joi, 30 octombrie 2014

Edward Said - "Always on Top", 2003

Edward Said reviews Civilising Subjects: Metropole and Colony in the English Imagination 1830-67 by Catherine Hall, Polity, April 2002


A generation ago the influence of Fanon’s typology of empire ensured that one could only be either very much for or very much against the great imperial structures that disappeared piece by piece after the Second World War; now, after years of degeneration following the white man’s departure, the empires that ruled Africa and Asia don’t seem quite as bad. The perplexingly affirmative work of Niall Ferguson and David Armitage scants, if it doesn’t actually trivialise, the suffering and dispossession brought by empire to its victims. More is said now about the modernising advantages the empires brought, and about the security and order they maintained. There is far less tolerance for the disorder and tyranny that people like Nkrumah, Lumumba and Nasser instigated in the name of anti-colonialism. A crucial tactic of this revisionism is to read present-day American imperial power as enlightened and even altruistic, and to project that enlightenment back into the past.
I am being impressionistic, of course. But I don’t think there’s any doubt that the mood that produced public excoriations of classical imperialism – including the disastrous American adventure in Indochina – has largely disappeared. Attacking Soviet imperialism is a livelier sport, as is ‘realistic’ reappraisal of previous enthusiasm for the cause of anti-imperialism. How else to explain the astonishing reversal of Conor Cruise O’Brien, who wrote the first really devastating critique of Camus as an accomplice of French colonialism in Algeria, and then a few years later enlisted as a defender of Menachem Begin’s Israel, Ulster Unionism and South African apartheid? Gérard Chaliand performed a similar about-face in Paris. Then there are the many American intellectuals who followed Norman Podhoretz from the ranks of the liberal Left into reactionary self-bowdlerisation. For them American power is sacrosanct.
In the 1960s V.S. Naipaul began, disquietingly, to systematise the revisionist view of empire. A disciple and wilful misreader of Conrad, he gave Third Worldism, as it came to be known in France and elsewhere, a bad name. He didn’t deny that terrible things had happened in such places as the Congo, but, he said, there was idealism of effort, too (remember Father Huisman in A Bend in the River); and monstrous post-colonial abuse had followed. He didn’t actually say that King Leopold, bad though he was, was probably not much worse than Mobutu, or Idi Amin, or Mugabe, but he allowed one to think it. And when he sought to expose what he called ‘the great lie’ about colonialism by emphasising the miscegenation and transgressive sex (buggery, most of the time) associated with guerrillas and so-called freedom fighters, it didn’t seem entirely out of character. In his opinion it was principally Islam that plumbed the truly ghastly depths to which the ‘liberated’ peoples of Africa and Asia would sink. Not surprisingly, the Iranian Revolution and the fatwa against Salman Rushdie consolidated anti-anti-colonial feeling in the 1980s and 1990s, making it easy to see the Taliban as a natural consequence of native intransigence and misplaced Western liberalism.
Naipaul’s was only the most virulent example of colonial reassessment that emerged in the post-1960s, post-Vietnam atmosphere. The soft-core version included Raj revivalism, the cult of Merchant Ivory and interminable documentaries, coffee-table books, fashion accessories. By now Fanon and Aimé Césaire were reread as ambivalent Lacanian theorists caught up in all sorts of mirror games and secret flirtations with the white man. Nationalism, which had earlier mobilised vast numbers of people in the name of liberation, was now reconfigured as ‘imagined community’, a kind of naivety combined with fictional self-presentation borrowed from Europe itself. Its reputation gradually declined, not because it was too severe about the past but because it wasn’t severe enough. Nationalism’s bastard child was nativism, which was accused of papering over such local abuses as slavery, genital mutilation, home-grown despotism and racism. ‘We don’t have any problems with the blacks,’ an Afrikaner said to me out of the blue as I was standing in line in a cafeteria in South Africa in 1991, ‘it’s they who have problems with each other.’ Whenever nationalism brought about what seemed to be a successful revolution, as in India, questions remained about the inherent deficiencies of non-Western peoples, including their incapacity for truly civilised behaviour.
Neither the defeat of apartheid nor the return to democracy in many Latin American countries was seen as having much to do with colonialism’s ravages or with the liberationist moment in world history. They were regarded as isolated episodes, and appear not to have been absorbed into the new structure of feeling about empire. In effect, the past was over, and the time had come for non-white people to own up to their self-inflicted wounds. This was the Naipaulian injunction which was repeated in many parts of the First and Third Worlds, where the new post-Soviet realities signalled not only the end of history but the end of thinking about history in a consequential way. Over time the polemical venom of many former left-leaning, pro-liberationist, Third Worldist intellectuals increased, nowhere more sensationally than in France and the United States. Pascal Bruckner’s Tears of the White Man, first published in 1983, attacked liberal intellectuals for bewailing colonialism’s depredations. Legions of writers who had supported Algerian and Vietnamese resistance denounced their early befuddlement and romanticism. The coloured people hadn’t benefited enough from European enlightenment, they said; resistance to empire had bred a barbarous and xenophobic anti-Westernism; anti-democratic fanaticism and intolerance (of which ‘Islamo-fascism’ is an example) were home-grown products that had nothing to do with the white man. The growing presence in Europe and North America of wave after wave of non-white immigrants added considerable animus to the tirades. The events of 11 September tipped the scales definitively.
Oddly, from the 1980s, this process coincided with the rise of post-colonial studies in British and American universities. Much post-colonial criticism was written by former colonials who had the academic resources and training to reinterpret the so-called Western cultural canon that had once ‘represented’ the non-European world. What was new wasn’t only the ethnic identity of these critics, but the realisation that writers like Conrad and Kipling, or Jane Austen and John Stuart Mill, thought and wrote without the natives in mind as an audience. An Indian or Jamaican woman reading Kim or Jane Eyre was able to bring to light the usually unstated colonial and male-dominated ideological assumptions behind the form of the novel itself.
Post-colonial criticism, which began under the combative spiritual aegis of Fanon and Césaire, went further than either of them in showing the existence of what in Culture and Imperialism I called ‘overlapping territories’ and ‘intertwined histories’. Many of us who grew up in the colonial era were struck by the fact that even though a hard and fast line separated coloniser from colonised in matters of rule and authority (a native could never aspire to the condition of the white man), the experiences of ruler and ruled were not so easily disentangled. On both sides of the imperial divide men and women shared experiences – though differently inflected experiences – through education, civic life, memory, war. Despite the colonial effort to make Algeria French, and the decolonising battle to remake Algeria after 1962 into an entirely Arab country with no links to its French past, the two histories are inseparable; one could not be written without taking the other into account. It would be wrong to maintain that only an African could write the history of Africa, or only a Muslim the history of Islam, or a woman that of women. Afrocentrism, I believe, is as flawed as Eurocentrism; and although I also believe that the rhetoric of blame is neither intellectually nor morally sufficient, when Naipaul was recently quoted as being content that the Indians no longer blame the British for everything it seemed to me a typically superficial quip that hides the truly immense intellectual labour that is still required to understand how much the British really were responsible for.
Who decides when (and if) the influence of imperialism ended? In Africa, imperialism was a vast, dispossessing phenomenon that for decades comprised the theft of uncounted acres and resources from the African peoples, the killing of millions of ‘natives’, and of course slavery. Belgian rule in the Congo may have come to an end in 1960 but that doesn’t mean the effects of Belgian rule have also ended; and Belgian historians have only just begun to take account of what the country did in Africa. There seems to be no end to the aftermath of empire in the lives of the peoples most immediately affected by Britain, France, Holland, Spain, Portugal, Russia and, now, the United States. Why is it acceptable to discuss reparations for the victims of genocide in some instances but not in others? Should Africans in the Caribbean and the Americas be ignored when they continue to draw attention to the ravages of colonial slavery a century and a half after it supposedly ended? These are difficult questions that are not best dealt with in tart formulas about self-inflicted wounds and imperialism being ‘over’. Indian and British, Indochinese and French, American and Native American: the histories are interdependent. Consider Britain’s savage war against ‘tribal’ insurgents in Iraq and its foundational role in creating that country, and how obscured that relationship is in present discussions about the impending war. Elazar Barkan’s The Guilt of Nations: Restitution and Negotiating Historical Injustices (2000) surveys the complex of issues involved in these questions, but it’s only a start.
Despite the fact that there was never a total barrier separating one historical experience from the other, it would be wrong to ignore the original and, I would say, enabling rift between black and white, between imperial authority and natives, that persisted during the entire period of classical imperialism. The problem, then, is to keep in mind two ideas that are in many ways antithetical – the fact of the imperial divide, on the one hand, and the notion of shared experiences, on the other – without diminishing the force of either: a task that is particularly important when dealing with works of art or culture. When it comes to understanding, say, Great Expectations or Les Troyens, one has to keep in view the facts of empire without at the same time losing sight of the facts of great literature or music. Kim is a sympathetic and profound work about India, but it is informed by the imperial vision just the same.
The best post-colonial writing necessarily entails this kind of reasoning, but what matters more is that it doesn’t depend on an easy, repeatable methodology but on a perspective derived from experience, a personal stake. To write well about colonialism you don’t have to have had a colonial or imperialist background, but as with any history of a complex experience that involved many actors, the worst thing – even in the name of critical impartiality – is to empty that history of its existential residue in the present: a dangerous temptation in writing about the legacy of empire, which sits like a menacing and metastasising cancer just beneath the skin of our contemporary lives. And to write imperial history from the standpoint of the coloniser as victim (as Linda Colley does in Captives, 2002) or to turn the whole business into a peripheral episode in the history of the eccentricities of the British upper classes (as David Cannadine does in Ornamentalism, 2001) is unhelpful. In Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India (2001), Nicholas Dirks does a first-rate job of summarising the debate between English historians of India, such as Christopher Bayly and David Washbrook, who downplay the corrupting nature of empire by assigning a good deal of the blame to Indian ‘agents and accomplices’, and a substantial number of post-colonial Indian and non-Indian historians who hold the Empire responsible for much that still goes on.
Some of the excesses of post-colonial writing – pomposity, jargon, self-indulgence – are avoidable. During his last years Pierre Bourdieu railed against American academic multiculturalism. What struck him was how easily writing about race, gender and empire according to a programmatic idea about ‘multiculturalism’ as the view ‘theoretically’ opposed to racist and colonialist ideology could degenerate into abstract rant, with little connection to the problems affecting non-European immigrants in advanced neo-liberal societies, or disadvantaged women, or disempowered minorities. Bourdieu’s ideas about these groups (as expressed in The Weight of the World: Social Suffering in Contemporary Society, 1999) depended in part on complex post-imperial investigations that few of us can hope to emulate, but also on his personal engagement with the work he was doing. Recent academic thinking has used Foucault’s catch-all about the ‘little toolbox’ that his works are supposed to provide as an anti-humanist argument for critical detachment, but it should always have been apparent that the considerable urgency of his books on knowledge, power, incarceration and sexuality was also derived from his own sometimes very raw personal experience.
Catherine Hall’s Civilising Subjects begins with a detailed explanation of her own investment in the mid-19th-century symbiosis between colonial Jamaica and reform-minded Birmingham. The daughter of a Baptist minister father and a ‘budding historian’ mother, Hall was born in Kettering in Northamptonshire, where the Baptist Missionary Society was formed in 1792. During her school years, after her father had left his parish to become a roving minister, she came into contact with the larger Baptist community. In 1964 she moved to Birmingham and married the Jamaican-British historian and activist Stuart Hall. She visited Jamaica with him, and there saw the effects of Baptist missionary activity and liberal reform. She declares, with characteristic severity, that her own belief in ‘humanist universalism’ and her early Baptist beliefs about ‘the family of man’ were fixed in an ‘unspoken racial hierarchy’. She adds:
My reasons for choosing to work on Jamaica are perhaps self-evident by now: it was the site of empire to which I had some access. It was the largest island in the British Caribbean and the one producing the most wealth for Britain in the 18th century . . . It was through the lens of the Caribbean, and particularly Jamaica, that the English first debated ‘the African’, slavery and anti-slavery, emancipation and the meanings of freedom; and Jamaica occupied a special place in the English imagination between the 1780s and 1860s on these grounds. Jamaicans were to re-emerge as privileged objects of concern in Britain in the postwar period, but in a very different context. Now the Jamaicans were those who had left their island to come to Britain between 1948 and the 1960s, who had settled, had children and claimed full national belonging. In so doing they once again put Jamaica at the heart of the metropolitan frame: questions of identity and national belonging were again crucially in play, and Jamaica and England were part of the same story. But this was a repetition with a difference. England was no longer at the heart of a great empire, and its domestic population was visibly diverse. One historical power configuration, the colonial, had been displaced by another, the post-colonial . . . It was this new configuration with its repetition, the same but different, which made possible both the return to the past and a rewriting of connected histories.
Hall’s focus is on Birmingham, and its position as a political centre and a centre of Baptist missionary activity before, during and after the First and Second Reform Bills. At the heart of her study are the 1831 and Morant Bay rebellions, which made Jamaica’s repressive proconsul, Edward Eyre, a colonial cause célèbre, much as Warren Hastings had been seventy years earlier. She borrows creatively from Stuart Hall’s distinction between ‘cultural differentialism’ and ‘biological racism’, allowing her to examine gender, sexual identity and difference. Her real achievement, though, is her insistence on the dynamic self-making of empire, an unending enterprise which had to be constantly worked on, argued over and affirmed – as much through its personalities as in discourse. The book is prefaced by a ‘cast of characters’, and characters rather than abstractions govern its course. There are abolitionists, missionaries, political leaders (Eyre, Joseph Sturge, William Morgan and John Angell James); major cultural figures such as Anthony Trollope, Thomas Carlyle and John Stuart Mill, all of whom took part in the public debate about the events in Jamaica; as well as officers, scribes, landowners, creolised whites, metropolitan intellectuals. Like her Baptist missionaries, they all became identified with (their interpretation of the cause of) their mission: they were, as she describes them, ‘imperial personalities’. Eyre, for example, had come to Jamaica from a posting in Australia – his whole life, like that of India’s and Egypt’s Lord Cromer, was directed by the imperatives of empire. And of course a hidden imperial economy sustained these people, as it sustains Jane Austen’s characters.
Civilising Subjects tells a compelling story about the various generations of Baptist missionaries in Jamaica and carefully plots the changes in their attitudes towards their black parishioners, both slaves and freedmen, uncovering in the process contradictions determined by the irreducible everyday realities of imperial rule. Hall describes Joseph Sturge’s unstinting efforts as missionary and abolitionist on behalf of Jamaican blacks, and notes his humane engagement and unfailing belief in human freedom, but she also stresses his fundamental ambivalence, and the ambivalence of people like him, who identified with black people as members of the human family but held that view ‘in tension with racial difference, a marker of distinction which could be drawn upon at any moment. Were black people really like white people? Or were they, as the pro-slavery lobby believed, fundamentally different? Anxieties and ambivalences clustered around this issue: sameness and difference, identification and disavowal, were constantly in play: the meanings of “black” unresolved.’ The consequence was that later abolitionists had only a slightly improved ‘stereotype of the new black Christian subject – meek victim of white oppression, grateful to his or her saviours, ready to be transformed, the kneeling figure of the enslaved man in the famous Wedgwood cameo that was so widely circulated’. Hall sees cycles and patterns in the attitudes she examines: decent affirmations were leavened by racism; abolitionist views were succeeded by developmental theories that refused to allow the colonies the improvements that were taking place in Birmingham. What was good for reform-minded England was unsuitable in Jamaica. Mill thought so, as did the lesser-known liberal William Morgan, who believed that ‘being on the island changed how men thought.’ ‘The distance from the metropolis,’ Hall writes, ‘secured the peripheral relation of the colony in metropolitan thinking. The gap between Birmingham and Jamaica’ – especially during the great debates in Birmingham about the Second Reform Bill – ‘was invoked as a gap in both space and time: the miles to cross the sea to the West Indies were configured as a journey back to an earlier time, and a less evolved society. Jamaica was imagined as immobile without British help, its life dependent on that input.’
Hall dexterously handles polarities of ideology and thought – between appalling racists, such as Carlyle and Robert Knox, and enlightened liberals, such as Mill and James Mursell Phillippo – but also manages to connect these bodies of thought to the changing circumstances of location, climate, daily life and general social history. Partly because the reader has been primed early on that what Hall is describing is an archaeology of herself as a woman, the wife of a Jamaican-British intellectual, the child of Nonconformism and radical Dissenting politics, nearly everything in this long book is charged with the existential urgency of lived lives, hard-won insights, embattled causes and epochal transformations. Great meetings are re-enacted and we are the engaged and informed spectators of the clash between different personalities and styles of oratory. This is history-writing that is dialectical in the best sense. Hall shows that conquest, slavery and, above all, emancipation are transacted by individuals engaged in contradictory processes determined by a range of institutions: church, academy, trading corporation, bureaucracy, family. And while she plainly admires the effort of idealistic men and women trying to help others, she also knows that, in the end, imperial conquest is anything but melioristic in its course.
By the end of the period Hall covers, in the late 1860s, racial theory had taken over from the ‘structure of feeling dominated by the familial trope and a paternalist rhetoric’. Now there was ‘a harsher racial vocabulary of fixed differences. In the constant play between racism’s two logics, the biological and the cultural, biological essentialism was, for the moment, in the ascendant, and race occupied a different place in English common sense.’ The salutary implicit references here to Raymond Williams and Gramsci (‘common sense’) are carried over from earlier parts of Hall’s study in which she uses their subtle materialist cultural criticism to great effect. What her book makes plain is that, while empire was never straightforward, and entailed suffering on all sides, it required an abiding consent among its English adherents. And that consent was always based on the subordination of the native and the colony to the English, individually and collectively. No undertaking as far-flung as the British Empire (even before its apex in the 1850s) could have been sustained without the willing and perhaps often implicit approval of the English ‘senso comune’. Linda Colley shows empire as bumblingly pathetic in its earlier phases: Hall takes a stricter line, showing that empire is always on top of what it rules, no matter how much the enterprise appears to falter or fray.
Hall’s book is the culmination of work which I’ve found very useful over the years: in particular her collection White, Male and Middle Class: Explorations in Feminism and History (1992), and her contribution to a volume edited by Iain Chambers and Lidia Curti,The Post-Colonial Question: Common Skies, Divided Horizons (1996). Much of what she says about missionary women and their domestic background is well elucidated in White, Male and Middle Class, in many ways a metropolitan companion to Civilising Subjects.
There are, however, two issues that Hall’s work hints at but unfortunately does not address directly. One is representation. Since she deals with a variety of written records – sermons, polemics, letters, sermons, travel books, theoretical manifestos – I was made uncomfortable by the fact that she herds them all under the general rubric of ‘evidence’ without making sufficient allowances for their different intentions, provenance and status. A missionary’s diary and Mill’s philosophical writing don’t occupy the same discursive space (or do they?) and they certainly have different functions. What does one do about the representation of undocumented experiences – of slaves, servants, insurgents (such as those at Morant Bay) – for which we have to depend on socially elevated, literate witnesses who have access to official records? Ranajit Guha and the Subaltern Studies group, whose work Hall mystifyingly doesn’t draw on, are extremely useful here.
My second criticism is the status she assigns to ‘culture’, which acquired its first important layer of extra-political and extra-social insulation during the period she examines. One need only look at Matthew Arnold or Carlyle to see the use that was made of culture to camouflage and disguise the inhumane goings-on in the colonies (specifically India, Ireland and Jamaica in Arnold’s case, as he droned on about culture and sweetness and light). What about Dickens’s novels, which Hall alludes to, but had a more complicated effect than she allows, both affirming and undermining the collective English identity he was so passionate about, not least where the peripheral regions were concerned? Mr Dombey, Abel Magwitch and Mrs Jellyby come to mind, as do characters in Thackeray, Kingsley (whom Hall briefly discusses), Trollope and George Eliot. These are relevant issues, especially since Hall’s reference to the overrated and simplistic work of John MacKenzie leaves her discussion here at a primitive level, of culture as propaganda. She could also look more analytically at narrative, considering its centrality to the missionary outlook (in the journals they kept, the letters they wrote, the sermons they preached with salvation as their telos); as well as at the narratives of contemporary politicians, social scientists, historians, fiction writers and race theorists such as Knox.
She has developed a few unfortunate habits in her new book. One is excessive use of the verb ‘to map’, a word which should have concrete, geographical precision, but is misapplied by scholars trying to describe ways of linking together different echelons of experience – a fuzzy tic inherited from Fredric Jameson. And there’s a gratuitous reference to Derrideandifférance in her discussion of the changing power relations between coloniser and colonised, when ‘difference’ would have been sufficient.
Nevertheless, Hall’s excellent book is likely to inspire more debate and more excavations among imperial historians and political activists for whom it cannot be a joke that George Bush’s main constituency, as he sets out first to punish and then to remake the world with American power, are seventy million evangelical and fundamentalist American Christians, many of whom are Southern Baptists.

miercuri, 29 octombrie 2014

Edward Said - "Miami Twice", 1987


 Edward Said reviews:
  • Going to Miami: Exiles, Tourists and Refugees in the New America by David Rieff
    Bloomsbury, October 1987
  • Miami by Joan Didion
    Simon and Schuster, October 1987

Despite the media’s unending stream of patriotic talk about ‘America’, one occasionally has a sense of the country’s disunity, its unmanageable extremes, the foreignness of some of its parts to other parts. Riding the Broadway bus recently, I was struck by the driver’s almost beatific reaction to a passenger’s rudeness to him. Instead of screaming back at the offending person, he smiled gently, saying with an air of contentment: ‘Scream all you like. That’s OK. In California they don’t just argue – they shoot each other.’ He was referring to the spate of freeway incidents near Los Angeles, in which impatient or stalled commuters picked each other off with rifles and handguns in the midst of the vast traffic jams.
Suddenly one realised again that California and New York were not, in fact, two States in a comfortable union, but countries like, say, Britain and Bulgaria co-existing somehow on the same continent. There is, as every traveller to America has said, a stratum of monotonous sameness in the country, of regimented, mass-produced uniformity, of a pervasive unchanging pallidness that one associates with the Middle West or the Plains, which communicates the tremendous loneliness and anonymity to be found in American life. Yet it is no less true that the New America is a great deal less provincial and regimented. Much of this is due to the emergence of a counter-culture of the Left and of the Right in the Sixties, a mass counterculture whose affiliation with non-American currents of thought, habits of life – styles of radical will, in Susan Sontag’s phrase – have continued well past that now excoriated decade. But a great deal of the change in the country has to do with re-configurations in demography and economic power.
Regional characteristics, once as stable and as predictable as any stubborn cultural stereotype, are now bewilderingly volatile. The Sun Belt with Texas at its heart, formerly booming, enterprising, extravagant, is in a deep slump. New England has never been more prosperous. The Middle West, with its farms and its grain and commodity exchanges, has receded in importance as the financial and service centres, in New York and California, rise and fall with Gatsby-like flair. Those frightening actualities of foreign provenance – trade deficits, Aids, terrorism, Soviet evil, immigrants – have recently overtaken the society as a whole, reduced its distance from the rest of the world, made it less impervious to sudden changes or catastrophes: Ronald Reagan’s SDI-fixation is, I think, partly to be understood as a placebo for these overseas ills, a defence to end all defences.
Not the least of the changes have been the demographic ones, as caused by immigration, itself often, but not always, a function of American overseas intervention. The principal fact is that there is now a precarious balance in American society between the so-called melting-pot, with all its ideological, economic and social appurtenances, and the disruptive flooding into the pot of new arrivals from abroad whose purpose, it seems, is to find prosperity and to form a functioning national and economic unit within America. In New York City, for example, most of the fruit and vegetable shops are Korean, the news-stands Indian or Pakistani, hot-dog carts and small luncheonettes Greek, street pedlars Senegalese; a large population of Dominicans, Haitians, Ecuadorans and Jamaicans have made inroads into proletarian domains once populated by Blacks and Puerto Ricans, just as Japanese, Chinese and Vietnamese children play the role once reserved for bright, upwardly-mobile and professionally-inclined Eastern European Jews.
Nowhere is the same pattern more dramatic than in Miami, a great resort and retirement capital for the Northeast, now – as David Rieff puts it in Going to Miami – a mirror city to Havana. There have been no less than five recent books on Miami, of which those by Rieff and Joan Didion,[*] quite different in tone and treatment, are the most prominent. Miami has also become crucial to the whole Central American drama, whether because it is where the Contras are headquartered, or because the drug and intelligence traffic has found it a convenient on-shore location. In any case, Miami is hardly an American city any more, so dominant are the Cuban exiles, so loosely attached is South Florida to the mainland.
Rieff’s is the gentler, the more forgiving, of the two books. Miami for him is a genuinely interesting place in which illusions and media images (those from the television series Miami Vice, for example) have gradually taken over the city, along with the Cuban and other Latin American exiles. Since there is no real literature about Miami, Rieff relies for background on his impressions and on the city’s easily perceived history of hucksterism, violence, and massive architectural schemes, for his evocation of a place still in the process of being made and re-made. But this, he says, is an American phenomenon. ‘All of America seems more and more theatrical: everyone is posing as someone, and, with the Walkman, providing their own soundtrack. The fantasy counts for more and more.’
Although Rieff is taken by Miami, and describes its people and sights with affection – something Didion doesn’t even try to do – he is always really talking about bigger subjects, more challenging ideas, most of which seem to defy ordinary conceptions of what a nation is or what time and space are. Miami turns out often to be what he calls an ‘anthology’ – a word suggesting co-existence but not unity, or a city made up of various warring but aesthetically inevitable parts. There is a Cuban Miami, there is Anglo Miami, a considerably less interesting place, and there is finally the volcano that is Black Miami, in a constant rumble as it seethes with unsettled social and economic problems. But the most interesting sections of Rieff’s journal are his ruminations on the new facts of late 20th-century exile, a profoundly important experience which he discusses, I think, with rare intelligence.
Rieff portrays himself as a man without real attachments to family life or to place – he is a New Yorker, after all – and thus he tries to develop familial attachments to the lush Southern metropolis. But he cannot really be at home there since the new form of 20th-century exile excludes all but the ethnic members of the main exile group. Cubans in Florida remain Cubans, interested in Cuban affairs, setting up their own Havanas in Miami. Miami is not only now a few quick miles from Jamaica and Haiti: it is also just a short flight away from South America. Much the same can be said of immigrants and exiles in New York. Having come to the New World in an age of rapid travel and communication no longer means that you have to give up the old country, since it turns out you can bring it with you. A century ago, the implacable realities ‘of geography meant that, over time (though, of course, a longer time than most people like to recall), most immigrants began to forget the old country in much the way that even the most bereaved of lovers eventually ceases to be able accurately to picture a loved one’s face. Now the simple accessibility of the entire world via air travel makes such a forgetfulness all but unattainable. Paradoxically, it seems the fact that one can arrive anywhere from anywhere else in a matter of a few hours means that no one in fact lives anywhere.’
So Rieff, too, is an itinerant, a man for whom airports and terminals have perhaps greater significance than do homes and the stabilities of settled nationality. Yet what particularly distinguishes his writing is the acute recognition it affords that, in bringing their old lives with them, the new instant exiles also dislocate the previous inhabitants of places like Miami. Thus the more Miami houses Cubans, the more, metaphorically, the process dislodges and makes uncomfortable the Anglo and Black populations. At times the reader might feel that Rieff’s presence among the Cubans and the one or two Anglos he encounters is an even newer form of exile: not that of the wandering journalist, but that of the literate citizen in Reagan’s and – William Casey’s – America, a sensibility discovering the range and scope of numerous private entrepreneurial groups as they make America over into a private corporation conducting its activities as so many aggressive sales campaigns. No less than Miami, the country has become ‘the sum of its special interests’, with the difference that in Miami ‘the hemisphere seems to be coming ashore’ in order to plot counter-revolutions, to assassinate or otherwise eliminate enemies, to buy and sell cars, houses, people and, naturally, drugs.
To read Rieff on Miami is to recall with nostalgia John Berger’s The Seventh Man, with its haunting photographs by Jean Mohr of migrant Turkish or Italian workers in Switzerland, and its affecting notions about home and wandering. Rieff deals, not with a potentially Left force, but with violently right-wing exiles, not poor and victimised, but middle and upperclass for the most part, and manipulated by, as well as manipulating, their American hosts. It would be difficult to say that Rieff, any more than Didion, who actually seems to dislike the Cuban-Americans, was deeply involved with Miami and its causes. There is curiosity, some sympathy, a string of entertaining aperçus, and excellent writing, but there isn’t the advocacy we associate either with Berger or with The Road to Wigan Pier – books by outsiders whose political affiliations bring them to the material. Despite his obvious regard for the city, Rieff has definitively had his experience of Miami: ‘nothing I saw through the window of the cab seemed to signify very much more than any other short ride through a midsized American city,’ he writes as he leaves for the last time, with little more than mild wonderment remaining of the enthusiasm he had felt at the start.
This rather odd ending is more understandable when juxtaposed with Didion’s book. Like Rieff, she is drawn to the place as the symbol of a change in the country that won’t be ignored (she opens Chapter Eight by ironically quoting Allen Dulles’s post-Bay of Pigs remark, ‘don’t forget that we have a disposal problem’). For, once having opened Miami and American politics to the intra-Cuban dispute, Yankee rulers are no longer in a position to dispose of the hangers-on. Although she doesn’t say it, Didion draws a portrait of Miami as a place – unlike Vietnam, Lebanon, Iran or Nicaragua – from which the US cannot withdraw. And she is angry. Yet neither Rieff nor she knows what to do with their analyses: he leaves the place, while she gets angrier and angrier, precisely because neither has a commitment to some ongoing politics or to a unified and stable America.
Didion is greatly exercised by the Cuban exiles in Miami: as a result, her book is much more journalistic, current, scandalised than Rieff’s. Curiously, however, it’s been described by theNew York Times as ‘compassionate’ and perceptive. Didion’s Miami seems to me to alienate one, and to communicate a relentless, pitiless indignation and scorn. Her theory is that the Cubans are the heirs ‘to the Spanish Inquisition’ and that ‘the matrix’ of people like José Marti ‘was essentially autocratic’. North Americans, on the other hand, are ‘the heirs to a tradition in which undue effort had been spent defining the rights and responsibilities of “good citizens” ’. The result is an unhealthy mix: Cubans believe in la lucha, la causa as real things, and they do so with a singleminded and intolerant intensity in an American city ruled by a government for whom Latin American policy is only an abstraction.
The chronicle that ensues is powerful stuff, an appalling tale of secret organisations, paranoid sentiments, profit and violence in a declining and indecent new America. Didion’sMiami is also, and much more ominously, the story of how America’s clients manage to elicit from various government agencies – and from the crazy right-wing enthusiasts whose wealth has made a foreign policy of its own during the Reagan era – an alliance. Didion suggests that the likes of it have not been seen before. She is devastating in her analysis of the prose and ideology of something called the Santa Fe document, a blueprint for frankly imperialist policies in Latin American countries. Sample: ‘Human rights which is a culturally and politically relative concept ... must be abandoned and replaced by a non-interventionist [sic] policy of political and ethical realism.’ Such accents build to a statement concerning the ‘metaphysical’ crisis, the war for the minds of Latin Americans, which these unrestrained ideologues in Santa Fe and Washington are determined to win. From their various ‘outreach’ programmes came the private Contra-funding, the secret arms deals, the drug-smuggling operations, and the still unconfirmed CIA activities described by Robert Woodward in Veil.
While fully agreeing with many of her views, I think Didion is slightly naive, as if the Cuban exiles of Miami were the only such group with émigré interests at work in the US Government and its entrepreneurial adjuncts. Think of the Israeli lobby and the massive organisational and quasi-governmental power it has, and the Cubans will appear less formidable. As for marketing and packaging, the activities of the China lobby, the oil and tobacco industries, the Teamsters – all these have been around for a while and could have provided her with useful indications of the extent to which public policy was already a combination of private interests and illusion well before the Cubans staggered ashore.
Thus even though Miami is a political book, it somehow falls short of politics. Didion is a writer, not a journalist, and despite her skilful use of out-of-the-way sources, she is not fully an alternative or oppositional figure, not a C. Wright Mills, nor a Chomsky, nor an Alexander Cockburn. It is not only that she doesn’t articulate the full setting of the problems that anger her: she seems unaware of the US policy of acquiring and then disposing of right-wing clients, almost everywhere in the world. True, her Miami is the new America – that is, a place in the US now made over by belated immigrants – but its novelty would have been sharpened for us had she realised that, given its sordid earlier phases, the American century would have had to end this way: the country abandoned to the private sector, racked with fear and vindictiveness, split into regional fiefdoms, manipulated by white-collar gangsters and other mutants created by the managerial revolution.
I had thought that her style was the cause of these striking failures in grasp and vision. I now think her style is a symptom. Consider the following:
The coup which the United States would never allow to take place had in fact by the 1980s largely supplanted, as an exile plot point, the invasion which the United States had never allowed to take place, and was for the time being, until something more concrete came along (the narrative bones for this something, the projected abandonment of the Nicaraguan contras, were of course already in place), the main story line for what el exilio continued to see as its betrayal, its utilisation, its manipulation, by the government of the United States.
This is mannered and highly self-conscious prose, ungainly and even downright ugly. Does it clarify an idea or a principle or a fact? It certainly requires some effort to disentangle, and it certainly mirrors the stalemate between Cubans and Americans. But after reading it one is only able to sense a generalised impropriety, an unfocused and finally cynical plague-on-both disapproval.
Or there is this bravura series of sentences, where Didion animadverts on how ‘policy’ is communicated by the Reagan White House:
It was taken for granted that the key to understanding the policy could be found in the shifts of position and ambition among the President’s men. It was taken for granted that the President himself was, if not exactly absent when Larry Speakes ordered lights out, something less than entirely present, the condition expressed even then by the code word ‘incurious’. It was taken for granted, above all, that the reporters and camera operators and still photographers and sound technicians and lighting technicians and producers and electricians and on-camera correspondents showed up at the White House because the President did, and it was also taken for granted, the more innovative construction, that the President showed up at the White House because the reporters and camera operators and still photographers and sound technicians and lighting technicians and producers and electricians and on-camera correspondents did.
This passage successfully conveys the spurious and mechanical reality of the Reagan White House. The scene also realises one of Rieff’s points, the pressure of media hype on creating ‘news’. Rieff, however, says so explicitly, while Didion prefers to play with it, so that by the end you are as fed up as she is. And impressed with her skill.
Finally, there is this indictment of Reagan and his team:
Other things were less clear than they might have been. One thing that was less clear, in those high years of the Reagan administration when we had not yet begun to see just how the markers were being moved, was how many questions there might later be about what had been the ends and what the means, what the problem and what the solution; about what, among people who measured the consequences of what they said and did exclusively in terms of approval ratings affected and network news calibrated and pieces of legislation passed or not passed, had come first, the war for the minds of mankind or the private funding network or the need to make a move for those troops on the far frontiers. What was also less clear then, particularly in Washington, most abstract of cities, entirely absorbed by the messages it was sending itself, narcotised by its own action, rapt in the contemplation of its own markers and its own moves, was just how much residue was already on the board.
‘Less clear’ to whom? The phrase has a minatory quality to it: it scolds and harasses both the reader and of course the sleazy bureaucrats, but there is no suggestion here as to what it would be like to be clear, or what should have been done. Clarity here is just a word it might be nice to pronounce.
And that is the problem with Didion’s work. It offers no politics beyond its sometimes admirably crafted turns of phrase, its arch conceits, its carefully designed but limited effects. We are never told what US relations with Cuba or Nicaragua should be, beyond being made to realise that they shouldn’t be like this. Now anger and outrage are, at the outset, healthy: so far as the Cuban killer squads like Omega 7 are concerned, anger is an appropriate emotion, particularly as such organisations represent a mind-set as low and reactionary as almost to defy comprehension. Didion and Rieff both speak of one Bernardo Benes, whose irredeemable sin, in the eyes of his émigré compatriots in Miami, was that he was forimproving relations between Castro and the United States: Benes has been ostracised, threatened, blackmailed and otherwise harassed, just because he broke ranks with the Miami orthodoxy. Even so dubious a figure as Mario Vargas Llosa is regarded by the Cuban groups as a Communist. Didion’s way with all this, plus the numerous scams and hits run by the Cuban gangs, is to expose them mercilessly, to get her readers angry. But she goes no further.
Putting her seal of disapproval on Miami is therefore Didion’s task. Because both she and Rieff are so restricted to aspects of their subjects, he to his impressions, she to her scandalised sensibility, the shared result is a non-political politics. And while one is prepared to accept Rieff’s diary for what it is, a diary, Didion’s book – with its often clumsy prose, its affectations of superiority, its knowing scowls and easy scorn – offends and provokes by making the case, not for ending imperialism, but for producing a better, more respectable kind. No thugs, no hitmen, no smarmy bureaucrats. Just no-nonsense pragmatists, hard-bitten factual reporters, unsentimental intellectuals with nary a theory or a historical sense to guide them, just their carefully researched enterprise put at the service of the same imperial lurches that gave us Theodore Roosevelt and, yes, Ronald Reagan.