Roman Holidays

Metropolitan Museum of ArtGiovanni Alto showing off the sights of Rome; engraving by Francesco Villamena, 1613

For several decades in the early seventeenth century, German-speaking visitors to Rome could tour the city with a strapping Swiss Guard named Hans Rudolf Heinrich Hoch, who liked to use the Italian version of his name, Giovanni Alto—Tall John. Towering over the average Roman in his billowing guardsman’s uniform, complete with cape, ruff, pantaloons, rosette-studded codpiece, and extravagantly plumed top hat, Giovanni Alto cut a dashing figure as he shepherded his charges through the Eternal City, bringing the ruins back to life with his exuberant descriptions while gently extolling the virtues of the Roman Catholic faith.

As a final flourish, he would invite his most illustrious clients to sign his guest book; today, four such autograph albums survive in the Vatican Library. Perhaps this was the moment when he let it be known that he could recommend some very special souvenirs of Rome at a very special price: engravings of the monuments and ruins they had just seen, fresh from the shop of the local printmaker Giacomo Lauro (active 1583–1645). Several of Lauro’s prints conveniently feature Giovanni Alto gesticulating in the foreground (as well as other contemporary tour guides hard at work).

Engravings made ideal souvenirs: they were light, portable, and relatively affordable. Long after the tour ended, they could serve as a focus for treasured memories and display the wonders of Rome to the people back home. As a further advantage, Lauro sold the images loose, as individual plates; customers could choose which to buy and arrange them into an entirely personal bound album. The collusion between the Swiss Guard and the Italian engraver, combining grand tour and memory book, created a perfect, and lucrative, alliance.

Alto and Lauro were hardly the first to profit from selling mass-produced prints to tourists: in the 1530s, a Rome-based Spanish publisher and bookseller, Antonio Salamanca, had already begun to publish folio engravings of Roman monuments, both ancient and modern. Copyright as we know it was still an unknown luxury, so when a French publisher, Antoine Lafréry, moved to Rome and started to produce pirate versions of Salamanca’s prints in the 1540s, the Spaniard responded not with a lawsuit but an offer of collaboration. The two men officially joined forces in 1553. Salamanca would not regret his decision; Lafréry may have been a pirate, but he was also an excellent businessman.

In 1573, the Frenchman issued a master list of all the firm’s available engravings and then, shortly afterward, printed a title page that enabled customers to turn their collections of Roman prints into something resembling a book. This elegant cover sheet featured an elaborate architectural caprice framing the resonant title Mirror of Roman Magnificence (Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae). Today, libraries all around the world have catalog entries for the Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae, but only some of these entries refer to bound volumes. Many versions of the Speculum are still kept as loose collections, and each, bound or unbound, is different from all the rest.

Giacomo Lauro began working in Rome in the 1580s, when the Speculum topped every well-heeled tourist’s list of desirable souvenirs. Like Lafréry, he was a rogue, an accomplished pirate of other people’s engravings who maneuvered as deftly as Lafréry had around a growing body of copyright protections (which he helped to create). In order to garner a corner of Lafréry’s market, Lauro issued his own collection of Roman engravings, Splendor of the Ancient City (Antiquae Urbis Splendor), as a three-volume set in 1615, choosing to focus on reconstructions of ancient buildings rather than the rapidly developing architecture of modern Rome. Giovanni Alto wrote the preface.

The Norwegian art historian Victor Plahte Tschudi began investigating Giacomo Lauro’s devious career when he was a graduate student on a fellowship in Rome. He discovered how cleverly the printmaker had pirated engravings of Roman monuments, altering a few details to avoid breaking the letter, not to mention the spirit, of emerging copyright laws. Strictly speaking, Lauro could argue that his slightly and deliberately altered copies were not really copies—never mind that the alterations he made to his images also turned them into less accurate, or flat-out inaccurate, representations of the monuments they depicted. Most of Lauro’s customers would never have noticed in any case, nor, for that matter, would most Romans; what counted above all to the collectors of these engravings was the suggestive idea, or the memory, of sights like the Colosseum or the temples of the Roman Forum. Lauro was no Piranesi, tormented by magnificent visions. He scratched out his engravings to make a living, not to court immortality.

Tschudi’s book Baroque Antiquity addresses, with coruscating wit, a more challenging aspect of Lauro’s handiwork: the fact that so many of his reconstructions of ancient monuments fly in the face of archaeological accuracy, not just in the details, but entirely. In his search for why this was so, Tschudi introduces readers to another seventeenth-century rogue, albeit one with an imagination as epic as Piranesi’s: Father Athanasius Kircher, the German refugee who spent most of his life at the Jesuit Roman College in Rome and, like Giovanni Alto before him, served as a point of reference for German visitors to the Eternal City. Kircher’s reconstructions of ancient Roman monuments are sometimes as extravagantly fictitious as any caprice of Lauro’s Antiquae Urbis Splendor, and sometimes, again like Lauro’s, as accurate as modern scholarship could make them. The printmaker and the Jesuit savant departed from archaeological accuracy not out of ignorance, but by deliberate choice, and thereby hangs Tschudi’s fascinating story.

The earliest surviving guidebooks to Rome—twelfth-century pilgrim handbooks like Record of the Golden City of Rome (Graphia Aureae Urbis Romae, circa 1130) and the best-selling Wonders of the City of Rome (Mirabilia Urbis Romae, circa 1143)—served up generous doses of fiction to compensate for their lack of concrete information about the ruins of the ancient city. Noah had settled in Rome just after the Flood, long before a pair of baby boys named Romulus and Remus were ever suckled by a kindly she-wolf in a swamp that would one day become the Circus Maximus. A dragon lived in the Forum, not far from the place called “Inferno” because there the fires of Hell had once burst forth from the center of the earth.

The circular “eye” that opens to the sky in the center of the Pantheon’s dome was once plugged by the huge bronze pinecone that stood in those days by the entrance to St. Peter’s Basilica (since 1643 it has decorated the upper garden of what are now the Vatican Museums). Some medieval pilgrims must have been observant enough to see that the Pignone, the big pinecone, could never have stopped the eight-meter opening in the Pantheon’s roof, let alone blow sky-high one day in a cloud of devils, fly through the air for a full city block, and fall to earth in the piazza that still bears its name, Piazza della Pigna.

On the other hand, ancient Roman legends about the Forum were scarcely more credible than these tales from the Middle Ages: the divine twins Castor and Pollux watering their immortal horses by the house of the Vestal Virgins, meat raining from the heavens, Romulus disappearing into thin air, Quintus Curtius leaping into a chasm on horseback as the earth closed behind him, the body of Julius Caesar bursting into spontaneous flame. The very strangeness of these events, both ancient and medieval, hinted at higher meanings, although it must be said that the priests of Rome never did divine exactly why the skies rained meat in 461 BC; they paid more heed to the previous year’s report of a talking cow.*

By the mid-fifteenth century, this kind of fanciful tale-telling about early Rome had given way to scholarly scrutiny. In the 1460s, the University of Rome hired professors to teach the new discipline of studia humanitatis—the humanities. Their students, including a brace of future Vatican bureaucrats and at least one sixteenth-century pope (Paul III), learned to compare the testimony of ancient writers with the city’s surviving physical traces and imagine themselves back into the world of antiquity. Rather than a story of pride brought low, Rome began to tell an eminently Christian story of resurrection, of an empire put in place by God to spread the good news of the gospel, then and now. After centuries of shrinkage, the city had begun to grow rapidly, stimulating new building everywhere, including in the long-deserted tracts called the disabitato, the uninhabited zone within the city walls.

In a process that still continues unabated, every excavation for a new foundation or a wine cellar brought up tantalizing remnants of the past. Scholars and artists clambered over the ruins, sketching, measuring, examining, comparing, seeing many sights that have long since disappeared, most of them destroyed by another five centuries of new construction or, like the intact body of an ancient Roman girl embalmed in honey, by exposure to the elements. At the same time, new generations of what contemporaries called “book gluttons” (helluones librorum) scoured libraries in the hope of finding forgotten copies of ancient texts. Yet the more the ancient world revealed itself, the more clearly an unfathomable distance yawned between ancient literature and ancient ruins. By the early sixteenth century, most visitors to Rome came seeking a literal, not a legendary, connection to the past. They wanted to walk in the real footsteps of the Apostles and Julius Caesar as they took in the new papal Rome rising before their eyes.

Tschudi suggests that, in addition to these time-honored sources of information about Rome—the literary legacy of ancient authors and the physical legacy of the monuments—sixteenth-century printmakers relied to an even greater extent on a third source: other prints. By examining (or simply copying) the work of his predecessors, Giacomo Lauro could concoct his own reconstruction of an ancient building without ever having to step outside his studio. In effect, he and his colleagues created what Baroque Antiquity terms an “archaeology of prints,” and indeed the word “archaeology,” with a meaning roughly equivalent to “ancient history,” appears for the first time in 1607, precisely when Giacomo Lauro was perfecting his Splendor of the Ancient City.

With this formulation, Tschudi puts his finger on a phenomenon that had taken root in the previous century when, with startling speed, the printed page began to create a world of its own. In Rome around 1514, when the cash-strapped Pope Leo X realized that he could never afford a major building project, he commissioned Raphael to create, on paper, a reconstruction of the city during the reign of Constantine. Painfully aware of his own limitations, he chose to recall a time when the Roman Empire spanned three continents, the inhabited city extended all the way to its third-century walls, and Christianity had cemented its triumph over the ancient gods.

CPA Media/Pictures from History/GrangerThe Tower of Babel; engraving by Athanasius Kircher, 1679

In 1515, Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, as deeply in debt as Pope Leo, commissioned a colossal triumphal arch from Albrecht Dürer—on paper. Soon enthusiastic Lutherans would be pasting huge paper prints of Martin Luther on their walls in place of marble statues. In 1615, as Lauro issued his Antiquae Urbis Splendor, another transplant to Rome, the aristocratic scholar Cassiano dal Pozzo, conceived the idea for a “Paper Museum” to encompass every branch of human knowledge. Tschudi navigates through this paper universe, which he describes as “a historical landscape twice removed,” with sparkling ingenuity, ideas swarming as densely and provocatively as a flying squadron of Baroque cupids.

To engrave an image of the temple of Honos and Virtus, mentioned by ancient writers such as Cicero and Vitruvius but long since obliterated, Lauro, like the writers of Rome’s twelfth-century guidebooks, resorted to fiction. Honos and Virtus are not quite equivalent to Honor and Virtue; they are something more akin to Military Justice and Battle Courage, values appropriate for a temple dedicated by the Roman general Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus as a victory pledge, and values the Romans themselves regarded as essential to their success. Lauro imagined the shrine as a domed building with a domed vestibule, set within a statue-studded circular precinct: a Pantheon tailored to contemporary seventeenth-century taste.

His reconstruction, in turn, would inspire the great architects of Baroque Rome to turn his paper vision of Roman virtue into physical reality, as Gianlorenzo Bernini would do in 1662–1664 with his Church of the Assumption in Ariccia, a village just outside Rome. For Lauro’s Antiquae Urbis Splendor sold not only to visiting tourists, but also to the artists and architects engaged in creating the splendor of the modern city. His paper antiquity helped to transform Rome’s most tangible reality.

Seventeenth-century Rome engendered yet another illustrious paper city, this one resolutely projected into the future: a collection of manuscripts in the Vatican Library assembled between 1655 and 1667 by Pope Alexander VII. These magnificent folios, a bound collection of original drawings, contain plans for the pope’s ambitious building program. Some of the projects were never realized, like the plan to glass in the “eye” of the Pantheon and the megalomaniacal idea of moving both the Trevi fountain and Trajan’s column to join the column of Marcus Aurelius in a colossal urban assemblage, but here we can also see the beginnings of real monuments: Bernini’s great colonnade for Saint Peter’s Basilica, Borromini’s floor plan for the church of Sant’Ivo, and the smirking elephant that carries an Egyptian obelisk on its back in a piazza just behind the Pantheon.

The elephant, with its singular burden, shows the unmistakable touch of Pope Alexander’s longtime friend Father Athanasius Kircher, the single resident of Rome who claimed to read Egyptian hieroglyphs. An inveterate prankster, he must have collaborated with the pope on drafting the inscription that adorns the elephant’s pedestal: “It takes a hearty spirit to bear up wisdom.” Of all the Baroque figures who shifted between physical worlds and worlds of paper, Kircher ruled over the most extensive empire of all, limited only by his own imagination, which was apparently limitless.

In 1651, Kircher turned a version of Cassiano dal Pozzo’s paper museum into a real collection, with talking statues, wooden obelisks, a stuffed armadillo slung from the ceiling, Etruscan vases, Roman coins, Egyptian amulets, a narwhal horn, a sawfish bill, exotic shoes, a statue carved from a meteorite, and a plant he claimed to have resurrected from its own ashes (until it, and its glass bell, fell from an upstairs window one winter evening). In this vaulted kingdom within the Jesuit College he received heads of state, from a succession of popes to Queen Christina of Sweden, as well as a stream of tourists. Like Giovanni Alto, he had a knack for quietly attracting German Lutherans to the Catholic faith, but he could also converse in most European languages, Arabic, and Hebrew.

This was Kircher’s tangible world. But he also ruled over a vast empire of print, facilitated, once again, by his friendship with Alexander VII, whose protection enabled him to flout the censors within his order and without. Like Martin Luther, Father Kircher wrote prolifically enough to sustain an entire printing industry single-handedly. From a first work on magnetism, he moved on to acoustics, light, music, China, geology, cosmology, symbolic logic, topography, Egyptology, Noah’s Ark, and Latium, the region around Rome. In 1661, he struck a long-term agreement with a Dutch Protestant publisher, Johannes Jansson, which allowed him to produce lavish folio books with engraved illustrations by the best professionals Amsterdam could offer. Kircher was an enthusiastic draftsman himself but, as his manuscripts show, not a particularly gifted one. Jansson’s engravers made him look like a master.

Baroque Antiquity zooms in on one of Kircher’s later works from the Jansson press: Latium, published in 1671, which, typically for its author, presents reconstructions of ancient Roman ruins alongside a plan to drain the malarial Pontine Marshes (a project that only came to fruition in the twentieth century). Here Tschudi shows how Kircher’s paper reconstruction of the huge hillside sanctuary of Fortune at Palestrina cleverly channels reconstructions of another antique structure, the villa of Maecenas, the legendary patron who sponsored so many people and projects during the reign of Augustus. Maecenas was an Etruscan, descended (so claimed the poet Horace) from a line of local kings, and so, at least in fancy, was the seventeenth-century owner of Palestrina, Cardinal Francesco Barberini, himself a great patron and a loyal son of Tuscany.

By recreating the sprawling ruined temple on Barberini’s property as a generous Etruscan sponsor’s sanctuary for learning and the arts, Kircher paid homage to the cardinal’s good taste in historic real estate, his Tuscan heritage, and his magnanimity. The temple, of course, never looked remotely like Kircher’s reconstruction (for which he enlisted the help of the brilliant Tuscan architect Pietro da Cortona), but until a bombing raid in World War II pulverized much of Palestrina, no one knew what it looked like; the ruins had been covered for centuries, if not for millennia, by the village. Thus Kircher, like Giacomo Lauro, used his paper kingdom with sovereign mastery “to flatter, instruct, convert.” And above all, as Baroque Antiquity demonstrates on every page, to beguile.

  1. *

    The meat rain of 461 is recorded by the Roman historian Livy, as are most of the other stories cited here. For a possible explanation for the phenomenon, see the discussion of the Kentucky Meat Shower of 1876 by Bec Crew, “The Great Kentucky Meat Shower Mystery Unwound by Projectile Vulture Vomit,” Running Ponies (blog), Scientific American, December 1, 2014. See also Franklin Brunell Krauss, An Interpretation of the Omens, Portents, and Prodigies Recorded by Livy, Tacitus, and Suetonius (doctoral dissertation, privately printed, 1930). 

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World Cup 2018: Senegal’s Art of the Unforeseen

Alexander Ryumin/TASS via Getty ImagesSenegalese fans parading before their team’s match against Poland in Moscow, Russia, June 19, 2018

This is the seventh in a series of essays about the 2018 World Cup guest-edited by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro.


If Africa were a single country, its history and founding myths could be narrated around thrilling episodes of “the beautiful game” on the world stage. Ask any not-so-young African what their best memories of the World Cup are, and you may hear about that day in 1982 when Algeria beat the mighty West Germany—at the pre-game press conference, a German player had quipped, “We will dedicate our seventh goal to our wives, and the eighth to our dogs.” No one had told him, one suspects, about the Algerian team’s proud past, during the country’s anti-colonial struggle in 1958, as flag-bearers for a nation fighting for freedom.

Another iconic moment etched in African collective memory is the day when Cameroon inflicted a stunning defeat on Diego Maradona’s Argentina at the opening game of the 1990 World Cup. Africa danced with the formidable forward Roger Milla, then aged thirty-eight, that day, and then did so again after his two goals beat Romania. Milla would later dynamite Colombia twice during extra-time, leading his team to the quarterfinals.

And then there is Senegal, and its cathartic saga during the 2002 World Cup co-hosted by Japan and South Korea. On May 31, 2002, in Seoul, Senegal humiliated France during the opening game. France had entered the game as the defending world champion, whereas Senegal was playing its first ever game in a World Cup championship. The whole world was watching.

The best thing about soccer is its capacity for surprise. “The more the technocrats program it down to the smallest detail, the more the powerful manipulate it,” as the Uruguayan writer and football philosopher Eduardo Galeano wrote, “soccer continues to be the art of the unforeseeable.” And so it proved, that day in Seoul. Senegal faced a turning-point in history, which it was determined to write. After Bouba Diop scored half an hour into the game, the eleven “Lions” vowed to defend the homeland’s dignity at all costs—and did so, winning 1-0.

In the world of sports, the FIFA World Cup in many ways exemplifies the legacies of colonialism, current global inequalities, oppressive capitalism, greed, and corruption. Soccer stadiums are places where nationalism is on full display, patriotism is disputed, and racism is hurled in the shape of banana peels and the sound of monkey chants from the sidelines. In the stadium, fans of France felt free to abuse their striker Karim Benzema, whose parents are immigrants from Algeria, for not singing the national anthem even though they idolized the former star Zinedine Zidane, who shares the same background and did not sing the Marseillaise either. Racism in sports, and among sports fans, can be extraordinary: it allows admiration for Muhammad Ali and hate for Colin Kaepernick to inhabit the same mind. But World Cup stadiums, as we were reminded in 2002, can also be containers for joy, and makers of other meanings.

After that famous win over France, crowds flooded the streets of Senegal’s capital, Dakar. The country’s president, Abdoulaye Wade, joined them downtown at the Place de l’independence—the same square where, in the dying days of the French empire some four decades earlier, an exasperated General Charles de Gaulle had made a final appeal for the French colonies to remain in a so-called French Community instead of choosing independence. In August 1958, de Gaulle came out of retirement to save the nation and salvage the empire—visiting Madagascar, Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, and Senegal—in the aftermath of the French military disaster in Indochina at Dien Bien Phu, and as the Algerian war of liberation was raging. To no avail. Senegal became independent in 1960, and that history was very present when the two nations faced each other again, this time on the soccer field.

The team that won that day in 2002 was a carefree bunch of unruly yet talented kids, with a healthy appetite for fun. Their coach was Bruno Metsu, a Frenchman, who is still beloved as a prophet in Senegal. Metsu later converted to Islam, changed his first name to Abdou Karim, and etched Senegal in his heart. When he died of cancer in 2013 in Paris, his adoptive nation mourned and paid tribute to him, as thousands of people accompanied him to his final resting place in Dakar.

By beating its former colonizer at sport, the Senegalese team had lifted a people and dignified a nation. Senegal winning against France was bound to resonate as a response to its past history with France—a history of plunder of lives and goods, of forced labor and conscription to fight European wars, of humiliations and exactions.

This week, Senegal returned to the World Cup with another chance to enchant the world. The Generation 2002 team, as they are fondly referred to, is long gone. But as this year’s squad took the field on Tuesday against Poland, their forebears’ aura was looming over them—not least because our captain in 2002, Aliou Cissé, is now Senegal’s manager. A protégé of Metsu, who spotted Cissé early in his career in France and then made him central to his team, Cissé was a combative and charismatic midfielder. After retiring as a player, he launched his coaching career by leading Senegal’s Under-23 squad to the quarterfinals at the 2012 London Olympics. Now he’s the only black manager at the World Cup, and a visible advocate for more African countries’ hiring homegrown rather than imported coaches to lead their teams. That Cissé is also the lowest paid among the thirty-two managers in Russia tells its own story about how skewed things still are. But against Poland, his team played with discipline and verve, and won 2-1.   

That win signaled another possible wild ride for the “Lions.” But whatever our star striker Sadio Mané and his teammates accomplish this time around in Russia, we will just crack a wide, nostalgic smile and reminisce about the late Abdou Karim Metsu and his bunch of wild kids who stood up, fought, and won for us. All of us.

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Stanley Cavell, 1926–2018

Stanley Cavell

He was a jazz musician before he was a philosopher. An air of improvisation and fun hung over everything he did. Pauline Kael was lecturing at Harvard, and I saw him standing on the Cambridge Common, shortly before the lecture was to begin, looking bewildered. “Are you lost?” I asked jokingly. “This is Mass. Ave., and that over there is Garden Street.” “I know what street I’m on,” he said, as though he’d stepped out of one of the screwball comedies he so loved. “But what town am I in?”

He didn’t prepare a syllabus. He didn’t order books for his courses. He was casual with student papers. According to the awful assessment measures of our awful times, he was probably a lousy teacher, and yet he was the most exciting classroom presence I’ve ever experienced. He brought an extraordinary range of passions—for jazz and Shakespeare (in his famous essay on Lear, for example), for American film comedies (in Pursuits of Happiness, perhaps his best book), for “ordinary language” philosophy, for the unexpected philosophical richness of Thoreau (The Senses of Walden) and Emerson—to everything he had to say.

One had the impression that he was making up the course as he went along. He didn’t have a clear plan, and yet, like a saxophone player armed with a “fake book,” he knew the tune. At the first class meeting of his aesthetics seminar at Harvard, during the spring of 1978, he began scrawling titles on the blackboard: Of Grammatology, The Anxiety of Influence, A Map of Misreading, Blindness and Insight. Of course, we could read a few pages of Kant’s Critique of Judgment instead, he said. But since the most provocative current work in aesthetics was being done in English departments and comparative literature departments, why not take a look? 

Martha Nussbaum, an assistant professor dividing her time between the Classics and Philosophy departments, was one of the people crammed around the seminar table. So was the philosopher Norton Batkin, who would later become Cavell’s son-in-law. There were film people from the Carpenter Center and comp lit students like me and my pal Liliane Weissberg. The music producer Billy Ruane, an indescribable, fidgety, bohemian presence, was there. Arnold Davidson, who later edited Critical Inquiry, was there. People dropped in from the bookstore across the street, à l’improviste, as the French say.

None of us spoke, or did so only rarely. We all mainly listened as Cavell thought aloud, worried a passage, fired off rhetorical questions without waiting for an answer, sulked, and raved. Occasionally, he expressed mild appreciation. He admired, for example, how Derrida, with his horror of sentimentality, had eviscerated Lévi-Strauss on the question of the primacy of oral over written language. But Cavell could also be impatient to the point of anger. How did Derrida get off thinking that Peirce’s claims were self-evident, when American philosophers for a hundred years had found them all but impenetrable?

Over Harold Bloom, Cavell was particularly exercised. How exactly was Bloom’s method of identifying sources different from a book like John Livingston Lowes’s The Road to Xanadu, with its relentless tracking down of the literary sources of Coleridge’s supposed opium dream? Did we really believe Bloom’s claim that Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind,” since it mentions dead leaves, somehow haunts Leaves of Grass? What could possibly count as evidence? And why did Bloom steer clear of close reading? Was it that he was no good at it?

This was in 1978, at the height of the importation—or invasion, as some thought—of theory into American humanities departments. At Harvard, in particular, anxiety was high. Yale was all in and Harvard was resisting. I remember Derek Bok, president of the university at the time, announcing to a gathering of English Department professors that “Jacques Derrida will never teach at Harvard!” Everyone cheered. But Cavell knew that there was something going on, some intellectual ferment worth gauging, and engaging. So, he engaged Derrida on J.L. Austin and “parasitic” speech acts, picked a fight with de Man on a line from Yeats.

Like a hundred critics before him, de Man had misquoted the concluding line of “Among School Children” as “How can we tell the dancer from the dance?” It was clearly a rhetorical question, according to de Man, a perfect fusion of form and content. We can’t tell the difference between the dancer and the dance. Cavell pointed out that the wording of the line was actually “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” Furthermore, it wasn’t at all clear that the question was rhetorical. On the contrary, Yeats appeared to be asking, as had Wittgenstein and other philosophers exploring the so-called Problem of Other Minds, how we make sense of other people via their bodies, their gestures, their expressions, their words. There are ways in which we can know the dancer from—and by means of—the dance.

It was exhilarating to be present for such performances. Close reading seemed suddenly electrifying, a game with very high odds. For years, I took my intellectual bearings from Cavell. In my first book, I found in Emily Dickinson some of the themes—skepticism, nearness, the problem of others—that he had discovered in Thoreau and Emerson. I invited him to come to Mount Holyoke to lecture about Wallace Stevens, mainly because I knew that he loved Stevens and had written almost nothing about him. I wanted to hear that improvisatory brilliance aimed at Stevens. From Stevens’s vast corpus, Cavell teased out the notion of “earliness,” of our thirst for a relation to the world that precedes preconceptions, assumptions, conventions. It was a kindred earliness, a freshness of response, that Cavell himself aimed for in his own writing and thinking.

I find a page of my notes from a Cavell class, tucked into my copy of Philosophical Investigations. It is a record of Cavell thinking, and we hung on every word:

Wittgenstein is on Austin’s mind, but he tries to forget him. Wittgenstein says, there are infinite uses of language. Austin says, there are about 10,000. Metaphors can’t be listed in a dictionary; idioms can. Metaphors aren’t false, they’re wildly false, crazily, madly false. I.A. Richards and de Man seem to be forcing the word metaphor into dead metaphors. What are metaphors for, anyway? Is it possible that someone never learned to use metaphor?


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World Cup 2018: Argentine Dread

Carlos Cuin/Jam Media/Getty ImagesLionel Messi, Argentina’s captain, preparing for a penalty kick against Iceland at Spartak Stadium in Moscow, Russia, June 16, 2018

This is the sixth in a series of essays about the 2018 World Cup guest-edited by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro.


They say that the best business is to buy an Argentine for what he is worth, and then sell him for what he thinks he’s worth. Those who glean that joke’s meaning may have been shocked to hear Lionel Messi, Argentina’s captain and arguably the best player in the world, if not in history, declare that “we are not candidates” to win the FIFA World Cup just a couple of weeks before its opening. Such modesty would have been branded as defeatism in many a country represented in Russia. However, in Argentina—a soccer superpower ranked among the world’s top four teams, a finalist in the last World Cup (which it lost to Germany by a scarce 0-1 in extra time), and a place and culture foreign to self-effacement—defeatism might well be the most sensible choice.

It is not that Argentina nearly missed the chance to be in the Cup thanks to the team’s poor performance in the South American playoffs. The agony of qualifying has always been like that, a masochistic counting of every second till the end of the very last game, when—with astonished, grateful relief—we repeat in a daze what had seemed impossible: Argentina goes to the Cup. We’re in. We did it!

It’s not even the too-recent, humiliating 1-6 defeat by Spain this spring, in a “friendly” match that turned out to be not so friendly. No, it’s not the failures that torment us, but the almost triumphs: it’s that the team led by Messi has reached three finals—the 2014 World Cup, the 2015 Copa América, and the 2016 Copa América Centenario—and lost them all. It is the very fact of our potential, the mathematical calculations foretelling that our team will be among the four semi-finalists; it’s the soccer-god Messi in our ranks, and our other world-class players. It’s the penalty kick in the match against Iceland, the first in the Cup. What could have gone wrong? We were level at 1-1 when Messi took aim… and then the Iceland goalkeeper, a film director when not playing soccer, saved the shot. So Argentina ended up tying with a team that had come to its first ever World Cup. 

That real possibility that we could have actually won and didn’t, that we still can, is what makes the anticipation unbearable: the fear of a painful, ultimate failure that we’ve grown used to anticipating.

This is our national parable. There was a grand overture, the period between 1880 and 1930 when Argentina became the “world’s granary,” or at least Britain’s. Those were the gilded times in which the “Argentines with means,” as Cole Porter’s lyric had it, hurled butter that stuck to the ceiling of Maxim’s restaurant in Paris—and brought home Parisian-style boulevards to Buenos Aires—when Argentina was counted as the tenth richest country in the planet. And then came the 1930s crash. The money no longer pouring in, we watched the British turn their backs on us and march away. They left behind only games—the games their men had played while laying railroads all over the pampas, and that their sons had learned to play in their exclusive schools in Buenos Aires: polo, golf, tennis, rugby, boxing, and soccer. (They also tried to inculcate cricket, to no avail.)

Fittingly, in that year of 1930, the first World Cup took place in Montevideo, Uruguay. The British nations did not attend; Argentina made its way to the final. Ominously, we lost that game 2-4 to Uruguay.

And it was a sign. No longer would anyone use the expression “rich as an Argentine.” Our country’s golden age, in all its unparalleled splendor and abrupt end, was to be just the first of many cycles of boom and bust in our history—the roller-coaster ride we would be forced to take decade after decade, perennially aware that, no matter the glorious summits, it was bound to end in free fall and screaming.

From those brief crests Argentina succumbed to economic slumps, military dictatorships, hyperinflation, terror, default, poverty, decay—each crisis punctuated by a remote dictum from that superior entity referred to as the “international markets,” whose purposes are as inscrutable as the ancient gods’.

Hence both Argentines’ fatalism and their magical thinking. No matter what evidence there is to the contrary, we know that everything will turn out badly; yet we cannot help but believe that we have been, perhaps still are, a nation destined for great things. After a visit in the 1960s, the French writer and culture minister André Malraux was reported to observe, shrewdly, that “Buenos Aires is the capital to an empire that never happened.”

And so, we have two national narratives: one that says that we are the best people in the world, bound to succeed anywhere, but trapped in this hell of a place; and another answering this that the real problem is that we’re trapped with them, the others, those who have ruined everything. Accordingly, Argentina is divided between warring factions that hark back to the nineteenth century, and we’re always expecting a providential man or woman to save us.    

We pour a distillation of this tense brew into our national sports, the games bequeathed us by our golden age. We look to our players for the chance to recover what we’ve lost, the triumph denied, anticipating both that the worse will happen and that someone, somehow, will rescue us in a burst of genius. Messi is but the last in a long line of sportsmen and women (Luis Ángel Firpo, Carlos Monzón, Nicolino Locche, Oscar “Ringo” Bonavena, Guillermo Vilas, Gabriela Sabatini, Diego Maradona, to name but a few) who have carried this burden, either embracing it or trying to escape it.

As our national team was departing Buenos Aires for Barcelona, for its training camp en route to Russia, the players received a send-off from our president, the millionaire Mauricio Macri. A providential man of the right who came to power when Argentina’s last boom, funded by massive soy exports to Brazil and China, gave way to the usual bust, Macri might well be better at hurling butter in Maxim’s than ruling the country. He has tackled the slump with the old conservative recipe, cutting social spending while begging Wall Street and the IMF to support the sinking peso. Facing his own downward-spiraling approval ratings, the president consolingly said to Messi and his comrades: “It’s not true that if you don’t get the Cup you are a failure. Such madness doesn’t exist anywhere else.”

He may be right. But that doesn’t change the fact that for the president, Messi, and the twenty-three other team members who are trapped in the country’s cycle of inflated expectations till the Cup is over, there’s no escape. As Jorge Luis Borges wrote in an almost daily quoted line of his poem “Buenos Aires,” “What binds us is not love, but dread.”

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Tales from the Gulag

Bridgeman ImagesGignoux: The Siberian Gulag, 1931

Kolyma Stories is a collection of short stories inspired by the fifteen years that Varlam Shalamov (1907–1982) spent as a prisoner in the Soviet Gulag. Shalamov did six years of slave labor in the gold mines of Kolyma before gaining a more tolerable position as a paramedic in the prison camps. He began writing his account of life in Kolyma after Stalin’s death in 1953. 

—The Editors



How do you trample a road through virgin snow? One man walks ahead, sweating and cursing, barely able to put one foot in front of the other, getting stuck every minute in the deep, porous snow. This man goes a long way ahead, leaving a trail of uneven black holes. He gets tired, lies down in the snow, lights a cigarette, and the tobacco smoke forms a blue cloud over the brilliant white snow. Even when he has moved on, the smoke cloud still hovers over his resting place. The air is almost motionless. Roads are always made on calm days, so that human labor is not swept away by wind. A man makes his own landmarks in this unbounded snowy waste: a rock, a tall tree. He steers his body through the snow like a helmsman steering a boat along a river, from one bend to the next.

The narrow, uncertain footprints he leaves are followed by five or six men walking shoulder to shoulder. They step around the footprints, not in them. When they reach a point agreed on in advance, they turn around and walk back so as to trample down this virgin snow where no human foot has trodden. And so a trail is blazed. People, convoys of sleds, tractors can use it. If they had walked in single file, there would have been a barely passable narrow trail, a path, not a road: a series of holes that would be harder to walk over than virgin snow. The first man has the hardest job, and when he is completely exhausted, another man from this pioneer group of five steps forward. Of all the men following the trailblazer, even the smallest, the weakest must not just follow someone else’s footprints but must walk a stretch of virgin snow himself. As for riding tractors or horses, that is the privilege of the bosses, not the underlings.




Hunger made our envy as dull and feeble as all our other feelings. We had no strength left for feelings, to search for easier work, to walk, to ask, to beg. We envied only those we knew, with whom we had come into this world, if they had managed to get work in the office, the hospital, or the stables, where there were no long hours of heavy physical work, which was glorified on the arches over all the gates as a matter for valor and heroism. In a word, we envied only Shestakov.

Only something external was capable of taking us out of our indifference, of distracting us from the death that was slowly getting nearer. An external, not an internal force. Internally, everything was burned out, devastated; we didn’t care, and we made plans only as far as the next day.

Now, for instance, I wanted to get away to the barracks, lie down on the bunks, but I was still standing by the doors of the food shop. The only people allowed to buy things in the shop were those convicted of nonpolitical crimes, including recidivist thieves who were classified as “friends of the people.” There was no point in our being there, but we couldn’t take our eyes off the chocolate-colored loaves of bread; the heavy, sweet smell of fresh bread teased our nostrils and even made our heads spin. So I stood there looking at the bread, not knowing when I would find the strength to go back to the barracks. That was when Shestakov called me over.

I had gotten to know Shestakov on the mainland, in Moscow’s Butyrki prison. We were in the same cell. We were acquaintances then, not friends. When we were in the camps, Shestakov did not work at the mine pit face. He was a geological engineer, so he was taken on to work as a prospecting geologist, presumably in the office. The lucky man barely acknowledged his Moscow acquaintances. We didn’t take offense—God knows what orders he might have had on that account. Charity begins at home, etc.

“Have a smoke,” Shestakov said as he offered me a piece of newspaper, tipped some tobacco into it, and lit a match, a real match.

I lit up.

“I need to have a word with you,” said Shestakov.

“With me?”


We moved behind the barracks and sat on the edge of an old pit face. My legs immediately felt heavy, while Shestakov cheerfully swung his nice new government boots—they had a faint whiff of cod-liver oil. His trousers were rolled up, showing chessboard-patterned socks. I surveyed Shestakov’s legs with genuine delight and even a certain amount of pride. At least one man from our cell was not wearing foot bindings instead of socks. The ground beneath us was shaking from muffled explosions as the earth was being prepared for the night shift. Small pebbles were falling with a rustling sound by our feet; they were as gray and inconspicuous as birds.

“Let’s move a bit farther,” said Shestakov.

“It won’t kill you, no need to be afraid. Your socks won’t be damaged.”

“I’m not thinking about my socks,” said Shestakov, pointing his index finger along the line of the horizon. “What’s your view about all this?”

“We’ll probably die,” I said. That was the last thing I wanted to think about.

“No, I’m not willing to die.”


“I have a map,” Shestakov said in a wan voice. “I’m going to take some workmen—I’ll take you—and we’ll go to Black Springs, fifteen kilometers from here. I’ll have a pass. And we can get to the sea. Are you willing?” He explained this plan in a hurry, showing no emotion.

“And when we reach the sea? Are we sailing somewhere?”

“That doesn’t matter. The important thing is to make a start. I can’t go on living like this. ‘Better to die on one’s feet than live on one’s knees,’” Shestakov pronounced solemnly. “Who said that?”

Very true. The phrase was familiar. But I couldn’t find the strength to recall who said it and when. I’d forgotten everything in books. I didn’t believe in bookish things. I rolled up my trousers and showed him my red sores from scurvy.

“Well, being in the forest will cure that,” said Shestakov, “what with the berries and the vitamins. I’ll get you out, I know the way. I have a map.”

I shut my eyes and thought. There were three ways of getting from here to the sea, and they all involved a journey of five hundred kilometers, at least. I wouldn’t make it, nor would Shestakov. He wasn’t taking me as food for the journey, was he? Of course not. But why was he lying? He knew that just as well as I did. Suddenly I was frightened of Shestakov, the only one of us who’d managed to get a job that matched his qualifications. Who fixed him up here, and what had it cost? Anything like that had to be paid for. With someone else’s blood, someone else’s life.

“I’m willing,” I said, opening my eyes. “Only I’ve got to feed myself up first.”

“That’s fine, fine. I’ll see you get more food. I’ll bring you some . . . tinned food. We’ve got lots. . . .”

There are lots of different tinned foods—meat, fish, fruit, vegetables—but the best of all is milk, condensed milk. Condensed milk doesn’t have to be mixed with boiling water. You eat it with a spoon, or spread it on bread, or swallow it drop by drop from the tin, eating it slowly, watching the bright liquid mass turn yellow with starry little drops of sugar forming on the can. . . .

“Tomorrow,” I said, gasping with joy, “tinned milk.”

“Fine, fine. Milk.” And Shestakov went off.

I returned to the barracks, lay down, and shut my eyes. It was hard to think. Thinking was a physical process. For the first time I saw the  full extent of the material nature of our psyche, and I felt its palpability. Thinking hurt. But thinking had to be done. He was going to get us to make a run for it and then hand us in: that much was completely obvious. He would pay for his office job with our blood, my blood. We’d either be killed at Black Springs, or we’d be brought back alive and given a new sentence: another fifteen years or so. He must be aware that getting out of here was impossible. But milk, condensed milk. . . .

I fell asleep and in my spasmodic hungry sleep I dreamed of Shestakov’s can of condensed milk: a monstrous tin can with a sky-blue label.Enormous, blue as the night sky, the can had thousands of holes in it and milk was oozing out and flowing in a broad stream like the Milky Way. And I had no trouble reaching up to the sky to eat the thick, sweet, starry milk.

I don’t remember what I did that day or how I worked. I was waiting and waiting for the sun to sink in the west, for the horses to start neighing, for they were better than people at sensing that the working day was ending.

The siren rang out hoarsely; I went to the barracks where Shestakov lived. He was waiting for me on the porch. The pockets of his quilted jacket were bulging.

We sat at a big, scrubbed table in the barracks, and Shestakov pulled two cans of condensed milk out of a pocket.

I used the corner of an ax to pierce a hole in one can. A thick white stream flowed onto the lid and onto my hand.

“You should have made two holes. To let the air in,” said Shestakov.

“Doesn’t matter,” I said, licking my sweet dirty fingers.

“Give us a spoon,” Shestakov asked, turning to the workmen who were standing around us. Ten shiny, well-licked spoons were stretched over the table. They were all standing to watch me eat. That wasn’t for lack of tact or out of any hidden desire to help themselves. None of them even hoped that I would share this milk with them. That would have been unprecedented; any interest in what someone else was eating was selfless. I also knew that it was impossible not to look at food disappearing into someone else’s mouth. I made myself as comfortable as I could and consumed the milk without bread, just washing it down occasionally with cold water. I finished the two cans. The spectators moved away; the show was over. Shestakov looked at me with sympathy.

“You know what,” I said, carefully licking the spoon. “I’ve changed my mind. You can leave without me.”

Shestakov understood me and walked out without saying a thing.

This was, of course, a petty revenge, as weak as my feelings. But what else could I have done? I couldn’t warn the others: I didn’t know them. But I should have warned them: Shestakov had managed to persuade five others. A week later they ran off; two were killed not far from Black Springs, three were tried a month later. Shestakov’s own case was set aside in the process, and he was soon moved away somewhere. I met him at another mine six months later. He didn’t get an additional sentence for escaping. The authorities had used him but had kept to the rules. Things might have been different.

He was working as a geological prospector, he was clean-shaven and well-fed, and his chess-pattern socks were still intact. He didn’t greet me when he saw me, which was a pity. Two tins of condensed milk was not really worth making a fuss about, after all.



—translated by Donald Rayfield

Kolyma Stories by Varlam Shalamov is published by New York Review Books.

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World Cup 2018: Peru’s Permission to Dream

Juan Barreto/AFP/Getty ImagesDanish players congratulating each other and Peru’s star forward Paolo Guerrero covering his face with his shirt as Peru lost 0-1 to Denmark in Saransk, Russia, June 16, 2018

This is the fifth in a series of essays about the 2018 World Cup guest-edited by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro.


On May 30, 2018, the Peruvian soccer squad boarded a plane to Zurich. The chartered flight was loaded with twenty-three players, their technical team, and—we heard over and over—the dreams of a nation. It was the first stop en route to the World Cup in Russia. “Peru is ready to face any team in the world,” said Ricardo Gareca, the Argentinian coach credited with getting Peru this far. But Paolo Guerrero—El Capitán, Peru’s all-time leading goalscorer—did not fly with them. His absence made headlines: Peru was going to play a World Cup for the first time in thirty-six years, with the national star banned from the field. It had been a fraught road to Russia.

Fourteen hours later, as their flight landed in Switzerland, the players heard the news: Guerrero’s ban had been frozen. Back in Peru, some 30 million fans woke up to the same revelation. It was neither an acquittal nor a declaration of innocence. But a suspended sentence had never felt so much like redemption. Last year, during Peru’s qualifying campaign, El Capitán, a forward who plays for Flamengo in Brazil, tested positive for a cocaine metabolite. FIFA and the World Anti-Doping Agency had been hard on Guerrero, but Christina Kiss, a judge of the Swiss federal Supreme Court, cleared him to play. Judge Kiss read letters from the team captains of Australia, Denmark, and France voicing their solidarity with Guerrero. Judge Kiss considered that at thirty-four, El Capitán had only this one chance to play in a World Cup that would be “without any doubt the crowning glory of his career.” Guerrero and his lawyers, proclaiming his innocence as they fought the charges, argued that preventing him from leading the team in Russia might constitute “irreparable damage.” Irreparable damage: shattered dreams cannot be glued back together.

The day Judge Kiss announced her ruling in Lausanne, the principal at a school in El Callao, a coastal province north of Lima, Peru, waited until the students had finished singing the national anthem to deliver the good news over the public address system. Hundreds of kids at school assembly cheered. Drivers on their morning commute honked their horns. Fathers called their sons on the phone to rejoice. A few hours later, a scheduled earthquake drill spontaneously became one giant street party.

The last time this country had cheered for la Blanquirroja, as the national side is known, in a World Cup was in 1982. One third of Peruvians had not even been born then, but they all remember that the last time had been a catastrophe: June 22, a Tuesday. Peru had drawn its first two matches in the Cup, with Cameroon and Italy, and needed to defeat Poland to advance from the group stage. The first half ended with the score 0-0. By the eighty-third minute, the European team was winning 5-0. Just before the game’s end, Peru scored a solitary goal. It was too little, too late.

“The Peruvian defeat hurts again because, once more, the syndromes that disconcert and plague us appear: it seems that the Peruvian players have no soul, no testicles or blood,” wrote the sociologist and writer Abelardo Sánchez León at the time. “We can’t continue accepting that this way of playing football corresponds to the idiosyncrasy of our people.” Thirty-six years later, in a detailed history of the national team, the poet José Carlos Yrigoyen recalled that fateful match: “When the endless colorful carnival that our TV sets were broadcasting suddenly stopped, we turned them off. In front of us, the dark screen returned the reflection of a horrible, degraded country, bathed in blood.”

Yrigoyen’s image of a dark screen is not merely a metaphor for pain and sorrow. The 1980s in Peru were defined by the long, fierce war waged by the Maoist guerrilla group Sendero Luminoso (the Shining Path) against the government. Authoritarian rule thwarted a budding democracy, and the inflation rate soared first into the hundreds of percent and then the thousands. The country descended into a spiral of crisis, death, corruption, chaos.

Soccer did not provide relief or escape. In 1987, an entire professional team—the country’s top club at the time—plunged to their deaths when their plane crashed into the ocean. In the disaster, the national squad lost its coach and some of its best players. Hope drowned with them. Peruvians kept their heads and their expectations low.

“Our people, and our football, always had to play on a field that’s tilted uphill,” says a video produced by the Peruvian Football Association. Even as the country slowly recovered its pride and prosperity, a new generation that grew up without car bombs and blackouts and long queues to buy milk and sugar could not picture a winning streak.

But a retired player from a country on which the soccer gods have smiled more kindly, Argentina, could. Ricardo Gareca, who in his playing days scored the goal for his country that kept Peru out of the 1986 World Cup, took on the challenge to resurrect the Peruvian team in 2015. The new manager made no promises but made clear that he trusted the local talent. His leadership style was cerebral and quiet. Every time he spoke to the media, he was, in fact, addressing the locker room. In a country of skeptics, he remained a believer. In a country where people watch matches with all their hearts, Gareca was photographed hundreds of times with a finger to his temples, urging his players to think. ¡Pensá! he asked of a team of warriors. That gesture became shorthand for doing things right. Publicists and meme-makers recognized the symbolic potential—¡Pensá! Think!—and 34 million people started to think along.

Peruvians were already expert mathematicians. They knew to count how many goals they needed during South America’s marathon qualifying competition to remain optimistic. “Lo matemáticamente posible,” they said—it’s mathematically possible. They were used to taking out their calculators to see if they had permission to dream. And yet, a year before qualifying, 82 percent of Peruvians thought that the idea of their team’s playing in the World Cup finals in Russia was impossible.

In Gareca’s blueprint for a winning team, El Capitán was central. Guerrero has long been hailed by taxi drivers, soccer moms, sportscasters, and academics alike as brave, selfless, and tenacious; and after his ban, he still is. The only person who questioned Guerrero’s character in public was suspended from her job: the controversial TV presenter Magaly Medina did a little victory dance on air, when news broke that Guerrero might be banned from the World Cup. On Twitter, she remained unapologetic. Her bosses at Latina TV released a statement that said:

At times like these, when Peruvians must be united as a single team, Latina and Magaly Medina have mutually agreed to temporarily withdraw her from the air, due to disagreements over how we see and treat very relevant issues for our channel and the country.

Two weeks later, the Peruvian Congress passed a law that declared celebrating the “Day of Peruvian Football” on the third Saturday of June a matter of keen “national interest.”

The economist Hugo Ñopo points out that all six of the goals Guerrero scored during Peru’s qualifying games came when the team was losing—“when the playing field was uphill.” In Gamarra, Lima’s garment district, of the six million jerseys of the national team that have been sold this year, half bore Guerrero’s number nine. Business owners there project extra sales of $615 million thanks to the World Cup. Another entrepreneur is offering coffins and caskets with World Cup motifs for fans.

On the streets, Venezuelan hawkers—recent immigrants fleeing the crisis in their country—have traded their usual yellow-and-blue baseball caps for the white-and-red ones of their adoptive country. I, who am also an immigrant, own not one but two Blanquirroja jerseys. This isn’t a betrayal of our native lands, but our way of saying thank you to Peru: we are here with you, we will suffer and celebrate together. I’ve lived in Peru for many years and am married to a Peruvian, but my country, Mexico, has played in the World Cup for as long as I can remember. Every four years, we know we are going—and we assume we are going to come home defeated. It’s refreshing to be around optimism tied to hard-earned achievement. In present-day Peru, children debate whether los Guerreros can make it to the quarter-finals in Russia, and grown men point out that, in theory, there’s a 50-50 chance of that happening.

This may be far-fetched. But I don’t have the heart to say or think otherwise. Part of the seduction of football is its mythologies. In the case of Peru, this is the return of an underdog against all odds, a tale of redemption. Of redemption, and of suffering. Last Saturday, when Gareca’s men went out to face Denmark in Saransk, as many as 30,000 Peruvians had descended on the smallest of the host cities of the World Cup. “Peru Invades Russia. Well, At Least Many of Its Fans Have,” reported The New York Times. Mordovia Arena roared with the national anthem and some 8,000 miles west, in Lima, thousands more stood up and sang along in front of TVs bought specially for the occasion. Paolo Guerrero was not on the opening lineup. By the time he stepped on the field, as a substitute in the sixty-second minute, Peru was losing 0-1.

Si no sufrimos no vale,” was a catchphrase of Daniel Peredo, perhaps Peru’s most beloved sportscaster, who died not long after commentating on the match, last year, in which we at last qualified for Russia. Without suffering, it’s not worth it.

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‘Ruling Through Ritual’: An Interview with Guo Yuhua

Guo YuhuaA villager from Ji, northern Shaanxi, China, speaking with Guo Yuhua, 2005

Guo Yuhua is one of China’s best-known sociologists and most incisive government critics. A professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing, she has devoted her career to researching human suffering in Chinese society, especially that of peasants, the promised beneficiaries of Communist rule.

Born in 1956, Guo grew up in one of the “big courtyards” of government housing compounds for the country’s ruling elite. Her parents were military officers who served in the central government. During the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, senior leaders like her father were persecuted; he died in 1968 of liver cirrhosis after being denied medication.

Moderates in the government eventually deployed the military to recover control of government institutions from Maoist fanatics. They also allowed some minors to join the military—a privilege that allowed these youths to avoid being exiled under Cultural Revolution dictates to labor in the countryside. Thus, at just fourteen, Guo joined the signal corps, for which she worked at repairing communication equipment in the southern-central city of Wuhan, until she was allowed to return to Beijing in 1980 to study.

Typical for people of her age who lost years of their lives laboring in exile, she was an older student, gaining admission to university at twenty-four. She studied folklore at Beijing Normal University and obtained her doctorate in 1990. She joined the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and moved to Tsinghua University in 2000.

Guo YuhuaGuo in Ji Village, 2005

Guo is best known for Shoukuren de Jiangshu: Jicun Lishu yu Yi Zhong Wenming de Luoji (The Narration of the Peasant: How Can “Suffering” Become History?), a book published in 2013 in Hong Kong but banned in China. It tells the story of a village in Shaanxi Province that the Communists occupied in the late 1940s, and then, over decades, put through a series of torturous social experiments—an allegory for what took place across much of the country. Her research on rural communities, and the relationship between the state and society, has led Guo to become a sharp commentator on current events. She publishes an oft-censored web blog, as well as a microblog titled “Yuhua Watches Society” on the social media app WeChat.

I spoke to her in March, in Beijing.

Ian Johnson: In 2016, Xi Jinping made a speech offering a “China solution to humanity’s search for better social institutions.” In early March, you posted an essay on WeChat saying all you wanted was for China to become a “normal country,” one that respected rule of law, freedom of speech, and other liberties—in other words, one that it didn’t justify authoritarianism as Chinese exceptionalism. How did your piece come about—and how ever did it get published?

Guo Yuhua: There’s a magazine called China and World Affairs that’s run by a think tank based at Tsinghua University. They sponsor talks dominated by leftists, but occasionally they have so-called right-wingers like myself. At the end of 2016, they had a discussion on the “China solution.” Everyone got ten minutes to present their papers and then we left.

There was no discussion? That’s strange!

It’s not strange. Of course, they can’t have a discussion. If there were a discussion, people would’ve come to blows!

What did you say?

My point was simple. In my heart, [I feel that] the Chinese model doesn’t have any special characteristics. It doesn’t offer anything special. And I don’t have high standards. All I want is for China to be a normal country. What do I mean by “normal?” I just want China not to go backwards. Just don’t get any worse, that’s all I’m asking for.

They were supposed to publish the article in their magazine but delayed a year. Finally, they did so at the start of this year. So I tried to post it on my WeChat account. I called it “The China Solution: Becoming a Normal Country.”

And they published it?

No. I tried and tried. I said, “Look, it’s been published by this academic magazine so why not publish it?” Finally, they relented if I changed the title. So I called it: “Chairman Xi Jinping Discusses a ‘China Solution’ While Celebrating the 95th Anniversary of the Founding of the Communist Party of China.” And it worked!

How did someone like you manage to open a public account on WeChat?

I had such a hard time. I changed the name but nothing worked. Finally, I got in touch with someone from Tencent [the company that runs WeChat]. In recent years, I‘d done some research with them on the effect of the Internet on society. So I knew people from their research department. I asked, “why can’t I open a public account?”

They said they’d look into it and got back to me and said, “You’re right, you really can’t.” I asked why and they said, “You’re restricted but let’s do it like this. You open the account and we’ll assign a person behind the scenes who will accompany you.” So I did as they said and when it started that person said, “I’m your first follower!”

Your personal censor! Why does Tencent do it? What’s in it for them?

They want to have readers. If it’s just boring stuff being published it’s not interesting for them, either. We had contact and they knew me. They know that my stuff isn’t extreme. It’s fairly academic. But the restrictions are still strict. For every five articles, two or three are cut. Sometimes, I have to argue with them—like over the Xi article—I say, “I can publish it in that academic magazine, so why not with you?”

So that’s the way it is. The space gets smaller and smaller. If you want to publish your own work, it’s harder and harder. If you struggle, you might not have any [space]. But if you don’t struggle, you definitely won’t have any. So my motto is: “If you can say a bit more, say a bit more.”

You recently spoke at the Unirule Institute of Economics [a Beijing-based independent think tank]…

It almost didn’t happen. Just before I left, I got a call from the university saying, “Don’t go.” I asked why, and they said, “It’s really complicated here.”

I said, “What kind of a reason is that?” [Laughing.]  They said, “We’ve received an order from above that you’re not allowed to attend.” I said, “Explain your viewpoint more clearly.” They just said, “It’s complicated, it’s complicated.” I said, “OK, your duty is to inform me. You’ve fulfilled that duty. Whether I go or not is my responsibility.”

Even Unirule is in trouble. They used to be [centrally located] at the Chongwen Gate. Now they’re out in [the suburbs of] Haidian Balizhuang. It’s in a small residential community. The gateway was full of security guards. They wouldn’t let me go into the building.

I said, “Stop it,” and they said, “Well, at least register and give your phone number.” So I did.

When did you start commenting on daily life?

I had a blog in 2009 and in 2010 opened a Weibo [microblog] account, but that account has been blocked seventy-four times. It has more viewers than the blog so that might account for their actions.

That’s probably because blogs are more public than WeChat accounts. It’s hard to tell who’s reading a blog, but to read your WeChat public account people have to register, so the government can keep track of its readers? Why did you start commenting on public events?

I started in about 2010, maybe because I deal with sociology. You’re often dealing with trends or hot topics in society. All of them have a sociological angle and you can use a sociological analysis to write and publish on them. In this society, everything that seems impossible or completely weird actually does happen, so how can you not comment on it? Sometimes, you feel you can’t tolerate it—you have to speak out. And if you’re looking at the people in society who are suffering, well, they’re so pitiful. It’s intolerable. You feel you can’t help them in another way, so at least you can try to publicize it and get a public reaction. In fact, you aren’t really helping them, but you feel you have to speak.

Ian JohnsonGuo Yuhua, 2018

Does your concern come from researching suffering in society?

That’s one reason, but I also research how society itself develops. I look not just at peasants, but also at rural migrants and people who try to represent them: human rights movements or NGOs. It’s the development of civil society. If you research Chinese society and you see the corruption or the abuse of power and the evil… well, society can’t continue on that path. It needs some healthy force. So where does that start? It starts in the daily actions of ordinary people. It starts in how they live and organize. How they take responsibility for organizing their lives. All my research has to do with that.

Someone you mention often is Pierre Bourdieu. You wrote that his work of listening to people and entering into their lives is part of a sociologist’s “political and moral mission—to reveal the deep roots of social suffering of ordinary people.” Why does this interest you?

I wanted to know how villagers had experienced the last fifty years. Ji Village was in the Communist Party’s base area in the war—it was located in Northern Shaanxi Province, near [the Communist base of] Yan’an. As you probably know, people there live in caves. It’s the Loess Plateau and famous for its caves. In this village, the main family was surnamed Ma. One of their sons went to Japan to study architecture and when he came back he designed a magnificent cave complex for his family. But before the Ma family could occupy it, Mao expropriated it. He lived there for several months. He wrote some of his key essays there.

I see in this the same expropriation that the Communist Party has imposed on China’s history and rituals. Memory has been occupied. If you go to today’s villagers and ask them the name of that cave, they’ll say, “Chairman Mao’s Old Home.” No one will say the Ma Family Home. In China, this is common.

You wrote in the introduction to that book that it wasn’t your job to speak for others, but to give them a channel to speak.

No one should represent another person. If they don’t have a chance to speak, it’s because the Communist Party doesn’t allow them to speak.

You started your academic career looking at funeral rituals in northwestern China. What is the broader significance of rituals?

The entire structure of Chinese society consists of political and revolutionary rituals replacing original folk rituals. The original rituals that people once practiced—such as burial rituals—weren’t allowed. The government said it was backward, superstitious, and wasteful. But the Chinese Communist Party, in running the villages—and even in running the entire country—governs through political rituals such as struggle sessions, chanted slogans, military parades. They’re all rituals and they all replaced folk rituals.

In the Cultural Revolution, every family got a wired loudspeaker, and every morning and evening began with the broadcasting of revolutionary songs, articles criticizing people, central government instructions or local news. This became all-pervasive. Nothing in the Qing Dynasty [1644–1911] or the Republican Era [1912–1949] was comparable. Only the Communist Party pushed it to the grass-roots level of every family having this.

They need rituals in order to rule. It’s like the Nazis with those rallies where everyone is marching as one. They need those kinds of things. But originally folk beliefs were diverse. Yet the Communist Party can’t leave this alone. They want everything to be systematized.

But now the government is promoting “intangible cultural heritage,” a term UNESCO uses to mean rituals or music. It’s trying to revive these old folk traditions that it once tried to destroy. Isn’t this a good thing?

When the government pushes things like this, it has two goals: to make money or to say it’s a “treasure of Chinese culture.” But they destroyed real Chinese culture. Today, they need Confucius to legitimize their rule, so they trot out Confucius. But they don’t admit that in the Cultural Revolution they smashed all the Confucian temples and statues. It’s utilitarian. It’s beneficial for their rule. But what faith do they really have? What faith can the Communist Party possibly have? They’re mixing up everything in Chinese people’s heads.

How does this play out at universities?

Some young people tell me that without the party and the government, I wouldn’t have such a happy life. I ask them, “Who should you thank for your life? Shouldn’t it be your parents? Didn’t your parents give birth to you and raise you? And educate you so that you got into Peking or Tsinghua University? And then, there’s your own effort, of course. So who should you thank? Is it really the party and the government?”

Do you think students today are more gullible than in the past?

Overall, they’re worse. But there are some who want to figure things out. To win admission to Peking University or Tsinghua University, they can’t be idiots. Especially in science or technology, they’re smart. But when it comes to ideology, they don’t have the common sense of a child. Because you have to understand that from the time they were in kindergarten, they’ve been brainwashed.

But you’re still able to teach?

It’s fine, but I’ll be sixty-two in July. They forced [the prominent Tsinghua historian and critic] Qin Hui to retire at sixty-three. In the last couple of years, a lot of people [in Beijing universities and research institutes] have been asked to retire at age sixty. About one hundred, in all. And if you look at them, most were liberal intellectuals.

Many don’t realize how few public intellectuals in China are keeping up the struggle.

And on the left?

Don’t bother counting [how many there are]. You know why I really don’t like the extreme left? It’s not just that they’re stupid. It’s that they’re evil. I’ve been denounced by them for what I said in what I thought was a closed session. They have reported on me, and the school asks me to answer for it. It’s happened more than once. But I can handle it. I am a bit tougher.

Those on the left in China are often fêted as standing up to capitalism or the West.

In China, everyone criticizes the market and capitalism. That’s really easy. That’s safe. But that’s not China’s problem. The problem isn’t capitalism. It’s power.

This interview, part of Ian Johnson’s continuing NYR Daily series “Talking About China,” was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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The Bugs Are Winning

BSIP/UIG/Getty ImagesPenicillium chrysogenum (also known as Penicillium notatum), the mold that produces the antibiotic penicillin

I never knew my aunt, Pessimindle. As a teenager in the early 1900s, she developed appendicitis and rapidly succumbed to the infection. At the time, there were no antibiotics. When I was growing up, my father contrasted the loss of his sister with the advent of penicillin that saved many of his fellow soldiers in the waning days of World War II. I was taught that medicine could create miracles, which should never be taken for granted.

Penicillin was serendipitously discovered when the researcher Alexander Fleming went on vacation in the summer of 1928. He returned to his laboratory at St. Mary’s Hospital, London, to find that a petri dish with bacteria had been left open and had become contaminated by a relatively rare strain of airborne mold, Penicillium notatum, its spores likely drifting in through the window. The growth of the bacteria in the dish was inhibited by the mold. Its inhibitory substance, termed penicillin, was produced in scant quantities and was laborious to purify. A worldwide search was launched to find other strains of Penicillium that produced higher concentrations; promising samples were obtained in Cape Town, Mumbai, and Chongqing, but the best came from an overripe melon bought at a fruit market in Peoria. Pharmaceutical companies scaled up production of the antibiotic and, beginning with the D-Day landings in 1944, it was widely available to Allied troops.

Fleming recognized not only the opportunity afforded by the open petri dish, but also the peril from misusing the drug. In his speech accepting the 1945 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine he said:

The time may come when penicillin can be bought by anyone in the shops. Then there is the danger that the ignorant man may easily underdose himself and by exposing his microbes to non-lethal quantities of the drug make them resistant. Here is a hypothetical illustration. Mr. X has a sore throat. He buys some penicillin and gives himself, not enough to kill the streptococci but enough to educate them to resist penicillin. He then infects his wife. Mrs. X gets pneumonia and is treated with penicillin. As the streptococci are now resistant to penicillin the treatment fails. Mrs. X dies. Who is primarily responsible for Mrs. X’s death? Why Mr. X, whose negligent use of penicillin changed the nature of the microbe. Moral: If you use penicillin, use enough.

Fleming’s advice to use the antibiotic properly was widely disregarded, not by “the ignorant man” but by “negligent” medical professionals. Prescriptions of penicillin in suboptimal dosages led to the emergence of bacteria resistant to it.

This is because bacteria reproduce at an astonishing rate. E. coli, commonly found in our colon, has a generational interval of about twenty minutes. Homo sapiens has an average generational interval of thirty years. So, over two and a half years, E. coli goes through the same number of generations as we do in two million years. As DNA is copied to spawn the next generation, random errors (mutations) occur, and the more copying, the more random mutations. If an antibiotic is used in suboptimal concentrations, then bacteria with random mutations that confer some level of resistance to the drug are more likely to survive and over many generations become impervious to it.

Researchers thus play leapfrog with bacteria that are resistant to one antibiotic by searching for a new one that is effective. William Hall, Anthony McDonnell, and Jim O’Neill in their lucid and thoughtful book Superbugs recount that for several decades, this strategy succeeded. But now we are running out of options. Potent antibiotics that were mainstays in the clinic over the four decades that I’ve practiced medicine, like ampicillin, ceftazidime, and imipenem, typically fail to eradicate many of the bacteria that currently cause infections.

Bacteria that have developed immunity to a large number of antibiotics are termed “superbugs.” The best known is methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA. It originally appeared in intensive care units, among surgical patients. In this setting, MRSA primarily causes pneumonia and bloodstream infection from catheters. But over the past two decades, the resistant microbes have spread outside hospitals to the larger community. At the end of the 1990s this superbug infected children in North Dakota and Minnesota, then was found among men who have sex with men and in prisons among prisoners. A widely publicized outbreak occurred among the St. Louis Rams football team, transmitted by shared equipment. Other MRSA outbreaks were reported among religious groups in upstate New York, Hurricane Katrina evacuees, and people who have received tattoos without proper sanitary precautions. Resistant forms of so-called gram-negative bacteria—characterized by cell walls that protect them from many antibiotics—have also emerged, like Klebsiella and Acinetobacter, which often cause death. Recently, resistant strains of gonorrhea have been detected in Asia.1

Superbugs only briefly reviews the science of bacterial resistance; its focus is on the societal consequences. While there are no exact data on the total number of people dying each year from resistant microbes, the authors calculate it to be at least 1.5 million. This number outstrips deaths from road accidents (1.2 million) and approximates the number of deaths from diabetes (1.5 million).

The economic burden on our health care systems is considerable. People with resistant infections spend more time in the hospital, require more care from doctors and nurses, are treated with more expensive drugs, and often have to be isolated from other patients. In the United States, it costs an average of $16,000 to treat a patient with Staphylococcus aureus that is susceptible to the antibiotic methicillin, with an 11.5 percent chance of death; if the bacteria are resistant, the cost jumps to $35,000 and the chance of the patient dying more than doubles. A study from the European Medicines Agency in the European Union, which includes England, estimated the cost to EU health care systems at €900 million ($1.06 billion).

The impact of bacterial resistance on economic productivity is also significant. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States have estimated that resistance costs the American health care system about $20 billion per year, to which productivity losses add a further $35 billion. Using the American estimates, the authors of Superbugs extrapolate the total costs of antimicrobial resistance worldwide to about $57 billion for health systems, with the reduction in world productivity valued at $174 billion.

Based on these economic calculations, Superbugs provides a set of policy prescriptions, framed in pragmatic terms meant to motivate self-interested politicians:

Governments might not want to invest in solutions, but they will ultimately pay either way. Any money not spent now will result in substantial costs in the future—not to mention many lost lives. Serious damage to economic productivity (which by extension threatens governments’ tax incomes) coupled with the higher costs of health care (which is largely government funded) should provide the impetus to deal with this crisis now.

Investment to combat superbugs begins with identifying new antibiotics. Almost all antibiotics are still derived from natural compounds, like Fleming’s penicillin. Although researchers at the Rockefeller University have recently devised advanced methods to facilitate the search, it is unclear how many antibacterial agents are left to discover.2 The most prudent approach is to rely not on discovery but on conservation. “We need to think of our current antibiotics as nonrenewable natural resources,” Hall, McDonnell, and O’Neill write.

Long before we discovered the environmental damage caused by burning hydrocarbons, we were keenly aware that one day the world would run out of coal and oil and that not only should we not waste them, but we should develop renewable resources.

This in part has been the focus of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations:

Both government and industry plan for the exhaustion of rare earth metals that are needed in electronics and elsewhere. This is not to say that we will never find any new antibacterial compounds…. However as it is unclear how many more drugs can be found in the future, we should work hard to protect the ones we have, as well as new ones that we find.

They provide a concise overview of the logistics of new drug development. It normally takes ten to fifteen years to bring a new therapy to market, at a cost of more than a billion dollars. Intellectual property rights give the company a monopoly over the drug for some twenty years, depending on the country. After that, low-cost generic manufacturers typically jump in to sell it at a reduced price. Much of those twenty years is spent testing the drug in clinical trials, so investment costs are recouped over only about a decade. The company generally makes no significant profit after the patent expires. Still, high sales usually mean that patented drugs end up making a profit.

Antibiotics, the authors show, are paradoxically different in the marketplace when properly prescribed:

If an excellent new antibiotic is effective against infections caused by drug-resistant bacteria, most public health officials would want to protect it for use in the most extreme circumstances and would discourage it from being sold worldwide. To get the maximum benefit from the drug and prevent the development of resistance, it is important that people not use it frequently.

This makes eminent sense from a public health point of view, in effect safeguarding a precious social resource:

When asked what she would do with a useful new antibiotic, the chief medical officer for England, Sally Davis, said that the drug “would need a stewardship program”—that is, that systems would have to be in place to make sure that the antibiotic was only prescribed when absolutely necessary. Indeed, limiting unnecessary use is essential to keep bacteria from becoming resistant to new antibiotics, and thus essential for our continued health.

While this is a cogent strategy, it doesn’t coincide with the marketing goals of the drug industry: “When a really useful new antibiotic is found, the company that invests in it cannot rely on high sales for return on investment.”

Commercial imperatives also work against societal needs in the use of antibiotics in animal husbandry. This is partly a result of the sheer number of animals being reared yearly to feed the world’s seven billion–plus people. Antibiotics were introduced into agriculture in the 1950s, when it was discovered that regular low doses of them made farm animals grow faster and larger. Consumers could purchase meat at lower prices, since the drugs reduce production costs for farmers. Globally, more antibiotics are estimated to be used today for animals than for humans. For example, “over 70 percent of medically important antibiotics in the United States, by volume, are sold for use in farm animals.” Hall, McDonnell, and O’Neill note that

antibiotics are more effective growth promoters when used for animals kept in cramped, dirty, unregulated conditions than for animals living in cleaner, more open, more controlled environments. Under suboptimal conditions, the growth promoters are for all practical purposes a substitute for good infection prevention and control.

The effects of antibiotics on growth are not fully understood. They may alter the animal’s microbiome—the bacteria in the gut—as well as prevent infection, so less energy is expended on fighting microbes.

Our environment is becoming contaminated with antibiotics and their residues in several ways. The first is a result of body waste—from both animals and humans. According to Hall, McDonnell, and O’Neill, “Studies suggest that as much as 75 to 90 percent of antibiotics may be excreted from animals without being metabolized. This waste goes into the soil and is then washed into the water systems.” Second, when pharmaceutical factories dump their untreated waste that contains the active ingredients of antibiotics into the water supply, they save money on expensive disposal. Such practices encourage the development of antibiotic resistance, since we are thus exposed to low and varying amounts of the drugs, as Fleming warned.

Hall, McDonnell, and O’Neill argue that “antibiotics provide a backbone to the entire healthcare system,” essential in everything from hip surgery to cancer treatment to organ transplantation. Thus developing effective antibiotics should be recognized as a “public good.” This justifies governmental intervention with incentives for the creation of new drugs. But such incentives have not been forthcoming, partly, in the authors’ view, because “electoral cycles encourage short-term thinking.” This kind of thinking has become particularly acute with the economic and social upheavals of the recent elections in the United States and Europe:

If a prime minister or president invests government resources to curtail drug resistance, they are unlikely to get huge rewards from the electorate. People generally do not vote on how well the government is dealing with a future problem, and they do not have enough knowledge of the early stages of research to make judgments. As a result, the political incentives have not been sufficient to pressure governments into action.

To overcome these barriers, they recommend a public innovation fund that covers early-stage research, as well as “non-cutting edge research that has societal benefit but little commercial attractiveness”; enhanced collaboration among companies in conducting clinical trials; harmonization of new drug regulation to reduce the costs of development; and “market entry rewards” that will compensate a company for creating useful products.

In agriculture, the authors write, methods are needed to rear animals without antibiotics. But “progress on an international scale will be a challenge because many meat-producing countries have a financial interest to continue antibiotic use.” Still, farming practices can be profitably improved, as occurred in Denmark, where farmers significantly reduced use of antibiotics while sustaining productivity; the country is one of the largest exporters of pork in the world. This has been possible despite regulations to limit the use of antibiotics, in part because of improved infection control procedures, which lowered infection rates and reduced the need for drugs. Denmark also improved the monitoring of antibiotic sales and use, which enabled the government to intervene if farmers were disregarding the law. It did this through what was called a “‘yellow card system’—pig farmers using the most antibiotics were sent warnings that they might face penalties.”

Given this evidence of economic competitiveness despite the regulation of antibiotic use in livestock, Hall, McDonnell, and O’Neill propose international agreements as a first step toward remedying the urgent issue of superbugs. “A combination of taxation, regulation, and subsidies for alternatives to antibiotics should be developed.”

But regulation is needed not only in farming. When we are treated for bacterial infection, we excrete unmetabolized antibiotics that enter our water systems. As the authors write, “A wastewater system that eradicates all traces of antibiotics does not yet exist, partly due to the high cost of development.” This issue is especially prominent in hospital waste, since patients are more likely to have antibiotic residues in their feces, in addition to drug-resistant bacteria. “This combination has the potential to create hotspots of resistance.”

Yet another obstacle is found where antibiotics are often manufactured, in India and China, where production costs are minimal. There is often poor quality control of the content of the antibiotic pills manufactured in these countries. They also often contain less of the active drug than advertised.3 Again, as Fleming noted, undertreatment with suboptimal doses of antibiotics fosters bacterial resistance.

At the 2016 G7 meeting, chaired by Japan, world leaders recognized how market forces mitigate against new drug development and called on international institutions to rectify the problem. While these leaders recognized the importance of increased access to antibiotics for their underserved populations, they also highlighted the need for stewardship in use of the drugs for both patients and animal husbandry.

The authors assert that political will is needed to find the funds for implementing incentives. They estimate that an investment of $40 billion over ten years is required for the world to avoid a $100 trillion cost by 2050. They argue that “the potential to prevent an increase from 1.5 million to 10 million deaths per year should make every one of us stand up and take note.”

But I am not hopeful that such pragmatism will prevail. Superbugs was written before the sharp shift in our politics, notably Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. The withdrawal of the United States from both the Paris Climate Accord and the Trans-Pacific Partnership has been followed by a declaration of trade wars, which the president tweets are “good” and “easy to win.” This absurd delusion fits with his view that all deals are binary, with “winners and losers” rather than agreements that may benefit both parties in the negotiation.

Such brute nativist thinking undermines global cooperation, which is needed for the proposals of Hall, McDonnell, and O’Neill. If the recent lifting of salutary regulations by Trump’s EPA on the chemical and mining sectors are any indications of disregard for the environment, there is scant hope that measures to limit factory dumping of antibiotic waste will be pursued. Still, some within the administration are trying to address the threat of superbugs in the defense budget, where research on antibiotic resistance may be cloaked under the aegis of national security.4 But such singular measures will ultimately fall short without a comprehensive and coordinated plan of cooperation among nations.

  1. 1

    For greater detail on the science of bacterial resistance, see my “Superbugs: The New Generation of Resistant Infections Is Almost Impossible to Treat,” The New Yorker, August 11, 2008; and “Sex and the Superbug: The Rise of Drug-Resistant Gonorrhea,” The New Yorker, October 1, 2012. See also Ellie Kincaid, “New Study Raises Specter of More Bacteria Resistant to Last Line Antibiotics,” The Wall Street Journal, January 16, 2017. This April the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released an update on multidrug-resistant microbes in the United States. Bacteria that were believed to be rare proved more common than previously thought, with unusual resistance making them impervious to most available antibiotics. See Kate Russell Woodworth et al., “Vital Signs: Containment of Novel Multidrug-Resistant Organisms and Resistance Mechanisms—United States, 2006–2017,” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, Vol. 67, No. 13 (April 6, 2018). 

  2. 2

    Bradley M. Hover, Zachary Charlop-Powers, Sean F. Brady et al., “Culture-Independent Discovery of the Malacidins as Calcium-Dependent Antibiotics with Activity Against Multidrug-Resistant Gram-Positive Pathogens,” Nature Microbiology, February 12, 2018.  

  3. 3

    Patricia McGettigan, Peter Roderick, Abhay Kadam, and Allyson Pollock, “Threats to Global Antimicrobial Resistance Control: Centrally Approved and Unapproved Antibiotic Formulations Sold in India,” British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, February 21, 2018.  

  4. 4

    Ike Swetlitz, “Drug Makers Lobby for Antibiotic Incentives in Pandemic Preparedness Bill,” STAT+, February 27, 2018. 

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The Last of the Tzaddiks

Ralph Alswang/Religious Action Center of Reform JudaismRabbi Sharon Kleinbaum and others protesting in support of ‘Dreamer’ immigrants, Washington, D.C., January 2018

In the somewhat exotic Jewish home in Iowa where I grew up, it was axiomatic that there was an intimate link between Judaism and universal human rights. Like nearly all Eastern European Jewish families in America, my parents and grandparents were Roosevelt Democrats, to the point of fanaticism. They thought that the Jews had invented the very idea, and also the practice, of social justice; that having started our history as slaves in Egypt, we were always on the side of the underdog and the oppressed; that the core of Judaism as a religious culture was precisely this commitment to human rights, and that all the rest—the 613 commandments, the rituals, the theological assertions—was no more than a superstructure built upon a strong ethical foundation. For me, this comfortable illusion was shattered only when I moved to Israel at the age of eighteen.

There is indeed, as James Loeffler shows in Rooted Cosmopolitans, a strong historical link between European Jews and the struggle for human rights in the twentieth century. Loeffler tells the stories of remarkable people such as Hersch Zvi Lauterpacht, born near Lemberg (Lvov) in 1897, who was one of the first jurists to engage seriously with the idea of a binding international law encompassing universal human rights (he wrote preliminary drafts of both the International Bill of Rights and Israel’s Declaration of Independence); Jacob Robinson, who played an important part in designing the United Nations Commission on Human Rights as well as in the Nuremberg and Eichmann trials; and Peter Benenson, who founded Amnesty International in 1961 (three years after he had converted to Catholicism).

Several of Loeffler’s heroes emerged from the political and cultural matrix of post–World War I Eastern Europe and from the struggle for what was then termed “minority rights.” The Jews of Eastern Europe, always vulnerable to attack by anti-Semitic nationalist majorities, provided the paradigm for this discussion, which, as we know too well, collapsed with the rise of the Nazis. Before that, in the 1920s and early 1930s, Weimar Germany had been the great hope and model for attempts to enshrine national minority rights in political and legal practice in the nations created after World War I.

Surprisingly little of the language of minority rights has survived into our generation, except perhaps when it is given a negative connotation, as in a recent speech by Israel’s current minister of justice, Ayelet Shaked: “There is place to maintain a Jewish majority [in Israel] even at the price of violation of [minority] rights.” In another formulation: “Zionism should not—and I’m saying here that it will not—continue to bow its head to a system of individual rights interpreted in a universalist manner.” To some it might seem strange that Israel’s minister of justice is the sworn enemy of the country’s highest court, which is committed to upholding Israel’s Basic Laws. These provide (in lieu of a constitution) the legal basis for human rights, widely defined, among other matters; they include the landmark 1992 Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty.

Though Lauterpacht and Robinson were legal superstars during the short-lived heyday of the League of Nations, Loeffler’s account of their quixotic struggles is replete with irony. Both were ardent Zionists who saw no conflict between Jewish nationalism and the struggle for universal human rights: “Zionism, minority rights, Lithuanian independence, and European democracy—all went hand in hand.”

Reading Loeffler, one can’t help but notice how the Jewish fight for rights as a national minority within rabidly nationalist Central and Eastern Europe merged, after an unthinkable catastrophe, with the struggle for a Jewish nation-state in Palestine that now, seventy years later, discriminates against its own Arab minority within the Green Line (the pre-1967 border) and savagely persecutes millions of Palestinians in the occupied territories. Many would argue that this present situation is an aberration from the ethical goals set forth in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which promised that the new state would be based on “freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel” and that it would “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.” Others see in this stark devolution a palpable danger inherent in modern ethnic nationalism anywhere.

There were also dissenting voices among the Jewish humanist intellectuals whom Loeffler describes, including Jacob Blaustein, a confidant of Harry Truman and a consistent voice in favor of universal ethics in preference to, and ultimately at the expense of, narrowly nationalist (Zionist) goals. Indeed, Blaustein was overtly antinationalist; in his view, Zionism should “be reduced to a philanthropic refugee resettlement plan for Palestine,” though by 1947–1948 he had come to support the United Nations resolution on the partition of Palestine. Blaustein’s position, which he claimed was drawn from classical Jewish philosophy, found its strongest expression in the Declaration of Human Rights of 1944, which in turn contributed to the formulation of the UN Charter not long afterward.

Interestingly, Loeffler has very little to say about the older Jewish sources relevant to this theme of universal rights. Perhaps it’s just as well: one can easily exaggerate their influence and wonder about their rationale. Take, for example, the famous Talmudic ruling that a Jew is allowed to desecrate the Sabbath in order to save a human life. I and many others have often found comfort in this rule. However, as Adi Ophir and Ishay Rosen-Zvi have shown, in the premodern sources it applies only to saving a Jewish life; it can be stretched to include the life of a non-Jew only if there is a danger that by not saving that life the Jews may face reprisals from their non-Jewish neighbors (mi-shum eivah).1 So much for universal ethics. Opinions still vary as to whether Leviticus 19:18, “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” is similarly limited to one’s Jewish neighbor, as the earlier part of the verse suggests (“thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people”). I have had occasion to witness bitter debates on this text between Israeli peace activists and religious Israeli settlers on the West Bank. You can guess which interpretation the latter prefer.

In Israel, however, one can still find some unusually courageous figures committed to the prophets’ ideal of justice. Among them is Michael Sfard, who in one sense follows in the line of Loeffler’s exemplary figures and, in another sense, transcends them by far. He embodies their belief that there is an international legal, normative consensus on what constitutes inalienable human rights, and on which acts by modern nation-states have to be defined as criminal in this domain. But unlike them, Sfard is a battle-hardened activist for human rights in the Israeli courts, where he has argued landmark cases, with enormous consequences for the Palestinian civilian population in the territories.

Sfard’s The Wall and the Gate tells the story of that struggle, which he shares with other brilliant anti-establishment lawyers such as Avigdor Feldman, Felicia Langer, Leah Tsemel, Gaby Lasky, Elias Khoury, Tamar Peleg-Sryck, and Eitay Mack. These people operate in an impossibly hostile political and social environment. They have analyzed the situation in the occupied territories with sober clarity and drawn the necessary, practical conclusions. Their most important virtue is dogged persistence, which at times attains heroic proportions and even, though unfortunately rather rarely, achieves meaningful successes.

It is not obvious that the Israeli Supreme Court should have become the ultimate arena for this struggle. The High Court, like the various lower courts in Israel, is an integral part of the institutional fabric of the Israeli state; its justices are by no means immune to contamination by a hypernationalist ideology. In practice, they tend to accept, more or less without question, the often secret recommendations of the Israeli security forces; arguments that include a security aspect regularly trump arguments based primarily on ethical principles.

The military courts that try Palestinians in the territories exemplify this to an extreme degree. A Palestinian brought before such a court, for example in the notorious Ofer Prison north of Jerusalem, has no hope of achieving even the slightest semblance of justice. Conviction rates of Palestinians in these courts are higher than 99 percent. Proceedings take place in Hebrew, which Palestinian defendants often don’t understand, and security specialists routinely give secret testimony to which defendants and their counsel have no access.

Unlike the military courts, the High Court of Justice is often sensitive to both ethical considerations and international treaty law, though I agree with Sfard that “reviewing the legal conflict over the settlements, it is hard to imagine a more colossal failure.” He is talking about a moral failure, not only a legal one. At the very beginning of the settlement enterprise, which was entirely rooted in the theft of Palestinian land, the court probably could have ended, or at least significantly restricted, this unfolding disaster, still the major stumbling block to any future peace agreement. As Sfard says, after describing the legal test cases in great detail, the court chose not to go that route—“a choice made of free will.”

That story of how the Israeli legal system, at the highest level, pronounced the wholesale appropriation of Palestinian land by the state to be “kosher” has been told in these pages more than once; there is no need for me to repeat it here.2 Sfard highlights in his opening chapter and at other points in his riveting book a moral quandary derived from those early court decisions. It was most starkly articulated some ten years ago by Ilan Paz, a former head of the Civil Administration—the Israeli army unit that administers the occupied territories—at a conference of Israeli NGOs active in Palestinian rights:

Without human rights organizations, there is no occupation…. The army and the mechanisms that control life in the area rely on what human rights organizations do, on the fact that you represent Palestinians and bring their requests, needs, and demands to its people. Thanks to you, the most acute issues are resolved and major incidents are avoided, both locally and in terms of how the world sees things. To a great extent, your actions allow the occupation to go on.

Put simply: Israeli human rights activists working in the occupied territories manage at times to correct egregious abuses on the local and individual level and thus enable Israeli governments to claim—falsely—that the occupation is not indifferent to the basic needs of the occupied.

Paz was referring not only to actual litigation in the courts but also to the daily efforts of an impressive spectrum of organizations: the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, B’Tselem, HaMoked: Center for the Defense of the Individual, Ta’ayush, MachsomWatch, Rabbis for Human Rights, Haqel, Physicians for Human Rights–Israel, Molad: The Center for the Renewal of Israeli Democracy, and Breaking the Silence, among others. These groups accompany Palestinian farmers and shepherds to their fields and grazing grounds and protect them from the predations of Israeli settlers and soldiers; they provide a restraining presence at the innumerable checkpoints and roadblocks manned by soldiers; they publicize routine criminal acts by military units operating in the territories; they offer emergency medical care to Palestinians unable to reach clinics and hospitals in the West Bank or in Israel; and, with particular emphasis, they are part of the unending legal battle for Palestinian lands, residency rights, and personal security, as well as a host of other pressing human rights issues.

Clearly, there is a problem here both of long-term strategy and of principle. Given the disappointing record of the High Court on issues involving Palestinian rights and lands, Sfard and several of his colleagues briefly considered boycotting the court or limiting their appeals to cases of acute humanitarian urgency (such cases are, unfortunately, all too common). “After all,” Sfard writes, “the Supreme Court had gone ahead and approved almost every harmful policy and practice pursued by the military in the Occupied Territories.” Has the very act of arguing such cases before the court made human ​rights lawyers like Sfard complicit, in some sense, in the ongoing, systemic evil of the occupation?

Corinna Kern/ReutersProtesters at a rally against the Israeli government’s plan to deport African migrants, Tel Aviv, April 2018

This is not a new question, and the integrity of courtroom lawyers is not the only thing at stake. In 1983, at the height of apartheid in South Africa, a well-known South African professor of law, Raymond Wacks, called on judges of conscience who knew the apartheid system was morally repugnant to resign their posts. Such judges were, he said, effectively imparting legitimacy to the regime. A lively debate developed; a particularly cogent response was published by the eminent jurist John Dugard (later UN special rapporteur on the Occupied Territories in Palestine). Dugard argued that there was more to South African law than the racist principles of apartheid and that a conscientious judge still had some freedom, however limited, to protect human rights—and a duty to exercise that margin of freedom.

We in Ta’ayush, Arab–Jewish Partnership, have faced versions of this argument many times. We have had considerable success in restoring Palestinian lands to their rightful owners and in protecting the civilian Palestinian population from attacks by Israeli soldiers and settlers. Are we still, however, oiling the gears of the occupation machine? In some sense, we are. Once a BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) activist who had read one of my reports from the field accused us of normalizing the asymmetrical relation between occupier and occupied and thus maintaining the unacceptable status quo.3 I can understand the logic of this claim, which restates discussions we have had among ourselves. But I think the dilemma outlined by Sfard and others is, in fact, far less agonizing than it might seem.

What is a decent human being supposed to do in the face of devastating threats to human dignity and basic human rights? Are we to turn our backs on our Palestinian friends in the South Hebron Hills and stand idly by while the state demolishes their homes, arrests them, and expels them from their lands? When the goal is saving lives, livelihoods, homes, and land, one doesn’t cling to ethical purity; one takes advantage of every crack or chink in the system.

It is not surprising, then, that human rights lawyers have kept on hammering at the High Court, despite their frequent losses, even as they recognize that the courts will never be the appropriate mechanism for achieving structural and political change. “Nonparticipation is not always a viable option,” Sfard writes. “A human rights worldview does not condone sacrificing the individual for the greater good (especially when this good is speculative and indirect).” There is every reason to believe, on the basis of long experience, that the Israeli government, if freed from even the mild constraints that human rights activists provide, would be only too happy to carry out in full the default policy of the right: violent expulsions of Palestinians and annexation of their land. In recent months, these policies have accelerated at many points in the occupied territories, including Susya, Khan al-Ahmar, and the northern Jordan valley. Just last month, on May 24, the Supreme Court ruled that the government can proceed with its plan to expel the Khan al-Ahmar Bedouins—several hundred people—from their homes just off the Jerusalem–Jericho road and to demolish, along with their tents and shacks, the first school they’ve ever had, built there in recent years.

Sfard and his colleagues have had some signal victories. Foremost among them was the 1999 High Court decision prohibiting torture in interrogations of Palestinian detainees suspected of involvement in terrorism. Before the decision, Palestinians arrested by the Shin Bet were routinely tortured to elicit information and confessions. The state and the Shin Bet ardently defended these practices, claiming that they were necessary in cases of a so-called ticking bomb, that is, a terrorist attack about to take place—though the vast majority of interrogations were not framed so dramatically but served only to amplify the data on Palestinians that the security services continually seek to compile. At a conservative estimate, many thousands of Palestinian arrestees were tortured, often severely, over the two or three decades before 1999.

The High Court postponed serious consideration of this issue for years, until it was forced by public pressure and activist litigation to confront it. Under the enlightened leadership of Aharon Barak, the court ruled, on moral grounds articulated in international law, that torture was illegal under most circumstances. That “most” was part of a significant loophole that allowed the security services to have an internal consultation when there was a perceived need for physical pressure on suspects. Torture has significantly diminished in Israel in recent years, but it has not disappeared, as a recent report published by the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel (PCATI) makes clear.4

Sfard was also involved in mostly frustrating litigation against the proposed route of the separation barrier set up during the second intifada, nearly all of it on Palestinian land inside the West Bank, at some distance from the Green Line. The route was chosen by government planners operating on the assumption that the barrier might become the future border of the state, so it was drawn to keep to the west of the barrier every possible Israeli settlement in the territories. Huge tracts of Palestinian land were thereby effectively annexed to Israel, and many villages were ravaged, losing access to fields and grazing grounds. The High Court gave its blessing to this entirely dubious, not to say criminal, route.

But Sfard and others persuaded the judges to order significant adjustments at sites such as Bil’in—which became a focus for popular, nonviolent resistance to the barrier and its annexationist trajectory—and a cluster of villages near the settlement of Alfei Menashe in the north-central West Bank. Thousands of acres were restored to their Palestinian owners. Inevitably, the dilemma outlined above surfaced again: by arguing for changes in the route before a court that had already accepted the premise that the barrier would be built deep within Palestine, “the lawyers behind the litigation became part of the creation of the barrier.”

Sfard is perfectly aware of the complexities—legal, moral, political, human—inherent in the situation in which he and his colleagues operate. Israel and occupied Palestine are laboratories for existential and ethical experiment; one way or another, everyone makes his or her choices day by day. Most ordinary, decent Israelis acquiesce passively to the horrors of the occupation (a sizable minority actively supports the settlement enterprise).

Sometimes, however, protest erupts in unexpected ways. The Israeli government has recently begun deporting asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea. Close to 40,000 were scheduled for deportation or, if they refused to go, for open-ended incarceration in miserable conditions. The Israeli government was ready to pay the governments of Rwanda and Uganda to take these people, as later became clear. Very real, possibly life-threatening dangers awaited the deportees in these countries, including possible confiscation of their identity papers, the theft of their possessions, physical abuse, imprisonment, extortion, and the threat of being forcibly repatriated to their countries of origin (both South Sudan and Eritrea are engulfed in nightmarish violence). Most of these refugees have been in Israel for close to ten years; Hebrew is now their primary language; their children go to Israeli schools; for all intents and purposes apart from citizenship, these people are Israelis.

An unprecedented wave of popular protest brought many thousands of Israelis to the streets. El Al pilots and flight crews refused to fly the deportees to their deaths. Doctors, academics, lawyers, and many ordinary citizens, including Holocaust survivors and their relatives, spoke out. Some synagogues joined the struggle. Many stressed the unthinkable cognitive dissonance that arises from watching a Jewish state, founded by refugees from lethal oppression, sending tens of thousands of desperate African refugees to an unknown and precarious fate.

To add to the bitter irony, Gil Naveh, the spokesman for Amnesty International Israel, issued a statement demanding that Israel halt the deportations at once. The government, said Naveh, was using “hate speech” to dehumanize African asylum seekers as “infiltrators,” “criminals,” and “economic migrants” in order to rationalize their expulsion. In practice, most of their applications for asylum were never examined by the authorities, and those that were examined were almost invariably rejected. Sfard, in a recent interview in Haaretz, said:

The only explanation that I can find for the deportation [of the Africans] is that they have brown skin…. Everything about the asylum seekers’ story and about Jewish history should lead to the conclusion that we are the first among all nations that should have embraced them.

In March, when it turned out that there was no agreement with Rwanda and Uganda to protect the refugees (Netanyahu, as usual looking for a scapegoat, foolishly accused the New Israel Fund of having ruined the deal he thought he had with Rwanda), the government’s scheme collapsed under the weight of public pressure and the intervention of the High Court. Netanyahu then announced a reasonable plan worked out with the UN High Commissioner on Refugees, whereby nearly half of the asylum seekers would be absorbed by Western countries and the rest would be allowed to stay in Israel; less than a day later, he reneged, caving in to pressure from the right and, some say, his wife and son. The threat of mass deportations has thus not disappeared, but so far the High Court, under Chief Justice Esther Hayut, has refused to sanction the state’s pitiless design.

Meanwhile, the government, driven by its extremist coalition partner the Jewish Home, is furthering a bill aimed at bypassing the High Court altogether by allowing a simple majority of sixty-one members of the Knesset to override the court’s rulings, particularly in cases involving basic human rights. This move is the most far-reaching attack ever made on the fundamental structure of Israeli democracy. If the bill passes, it will enshrine a tyranny of the majority and undermine the very concept of inalienable rights. We have come a long way from the days of Lauterpacht and Robinson.

So to return to our point of departure: Is there something recognizably Jewish, however we define the word, about the work of people like Michael Sfard or the public campaign in Israel to save the African refugees? It’s possible that Sfard himself and his colleagues would underplay this theme. They would certainly want to put themselves in the company of outstanding Palestinian human rights lawyers such as Elias Khoury, Muhammad Dahleh, and Quamar Mishirki. Like the Ta’ayush activists with whom I’ve worked, these unassuming figures invariably think of themselves as simply trying to do the right, human thing under extreme conditions—the antiheroic ideal of “common decency” that Albert Camus eloquently recommends toward the end of The Plague.

The Jews have, needless to say, no monopoly over such sentiments, but they do, despite everything, have an inescapable affinity with them. Not even fifty years of occupying and colonizing Palestinian land can entirely vitiate the empathy for the oppressed that is the Jews’ historic inheritance—though it is possible that the occupation is itself a cruel and distorted mutation of that same traumatic history. It is, however, a deep betrayal of one major strand of the tradition that predates, by many centuries, Enlightenment attempts to define universal values.

There have always been prominent voices like that of the Talmudic Hillel sage: “Where there is no one, try to be a human being” (my somewhat modernized translation).5 Sometimes I hear those words in my mind when soldiers are about to arrest us in South Hebron or when Israeli settlers try to kill us with heavy rocks, as happened last February 10 on the way from al-Tuani to Tuba. As has been the case throughout Jewish history, humane voices such as Hillel’s are today at war with sanctimonious, atavistic ones such as those that now dominate the public sphere in Israel. But as Sfard says in what might be the most important line of his book, “The fight isn’t over.”

  1. 1

    Adi Ophir and Ishay Rosen-Zvi, Goy: Israel’s Multiple Others and the Birth of the Gentile (Oxford University Press, 2018), p. 221.  

  2. 2

    Most recently by Raja Shehadeh, “This Land Is Our Land,” January 18, 2018; and my “Occupation: ‘The Finest Israeli Documentary,’” May 22, 2014. See also Eyal Press, “How the Occupation Became Legal,” NYR Daily, January 25, 2012.  

  3. 3

    T.M. Krishna in Israel: Criticism, and a Response by David Shulman,” The Wire, February 4, 2017. 

  4. 4

    “Independent Report on Israel to the UN Committee Against Torture Towards the Review of the Fifth Periodic Report on Israel,” March 1, 2016.  

  5. 5

    Ethics of the Fathers, Chapter 2. 

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World Cup 2018: The Yob-Swagger of Inger-Land

Lars Baron/Getty ImagesFans clashing at an England vs. Russia match when France hosted the UEFA Euro 2016 championship

This is the fourth in a series of essays about the 2018 World Cup guest-edited by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro.


At the time of writing, I am not particularly exercised about England’s chances. Don’t worry, it will happen. I’ll get caught up in it, will once again face the possibility of having to relish my least favorite taste: the taste of England, the taste of ashes in the mouth.

I am always shocked by the way it takes hold, this faith in England, the desire for England to go all the way, as they say, in spite of the long record of thwarted hopes, hopes that are so necessary a prelude to the lingering after-taste—the permanent after-taste, if such a thing is possible—of ashes in the mouth that, as when savoring a complex wine, the fire of hope itself already burns with more than a hint of the ashes to come. Even bearing all this in mind, and even if the Russians are better-prepared, fitter, and, not for the first time in their history, fighting on home soil, I still have faith in our hooligans to show their mettle and do us proud.

When it comes to the actual football, I’m less sanguine. The two great English adventures of my adult life were Italia ’90 and the European Championships of 1996. The rest of the time, it’s been pretty dismal fare: endless variants of a single theme of dashed hopes, which is also how those two great adventures ended, in penalty shootouts against Germany in the semi-finals of both tournaments. On other occasions, there’s been an almost thrilling sense of failure—failure as achievement—as England somehow succeeds in being unable to crawl out of the group stage bloated with teams that are there just to make up the numbers.

I can name the entire English squad of the 1970 World Cup in Mexico, but, off the top of my head, can come up with only about eight of the current lot. I like Harry Kane, our new-style old-fashioned center forward, and I love Jamie Vardy with his yob face and yob haircut. Good old England, good old Yob-land. We want England to be non-racist, non-homophobic, non-misogynistic, and all that, but, God knows, however much we hate yobs, we don’t ever want England to be yob-free. Yes, yes, good old Bobby Moore, wiping his hand like a young King Lear before collecting the Jules Rimet trophy from the young Queen at Wembley in 1966, but in some ways, Liam Gallagher, former Oasis frontman and unrepentant super-yob, still full of yob-swagger—would be the ideal England captain.

Who is the captain these days? I dunno, but I hope he and manager Gareth Southgate drum into the lads the single most important lesson, the lesson that has fallen on deaf ears for many years: no cheating. Oh, but what’s the point? Football is all about cheating, it’s nothing but cheating, cheating and moaning about being cheated. They might as well rebrand it cheatball and have the trophy recast in the image of Thierry “le tricheur,” Henry’s handling the ball against Ireland in 2009. I look back nostalgically to the days when diving—or simulating being  fouled—was supposedly the preserve only of highly skilled foreigners, but England now has home-grown, world-class divers like Dele Alli of Tottenham. And although we must not get sentimental about the pre-cheating past, it’s difficult, when thinking of a scumbag like Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid and Spain), not to feel fondly toward the England defender Nobby Stiles. Instructed by manager Alf Ramsey ahead of the 1966 semi-final against Portugal to take Eusebio out of the game, the noble Stiles reportedly sought clarification: “You mean permanently?”

Even though England had its share of hard men back in the day—Ron “Chopper” Harris, Norman “Bite Yer Legs” Hunter—we still considered ourselves superior to the Argentinians, whom Alf deemed “animals,” unfit even to exchange shirts with after we’d sent them packing. So when push comes to shove, when it comes to shoving opponents in the back and pushing them around in—no, it was just outside!—the penalty area, I always want England to win. I wanted us to win against Argentina in 1986 after Maradona handled the ball past goalkeeper Peter Shilton before he sent us packing with the best goal ever seen in the World Cup finals. I wanted us to win that match even though it would have meant that, for the rest of the tournament, we’d have been left watching Terry Butcher rather than El Diego himself. In retrospect, that would have been the worst possible outcome because then we would have missed out on seeing Maradona rightfully crowned as the greatest player in the world, one of the three greatest players of all time—right up there with Bobby Charlton and Nobby Stiles.

The thing is, you see, I love England even if it is, in some respects, a bit of a shithole and, in others, a complete shithole. No one will ever put it better than D.H. Lawrence of Nottingham Forest FC who considered himself “English in the teeth of all the world, even in the teeth of England.”

So I’m glad I’ll be back there, in England, for the tailend of the group stages rather than watching the tournament from lovely, yob-less California, where the vast time difference means that many games will be kicking off at dawn. I have an event to attend at a bookstore in London on the evening of England’s last group match against gallant Belgium. With luck, we’ll have qualified by then, will have sent Tunisia and Panama packing, the way we were meant to have sent Iceland packing two years ago in the European Championships. Otherwise, if the group competition goes down to the wire, to that last match against silky Eden Hazard of Chelsea and the gallant Belgians, no one will be at my event. I won’t be there.

The World Cup overlaps with the Wimbledon tennis tournament. I watch way too much tennis on TV, and whereas I never feel that all the time spent watching too much tennis is time wasted, I often feel terrible after watching boring football matches when I could have been reading an even more boring work of great literature. Sometimes, after ninety minutes of nullifying normal time, plus injury time and the stultifying mutual negation of extra time, the only interesting thing is trying to guess who will be “inconsolable” after missing a penalty during the shootout resolution toward which the game has been drifting, goal-less, since kick-off. But that’s irrelevant, of course. My attitude has changed completely since I began writing this piece. I’m looking forward to this summer’s epic combination of football and tennis, to watching tennis and football on English telly all day long, except in the mornings when I can read the English papers about what I’ve watched on English telly the day before. At the end of the day, that’s really what it’s all about: watching telly.

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