Free magazines: That’s how the US Airways and Delta shuttles linking Boston, New York, and Washington soothe the discomforts of the shoeless trek through the metal detectors and other indignities of contemporary air travel. It is an excellent opportunity to catch up on stuff that isn’t always on my reading list.
Last week, for example, I read “Watery Graves of the Maya” in the October issue of National Geographic, an account by Priit Vesilind of the archaeologists who dive into cenotes (water-filled caves) in the Yucatan. As the team examines the skull of a 25-year-old man who appears to have been sacrificed by the Maya, anthropologist Alejandro Terrazas remarks, “When a Maya priest made a sacrifice, he was operating in his special universe–helping that universe continue. Good or bad aren’t factors. I don’t want to make moral determinations; I want to understand.”
I can’t help but wonder when I see such a frank avowal of moral relativism in the service of the social-scientific quest for knowledge: Would it make a difference to Terrazas if the young man had had his face ripped off and his body dumped in the cenote, say, last year, rather than 1200 or so years ago? Should we have the same equanimity toward the operators of “special universes” in the recent past or the present?
As I chewed over that question and my little bag of complimentary pretzels, I turned to my next freebie magazine, the October 13 issue of The Nation. In principle, I think conservatives should read what the Left has to say, but I must admit that I don’t regularly turn the pages of Victor Navasky’s journal, and I find a little bit of Eric Alterman, Alexander Cockburn, Naomi Klein, Katha Politt, and Patricia Williams goes a long way. Still, I plunged in to Lynne Viola’s review of Anne Applebaum’s new book, GULAG: A History.
Viola begins her review with a long anecdote about the Tvardovsky family, a family of “kulaks” deported by Stalin to work as slaves in the Urals. Younger brother Ivan was imprisoned in the Gulag twice for long stretches, but older brother Alexander turned his back on his family and became a celebrated Soviet poet. When his family pleaded to him for help, according to Viola, he renounced them as “enemies of the people,” and told them never to write to him again. But later, after Khrushchev’s 1956 rejection of Stalinism, Alexander Tvardovsky renounced Stalin too and perhaps gained a little redemption by publishing Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962).
Viola uses this story to illustrate a defect in Applebaum’s book–that Applebaum thinks the Gulag was evil and that post-Soviet Russia should face up to the awful history of Stalin’s internment of some 18 million people between 1929 and 1953. In Viola’s judgment, Applebaum is being simplistic: “The tale of these two brothers [Ivan and Alexander] is anything but a clear and simple morality tale. Nor is it a tale of redemption and belated sacrifice on Alexander’s part. It is instead emblematic of the moral and ethical ambiguities of life under Stalin, of the difficulties of pronouncing judgment in history or of proclaiming villains and heroes in any attempt to construct a ‘usable past’ for post-Communist Russia.”
Later she adds: “As the tale of the Tvardovsky brothers reminds us, it is no easy matter to sit in the court of history, to separate the innocent from the guilty, to pass judgment on Alexander Tvardovsky for renouncing his family.”
Perhaps in the “special universe” of The Nation, these statements are valid. Maybe it is hard for the magazine’s regular readers to see “a clear and simple morality tale” in the suffering and death of the innocent parents contrasted to the prosperity and political favor of the opportunistic son. But to me–and I venture to guess to most people living in the ordinary universe–Alexander Tvardovsky’s rejection of his family was an appalling act, and the story presents no “moral and ethical ambiguities” at all. The title of Viola’s review, “The Gray Zone,” however, seems perfectly appropriate. Temporizing with the evils of Communism and Left-wing tyranny is indeed a gray zone.
And the gray zone of The Nation is rich in umbers and charcoals. Herewith a short tour of the October 13 issue, beginning with the letters section on page two. Lead item: Jeff Cohen, communications director of Kucinich for President declares: “It shows how far the Democratic Party has moved rightward that Howard Dean is seen by Katha Pollitt as a liberal alternative to mainstream Democratic candidates.” Ah yes, the right-wing Democratic party and that apologist for the status quo, Howard Dean. Page 3 offers an editorial, “Bush the Misleader,” which observes: “Stuck in Iraq, Bush and his crew are holding tight to the untruths that greased their way to war and are concocting new ones–even as they contradict one another.”
I wonder a little why “Bush and his crew” don’t get the benefit of the Viola principle, that it is “no easy matter to sit in the court of history?” Page 4 contains this gem: “[Gray] Davis is having some success in making the recall vote a referendum on the Republican Party’s penchant for gaming the system.” Oddly, I thought it was Davis who “gamed the system” by manipulating the Republican primary so that he could run against the weaker Republican candidate last year.
Pages 5 and 6 offer publisher Victor Navasky’s miscellaneous thoughts, including a testy rebuke of the Washington Post for referring to terrorist Kathy Boudin’s high school as “Communist-influenced.” Says Navasky, the identification of Elisabeth Irwin High School, the upper division of the Little Red School House, was “a confusing, and maybe even malicious, non sequitur.” For most readers, the Post’s adjective probably provided useful context for understanding why this young woman later engaged in an armed robbery which left several police officers dead.
A few pages later appeared a laudatory review of a new book, Whitewashing Race: The Myth of a Color-Blind Society. The reviewer, Patricia Williams, called the book “definitive” in its proof that America still needs racial classification. Williams provides a near-perfect example of false alternatives: “Do you believe complaints about police profiling based on skin color reflect a genuine problem–or do you see it as wholly the mouthing off of dissolute criminal elements?” Here is surely an instance where some finer-grained distinctions would make sense. Some “profiling” is good police work; some isn’t. Some complaints about police bias are justified; some aren’t.
It was at this point that I realized that perhaps I ought to report back on my reading of The Nation to readers of National Review Online. After all, shouldn’t National Review review The Nation? (I would never rely on free copies of NR, by the way, of course.) But now I see that I have bitten off too much. I would need another hundred cantos to take NRO readers all the way through this inferno. Look yonder at page 20. Laurie Graham writes, “Two websites, ShopForChange.com and HEARTof.com, turn online shopping into a source of funds for peace and justice activism.”
These are worth exploring. On ShopForChange, for example, I found the link to Gaiam: A Lifestyle Company, makers of the “bean dip crate”: “Your purchase of each handcrafted Bean Dip Crate is a gift of self sufficiency for women who’ve suffered abuse, abandonment and poverty. The Women’s Bean Project in Denver, Colorado, is a nonprofit corporation that helps these women develop marketable skills to better their lives and the lives of their children.”
This shows that, while we may harden our hearts to the victims of Mayan sacrifice and Stalin’s slave-labor camps, we can find still find some room for human kindness.
Such kindness, of course, has to be doled out carefully, lest the wrong people receive it. In Stuart Klawan’s review of a new film, demonlover, by the French director Olivier Assayas, The Nation (pp. 33-34) gets back on stride: “To quote Assayas’s cinematographer Denis Lenoir, who did such astonishing, innovative work on the film, demonlover is fundamentally about ‘how white middle-class business people–because they are able to afford Hermès luggage–find themselves with no moral scruples whatsoever.’” Hermes was sometimes a mischievous god, but I had no idea his luggage was so dangerous.
The back pages of The Nation contain classified ads, which offer several kinds of diversion. Perhaps most arresting is a string of 14 ads all in the form of: “Eastern Oklahoma Nation Discussion Group looking for members.” If you live in Asheville, Cincinnati, Montpelier, Gig Harbor, Snohomish County, New Montclair, or Akron, you are in luck. A discussion group devoted to the political insights of The Nation is nearby.
The discussion groups are, in fact, the last piece of this puzzle. The Nation is not so much a magazine as it is a culture. Although its delicacy about Communism might suggest it is a lingering outpost of a dying faith–the Machu Picchu of the Stalinists–that’s not its real character. The Nation does not have the imperial ambitions of the Incans. In this respect, it is more Mayan, with its dozens of warring priest-kings and its ritual bloodletting to perpetuate a symbolic cosmos. The Nation: cenote of the Bean Dip Crate.
“Operating in their own special universe” and “helping that universe continue,” as Alejandro Terrazas said of the Mayan priests, the writers of The Nation perhaps should be viewed as exotic expressions of the human spirit. But I am not among those anthropologists who think all expressions of the human spirit are intrinsically valuable. Some, like human sacrifice, are pretty disagreeable. And the human spirit that expresses itself in rhetorical attempts to dilute the enormity of Stalin’s Gulag, to revile President Bush, or to obfuscate the debate on efforts to achieve a colorblind society, is the old familiar one of folly. Reasonable people can disagree; for everyone else, there’s The Nation.
–Peter Wood is the author of Diversity: The Invention of A Concept.