Norman Mailer: the Writer as Fighter

The recent death of Norman Mailer called to mind an article I once wrote about bellicose writers. I started off talking about Stanley Crouch’s quarrel with Dale Peck and Ernest Hemingway fight with Max Eastman. That led to my take on Mailer:

When Norman Mailer grew up in the 1930s and 1940s, he idolized Hemingway. In due course, Mailer was able to replicate the pugnacious career of his hero, getting into many dust-ups, both literary and physical. By the early 1970s, he had made a particular enemy of his fellow novelist Gore Vidal.

The two men quarreled over sexual politics. In many books and essays, Mailer had cast himself as an unorthodox defender of traditional sexual norms by sharply criticizing feminism, gay rights and even the use of birth control. For Vidal, a witty champion of sexual liberation, Mailer had become a retrogressive joke. “The Patriarchalists have been conditioned to think of women as, at best, breeders of sons, at worst, objects to be poked, humiliated and killed.” Vidal wrote in New York Review of Books in 1971. “There has been from Henry Miller to Norman Mailer to Charles Manson a logical progression.”

Mailer was particularly incensed by the last jibe, which linked him to a mad killer. Mailer took his feud to a television audience later in 1971, when Vidal was scheduled to appear on the Dick Cavett Show. Mailer pushed Cavett to let him appear on the same program.

“By the time of the show, I was explosive,” Mailer would later recall. “I had been drinking for a few hours before the show, and I confronted Gore in the dressing room before the show. I was steamed up and very angry. I was in battle mode. I ran at him and butted him in the head in the dressing room. Being a very cool professional, Gore just went onstage and acted as if nothing had happened and told some wonderful stories, particularly the one about Eleanor Roosevelt putting flowers in her toilet bowl to keep the flowers fresh.”

When Mailer went on stage, he created an even more outlandish display by making the bizarre accusation that Vidal ruined Jack Kerouac’s life by having sex with the beatnik writer. Five years later, Mailer was still looking for revenge. At a dinner party he threw a drink at Vidal before trying to tackle him to the ground. In his old age, however, Mailer has mellowed and in a well-publicized 1985 event he publicly reconciled himself to Vidal.

The issue of sexual identity hides behind all these writerly scuffles. Female writers don’t seem to have the same need to prove themselves by fisticuffs. There are no stories of Virginia Woolf getting into barroom brawls or Alice Munro sucker-punching Margaret Atwood. Male writers of the Hemingway mold, by contrast, are always anxious that by engaging in a literary trade they run the risk of being called sissies. Aside from getting back at smart-alecky book reviewers, the literary punch-up is a good chance to demonstrate your virility. Ironically, these fights validate Eastman’s original critique of Hemingway and his followers.

Science Fiction and the Age of Empire

Alice Sheldon in Kenya, 1922

In 1922, when she was 7 years old, Alice Sheldon’s parents, wealthy Americans who liked to play at being explorers, took her to Africa.  The photo above, showing the curly-haired blonde girl in pith helmet and white dress surrounded by nearly naked Kenyans at a ceremonial dance, is a striking record of her visit. Her mother wrote genial children’s books recording the adventures of Alice in Elephantland and Alice in Jungleland. But Alice herself had harsher and more vivid memories of her time in Africa. As she wrote late in life in Africa she “found herself interacting with … lepers, black royalty in lion skins, white royalty in tweeds, Arab slaves, functional saints and madmen in power, poets, killers, collared eunuchs, world famous actors with head colds, blacks who ate their enemies and a white who had eaten his friends; and above all, women: chattel-women deliberately starved, deformed, blinded, and enslaved; women in nuns’ habits saving the world; an Englishwoman in bloomers riding out from her castle at the head of a personal Moslem army; women, from the routinely tortured, obscenely mutilated slave-wives of the ‘advanced’ Kikuyu, to the free, propertied Sumatran matriarchs who ran the economy and brought 600 years of peaceful prosperity to the Menang-Kabaui; all these were known before [Sheldon] had a friend or playmate of her own age.”

 Sheldon had a variety of careers as an adult: as a painter, as a scholar in psychology, and as an analyst for the CIA. But she found her niche and a lasting reputation when she took the pseudonym James Tiptree, Jr. and became one of the leading science fiction writers of the 1970s. Tiptree was particularly celebrated for two qualities: his sympathetic portrayal of women (although many were surprised when the authors true name and gender were revealed) and an equal skill in depicting alien life forms and extra-terrestrial civilizations with imaginative empathy.

A surprisingly large number of science fiction writers have had backgrounds as exotic as Alice Sheldon’s, often involving time spent in far flung European colonies during the age of empire. Paul Linebarger (1913-1966) had a life that paralleled Sheldon’s farflung career in many ways. His father was a close confidant of Sun Yat-sen, the Chinese nationalist. Linebarger grew up partially in China, had a fluent command of Chinese, and after World War II worked as a consultant on Asia policy for the CIA. As Cordwainer Smith, Linebarger wrote science fiction stories much loved with their ability to evoke an utterly alien far future civilization.

J.G. Ballard was born in Shanghai in 1930, the son of a chemist who worked for the China Printing and Finishing Company. With his parents Ballard was interned by the Japanese during the Second World War, an experience he described in his memorable novel Empire of the Sun (1984). Ballard is also known, of course, for his apocalyptic science fiction novels which often show civilizations wrecked by ecological and technological disasters. “I show all these entropic universes with everything running down,” Ballard told an interviewer in 1979. ” I think it has a lot to do with my childhood in Shanghai during the war. Shanghai was a huge, wide open city full of political gangsters, criminals of every conceivable kind, a melting pot for refugees from Europe, and white Russians, refugees from the Russian revolution — it was a city with absolutely no restraints on anything. Gambling, racketeering, prostitution, and everything that comes from the collisions between the very rich — there were thousands of millionaires — and the very poor — no one was ever poorer than the Shanghai proletariat. On top of that, superimpose World War II.”

One last example: Gregory Benford, born in 1941, grew up partially in Japan where his father was part of the American occupation on the staff of General MacArthur.  Some of Benford’s science fiction novels are very interesting because they attempt to bring in a Buddhist cosmology into a literary tradition that general takes for granted Judeo-Christian morality.

The questions worth asking are: to what extent has science fiction been a product of the age of empire, and especially its violent expiration? Are the aliens in science fiction simply an attempt to imaginatively render the experience of living being a westerner in an non-western culture? Is science fiction less about the future than about the encounter with other cultures?

(The photo in this post is from Julie Phillips’s 2006 biography James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice Sheldon).

Climate Change vs. Human Inertia – Part 1

With the release of the IPCC’s fourth report on climate change, and in anticipation of the meeting of the world’s energy ministers in Bali in two weeks, I’d like to offer some posts centered around a simple question: why is it so difficult for the world to mobilize towards collective action? This post will focus on inertia with respect to scientific acceptance; subsequent posts will consider some of the economic and policy pressures against action.

It’s common to hear from climate change advocates that the scientific debate is over, that now we need to get on with action. I agree with them intellectually, but not empirically: I know plenty of people who still harbour significant doubts when it comes to the scientific story on climate change. One friend told me recently he was “agnostic.” Perhaps I just travel in skeptical circles. Then again, these people I know are not uneducated people: they have university degrees, and they work as professionals with extensive access to information. In other areas of their lives, they readily accept scientific methods. If they lived near a dormant volcano, I’ll bet they would pay close heed to scientific equipment that monitored volcanic rumblings, just as they would likely pay attention to any models that purported to predict seismic activity. So what gives – what is it about climate change in particular that invites doubt and denial, even among educated people? Many of the factors have nothing to do with science:

1) Media balance as bias. Although scientific peer-reviewed papers are in agreement that anthropogenic climate change is real (see Oreskes, for example), journalists are trained to give attention to ‘both sides’ of a story. Most people read newspapers, not scientific journals – and thus they are led to believe from inordinate media controversy that there is an equivalent debate in scientific journals where there is none.

2) Climate change is threatening to market purists. As Sir Nicholas Stern has argued, climate change may well be the greatest market failure in history. For free market dogmatists who want to believe the market will solve everything if left to its own devices, this is a very inconvenient truth indeed – so much so that they are tempted to attack the science itself so as to undermine the rationale for regulation or taxation. It is no accident, therefore, that climate change especially invites the ire of editorial writers at the Wall Street Journal and, in Canada, the National Post (a kind of Mini-Me to the WSJ’s Dr. Evil on this file). In the market purists’ narrative of history, Hayek is a saint and the tragedy of the commons is to be solved entirely through property rights and technological innovation. But the atmosphere is indifferent to debates over Austrian economics, and the evidence is what it is independent of whether editorial writers have a fetish for markets.

3) A handful of credible scientific skeptics are still out there. Many of the initiatives to encourage climate skepticism (the 1998 global warming petition project, the Energy and Environment journal) have been discredited. A number of the most prominent climate skeptics whose names are associated time and again with petitions, speeches and media interviews are long retired from active scientific research. But the fact remains that Richard Lindzen of MIT is a credible skeptic (I am not sure who else can be so described). Ultimately people have to balance the likes of Lindzen, who wishes to stand up against what he calls an “alarmist gale,” against the evidence of harm and risk that builds every week. Incidentally: does anyone know whether Lindzen has revised his positon of late?

4) The IPCC is seen as a political organization. But how could it not be? How could any international organization driving towards common principles on a central question of the planet, with profound implications for political economy, do its business in a pure interpretive vacuum? Does science ever work the way positivists want it to work in any event? And how could hundreds of scientists from around the world attempt to draft language together on a matter as complex as climate science without encountering moments of interpretation, dissent and disagreement? What is remarkable therefore is not that there have been stories of dissent and interpretive bias, but rather the strength of the consensus that has formed all the same. Given the redistributive implications of climate change, one would expect scientists to face a lot more political pressure from their governments to run interference on the science than appears to be the case.

And let’s not forget the numerous other scientific organizations that have supported the IPCC findings, including: NASA, the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, the International Ad Hoc Detection and Attribution Group, the national science academies of the G8 nations and Brazil, China and India, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the American Meteorological Society, the American Geophysical Union, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

5) If climate change is real, we have our work cut out for us. This is Al Gore’s point when he sees people shifting from denial to despair. So long as people doubt the science, they don’t have to ask the hard questions about how we are living our lives. Most people and institutions start, therefore, with a profound bias towards inaction, because their lives and institutions are part of the problem. It’s easier to keep questioning, and climate change is such a vast subject that doubt retains an air of plausibility. But intellectually, the burden of proof shifted some time ago. As John Holdren says,

“To be credible, the handful of ‘skeptics’ about human causation of current global climate change would need both to explain what alternative mechanism could account for the pattern of changes observed and to explain how it could be that the known human-caused buildup in GHG is not having the effects predicted for it by the sum of current climate-science knowledge (since, by assumption, something else is having these effects). No skeptic has met either test.”

Wayne Pacelle

Wayne Pacelle, reading cockfighting magazines, in 2004 (Photo: Washington Post).

Wayne Pacelle may be the single most effective advocate for animals in North America. Since becomming head of the Humane Society of the United States in 2004, he has turned that organization into one of the most powerful animal protection organizations in existence. Pacelle avoids the more-radical-than-thou approach that has plagued animal advocacy groups in the past and focuses instead on achievable victories. He has proven especially good at organizing and winning animal-related ballot initiatives, something he writes about in the current issue of Newsweek:

No battle was ever easily won. But along the way, something remarkable has happened. In recent years, our cause has moved from the margins to the mainstream. Yes, many of our adversaries still have money and influence, and resist even the most modest reforms. But we have something better—the power of conscience and the votes of the majority. There is a sense that the winds of change are blowing in our direction, and more briskly than ever. Since 1990, I’ve been part of 20 successful ballot-initiative campaigns to end the abuse of animals. We have championed hundreds of new reforms at the state and federal level. There aren’t many issues these days on which both parties can agree, but compassion for animals is a universal value.

We’re even seeing the first stirrings of reform in the abusive treatment of the 10 billion animals a year on factory farms. Voters and lawmakers in Arizona, Florida and Oregon have outlawed confining farm animals in crates so small that they cannot turn around, and Californians will have the chance to do the same in the November 2008 elections. The ballot initiative has the potential to relieve the suffering of 20 million animals in California raised for food.

In Europe and elsewhere animal groups have managed to get reforms through national legislatures. In the United States this has proven far more difficult, given the disproportionate role money plays in U.S. politics and the lobbying efforts of the agricultural industry. Pacelle’s breakthrough has been to find ways around this problem by working at the state level. The 2008 California ballot initiative he mentions is shaping up to be one of the most important animal welfare reforms of its kind. More information about the California campaign is avaialable here. To keep up with HSUS projects check out A Humane Nation, Pacelle’s informative blog.

Goodbye to the Good Death

This Republic of Suffering

Worth reading this winter: This Republic of Suffering (Knopf, 342pp) Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust’s study of the changing nature of death at the time of the U.S. Civil War, and the ways in which such changes in turn helped to transform Americans’ relationship with their government. A graf from my San Francisco Chronicle review:

The displacement of death from its natural family context worked a strange social and civic alchemy. Average citizens who had never known the deceased began to show up at Confederate funerals; “the emergence of this impersonal connection with the dead, one independent of any direct ties of kin or friendship, was a critical evolution in the understanding of war’s carnage,” writes Faust. A soldier’s death was no longer solely a private tragedy, and the dead no longer belonged exclusively to their families. They had become the nation’s dead, too.

Liberalism and Ethnic Cleansing

In his post below, A.M. Lamey mentions a new (or newly revived) magazine called The Liberal. Interestingly, one of the contributers to The Liberal is Benny Morris, the controversial Israeli historian. Morris is known for arguing that 1) the founding of Israel involved a systematic policy of ethnic cleansing, with the nascent state deliberately making life so miserable for the Palestinians that they had to flee and 2) this ethnic cleansing was completely justified, although some actions by Israeli soldiers (such as the rape of Palestinian women) were indefensible.

I’ll leave point #1 to the historians. It’s point #2 that’s interesting.

Here is what Morris said in a 2004 interview with Ari Shavit:

“There is no justification for acts of rape. There is no justification for acts of massacre. Those are war crimes. But in certain conditions, expulsion is not a war crime. I don’t think that the expulsions of 1948 were war crimes. You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs. You have to dirty your hands.”

Well, it’s good to know that Morris is anti-rape. Maybe that’s what makes him a liberal. Another quote:

“There are circumstances in history that justify ethnic cleansing. I know that this term is completely negative in the discourse of the 21st century, but when the choice is between ethnic cleansing and genocide – the annihilation of your people – I prefer ethnic cleansing.”

This is not a rhetorical question but asked with genuine puzzlement: how is support for ethnic cleansing compatible with liberalism? I know that in the past liberals believed in all sorts of horrible things: John Locke supported slavery and John Stuart Mill was an ardent imperialist (in an era when imperialism led to mass starvation in Ireland and India). Still, in the early 21st century, ethnic cleansing seems like something liberals shouldn’t support. (And I note that Morris is also a contributor to the New Republic, supposedly an organ of American liberalism).

Our Dumb World

The Onion has recently published Our Dumb World: Atlas of the Planet Earth, which has received a glowing review from Newsweek:

In the section devoted to Iraq, for example, you learn that “Iraq-U.S. relations became strained in 1963 when Iraq leader Saddam Hussein assassinated John F. Kennedy.” The Iraq map shows such sites as “family burning effigy to stay warm,” “U.S. soldiers arguing over whose turn it is to wear armor” and “father threatening to turn this car bomb right around if kids don’t be quiet.” The section on Iraqi history is titled, “From the Cradle to the Grave of Civilization.” Equal opportunity offenders, this atlas’s authors do not spare their own country (“Tennessee: Like ‘Hee Haw’ but a State”).

When Africa was the Future

There’s an interesting article comparing the development of Asia and Africa in The Liberal, a new UK magazine. It suggets that Africa once set the standard for Asian countries to aspire to:

IN 1962, when the World Bank extended its first development loan to South Korea, the bank’s directors famously asked their researcher whether there was any chance of this impoverished and war-torn country ever catching up with the living standards of such wealthy African countries as the newly liberated republics of Ghana, Nigeria and Senegal, with their huge endowments of gold, oil, diamonds and forest products. Today, South Korea’s national income per head is 35 times higher than Ghana’s and three times that of Africa’s richest country, Botswana. Meanwhile, China, which as recently as 25 years ago was less prosperous than even the poorest African nations, now has an economy five times larger than the entire African continent.

Why have almost no African countries managed to achieve the sustained economic development which has lifted billions of people out of extreme poverty in east Asia?

The author’s answer: war, corruption, the curse of natural resources and China.

The Liberal has only been around for a few issues but Slavoj Zizek has already written for them. I believe that will soon be mandatory by law for all new cultural magazines.

Eudora Welty on Reagan in Mississippi

The usually somnolent pages of the New York Times have become suddenly enlivened by a fierce debate over a minor but very telling historical event. In 1980, Ronald Reagan launched his presidential campaign with a speech defending “States’ Right” in Neshoba County, Mississippi, where three civil rights activists had been murdered in the early 1960s. Paul Krugman and Bob Herbert have pointed out that this is a quintessential example of how the Republicans have used covert and coded appeals to racism to win over the white vote; meanwhile David Brooks has sought to defend the honour of the Gipper and the conservative movement. (Hilariously, Reagan is also being defended by National Review, a magazine that constantly derided Martin Luther King, Jr. while he was alive. In 1963, white supremists bombed a church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four girls. In response National Review published an editorial suggesting that the Civil Rights movement was to blame for the terrorist act).

Krugman and Herbert are right, of course. But there is one other voice that’s worth attending to. Eudora Welty (1909-2001) was, along with William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, the greatest writer to come out of the American south. She spent almost her whole life in Mississippi and her acutely observed short stories are soaked in regional knowledge. When it came to Mississippi, she knew what she was talking about.

Here is what Welty said in an interview she gave in 1985: “Mississippi is very conservative …. Reagan carried the state because he came down there and he talked about ‘We’ll be having states’ rights’ and a whole lot of things like that. You know that was very wicked of him.”

Welty was a lady of the old school. She never raised her voice and always used words precisely. When she said “wicked” she meant “wicked” with all its full and terrible connotations. 

Food for Thought from Ghana

In an earlier post, I argued that the ‘eat local’ movement risks giving people the false sense that they are making meaningful carbon reductions while also harming developing countries that are singularly dependent on agricultural exports. Today I ran across a news story on the World Business Council for Sustainable Development website that shared some remarks by Ghana’s High Commissoner to Britain, Annan Cato, along similar lines. Some highlights:

“Ending imports of fresh food from Africa under the pretext of combating climate change risks destroying entire communities that have become dependent on the trade, Ghana’s High Commissioner to Britain said on Wednesday.

‘We do understand, of course, that our friends are anxious to make a difference. However, the figures simply do not add up,’ said Annan Cato, noting that less than 0.1 percent of Britain’s carbon emissions relate to airfreighted food. ‘At what cost to global justice do we shut the door on the economic prospects of small farmers in Africa by refusing to buy their produce … There are many other ways for the British shopper to reduce their carbon footprint without damaging the livelihoods of thousands of poor African farming families … Reducing greenhouse gas emissions must be done in a fair, scientific and rational way – making cuts at the expense of the world’s poorest is not only unjust, it is a bad basis for building the international consensus needed for a global deal on climate change.'”

Amen and bravo, High Commissioner!