectively remembered events” which come “nowhere near offering a complete and accurate record of the past” (p.13).  Recently-deceased former US Secretary of State Madeline Albright’s 1998 pronouncement that America resorts to military force because it is the “indispensable nation” which “stand[s] tall and see[s] further than other countries into the future” (p.6) may be the most familiar statement of American exceptionalism.  But versions of the idea that the United States has a special role to play in history and in the world have been entertained by foreign policy elites of both parties since at least World War II, with the effect if not intention of ignoring or minimizing the dark side of America’s global involvement.

 The darkest in Bacevich’s view is the 2003 Iraq war, a war of choice for regime change,  based on the false premise that Saddam Hussein maintained weapons of mass destruction.  After the Apocalypse returns repeatedly to the disastrous consequences of the Iraq war, but it is far from the only instance of intervention that fits uncomfortably with the notion of American exceptionalism. Bacevich cites the CIA-led coup overthrowing the democratically elected government of Iran in 1953, the “epic miscalculation” (p.24) of the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, and US complicity in the assassination of South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963, not to mention the Vietnam war itself.  When commentators or politicians indulge in American exceptionalism, he notes, they invariably overlook these interventions.

A  telling example is an early 2020 article in  Foreign Affairs by then-presidential candidate Joe Biden.  Under the altogether conventional title “Why America Must Lead Again,” Biden contended that the United States had “created the free world” through victories in two World Wars and the fall of the Berlin Wall.  The “triumph of democracy and liberalism over fascism and autocracy,” Biden wrote, “does not just define our past.  It will define our future, as well” (p.16).  Not surprisingly, the article omitted any reference to Biden’s support as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Biden had woven “past, present, and future into a single seamless garment” (p.16), Bacevich contends.  By depicting history as a “story of America rising up to thwart distant threats,” he had regurgitated a narrative to which establishment politicians “still instinctively revert in stump speeches or on patriotic occasions” (p.17) — a narrative that in Bacevich’s view “cannot withstand even minimally critical scrutiny” (p.16).  Redefining the United States’ “role in a world transformed,” to borrow from the book’s subtitle, will remain “all but impossible until Americans themselves abandon the conceit that the United Sates is history’s chosen agent and recognize that the officials who call the shots in Washington are no more able to gauge the destiny of humankind than their counterparts in Berlin or Baku or Beijing” (p.7).

Although history might well mark Putin’s invasion of Ukraine as an apocalyptic event and 2022 as an apocalyptic year, the “apocalypse” of Bacevich’s title refers to the year 2020, when several events brought into plain view the need to rethink American foreign policy.  The inept initial response to the Covid pandemic in the early months of that year highlighted the ever-increasing economic inequalities among Americans.  The killing of George Floyd demonstrated the persistence of stark racial divisions within the country.  And although the book appeared just after the presidential election of 2020, Bacevich would probably have included the assault on the US Capitol in the first week of 2021, rather than the usual transfer of presidential power, among the many policy failures that in his view made the year apocalyptic.  These failures, Bacevich intones:

 ought to have made it clear that a national security paradigm centered on military supremacy, global power projection, decades old formal alliances, and wars that never seemed to end was at best obsolete, if not itself a principal source of self-inflicted wounds.  The costs, approximately a trillion dollars annually, were too high.  The outcomes, ranging from disappointing to abysmal, have come nowhere near to making good on promises issued from the White House, the State Department, or the Pentagon and repeated in the echo chamber of the establishment media (p.3).

In addition to casting doubts on the continued viability of NATO and questioning any US interest in the fate of Ukraine, After the Apocalypse dismisses as a World War II era relic the idea that the United States belongs to a conglomeration of nations known as  “the West,” and that it should lead this conglomerate.  Bacevich advocates putting aside ”any residual nostalgia for a West that exists only in the imagination” (p.52).  The notion collapsed with the American intervention in Iraq, when the United States embraced an approach to statecraft that eschewed diplomacy and relied on the use of armed force, an approach to which Germany and France objected.   By disregarding their objections and invading Iraq, President George W. Bush “put the torch to the idea of transatlantic unity as a foundation of mutual security” (p.46).  Rather than indulging the notion that whoever leads “the West” leads the world, Bacevich contends that the United States would be better served by repositioning itself as a “nation that stands both apart from and alongside other members of a global community” (p.32).

After the apocalypse – that is, after the year 2020 – the repositioning that will redefine America’s role in a world transformed should be undertaken from what Bacevich terms a “posture of sustainable self-sufficiency” as an alternative to the present “failed strategy of military hegemony (p.166).   Sustainable self-sufficiency, he is quick to point out, is not a “euphemism for isolationism” (p.170).  The government of the United States “can and should encourage global trade, investment, travel, scientific collaboration, educational exchanges, and sound environmental practices” (p.170).  In the 21st century, international politics “will – or at least should – center on reducing inequality, curbing the further spread of military fanaticism, and averting a total breakdown of the natural world” (p.51).  But before the United States can lead on these matters, it “should begin by amending its own failings (p.51),” starting with concerted efforts to bridge the racial divide within the United States.

A substantial portion of After the Apocalypse focuses on how racial bias has infected the formulation of United States foreign policy from its earliest years.  Race “subverts America’s self-assigned role of freedom,” Bacevich writes.  “It did so in 1776 and it does so still today” (p.104).  Those who traditionally presided over the formulation of American foreign policy have “understood it to be a white enterprise.”  While non-whites “might be called upon to wage war,” he emphasizes, but “white Americans always directed it” (p.119).  The New York Times’ 1619 Project, which seeks to show the centrality of slavery to the founding and subsequent history of the United States, plainly fascinates Bacevich.  The project in his view serves as an historically based corrective to another form of American exceptionalism, questioning the “very foundation of the nation’s political legitimacy” (p.155).

After the Apocalypse raises many salient points about how American foreign policy interacts with other priorities as varied as economic inequality, climate change, health care, and rebuilding American infrastructure.  But it leaves the impression that America’s relationships with the rest of the world have rested in recent decades almost exclusively on flexing American military muscle – the “failed strategy of militarized hegemony.”  Bacevich says little about what is commonly termed “soft power,” a fluid term that stands in contrast to military power (and in contrast to punitive sanctions of the type being imposed presently on Russia).  Soft power can include such forms of public diplomacy  as cultural and student exchanges, along with technical assistance, all of which   have a strong track record in quietly advancing US interests abroad.

* * *

To date, five full weeks into the Ukrainian crisis, the United States has conspicuously rejected the “failed strategy of militarized hegemony.”  Early in the crisis, well before the February 24th invasion, President Biden took the military option off the table in defending Ukraine.  Although Ukrainians would surely welcome the deployment of direct military assistance on their behalf, as of this writing NATO and the Western powers are fighting back through stringent economic sanctions – diplomacy with a very hard edge – and provision of weaponry to the Ukrainians so they can fight their own battle, in no small measure to avoid a direct nuclear confrontation with the world’s other nuclear superpower.

The notion of “the West” may have seemed amorphous and NATO listless prior to the Russian invasion.  But both appear reinvigorated and uncharacteristically united in their determination to oppose Russian aggression.  The United States, moreover, appears to be leading both, without direct military involvement but far from heavy-handedly, collaborating closely with its European and NATO partners.  Yet, none of Bacevich’s writings on Ukraine hint that the United States might be on a more prudent course this time.

Of course, no one knows how or when the Ukraine crisis will terminate.  We can only speculate on the long-term impact of the crisis on Ukraine and Russia, and on NATO, “the West,” and the United States.  Ukraine 2022 may well figure as a future data point in American exceptionalism, another example of the “triumph of democracy and liberalism over fascism and autocracy,” to borrow from President Biden’s Foreign Affairs article.  But it could also be one of the data points that its proponents choose to overlook.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

March 30, 2022





Filed under American Politics, American Society, Eastern Europe, Politics

Flawed Ideal

Michael Sandel, The Tyranny of Merit:

What’s Become of the Common Good (Farrar Strauss and Giroux)


“Those who work hard and play by the rules should be able to rise as far as their talents will take them.”  This catchphrase, a favorite of politicians of all political stripes, captures in shorthand the American idea of meritocracy. More formally, Merriam-Webster defines meritocracy as a “system, organization, or society in which people are chosen and moved into positions of success, power, and influence on the basis of their demonstrated abilities and merit.”  In a modern democracy, one would be hard pressed to argue against the idea that life’s major opportunities should be open to all who can prove themselves through talent and hard work.

Renowned Harvard professor Michael Sandel is not about to make that argument.  But in The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good, Sandel nonetheless delivers a searing critique of meritocracy today, primarily in the United States and secondarily in Great Britain.  Sandel, one of America’s best-known philosophers, begins The Tyranny of Merit by acknowledging that as an abstract principle, meritocracy has won the day in the United States, dominating the national debate about such matters as access to jobs, education, and public office.  “Our disagreements are less about the principle itself than about what it requires,” he writes. “When people complain about meritocracy, the complaint is usually not about the ideal but about our failure to live up to it” (p.119).

But in this provocative, against-the-grain work, Sandel asks us to consider the possibility that the real problem is not that we have fallen short in trying to live up to the meritocratic ideal, but that the ideal itself is flawed. Sandel’s argument rests on a straightforward premise: today’s meritocracy stratifies society into winners and losers, defined mostly by economic status and university diplomas, generating hubris among the winners and resentment and humiliation among the losers.

The winners, our elites, “believe they have earned their success through their own talent and hard work” (p.14),  Sandel writes.  They view success not as a matter of luck or grace, but as something earned through effort and striving, making success a “sign of virtue. My affluence is my due” (p.59).  The downside of meritocratic stratification is that those left behind—typically those without a college education—are perceived as being responsible for their fate, with “no one to blame but themselves” (p.14).  The result is that we have lost a shared notion of the common good and with it a sense of the solidarity that might bind us together in all our diversity.

The more we view ourselves as self-made and self-sufficient, Sandel contends, the “less likely we are to care for the fate of those less fortunate than ourselves” (p.59).   Meritocratic hubris “banishes all sense of gift or grace. It diminishes our capacity to see ourselves as sharing a common fate. It leaves little room for solidarity” (p.25).  Sandel links meritocracy’s hard edge to rising economic inequality at home over the past four decades, accentuated by what we term globalization—the form of capitalism associated with freer international trade, increasingly inter-dependent markets and, in the United States, the loss of blue-collar jobs to foreign locations with lower labor costs.

The jump in economic inequality in the United States began around 1980 with the presidency of Ronald Reagan, while globalization took off after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.  Today, Sandel points out, the richest one percent in the United States take in more than the combined earnings of the entire bottom half of the population, with median income stagnating for the past forty years. In 1965, according to the Economic Policy Institute, the CEOs of America’s largest public corporations earned about twenty-one times what an average worker in the corporation earned; today, the ratio is 350 : 1.  One of Sandel’s key points is that rising economic inequality, combined with market-driven globalization, contributed to Donald Trump’s electoral victory in 2016 in the United States, to the Brexit vote that same year in the United Kingdom, and to the phenomenon known as populism in both countries and elsewhere around the world.

Sandel characterizes the Trump electoral victory as an “angry verdict on decades of rising inequality and a version of globalization that benefits those at the top but leaves ordinary citizens feeling disempowered” (p.17).   Trump’s victory tapped into a “wellspring of anxieties, frustrations, and legitimate grievances to which the mainstream parties had no compelling answer” (p.17-18).  It was also a rebuke for a “technocratic approach” to politics that is “tone-deaf to the resentments of people who feel the economy and the culture have left them behind” (p.17).

The meritocratic promise, Sandel emphasizes, is not one of greater equality, but of “greater and fairer mobility” (p.85).   Allocating jobs and opportunities according to merit simply “reconfigures inequality to align with ability” (p.117); it does not reduce inequality.  This reconfiguration “creates a presumption that people get what they deserve” (p.117).  To be sure, Sandel sees nothing wrong with hiring and promoting people based on merit. In fact, he writes, it is “the right thing to do,” (p.33), dictated by both efficiency and fairness.

But if we are to overcome the “tyranny of merit,” we need to rethink the way we conceive success, question the meritocratic conceit that those on the top have made it on their own, and challenge the inequalities of wealth and esteem that are “defended in the name of merit but that foster resentment, poison our politics, and drive us apart” (p.155).    To move beyond the “polarized politics of our time,” we must have a “reckoning with merit,” (14), Sandel argues, a reckoning that begins with the two domains of life most central to the meritocratic conception of success, education and work.

* * *

The Tyranny of Merit treats both education and work throughout but builds up to a final chapter on each: “The Sorting Machine,” largely a discussion of the admission process at elite American colleges and universities; and “Recognizing Work,” a plea for restoring a  sense of dignity to the work of those without a college or university degree.  Linking the two is what Sandel terms “credentialism,” the meritocratic insistence that a college degree is the “primary route to a respectable job and a decent life” (p.73).

Credentialism and “disdain for the poorly educated,” (p.95), Sandel suggests, may constitute the last acceptable prejudice in an age when racism and sexism are frowned upon in most circles.  The constant call for working people to improve their condition by getting a college degree, however well intentioned, “eventually valorizes credentialism and undermines social recognition and esteem for those who lack the credentials the system rewards” (p.89).  Building a politics around the idea that a college degree is a prerequisite for dignified work and social esteem, moreover, has a “corrosive effective on democratic life.  It devalues the contributions of those without a diploma, fuels prejudice against less educated members of society … and provokes political backlash” (p.104).

But if success in today’s meritocratic world is measured primarily by education and economic standing, it is unclear how the two fit together, part of a more fundamental question that runs through Sandel’s analysis: just who are meritocracy’s self-satisfied winners? How do we identify them?  Much of The Tyranny of Merit suggests that they are mostly the super-rich, such as Wall Street financiers and high-ranking corporate executives, along with top government officials, such as cabinet officers and leading legislators.  Sandel emphasizes—overemphasizes, in my view—the importance of a degree from an elite college or university, defined as one which admits less than 20% of its applicants.  But what about the Harvard graduate who goes on to be a high school math teacher?  Or the high school dropout who creates a wildly successful construction business and lives at the upper end of the upper middle-class?

 “The Sorting Machine,” Sandel’s chapter on higher education, focuses primarily on the differences in today’s meritocratic society between those credentialed with a college or university degree from an elite college or university, and those with degrees from other educational institutions, including community colleges.  Degrees from elite institutions are perceived all-too-often as the only reliable prerequisites for dignified work and social esteem—a ticket upward for those aspiring to rise on the economic ladder, and an insurance policy for those already there, that they don’t fall down the ladder.  But the majority of students at elite institutions, Sandel notes, still come from wealthy families, due in no small part to the many advantages that well-off parents can provide their children, giving rise to a “pervasive unfairness that prevents higher education from living up to the meritocratic principle it professes” (p.11).  Still, only about 20% of graduating high school seniors get caught up in the frenzied pursuit of admission to elite colleges and universities.

For the remaining 80%, Sandel writes, the “tyranny of merit is not about a soul-killing competition for admission but about a demoralizing world of work that offers meager economic reward and scant social esteem to those who lack meritocratic credentials” (p.188).   He quotes one of his students, a young man from Texas, who opined that one must work hard in high school to “get into a good college and get a good job. If not, you work in the oil fields” (p.77).  Becoming a plumber or electrician or dental hygienist, Sandel argues at another point, should be “respected as a valuable contribution to the common good, not regarded as a consolation prize for those who lack the SAT scores or financial means to make it to the Ivy League” (p.191).  That sentence more than puzzled me.

Had Sandel himself succumbed to the elitist conceit that the pathway to meaningful and important work is open only to graduates of a small sliver of higher education institutions, the very credentialism he seeks to discredit?  Or was he merely expressing the perception of many of his students, like the young man from Texas?  This binary view—the Ivy way or the highway­—may well be how the world looks from places like Harvard, within the belly of the elitist beast, but the real world is awash with leaders, movers, and shakers whose degrees do not come from hypercompetitive, elite American colleges and universities.

I am willing to venture that the president of just about any American college or university considered non-elitist would be delighted to provide the names of “famous” alumni and cite a litany of graduates who have gone on to important positions in the community and elsewhere in the world. As one personal example, while assigned to a United States Embassy in Eastern Europe, I worked under two different US Ambassadors, both extraordinary leaders with multiple talents, each a genuine superstar within the ranks of the US Foreign Service.  The first was a graduate of Arkansas State University, the second from Grand Valley State University in Michigan, neither likely to be on a list of elitist higher education institutions.

Sandel advocates more support, moral as well as financial, for non-elitist higher education institutions.  But his more pressing concern is to restore dignity to those without a college or university degree, a surprising 70% of the adult American population.  His chapter “Recognizing Work” focuses on the role of blue-collar workers in American society, particularly those who voted for Donald Trump in the last two presidential elections—thus mostly white blue-collar workers.

Sandel notes that from the end of World War II to the 1970s, it was possible for those without a college degree to find good work, support a family, and lead comfortable middle-class lives.  Globalization and the loss of well-paying blue-collar jobs have made this far more difficult today. Although overall per capita income in the United States has increased 85% since 1979, white men without four-year college degrees now make less, in real terms, than they did then.  Any serious response to working-class frustrations, Sandel argues, should start with rethinking our notions of the common good as they apply to those without a college degree.

How a society honors and rewards work is “central to the way it defines the common good” (p.205), implicating such questions as what counts as a valuable contribution to the common good and what we really owe to one another.  Today we operate under what Sandel terms a market definition of the common good, where individual preferences and consumer welfare are paramount. If the common good is “simply a matter of satisfying consumer preferences,” Sandel contends, then market wages are a “good measure of who has contributed what. Those who make the most money have presumably made the most valuable contribution to the common good, by producing the goods and services that consumers want”  (p.208).

Sandel seeks to displace the market definition with a civic definition, rooted in the thinking of Aristotle and Hegel, the American republican tradition, and Catholic social thinking.  A civic definition is “inescapably contestable” (p.214), Sandel warns. We may never come to agree on its substantive terms but nonetheless need to engage in a debate over what those terms could include. This will require “reflecting critically on our preferences—ideally, elevating and improving them—so that we can live worthwhile and flourishing lives” (p.208).   Moving the debate about the dignity of work away from the market definition of the common good has the potential to “disrupt our partisan complacencies, morally invigorate our public discourse, and move us beyond the polarized politics that four decades of market faith and meritocratic hubris have bequeathed” (p.214).

Critical reflection on the common good and a renewed debate on the dignity of work are incontestably fine ideas, but is difficult to imagine any wide-scale debate in today’s United States that would take us in the direction of a wholesale change in the prevailing meritocratic ethos.   Yet, several pragmatic steps that could narrow the glaring economic disparities between the very rich and working-class Americans might, in turn, smooth some of the sharper edges of the meritocratic ethos and thereby enhance the dignity of work.

One place to start lies in changing tax policies.  A political agenda that recognizes the dignity of work, Sandel argues, would “use the tax system to reconfigure the economy of esteem by discouraging speculation and honoring productive labor” (p.218).  A consumption or “VAT” tax would be a modest step in this direction, along with a “financial transactions tax on high-frequency trading, which contributes little to the real economy” (p.219).  A more progressive income tax with higher rates on the highest brackets—top tax rates in the 1950s reached 91%—would also help narrow economic disparities, as would higher estate taxes, which today exempt all estate wealth up to about $12 million.  Then there is my favorite: enhanced funding for the IRS to equip the agency to better pursue high level tax fraud and avoidance.

Narrowing the economic gap can also be accomplished from below by more generous social welfare benefits, not unlike those contained in President Biden’s proposed Build Back Better Act: universal and free childcare, affordable health insurance, and extending the Child Tax credit and Earned Income Tax credit.  More job retraining programs need to be established for workers whose jobs move overseas and higher education—at both elite and non-elite institutions—needs to be made more accessible for young people from lower income families (to include pathways to relief for student debt).  Sandel mentions each briefly.  Surprisingly, he doesn’t give much attention to the potential of a reinvigorated organized labor movement to diminish some of the most glaring economic disparities in American society, which could in turn provide a tangible statement of the dignity and value of work.  The term solidarity, after all, is closely associated with the American labor movement.

* * *

Sandel’s trenchant critique of the meritocratic ethos in today’s United States leads — inescapably in my mind — to the conclusion that changing that ethos starts with narrowing the space between those at the top of the economic ladder and the ladder’s bottom half.  Until then, The Tyranny of Merit’s eloquently argued case for a more humane version of the common good could be scintillating subject matter for a (Sandel-led) philosophy seminar at Harvard, but with little likelihood of gaining traction in the world beyond.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

March 23, 2022






Filed under American Politics, Politics

The Cost of Women War Criminals’ Gendered Defenses


Izabela Stefjia and Jessica Trisko Darden, Women as War Criminals:

Gender, Agency, and Justice

(Stanford Briefs/Stanford University Press, 2020)

Most people, female as well as male, think of war crimes as the ignominious reserve of the male of the human species.  But in Women as War Criminals: Gender, Agency, and Justice, Izabela Stefjia and Jessica Trisko Darden, professors at Tulane and Virginia Commonwealth  University, respectively, contend that the gender “violence gap” in war crimes – the difference between the rate at which men and women commit violent acts – is “not as wide as is often thought, in part because women’s historical participation in wartime violence has willfully been ignored” (p.122).  Women war criminals, the authors contend, have gone unnamed or been underestimated, all part of an attempt to “preserve archetypal images of women as victims and men as perpetrators” (p.122; the authors cite Wendy Lower’s seminal work,  Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields, a nuanced study of women who joined the Nazi cause and in surprising numbers abetted willingly and enthusiastically the Holocaust, reviewed here in 2016).

While no single document defines war crimes, the 1899 and 1907 Hague Conventions, the 1949 Geneva Convention, and the 2002 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court all identify and prohibit behaviors in the conduct of international and domestic conflicts that transgress internationally accepted norms, including torture, forced displacement and genocide.  Women as War Criminals revolves around four women charged with war crimes.  The four cases illustrate in different ways how gendered stereotypes can distort the outcome in proceedings to address those crimes, and how specific social and political contexts influence the construction of gendered arguments.

Stefjia and Trisko Darden bring to their work a perspective that could be described as both feminist and prosecutorial.  Violence by women, they argue, should be treated when proven as a prosecutor would treat it: an “autonomous choice clearly indicative of the human capacity for violence” (p.9).  The four cases are intended to demonstrate how gendered arguments in legal proceedings almost invariably deny or lessen women’s agency, often resulting in women being treated more leniently and escaping full accountability for their crimes.  Women who are “willing to cater to gender stereotypes through compliance, obedience, and apology are more likely to evade the full weight of their crimes” (p.126), the authors write.  However, context is critical in assessing women accused of war crimes.  In some contexts, gendered arguments can result in women being treated more harshly than men for similar offenses.  Focusing on women as war criminals, the authors add, does not “diminish the important and well-established fact that women are among the greatest victims of armed conflict” (p.121-22).

The first two of the four cases involve women accused of war crimes during the 1990s: Biljana Plavšić, charged with participation in the ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims in the former Yugoslavia; and Pauline Nyiramasuhuk, indicted as an architect of the genocide against ethnic Tutus in Rwanda.  Each was a high-level official in her government and both were well into their adult years when they were implicated in war crimes.  Their cases, tried before recently established United Nations international tribunals, the International Criminal Court for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the International Criminal Court for Rwanda (ICTR), reflect the optimism of the 1990s that such tribunals could assign responsibility for war crimes in an unbiased fashion and thereby ameliorate the post-conflict political conditions in the two countries.

The last two cases involve women who found themselves engaged on opposite sides of the 21st century American-led “global war on terror” in the Middle East: Lynette England and Hoda Muthana.  Both were 20 when they entered conflict, decades younger than Plavšić and Nyiramasuhuk, and both were at or near the bottom of their respective organizations.  Both, moreover, became pregnant by male co-perpetrators and gave birth while in service to their organizations.

England was the US Army soldier famously photographed in 2004 abusing suspected terrorists captured in Iraq.  She faced a military court-marital in the United States.  Muthana was an American-born Muslim woman who traveled to Syria to join the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) during the 21st century’s second decade.   While with ISIS, she allegedly incited violent acts against civilians, including urging the killing of Americans and the assassination of then-President Barack Obama.  Muthana married three times during her ISIS tenure, earning her the media moniker of “ISIS bride.”  Her first two husbands died in conflict.

Despite apparent similarities between England and Muthana, and between Plavšić and Nyiramasuhuk, each woman’s case is significantly different from the other three.  If there is a common denominator among the four, it lies in the readiness of all to downplay their own agency by arguing in their defense that they had been manipulated by males and predominantly male institutions.  These gendered defenses, the authors contend, disguise the “noteworthy ideological commitment to the cause they took up.”  All four believed, “with conviction, that they were fighting for the right side” (p.123).   Until we recognize that women can be as violent as men, capable of committing such heinous crimes as torture, rape, enslavement, mass murder, ethnic cleansing and genocide, the authors suggest, “we cannot expect their equal treatment under the law or in society” (p.131).

* * *

Biljana Plavšić was an accomplished agricultural scientist who held a PhD and had been a Fulbright scholar.  In 1992, she became co-president, along with the notorious war criminal Radovan Karadžić,  of Republika Srpska, the Serbian entity created within the larger state of Bosnia and Herzegovina.  She was the only woman among 16 individuals indicted by the ICTY on war crimes charges involving the ethnic cleansing of non-Serbs.  Unlike the 15 males, Plavšić surrendered voluntarily and did not use the tribunal theatrically, either to ridicule it as the “ultimate enemy of their people” or to “express extreme nationalist narratives” (p.18), as did several of her male co-defendants.  She was originally indicted on nine counts, but eight, including genocide, were dropped in exchange for a guilty plea to one count of persecution on political, racial and religious grounds.

At her sentencing, Plavšić’s lawyers presented their client as the compliant “Mother of the Serb nation.”  Her lawyers seemed to be “seeking to prove that Plavšić was an obedient and virtuous woman” (p.27).  She regretted publicly the role she had played in heinous war crimes.  She too was a victim, she argued, “not of The Hague [or] the international community but of the political elite in Republika Srpska” and its “rogue leadership” (p.28) which she left.

Portraying Plavšić as a woman who was duped by her male peers proved to be an effective defense, as she was given a modest sentence, 11 years in prison minus 245 days spent in pre-trial detention.  She was released in October 2009 for good behavior, after serving about two-thirds of her sentence.  Many men considerably lower in the hierarchy and facing less serious charges received longer prison terms.  But rather than being duped by her Republika Srpska peers, Plavšić might better be seen as the woman who duped the ICTY and the international community.

While in prison, Plavšić wrote a scorching two-volume political memoir in Serbian, never translated into other major European languages, in which she all but admitted that her defense at the ICTY had been an act – that she fully supported the aims of Bosnia’s Serbian nationalists, even if she didn’t admit explicitly to participation in the specific war crimes of which she was accused.  Her memoir dismissed Serbian atrocities as a “fabrication;” portrayed NATO as the enemy of the Serbs; and contended that the United States sought to eradicate Serbia.  Diverging drastically from the image Plavšić sought to create at the ICTY, the memoir  demonstrated “disrespect and disregard for international criminal law and displayed extreme nationalism and racism” (p.38).   The ICTY, the authors note woefully, clearly “did not manage to convert a key female perpetrator into a reconciliatory figure through leniency and a reduced sentence” (p.42).

* * *

The Rwandan genocide of ethnic Tutsis in 1994, one of the most infamous episodes of mass violence and war crimes in modern history, was organized by a small group from the Hutu ethnic group that had been excluded from and disagreed with a power sharing agreement executed in 1990 between Hutus and Tutsis, Rwanda’s two major ethnic groups.  Three quarters of Rwanda’s Tutsi population were killed in the genocide, along with others who either “looked Tutsi” or were more moderate Hutus.

Pauline Nyiramasuhuko, the Rwandan Minister of Family and Women’s Development, was one of the key inner circle members of the government which planned the massacre of Tutsis and opposition Hutus.  Nyiramasuhuko was tried at the ICTR in a group of six, with five men, all considered to be at the top of the criminal pyramid.  Like the five men, she was accused of crimes against humanity that included aiding and abetting in the slaughter of Tutsis.  She allegedly encouraged men, including her son, to commit rape of Tutsi women.

At Nyiramasuhuko’s trial, her lawyers cast her as an “unaware, uninformed, innocent victim of male leaders,” suggesting that she was a “passive participant” (p..62).  They sought to normalize her image by “portraying her as a pious and devoted mother” (p.46).  But for her victims and the accusers, Nyiramasuhuko was “especially guilty and vicious because she [was] a woman and a mother” (p.59).  That she was a mother made her participation worse for her victims and accusers, the authors sardonically observe, “as if somehow being a father and a perpetrator is not a common characteristic of male genocidaires” (p.54).

The ICTR didn’t buy gendered arguments from either side.  The court was “not open to the argument that Nyiramasuhuko was a woman duped by genocidal men” (p.62).  It convicted her of genocide, conspiracy to commit genocide, violence to life, and outrages against personal dignity, along with the crimes against humanity of extermination, persecution and rape.  She became both the “only woman tried and convicted by an international court for the crime of genocide” and the “only woman to be tried and convicted by an international criminal trial for rape as a crime against humanity” (p.49), thereby “shattering the image of men being exclusive perpetrators of rape” (p.55).  The ICTR gave Nyiramasuhuko and her son life sentences, with her sentence reduced in 2015 to 47 years.

The ICTR’s rejection of gender-related arguments cast the court as an “objective legal institution, interested only in the facts” (p.64).  But the authors nonetheless characterize the court’s avoidance of gender as a missed opportunity to probe more deeply into how masculinity and femininity in the Rwandan context affected the horrific violence.  Treating Nyiramasuhuko’s case as no different from that of her co-accused males, the authors contend, resulted in the court fitting her into what they characterize as the “violent ‘African savage’ stereotype” (p.70).  The ICTR case against Nyiramasuhuko was thus “influenced by ingrained biases about how African actors behave in conflicts” (p.46).

“Relying exclusively on gender to understand female war criminals diminishes their social, political, and material motives,” the authors conclude in their summary of Nyiramasuhuko’s case.  But removing gender entirely, as the ICTR did,“denies the gendered context in which the crimes took place” (p.65).

* * *

Lynette England gained notoriety in the spring of 2004, when renowned investigative reporter Seymour Hersh reported in the New Yorker magazine on torture and extensive prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, the Iraqi prison that was once home to Saddam Hussein’s torturers and became, as the authors put it, “synonymous with the excesses of America’s War on Terror” (p.71).  Among the photos accompanying Hersh’s article was one of England in a t-shirt and fatigues, “holding what appeared to be a leash wrapped around the neck of a naked man” (p.72).

England, who grew up in Appalachia, had been diagnosed with a learning disability as a child.  While in high school, she signed up for the U.S. Army Reserves.  After graduation, she married her boyfriend and mobilized with her reserve unit for deployment.  Shortly after her arrival in Iraq, England, still legally married, met Charles Graner.  Contrary to Army regulations, England and Graner began a sexual relationship which resulted in England’s pregnancy.  She gave birth to her son, Carter, about six months after the abuse scandal had broken.

After a first court-marital, in which the military judge refused to accept her guilty plea, England’s second court-martial generated far more media attention than those of the males who were more deeply involved in abuse of Iraqi prisoners.  In that proceeding, England’s defense team “intentionally used her gender and status as a mother to minimize her role in the abuse by depicting her as sexually and emotionally exploited by an older, higher ranked man” (p.73-74).  England was portrayed as an “uncivilized, promiscuous Hillbilly-turned-Torturer” (p.79), at the bottom of both the American social hierarchy and the military hierarchy – “incapable of making good decisions as evidenced by her divorce, pregnancy, and participation in torture” (p.80).  As a so-called “Hillbilly,” England’s social status was “seen by some observers as enforcing her culpability” (p.81).

For institutional as much as strategic reasons, England’s defense team did not seek to question the military’s role in creating conditions conducive to torture and perhaps even in directing soldiers to commit abusive acts.  The overall objective of the Abu Ghraib courts-martial , the authors contend, was to “deflect blame away from the Army and toward the individual perpetrators rather than establishing a broader system of accountability” (p.88).  The prosecution too, while recognizing England’s agency, “failed to consider the broader social and institutional environment that the abuse occurred in” (p.88).

England was found guilty on 7 of 8 counts and sentenced to three years in military prison.  The male soldiers’ sentences varied based on their cooperation with the investigation.  Graner received the stiffest sentence as the ringleader of the abuse.  There were a few soldiers higher up in the chain of command who had their career advancement blocked, but most escaped punishment.  The lesson to be derived from England’s court martial, the authors conclude, is that when women soldiers face military justice, they will be judged for “failing not only as soldiers, but as women” (p.94).

* * *

Hoda Muthana was born in New Jersey in 1994 to immigrant parents from Yemen.  Her father was a Yemeni diplomat who chose to remain in the United States after his diplomatic tour ended.  After graduation from high school, Muthana enrolled in business school at the University of Alabama.  In 2014, she left university to join ISIS in Syria, where she became one of its public spokespersons.  On social media, she took the name of Umm Jihad, Mother Jihad.

Early in her tenure with ISIS, Muthana married a 23-year-old man from Australia, of Middle Eastern background.  Her husband was killed in battle less than three months after their marriage and, after a period of mourning, she married a 19-year-old Tunisian who too was killed in combat, when Muthana was 7 months pregnant.  She gave birth to a son, Adam, and remarried still another time, but little detail is known about her third husband.

Muthana fled ISIS-controlled territory in mid-December 2018.  Stressing her youth and  her status as a mother, she described herself as having been “brainwashed,” “traumatized, and “manipulated” by ISIS (p.105).  In January 2019, Muthana surrendered to opposition Kurdish forces and was placed in a holding camp.  As of the authors’ writing, she and her son lived in a tent, along with about 4,400 other women and children affiliated with ISIS.  She expressed publicly a desire to return to the United States to face potential criminal charges for her actions in Syria.  But that path seems to be legally foreclosed.

In 2016, the State Department sought to strip Muthana of her of US citizenship based on a revised understanding of her father’s diplomatic status.  He was still subject to diplomatic immunity when she was born, the Department argued.  Muthana’s father sued in federal district court to challenge that decision, with the case centered around what his daughter had done for ISIS.  The district court affirmed the State Department’s decision, thereby denying Muthana American citizenship.  Last month, the Supreme Court turned down the request to review the district court decision, and it is unclear whether Muthana will ever be called to account in a legal forum.

The authors manifest little sympathy for Muthana’s claims of brainwashing and manipulation while with ISIS, but would plainly like to see those claims and the accusations of terrorist acts attributed to her subject to the scrutiny of a legal proceeding.  Yet she still warrants study as an example of the gendered stereotyping baked into the term “ISIS bride.”  The term attaches a woman to a man’s agenda, they contend, thereby acknowledging women’s agency “only within the framework of marriage” and downplaying the “very real engagement of these women with ISIS’s ideology” (p.102).

There is no evidence that Muthana joined ISIS because she was “persuaded to by a man,” or that she did so for the “primary purpose of getting married” (p.102), the authors argue.  And  there is ample evidence of her strong ideological convictions: she viewed her actions in Syria as in line with God’s laws, in which the founding of a Muslim state or caliphate is an obligation of every Muslim, regardless of gender race, or nationality.  These ideological convictions were wholly absent in media reporting about Muthana and those of other so-called ISIS brides.  That the women of ISIS, and not the men, are able to press claims of youth, manipulation and victimization reflects the “deeply gendered bias in both media portrayals and the legal treatment of ISIS members” (p.108).

* * *

The four cases, disparate as they may be, reveal women war criminals to be like their male counterparts,  Stefjia and Trisko Darden write,  “political actors willing to act on their convictions and use their trials and notoriety to further their messages” (p.123). Women implicated in war crimes, moreover, are uncomfortably similar to other women across the globe in at least one sense – they too are “committed to making a mark and having a voice in a man’s world” (p.123).

Thomas H. Peebles

Bordeaux, France

February 1, 2022




Filed under Gender Issues, Rule of Law