I think hard times are coming, when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies, to other ways of being. And even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom: poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality. Right now, I think we need writers who know the difference between production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. The profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable; so did the divine right of kings. … Power can be resisted and changed by human beings; resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words. I’ve had a long career and a good one, in good company, and here, at the end of it, I really don’t want to watch American literature get sold down the river. … The name of our beautiful reward is not profit. Its name is freedom.
In a sharp Republican rebuke to President Obama’s proposed actions on immigration, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell accused the President, on Thursday night, of “flagrantly treating immigrants like human beings, in clear defiance of the wishes of Congress.”
McConnell was brutal in his assessment of the President’s speech on immigration, blasting him for “eliminating the fear of deportation, which is the great engine of the American economy.”
“Fear is what keeps immigrants working so hard and so fast and so cheap,” McConnell said. “Remove the fear of deportation, and what will immigrants become? Lazy Americans.”
In a dire warning to the President, McConnell said, “If Mr. Obama thinks that, with the stroke of a pen, he can destroy the work ethic of millions of terrified immigrants, he’s in for the fight of his life.”
He added that Obama’s comments about deporting felons were “deeply offensive” to political donors.
There must be few instances of a head of state spending long hours listening to the poorest of the poor of his country’s citizens, and then accepting their demands. But thanks in large part to the stubborn, combative parents of forty-three kidnapped teenage boys, this was at least one outcome of the horrific events that have transfixed Mexico since the boys were abducted by municipal police in the impoverished state of Guerrero on September 26. Looking tired, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto went on national television last week to inform the citizenry that he had spent five and a half hours with the families of the young men, and that his government would soon be implementing a number of measures to increase the probability of finding the victims. He also vowed to devote more resources to the desperately underfunded rural teachers’ colleges like the one where the victims had been students.
Whether Peña Nieto actually was moved by what he heard and learned in the course of the meeting with the grieving families was hard to deduce from his habitually well-coiffed and poised presence. The demands they had made were reasonable enough, to be sure, things that are normally expected of any responsible state: find our children, care for our schools. But the president’s willingness to entertain them, belated and half-measured as it was, was a huge triumph: at last, a disgraceful crime and its incompetent investigation had not slipped all but unnoticed into the stream of murders, kidnappings, and other horrors that now flow through daily life in Mexico.
There are many explanations for the fact that this particular outrage, among so many others, has created a crisis of a different order for the Mexican state, but prominent among them is the fight put up by the organized, tough, militant families of the victims—who are, of course, victims themselves—to recover their children. Another is the state’s woeful inability not only to solve the crime, but also to provide a motive, or even a minimally coherent account of what is known so far. Once again, the press has been put in the impossible position of disentangling various and conflicting versions of the events put forth by the survivors of the attack, spokesmen for the ministries in charge of the investigation, rumormongers on the web, and versions given in court by a few of the sixty or so people arrested in connection with the abduction, and what can be gleaned is not nearly enough.
The missing young men were almost all first-year students at the all-male Escuela Normal Rural Raúl Isidro Burgos, in Ayotzinapa, a small village in the center of the southwestern state of Guerrero. The crime took place about two hours away on September 26, in the raucous town of Iguala, also in Guerrero, about eighty miles southwest of Mexico City. (Glittery Acapulco, on the Guerrero coast, is the state’s best-known city.)
On that day, some eighty students of the normal rural left their campus in Ayotzinapa, perched high on a breezy hill. (Student leaders say they did not keep count of how many freshmen actually got on the bus.) Normales rurales are teachers’ colleges that take in students from the lowest-income stratum of Mexico. Their parents may earn as little as $400 a month, and it is understood that the students will receive a poor education, just enough to qualify them to pass on their limited body of knowledge to the next generation of children of other poor families. Of the several government-run normales rurales in Guerrero, the one at Ayotzinapa is the poorest.
Yale University Press: Patrick Modiano is not at all heavily translated on this side of the Atlantic. Were you surprised in learning of his Nobel Prize win?
Mark Polizzotti: Very surprised for about a nanosecond, and then thoroughly delighted—not only because of Suspended Sentences, though of course that was part of it, but because it recognizes and validates fiction such as Modiano’s, which doesn’t rely on grand effects to make some fundamental points about human existence and responsibility. The fact that the Swedish Academy should have settled on someone relatively unknown here isn’t that much of a surprise—a number of winners, including France’s previous laureate, J. M. G. Le Clézio (not to mention Mo Yan, or Elfriede Jelinek, or Naguib Mahfouz), were hardly more familiar to Americans when they were chosen; and isn’t one great benefit of the Nobel the light it shines on underappreciated writers?—but what does bear noting is the understated quality of Modiano’s writings, which goes against the grain of the more obstreperously “world-class” authors whose names are typically bandied about in October.
YUP: How do you feel about the Swedish Academy’s citation—“the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the Occupation”?
MP: For the Western world in general, but especially for France, the Occupation is one of the central traumas of the twentieth century, because it forced thousands of ordinary citizens to confront exactly who they were and to what lengths they would go in extreme situations. Many came away from that test rather disgracefully, which led to the great whitewashing under De Gaulle and the comforting myth that la France entière had joined the Resistance. It’s no coincidence that Modiano published his first book, La Place de l’Etoile (a direct reference to the infamous “yellow star”), in 1968, the year of the student riots and just one year before Marcel Ophüls released The Sorrow and the Pity: by that point, the myth could no longer hold, and young people wanted to know the truth about what had happened to their parents’ generation. Modiano’s work ever since —whether or not it is situated in the war years—has revolved around the troubling questions raised by the Occupation. Many of his characters, in one way or another, are defined by the kinds of ambiguous acts and moral stances into which they, or their real-life prototypes, were forced in order to survive the war years—or again, by the advantage that some of them took of others’ tragedy during that same period.
That said, I think the more interesting phrase in the Academy’s citation is the first one, “the art of memory,” because this is one of the key elements of Modiano’s fiction and the particular atmosphere it so beautifully evokes. One often feels on unstable footing when reading him, as if the plot is constantly crumbling beneath one’s feet. He does this in a very interesting way: by withholding crucial information, dispensing partial, and sometimes contradictory, episodes, so that his readers, like his protagonists, are never entirely sure what the story really is—as if the narrator himself doesn’t really remember. “Lost in the mists of time” is a phrase that pops up more than once in his novels. You see this in “Afterimage,” the first novella in Suspended Sentences, in which the narrator’s attempts to “define” his departed friend, the photographer Jansen, constantly run up against the gaps in his recollections of the man—forcing him to make speculations that might be true, or might just be red herrings. You see it wrenchingly in the title novella, in which the ten-year-old Patoche (heavily based on Modiano’s own childhood) and his younger brother try to understand the household in which they’re being raised—which to them seems a perpetual circus of larger-than-life eccentrics, but which in hindsight turns out to be much more sinister. It’s this ambivalent relationship with memory—one’s own memory and that of society at large—that creates, I think, the distinctive aura of Modiano’s work, and that gives contemporary resonance to his indictments of the Occupation and its legacy.
YUP: You are a prolific translator of French literature with over forty titles to your credit. What in particular stuck out to you about Modiano and this particular project?
MP: Perhaps more than with any other writer I’ve translated, Modiano’s prose is a deceptively tricky mix of surface simplicity and pitch-perfect wording. The lightness of his touch is remarkable, as is his ear for the natural rhythms of speech and language. The biggest challenge was finding an English voice that could convincingly recreate that simplicity and naturalness, while at the same time cluing in the English-language reader to the subtle references and understandings that make his books meaningful to French audiences. On the other hand, I’d also say that, with a few exceptions—Jean Echenoz being the main one—I’ve rarely felt so in tune with an author’s style. So that while I was constantly aware of the need to pare down my English equivalents, make them as spare and seemingly straightforward as the French, I also had the sense of being completely at home in the linguistic space he had created. It helped that I absolutely love all three of these novellas.
YUP: The three novellas included in Suspended Sentences were originally published separately. What are some things that lie in common between the three works and how do they come together in this volume?
MP: Modiano’s world is one of repetitions and almost obsessive recurrences. Episodes and characters reappear from one book to another, sometimes in the same guise, sometimes under a different name, but recognizably similar. For instance, between “Suspended Sentences” and the third novella, “Flowers of Ruin,” there are several figures who appear in different ways, like multiple facets of the same crystal, and who create a web of connections between the books. But again, each time the story is told, it’s told with certain details added and others left out, never the same ones. A perfect example is the story of how Modiano’s father, who was Jewish, was picked up by the Occupation-era police without identity papers—which almost certainly would have landed him in a concentration camp. While awaiting deportation, he was mysteriously freed thanks to an influential black marketeer who had dealings with the Germans. Why was he released? What were his father’s relations with this man? Modiano was never able to find out, and the story haunts many of his books—the three in Suspended Sentences and others besides. But it’s never told quite the same way twice, and never in a way that allows one truly to understand exactly what happened, just as young Modiano never understood it from the bits and pieces his father let slip.
This documentary is about that very remarkable man, the former NSA intelligence analyst and whistleblower Edward Snowden, shown here speaking out personally for the first time about all the staggering things governments are doing to our privacy.
Fundamentally, privacy is being abolished – not eroded, not diminished, not encroached upon, but abolished. And being constructed in its place is a colossal digital new Stasi, driven by a creepy intoxication with what is now technically possible, combined with politicians’ age-old infatuation with bullying, snooping and creating mountains of bureaucratic prestige for themselves at the expense of the snooped-upon taxpayer.
Yet in spite of the evidence put in the public domain about this – due to Snowden’s considerable courage – there has been a bafflingly tepid response from the libertarian right, who have let themselves be bamboozled by the “terrorism” argument. There’s also been a worrying placidity from some progressive opinion-formers who appear to assume that social media means we have surrendered our right to privacy. But we haven’t.
Laura Poitras’s film shows the first extensive interviews with Edward Snowden, conducted in his hotel room in Hong Kong when he first revealed his information to reporter Glenn Greenwald: Snowden contacted him under the handle Citizenfour. Greenwald wrote about it for Salon, in his book No Place to Hide and for this newspaper. Snowden risked his neck, revealing that despite official statements to the contrary, the US and the UK were widely using their ability to eavesdrop upon every phone call, every email, every internet search, every keystroke. The pre-emptive mining of data has gone beyond suspicion of terrorist activity. As Snowden says: “We are building the biggest weapon for oppression in the history of mankind,” and a martial law for intercepting telecommunication is being created by stealth. This is despite the bland denials of every official up to and including President Obama, whose supercilious claim to have been investigating the issue before the Snowden revelations has been brutally exposed by this film.
Snowden himself seems notably calm and reasonable. Where Julian Assange is mercurial, Snowden is geeky and imperturbable, with a laid-back voice that sounds like that of Seth Rogen. Pressure that would have caused anyone else to crack seems to have have no real effect on Snowden, and he appears unemotional even as he reveals how he had to leave his partner, Lindsay Mills, in the dark. (She is now living with him in Russia, where he is in exile, a country whose own record on civil liberties provide a scalding irony.)
There are moments of white-knuckle paranoia. The interview is interrupted by a continuous alarm bell; Snowden calls down to reception, who tell him it’s a routine fire drill. Snowden is satisfied by the explanation, but disconnects the phone in case it is bugged. When he types key passwords into his laptop he covers his head and arms in a bizarre shroud, like an old-fashioned photographer, so he can’t be filmed. This is what he calls his “magic mantle of power”. It looks absurd, but it isn’t precisely melodramatic, and Snowden seems as if he both knows what he is doing and appreciates the absurdity of it all.
Meanwhile, governmental forces are ranged against him – and against ordinary citizens making a stand against snooping. Poitras shows us a scene from a US court case in which AT&T phone customers took action against having their affairs pried into. A sycophantic, bow-tied lawyer for the government tries to suggest that a court is not the proper place to discuss the matter. When a plain-speaking judge rebuked this weasel, I felt like cheering.
So what else can be done? There is a funny moment when Citizenfour shows how German chancellor Angela Merkel is far from amused at having her mobile phone conversations listened to by the NSA. It was an exquisite moment of diplomatic froideur and possibly did more to make Obama take this seriously than anything else.
Now activists are warning of “linkability”. In US cities, subway commuters are being asked to put their transit pass accounts on their actual credit cards. One card fits all, and also gives officialdom access to a whole lot more of your information. British cities are being encouraged to do the same thing with “contactless” cards. Maybe we all need to think again. Citizenfour is a gripping record of how our rulers are addicted to gaining more and more power and control over us – if we let them.
America is the land of opportunity, just for some more than others.
That's because, in large part, inequality starts in the crib. Rich parents can afford to spend more time and money on their kids, and that gap has only grown the past few decades. Indeed, economists Greg Duncan and Richard Murnane calculate that, between 1972 and 2006, high-income parents increased their spending on "enrichment activities" for their children by 151 percent in inflation-adjusted terms, compared to 57 percent for low-income parents.
But, of course, it's not just a matter of dollars and cents. It's also a matter of letters and words. Affluent parents talk to their kids three more hours a week on average than poor parents, which is critical during a child's formative early years. That's why, as Stanford professor Sean Reardon explains, "rich students are increasingly entering kindergarten much better prepared to succeed in school than middle-class students," and they're staying that way.
It's an educational arms race that's leaving many kids far, far behind.
It's depressing, but not nearly so much as this:
Even poor kids who do everything right don't do much better than rich kids who do everything wrong. Advantages and disadvantages, in other words, tend to perpetuate themselves. You can see that in the above chart, based on a new paper from Richard Reeves and Isabel Sawhill, presented at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston's annual conference, which is underway.
Specifically, rich high school dropouts remain in the top about as much as poor college grads stay stuck in the bottom — 14 versus 16 percent, respectively. Not only that, but these low-income strivers are just as likely to end up in the bottom as these wealthy ne'er-do-wells. Some meritocracy.
He set up the telescope on the gravel path and trained it on the north star, explained to the boy that once set the gears in the telescope would turn it precisely along with the rotation of the earth, so they could watch the moons of Jupiter all night and not have to worry about moving the lens, because within the machinery of the telescope was a perfect microcosm of the machinery of the universe. Not a day goes by I don’t think of you. She was a fan of Lolita, kept the movie poster above her bed. The electroshock made her forget me but she remembered Lolita. They watched the moons of Jupiter till morning, also their own moon, and a satellite spinning. As they walked back through a field of dry grasses wet with dew, smelling of dew, he looked down at his feet and saw the body of a luna moth, perfectly dried and dead there caught up in the feet of the grasses. He lifted it gently from where it was tangled so as not to crush it and showed it to the boy, showed him the two white antennae that look like feathers and the black spots on the wings and explained their purpose. Years later I thought of this as I sat with you in the town graveyard while we injected each other with white gardenias. The houses there curved up at sharp angles like a skating ramp, and leaned over dogfighting rings full of broken glass the color of an iris. Her hair started to fall out from the medication, which they purchased from the company her father defended in court. He wore beautiful white suits and had a beautiful daughter with dark eyes that had trouble seeing because really they belonged in the skull of a deer.
The birdbaths froze over some time that night, and he woke early and showed the boy, first the sycamore leaves that had got stuck beneath the ice, their image refracted so the fractal edges extended to the edge of the water, and second how to scrape the ice away and refill the bath with a pot of warm water heated up on the yellow stove, to keep the birds from freezing as they cleaned their feathers. Then they split some wood to add to the ever- burning winter fire and set a black cauldron of pinto beans over the flames. The worst part is, if you ever said you loved me, I would never believe it. You were never there in the graveyard, you were down by the docks with another man. But the idea of you was there in the form of another, as often happens in these kinds of situations.
Later in the day, as they walked down toward the river, they encountered a long rattle snake trying to swallow a mourning dove. The dove was halfway down the throat already, and all its feathers had fallen out. They spread out to form an iridescent halo around the head of the snake. The naked dove struggled. He promptly cut the snake’s head off with an axe and set it along with the rattle in a jar with salt on the bookshelf next to a slim volume on the medicinal uses of the wild herbs of central Idaho. It was too late for the dove. I wonder if herbs would have been enough for you. That is a fallacy. They went to the river and he taught the boy how to swim, the names of the fish and the water birds: kingfisher, mallard, egret, heron. The river was green and the riverbed was made of soft clay. The boy used the clay to fashion small figures that resembled wolves with dragonfly wings. I was upset by the morning light, because it meant you were leaving. I got a job in a microchip factory and saw your reflection in the red sheen of the silicon twelve hours a day.
Her condition improved, which only made it harder for her to identify with her identity as it was comprised of the person she had been some- where between ten years and ten minutes prior. He began to get attacks of vertigo. Walking along a path lined with mockingbird skeletons he had to lean against a tree, and he laughed, wondering if he had somehow become drunk without drinking. Then he realized he was not standing, that he could not stand no matter how hard he tried, and he decided to see a doctor, but there were no doctors there, then, so he died, and explained to the boy the proper method of burial.
I have dirt beneath my fingernails. After we finished with the gardenias it became very difficult to take the intersecting angles of telephone wires, insect wings, and sunlight. They make me want to say that I love you. But you know I love you, so why say it? That is not really the point, anyway. She smelled a bit like orchid soil. Not a day goes by I don’t think of you. He showed the boy how certain plants grow on tree limbs and live off what they can gather from the air. This, he said, is a very good way to live one’s life. Just remember that it can be very difficult to accept only what is given. Just remember that that is all we will ever have.