I’ve been vaguely involved in getting this set up, but haven’t yet seen it announced online. This event is being organized by the OWS press team, with the Guardian on hand to tape the discussion. Next week at least some of the ideas that come out of this will appear in the Guardian itself, with many more op-eds hopefully appearing in newspapers and on websites across the country. Here’s the announcement:

To our peers in the OWS community, 

What pieces of the OWS storyline are missing from media coverage of the Occupy Movement? Any messages that you feel we have not yet conveyed effectively? Any Opinion pieces you desperately want to write, or any particular media outlets you want to target through an Opinion article campaign? 

On Friday, 6:00 pm, November 11th, please come to the Atrium at 60 Wall Street for an open, Opinion article brainstorming session. We will put our minds together and generate as many ideas for Opinion articles as we can, as we consider appropriate media targets.

This will not be a decision making meeting. Further, the brainstorming session will be filmed by The Guardian, so be prepared to be on camera or to sit behind the cameraman. The Guardian itself may absorb some of the Op Ed ideas generated during the meeting. Most of the really great Opinion pieces generated will not be selected for the Guardian, however the PR team will do its best to place them with other media outlets.

It’s worth keeping in mind that that opinion journalism in the United States is overwhelmingly male, overwhelmingly white, and overwhelmingly written by rich, or just powerful, people. It wouldn’t be hard to frame the Opinion page of most newspapers as run ‘by the 1 percent, often (if not always) for the 1 percent’. This event will hopefully be an opportunity to think about ways that the 99 percent can change that.

 C__Petersen  okay, it’s clear that i’m not going to work up the energy to write an entire report about the demands group meeting yesterday.

1 hour ago 

C__Petersen  instead, i’ll just tweet it.

1 hour ago  

C__Petersen  this was the fourth meeting of the demands group in two weeks.

1 hour ago  

C__Petersen    these folks want to move a demand forward asap. yet they can’t bring themselves to meet more than twice a week.

1 hour ago  

C__Petersen    at the first demands meeting, a decision was made to pursue ‘jobs for all’. a proposal was put forward. read it here. lbo-news.com/2011/10/20/ows…

1 hour ago  

C__Petersen    it was also decided that no further debate would be allowed about what demand to pursue. or even the language of the proposal.

1 hour ago  

C__Petersen    those decisions in themselves are i think against the spirit of this movement.

1 hour ago  

C__Petersen    when asked, late in the meeting, why the clique supporting this proposal was not open to any possible amendments

1 hour ago  

C__Petersen    a guy said that then the proposal would just be debated to death. it’s astonishing that they felt three hours was enough to call it dead.

1 hour ago  

C__Petersen    when asked what had been done to bring outside members to the meetings, a member of the clique said they had handed out fliers.

1 hour ago  

C__Petersen    an announcement had been made at a single General Assembly.

1 hour ago  

C__Petersen    when asked if other working groups had been approached and invited to attend, the answer was no.

1 hour ago  

(Retrospective addition: As one young woman said, “Clearly there’s a problem when the only way I found out about this meeting was by reading Doug Henwood’s blog.”)

C__Petersen    yet they stood by this decision to eliminate all further debate, reached by 23 people in the first meeting.

1 hour ago  

C__Petersen    this group also operates on what they called the ‘75 percent’ consensus model. i couldn’t get an answer on when this had been decided, or by whom.

1 hour ago  

C__Petersen    the General Assembly operates on the 90 percent consensus model.

1 hour ago  

C__Petersen    if a demand can’t reach 90 percent in committee, it’s hard to see how it will reach 90 percent at the General Assembly.

1 hour ago  

C__Petersen    at the last meeting, a proposal had been made to bring the ‘jobs for all’ demand to the General Assembly. this proposal was voted down.

1 hour ago  

C__Petersen    but this meeting wasn’t started with a chance to take stock and figure out a way to move forward.

55 minutes ago  

C__Petersen    instead, the agenda read: “1. Schedule to bring ‘Jobs for All’ demand to the General Assembly.”

55 minutes ago  

C__Petersen    a vote was never taken on whether the group accepted this agenda. it was simply distributed by the inner clique.

55 minutes ago  

C__Petersen    at the beginning of the meeting, a vote was taken on who to have lead the meeting as a facilitator.

54 minutes ago  

C__Petersen    a woman named Cecily was proposed. a group of ten people opposed having her as a facilitator. another woman, named Woods, was suggested.

54 minutes ago  

  

C__Petersen    the group agreed Cecily and Woods would co-faciliate. Cecily, who was clearly a member of the inner clique, promptly took over.

56 minutes ago  

C__Petersen    throughout the meeting she defended the proposal being put forward. every time she defended it she stepped outside her role as facilitator.

55 minutes ago  

C__Petersen    i’m fine with facilitators occasionally stepping out to state their views. but to do so they must ‘step out’, as it were.

54 minutes ago  

C__Petersen    there was hardly any distinction in this meeting between the facilitator and the people putting forward the proposal.

54 minutes ago  

C__Petersen    this is not what a ‘leaderless movement’ looks like.

53 minutes ago  

C__Petersen    when the proposal to bring the demand to the GA once again failed to reach consensus,

53 minutes ago  

C__Petersen    Cecily briefly proposed that we move to ‘simple majority’ consensus, requiring only half the people present to approve.

52 minutes ago  

C__Petersen    it’s worth noting that this is the only #OWS meeting i’ve been at where each vote was individually counted.

52 minutes ago 

C__Petersen    if you have to do that, you clearly haven’t reached consensus.

52 minutes ago 

C__Petersen    it’s also worth noting that the guy who had brought the proposal, Jay, was a white older dude wearing a sweatshirt that said ‘Vail’.

51 minutes ago  

C__Petersen    Cecily, a young white woman, was using an iPad throughout and had her lapdog with her.

51 minutes ago  

C__Petersen    i’m not trying to be mean about this — i’m a twenty something white dude myself.

50 minutes ago  

C__Petersen    if anything i took the whiteness and evident wealth of the inner clique to show this group’s youth. this is what you get after 4 meetings.

49 minutes ago  

C__Petersen    part of the outreach being proposed was that there would be workshops with the ‘jobs for all’ proposal.

47 minutes ago  

C__Petersen    a young woman pointedly asked “What’s a workshop when there’s no possibility of changing the demand or even its wording?”

46 minutes ago  

C__Petersen    this gets to what made this working group seem to me fundamentally not part of Occupy Wall Street.

45 minutes ago  

C__Petersen    they are so afraid of any changes to the proposal they put forward in their first meeting that they will not tolerate any further debate.

44 minutes ago  

C__Petersen    they are afraid that any further debate will result in endless debate.

43 minutes ago  

C__Petersen    they are furthermore so concerned about the weather, and the youth of this movement, that they believe they must move forward asap

43 minutes ago  

C__Petersen    regardless of all criticism brought forward.

42 minutes ago  

C__Petersen    the result is a classic politics of fear / politics of emergency.

42 minutes ago  

C__Petersen    their rebuttal is that the place for this debate is at the General Assembly.

41 minutes ago  

C__Petersen    as i put it rather late in the meeting: “Point of information: The General Assembly is a terrible place to hold a long debate.”

40 minutes ago  

 

C__Petersen    the concern of those opposed to bringing this demand forward is that it will go down in flames

40 minutes ago  

C__Petersen    and make it incredibly difficult to bring other demands forward in the future.

40 minutes ago  

C__Petersen    this is also something of a politics of fear.

40 minutes ago  

C__Petersen    but the faction opposed was only asking that the process be opened up and more debate be done to find a demand the Assembly would agree on.

39 minutes ago  

C__Petersen    i, at least, am very much in favor of full employment. but i would start with either getting money out of politics or debt forgiveness.

38 minutes ago  

C__Petersen    as much as anything, the decision to pursue a ‘jobs for all’ demand first shows how far this group is outside the mainstream of #OWS.

37 minutes ago  

C__Petersen    eventually an alternative proposal was put forward: outreach for the next four days, then a new meeting on Thursday

37 minutes ago  

C__Petersen    where potential amendments to the ‘jobs for all’ demand would be considered. but only to this demand — not other proposed demands.

36 minutes ago  

C__Petersen    if amendments could be agreed on, then the new, amended demand would go to the Assembly on Sunday.

36 minutes ago  

C__Petersen    Cecily suggested a ‘friendly amendment’: whatever proposal was reached on Thursday would go to the Assembly, even if no amendments passed.

36 minutes ago  

C__Petersen    at this point the woman who had put forward the alternate proposal could have rejected this amendment by calling it ‘unfriendly’.

35 minutes ago  

C__Petersen    instead, she said she would call it an ‘acquaintance’ level amendment, but accept it.

35 minutes ago  

C__Petersen    this amended proposal was put to the group, which had thinned out by this time, and received something like 77 percent approval.

35 minutes ago  

C__Petersen    i voted for it. in retrospect i deeply regret this vote.

34 minutes ago  

C__Petersen    in retrospect, i don’t approve of what the demands group is doing in any way. their entire process strikes me as fundamentally flawed.

34 minutes ago  

C__Petersen    if they bring the ‘jobs for all’ demand forward i think it will make it very difficult to bring any other demands forward in the future.

33 minutes ago  

 

C__Petersen    but i guess i got caught up in the moment. we had worked so hard. consensus seemed attractive.

33 minutes ago  

C__Petersen    i later realized that it may well be the only important vote i’ve ever made in my life.

32 minutes ago  

C__Petersen    so it goes. the inner clique is clearly a group of democratic socialists with no interest in bottom up organizing.

31 minutes ago  

C__Petersen    they were merely following the General Assembly process in a pro forma way to ram through something they had already decided on.

31 minutes ago  

C__Petersen    it’s amazing to me how little interest so many in the Old New Left have in learning from the success of the anarchists at #OWS.

29 minutes ago  

C__Petersen    in an alternate universe they would have said ‘we need demands! i wonder how we can agree to some in this new structure.’

29 minutes ago  

C__Petersen    instead it’s just going to be a replay of the fight at the Jacobin panel.jacobinmag.com/blog/?p=1937

28 minutes ago  

C__Petersen    for the curious: the demands group will be going to the facilitation meeting tomorrow (Tuesday, October 25) at 4 to begin their campaign to get on the agenda.

27 minutes ago  

C__Petersen    facilitation meetings are at The Atrium, the big indoor space that many groups have been using, at 60 Wall Street.

27 minutes ago  

C__Petersen    the demands group is hoping to get on the schedule for the Sunday General Assembly.

27 minutes ago  

C__Petersen    the inner clique’s plan, i believe, is to flood the square with socialists and union members so that the anarchists will be outnumbered.

26 minutes ago  

C__Petersen    meanwhile, the next demands group meeting will be this thursday at 6 pm. they’ll be debating how to amend the ‘jobs for all’ proposal.

25 minutes ago  

C__Petersen    i’m not quite sure whether i think the demands group really should be able to get on the General Assembly’s agenda.

24 minutes ago  

C__Petersen    they’ve certainly gone through the motions. there were 60 people at the last meeting.

24 minutes ago  

C__Petersen    it’s hard to say “You’re not in the spirit of #OWS.”

24 minutes ago  

C__Petersen    my own hope is that there will be a second agenda item for whatever Assembly their proposal gets brought up at.

23 minutes ago  

C__Petersen    so that after the ‘jobs for all’ demand gets voted down we can take up something do agree on.

23 minutes ago  

C__Petersen    obviously this second proposal won’t be a demand. but it would be something to help unite the movement.

22 minutes ago  

C__Petersen    i’m also tempted to say that it may turn out that none of this will matter at all.

22 minutes ago  

C__Petersen    but given how much the media has structured the narrative about #ows around demands, any Assembly level debate will get a lot of coverage.

21 minutes ago  

C__Petersen    so even if most of the people actually involved couldn’t care less, i do think that this could turn out to be an important moment.

21 minutes ago  

C__Petersen    if you’re interested, go to the facilitation meeting on Tuesday at 4, and the Demands meeting on Thursday at 6. both at 60 Wall Street.

21 minutes ago  

C__Petersen    and i’ll try to get the word out if this ever does come to the Assembly.

20 minutes ago  

C__Petersen   the important thing will be to have some alternative proposal to put forward after ‘jobs for all’ fails, as it inevitably will.

20 minutes ago  

C__Petersen   .@jksturgeo modified consensus, as practiced by the General Assembly, is 90 percent. i don’t see why the Demands Group needs 75 percent.

19 minutes ago  

C__Petersen   @jksturgeo they said they had previously agreed on 75 percent. several members of the group disputed this.

16 minutes ago  

C__Petersen   final addition: as i put it at the demands meeting, “I’m not even an anarchist!

now  

 

This is the original poster for Occupy Wall Street, created by AdBusters earlier this summer. Look at it. Any journalist who thinks these people “failed” to come up with “one demand” before the protests started should be sent to Irony Reeducation Camp.

This is the original poster for Occupy Wall Street, created by AdBusters earlier this summer. Look at it. Any journalist who thinks these people “failed” to come up with “one demand” before the protests started should be sent to Irony Reeducation Camp.

I was sadly about thirty minutes late to the march up the Brooklyn Bridge, thinking I would join the protesters on the other side. Obviously things didn’t turn out that way. I stood around with a bunch of other protesters at the base and chanted “Who’s bridge? Our bridge!,” “Who’s police? Our police!,” and (my favorite) “It’s your pension too!” until the last of the protesters came down off the pedestrian walkway and it started to rain.

I’ve been doubtful that the police actually meant for protesters to go over on the roadway — see the tweets from Malcolm Harris, who was near the front of the march. Nathan Schneider, who’s been doing the best reporting on the occupation so far, tells me he’s pretty confident the police actually were responsible. Nathan’s also suggested, I think rightly, that the direct action committee needs to work a little harder in choosing their targets — people at Occupy Boston actually got arrested for blocking the entrance to JP Morgan. (The direct action committee has said that they chose a march to Brooklyn Bridge park to show solidarity with the outer boroughs. It’s hard to see how going to Brooklyn Bridge park was actually supposed to accomplish that.)

All this aside, what made the protest such a success was quite simply that 700 people got arrested. I find it incredibly unlikely that all 700 of those people would have volunteered to lock arms in front of the New York Stock Exchange. It’s worth emphasizing as well that once the march was surrounded by police, those who desperately didn’t want to get arrested, by and large, were allowed to leave. I met a guy from New Jersey — an English teacher, there with his wife and two teenage daughters — who said the cops happily let them out of the net. (They’re coming back on Wednesday to spend the night.)

But the genius of the march, as it unfolded, whether accidental or deliberate on the part of the protesters or the police, was that it was both incredibly easy for the police to surround a simply huge group — far more than could easily be kettled anywhere in Manhattan — and that, once surrounded, many people who were perhaps unlikely to take that first step toward actually getting arrested found the courage to link arms, sit down, and accept that, perhaps without quite fully intending to, they had fully committed themselves to nonviolent civil disobedience.

That’s how you get one of the largest mass arrests in American history. It wouldn’t have happened if the protest had been more directly targeted. It wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t been on a bridge. And it’s the number here that matters: however poorly targeted the march, the reason Occupy Wall Street is going from a slowly growing, possibly soon dissipating news story, to a quite possibly society changing event, is that no news organization can ignore the arrest of 700 people. And, hopefully, neither can most citizens.

One must also admit: when picking symbols, a bridge — perhaps the most famous bridge in America — isn’t a bad choice.

Let’s just hope that most of the marchers who were arrested on Saturday are galvanized by their arrests to keep coming back. And that, having been arrested once, they find it easier to commit to doing it a second time — and at a place that more directly targets the organizations they are opposing.

My piece on Google in the new issue of BookForum:

Search and Destroy
"How the age of Google has accelerated the assault on the public sphere"
BookForum, April/May 2011

A review of:
The Googlization of Everything, Said Vaidhyanathan, University of California Press

It’s rare that anything of substance comes out of the Aspen Ideas Festival, that annual orgy of techno-triumphalism and political self-seriousness, the bastard child of Davos and TED. But something odd happened when Eric Schmidt, until recently the CEO of Google, appeared at the high-powered mogul gathering in 2009 to speak about Google and the future of the American economy. After Schmidt addressed the crisis in the American banking system and the need for improved regulation, Brian Lehrer, the host of a talk show on WNYC in New York, walked up to the microphone. “Is there ever a point at which Google becomes so big that it’s kind of scary and needs to be regulated as a public utility?” he asked. The audience laughed. “You’ll be surprised that my answer is no,” Schmidt replied, to more laughter. “There are models and there are countries where in fact the government does try to do that, and I think the American model works better.”

Lehrer, to his credit, persisted with this line of questioning—and Siva Vaidhyanathan, to his, makes the discussion that followed one of the central moments in The Googlization of Everything. “I would expect a more sophisticated answer,” Lehrer continued. “As we saw with the banks, it’s not a question of Soviet-style Communism or free-market capitalism. Banks needed smart regulation that they didn’t have… . Is it possible that information is in the same boat?” Schmidt, after hamming it up for the business elite with yet another “Well, again. My answer would be no,” gave as serious an answer as he could: “Companies are defined by the values that they were founded with… . Independent of my leadership and the founders’ leadership and so forth, [Google has] formed a certain way. A thing that you should be worried about is that a combination of special interests plus unintended regulation could in fact prevent the kind of consumer benefits that we push so hard to do.”

Why so much laughter? Vaidhyanathan, a professor of media studies and law at the University of Virginia, points out the obvious: Google is already regulated. “Google spends millions of dollars every year ensuring it adheres to copyright, patent, antitrust, financial disclosure, and national security regulations.” What made Schmidt’s comments significant was the suggestion that Google was being regulated too much.

Read More

The greatest source of metaphor in the world is the natural world; the orders that spontaneously seem to appear in natural things are utterly beautiful. I read about them because I find them marvelous, marvelously suggestive. And I have a certain admiration for the biosphere; I like to imagine that it could go on without end. The old “world without end” formula is one of great appeal. I hate the idea that the well is being poisoned, which it is. … The natural world is very much the subject of Housekeeping. I was more interested in looking at it than I was in using it to create other things.

–Marilynne Robinson, At the Field’s End: Interviews with 22 Northwest Writers

Google and Money!
The New York Review of Books, December 9, 2010

Books Under Review: 

Googled: The End of the World As We Know It
by Ken Auletta
Penguin, 384 pp., $27.95

The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains
by Nicholas Carr
Norton, 276 pp., $26.95

Google plays such a large part in so many of our “digital lives” that it can be startling to learn how much of the company’s revenues come from a single source. Almost everyone online relies on one Google service or another; personally I make semiregular use of

Google Search, Gmail, Google Chat, Google Voice, Google Maps, Google Documents, Google Calendar, Google Buzz, Google Earth, Google Chrome, Google Reader, Google News, YouTube, Blogspot, Google Profiles, Google Alerts, Google Translate, Google Book Search, Google Groups, Google Analytics, and Google 411.

Yet few of these services support themselves (YouTube alone has lost hundreds of millions of dollars per year). In 2008 the advertising on Google’s search engine was responsible for 98 percent of the company’s $22 billion in revenue, and while Google refuses to provide more recent percentages, the company’s 2009 revenue of $23.6 billion suggests that little has changed.

The reason Google’s search engine remains its single largest source of revenue—and why that revenue exceeds that of any other website—can most easily be understood by studying the company’s history. In 1998, when the Stanford graduate students Sergey Brin and Larry Page launched Google, the existing search engines were so inadequate that only one was capable of finding itself when queried with its own name; a search for “cars” on Lycos, one of the better search engines, returned more pornography sites than sites about cars.

Read More

In the World of Facebook
The New York Review of Books, February 25, 2010

Books Under Review:

The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook, A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius, and Betrayal
by Ben Mezrich
Doubleday, 260 pp., $25.00

Stealing MySpace: The Battle to Control the Most Popular Website in America
by Julia Angwin
Random House, 371 pp., $27.00

Facebook, the most popular social networking Web site in the world, was founded in a Harvard dorm room in the winter of 2004. Like Microsoft, that other famous technology company started by a Harvard dropout, Facebook was not particularly original. A quarter-century earlier, Bill Gates, asked byIBM to provide the basic programming for its new personal computer, simply bought a program from another company and renamed it. Mark Zuckerberg, the primary founder of Facebook, who dropped out of college six months after starting the site, took most of his ideas from existing social networks such as Friendster and MySpace. But while Microsoft could as easily have originated at MIT or Caltech, it was no accident that Facebook came from Harvard.

What is “social networking”? For all the vagueness of the term, which now seems to encompass everything we do with other people online, it is usually associated with three basic activities: the creation of a personal Web page, or “profile,” that will serve as a surrogate home for the self; a trip to a kind of virtual agora, where, along with amusedly studying passersby, you can take a stroll through the ghost town of acquaintanceships past, looking up every person who’s crossed your path and whose name you can remember; and finally, a chance to remove the digital barrier and reveal yourself to the unsuspecting subjects of your gaze by, as we have learned to put it with the Internet’s peculiar eagerness for deforming our language, “friending” them, i.e., requesting that you be connected online in some way.

Facebook was successful early on because it didn’t depart significantly from how its audience interacted, and because it started at the top of the social hierarchy. Zuckerberg distinguished his site through one innovation: Facebook, initially at least, would be limited to Harvard. The site thus extended one of the primary conceits of education at an elite university: that everyone on campus is, if not a friend, then a potential friend, one already vetted by the authorities. Most previous social networks, such as MySpace and Friendster, had been dogged by the sense that, while one might use them with friends, they were to a substantial degree designed for meeting strangers. But nobody is a stranger in college, or at least that’s the assumption at a school like Harvard, so nobody would be a stranger on Facebook.

The site’s connection to collegiate social codes could be seen most clearly in its name, which, unlike that of every previous social network—Friendster and MySpace, but also SixDegrees, Bebo, Orkut, etc.—actually came from a preexisting, even highly traditional item, the freshman “facebook” that many colleges distribute to incoming students, with a photo of each classmate and a few identifying details. Zuckerberg’s Web site would retain the exclusivity of its namesake through one requirement: to join, you would need a Harvard e-mail address.

By starting at Harvard, Facebook avoided another problem that had afflicted previous social networks: those with many friends had little reason to sign up. Zuckerberg got the initial idea from two members of the Porcellian, Harvard’s most prestigious “final club,” who would later sue him for stealing their plan (the case was settled out of court for a reported $85 million). The importance of the site’s Ivy League founding is the primary revelation of Ben Mezrich’s dramatic, narrative account of Facebook’s early days, The Accidental Billionaires. When Zuckerberg launched the site, as Mezrich observes in one of the book’s more accurate moments, he e-mailed the announcement to the Phoenix, a final club. A month later, the site expanded to Princeton and Stanford. Facebook, unlike every previous social network, was at the start a very exclusive club.

Read More

Addled
What’s Killing the New York Times?
Editorial, n+1 magazine, Spring 2010

Pick up a newspaper or magazine these days and you find yourself judging its health by the quantity of advertising. Harper’s, the Nation, the New Republic—they are pitifully bare of ads. “Page” (online, of course) through an old copy of the New Yorker, look up Edmund Wilson’s essays on the Dead Sea Scrolls, and feel the self-confidence of another age: almost three pages of ads for every column of text. Reading the magazine online brings out an analogy that a physical copy would obscure—the huge ads, dominating the text, remind you of nothing so much as a flashy website.

A big mystery of the internet has been why the online editions of newspapers and magazines can’t make money when, with huge skyscraper ads covering half the homepage, their websites so closely resemble the most successful publications of the past. These aren’t regular old newspaper ads either but what amount to TV ads—all the better, you’d think, since you can click through to buy the product on offer without picking up a phone. What’s more, the New York Times has ten times as many readers online as it does in print (15 million versus 1.5 million)! Amid all the anxiety about the future of journalism it’s easy to overlook the absurdity of the situation: the Times is going bankrupt—while showing more ads to more readers than ever before.

What happened? One standard answer is that advertisers overpaid for ad placement in the past, and now the Gray Lady, confronted with precise readership metrics, is finally getting paid the pittance she always deserved. This seems implausible: could perpetually rationalizing, efficiency-maximizing capitalism really have misjudged the efficacy of print advertising for more than a century? Another notion is that Google, by removing the ad men from the transaction, has dropped the glamorizing “sizzle” of the hard sell—an idea only Don Draper could buy.

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American Pastoral
n+1 Book Review, Issue 6, February 26, 2010 

Books Under Review:
Ken Burns. The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. PBS. October 2009.
Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan. The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, An Illustrated History. Knopf. October 2009.

The first thing that struck me when opening the massive coffee table book that Ken Burns compiled to accompany his most recent documentary—this one about the national parks, the latest entry in America’s Greatest Hits—was not the sheer size but rather the comparative puniness of the park system. The expectation in the American West, when looking at a map of public and private lands, is one of apparent socialism: the closest this country gets, at least on paper, to the appropriation of property by the people. The numbers are well known: 85 percent of Nevada is owned by the federal government, 57 percent of Utah, 50 percent of Idaho, even 45 percent of California. The national parks, outside of Alaska, where they play a fundamentally different role, comprise only six percent of federal lands. This seems to make sense: the parks are supposed to be “exceptional.” But for a system that Burns considers an extension of the claim that “all men are created equal,” the question remains—an exception to what?

Burns (and when I use the name here, I do so in the corporate sense of the term, because ‘Ken Burns’ has long since assumed the role of trademark) points to private property. “We were principally drawn to the fact that, for the first time in human history, land—great sections of our natural landscape—was set aside, not for kings or noblemen or the very rich, but for everyone, for all time.” This is not quite true. Long before the first American national park, the French Revolution placed all royal, ecclesiastic, and émigré lands in the hands of the people. These lands included the Forest of Fontainebleau, the king’s old hunting grounds, later the favorite escape of the French romantics; the forest would be declared a “réserve artistique” in 1861, three years before America’s first park, Yosemite, was set aside for equally ambiguous reasons. The bulk of American public lands, more importantly, are today administered by the National Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. If Burns were really interested in land set aside for the people, it’s hard to see why he would make a documentary about the national parks.

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Medium Of Exchange
Revisiting the Quaint Custom of Writing Letters and Having Something to Say
Wall Street Journal, Bookshelf, November 20, 2009

Book Under Review:

Yours Ever: People and Their Letters
Thomas Mallon
Pantheon, 338 pages, $26.95

Letters are a biographer’s best friend—and worst enemy. They are a vivid way of tracking a subject’s day-to-day thoughts and activities, but they can also have an up-staging effect. William Faulkner, in a letter to his parents, wrote about a ride on a New York subway: “The experiment showed me that we are not descended from monkeys, as some say, but from lice.” No mere biographer’s narrative, however conscientious, can compete with such personal confidences.

Thomas Mallon, a novelist and literary historian, does not shrink from this challenge and has instead made first-person writing the center of his critical attention. A quarter-century ago, with “A Book of One’s Own,” he took on that other great “frenemy” of biographers, the diary. Now, with “Yours Ever,” his prose aims to illuminate not the juicy self-revelations of diarists but the best that the epistolary genre has to offer. Lord Byron, for instance, on his latest masterpiece: “It may be profligate but is it not life, is it not the thing? Could any man have written it who has not lived in the world?—and fooled in a post-chaise? in a hackney-coach? in a gondola? against a wall? in a court carriage? in a vis-à-vis? on a table? and under it?”

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'Everything Flows: A Novel' by Vasily Grossman
A masterful, but unfinished novel of life in Stalin’s Russia.
Los Angeles Times, Book Review, March 14, 2010

Book Under Review:
Everything Flows: A Novel
Vasily Grossman,
translated from the Russian
by Robert Chandler, Elizabeth Chandler and Anna Aslanyan
NYRB Classics: 272 pp., $15.95 paper

There’s a moment in “Everything Flows,” Vasily Grossman’s brief, unfinished and powerful final novel, that sums up the whole spirit of the author’s last years, after the Soviet secret police seized his masterwork, “Life and Fate,” in 1960 and left him to rot with no hope of publication, writing for an audience of one.

Ivan, a prisoner of the Gulag for more than 30 years, has returned to Moscow and Leningrad to find a world as unwelcoming as Siberia. He wanders the streets like a man cured of the plague but still contagious; his mere appearance terrifies former colleagues and distant family members.

This return amounts to a kind of accusation, regardless of Ivan’s quiet voice and careful manners — because when he encounters old acquaintances, so much remains unsaid. Does Ivan blame them? He could easily accuse every person he meets.

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