I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at,
what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”
Gen. McChrystal's Credibility Problem 3
An Excerpt: Where Men Win Glory 9
Rethinking the American Dream 15
A Primitivist Primer 28
Reborn Again 35
Excerpts From A Walk In The Woods 56
The Anosognosic’s Dilemma 64
Gender Issues in the Afghanistan Diaspora: Nadia's Story 72
Tourism, Globalisation and Sustainable Development 91
The Enchiridion 100
Paragraphs on Conceptual Art 113
Excerpt: A Separate Reality 119
Some of you probably know Krakauer from Into Thin Air, Under the Banner of Heaven,
and Where Men Win Glory. I’ve included an excerpt from the latter book to accompany
this recent article about the circumstances surrounding the death of Pat Tillman.
Gen. McChrystal's Credibility Problem
by Jon Krakauer, 2009
Shortly after President Obama nominated Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal to command U.S.
and NATO forces in Afghanistan, the general was summoned to the U.S. Senate to be
grilled by the Armed Services Committee. Although McChrystal had enthusiastic
admirers on both sides of the congressional aisle and was regarded as an innovative,
uncommonly effective leader, he was expected to face difficult questions about two
incidents that occurred during his tenure as leader of the Joint Special Operations
Command (or JSOC): the torture of detainees in 2003 at the secret facility in Iraq known
as Camp Nama, and his role in the coverup of Pat Tillman’s fratricide in Afghanistan in
2004. During the committee hearing, though, none of McChrystal’s inquisitors probed
deeply into either of these issues, and on June 10 the Senate unanimously confirmed his
McChrystal has lately been the subject of numerous media profiles, most of them
adulatory. Dexter Filkins has a long story in the upcoming New York Times Magazine.
In an October 5 Newsweek article, Evan Thomas referred to the general as a “Zen
warrior… with a disarming, low-key style, free of the bombast and sense of entitlement
that can come with four stars…. He has great political skills; he couldn’t have risen to his
current position without them. But he definitely does not see himself as the sort of
military man who would compromise his principles to do the politically convenient
thing.” In the week after Tillman was killed, however, this is precisely what McChrystal
appears to have done when he administered a fraudulent medal recommendation and
submitted it to secretary of the Army, thereby concealing the cause of Tillman’s death.
Tillman was accidentally gunned down by members of his Ranger platoon on the evening
of April 22, 2004. Lt. Col. Jeffrey Bailey, commander of the 2nd Ranger Battalion,
visited the site of the calamity the following morning. A few hours later, he called his
boss, Col. James Nixon, commander of the 75th Ranger Regiment, and said (according to
Bailey’s sworn testimony), “My gut feeling was that Tillman had been killed by friendly
fire…. There was no doubt about it. It was a case where there were six or seven Rangers
that saw the vehicle shooting at them.” Before the day was out, Nixon notified three of
his superiors, including McChrystal, that Tillman’s death was a fratricide. According to
Army regulations, this information should have been immediately shared with the
Tillman family, even if friendly fire was only a possibility. Instead, Army officers
embarked on an elaborate campaign to suppress the truth and persuade both the family
and the public that Tillman was killed by enemy fire. Soldiers were ordered to lie.
Tillman’s notebook, uniform, ammo vest, and body armor were burned, in clear violation
of other important protocols.
At the time of Tillman’s fratricide, McChrystal was only a one-star general, but as
commander of JSOC he ran the most covert branch of the U.S. armed forces. Shrewd,
driven, and willing to bend rules to get results, 13 months earlier he’d commanded the
Navy SEALs, Delta Force operators, and Army Rangers who’d rescued Jessica Lynch
from her captors in Iraq. Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald
Rumsfeld held McChrystal in the highest esteem, and regularly bypassed the chain of
command to communicate with him directly. He was trustworthy. He worked under the
radar and got stuff done. He didn’t suffer from “the slows,” as Rumsfeld characterized
the risk-averse nature of some of McChrystal’s superiors.
Within two days of Tillman’s death, officers in the 2nd Ranger Battalion initiated
paperwork to give Tillman the Silver Star, the military’s third highest decoration for
valor. McChrystal was put in charge of writing and expediting the medal
recommendation so that the award could be announced in advance of a nationally
televised memorial service scheduled for May 3. According to McChrystal’s Senate
testimony, he “sat down with the people who recommended [the Silver Star]… and we
went over a whiteboard, and we looked at the geometry of the battlefield, and I queried
the people to satisfy myself that, in fact, that his actions warranted [the Silver Star], even
though there was a potential that the actual circumstances of death had been friendly
The latter clause is a lawyerly flourish on McChrystal’s part, intended to suggest that
there was still doubt about the cause of death, when in fact he knew with near-absolute
certainty that Tillman was the victim of fratricide. During the medal-recommendation
process, McChrystal was shown the preliminary findings of a so-called Article 15-6
investigation that had been launched the day after Tillman died, which included detailed
eyewitness testimony from more than a dozen soldiers in his platoon. Transcripts of these
interviews described how Tillman, in order to protect a young private under his
command, had exposed himself to a ferocious squall of bullets—hundreds of rounds from
three machine guns shooting at him from close range. McChrystal ascertained, correctly,
that the extraordinary valor of Tillman’s act was in no way diminished by the
incontrovertible fact that the lethal fusillade had come from his American comrades.
“So,” McChrystal testified, “I was comfortable recommending, once I believed that the
people in the fight were convinced it warranted a Silver Star.” On April 28, 2004, six
days after Tillman’s death, McChrystal reviewed a final draft of the medal
recommendation, signed his name to it, and emailed it to the acting secretary of the
Army, R.L. Brownlee.
The recommendation package received by Brownlee consisted of four documents: a one-
paragraph “award citation” that summarized Tillman’s courageous deed; a five-paragraph
“award narrative” that offered a more nuanced account of his actions; and two brief
statements from soldiers who witnessed those actions. Astoundingly, none of these
documents mentioned, or even hinted, that Tillman was killed by friendly fire. The award
citation alleged, “Corporal Tillman put himself in the line of devastating enemy fire,”
even though there was never any enemy fire directed at Tillman’s position during the
incident. The witness statements (which also suggested he was killed by the enemy) were
not signed, and the two soldiers whose names were attached to them later testified that
both statements had been fabricated, apparently by one or more members of the Silver
Star recommendation team.
In June of this year, during McChrystal’s confirmation hearing, Sen. John McCain asked
the general to explain why, five years earlier, he had submitted the perjured Silver Star
recommendation “in the form that it was in.”
McChrystal replied, “We sent a Silver Star that was not well written—and, although I
went through the process, I will tell you now that I didn’t review the citation well enough
to capture—or, I didn’t catch that, if you read it, you can imply that it was not friendly
fire.” McChrystal insisted that the package of four short documents bearing his signature
wasn’t meant to deceive. Although he closely supervised the drafting of these documents,
he simply failed to notice that all of them had been painstakingly written to omit any
reference to friendly fire.
During a presentation on October 3 of this year in Mesa, Arizona, to promote Where Men
Win Glory, my book about Tillman, I described the testimony cited above and expressed
skepticism about McChrystal’s honesty. Afterward, while I was signing books, an Army
veteran approached me and said that he had served under McChrystal, admired him
immensely, and took issue with my accusation that his former commander had
dissembled to the Senate, or knowingly participated in any sort of coverup. He said that
in his experience McChrystal was a man of unimpeachable integrity. I countered that
McChrystal’s words were taken verbatim from a transcript of the Senate hearing, and
then added, “Gen. McChrystal is known to be meticulous, a perfectionist. He doesn’t
tolerate sloppiness or excuses. Do you really believe that he would sign his name to such
an important, high-profile document without first reading it carefully enough to realize it
The ex-soldier frowned thoughtfully before answering. “No,” he admitted. “For him to do
something like that, he’d have to be under incredible pressure.”
On April 28, 2004, the same day McChrystal sent the Silver Star recommendation to the
secretary of the Army, he received word from Rumsfeld’s office that the White House
was working on a speech in which President Bush would eulogize Tillman at the annual
White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. Because the true cause of Tillman’s
death had been restricted to a tight cadre that did not include the president’s
speechwriters, McChrystal fretted they might inadvertently script something that would
make the president look like a liar should the truth about Tillman eventually be leaked.
To forestall such a gaffe, one day after submitting the falsified medal recommendation,
McChrystal emailed a high-priority personal memo (known as a “Personal For” memo, or
simply a “P4”) to Gen. John Abizaid, the commander of all troops in Iraq and
Afghanistan, and two other general officers. “Sir, in the aftermath of Corporal Patrick
Tillman’s untimely yet heroic death in Afghanistan on 22 April 04,” McChrystal wrote,
“it is anticipated that a 15-6 investigation nearing completion will find that it is highly
possible that Corporal Tillman was killed by friendly fire. This potential finding is
exacerbated by the unconfirmed but suspected reports that [the president of the United
States] and the secretary of the Army might include comments about Corporal Tillman’s
heroism and his approved Silver Star medal in speeches currently being prepared…. I felt
that it was essential that you received this information as soon as we detected it in order
to preclude any unknowing statements by our country’s leaders which might cause public
embarrassment if the circumstances of Corporal Tillman’s death become public.”
Many months later, after the coverup unraveled and the Tillman family demanded the
Army reveal who was responsible for the many lies they’d been told, McChrystal would
spin the P4 memo as proof that he never meant to conceal the fratricide. But McChrystal
took no action to halt the coverup and divulge the truth; his memo merely sounded the
alarm that someone needed to warn speechwriters to be ambiguous about the cause of
death when crafting statements about Tillman, in order to provide President Bush with
deniability. (In the speech Bush gave at the correspondents’ dinner two days after the P4
was sent, the president praised Tillman for his courage and sacrifice, but pointedly made
no mention of how he died.)
If McChrystal had a change of heart after submitting the falsified medal recommendation
and wanted the truth to be revealed, all he needed to do was pick up the phone, inform the
secretary of the Army that Tillman was killed by friendly fire, and ask him to put the
Silver Star on hold until the paperwork could be corrected. That didn’t happen. Instead,
Secretary Brownlee approved the medal based on the spurious documents submitted by
McChrystal, and on April 30 the Army issued a press release announcing that Tillman
had been posthumously awarded the Silver Star. Because it made no mention of friendly
fire, none of the hundreds of news stories based on the press release reported anything
about friendly fire, and the nation was kept in the dark about the fratricide. As Brigadier
General Howard Yellen later testified, “For the civilian on the street, the interpretation
would be that he was killed by enemy fire.”
McChrystal, who was promoted from Brigadier General to Major General nine days after
Tillman’s death, was, and remains, intensely ambitious. Were he to be held accountable
for the fraudulent Silver Star recommendation, his Army career would likely end in
disgrace. Why, then, did he take such a risk? Last June, near the conclusion of
McChrystal’s Senate confirmation hearing, it seemed as though an answer to this
question might be at hand when Sen. Jim Webb told the general, “You have not, to my
knowledge, been on record in terms of how you personally feel about this incident, and I
would like to give you the opportunity to do that.”
Appearing genuinely contrite, McChrystal confessed, “We failed the family. And I was a
part of that, and I apologize for it.” But then the tenor of his remarks abruptly shifted and
he reiterated the same disingenuous claims made by virtually every officer who
participated in the subterfuge: “It was not intentional…. I didn’t see any activities by
anyone to deceive.” A moment later, nevertheless, McChrystal may have inadvertently
revealed what motivated the entire coverup. “To provide context,” he explained to Webb,
“we were still in combat when we were doing all of that…. We were in the first battle of
Fallujah in Iraq at the same time, so we were making mistakes.”
Three weeks before Tillman was killed, horrific violence engulfed Fallujah. The
bloodshed commenced when Iraqi insurgents killed four American contractors working
for Blackwater USA, burned their bodies, dragged them through the streets, and then
hung their charred remains from a bridge over the Euphrates River. In response, 2,000
U.S. Marines launched an assault on the city, initiating furious urban combat that
continued until the Marines were pulled out of Fallujah on May 1, 2004, by which time
27 American troops were dead, and more than 90 had been wounded.
One week before Tillman’s death, compounding the bleak news coming out of Fallujah,
CBS News notified Rumsfeld and Gen. Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs
of Staff, that 60 Minutes II was about to broadcast a story about the torture and abuse of
Iraqi captives by U.S. soldiers at a prison called Abu Ghraib. On April 28, the program
aired, followed two days later by even more disturbing revelations about Abu Ghraib by
Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker. Public support for both the Bush administration and
the war in Iraq was plummeting. The president was engaged in a bare-knuckled campaign
to win a second term. The election was barely six months away. When Tillman was
killed, White House perception managers saw an opportunity to divert the nation’s
attention from the glut of bad news.
The administration had tried to make Tillman an inspirational emblem for the Global War
on Terror when he was alive, but he had rebuffed these efforts by refusing to do any
media interviews. On April 23, the day after Tillman perished, approximately 200 emails
about Tillman were transmitted or received by White House officials, including staffers
from Bush’s reelection campaign, who suggested to the president that it would be
advantageous for him to respond to Tillman’s death as quickly as possible. A press
release about Tillman’s patriotic sacrifice was hastily written and disseminated to the
media before noon that same day. Communications Director Dan Bartlett later explained
that he rushed out the statement in order to accommodate overwhelming interest in
Tillman from the media, noting that the story “made the American people feel good about
our country… and our military.”
When he walked away from a $3.6 million National Football League contract to enlist in
the Army with his brother Kevin in 2002, Pat Tillman became the object of tremendous
public fascination, and White House officials calculated that celebrating him as a fallen
hero would send the media into an orgy of reverential coverage. They were not
disappointed. Thousands of tributes to Tillman appeared in all manner of media over the
weeks that followed. On April 25, 2004, just two days after the initial White House press
release, a “Weekend Media Assessment” compiled by the Army chief of staff’s Office of
Public Affairs reported that stories about Tillman had generated the greatest interest in
the Army since the president’s “Mission Accomplished” speech the previous May,
adding that the Tillman stories “had been extremely positive in all media.” The Army’s
announcement on April 30 that Tillman had been awarded the Silver Star prompted
another torrent of favorable press.
Had it been disclosed at the outset that Pat Tillman was killed by friendly fire, the press
coverage would have been no less voluminous, but its effect on the nation’s mood would
have been very different. This is the context in which the Tillman coverup, and Gen.
McChrystal’s central role in the deception, must be considered. As Kevin Tillman
testified, “Revealing that Pat’s death was fratricide would have been yet another political
disaster during a month already swollen with political disasters…. So the facts needed to
be suppressed. An alternative narrative needed to be constructed.” McChrystal’s
chicanery, Kevin explained, was “an insult to the Tillman family, but more importantly,
its primary purpose was to deceive a nation…. We have been used as props in a public-
Given the overwhelming challenges the United States faces in Afghanistan, and President
Obama’s determination that Gen. McChrystal is the most qualified person to command
our military campaign there, some may wonder why his dishonesty about Tillman should
matter. It matters because deceit by a military officer of McChrystal’s rank is a poisonous
betrayal of trust that shouldn’t be countenanced. The possibility that his subterfuge was
intended to mislead the public during the run-up to a presidential election is especially
troubling. “What we have here is a very clear, deliberate abuse intentionally done,”
lamented Rep. Henry Waxman at the conclusion of a 2007 hearing into the Tillman
coverup by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. “Why is it so
hard to find out who did it?”
An Excerpt from Where Men Win Glory
by Jon Krakauer
During Pat Tillman's stint in the Army he intermittently kept a diary. In an entry dated
July 28, 2002--three weeks after he arrived at boot camp--he wrote, "It is amazing the
turns one's life can take. Major events or decisions that completely change a life. In my
life there have been a number." He then cataloged several. Foremost on his mind at the
time, predictably, was his decision to join the military. But the incident he put at the top
of the list, which occurred when he was eleven years old, comes as a surprise. "As odd as
this sounds," the journal revealed, "a diving catch I made in the 11-12 all-stars was a
take-off point. I excelled the rest of the tournament and gained incredible confidence. It
sounds tacky but it was big."
As a child growing up in Almaden, California (an upscale suburb of San Jose), Pat had
started playing baseball at the age of seven. It quickly became apparent to the adults who
watched him throw a ball and swing a bat that he possessed extraordinary talent, but Pat
seems not to have been particularly cognizant of his own athletic gifts until he was
selected for the aforementioned all-star team in the summer of 1988. As the tournament
against teams of other standout middle-school athletes got under way, he mostly sat on
the bench. When the coach eventually put Pat into a game, however, he clobbered a home
run and made a spectacular catch of a long fly ball hit into the outfield. Fourteen years
later, as he contemplated life from the perspective of an Army barracks, he regarded that
catch as a pivotal moment--a confidence booster that contributed significantly to one of
his defining traits: unwavering self-assurance.
In 1990, Pat matriculated at Almaden's Leland High School, one of the top public schools
in the San Francisco Bay Area, both academically and athletically. Before entering
Leland he had resolved to become the catcher on the varsity baseball team, but the head
coach, Paul Ugenti, informed Pat that he wasn't ready to play varsity baseball and would
have to settle for a position on the freshman-sophomore team. Irked and perhaps insulted
by Ugenti's failure to recognize his potential, Pat resolved to quit baseball and focus on
football instead, even though he'd taken up the latter sport barely a year earlier and had
badly fractured his right tibia in his initial season when a much larger teammate fell on
his leg during practice.
With a November birthday, Pat was among the youngest kids in Leland's freshman class,
and when he started high school, he was only thirteen years old. He also happened to be
small for his age, standing five feet five inches tall and weighing just 120 pounds. When
he let it be known that he was going to abandon baseball for football, an assistant coach
10 | P a g e
named Terry Hardtke explained to Pat that he wasn't "built like a football player" and
strongly urged him to stick with baseball. Once Tillman set his sights on a goal, however,
he wasn't easily diverted. He told the coach he intended to start lifting weights to build up
his muscles. Then he assured Hardtke that not only would he make the Leland football
team but he intended to play college football after graduating from high school. Hardtke
replied that Pat was making a huge mistake--that his size would make it difficult for him
ever to win a starting position on the Leland team, and that he stood virtually no chance
of ever playing college ball.
Pat, however, trusted his own sense of his abilities over the coach's bleak predictions, and
tried out for the Leland football team regardless. Six years later he would be a star
linebacker playing in the Rose Bowl for a national collegiate championship. Twenty
months after that he began a distinguished career in the National Football League.
Midway between San Jose and Oakland, the municipality of Fremont rises above the
eastern shore of San Francisco Bay, a city of 240,000 that's always existed in the shadow
of its flashier neighbors. This is where Patrick Daniel Tillman was born on November 6,
1976. Not far from the hospital where Pat entered the world is a commercial district of
pharmacies, chiropractic clinics, and fast-food restaurants bisected by a four-lane
thoroughfare. Along three or four blocks of this otherwise unremarkable stretch of
Fremont Boulevard, one finds a concentration of incongruously exotic establishments:
the Salang Pass Restaurant, an Afghan carpet store, a South Asian cinema, a shop selling
Afghan clothing, the De Afghanan Kabob House, the Maiwand Market. Inside the latter,
the shelves are stocked with hummus, olives, pomegranate seeds, turmeric, bags of rice,
and tins of grapeseed oil. A striking woman wearing a head scarf and an elaborately
embroidered vest inlaid with dozens of tiny mirrors stands at a counter near the back of
the store, waiting to buy slabs of freshly baked naan. Little Kabul, as this neighborhood is
known, happens to be the nexus of what is purportedly the highest concentration of
Afghans in the United States, a community made famous by the best-selling novel The
By loose estimate, some ten thousand Afghans reside in Fremont proper, with another
fifty thousand scattered across the rest of the Bay Area. They started showing up in 1978,
when their homeland erupted into violence that has yet to abate three decades later. The
chaos was sparked by accelerating friction between political groups within Afghanistan,
but fuel for the conflagration was supplied in abundance and with great enthusiasm by the
governments of the United States and the Soviet Union as each maneuvered to gain
advantage in the Cold War.
The Soviets had been lavishing billions of rubles in military and economic aid on
Afghanistan since the 1950s, and had cultivated close ties with the nation's leaders.
Despite this injection of outside capital, by the 1970s Afghanistan remained a tribal
society, essentially medieval in character. Ninety percent of its seventeen million
residents were illiterate. Eighty-five percent of the population lived in the mountainous,
largely roadless countryside, subsisting as farmers, herders, or nomadic traders. The
11 | P a g e
overwhelming majority of these impoverished, uneducated country dwellers answered
not to the central government in Kabul, with which they had little contact and from which
they received almost no tangible assistance, but rather to local mullahs and tribal elders.
Thanks to Moscow's creeping influence, however, a distinctly Marxist brand of
modernization had begun to establish a toehold in a few of the nation's largest cities.
Afghanistan's cozy relationship with the Soviets originated under the leadership of Prime
Minister Mohammed Daoud Khan, a Pashtun with fleshy jowls and a shaved head who
was appointed in 1953 by his cousin and brother-in-law, King Mohammed Zahir Shah.
Ten years later Daoud was forced to resign from the government after launching a brief
but disastrous war against Pakistan. But in 1973 he reclaimed power by means of a
nonviolent coup d'etat, deposing King Zahir and declaring himself the first president of
the Republic of Afghanistan.
A fervent subculture of Marxist intellectuals, professionals, and students had by this time
taken root in Kabul, intent on bringing their country into the twentieth century, kicking
and screaming if need be, and President Daoud--who dressed in hand-tailored Italian
suits--supported this shift toward secular modernity as long as it didn't threaten his hold
on power. Under Daoud, females were given opportunities to be educated and join the
professional workforce. In cities, women started appearing in public without burqas or
even head scarves. Many urban men exchanged their traditional shalwar kameezes for
Western business attire. These secular city dwellers swelled the ranks of a Marxist
political organization known as the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan, or PDPA.
The Soviets were Daoud's allies in the push to modernize Afghanistan, at least initially.
Aid from Moscow continued to prop up the economy and the military, and under an
agreement signed by Daoud, every officer in the Afghan Army went to the Soviet Union
to receive military training. But he was walking a perilous political tight rope. While
welcoming Soviet rubles, Daoud was an impassioned Afghan nationalist who had no
desire to become a puppet of the Soviet president, Leonid Brezhnev. And although
Daoud was committed to modernizing his nation, he wanted to move at a pace slow
enough to avoid provoking the Islamist mullahs who controlled the hinterlands. In the
end, alas, his policies placated few and managed to antagonize almost everyone else--
most significantly the Soviets, the urban leftists, and the bearded fundamentalists in the
At the beginning of his presidency, Daoud had pledged to reform the government and
promote civil liberties. Very soon after taking office, however, he started cracking down
hard on anyone who resisted his edicts. Hundreds of rivals from all sides of the political
divide were arrested and executed, ranging from antimodernist tribal elders in far-flung
provinces to urban communists in the PDPA who had originally supported Daoud's rise
For millennia in Afghanistan, political expression has all too often been synonymous
with mayhem. On April 19, 1978, a funeral for a popular communist leader who was
thought to have been murdered on Daoud's orders turned into a seething protest march.
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Organized by the PDPA, as many as thirty thousand Afghans took to the streets of Kabul
to show their contempt for President Daoud. In typical fashion, Daoud reacted to the
demonstration with excessive force, which only further incited the protesters. Sensing a
momentous shift in the political tide, most units in the Afghan Army broke with Daoud
and allied themselves with the PDPA. On April 27, 1978, MiG-21 jets from the Afghan
Air Force strafed the Presidential Palace, where Daoud was ensconced with eighteen
hundred members of his personal guard. That night, opposition forces overran the palace
amid a rain of bullets. When the sun came up and the gunfire petered out, Daoud and his
entire family were dead, and the surrounding streets were strewn with the bodies of two
The communist PDPA immediately assumed power and renamed the nation the
Democratic Republic of Afghanistan. Backed by the Soviet Union, the new government
moved ruthlessly to establish control across the country. During the PDPA's first twenty
months at the helm, twenty-seven thousand political dissidents were rounded up,
transported to the infamous Pul-e-Charkhi prison on the outskirts of Kabul, and
By this point the violence had instigated a wholesale exodus of Afghans to foreign lands.
Because those targeted for elimination by the PDPA tended to be influential mullahs or
members of the intellectual and professional classes, many of the refugees who sought
sanctuary came from the elite ranks of Afghan society. Two years after Pat Tillman's
birth in Fremont, California, Afghans began flocking to the city where he was delivered.
Back in Afghanistan, the brutality of the PDPA inspired a grassroots insurrection that
rapidly escalated into full-blown civil war. At the forefront of the rebellion were Muslim
holy warriors, the Afghan mujahideen, who fought the communist infidels with such
ferocious intensity that in December 1979 the Soviets dispatched 100,000 troops to
Afghanistan to quell the rebellion, prop up the PDPA, and protect their Cold War
interests in the region.
Nations throughout the world sternly criticized the Soviets for the incursion. The
strongest rebuke came from the United States. Expressing shock and outrage over the
invasion, President Jimmy Carter called it "the most serious threat to peace since the
Second World War," and initiated first a trade embargo and then a boycott of the 1980
But Carter's righteous indignation was more than slightly disingenuous. Although the
U.S. government claimed otherwise in official statements, the CIA had begun purchasing
weapons for the mujahideen at least six months before the Soviet invasion, and this
clandestine support was intended not to deter Moscow but to provoke it. According to
Carter's national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, the purpose of arming the
Afghans was to stimulate enough turmoil in Afghanistan "to induce a Soviet military
13 | P a g e
intervention." Brzezinski, the most fervent cold warrior in the Carter administration,
boasted in a 1998 interview that the intent of providing arms to the mujahideen was
specifically to draw "the Soviets into the Afghan trap" and ensnare them in a debilitating
If that was the plan, it worked. Almost immediately upon occupying the country, the
legendary Soviet Fortieth Army found itself neck deep in an unexpectedly vicious
guerrilla war that would keep its forces entangled in Afghanistan for the next nine years.
Before the Soviet invasion, Afghanistan was riven by so many intransigent political and
tribal factions that the nation had been for all intents and purposes ungovernable. In
reflexive opposition to the Soviet occupation, virtually the entire country spontaneously
united--a degree of cohesion no modern Afghan leader had ever come close to achieving.
This newly unified opposition was characterized by extraordinary violence. The
mujahideen seldom took prisoners in their skirmishes with the invaders. They made a
habit of mutilating the bodies of the Soviets they killed in creatively gruesome ways in
order to instill terror in those sent to recover the bodies. When the mujahideen did take
prisoners, according to Soviet survivors, the infidel soldiers were often gang-raped and
The Afghans quickly figured out that fighting the Soviets by conventional means was a
recipe for certain defeat. Instead of confronting Soviet forces directly with large numbers
of fighters, the mujahideen adopted the classic stratagems of insurgent warfare,
employing small bands of ten or fifteen men to ambush the enemy and then vanish back
into the landscape before the Soviets could launch counterattacks. Soviet soldiers began
to refer to the mujahideen as dukhi, Russian for "ghosts." The Afghans took brilliant
advantage of the mountainous terrain to stage devastating ambushes from the high ground
as Soviet convoys moved through the confines of the valley bottoms. The Soviet cause
wasn't helped by a policy designated as "Limited Contingent": Moscow decided to cap
the number of Fortieth Army troops in Afghanistan at 115,000, despite the fact that
before the invasion Soviet generals had warned that as many as 650,000 soldiers would
be needed to secure the country.*
The pitiless style of guerrilla combat waged by the Afghans had an unnerving effect on
the Soviets sent to fight them. Morale plummeted, especially as the conflict dragged on
year after year. Because opium and hashish were readily available everywhere, drug
addiction among the Soviet conscripts was rife. Their numbers were further ravaged by
malaria, dysentery, hepatitis, tetanus, and meningitis. Although there were never more
than 120,000 Soviet troops in Afghanistan at any given time, a total of 642,000 soldiers
served there throughout the course of the war--470,000 of whom were debilitated by
disease, addicted to heroin, wounded in battle, or killed.
The tenacity and brutality of the mujahideen prompted the Soviets to adopt ruthless
tactics of their own. As they came to realize that it was much easier to kill unarmed
civilians than to hunt down the fearsome and elusive mujahideen, the Soviets
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increasingly focused their attacks on the rural tribespeople who sometimes harbored
combatants but didn't shoot back, rather than assaulting the mujahideen directly. Jet
aircraft bombed whole valleys with napalm, laying waste to farmland, orchards, and
settlements. Helicopter gunships not only targeted villagers but massacred their herds of
livestock as well. These calculated acts of genocide went virtually unnoticed outside of
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From Vanity Fair:
Along with millions of jobs and 401(k)s, the concept of a shared national ideal is said to
be dying. But is the American Dream really endangered, or has it simply been
misplaced? Exploring the way our aspirations have changed—the rugged individualism
of the Wild West, the social compact of F.D.R., the sitcom fantasy of 50s suburbia—the
author shows how the American Dream came to mean fame and fortune, instead of the
promise that shaped a nation.
Rethinking the American Dream
by David Kamp
The year was 1930, a down one like this one. But for Moss Hart, it was the time for his
particularly American moment of triumph. He had grown up poor in the outer boroughs
of New York City—“the grim smell of actual want always at the end of my nose,” he
said—and he’d vowed that if he ever made it big he would never again ride the rattling
trains of the city’s dingy subway system. Now he was 25, and his first play, Once in a
Lifetime, had just opened to raves on Broadway. And so, with three newspapers under his
arm and a wee-hours celebration of a successful opening night behind him, he hailed a
cab and took a long, leisurely sunrise ride back to the apartment in Brooklyn where he
still lived with his parents and brother.
Crossing the Brooklyn Bridge into one of the several drab tenement neighborhoods that
preceded his own, Hart later recalled, “I stared through the taxi window at a pinch-faced
10-year-old hurrying down the steps on some morning errand before school, and I
thought of myself hurrying down the street on so many gray mornings out of a doorway
and a house much the same as this one.… It was possible in this wonderful city for that
nameless little boy—for any of its millions—to have a decent chance to scale the walls
and achieve what they wished. Wealth, rank, or an imposing name counted for nothing.
The only credential the city asked was the boldness to dream.”
As the boy ducked into a tailor shop, Hart recognized that this narrative was not exclusive
to his “wonderful city”—it was one that could happen anywhere in, and only in, America.
“A surge of shamefaced patriotism overwhelmed me,” Hart wrote in his memoir, Act
One. “I might have been watching a victory parade on a flag-draped Fifth Avenue instead
of the mean streets of a city slum. A feeling of patriotism, however, is not always limited
to the feverish emotions called forth by war. It can sometimes be felt as profoundly and
perhaps more truly at a moment such as this.”
Hart, like so many before and after him, was overcome by the power of the American
Dream. As a people, we Americans are unique in having such a thing, a more or less
Official National Dream. (There is no correspondingly stirring Canadian Dream or
Slovakian Dream.) It is part of our charter—as articulated in the second sentence of the
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Declaration of Independence, in the famous bit about “certain unalienable Rights” that
include “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”—and it is what makes our country
and our way of life attractive and magnetic to people in other lands.
But now fast-forward to the year 2009, the final Friday of January. The new president is
surveying the dire economy he has been charged with righting—600,000 jobs lost in
January alone, a gross domestic product that shrank 3.8 percent in the final quarter of
2008, the worst contraction in almost 30 years. Assessing these numbers, Barack Obama,
a man who normally exudes hopefulness for a living, pronounces them a “continuing
disaster for America’s working families,” a disaster that amounts to no less, he says, than
“the American Dream in reverse.”
In reverse. Imagine this in terms of Hart’s life: out of the taxicab, back on the subway,
back to the tenements, back to cramped cohabitation with Mom and Dad, back to gray
mornings and the grim smell of actual want.
You probably don’t even have to imagine, for chances are that of late you have
experienced some degree of reversal yourself, or at the very least have had friends or
loved ones get laid off, lose their homes, or just find themselves forced to give up certain
perks and amenities (restaurant meals, cable TV, salon haircuts) that were taken for
granted as recently as a year ago.
These are tough times for the American Dream. As the safe routines of our lives have
come undone, so has our characteristic optimism—not only our belief that the future is
full of limitless possibility, but our faith that things will eventually return to normal,
whatever “normal” was before the recession hit. There is even worry that the dream may
be over—that we currently living Americans are the unfortunate ones who shall bear
witness to that deflating moment in history when the promise of this country began to
wither. This is the “sapping of confidence” that President Obama alluded to in his
inaugural address, the “nagging fear that America’s decline is inevitable, and that the
next generation must lower its sights.”
But let’s face it: If Moss Hart, like so many others, was able to rally from the depths of
the Great Depression, then surely the viability of the American Dream isn’t in question.
What needs to change is our expectation of what the dream promises—and our
understanding of what that vague and promiscuously used term, “the American Dream,”
is really supposed to mean.
In recent years, the term has often been interpreted to mean “making it big” or “striking it
rich.” (As the cult of Brian De Palma’s Scarface has grown, so, disturbingly, has the
number of people with a literal, celebratory read on its tagline: “He loved the American
Dream. With a vengeance.”) Even when the phrase isn’t being used to describe the
accumulation of great wealth, it’s frequently deployed to denote extreme success of some
kind or other. Last year, I heard commentators say that Barack Obama achieved the
American Dream by getting elected president, and that Philadelphia Phillies manager
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Charlie Manuel achieved the American Dream by leading his team to its first World
Series title since 1980.
Yet there was never any promise or intimation of extreme success in the book that
popularized the term, The Epic of America, by James Truslow Adams, published by
Little, Brown and Company in 1931. (Yes, “the American Dream” is a surprisingly recent
coinage; you’d think that these words would appear in the writings of Thomas Jefferson
or Benjamin Franklin, but they don’t.) For a book that has made such a lasting
contribution to our vocabulary, The Epic of America is an offbeat piece of work—a
sweeping, essayistic, highly subjective survey of this country’s development from
Columbus’s landfall onward, written by a respected but solemn historian whose prim
prose style was mocked as “spinach” by the waggish theater critic Alexander Woollcott.
But it’s a smart, thoughtful treatise. Adams’s goal wasn’t so much to put together a
proper history of the U.S. as to determine, by tracing his country’s path to prominence,
what makes this land so unlike other nations, so uniquely American. (That he undertook
such an enterprise when he did, in the same grim climate in which Hart wrote Once in a
Lifetime, reinforces how indomitably strong Americans’ faith in their country remained
during the Depression.) What Adams came up with was a construct he called “that
American dream of a better, richer, and happier life for all our citizens of every rank.”
From the get-go, Adams emphasized the egalitarian nature of this dream. It started to take
shape, he said, with the Puritans who fled religious persecution in England and settled
New England in the 17th century. “[Their] migration was not like so many earlier ones in
history, led by warrior lords with followers dependent on them,” he wrote, “but was one
in which the common man as well as the leader was hoping for greater freedom and
happiness for himself and his children.”
The Declaration of Independence took this concept even further, for it compelled the
well-to-do upper classes to put the common man on an equal footing with them where
human rights and self-governance were concerned—a nose-holding concession that
Adams captured with exquisite comic passiveness in the sentence, “It had been found
necessary to base the [Declaration’s] argument at last squarely on the rights of man.”
Whereas the colonist upper classes were asserting their independence from the British
Empire, “the lower classes were thinking not only of that,” Adams wrote, “but of their
relations to their colonial legislatures and governing class.”
America was truly a new world, a place where one could live one’s life and pursue one’s
goals unburdened by older societies’ prescribed ideas of class, caste, and social hierarchy.
Adams was unreserved in his wonderment over this fact. Breaking from his formal tone,
he shifted into first-person mode in The Epic of America’s epilogue, noting a French
guest’s remark that his most striking impression of the United States was “the way that
everyone of every sort looks you right in the eye, without a thought of inequality.”
Adams also told a story of “a foreigner” he used to employ as an assistant, and how he
and this foreigner fell into a habit of chitchatting for a bit after their day’s work was done.
“Such a relationship was the great difference between America and his homeland,”
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Adams wrote. “There, he said, ‘I would do my work and might get a pleasant word, but I
could never sit and talk like this. There is a difference there between social grades which
cannot be got over. I would not talk to you there as man to man, but as my employer.’”
Anecdotal as these examples are, they get to the crux of the American Dream as Adams
saw it: that life in the United States offered personal liberties and opportunities to a
degree unmatched by any other country in history—a circumstance that remains true
today, some ill-considered clampdowns in the name of Homeland Security
notwithstanding. This invigorating sense of possibility, though it is too often taken for
granted, is the great gift of Americanness. Even Adams underestimated it. Not above the
prejudices of his time, he certainly never saw Barack Obama’s presidency coming. While
he correctly anticipated the eventual assimilation of the millions of Eastern and Southern
European immigrants who arrived in the early 20th century to work in America’s
factories, mines, and sweatshops, he entertained no such hopes for black people. Or, as he
rather injudiciously put it, “After a generation or two, [the white-ethnic laborers] can be
absorbed, whereas the negro cannot.”
It’s also worth noting that Adams did not deny that there is a material component to the
American Dream. The Epic of America offers several variations on Adams’s definition of
the dream (e.g., “the American dream that life should be made richer and fuller for
everyone and opportunity remain open to all”), but the word “richer” appears in all of
them, and he wasn’t just talking about richness of experience. Yet Adams was careful not
to overstate what the dream promises. In one of his final iterations of the “American
Dream” trope, he described it as “that dream of a land in which life should be better and
richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or
That last part—“according to his ability or achievement”—is the tempering phrase, a
shrewd bit of expectations management. A “better and richer life” is promised, but for
most people this won’t be a rich person’s life. “Opportunity for each” is promised, but
within the bounds of each person’s ability; the reality is, some people will realize the
American Dream more stupendously and significantly than others. (For example, while
President Obama is correct in saying, “Only in America is my story possible,” this does
not make it true that anyone in America can be the next Obama.) Nevertheless, the
American Dream is within reach for all those who aspire to it and are willing to put in the
hours; Adams was articulating it as an attainable outcome, not as a pipe dream.
As the phrase “the American Dream” insinuated its way into the lexicon, its meaning
continuously morphed and shifted, reflecting the hopes and wants of the day. Adams, in
The Epic of America, noted that one such major shift had already occurred in the
republic’s history, before he’d given the dream its name. In 1890, the U.S. Census
Bureau declared that there was no longer such a thing as the American frontier. This was
not an official pronouncement but an observation in the bureau’s report that “the
unsettled area has been so broken into by isolated bodies of settlement that there can
hardly be said to be a frontier line.”
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The tapering off of the frontier era put an end to the immature, individualistic, Wild West
version of the American Dream, the one that had animated homesteaders, prospectors,
wildcatters, and railroad men. “For a century and more,” Adams wrote, “our successive
‘Wests’ had dominated the thoughts of the poor, the restless, the discontented, the
ambitious, as they had those of business expansionists and statesmen.”
But by the time Woodrow Wilson became president, in 1913—after the first national
election in which every voter in the continental U.S. cast his ballot as a citizen of an
established state—that vision had become passé. In fact, to hear the new president speak,
the frontiersman’s version of the American Dream was borderline malevolent. Speaking
in his inaugural address as if he had just attended a screening of There Will Be Blood,
Wilson declared, “We have squandered a great part of what we might have used, and
have not stopped to conserve the exceeding bounty of nature, without which our genius
for enterprise would have been worthless and impotent.” Referencing both the end of the
frontier and the rapid industrialization that arose in its aftermath, Wilson said, “There has
been something crude and heartless and unfeeling in our haste to succeed and be great.…
We have come now to the sober second thought. The scales of heedlessness have fallen
from our eyes. We have made up our minds to square every process of our national life
again with the standards we so proudly set up at the beginning.”
The American Dream was maturing into a shared dream, a societal compact that reached
its apotheosis when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was sworn into office in 1933 and began
implementing the New Deal. A “better and richer and fuller” life was no longer just what
America promised its hardworking citizens individually; it was an ideal toward which
these citizens were duty-bound to strive together. The Social Security Act of 1935 put
this theory into practice. It mandated that workers and their employers contribute, via
payroll taxes, to federally administered trust funds that paid out benefits to retirees—
thereby introducing the idea of a “safe old age” with built-in protection from penury.
This was, arguably, the first time that a specific material component was ascribed to the
American Dream, in the form of a guarantee that you could retire at the age of 65 and rest
assured that your fellow citizens had your back. On January 31, 1940, a hardy Vermonter
named Ida May Fuller, a former legal secretary, became the very first retiree to receive a
monthly Social Security benefit check, which totaled $22.54. As if to prove both the best
hopes of Social Security’s proponents and the worst fears of its detractors, Fuller enjoyed
a long retirement, collecting benefits all the way to her death in 1975, when she was 100
Still, the American Dream, in F.D.R.’s day, remained largely a set of deeply held ideals
rather than a checklist of goals or entitlements. When Henry Luce published his famous
essay “The American Century” in Life magazine in February 1941, he urged that the U.S.
should no longer remain on the sidelines of World War II but use its might to promote
this country’s “love of freedom, a feeling for the equality of opportunity, a tradition of
self-reliance and independence, and also of cooperation.” Luce was essentially proposing
that the American Dream—more or less as Adams had articulated it—serve as a global
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advertisement for our way of life, one to which non-democracies should be converted,
whether by force or gentle coercion. (He was a missionary’s son.)
More soberly and less bombastically, Roosevelt, in his 1941 State of the Union address,
prepared America for war by articulating the “four essential human freedoms” that the
U.S. would be fighting for: “freedom of speech and expression”; “freedom of every
person to worship God in his own way”; “freedom from want”; and “freedom from fear.”
Like Luce, Roosevelt was upholding the American way as a model for other nations to
follow—he suffixed each of these freedoms with the phrase “everywhere in the world”—
but he presented the four freedoms not as the lofty principles of a benevolent super race
but as the homespun, bedrock values of a good, hardworking, unextravagant people.
No one grasped this better than Norman Rockwell, who, stirred to action by Roosevelt’s
speech, set to work on his famous “Four Freedoms” paintings: the one with the rough-
hewn workman speaking his piece at a town meeting (Freedom of Speech); the one with
the old lady praying in the pew (Freedom of Worship); the one with the Thanksgiving
dinner (Freedom from Want); and the one with the young parents looking in on their
sleeping children (Freedom from Fear). These paintings, first reproduced in The
Saturday Evening Post in 1943, proved enormously popular, so much so that the original
works were commandeered for a national tour that raised $133 million in U.S. war bonds,
while the Office of War Information printed up four million poster copies for distribution.
Whatever your opinion of Rockwell (and I’m a fan), the resonance of the “Four
Freedoms” paintings with wartime Americans offers tremendous insight into how U.S.
citizens viewed their idealized selves. Freedom from Want, the most popular of all, is
especially telling, for the scene it depicts is joyous but defiantly unostentatious. There is a
happily gathered family, there are plain white curtains, there is a large turkey, there are
some celery stalks in a dish, and there is a bowl of fruit, but there is not a hint of
overabundance, overindulgence, elaborate table settings, ambitious seasonal centerpieces,
or any other conventions of modern-day shelter-mag porn.
It was freedom from want, not freedom to want—a world away from the idea that the
patriotic thing to do in tough times is go shopping. Though the germ of that idea would
form shortly, not long after the war ended.
William J. Levitt was a Seabee in the Pacific theater during the war, a member of one of
the Construction Battalions (CBs) of the U.S. Navy. One of his jobs was to build airfields
at as fast a clip as possible, on the cheap. Levitt had already worked in his father’s
construction business back home, and he held an option on a thousand acres of potato
fields in Hempstead, New York, out on Long Island. Coming back from the war with
newly acquired speed-building skills and a vision of all those returning G.I.’s needing
homes, he set to work on turning those potato fields into the first Levittown.
Levitt had the forces of history and demographics on his side. The G.I. Bill, enacted in
1944, at the tail end of the New Deal, offered returning veterans low-interest loans with
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no money down to purchase a house—an ideal scenario, coupled with a severe housing
shortage and a boom in young families, for the rapid-fire development of suburbia.
The first Levitt houses, built in 1947, had two bedrooms, one bathroom, a living room, a
kitchen, and an unfinished loft attic that could theoretically be converted into another
bedroom. The houses had no basements or garages, but they sat on lots of 60 by 100 feet,
and—McMansionistas, take note—took up only 12 percent of their lot’s footprint. They
cost about $8,000.
“Levittown” is today a byword for creepy suburban conformity, but Bill Levitt, with his
Henry Ford–like acumen for mass production, played a crucial role in making home
ownership a new tenet of the American Dream, especially as he expanded his operations
to other states and inspired imitators. From 1900 to 1940, the percentage of families who
lived in homes that they themselves owned held steady at around 45 percent. But by 1950
this figure had shot up to 55 percent, and by 1960 it was at 62 percent. Likewise, the
homebuilding business, severely depressed during the war, revived abruptly at war’s end,
going from 114,000 new single-family houses started in 1944 to 937,000 in 1946—and to
1.7 million in 1950.
Levitt initially sold his houses only to vets, but this policy didn’t hold for long; demand
for a new home of one’s own wasn’t remotely limited to ex-G.I.’s, as the Hollywood
filmmaker Frank Capra was astute enough to note in It’s a Wonderful Life. In 1946, a full
year before the first Levittown was populated, Capra’s creation George Bailey (played by
Jimmy Stewart) cut the ribbon on his own eponymous suburban-tract development,
Bailey Park, and his first customer wasn’t a war veteran but a hardworking Italian
immigrant, the tremulously grateful saloonkeeper Mr. Martini. (An overachiever, Capra
was both a war veteran and a hardworking Italian immigrant.)
Buttressed by postwar optimism and prosperity, the American Dream was undergoing
another recalibration. Now it really did translate into specific goals rather than Adams’s
more broadly defined aspirations. Home ownership was the fundamental goal, but,
depending on who was doing the dreaming, the package might also include car
ownership, television ownership (which multiplied from 6 million to 60 million sets in
the U.S. between 1950 and 1960), and the intent to send one’s kids to college. The G.I.
Bill was as crucial on that last count as it was to the housing boom. In providing tuition
money for returning vets, it not only stocked the universities with new students—in 1947,
roughly half of the nation’s college enrollees were ex-G.I.’s—but put the very idea of
college within reach of a generation that had previously considered higher education the
exclusive province of the rich and the extraordinarily gifted. Between 1940 and 1965, the
number of U.S. adults who had completed at least four years of college more than
Nothing reinforced the seductive pull of the new, suburbanized American Dream more
than the burgeoning medium of television, especially as its production nexus shifted from
New York, where the grubby, schlubby shows The Honeymooners and The Phil Silvers
Show were shot, to Southern California, where the sprightly, twinkly shows The
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Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, Father Knows Best, and Leave It to Beaver were made.
While the former shows are actually more enduringly watchable and funny, the latter
were the foremost “family” sitcoms of the 1950s—and, as such, the aspirational
touchstones of real American families.
The Nelsons (Ozzie and Harriet), the Andersons (Father Knows Best), and the Cleavers
(Leave It to Beaver) lived in airy houses even nicer than those that Bill Levitt built. In
fact, the Nelson home in Ozzie and Harriet was a faithful replica of the two-story
Colonial in Hollywood where Ozzie, Harriet, David, and Ricky Nelson really lived when
they weren’t filming their show. The Nelsons also offered, in David and especially the
swoonsome, guitar-strumming Ricky, two attractive exemplars of that newly ascendant
and clout-wielding American demographic, the teenager. “The postwar spread of
American values would be spearheaded by the idea of the teenager,” writes Jon Savage
somewhat ominously in Teenage, his history of youth culture. “This new type was
pleasure-seeking, product-hungry, embodying the new global society where social
inclusion was to be granted through purchasing power.”
Still, the American Dream was far from degenerating into the consumerist nightmare it
would later become (or, more precisely, become mistaken for). What’s striking about the
Ozzie and Harriet–style 50s dream is its relative modesty of scale. Yes, the TV and
advertising portrayals of family life were antiseptic and too-too-perfect, but the dream
homes, real and fictional, seem downright dowdy to modern eyes, with none of the “great
room” pretensions and tricked-out kitchen islands that were to come.
Nevertheless, some social critics, such as the economist John Kenneth Galbraith, were
already fretful. In his 1958 book The Affluent Society, a best-seller, Galbraith posited that
America had reached an almost unsurpassable and unsustainable degree of mass
affluence because the average family owned a home, one car, and one TV. In pursuing
these goals, Galbraith said, Americans had lost a sense of their priorities, focusing on
consumerism at the expense of public-sector needs like parks, schools, and infrastructure
maintenance. At the same time, they had lost their parents’ Depression-era sense of thrift,
blithely taking out personal loans or enrolling in installment plans to buy their cars and
While these concerns would prove prescient, Galbraith severely underestimated the
potential for average U.S. household income and spending power to grow further. The
very same year that The Affluent Society came out, Bank of America introduced the
BankAmericard, the forerunner to Visa, today the most widely used credit card in the
What unfolded over the next generation was the greatest standard-of-living upgrade that
this country had ever experienced: an economic sea change powered by the middle
class’s newly sophisticated engagement in personal finance via credit cards, mutual
funds, and discount brokerage houses—and its willingness to take on debt.
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Consumer credit, which had already rocketed upward from $2.6 billion to $45 billion in
the postwar period (1945 to 1960), shot up to $105 billion by 1970. “It was as if the entire
middle class was betting that tomorrow would be better than today,” as the financial
writer Joe Nocera put it in his 1994 book, A Piece of the Action: How the Middle Class
Joined the Money Class. “Thus did Americans begin to spend money they didn’t yet
have; thus did the unaffordable become affordable. And thus, it must be said, did the
Before it spiraled out of control, the “money revolution,” to use Nocera’s term for this
great middle-class financial engagement, really did serve the American Dream. It helped
make life “better and richer and fuller” for a broad swath of the populace in ways that our
Depression-era forebears could only have imagined.
To be glib about it, the Brady family’s way of life was even sweeter than the Nelson
family’s. The Brady Bunch, which debuted in 1969, in The Adventures of Ozzie and
Harriet’s old Friday-night-at-eight slot on ABC, occupied the same space in the
American psyche of the 70s as Ozzie and Harriet had in the 50s: as the middle class’s
American Dream wish-fulfillment fantasy, again in a generically idyllic Southern
California setting. But now there were two cars in the driveway. Now there were annual
vacations at the Grand Canyon and an improbably caper-filled trip to Hawaii. (The
average number of airplane trips per American household, less than one per year in 1954,
was almost three per year in 1970.) And the house itself was snazzier—that open-plan
living area just inside the Brady home’s entryway, with the “floating” staircase leading
up to the bedrooms, was a major step forward in fake-nuclear-family living.
By 1970, for the first time, more than half of all U.S. families held at least one credit
card. But usage was still relatively conservative: only 22 percent of cardholders carried a
balance from one month’s bill to the next. Even in the so-called go-go 80s, this figure
hovered in the 30s, compared to 56 percent today. But it was in the 80s that the American
Dream began to take on hyperbolic connotations, to be conflated with extreme success:
wealth, basically. The representative TV families, whether benignly genteel (the
Huxtables on The Cosby Show) or soap-opera bonkers (the Carringtons on Dynasty),
were undeniably rich. “Who says you can’t have it all?” went the jingle in a ubiquitous
beer commercial from the era, which only got more alarming as it went on to ask, “Who
says you can’t have the world without losing your soul?”
The deregulatory atmosphere of the Reagan years—the loosening of strictures on banks
and energy companies, the reining in of the Justice Department’s antitrust division, the
removal of vast tracts of land from the Department of the Interior’s protected list—was,
in a sense, a calculated regression to the immature, individualistic American Dream of
yore; not for nothing did Ronald Reagan (and, later, far less effectively, George W. Bush)
go out of his way to cultivate a frontiersman’s image, riding horses, chopping wood, and
reveling in the act of clearing brush.
To some degree, this outlook succeeded in rallying middle-class Americans to seize
control of their individual fates as never before—to “Go for it!,” as people in yellow ties
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and red braces were fond of saying at the time. In one of Garry Trudeau’s finest moments
from the 80s, a Doonesbury character was shown watching a political campaign ad in
which a woman concluded her pro-Reagan testimonial with the tagline “Ronald Reagan
… because I’m worth it.”
But this latest recalibration saw the American Dream get decoupled from any concept of
the common good (the movement to privatize Social Security began to take on
momentum) and, more portentously, from the concepts of working hard and managing
one’s expectations. You only had to walk as far as your mailbox to discover that you’d
been “pre-approved” for six new credit cards, and that the credit limits on your existing
cards had been raised without your even asking. Never before had money been freer,
which is to say, never before had taking on debt become so guiltless and seemingly
consequence-free—at both the personal and institutional levels. President Reagan added
$1 trillion to the national debt, and in 1986, the United States, formerly the world’s
biggest creditor nation, became the world’s biggest debtor nation. Perhaps debt was the
A curious phenomenon took hold in the 1990s and 2000s. Even as the easy credit
continued, and even as a sustained bull market cheered investors and papered over the
coming mortgage and credit crises that we now face, Americans were losing faith in the
American Dream—or whatever it was they believed the American Dream to be. A CNN
poll taken in 2006 found that more than half of those surveyed, 54 percent, considered the
American Dream unachievable—and CNN noted that the numbers were nearly the same
in a 2003 poll it had conducted. Before that, in 1995, a Business Week/Harris poll found
that two-thirds of those surveyed believed the American Dream had become harder to
achieve in the past 10 years, and three-fourths believed that achieving the dream would
be harder still in the upcoming 10 years.
To the writer Gregg Easterbrook, who at the beginning of this decade was a visiting
fellow in economics at the Brookings Institution, this was all rather puzzling, because, by
the definition of any prior American generation, the American Dream had been more
fully realized by more people than ever before. While acknowledging that an obscene
amount of America’s wealth was concentrated in the hands of a small group of ultra-rich,
Easterbrook noted that “the bulk of the gains in living standards—the gains that really
matter—have occurred below the plateau of wealth.”
By nearly every measurable indicator, Easterbrook pointed out in 2003, life for the
average American had gotten better than it used to be. Per capita income, adjusted for
inflation, had more than doubled since 1960. Almost 70 percent of Americans owned the
places they lived in, versus under 20 percent a century earlier. Furthermore, U.S. citizens
averaged 12.3 years of education, tops in the world and a length of time in school once
reserved solely for the upper class.
Yet when Easterbrook published these figures in a book, the book was called The
Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse. He was paying
attention not only to the polls in which people complained that the American Dream was
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out of reach, but to academic studies by political scientists and mental-health experts that
detected a marked uptick since the midcentury in the number of Americans who
considered themselves unhappy.
The American Dream was now almost by definition unattainable, a moving target that
eluded people’s grasp; nothing was ever enough. It compelled Americans to set
unmeetable goals for themselves and then consider themselves failures when these goals,
inevitably, went unmet. In examining why people were thinking this way, Easterbrook
raised an important point. “For at least a century,” he wrote, “Western life has been
dominated by a revolution of rising expectations: Each generation expected more than its
antecedent. Now most Americans and Europeans already have what they need, in
addition to considerable piles of stuff they don’t need.”
This might explain the existential ennui of the well-off, attractive, solipsistic kids on
Laguna Beach (2004–6) and The Hills (2006–9), the MTV reality soaps that represent the
curdling of the whole Southern California wish-fulfillment genre on television. Here were
affluent beach-community teens enriching themselves further not even by acting or
working in any real sense, but by allowing themselves to be filmed as they sat by
campfires maundering on about, like, how much their lives suck.
In the same locale that begat these programs, Orange County, there emerged a Bill Levitt
of McMansions, an Iranian-born entrepreneur named Hadi Makarechian whose company,
Capital Pacific Holdings, specializes in building tract-housing developments for multi-
millionaires, places with names like Saratoga Cove and Ritz Pointe. In a 2001 profile of
Makarechian in The New Yorker, David Brooks mentioned that the builder had run into
zoning restrictions on his latest development, called Oceanfront, that prevented the “entry
statement”—the walls that mark the entrance to the development—from being any higher
than four feet. Noted Brooks drolly, “The people who are buying homes in Oceanfront
are miffed about the small entry statement.” Nothing was ever enough.
An extreme example, perhaps, but not misrepresentative of the national mind-set. It says
a lot about our buying habits and constant need for new, better stuff that Congress and the
Federal Communications Commission were utterly comfortable with setting a hard 2009
date for the switchover from analog to digital television broadcasting—pretty much
assuming that every American household owns or will soon own a flat-panel digital
TV—even though such TVs have been widely available for only five years. (As recently
as January 2006, just 20 percent of U.S. households owned a digital television, and the
average price point for such a television was still above a thousand dollars.)
In hewing to the misbegotten notion that our standard of living must trend inexorably
upward, we entered in the late 90s and early 00s into what might be called the Juiceball
Era of the American Dream—a time of steroidally outsize purchasing and artificially
inflated numbers. As Easterbrook saw it, it was no longer enough for people to keep up
with the Joneses; no, now they had to “call and raise the Joneses.”
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“Bloated houses,” he wrote, “arise from a desire to call-and-raise-the-Joneses—surely not
from a belief that a seven-thousand-square-foot house that comes right up against the
property setback line would be an ideal place in which to dwell.” More ominously and to
the point: “To call-and-raise-the-Joneses, Americans increasingly take on debt.”
This personal debt, coupled with mounting institutional debt, is what has got us in the
hole we’re in now. While it remains a laudable proposition for a young couple to secure a
low-interest loan for the purchase of their first home, the more recent practice of running
up huge credit-card bills to pay for, well, whatever, has come back to haunt us. The
amount of outstanding consumer debt in the U.S. has gone up every year since 1958, and
up an astonishing 22 percent since 2000 alone. The financial historian and V.F.
contributor Niall Ferguson reckons that the over-leveraging of America has become
especially acute in the last 10 years, with the U.S.’s debt burden, as a proportion of the
gross domestic product, “in the region of 355 percent,” he says. “So, debt is three and a
half times the output of the economy. That’s some kind of historic maximum.”
James Truslow Adams’s words remind us that we’re still fortunate to live in a country
that offers us such latitude in choosing how we go about our lives and work—even in this
crapola economy. Still, we need to challenge some of the middle-class orthodoxies that
have brought us to this point—not least the notion, widely promulgated throughout
popular culture, that the middle class itself is a soul-suffocating dead end.
The middle class is a good place to be, and, optimally, where most Americans will spend
their lives if they work hard and don’t over-extend themselves financially. On American
Idol, Simon Cowell has done a great many youngsters a great service by telling them that
they’re not going to Hollywood and that they should find some other line of work. The
American Dream is not fundamentally about stardom or extreme success; in recalibrating
our expectations of it, we need to appreciate that it is not an all-or-nothing deal—that it is
not, as in hip-hop narratives and in Donald Trump’s brain, a stark choice between the
penthouse and the streets.
And what about the outmoded proposition that each successive generation in the United
States must live better than the one that preceded it? While this idea is still crucial to
families struggling in poverty and to immigrants who’ve arrived here in search of a better
life than that they left behind, it’s no longer applicable to an American middle class that
lives more comfortably than any version that came before it. (Was this not one of the
cautionary messages of the most thoughtful movie of 2008, WALL-E?) I’m no champion
of downward mobility, but the time has come to consider the idea of simple continuity:
the perpetuation of a contented, sustainable middle-class way of life, where the standard
of living remains happily constant from one generation to the next.
This is not a matter of any generation’s having to “lower its sights,” to use President
Obama’s words, nor is it a denial that some children of lower- and middle-class parents
will, through talent and/or good fortune, strike it rich and bound precipitously into the
upper class. Nor is it a moony, nostalgic wish for a return to the scrappy 30s or the
suburban 50s, because any sentient person recognizes that there’s plenty about the good
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old days that wasn’t so good: the original Social Security program pointedly excluded
farmworkers and domestics (i.e., poor rural laborers and minority women), and the
original Levittown didn’t allow black people in.
But those eras do offer lessons in scale and self-control. The American Dream should
require hard work, but it should not require 80-hour workweeks and parents who never
see their kids from across the dinner table. The American Dream should entail a first-rate
education for every child, but not an education that leaves no extra time for the actual
enjoyment of childhood. The American Dream should accommodate the goal of home
ownership, but without imposing a lifelong burden of unmeetable debt. Above all, the
American Dream should be embraced as the unique sense of possibility that this country
gives its citizens—the decent chance, as Moss Hart would say, to scale the walls and
achieve what you wish.
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John Moore was British writer and teacher who spent much of his professional life researching
social change. The following is his most well-know work, and provides a solid introduction to
“anarcho-primitivism.” Moore died in 2002, and these ideas have evolved since amid fairly
fierce debate, which gives us here in English 101 some good directions for complication,
extension, and critique.
A Primitivist Primer
By John Moore
AUTHOR'S NOTE: This is not a definitive statement, merely a personal account, and
seeks in general terms to explain what is meant by anarcho-primitivism. It does not wish
to limit or exclude, but provide a general introduction to the topic. Apologies for
inaccuracies, misinterpretations, or (inevitable) overgeneralizations.
What is anarcho-primitivism?
Anarcho-primitivism (a.k.a. radical primitivism, anti-authoritarian primitivism, the anti-
civilization movement, or just, primitivism) is a shorthand term for a radical current that
critiques the totality of civilization from an anarchist perspective, and seeks to initiate a
comprehensive transformation of human life. Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as
anarcho-primitivism or anarcho-primitivists. Fredy Perlman, a major voice in this current,
once said, "The only -ist name I respond to is "cellist".' Individuals associated with this
current do not wish to be adherents of an ideology, merely people who seek to become
free individuals in free communities in harmony with one another and with the biosphere,
and may therefore refuse to be limited by the term 'anarcho-primitivist' or any other
ideological tagging. At best, then, anarcho-primitivism is a convenient label used to
characterise diverse individuals with a common project: the abolition of all power
relations - e.g., structures of control, coercion, domination, and exploitation - and the
creation of a form of community that excludes all such relations.
So why is the term anarcho - primitivist used to
characterise this current?
In 1986, the circle around the Detroit paper Fifth Estate indicated that they were engaged
in developing a 'critical analysis of the technological structure of western civilization[,]
combined with a reappraisal of the indigenous world and the character of primitive and
original communities. In this sense we are primitivists ...' The Fifth Estate group sought
to complement a critique of civilization as a project of control with a reappraisal of the
primitive, which they regarded as a source of renewal and anti-authoritarian inspiration.
This reappraisal of the primitive takes place from an anarchist perspective, a perspective
concerned with eliminating power relations. Pointing to 'an emerging synthesis of post-
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modern anarchy and the primitive (in the sense of original), Earth-based ecstatic vision,'
the Fifth Estate circle indicated:
We are not anarchists per se, but pro-anarchy, which is for us a living, integral
experience, incommensurate with Power and refusing all ideology ... Our work on the FE
as a project explores possibilities for our own participation in this movement, but also
works to rediscover the primitive roots of anarchy as well as to document its present
expression. Simultaneously, we examine the evolution of Power in our midst in order to
suggest new terrains for contestations and critique in order to undermine the present
tyranny of the modern totalitarian discourse - that hyper-reality that destroys human
meaning, and hence solidarity, by simulating it with technology. Underlying all struggles
for freedom is this central necessity: to regain a truly human discourse grounded in
autonomous, intersubjective mutuality and closely associated with the natural world.
The aim is to develop a synthesis of primal and contemporary anarchy, a synthesis of the
ecologically-focussed, non-statist, anti-authoritarian aspects of primitive lifeways with
the most advanced forms of anarchist analysis of power relations. The aim is not to
replicate or return to the primitive, merely to see the primitive as a source of inspiration,
as exemplifying forms of anarchy.
For anarcho-primitivists, civilization is the overarching context within which the
multiplicity of power relations develop. Some basic power relations are present in
primitive societies - and this is one reason why anarcho-primitivists do not seek to
replicate these societies - but it is in civilization that power relations become pervasive
and entrenched in practically all aspects of human life and human relations with the
biosphere. Civilization - also referred to as the megamachine or Leviathan - becomes a
huge machine which gains its own momentum and becomes beyond the control of even
its supposed rulers. Powered by the routines of daily life which are defined and managed
by internalized patterns of obedience, people become slaves to the machine, the system of
civilization itself. Only widespread refusal of this system and its various forms of control,
revolt against power itself, can abolish civilization, and pose a radical alternative.
Ideologies such as Marxism, classical anarchism and feminism oppose aspects of
civilization; only anarcho-primitivism opposes civilization, the context within which the
various forms of oppression proliferate and become pervasive - and, indeed, possible.
Anarcho-primitivism incorporates elements from various oppositional currents -
ecological consciousness, anarchist anti-authoritarianism, feminist critiques, Situationist
ideas, zero-work theories, technological criticism - but goes beyond opposition to single
forms of power to refuse them all and pose a radical alternative.
How does anarcho-primitivism differ from anarchism,
or other radical ideologies?
From the perspective of anarcho-primitivism, all other forms of radicalism appear as
reformist, whether or not they regard themselves as revolutionary. Marxism and classical
anarchism, for example, want to take over civilization, rework its structures to some
degree, and remove its worst abuses and oppressions. However, 99% of life in
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civilization remains unchanged in their future scenarios, precisely because the aspects of
civilization they question are minimal. Although both want to abolish capitalism, and
classical anarchism would abolish the State too, overall life patterns wouldn't change too
much. Although there might be some changes in socioeconomic relations, such as worker
control of industry and neighbourhood councils in place of the State, and even an
ecological focus, basic patterns would remain unchanged. The Western model of progress
would merely be amended and would still act as an ideal. Mass society would essentially
continue, with most people working, living in artificial, technologised environments, and
subject to forms of coercion and control.
Radical ideologies on the Left seek to capture power, not abolish it. Hence, they develop
various kinds of exclusive groups - cadres, political parties, consciousness-raising groups
- in order to win converts and plan strategies for gaining control. Organizations, for
anarcho-primitivists, are just rackets, gangs for putting a particular ideology in power.
Politics, 'the art and science of government,' is not part of the primitivist project; only a
politics of desire, pleasure, mutuality and radical freedom.
Where, according to anarcho-primitivism, does power
Again, a source of some debate among anarcho-primitivists. Perlman sees the creation of
impersonal institutions or abstract power relations as the defining moment at which
primitive anarchy begins to be dismantled by civilized social relations. In contrast, John
Zerzan locates the development of symbolic mediation - in its various forms of number,
language, time, art and later, agriculture - as the means of transition from human freedom
to a state of domestication. The focus on origin is important in anarcho-primitivism
because primitivism seeks, in exponential fashion, to expose, challenge and abolish all
the multiple forms of power that structure the individual, social relations, and
interrelations with the natural world. Locating origins is a way of identifying what can be
safely salvaged from the wreck of civilization, and what it is essential to eradicate if
power relations are not to recommence after civilization's collapse.
What kind of future is envisaged by anarcho -
Anarcho-primitivist journal "Anarchy; A Journal of Desire Armed" envisions a future
that is 'radically cooperative and communitarian, ecological and feminist, spontaneous
and wild,' and this might be the closest you'll get to a description! There's no blueprint, no
proscriptive pattern, although it's important to stress that the envisioned future is not
'primitive' in any stereotypical sense. As the Fifth Estate said in 1979: 'Let us anticipate
the critics who would accuse us of wanting to go "back to the caves" or of mere posturing
on our part - i.e., enjoying the comforts of civilization all the while being its hardiest
critics. We are not posing the Stone Age as a model for our Utopia[,] nor are we
suggesting a return to gathering and hunting as a means for our livelihood.' As a
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corrective to this common misconception, it's important to stress that that the future
envisioned by anarcho-primitivism is sui generis - it is without precedent. Although
primitive cultures provide intimations of the future, and that future may well incorporate
elements derived from those cultures, an anarcho-primitivist world would likely be quite
different from previous forms of anarchy.
How does anarcho-primitivism view technology?
John Zerzan defines technology as 'the ensemble of division of
labor/production/industrialism and its impact on us and on nature. Technology is the sum
of mediations between us and the natural world and the sum of those separations
mediating us from each other. It is all the drudgery and toxicity required to produce and
reproduce the stage of hyper-alienation we languish in. It is the texture and the form of
domination at any given stage of hierarchy and domination.' Opposition to technology
thus plays an important role in anarcho-primitivist practice. However, Fredy Perlman
says that 'technology is nothing but the Leviathan's armory,' its 'claws and fangs.'
Anarcho-primitivists are thus opposed to technology, but there is some debate over how
central technology is to domination in civilization.
A distinction should be drawn between tools (or implements) and technology. Perlman
shows that primitive peoples develop all kinds of tools and implements, but not
technologies: 'The material objects, the canes and canoes, the digging sticks and walls,
were things a single individual could make, or they were things, like a wall, that required
the cooperation of many on a single occasion .... Most of the implements are ancient, and
the [material] surpluses [these implements supposedly made possible] have been ripe
since the first dawn, but they did not give rise to impersonal institutions. People, living
beings, give rise to both.' Tools are creations on a localised, small-scale, the products of
either individuals or small groups on specific occasions. As such, they do not give rise to
systems of control and coercion.
Technology, on the other hand, is the product of large-scale interlocking systems of
extraction, production, distribution and consumption, and such systems gain their own
momentum and dynamic. As such, they demand structures of control and obedience on a
mass scale - what Perlman calls impersonal institutions. As the Fifth Estate pointed out in
1981: 'Technology is not a simple tool which can be used in any way we like. It is a form
of social organization, a set of social relations. It has its own laws. If we are to engage in
its use, we must accept its authority. The enormous size, complex interconnections and
stratification of tasks which make up modern technological systems make authoritarian
command necessary and independent, individual decision-making impossible.'
Anarcho-primitivism is an anti-systemic current: it opposes all systems, institutions,
abstractions, the artificial, the synthetic, and the machine, because they embody power
relations. Anarcho-primitivists thus oppose technology or the technological system, but
not the use of tools and implements in the senses indicated here. As to whether any
technological forms will be appropriate in an anarcho-primitivist world, there is debate
over this issue. The Fifth Estate remarked in 1979 that: 'Reduced to its most basic
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elements, discussions about the future sensibly should be predicated on what we desire
socially and from that determine what technology is possible. All of us desire central
heating, flush toilets, and electric lighting, but not at the expense of our humanity. Maybe
they are all possible together, but maybe not.'
What about medicine?
Ultimately, anarcho-primitivism is all about healing - healing the rifts that have opened
up within individuals, between people, and between people and nature, the rifts that have
opened up through civilization, through power, including the State, Capital, and
technology. The German philosopher Nietzsche said that pain, and the way it is dealt
with, should be at the heart of any free society, and in this respect, he is right. Individuals,
communities and the Earth itself have been maimed to one degree or another by the
power relations characteristic of civilization. People have been psychologically maimed
but also physically assaulted by illness and disease. This isn't to suggest that anarcho-
primitivism can abolish pain, illness and disease! However, research has revealed that
many diseases are the results of civilized living conditions, and if these conditions were
abolished, then certain types of pain, illness and disease could disappear.
As for the remainder, a world which places pain at its centre would be vigorous in its
pursuit of assuaging it by finding ways of curing illness and disease. In this sense,
anarcho-primitivism is very concerned with medicine. However, the alienating high-tech,
pharmaceutical-centred form of medicine practised in the West is not the only form of
medicine possible. The question of what medicine might consist of in an anarcho-
primitivist future depends, as in the Fifth Estate comment on technology above, on what
is possible and what people desire, without compromising the lifeways of free individuals
in ecologically-centred free communities. As on all other questions, there is no dogmatic
answer to this issue.
What about population?
A controversial issue, largely because there isn't a consensus among anarcho-primitivists
on this topic. Some people argue that population reduction wouldn't be necessary; others
argue that it would on ecological grounds and/or to sustain the kind of lifeways envisaged
by anarcho-primitivists. George Bradford, in How Deep is Deep Ecology?, argues that
women's control over reproduction would lead to a fall in population rate. The personal
view of the present writer is that population would need to be reduced, but this would
occur through natural wastage - i.e., when people died, not all of them would be replaced,
and thus the overall population rate would fall and eventually stabilise. Anarchists have
long argued that in a free world, social, economic and psychological pressures toward
excessive reproduction would be removed. There would just be too many other
interesting things going on to engage people's time! Feminists have argued that women,
freed of gender constraints and the family structure, would not be defined by their
reproductive capacities as in patriarchal societies, and this would result in lower
population levels too. So population would be likely to fall, willy-nilly. After all, as
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Perlman makes plain, population growth is purely a product of civilization: 'a steady
increase in human numbers [is] as persistent as the Leviathan itself. This phenomenon
seems to exist only among Leviathanized human beings. Animals as well as human
communities in the state of nature do not proliferate their own kind to the point of
pushing all others off the field.' So there's really no reason to suppose that human
population shouldn't stabilise once Leviathanic social relations are abolished and
communitarian harmony is restored.
Ignore the weird fantasies spread by some commentators hostile to anarcho-primitivism
who suggest that the population levels envisaged by anarcho-primitivists would have to
be achieved by mass die-offs or nazi-style death camps. These are just smear tactics. The
commitment of anarcho-primitivists to the abolition of all power relations, including the
State with all its administrative and military apparatus, and any kind of party or
organization, means that such orchestrated slaughter remains an impossibility as well as
just plain horrendous.
How might an anarcho - primitivist future be brought
The sixty-four thousand dollar question! (to use a thoroughly suspect metaphor!) There
are no hard-and-fast rules here, no blueprint. The glib answer - seen by some as a cop-out
- is that forms of struggle emerge in the course of insurgency. This is true, but not
necessarily very helpful! The fact is that anarcho-primitivism is not a power-seeking
ideology. It doesn't seek to capture the State, take over factories, win converts, create
political organizations, or order people about. Instead, it wants people to become free
individuals living in free communities which are interdependent with one another and
with the biosphere they inhabit. It wants, then, a total transformation, a transformation of
identity, ways of life, ways of being, and ways of communicating. This means that the
tried and tested means of power-seeking ideologies just aren't relevant to the anarcho-
primitivist project, which seeks to abolish all forms of power. So new forms of action and
being, forms appropriate to and commensurate with the anarcho-primitivist project, need
to be developed. This is an ongoing process and so there's no easy answer to the question:
What is to be done?
At present, many agree that communities of resistance are an important element in the
anarcho-primitivist project. The word 'community' is bandied about these days in all
kinds of absurd ways (e.g., the business community), precisely because most genuine
communities have been destroyed by Capital and the State. Some think that if traditional
communities, frequently sources of resistance to power, have been destroyed, then the
creation of communities of resistance - communities formed by individuals with
resistance as their common focus - are a way to recreate bases for action. An old
anarchist idea is that the new world must be created within the shell of the old. This
means that when civilization collapses - through its own volition, through our efforts, or a
combination of the two - there will be an alternative waiting to take its place. This is
really necessary as, in the absence of positive alternatives, the social disruption caused by
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collapse could easily create the psychological insecurity and social vacuum in which
fascism and other totalitarian dictatorships could flourish. For the present writer, this
means that anarcho-primitivists need to develop communities of resistance - microcosms
(as much as they can be) of the future to come - both in cities and outside. These need to
act as bases for action (particularly direct action), but also as sites for the creation of new
ways of thinking, behaving, communicating, being, and so on, as well as new sets of
ethics - in short, a whole new liberatory culture. They need to become places where
people can discover their true desires and pleasures, and through the good old anarchist
idea of the exemplary deed, show others by example that alternative ways of life are
However, there are many other possibilities that need exploring. The kind of world
envisaged by anarcho-primitivism is one unprecedented in human experience in terms of
the degree and types of freedom anticipated ... so there can't be any limits on the forms of
resistance and insurgency that might develop. The kind of vast transformations envisaged
will need all kinds of innovative thought and activity.
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From The Infinite Matrix:
Robert Sheckley, one of the funniest and most influential satirists in science fiction, is the
author of dozens of novels and hundreds of short stories. His collections, which include
“Untouched by Human Hands” and “Can You Feel Anything When I Do This?”, contain
some of the most relentlessly hilarious stories in the genre. Sheckley died on December 9,
2005, at the age of 77, nearly a year after this story was published; he was widely loved,
and it's quite accurate to say that he was mourned all over the world.
by Robert Sheckley
"Damn," a voice said. "I'm still alive."
"Who is that?" Ritchie Castleman asked.
"It's me, Moses Grelich," a voice inside him said.
Grelich? Ritchie had heard that name somewhere before. Then he remembered. Grelich
was the body he had bought to live his new life in.
Grelich said, "I was supposed to be dead. They promised me I'd be dead."
"That's right," Ritchie said. "I remember now. You sold your body to me. And I was
supposed to have bare-bones possession of it."
"But I am still in it. It's still my body."
"I don't think so," Ritchie said. "Even if you are still in it, you sold it to me. It's my body
"So OK, it's your body. Consider me your guide."
"I don't want a guide," Ritchie said. "I bought a body, and I want to be alone in it."
"Who could blame you?" Grelich said. "Some schlemiel in the lab must have muffed it.
I'm still here."
"Calm yourself, boychick. I got no place to go."
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"Can't you just... stand outside?"
"Like a ghost? Sorry, Herbie, I don't know how to do that."
"My name is Ritchie."
"I know, but you're more of a Herbie type."
Ritchie let that one go. He muttered, "I need to get this mess straightened out. There's got
to be someone in charge around here."
"I doubt it," Grelich said. "This looks like a rich man's apartment to me."
"Where? I can't see a thing. My God, I'm in darkness!"
"Don't get so excited. I seem to still be in charge of the sensory apparatus. Go ahead, take
a look. I turn the vision over to you."
The scene suddenly opened up to Ritchie's senses. He was lying in bed, in his bright,
high-rise apartment on Central Park West. It was daylight. Sunlight was pouring in the
window. Across the room he could see his mechanical exercise horse. The Chagall print
still dominated one wall.
"It's my apartment," Ritchie said. "I guess they put me back here after the operation.
Shouldn't there be a nurse?"
"A nurse! The boychick wants a nurse!"
"It's just that I've been through a considerable operation."
"And I haven't?"
"It's not the same thing. You're supposed to be dead. You don't need a nurse. Just a
"That's a hell of a thing to say."
Ritchie was a little ashamed of what he had just said. But this was a new situation for
him. Just yesterday he had opted for the newly developed choice of putting his mind into
a new body. This had become necessary when his congenital heart defect suddenly
started acting up. There had been no time to lose. He had gone to Mind Movers
Technology Company, and found that they had one body he could take over immediately.
Moses Grelich had decided to opt for self-obliteration, to sell his body, and to leave his
money to Israel.
Yesterday the operation had taken place.
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The doorbell rang. Ritchie slipped on a bathrobe and slippers and went to answer it,
thinking maybe it was the nurse the Company should have sent in the first place.
He opened the door. Standing there was a tall, skinny old lady, her dark hair pulled back
and tied in a messy bun. She was wearing a plain cloth coat. She carried her purse in one
hand, a white paper bag in the other. There was something about her... Ritchie thought
she must once have been a beauty
"Is Moses here?" she asked timidly. "They gave me this address for him at Mind
Ritchie felt like one of those guys in a fable. Since Grelich had taken over the body,
Ritchie could see and hear, and sometimes even speak, but he had no control over
anything else. And no body sensations. When the body walked, Ritchie had the sensation
that he was floating about six feet above the ground.
"I'm here!" Grelitch said out of Ritchie's mouth.
"Moise!" she cried.
"Esther? Is that really you?"
"So who else should it be?"
"Come in, come in," Moses said.
Esther carefully wiped her feet on the mat and entered the apartment.
Moses led her into the living room. He was already familiar with Ritchie's apartment. He
waved her to a chair.
"Nu, don't you have a kitchen?" Esther asked. "I'll feel more comfortable in the kitchen."
Ritchie could hear Esther and Moses talking. Something about how Moses' old friends at
the East Broadway cafeteria were worried about him. One of them had read an item in
The New York Post about how Moses Grelich was about to undergo a whole-body
transplant operation. It seemed that Moses had agreed to sell his body to someone.
Moses was quoted as saying that since God had failed, Communism had failed, and now
Capitalism had failed, he saw no sense in going on. He planned to be the first man in
history to prove the old saying, "If the poor could die for the rich, what a good living they
"So how come you're still alive?" Esther asked.
38 | P a g e
Ritchie summoned up all his energy and said, "He shouldn't be!"
"Beg pardon, what did you say?" Esther said.
"The operation was not a success," Ritchie said." They had the transplant, but they didn't
get rid of Moses. This is supposed to be my body now. But he's still here, damnit!"
Esther's eyes grew wide.
Taking a deep breath, and letting out half of it, she said. "Pleased to meet you, Mister—"
"Castleman, Ritchie Castleman. And you are?"
"Mrs. Kazorney, Esther Kazorney." She frowned, as if to say, "I can't believe what's
happening." Then, timidly, she said, "Moise, are you really still there somewhere?"
"Of course I'm still here. Where else would I be?"
Ritchie noticed that Grelich's voice was more robust then his own. Grelich spoke
emphatically and somewhat dramatically. His sentences were filled with highs and lows,
and he made full use of diminuendo and crescendo.
"Yes, Esther," Grelich went on, "By the grace of the times we live in I am still here.
These klutzes couldn't even kill an unhappy Jew, even though Hitler showed them how
some years ago. Esther, we are living now in an age of the goyishe apotheosis. The
peasantry is now at the controls, and they are showing us what it really means to screw
up, you should excuse the language."
Esther made a small dismissing gesture. She studied Moses' face and said, in a low voice,
"I'm still here," Moses said." Where else would I be?"
"This fellow who lives inside you—is he a landsman?"
"Atheist!" Ritchie said. "Purebred atheist."
"You see?" Moses said. "Atheism is the first step toward Judaism."
"Not bloody likely," Ritchie said.
"What type of atheist are you, anyhow?" Grelitch asked.
"How many types are there?"
"At least two. Intellectual and instinctive."
39 | P a g e
"I guess I'm the intellectual type."
"Aha!" Grelitch said.
"Out of your own mouth you have proven a thesis which I have long held. Jews are not
instinctive atheists. Jews, even the dumbest among us, are born arguers, which is to say,
intellectuals. No Jew comes to suicide without a long, reasoned argument in his mind, an
argument that takes into account the question of God's view on suicide."
The doorbell rang again. Grelich opened the door. "Solomon!" he cried, seeing the tall
black man on the other side. "Solomon Grundy, the Ethiopian Jew," he explained to
"Can you hear me, Moise?" Solomon said. "Esther gave me this address."
"Yes, yes I can hear you, Solomon. You have come to the apartment of therman who
owns my body. Unfortunately, I'm still in it."
"How can that be?"
"It'll be sorted out presently. Meanwhile, what do you have to tell me? Some more of
your mystic African Hasidic pseudo-scientific nonsense?"
"I simply come as a friend," Solomon said.
"That's very nice," Grelich said. "The murderer returns to weep over the corpse he has
"I don't quite understand your point," Solomon said.
"The point is, where were you when I needed a friend? Where were you before I killed
"Killed yourself? You don't sound very dead to me."
"I tried. It's an accident that I'm alive."
"So might we all say. But something that is tantamount to an accident can be said never
to have happened."
"Sophistry," Grelich shouted.
40 | P a g e
Solomon sat silent for a long moment, and then nodded his head. "I'll accept that. The
fact is, I was not a very good friend. Or rather, I was not a good enough friend at the time
you needed one."
"Well, I don't know about that," said Grelich, momentarily uncertain of the line Solomon
"We are both responsible for what happened," Solomon said. "You elected yourself a
victim, I perforce became a killer. Together we obliterated a life. But we reckoned
"How do you figure?" Grelich asked.
"We thought we could produce the nothingness of death. But God said, "That's not how
it's going to be." And he left us both alive and able to suffer the consequences of the deed
we attempted, but didn't quite bring off."
"God wouldn't do that," Grelich said. "That is, if He existed."
"What kind of a principle could He make of that?"
"He doesn't have to make a principle out of it. He is not restricted to His own precedent.
He can do what he wants fresh every time. This time it's for you to suffer, and you
deserve it, since God never told you it was all right to suicide."
Ritchie loved listening to what was going on. He qvelled (a word he would soon learn) to
hear the aggressive, intellectual Grelich getting it in the neck from a guy like Solomon,
who came on like a religious rapper and really knew how to dish it out.
But it occurred to Ritchie that all the talk was on Grelich, and none of it was on him.
"Hey, fellows," he said, "it looks like this talk could go on for a while, and I haven't even
Grelich sullenly made the introductions.
"Why don't we get a bite to eat?" Ritchie said, now that he found himself able to speak. "I
could use something, myself."
"Is there a vegetarian restaurant around here?" Grelich asked.
"Christ, I don't know," Ritchie said. "There's a pretty good Cuban café just a couple
blocks from here."
41 | P a g e
"I wouldn't eat that treif junk," Grelich said. "Not even if I weren't a vegetarian."
"So recommend your own place, big mouth," said Ritchie.
"Gentlemen," said Solomon, "we will take a taxi, which I will pay for, and we will go to
Ratstein's on the Lower East Side."
The taxi dropped them on the corner of 2nd Avenue and Fourth Street. A corner place,
Ratstein's was open. Inside it was big—it must have had over a hundred tables, all empty
except for two men at a front table, arguing over coffee and blintzes.
"We'll sit in the back, at the Philosopher's Table," Solomon said, and led them to an oval
table with chairs for eight.
"Schlepstein from NYU often shows up here," Solomon said. "And sometimes Hans
Werthke from Columbia."
Ritchie had never heard of these men. And he didn't much like vegetarian food. He
settled for a plate of egg cookies and a celery tonic. Grelich ordered strawberry blintzes,
Esther took rice pudding, and Solomon ordered the rice and vegetables dish.
Their waiter was a short, plump, middle-aged man with a fringe of pale thinning hair and
a vaguely European look. He moved slowly on what appeared to be painful feet.
"I'll need this table by 7 pm," he said. "It's reserved."
It's only 3 o'clock now," Grelich said. " God forbid that your famous philosophers should
have to sit anywhere else. We'll be out of here long before they start their discussions."
"Our customers are used to seeing them here," the waiter said. "I am Jakob Leiber and I
am here to serve you."
The talk was general for a while, with one after another relating incidents of their day.
From their conversation, Ritchie got an impression of an older New York, filled with old
law tenements, push carts, micvahs, and study rooms for young scholars. He wondered if
they weren't talking about a New York of a hundred years ago, not today.
In the taxi down Second Avenue he had noticed the Hispanic food stores, perfumeries,
lunch counters and laundries. What once might have been a Jewish neighborhood had
become a Hispanic barrio or whatever they called their slum neighborhoods.
42 | P a g e
He commented on this to Esther. She told him, "Everything's changed. I've heard
Ratstein's only stays open because of the support of some wealthy Jewish mafia types
who live in New Jersey and need a place for lunch on their trips into the city."
"That reminds me of this movie I saw," Ritchie said. "There was this Jewish mobster and
his daughter, and this other mobster, a young guy, falls in love with the first mobster's
daughter and goes back in time to kill the man who became her husband but didn't treat
her right. I forgot how they got the time machine, but it seemed pretty logical at the
"Did he get the girl?" Esther asked.
"Sort of. But there was a complication."
"T here's always a complication in invented stories," Grelich said. "But life isn't like that.
Life is terribly simple."
"I don't agree," Ritchie said, recognizing Grelich's propensity for climbing out on an
unstable premise and inviting someone to knock him off. "I was writing a story about a
similar situation—it's an old theme, you know—and all I found were complications.
Christ, even my complications had complications."
That got a mild laugh from Esther, and a chuckle from Solomon. Even Grelich gave a
sour grunt of approval.
"Boychick," said Grelich, "I didn't know you were a writer."
"Well, scarcely a writer," Ritchie said. "But I have published a few things in a magazine.
An online magazine, no pay, but they get some good names."
"You're a writer?" Jakob the waiter asked. He had been listening to the conversation
while serving the dishes.
"Well, I do write," Ritchie said. His recent experiences with real professional writers,
who posted messages and comments on his Message Board from time to time, had
convinced him that his best policy was to make no public claims for himself, at least not
until he had a few professional sales.
"A writer," Jakob mused, drying his hands on his apron. "I'm in the publishing business
"You're a publisher?" Grelich asked.
"No, I'm a translator. From the Rumanian. I have a Rumanian science-fiction writer I
43 | P a g e
"You translate into English?" Grelich asked
"Of course, English, what else? Urdu?"
Ritchie said, "What is this writer's name?"
He couldn't make it out even after several repetitions, so he decided to learn it later, and
write it down, see if the name turned out to be of any importance.
"Has he published?" Ritchie asked.
"In English, no. In Rumanian, plenty. It 's only a matter of time before I sell him here."
"You're his agent, too?" Ritchie asked.
"I have that honor."
Ritchie wanted to ask Leiber how good his agent contacts were, and whether he was
taking on any new clients. But he couldn't find a way of slipping it into the conversation.
He decided he'd come back to Ratstein's on his own some other time, go into the matter
again, without Solomon and Esther, and, with a little luck, without Grelich. For a
beginning writer it was always worthwhile checking out an agent, no matter what else he
"Anyhow," Grelich said, "we're here to discuss this situation I've got, with this goy
lodged in my head."
No one had any ideas about it. They considered Ritchie's suggestion that they all return to
his apartment. But Solomon was tired and had an appointment in the early evening;
Grelich had had enough argument for the day, and Esther was looking forward to her late
They all agreed to meet tomorrow evening, first at the East Broadway cafeteria, then,
after Ritchie said he'd pick up the tab, at Ratstein's.
Exhaustion ended the night for both Ritchie and Grelich. Ritchie had a long, dreamless
sleep in his own bed.
In the morning, after Ritchie made coffee, they agreed that it was time to go downtown to
the MMT sales office and find out what had gone wrong.
44 | P a g e
Grelich was feeling a little funny about this. His desire to kill himself had abated
remarkably. In fact, his suicidal urge had vanished. Replacing it was an unexpected zest
for life, the strongest he had ever known.
It was difficult to account for this. Maybe the medical procedure, even though it had not
killed him, had driven philosophical despair out of his head. These problems, which had
recently driven him to suicide, seemed academic to him now, even puerile. Why kill
yourself because you can't decide whether God exists or not?
Ritchie for his part wanted to own his own headspace uncluttered with Grelich. But he
liked Grelich's friends. Esther looked like she had been a classy lady. Solomon was
interesting. Ritchie hadn't known there were any black Jews. He wanted to find out how
this had come about.
And there was Leiber, a possible agent contact.
Of course, Leiber was not a friend of Grelich's, but Ritchie owed the meeting to his
association—or amalgamation? —with Grelich.
Ritchie also had a well-developed sense of fairness. It didn't seem right for him to bring
about the death of the man whose presence had helped him meet Leiber, a man who, if he
was a real agent, could change his life.
Despite that, he hated the idea of Grelich being in his head with him. Was he maybe even
snooping on Ritchie's memories?
Grelich was acting correctly, however. He didn't stop them from going to the MMT
office to find out about his aborted death, even though with his superior control of the
body—after all, he was the original occupant—he could have prevented the move, could
have made them both stay in the apartment all day, or walk in the park, or see a movie.
Instead, they taxied down to 23rd Street.
Grelich, with Ritchie aboard, entered the offices of MMT and told the receptionist that he
wanted to see Sven Mayer, the president.
They waited while the receptionist whispered into the phone. Ritchie was expecting
they'd be told Mayer wasn't in, they would have to talk with some flunky who would tell
them he knew nothing about this but would get back to him "as soon as possible."
But no such thing happened. The receptionist told them that Mr. Mayer was in his office,
expecting them—last on the left at the end of the corridor.
45 | P a g e
Mayer was a short, stocky white-haired man. "Come in," he called when they knocked at
the door. "Mr. Grelich! And Mr. Castleman is in there with you?"
"I am," Ritchie said. "And I demand an explanation."
"Of course you do," Mayer said. "Come in, have a seat. Coffee? Something stronger?"
"Coffee, black, no cream," Grelich said.
Mayer said a few words into the phone. "It's on its way. Gentlemen, I am so sorry... "
"You didn't return our calls," Ritchie said.
"I apologize. Miss Christiansen, our regular receptionist, left early when Nathan didn't
show up at the lab. She didn't come in today. The one outside is a temp. When I reached
Miss Christiansen today by phone, she claimed she didn't know anything about the
"Hah!" said Grelich.
Mayer went on, "So far I have been unable to locate Nathan, the lab tech, the one who
actually did your operation. Or botched it, I should say."
"Nathan," Grelich said darkly.
"He is the one we will have to talk to, the only one likely to have an explanation for how
this sorry situation came to pass."
"But where is this Nathan?" Ritchie asked.
Mayer shrugged. "I phoned his boarding house, he wasn't there. I talked with his rabbi,
whom he gave as his main reference when he applied for this job. His Rabbi, Zvi Cohen,
said he hadn't spoken with Nathan in over a week. I went myself to the handball courts at
92nd and Riverside, at the rabbi's suggestion. None of the players had seen Nathan in
"Have you notified the police yet?"
"I shall have to, if he doesn't show up very soon. I have no other way to trace him."
Ritchie asked, "What about my own body? The Castleman body?"
"I'm afraid it didn't survive the transfer," Mayer said. "As we expected. It has been
disposed of according to your instructions."
46 | P a g e
Hearing that his body was irrevocably gone gave Ritchie a pang of regret. It hadn't been a
particularly nice body, but it had been his for a long time. And now he had no physical
body. Except for Grelich's body, and Grelich didn't seem so keen on giving it up any
Back at his apartment, Ritchie decided it was time to find Nathan Cohen, the missing tech
who was probably responsible for the whole megillah, a word that Grelich supplied him
But before he could get started with that, he got a telephone call, which Grelich didn't
prevent him from answering.
"Ritchie Castleman here," he said.
Mr. Castleman? I am Edward Simonson. Mr. Mayer has recently hired me to run the lab.
I am a graduate of CCNY, fully accredited and certified. I worked for two years at the
Zeitgeist Institute in Zurich. If you want—"
Grelich said, "What is this?"
"This is Mr. Grelich speaking now?"
"Yes, it is. What do you want?"
"I am authorized by Mr. Mayer to tell you that if you wish to return to the lab, we assure
you that the operation and removal will be properly conducted at this time, and at no cost
"You'll make sure I die this time?" Grelich said.
"Well... Yes, that was your original intention in coming to MMT, was it not?"
"That was then and now is now."
"Does that mean you've changed your mind?"
"I'm thinking it through again," Grelich said. "Look, we're not interested right now. We
have a few matters to sort out first. We'll get back to you."
Grelich hung up. Ritchie was glad Grelich hadn't immediately accepted this offer to
correct his bungled suicide. He didn't want to see Grelich die. But he wasn't too happy
that he was going to have to continue sharing a body with a near stranger.
Grelich said to Ritchie, "We need to find out what went wrong."
47 | P a g e
"Of course," Ritchie said.
The telephone rang again. This time Grelich picked it up.
Mr. Castleman?" a female voice asked.
"This is Grelich."
"Mr. Grelich, this is Rachel Christiansen. I'm the regular receptionist at the MMT
Company. I wanted to call and apologize for what I have done to you—not on purpose, I
assure you—I never imagined—"
"What did happen?" Ritchie broke in.
"It's such a complicated story I really think we should meet—that is, if you have the
"I got the time!" Ritchie said. "Where? When?"
"There's a sort of coffee shop near where I live. That's in The Bronx, or maybe it's upper
Manhattan—I'm new in the city and I only know how to get to work and back."
"What's the place called?"
"The Brown something or other. Cow? Sheep? I'm not sure. I never go in there. It
"Let me see, I get on the subway at 167th Street and Jerome Avenue, and the Brown
whatever it is is two blocks downtown from the entrance, that would be at 165th Street,
on the east side of Jerome Avenue. Unless it's two blocks uptown—forgive me, I'm
usually much more together than this—but recent events—"
"I know," Ritchie said. "I understand. Look, we'll get a cab. Probably take half an hour to
get to you in the Bronx. Is that OK?"
"Certainly, Mr. Castleman. It's the least I owe you. Though I'm not sure the place is
"How bad can a coffee shop be?" Grelich broke in. "We'll be there."
Grelich hung up the phone.
"I was going to ask for her home address and telephone number," Ritchie said.
48 | P a g e
"Don't complicate matters, she'll be there."
The taxi ride was a trip in itself, and not without its own share of humor and pathos. But
it doesn't bear on our story, so we skip it, mentioning only that they found the Brune
Vache on 166th Street and Jerome Avenue, and left a Cuban taxi driver wondering why a
well-dressed guy like Ritchie was going to a place that was known to serve the worst
coffee in the five boroughs. Must be Mafia-related, the d river decided.
Rachel Christiansen was inside, at a table near the door, a cup of tea in front of her. The
place was dark, and nearly empty. Rachel was an over-weight, sweet-faced woman in her
late twenties. Her face was framed in fluffy light brown hair. She stood up when
Castleman walked in.
"Mr. Castleman? I am Rachel Christiansen. I am so sorry for what happened. Believe me,
I had no idea... "
"What happened?" Ritchie asked.
"Well, I can only guess. It might be something else entirely."
"Just tell me what you think."
"Well, as I said, I really don't know. But Nathan was very conflicted about the work he
had been hired to do. Or would be doing. You were his first subject. But the very idea of
taking a human life—even with the consent of the owner of that life—seemed to him
"So what was he doing in the job?" Ritchie asked.
"Well, at the start he didn't really know it would involve taking a human life. I mean, he
knew but I guess he blocked that part out. He needed the job so. He had just arrived here
from San Antonio, Texas, to attend Rabbi Tomasi's Torah studies class. Rabbi Tomasi
also came from San Antonio. I believe he knows Nathan's parents."
"Was Nathan studying for the rabbinate?" Grelich asked.
"I beg your pardon?"
"Did he want to become a rabbi?"
"I would prefer he answer that himself," Rachel said. "It is a little personal. And anyhow,
I don't really know. I think he had been planning to, but was having second thoughts. He
came to one of our meetings, you know, and asked our pastor some questions."
49 | P a g e
"Meetings?" Grelich asked.
"At the International Circle of Christian Friendship of Fort Wayne, Indiana, which has a
branch here on 173rd Street."
"What sort of questions did he ask?" Ritchie asked.
"They had to do with the proper relations between God and man in our secular age.
Obviously, our pastor didn't approve of murder."
"Suicide is not exactly murder," Grelich said.
"Murder of the self is still murder," Rachel said. "And it's still a sin, even if Mr.
Nietzsche did approve of it."
"How did Nietzsche get into this?" Grelich asked.
"Nathan was always quoting him. And Camus."
"Aha!" Grelich said. "He must have been quoting the Camus who says that whether or
not to suicide is the only real question."
"That must have been the one," Rachel said.
"And he talked about an old Greek. Sissy-something?"
"Sisyphus?" Grelich guessed.
"This Nathan sounds like a man after my own heart," Grelich said.
"Do you really think so, Mr. Castleman?" Rachel asked, her disapproving attitude
"This is Grelich speaking," Grelich said. "I'm here, too, due to your boyfriends' change of
heart or failure of nerve or whatever it was."
"This is so bewildering," Rachel said. "You're the one with the deeper voice?"
"Yes, and the imaginary payes. Never mind. What else did Nathan talk about?"
"I scarcely know... One time he talked about the moneychangers in the temple. I think he
was referring to Mr. Mayer. Anyhow, he didn't approve."
"Money changers have to earn a living, too," Grelich said.
50 | P a g e
"Let's not get off the subject," Ritchie said. "Rachel, why do you think you're
"I encouraged Nathan to follow his conscience. I told him that was the truest voice of
God within him. I think I had some influence over him. But believe me, I never dreamed
he would take matters into his own hands—if that's what he did."
"Do you know where we can find Nathan Cohen?" Ritchie asked.
Rachel opened her purse and took out a slip of paper. "Here is his address, and his rabbi's
address. That's all I know, all I can do for you. Oh, one thing more. Nathan is very fond
of chess. He took me to a chess club once. I don't remember where it was. Midtown?
Downtown? It was very nice."
Nathan wasn't at the Marshall, but they found him at the Manhattan Chess Club on West
9th Street in Greenwich Village. The director pointed him out—he was the tall, skinny,
pale, dark-haired young man hunched behind a Nimzoindian defense on board 1. The
Hungarian grandmaster, Emil Bobul, was playing white. Bobul had dropped in for a
casual game, but it had become a hard-fought contest. Nathan was bent over the board,
one hand propping his jaw, the other hand touching the chess clock.
After a while Nathan looked up, recognized Grelich, thought for a minute, pursed his lips,
shook his head and leaned over and whispered something to Bobul. Bobul shook his
head. Nathan murmured something else. Bobul shrugged. Nathan turned down his king,
got up, and walked over to Grelich.
"Mr. Grelich," he said, "I believe I owe you an explanation."
"If you would be so kind," Grelich said.
Over coffee in a nearby coffee shop, Nathan tried to explain why he had aborted the
"I knew I shouldn't do anything to screw this up," Nathan said, referring to the transfer
operation. "Suicide and body-transfer are legal, you don't fool around with government-
sanctioned procedures. I transferred Mr. Castleman without moral difficulty. If Grelich
wanted to share his body with Castleman, it was no skin off my nose. But when it came
time to turn Grelich off—to shatter his electro-chemical connections—assign him to
death—well, I hesitated. My hesitation turned into a long delay. And finally I just walked
out of there. I reminded myself that I took this job to turn the dials and press the buttons.
But now it was getting too personal. They want me to play executioner. Consciously, that
is. That was too much. I got out of there."
51 | P a g e
It was after eleven at night when Grelich and Ritchie got back to Ritchie's apartment.
They stopped for dinner first at an Irish bar nearby. Despite Grelich's vegetarianism, he
made no objection when Ritchie ordered a corned beef sandwich, home fries, a small
green salad, and a pint of Killian's Red.
"I hope you don't object to this," Ritchie said, gesturing with his sandwich.
"Why should I object? I sold you my body. If you want to fill it with treif junk food,
that's your business."
Ritchie didn't order another. He was afraid he'd be going to the bathroom all right. He had
been wondering about how the night would go. Last night had been easy, he'd been
exhausted. But tonight? It was like the first time. He felt uncomfortable, having to sleep
with Grelich, even though there was just one body involved. Would he be able to sleep at
all? Last night he had been exhausted and in shock. But tonight? He hoped the body
would sleep when it was ready.
But whose body was it? Did this body even know which mind it belonged to? Had the
body itself—neither Castleman nor Grelich, but a representative of the body only—had
this body witnessed the change of title?
At the apartment, Grelich took a shower, then found a set of Ritchie's pajamas, and
undressed and put them on. Without discussing it with Ritchie, he lay down on the bed,
turned off the bedside lamp, tucked his arm under the pillow, and fell asleep.
Ritchie lay there, uncomfortable, wide-awake, watching lights and shadows cross the
ceiling from cars in the street far below.
He tried to resign himself to a sleepless night. He watched the play of light and shadow
across the ceiling—a weaving, hypnotic pattern. He felt miserable that he didn't have a
body of his own, so that he could get up, fix himself a sandwich, watch some television,
or play a game on his computer. Instead, with Grelich in control of the body, he had to lie
here maybe all night watching the lights on the ceiling. He couldn't even get up and fix
himself a drink. He'd have to talk to Grelich about that, if this situation went on much
longer. Which he fervently hoped it would not... How could he sleep in an unfamiliar
body, sharing his headspace with a man he scarcely knew? Given the circumstances,
anyone would have insomnia. So thinking, he fell asleep.
He began to dream. In his dream he was walking down a long dark corridor toward a
closed door with light coming from under it.
52 | P a g e
The door swung open. Ritchie walked in.
He was in a small, dark room. The ceiling slanted down. It seemed to be an attic room. In
front of him was a plain wooden table. On it was a lighted candle in a pewter holder.
Behind the table, at the end of the room, he could see a tall window. It had no shade or
curtain, and through the glass Ritchie could see the darkness of a city night, a darker
shade than the darkness in the room.
Now he made out the middle distance. There were two men seated behind the table facing
him. The one to his right, near the end of the table, wore dark, shapeless clothes, and had
a yarmulke on his head. He was old, with a skinny, stubbly face. He had wire spectacles
pushed up on his forehead. There was a parchment on the table in front of him, and he
had a steel-nibbed pen in his right hand.
The other man was also old, but he was large and hearty looking. He wore dark clothes, a
black beaver hat, and black horn-rimmed glasses. He had a sort of shawl thrown over his
shoulders. He had a white beard that came down to his mid-chest.
He looked up when Ritchie entered the room. "So come in. It's time, already. Did you
bring the katubah?"
The skinny man said, "I have it, rabbi." Turning to Ritchie, he said, "I am the scribe. It's
customary for the plaintiff to bring his own writing instruments and parchment. But in
this modern age of ours, who's got? So I make you a gift of my pen and parchment.
Maybe you'll be good enough to loan them to me so I can make out the document?"
"Yeah, sure, OK," Ritchie said, not sure what was going on.
The rabbi said, "You're not Jewish yourself, are you, Mr. Castleman?"
"No, I'm not," Ritchie said. The rabbi didn't give him any particular look, but Ritchie felt
it was somehow not OK for him not to be Jewish. He restrained himself from
"Let's get on with the ceremony," the rabbi said. He coughed and cleared his throat. "It
has been brought to my attention that you wish to be separated from Moses Grelich, your
mind mate. If this is so, please state it."
"You got it," Ritchie said. "I wish to be separated from Moses Grelich."
The rabbi picked up a little memorandum pad, opened it and indicated that Ritchie should
repeat after him. "Moses Grelich sold me his body, to be my exclusive possession. A
medical ceremony was made, but I didn't get the unencumbered body. When I got in,
Grelich was still there. Despite this breach in the arrangement, I let him reside in the body
with me while he made other arrangements. It is now time for him to vacate."
53 | P a g e
After Ritchie had finished saying the words, he could hear the dry scratching of the
scribe's pen on the parchment.
"Therefore," the rabbi said, "I, Rabbi Schmuel Shakovsky, empowered by the civil law of
this state and by my congregation, do demand that you, Moses Grelich, tell us you are
"I'm here, rabbi," Grelich said. "But you know I've never been a believer. I don't even
believe in God."
"You are not bound by God. You are bound by tradition."
"I accept that, rabbi. I'm here, aren't I?"
"On my command you will vacate your body, which, by your own assertion and willful
act, is no longer yours."
"I was in a weird mood when I made the agreement," Grelich said. "Life had been a
disappointment. But this half-life isn't exactly paradise, either."
Rabbi Shakovsky said, "I will now sign my name to this document. When the last stroke
of my name has been written, you will vanish, Moses Grelich, and go wherever you are
to go to next."
The scribe handed the rabbi the pen and pushed the parchment toward him. The rabbi
began, very slowly, to sign his name.
And Ritchie began to think. He was remembering that he hadn't had a chance yet to
question Grelich about Nietzsche or Camus. They both sounded important. There was
Jakob, the waiter-translator-agent. Ritchie knew that on his own, without Grelich he'd
never go back to Ratstein's. He'd convince himself that the agent thing was nonsense,
how could a broken-down old Rumanian waiter in a Jewish restaurant do anything for
him in the American market? And he'd probably never see Solomon again. Or if he did,
what could he say to him? He wanted to ask Solomon about his life, but Solomon wasn't
likely to talk about the good old days back in Addis Ababa and how black people became
Jews when he knew Ritchie was responsible for his friend Grelich's death.
Grelich, of course, had no one to blame but himself. He had set himself on the path of
death all by himself. But was it the act of a friend to go along with it and help him out
when the suicide didn't go right in the first place? Was it even the act of a compassionate
stranger to help Grelich complete what he had begun, probably not in his right mind?
Ritchie thought about his own small and non-interacting family. His mother was dead.
His father had passed away a few years ago in an expensive rest home in Arizona. His
younger sister was studying Library Sciences at Vassar. He never saw her, they didn't
54 | P a g e
This new family, which had sprung up around Grelich and included him, was a strange
and exciting experience. He'd have to give up all that once he got rid of Grelich.
It was suddenly in Ritchie's mind to call off this ceremony, cancel the execution. There
was enough room in his head for Grelich and himself!
The rabbi finished his signature and looked at him with his eyebrows raised.
"Nu?" the rabbi said.
The rabbi made a gesture. The flame of the candle flared, and died out.
Ritchie sat up in bed. Wow, what a dream. He looked around. He touched his face—the
new familiar face of Moise Grelich.
Ritchie said, "Grelich, are you there?"
"Grelich! Come out! Don't sulk. Let's talk."
Still nothing from Grelich.
"Oh, Grelich," Ritchie said, his heart breaking, "where are you? Tell me you're still here!"
"So nu, where else would I be?" Grelich's familiar voice said in his head.
"Christ, you had me scared. I had this dream. I dreamed a rabbi was divorcing us."
"Are we husband and wife that a rabbi should divorce us?"
"No, but we're pretty close. Roommates. Mindmates. In some ways, closer than husband
"What a line of gab you've got."
"It's not gab! I want you here. I want you to call Solomon and Esther and have them meet
us at Ratstein's this evening."
"Consider it done. You want to talk to that Rumanian agent again? Ritchie have you no
"If I think he's too much of a shyster," Ritchie said, "I won't ask him to represent me. But
maybe he's an honest schlemiel. We'll see."
55 | P a g e
"I got some stories you could write," Grelich said.
"I'll be pleased to hear them."
"That's for tomorrow," Grelich said. "For tonight, what do you say we get some more
Ritchie grunted his assent. Again, Grelich fell asleep almost at once. Ritchie lay on the
bed and watched the lights and shadows on the ceiling. At last he fell into a slumber. His
last thought was, more than likely there would be a tomorrow for him as well as for
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Excerpts from A Walk In The Woods:
Rediscovering America on the Appalachian
by Bill Bryson
Distance changes utterly when you take the world on foot. A mile becomes a long way,
two miles literally considerable, ten miles whopping, fifty miles at the very limits of
conception. The world, you realize, is enormous in a way that only you and a small
community of fellow hikers know. Planetary scale is your little secret.
Life takes on a neat simplicity, too. Time ceases to have any meaning. When it is dark,
you go to bed, and when it is light again you get up, and everything in between is just in
between. It's quite wonderful, really.
You have no engagements, commitments, obligations, or duties; no special ambitions and
only the smallest, least complicated of wants; you exist in a tranquil tedium, serenely
beyond the reach of exasperation, "far removed from the seats of strike," as the early
explorer and botanist William Bartram put it. All that is required of you is a willingness
There is no point in hurrying because you are not actually going anywhere. However far
or long you plod, you are always in the same place: in the woods. It's where you were
yesterday, where you will be tomorrow. The woods is one boundless singularity. Every
bend in the path presents a prospect indistinguishable from every other, every glimpse
into the trees the same tangled mass. For all you know, your route could describe a very
large, pointless circle. In a way, it would hardly matter.
At times, you become almost certain that you slabbed this hillside three days ago, crossed
this stream yesterday, clambered over this fallen tree at least twice today already. But
most of the time you don't think. No point. Instead, you exist in a kind of mobile Zen
mode, your brain like a balloon tethered to a string, accompanying but not actually part of
the body below. Walking for hours and miles becomes as automatic, as unremarkable, as
breathing. At the end of the day you don't think, "Hey, I did sixteen miles today," any
more than you think, "Hey, I took eight-thousand breaths today." It's just what you do.
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As this excerpt begins, Bryson and his intrepid hiking companion, Katz, are just returning to the trail from
a brief foray to the Virginia town of Waynesboro (where Katz has managed to proposition a local woman
and enrage her husband.
The cab dropped us at Rockfish Gap, southern gateway to Shenandoah National Park, our
last long stretch of hiking before we ended part one of our big adventure. We had allotted
six and a half weeks for this initial foray and now it was nearly over. I was ready for a
vacation -- we both were, goodness knows -- and I longed to see my family, beyond my
power to convey. Even so, I was looking forward to what I hoped would be a climactic
amble. Shenandoah National Park -- 101 miles from top to bottom -- is famously
beautiful, and I was eager to see it at last. We had, after all, walked a long way to get
At Rockfish Gap there is a tollbooth manned by rangers where motorists have to pay an
entrance fee and thru-hikers have to acquire a backcountry hiking permit. The permit
doesn't cost anything (one of the noblest traditions of the Appalachian Trail is that every
inch of it is free) but you have to complete a lengthy form giving your personal details,
your itinerary through the park, and where you plan to camp each night, which is a little
ridiculous because you haven't seen the terrain and don't know what kind of mileage you
might achieve. Appended to the form were the usual copious regulations and warnings of
severe fines and immediate banishment for doing, well, pretty much anything. I filled out
the form the best I could and handed it in at the window to a lady ranger.
"So you're hiking the trail?" she said brightly, if not terribly astutely, accepted the form
without looking at it, banged it severely with rubber stamps, and tore off the part that
would serve as our license to walk on land that, in theory, we owned anyway.
"Well, we're trying," I said.
"I must get up there myself one of these days. I hear it's real nice."
This took me aback. "You've never been on the trail?" But you're a ranger, I wanted to
"No, afraid not," she answered wistfully. "Lived here all my life, but haven't got to it yet.
One day I will."
Katz, mindful of Beulah's husband, was practically dragging me towards the safety of the
woods, but I was curious.
"How long have you been a ranger?" I called back.
"Twelve years in August," she said proudly.
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"You ought to give it a try sometime. It's real nice."
"Might get some of that flab off your butt," Katz muttered privately, and stepped into the
woods. I looked at him with interest and surprise -- it wasn't like Katz to be so
uncharitable -- and put it down to lack of sleep, profound sexual frustration, and a surfeit
of Hardees sausage biscuits.
Shenandoah National Park is a park with problems. More even than the Smokies, it
suffers from a chronic shortage (though a cynic might say a chronic misapplication) of
funds. Several miles of side trails have been closed, and others are deteriorating. If it
weren't that volunteers from the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club maintain 80 percent of
the park's trails, including the whole of the AT through the park, the situation would be
much worse. Mathews Arm Campground, one of the park's main recreational areas, was
closed for lack of funds in 1993 and hasn't been open since. Several other recreation areas
are closed for most of the year. For a time in the 1980s, even the trail shelters (or huts, as
they are known here) were shut. I don't know how they did it -- I mean to say, how
exactly do you close a wooden structure with a fifteen-foot-wide opening at the front? --
and still less why, since forbidding hikers from resting for a few hours on a wooden
sleeping platform is hardly going to transform the park's finances. But then making things
difficult for hikers is something of a tradition in the eastern parks. A couple of months
earlier, all the national parks, along with all other nonessential government departments,
had been closed for a couple of weeks during a budget impasse between President
Clinton and Congress. Yet Shenandoah, despite its perennial want of money, found the
funds to post a warden at each AT access point to turn back all thru-hikers. In
consequence, a couple of dozen harmless people had to make lengthy, pointless detours
by road before they could resume their long hike. This vigilance couldn't have cost the
Park Service less than $20,000, or the better part of $1,000 for each dangerous thru-hiker
On top of its self-generated shortcomings, Shenandoah has a lot of problems arising from
factors largely beyond its control. Overcrowding is one. Although the park is over a
hundred miles long, it is almost nowhere more than a mile or two wide, so all its two
million annual visitors are crowded into a singularly narrow corridor along the ridgeline.
Campgrounds, visitor centers, parking lots, picnic sites, the AT and Skyline Drive (the
scenic road that runs down the spine of the park) all exist cheek by jowl. One of the most
popular (non-AT) hiking routes in the park, up Old Rag Mountain, has become so much
in demand that on summer weekends people sometimes have to queue to get on it.
Then there is the vexed matter of pollution. Thirty years ago it was still possible on
especially clear days to see the Washington Monument, seventy-five miles away. Now,
on hot, smoggy summer days, visibility can be as little as two miles and never more than
thirty. Acid rain in the streams has nearly wiped out the park's trout. Gypsy moths arrived
in 1983 and have since ravaged considerable acreages of oaks and hickories. The
Southern pine beetle has done similar work on conifers, and the locust leaf miner has
inflicted disfiguring (but mercifully usually nonfatal) damage on thousands of locust
trees. In just seven years, the woolly adelgid has fatally damaged more than 90 percent of
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the park's hemlocks. Nearly all the rest will be dying by the time you read this. An
untreatable fungal disease called anthracnose is wiping out the lovely dogwoods not just
here but everywhere in America. Before long, the dogwood, like the American chestnut
and American elm, will effectively cease to exist. It would be hard, in short, to conceive a
more stressed environment.
And yet here's the thing. Shenandoah National Park is lovely. It is possibly the most
wonderful national park I have ever been in, and, considering the impossible and
conflicting demands put on it, it is extremely well run. Almost at once it became my
favorite part of the Appalachian Trail.
We hiked through deep-seeming woods, along gloriously untaxing terrain, climbing a
gentle 500 feet in four miles. In the Smokies, you can climb 500 feet in, well, about 500
feet. This was more like it. The weather was kindly, and there was a real sense of spring
being on the turn. And there was life everywhere -- zumming insects, squirrels
scampering along boughs, birds twittering and hopping about, spider webs gleaming
silver in the sun. Twice I flushed grouse, always a terrifying experience: an instantaneous
explosion from the undergrowth at your feet, like balled socks fired from a gun, followed
by drifting feathers and a lingering residue of fussy, bitching noise. I saw an owl, which
watched me imperturbably from a nearby stout limb, and loads of deer, which raised their
heads to stare but otherwise seemed fearless and casually returned to their browsing when
I had passed. Sixty years ago, there were no deer in this neck of the Blue Ridge
Mountains. They had been hunted out of existence. Then, after the park was created in
1936, thirteen white-tailed deer were introduced, and, with no one to hunt them and few
predators, they thrived. Today there are 5,000 deer in the park, all descended from those
original thirteen or others that migrated from nearby.
Surprisingly, considering its modest dimensions and how little room there is for real
backcountry, the park is remarkably rich in wildlife. Bobcats, bears, red and gray foxes,
beaver, skunks, raccoons, flying squirrels, and our friends the salamanders exist in
admirable numbers, though you don't often see them, as most are nocturnal or wary of
people. Shenandoah is said to have the highest density of black bears anywhere in the
world -- slightly over one per square mile. There have even been reported sightings
(including by park rangers, who perhaps ought to know better) of mountain lions, even
though mountain lions haven't been confirmed in the eastern woods for almost seventy
years. There is the tiniest chance that they may exist in pockets in the northern woods (we
shall get to that in due course, and I think you'll be glad you waited) but not in an area as
small and hemmed in as Shenandoah National Park.
We didn't see anything terribly exotic, or even remotely exotic, but it was nice just to see
squirrels and deer, to feel that the forest was lived in. Late in the afternoon, I rounded a
bend to find a wild turkey and her chicks crossing the trail ahead of me. The mother was
regal and unflappable; her chicks were much too busy falling over and getting up again
even to notice me. This was the way the woods were supposed to be. I couldn't have been
60 | P a g e
We hiked till five and camped beside a tranquil spring in a small, grassy clearing in the
trees just off the trail. Because it was our first day back on the trail, we were flush for
food, including perishables like cheese and bread that had to be eaten before they went
off or were shaken to bits in our packs, so we rather gorged ourselves, then sat around
smoking and chatting idly until persistent and numerous midgelike creatures (no-see-
ums, as they are universally known along the trail) drove us into our tents. It was perfect
sleeping weather, cool enough to need a bag but warm enough that you could sleep in
your underwear, and I was looking forward to a long night's snooze -- indeed was
enjoying a long night's snooze -- when, at some indeterminate dark hour, there was a
sound nearby that made my eyes fly open. Normally, I slept through everything --
through thunderstorms, through Katz's snoring and noisy midnight pees -- so something
big enough or distinctive enough to wake me was unusual. There was a sound of
undergrowth being disturbed -- a click of breaking branches, a weighty pushing through
low foliage -- and then a kind of large, vaguely irritable snuffling noise.
I sat bolt upright. Instantly every neuron in my brain was awake and dashing around
frantically, like ants when you disturb their nest. I reached instinctively for my knife, then
realized I had left it in my pack, just outside the tent. Nocturnal defense had ceased to be
a concern after many successive nights of tranquil woodland repose. There was another
noise, quite near.
"Stephen, you awake?" I whispered.
"Yup," he replied in a weary but normal voice.
"What was that?"
"How the hell should I know."
"It sounded big."
"Everything sounds big in the woods."
This was true. Once a skunk had come plodding through our camp and it had sounded
like a stegosaurus. There was another heavy rustle and then the sound of lapping at the
spring. It was having a drink, whatever it was.
I shuffled on my knees to the foot of the tent, cautiously unzipped the mesh and peered
out, but it was pitch black. As quietly as I could, I brought in my backpack and with the
light of a small flashlight searched through it for my knife. When I found it and opened
the blade I was appalled at how wimpy it looked. It was a perfectly respectable appliance
for, say, buttering pancakes, but patently inadequate for defending oneself against 400
pounds of ravenous fur.
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Carefully, very carefully, I climbed from the tent and put on the flashlight, which cast a
distressingly feeble beam. Something about fifteen or twenty feet away looked up at me. I
couldn't see anything at all of its shape or size -- only two shining eyes. It went silent,
whatever it was, and stared back at me.
"Stephen," I whispered at his tent, "did you pack a knife?"
"Have you got anything sharp at all?"
He thought for a moment. "Nail clippers."
I made a despairing face. "Anything a little more vicious than that? Because, you see,
there is definitely something out here."
"It's probably just a skunk."
"Then it's one big skunk. Its eyes are three feet off the ground."
"A deer then."
I nervously threw a stick at the animal, and it didn't move, whatever it was. A deer would
have bolted. This thing just blinked once and kept staring.
I reported this to Katz.
"Probably a buck. They're not so timid. Try shouting at it."
I cautiously shouted at it: "Hey! You there! Scat!" The creature blinked again, singularly
unmoved. "You shout," I said.
"Oh, you brute, go away, do!" Katz shouted in merciless imitation. "Please withdraw at
once, you horrid creature."
"Fuck you," I said and lugged my tent right over to his. I didn't know what this would
achieve exactly, but it brought me a tiny measure of comfort to be nearer to him.
"What are you doing?"
"I'm moving my tent."
"Oh, good plan. That'll really confuse it."
I peered and peered, but I couldn't see anything but those two wide-set eyes staring from
the near distance like eyes in a cartoon. I couldn't decide whether I wanted to be outside
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and dead or inside and waiting to be dead. I was barefoot and in my underwear and
shivering. What I really wanted -- really, really wanted -- was for the animal to withdraw.
I picked up a small stone and tossed it at it. I think it may have hit it because the animal
made a sudden noisy start (which scared the bejesus out of me and brought a whimper to
my lips) and then emitted a noise -- not quite a growl, but near enough. It occurred to me
that perhaps I oughtn't provoke it.
"What are you doing, Bryson? Just leave it alone and it will go away."
"How can you be so calm?"
"What do you want me to do? You're hysterical enough for both of us."
"I think I have a right to be a trifle alarmed, pardon me. I'm in the woods, in the middle of
nowhere, in the dark, staring at a bear, with a guy who has nothing to defend himself with
but a pair of nail clippers. Let me ask you this. If it is a bear and it comes for you, what
are you going to do -- give it a pedicure?"
"I'll cross that bridge when I come to it," Katz said implacably.
"What do you mean you'll cross that bridge? We're on the bridge, you moron. There's a
bear out here, for Christ sake. He's looking at us. He smells noodles and Snickers and --
"There's two of them. I can see another pair of eyes."
Just then, the flashlight battery started to go. The light flickered and then vanished. I
scampered into my tent, stabbing myself lightly but hysterically in the thigh as I went,
and began a quietly frantic search for spare batteries. If I were a bear, this would be the
moment I would choose to lunge.
"Well, I'm going to sleep," Katz announced.
"What are you talking about? You can't go to sleep."
"Sure I can. I've done it lots of times." There was the sound of him rolling over and a
series of snuffling noises, not unlike those of the creature outside.
"Stephen, you can't go to sleep," I ordered. But he could and he did, with amazing
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The creature -- creatures, now -- resumed drinking, with heavy lapping noises. I couldn't
find any replacement batteries, so I flung the flashlight aside and put my miner's lamp on
my head, made sure it worked, then switched it off to conserve the batteries. Then I sat
for ages on my knees, facing the front of the tent, listening keenly, gripping my walking
stick like a club, ready to beat back an attack, with my knife open and at hand as a last
line of defense. The bears -- animals, whatever they were -- drank for perhaps twenty
minutes more, then quietly departed the way they had come. It was a joyous moment, but
I knew from my reading that they would be likely to return. I listened and listened, but
the forest returned to silence and stayed there.
Eventually I loosened my grip on the walking stick and put on a sweater -- pausing twice
to examine the tiniest noises, dreading the sound of a revisit -- and after a very long time
got back into my sleeping bag for warmth. I lay there for a long time staring at total
blackness and knew that never again would I sleep in the woods with a light heart.
And then, irresistibly and by degrees, I fell asleep.
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Errol Morris is a documentary film-maker and writer whose films include The
Thin Blue Line, The Fog of War and Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control. His work
is remarkable for its commitment to illuminating the truth of his subjects’
experience without the heavy-handed interposition typical of many
The Anosognosic’s Dilemma:
Something’s Wrong but You’ll Never
Know What It Is
By Errol Morris
Existence is elsewhere.
— André Breton, “The Surrealist Manifesto”
1. The Juice
David Dunning, a Cornell professor of social psychology, was perusing the 1996 World
Almanac. In a section called Offbeat News Stories he found a tantalizingly brief account
of a series of bank robberies committed in Pittsburgh the previous year. From there, it
was an easy matter to track the case to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, specifically to an
article by Michael A. Fuoco:
ARREST IN BANK ROBBERY,
SUSPECT’S TV PICTURE SPURS TIPS
At 5 feet 6 inches and about 270 pounds, bank robbery suspect McArthur Wheeler isn’t
the type of person who fades into the woodwork. So it was no surprise that he was
recognized by informants, who tipped detectives to his whereabouts after his picture was
telecast Wednesday night during the Pittsburgh Crime Stoppers Inc. segment of the 11
At 12:10 a.m. yesterday, less than an hour after the broadcast, he was arrested at 202 S.
Fairmont St., Lincoln-Lemington. Wheeler, 45, of Versailles Street, McKeesport, was
wanted in [connection with] bank robberies on Jan. 6 at the Fidelity Savings Bank in
Brighton Heights and at the Mellon Bank in Swissvale. In both robberies, police said,
Wheeler was accompanied by Clifton Earl Johnson, 43, who was arrested Jan. 12.
Wheeler had walked into two Pittsburgh banks and attempted to rob them in broad
daylight. What made the case peculiar is that he made no visible attempt at disguise.
The surveillance tapes were key to his arrest. There he is with a gun, standing in front of
a teller demanding money. Yet, when arrested, Wheeler was completely disbelieving.
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“But I wore the juice,” he said. Apparently, he was under the deeply misguided
impression that rubbing one’s face with lemon juice rendered it invisible to video
In a follow-up article, Fuoco spoke to several Pittsburgh police detectives who had been
involved in Wheeler’s arrest. Commander Ronald Freeman assured Fuoco that Wheeler
had not gone into “this thing” blindly but had performed a variety of tests prior to the
robbery. Sergeant Wally Long provided additional details — “although Wheeler reported
the lemon juice was burning his face and his eyes, and he was having trouble (seeing) and
had to squint, he had tested the theory, and it seemed to work.” He had snapped a
Polaroid picture of himself and wasn’t anywhere to be found in the image. It was like a
version of Where’s Waldo with no Waldo. Long tried to come up with an explanation of
why there was no image on the Polaroid. He came up with three possibilities:
(a) the film was bad;
(b) Wheeler hadn’t adjusted the camera correctly; or
(c) Wheeler had pointed the camera away from his face at the critical moment when he
snapped the photo.
As Dunning read through the article, a thought washed over him, an epiphany. If
Wheeler was too stupid to be a bank robber, perhaps he was also too stupid to know that
he was too stupid to be a bank robber — that is, his stupidity protected him from an
awareness of his own stupidity.
Dunning wondered whether it was possible to measure one’s self-assessed level of
competence against something a little more objective — say, actual competence. Within
weeks, he and his graduate student, Justin Kruger, had organized a program of research.
Their paper, “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties of Recognizing One’s Own
Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-assessments,” was published in 1999.
Dunning and Kruger argued in their paper, “When people are incompetent in the
strategies they adopt to achieve success and satisfaction, they suffer a dual burden: Not
only do they reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their
incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it. Instead, like Mr. Wheeler, they are
left with the erroneous impression they are doing just fine.”
It became known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect — our incompetence masks our ability to
recognize our incompetence. But just how prevalent is this effect? In search of more
details, I called David Dunning at his offices at Cornell:
DAVID DUNNING: Well, my specialty is decision-making. How well do people make
the decisions they have to make in life? And I became very interested in judgments about
the self, simply because, well, people tend to say things, whether it be in everyday life or
in the lab, that just couldn’t possibly be true. And I became fascinated with that. Not just
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that people said these positive things about themselves, but they really, really believed
them. Which led to my observation: if you’re incompetent, you can’t know you’re
ERROL MORRIS: Why not?
DAVID DUNNING: If you knew it, you’d say, “Wait a minute. The decision I just
made does not make much sense. I had better go and get some independent advice.”
But when you’re incompetent, the skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly
the skills you need to recognize what a right answer is. In logical reasoning, in parenting,
in management, problem solving, the skills you use to produce the right answer are
exactly the same skills you use to evaluate the answer. And so we went on to see if this
could possibly be true in many other areas. And to our astonishment, it was very, very
ERROL MORRIS: Many other areas?
DAVID DUNNING: If you look at our 1999 article, we measured skills where we had
the right answers. Grammar, logic. And our test-subjects were all college students doing
college student-type things. Presumably, they also should know whether or not they’re
getting the right answers. And yet, we had these students who were doing badly in
grammar, who didn’t know they were doing badly in grammar. We believed that they
should know they were doing badly, and when they didn’t, that really surprised us.
ERROL MORRIS: The students that were unaware they were doing badly — in what
sense? Were they truly oblivious? Were they self-deceived? Were they in denial? How
would you describe it?
DAVID DUNNING: There have been many psychological studies that tell us what we
see and what we hear is shaped by our preferences, our wishes, our fears, our desires and
so forth. We literally see the world the way we want to see it. But the Dunning-Kruger
effect suggests that there is a problem beyond that. Even if you are just the most honest,
impartial person that you could be, you would still have a problem — namely, when your
knowledge or expertise is imperfect, you really don’t know it. Left to your own devices,
you just don’t know it. We’re not very good at knowing what we don’t know.
ERROL MORRIS: Knowing what you don’t know? Is this supposedly the hallmark of
an intelligent person?
DAVID DUNNING: That’s absolutely right. It’s knowing that there are things you
don’t know that you don’t know.  Donald Rumsfeld gave this speech about “unknown
unknowns.” It goes something like this: “There are things we know we know about
terrorism. There are things we know we don’t know. And there are things that are
unknown unknowns. We don’t know that we don’t know.” He got a lot of grief for that.
And I thought, “That’s the smartest and most modest thing I’ve heard in a year.”
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Rumsfeld’s famous “unknown unknowns” quote occurred in a Q&A session at the end of
a NATO press conference. A reporter asked him, “Regarding terrorism and weapons
of mass destruction, you said something to the effect that the real situation is worse than
the facts show…” Rumsfeld replied, “Sure. All of us in this business read intelligence
information. And we read it daily and we think about it, and it becomes in our minds
essentially what exists. And that’s wrong. It is not what exists.” But what is Rumsfeld
saying here? That he can be wrong? That “intelligence information” is not complete?
That it has to be viewed critically? Who would argue? Rumsfeld’s “known unknowns”
and “unknown unknowns” seem even less auspicious. Of course, there are known
unknowns. I don’t know the melting point of beryllium.
And I know that I don’t know it. There are a zillion things I don’t know. And I know
that I don’t know them. But what about the unknown unknowns? Are they like a
scotoma, a blind spot in our field of vision that we are unaware of? I kept wondering if
Rumsfeld’s real problem was with the unknown unknowns; or was it instead some
variant of self-deception, thinking that you know something that you don’t know. A
problem of hubris, not epistemology. 
And yet there was something in Rumsfeld’s unknown unknowns that had captured
Dunning’s imagination. I wanted to know more, and so I e-mailed him: why are you so
obsessed with Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns?” Here is his answer:
The notion of unknown unknowns really does resonate with me, and perhaps the
idea would resonate with other people if they knew that it originally came from
the world of design and engineering rather than Rumsfeld.
If I were given carte blanche to write about any topic I could, it would be about
how much our ignorance, in general, shapes our lives in ways we do not know
about. Put simply, people tend to do what they know and fail to do that which
they have no conception of. In that way, ignorance profoundly channels the
course we take in life. And unknown unknowns constitute a grand swath of
everybody’s field of ignorance.
To me, unknown unknowns enter at two different levels. The first is at the level of
risk and problem. Many tasks in life contain uncertainties that are known — so-
called “known unknowns.” These are potential problems for any venture, but
they at least are problems that people can be vigilant about, prepare for, take
insurance on, and often head off at the pass. Unknown unknown risks, on the
other hand, are problems that people do not know they are vulnerable to.
Unknown unknowns also exist at the level of solutions. People often come up
with answers to problems that are o.k., but are not the best solutions. The reason
they don’t come up with those solutions is that they are simply not aware of them.
Stefan Fatsis, in his book “Word Freak,” talks about this when comparing
everyday Scrabble players to professional ones. As he says: “In a way, the living-
room player is lucky . . . He has no idea how miserably he fails with almost every
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turn, how many possible words or optimal plays slip by unnoticed. The idea of
Scrabble greatness doesn’t exist for him.” (p. 128)
Unknown unknown solutions haunt the mediocre without their knowledge. The
average detective does not realize the clues he or she neglects. The mediocre
doctor is not aware of the diagnostic possibilities or treatments never considered.
The run-of-the-mill lawyer fails to recognize the winning legal argument that is
out there. People fail to reach their potential as professionals, lovers, parents and
people simply because they are not aware of the possible. This is one of the
reasons I often urge my student advisees to find out who the smart professors are,
and to get themselves in front of those professors so they can see what smart
So, yes, the idea resonates. I would write more, and there’s probably a lot more to
write about, but I haven’t a clue what that all is.
I can readily admit that the “everyday Scrabble player” has no idea how
incompetent he is, but I don’t think that Scrabble provides an example of the
unknown unknowns. An unknown unknown is not something like the word
“ctenoid,” a difficult word by most accounts, or any other obscure, difficult
word.  Surely, the everyday Scrabble player knows that there are words he
doesn’t know. Rumsfeld could have known about the gaps in his intelligence
information. How are his unknown unknowns different from plain-old-vanilla
unknowns? The fact that we don’t know something, or don’t bother to ask
questions in an attempt to understand things better, does that constitute anything
more than laziness on our part? A symptom of an underlying complacency rather
than a confrontation with an unfathomable mystery?
I found myself still puzzled by the unknown unknowns. Finally, I came up with
an explanation. Using the expressions “known unknowns” and “unknown
unknowns” is just a fancy — even pretentious — way of talking about questions
and answers. A “known unknown” is a known question with an unknown
answer. I can ask the question: what is the melting point of beryllium? I may not
know the answer, but I can look it up. I can do some research. It may even be a
question which no one knows the answer to. With an “unknown unknown,” I
don’t even know what questions to ask, let alone how to answer those questions.
But there is the deeper question. And I believe that Dunning and Kruger’s work
speaks to this. Is an “unknown unknown” beyond anything I can imagine? Or am
I confusing the “unknown unknowns” with the “unknowable unknowns?” Are we
constituted in such a way that there are things we cannot know? Perhaps because
we cannot even frame the questions we need to ask?
DAVID DUNNING: People will often make the case, “We can’t be that stupid, or we
would have been evolutionarily wiped out as a species a long time ago.” I don’t agree. I
find myself saying, “Well, no. Gee, all you need to do is be far enough along to be able
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to get three square meals or to solve the calorie problem long enough so that you can
reproduce. And then, that’s it. You don’t need a lot of smarts. You don’t have to do
tensor calculus. You don’t have to do quantum physics to be able to survive to the point
where you can reproduce.” One could argue that evolution suggests we’re not idiots, but
I would say, “Well, no. Evolution just makes sure we’re not blithering idiots. But, we
could be idiots in a lot of different ways and still make it through the day.”
ERROL MORRIS: Years ago, I made a short film (“I Dismember Mama”) about
cryonics, the freezing of people for future resuscitation. 
DAVID DUNNING: Oh, wow.
ERROL MORRIS: And I have an interview with the president of the Alcor Life
Extension Foundation, a cryonics organization, on the 6 o’clock news in Riverside,
California. One of the executives of the company had frozen his mother’s head for future
resuscitation. (It’s called a “neuro,” as opposed to a “full-body” freezing.) The
prosecutor claimed that they may not have waited for her to die. In answer to a reporter’s
question, the president of the Alcor Life Extension Foundation said, “You know, we’re
not stupid . . . ” And then corrected himself almost immediately, “We’re not that stupid
that we would do something like that.”
DAVID DUNNING: That’s pretty good.
ERROL MORRIS: “Yes. We’re stupid, but we’re not that stupid.”
DAVID DUNNING: And in some sense we apply that to the human race. There’s some
comfort in that. We may be stupid, but we’re not that stupid.
ERROL MORRIS: Something I have wondered about: Is there a socio-biological
account of what forces in evolution selected for stupidity and why?
DAVID DUNNING: Well, there’s no way we could be evolutionarily prepared for
doing physics and doing our taxes at the end of the year. These are rather new in our
evolutionary history. But solving social problems, getting along with other people, is
something intrinsic to our survival as a species. You’d think we would know where our
inabilities lie. But if we believe our data, we’re not necessarily very good at knowing
what we’re lousy at with other people.
ERROL MORRIS: Yes. Maybe it’s an effective strategy for dealing with life. Not
dealing with it.
David Dunning, in his book “Self-Insight,” calls the Dunning-Kruger Effect “the
anosognosia of everyday life.” When I first heard the word “anosognosia,” I had to
look it up. Here’s one definition:
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Anosognosia is a condition in which a person who suffers from a disability seems
unaware of or denies the existence of his or her disability. 
Dunning‘s juxtaposition of anosognosia with everyday life is a surprising and suggestive
turn of phrase. After all, anosognosia comes originally from the world of neurology and
is the name of a specific neurological disorder.
DAVID DUNNING: An anosognosic patient who is paralyzed simply does not know
that he is paralyzed. If you put a pencil in front of them and ask them to pick up the
pencil in front of their left hand they won’t do it. And you ask them why, and they’ll say,
“Well, I’m tired,” or “I don’t need a pencil.” They literally aren’t alerted to their own
paralysis. There is some monitoring system on the right side of the brain that has been
damaged, as well as the damage that’s related to the paralysis on the left side. There is
also something similar called “hemispatial neglect.” It has to do with a kind of brain
damage where people literally cannot see or they can’t pay attention to one side of their
environment. If they’re men, they literally only shave one half of their face. And they’re
not aware about the other half. If you put food in front of them, they’ll eat half of what’s
on the plate and then complain that there’s too little food. You could think of the
Dunning-Kruger Effect as a psychological version of this physiological problem. If you
have, for lack of a better term, damage to your expertise or imperfection in your
knowledge or skill, you’re left literally not knowing that you have that damage. It was an
analogy for us.
(This is the first of a five-part series. You can read more at
1. Michael A. Fuoco, “Arrest in Bank Robbery, Suspect’s Picture Spurs Tips,” Pittsburgh
Post-Gazette, April 21, 1995.
2. Michael A. Fuoco, “Trial and Error: They had Larceny in their Hearts, but little in their
Heads,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, March 21, 1996. The article also includes several other
impossibly stupid crimes, e.g., the criminal-to-be who filled out an employment
application at a fast-food restaurant providing his correct name, address and social
security number. A couple of minutes later he decided to rob the place.
3. Justin Kruger and David Dunning, “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties of
Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-assessments,” Journal of
Personality and Social Psychology, 1999, vol. 77, no. 6, pp. 1121-1134.
4. David Dunning may be channeling Socrates. “The only true wisdom is to know that
you know nothing.” That’s too bad; Socrates gives me a headache.
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5. NATO HQ, Brussels, Press Conference by U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald
Rumsfeld, June 6, 2002. The exact quote: “There are known unknowns. That is to say,
there are things we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns.
These are the things we do not know we don’t know.”
6. O.K. I looked it up on Wikipedia. The melting point of beryllium, the fourth element,
is 1278 °C.
7. “Ctenoid” comes from one of my favorite books, “Jarrold’s Dictionary of Difficult
Words.” I challenged a member of the Mega Society [a society whose members have
ultra-high I.Q.s], who claimed he could spell anything, to spell “ctenoid.” He failed. It’s
that silent “c” that gets them every time. “Ctenoid” means “having an edge with
projections like the teeth of a comb.” It could refer to rooster combs or the scales of
8. For the inner logoleptic in all of us, allow me to recommend the Web site:
One of the site’s recommended words is “epicaricacy.” I read somewhere that the
German word “schadenfreude” has no equivalent in English. I am now greatly relieved.
9. Errol Morris, “First Person: I Dismember Mama.”
10. Dunning, David, “Self-Insight: Roadblocks and Detours on the Path to Knowing
Thyself (Essays in Social Psychology),” Psychology Press: 2005, p. 14-15.
12. A purist would no doubt complain that anosognosia has been taken out of context,
that it has been removed from the world of neurology and placed in an inappropriate and
anachronistic social science setting. But something does remain in translation, the idea of
an invisible deficit, the infirmity that cannot be known nor perceived. I can even imagine
a cognitive and psychological version of anosodiaphoria. The idea of an infirmity that
people neglect, that they do not pay any attention to.
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Although I couldn’t find an appropriate article specific to Tajik experience, I did find this
anthropological essay that combines several of the interests of the class. I personally find
ethnography fascinating as it often provides great opportunity to reflect on the implicit
subjectivity of the writer.
Gender Issues in the Afghanistan
Diaspora: Nadia's Story
Audrey C Shalinsky – 1996
Rather than restricting themselves to the study of isolated tribes and peasant villages,
anthropologists have begun to study peoples who are "culturally displaced," refugees,
diasporic groups, people without territorial homelands, and immigrants. Such groups are
increasingly prominent today in the aftermath of local wars, interethnic conflict, and
economic globalization.1 In the context of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the
subsequent Afghan Civil War, many from that country have left for other parts of the
world, including neighboring Pakistan, other Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia and
Turkey, and the United States. When I began conducting ethnographic research in
Afghanistan in I976, I did not realize what political, social, and economic upheavals were
in store for the ethnic community I studied. Like other Afghans, community members
became refugees and later immigrants to other countries; in many cases, however, they
maintained kinship, social, religious, and economic ties to relatives in various parts of the
world, forming a transnational community in which people, money, commodities, and
Discussions of transnationalism frequently begin with the cultural dynamics of
deterritorialization, which is viewed as a kind of postmodern decentering and as such is
elevated by many critical theorists. Writing from a feminist perspective, Kamala
Visweswaran suggests that this view of deterritorialization ignores both the oppressive
political forces that may have unleashed deterritorialization and the personal pain of those
who lack a sense of belonging anywhere, in essence, who lack a home.' Visweswaran's
insight certainly holds true for the Afghans I have known. They live a complex existence
that forces them to confront, draw upon, and rework different identity constructs-national,
ethnic, racial, class, and religious.2 Identity rearticulation may be particularly difficult for
Kamala Visweswaran, Fictions of Feminist Ethnography (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press,
I994), I09--13, is extremely critical of those like Arjun Appadurai who valorize "placelessness" and
concludes with the rhetorical question, "Is it coincidence, then, that while many feminist theorists identify
home as the site of theory, male critics write to eradicate it?" (III).
One of the best theoretical accounts of transnationalism is Nina Glick Schiller, Linda Basch, and Cristina
Blanc-Szanton, Towards a Transnational Perspective on Migration: Race, Class, Ethnicity and Nationalism
Reconsidered (New York: New York Academy of Science, I992). Despite their inclusion of various case
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those who come to the United States from traditional Muslim backgrounds and may focus
on gender issues, particularly in relation to marriage and the family, two intertwining
aspects of the traditional home. Moving from a household where a young woman is
surrounded by other women, mother-in-law, sister-in-law, and family in the
neighborhood to one in which she is alone for most of the day may foster a sense of
profound ambivalence. A woman gains autonomy but loses the emotional support of
others. One juxtaposition of seemingly contradictory identities, for example, is women's
veiling behavior: in the United States many women never veil outside the home when
going to work or visiting friends, but they continue to wear the long scarf at the five
prayer times each day in the home, the very place where they used to be the least
restricted. In these examples, the home becomes a locus for the deepest conflicted values:
personal agency and resistance versus accommodation to previously relevant norms, even
the observance of Islam versus its loss. Gender ideologies involving modest dress,
veiling, and the positioning of women inside the home versus outside at work each
become newly contested in recreated and reenergized ways.
Cultural studies scholar James Clifford writes, "Do diaspora experiences reinforce or
loosen gender subordination? On the one hand, maintaining connections with homelands,
with kinship networks, and with religious and cultural traditions may renew patriarchal
structures. On the other, new roles and demands, new political spaces, are opened by
diaspora interactions."3 With concern about the possibilities of gender renegotiation in
diaspora in mind, this essay examines the life of one young Afghan woman. Nadia lived
the first fifteen years of her life in a town in Afghanistan fairly near the Soviet border
where she witnessed the invasion of her country by the Soviet Union, the country from
which her grandparents had fled fifty years previously. She escaped with part of her
family to Pakistan, where in her mother's absence, she became the chief caretaker, cook,
and domestic for a large group. Since then, she has lived in Wyoming and Washington,
D.C., has learned to drive in rush hour like a native East Coast resident, and has been the
first of her family to become a U.S. citizen. She has earned a high school degree, attended
community college, and contemplated such different careers as travel agency work,
banking, computer programming, and picture framing. In May I995, at the age of twenty-
six, an age at which her parents and other relatives had quite despaired and given up all
hope of a match, she was married in a Virginia suburb of Washington, D.C., an event that
culminated a year of special parties and celebrations.
When I asked her how her life differed from her mother's, she mentioned three things:
that she has worked outside the home since she was a teenager, that she does not have to
live with her husband's family, and that she has made a lot of decisions about her own
life. Not being a social scientist, she would not speak of the problematized nature of the
home, the renegotiation of gender relationships, or the possibility of strengthened
personal agency in diaspora, but these are part of what her life teaches us. In this essay, I
present some of the events of her life from the time when I first knew her in Afghanistan
studies that include women's experiences, they ignore gender as a crucial intervening variable within their
See James Clifford, "Diasporas," Cultural Anthropology 9 (I994): 3I3-I4.
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to the present. She has obviously changed and so have her circumstances. She is a person
of great strength, and I find her life fascinating. This is a necessarily incomplete story of a
young woman, a refugee and an immigrant, a bicultural and transnational person who has
succeeded in dealing with a complex and contradictory set of dreams, desires, and
expectations. This essay seeks to convey some of the complexity of her life, but I will
only be able to do this through my eyes, and I have also changed since my original
Unlike most ethnographers, I find that my "field" area was radically transformed by
prolonged conflict soon after my research was over. In addition, I did not "leave"
everyone behind in the field, since within a few years some had come to live in the
United States. The arrival of Nadia and her family in the United States altered my
relationship both to my work and to them. I had many more opportunities to check what I
wrote, once to the extent that I read a complete book manuscript aloud to Nadia's father.
Although I consider it both ethically responsible and methodologically desirable to share
works in progress with those intimately involved in them, the line between "research" and
personal relationships is obviously blurred in this process. Furthermore, the division
between "fieldwork" and "homework" became less distinct as different pieces of myself
that had been fostered in different places and with different experiences began to
interpenetrate, a rather discordant process, but one that may foster a "decolonized"
Nadia's family took me in as a stranger and as an anthropologist in Afghanistan. When
that time and place disappeared, I became an odd representation of it. I have been part of
the family then as a kind of ironic nostalgia that reminds them of past and present
simultaneously; my note taking becomes familiar and expected not just as routine but as
validation of that past and of the strange events that have constructed our shared present.
Nadia's family and she herself expected that I be part of her wedding. That I chose to
write about her became for her almost a symbol of her adulthood since I had previously
only written using her parents as additional voices to my own. I have in this essay a more
thorough written account of some parts of her past than she remembers. We validate each
other's memories and confessions. She is a daughter, sister, and friend.6
For an excellent example of an anthropologist/ethnographer reflecting back on her old fieldnotes and how
she herself has changed, see Margery Wolf, A Thrice-Told Tale: Feminism, Postmodernism, and
Ethnographic Responsibility (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, I992). I concur with Wolf, who notes
that she is still more interested in the Chinese villagers than in writing about herself (I). This is Nadia's
story and not mine.
Compare the different forms of transnational experience that are possible. My Afghan friends find their
homeland destroyed and themselves literally and figuratively "displaced." I seek out "displacement" as part
of the ethnographic enterprise but am then ambivalent upon finding the field intersecting home. For an
interesting addition, see Visweswaran, who argues that she, born in the United States of Indian descent and
thus "displaced," through traveling to India for anthropological fieldwork was returning home (Fictions,
On the significance of writing individual's stories, my perspective is similar to Lila Abu-Lughod, Writing
Women's Worlds: Bedouin Stories (Berkeley: University of Calif ifornia Press, I993), I3-I5, I8-zz. Abu-
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My goals in this essay then are multistranded. I provide longitudinal information about an
individual's gendered and particularized experiences. I do this to provide a rich
descriptive account of a woman's experiences in diaspora and to indicate both how
gender is grounded in the daily life, activities, and social relationships of the individual
and how transnational processes transform gender relations and gender ideology.
Furthermore, by writing about an individual in this way, I avoid certain problematic
conceptualizations of culture, namely that it is timeless, coherent, and homogeneous.
Individuals like Nadia make decisions, struggle with others, change their minds and
desires, and confront new pressures. Through the particularities of her story, one can
"read" the larger forces that at least partially moved her life in certain directions.
I must have first met her in the late summer of 1976 when she was nine years old. Her
father had escorted me from Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, to Kunduz, a northern
provincial capital where they lived, so that his household could meet me and decide
whether they would like to have an American anthropologist living with them. I don't
remember her at the initial meeting, and there are no descriptions of her in my notes from
that time because I was too focused on such issues as being polite and adjusting to the
lack of bathrooms. But still I must have met her because, back in Kabul waiting for the
governmental permissions to come, I set off to buy presents-one for each of the four
For Mahbuba, as she was called then, I bought a box of colored marking pens in an array
of colors. Among the early entries that fall after I began living with her family are little
tiny marks in all of the different colors as well as the Persian and Uzbek terms she gave
me.8 At age nine, she was a solemn, slight, but not frail child with dark brown eyes and
brown hair that had something of a reddish tinge to it. I remember her as listening wide-
eyed to grown-up talk rather than speaking herself.9
Lughod writes about how arranged marriage, for example, conjures up all sorts of images of oppression, the
control of women's sexuality and lives, in the minds of western readers and yet the practice as it is realized
in the lives of individuals does not foreclose opportunity for choice or struggles to influence or oppose.
Eventually two more children were born into this family, the youngest in 1981.
The ethnic group under study originated in Uzbekistan. The people were bilingual in Persian, an Indo-
European language, and Uzbek, a language related to Turkish. For general information about the group, see
Audrey Shalinsky, Long Years of Exile, (Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, I993).
When I discussed writing this essay with her, she agreed because she thought I should change the focus of
my research to her generation rather than her parents'. However, she did not think there was anything
special about her life or words. Obviously, this essay would not exist without the cooperation of Nadia and
her family, although I am solely responsible for its contents.
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I observed Mahbuba's life in Afghanistan but never wrote extensively about her, although
I did note the following in an early article:
Mahbuba and her friends had two games that seem to involve role modeling. In one, they
would plan a party or tuy. They went so far as to prepare pilau, a rice dish, for
refreshments. They would also practice dancing and beating the daira, a tambourine-like
drum. Girls are called upon to dance at women's celebrations. In the other game, they
would say that they were playing wedding. Interestingly, the role of bride was not
desirable. Usually, a little brother or sister was pressed into playing the bride. The child
would be dressed up in veil and makeup, and the fun for the others was in singing the
wedding songs, beating the drum, dancing, admonishing the "bride" concerning proper
behavior, escorting the bride to her chair, and so on. In other words, Mahbuba and her
friends imitated the roles of their mothers and community elders, not the bride.10
The traditional bride in Afghanistan was supposed to be passive and modest. She was
controlled by her mother-in-law and the other elders of the women's community. The
little girls' games show Mahbuba's preparation for marriage and for life in a community
that no longer exists. Mahbuba laughed when I read this to her, adding that they also had
tea parties for their dolls. First, they had to make the dolls, after which each little girl
would bring some food, and they would have a social gathering together that paralleled
social occasions among the women's community.11 Women in the ethnic community
were never isolated but were always surrounded by women kin in the household and
neighborhood who were also friends. Children learned this when they accompanied their
mothers to women's special celebrations.
According to Mahbuba's mother, who had married her husband when he was nineteen
and she sixteen, she had her period only once before becoming pregnant with her oldest
child. The pregnancy and labor were difficult, the latter lasting about twelve hours from
dinner to the following morning. While the mother was attended by her mother-in-law
and a midwife for this first birth, her subsequent children were born with the aid of a
nurse-practitioner who could offer pain shots. In Afghanistan, Mahbuba's parents lived
with her father's parents; three brothers, one of whom married shortly before I arrived;
and two sisters, one of whom had married and was living with her husband and his family
in the same neighborhood.
Often after a baby's birth, several relatives suggest names with one eventually sticking.
Mahbuba's name was chosen by her father's brother, who, when she was born, said that if
his suggestion was not given, he would never pick her up. Known to have something of a
temper, he then went outside and sat as if in a huff. Mahbuba's grandmother (father's
mother) then took the baby to him, and his name remained.
See Audrey Shalinsky, "Learning Sexual Identity: Parents and Children in Northern Afghanistan,"
Anthropology and Education Quarterly II (I980): 258.
For the most complete account of the women's community, see Audrey Shalinsky "Women's
Relationships in Traditional Northern Afghanistan," Central Asian Survey 8 (I989): II7-29.
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I did not record much about Mahbuba's early years, but my notes indicate she was known
for eating dirt at about age three, which would have been at the time her brother Fazl was
born. Her childhood revolved around her position in the family as the oldest female child
with five younger ones to care for. My slides frequently show her carrying around the
newest baby balanced on one hip, and in one she is even playing a game similar to
hopscotch with the baby on one side. By I976, when I first arrived, she was partially
bilingual in Afghan Persian (Dari), one of the official languages of Afghanistan, and
Uzbek, the minority language related to Turkish that is spoken by the majority of the
people of her ethnic group as their household language. My notes also record her
attempts to count in both languages, to name animal terms, and to show she already could
use the appropriate kin terms, a necessity in the extended family household and ethnic
Islam was another important part of her life even at that young age. Among the religious
practices I noted was Mahbuba and her brother practicing the creed with their mother,
"There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God." Every Thursday the
two children attended Qur'an school with a learned woman referred to as a "bibi mullah,"
to whom they gave five afghanis, about twelve cents, each time. When she reached a
certain stage in her lessons, she was given a new dress and other little girls came for a
party. She also attended public school; this was at the time that the first girls in her ethnic
community were graduating from the local high school. High school graduation would
complete their formal education because girls were not allowed to attend the university in
Mahbuba, who did many chores around the house, was not a particularly favored or
indulged child. For example, one day we all went to her grandmother's (mother's mother)
for a visit, and she was not allowed to go. She cried, but when that did no good, she took
up her recently learned knitting. Actually, one aspect of the culture with which I had
trouble was that people would openly ask each other and me which of the four children
was the favorite. At this time, the younger son, Mujib, was singled out to be favored and
indulged. He was petted and made much over even when the other children were present,
but today Mahbuba does not really remember this, and I think it upset me more than it did
her even then.
She was already starting to grow up at the age of nine. A December I entry in my
fieldnotes states, "Children are sometimes given a few afs to keep and buy toys at the
bazaar. Fazl bought bread at the bazaar which everyone thought was very funny-as if we
didn't have enough bread at home. Mahbuba bought some Pakistani nail polish and
lipstick for five afs." This interest in grown-up things was accepted, although girls were
really not permitted to wear makeup until their wedding celebrations, at which point they
were bedecked for the first time as part of the rituals. Today makeup is worn at parties by
women and girls of this ethnic group in the United States, but Mahbuba still had to wait
to pluck her eyebrows for the first time until the occasion of her engagement.
Sexual relationships and their consequences were areas not well understood by Mahbuba
at age nine. She once told me that animals give birth anally and women through the
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navel. Once late at night when her father was away, her mother showed me some
contraceptives obtained in Kabul. Mahbuba kept waking up, looking, and asking what
everything was for, but her mother just laughed and told her to sleep. Another time, her
mother and I were discussing menstruation, and again Mahbuba asked what we were
speaking about, upon which her mother commented, "She does not understand, and girls
are not told anything by anyone." However, this was changing, as other little girls of the
same age and slightly older were more knowledgeable. For those living in the United
States, this is not an issue for they are inundated with sexual information at school and in
After I returned to the United States in I977, I prepared two large boxes of gifts for
everyone in the neighborhood: photos, a camera, clothes, catalogs (which they used for
sewing ideas), billfolds, and nylon stockings. I had forgotten what I sent Mahbuba until
she reminded me of it many years later. It was a watch with a red leather strap. I had
worn one similar to it that she had always admired, so I sent one designed for a child. She
told me how she had loved it.
Mahbuba grew up surrounded by family, friends, and fellow ethnics. Though her life did
not recapitulate her mother's in all respects-she attended public school, for example, and
her mother had not-her life was the same in crucial ways. Home, the women's
community, and Islam surrounded her and were so a part of the daily routine that they
were completely taken for granted.
In I983 at the age of fifteen, Mahbuba, her father, and her three oldest siblings escaped
the Afghanistan Civil War and went to Pakistan. Her mother and the two youngest
children went to Saudi Arabia on a pilgrimage passport and then rejoined the family in
Pakistan months later. As was commonly the case for this ethnic group, they moved on to
Karachi, a place where they could receive money from relatives already settled elsewhere
rather than registering and living as refugees in one of the camps. This period was very
difficult because they were unaccustomed to Karachi's heat and insects. Mahbuba had to
take on the household role of an adult woman. Her father decided to emigrate to the
United States as a political refugee, primarily because he felt his children would have
greater educational opportunities here.12
Mahbuba remembers her father indicating that life would be very different in the United
States. He went out and bought her two pairs of slacks, one of denim, to wear rather than
their traditional clothes, shocking a neighbor woman. By the time her mother and the two
youngest children joined them, they had bought a television set, from which they were
gaining a knowledge of the United States from shows like Trapper John, MD. that were
shown on Pakistani television.
I explain the context of their emigration to the United States in Audrey Shalinsky, "The Aftermath of
Fieldwork in Afghanistan: Personal Politics," Anthropology and Humanism Quarterly I6 (I99I): 2-9. In that
essay, Nadia's father discusses his reasons for applying to come to the United States rather than move to
Saudi Arabia as his mother desired. The ethnic group has a long standing emigre community in Saudi
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The United States
The trip to the United States, their first airplane ride, was exciting; there were hotels that
seemed luxurious and large television sets that they would stay up all night watching.
They especially loved cartoons. And so they came to Laramie, Wyoming, sponsored by
the local Episcopal Church. Since they were coming to a small university community in a
rural state, I thought their transition into this culture would be eased.13
Mahbuba and her three oldest siblings were attending the university preparatory school
within three weeks of their arrival. Most of her memories of Laramie focus on the school,
her teachers, and the young people she met. She had no knowledge of English and all the
classes were in English. Mahbuba sat and tried to catch on. She remembers thinking one
of the teachers had said that the next day they would have a party so she brought popcorn
and some of the Hindi popular music that the Afghans like. Although her teacher let her
have her party, she laughs at herself now that she naively thought her music would be
popular. I remember her crying because her parents would not permit her to go on
overnights like school camping trips, but it was time to start thinking about honor, family
reputation, and potential marriage partners. Other families were already asking about
matches, and, at age sixteen, she could undertake the household responsibilities of an
adult woman as she had shown in Pakistan during her mother's absence.
I think the worst experience she had at school came about because of her name and the
insensitivity of three teenage girls. The girls kept making fun of her name, emphasizing
the second syllable and giggling. She could not understand their reasons-obviously
American slang for breast was unknown to her-and she puzzled and cried about this for
awhile. Eventually, when the school administration became aware of the situation, the
girls were told to stop their behavior. Still out of this time and from her pain, a new name,
Nadia, emerged, representing for the first time her own decision and a changed view of
herself. The name was not so much used in Laramie as it was after the move to the
Washington, D.C., area for a new start, and it is the one on the American citizenship
papers. Now, only her family calls her Mahbuba.
Moving to the northern Virginia suburbs so that her father could take a government job
offered new opportunities for Nadia. She finished high school, and I attended the
graduation ceremony. She also completed another rite of American adolescent passage:
driving and car ownership. She explored several careers, finally owning and managing an
art gallery and framing store, and she was in no hurry to marry, even though she
frequently spoke to me about the many offers of arrangements that were suggested by kin
and other Afghan friends. First her reason was "How can I marry someone I don't know?"
Gradually, it became "How can I marry someone I don't love?" Still Nadia never dated
even though she had plenty of opportunities to do so given her extensive work experience
outside her home. She never considered dating non-Muslims and would never have
Shalinsky, "Aftermath," 6.
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married someone unacceptable to her family.14 She said, "Because there are few
possibilities to know people, arranged meetings are best." Her life at school and work did
affect her expectations about a future husband. Nadia wanted someone acceptable to her
family, but also someone who shared her own vision of life in the United States.
Nadia had known a sort of love once, although many might say it was more of a romantic
crush. Back in Afghanistan, she and a boy had actually promised to marry each other, and
for some years, I believe, she hoped that there might be a way for them to be together.
But he was still in Afghanistan, which made for many difficulties, and eventually a match
was arranged for him in Saudi Arabia. Nadia still did not agree to any suggestions about
possible matches. She knew what she wanted, and, with less control from extended
family relatives who were far away, she could not be persuaded.
Some suitors she refused to meet, while others she met with in the company of her
parents were then refused her consent. The amount of pressure on her was great, and her
father, who looked for religious observance and an honorable family background as
indispensable for the match, once called me to say in frustration that a very good young
man had approached the family. When Nadia refused the young man, all her relatives
tried to convince her; everyone agrees that she cried for three days. Her father thought
that her refusal, about which she was firm, was based on modesty and that she really did
not know her own mind. He told her to say a special prayer and the next morning to say
the first thing that her heart responded about the proposal. She told me that she already
knew how it would come out, but she did as her father wished and, of course, then
refused in the morning. I have always been amazed at the amount of courage that she
showed in rejecting the matches that were proposed for so many years as she became
older and older and more ineligible in many eyes. These are notable examples of
resistance although she never rejected the idea that her parents' approval would be
necessary for a match nor did she act in ways that were completely outside acceptable
gender roles, that is, she did not leave her parents' home. She was stubborn, but she
expressed it within available discourses, her right of consent, a woman's modesty, the
traditional importance placed on marriage by the family, a young person's emotions.15 It
is also significant that though she wanted to visit relatives, including her grandmother, in
Saudi Arabia for many years, somehow she never quite managed to go. Pressure from her
grandmother about marriage was very great and perhaps would have been impossible to
withstand had she actually been living in her household in Saudi Arabia.
At different times she has told me what she wanted in a husband. Her requirements
included that "the man should be older than the woman." All the proposed men who were
the same age or younger were automatically rejected. The man she accepted is four years
Marriage to non-Muslims even by women is now increasing, and living together without marriage now
also exists. However, most people in the community feel that such behavior reflects on the family and
brings them dishonor; it is considered a major tragedy.
For a comparative example in which women strategically lay claim to certain control over their situation
using a gendered discourse, indicating both the structural limitations of this deployment and the possibility
of fulfillment and strength, see Dorinne K. Kondo, Crafting Selves: Power Gender and Discourses of
Identity in a Japanese Workplace (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, I990), z59.
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older than she. She did not want a man who was completely under the control of his
parents, and she told me of one such man with whom she met to discuss the possibility of
marriage: "He told me how his father planned his work and had said certain things about
his future. That was nice, very respectful, but didn't he have any ideas and wishes
She wanted to feel something after meeting the man, an attraction or what I told her
would be called "chemistry." This is the one area that her parents understood least; they
had never even met before their marriage. One of the first things she ever said to me
about her fiance was, "When we met, something clicked in my heart." That was it. When
we spoke again by phone about a month before the final marriage celebrations, she said,
"I still feel it." Nadia's struggle to find an acceptable husband, who would meet her needs
but fit into her family situation, indicates a significant change from women's traditional
situation in Afghanistan. While women in her ethnic group were given the right of
consent, withstanding the opinions of family, community elders, kin, and the ethnic
neighborhood was not something that young women were able to do very frequently.
Refusing several suitors was enough to cause scandal and ruin a woman's chances in the
I970s. The diaspora situation gave Nadia an opportunity to pay more attention to her own
Nadia's husband, Errol, is from Turkey, not Afghanistan. However, this is not as great a
difference as one might think. Both are Sunni Muslims of the Hanafi rite. Also, Uzbeks
like Nadia's family, whether in Uzbekistan or northern Afghanistan, are Turks, that is,
their language and origin is Turkic just like the people of Turkey. Nadia can understand
Turkish and will probably learn to speak it. Her father, for example, with more
experience in speaking to Turkomans in Afghanistan, whose language is closer to
Turkish than is Uzbek, could already speak to Errol without using English. According to
Nadia, there were very few Uzbek men of the appropriate age who were left as potential
spouses. There were some Afghans or Pashtuns but these are not viewed as favorably
Although from Istanbul originally, Errol has been living in the United States for five
years. His real name is Hizr, the Arabic for Elijah, an Islamic prophet, but he had some
difficulty with the name Hizr in the United States. People's lack of familiarity with the
name led him to use another common Turkish name, Errol, and to introduce himself that
way. Sometimes he even uses the name John just to make his business transactions go
more easily. Errol and Nadia thus share the immigration experience in the United States.
Both have had to accommodate to their new culture to the point of changing their names.
The new names, however, do not only indicate loss; they show positive creativity and a
presentation of a new independent self not so clearly linked to an Islamic and alien past.
The extended family was consulted about the match, and, according to Nadia, she spoke
to one uncle in Saudi Arabia to ask for his permission, which he readily gave with the
comment that the most important thing was that she asked. He also said that "Turks are
like us," that is, similar to Uzbeks and certainly better than Afghans or Pashtuns, the
dominant ethnic group of Afghanistan. While Nadia did not talk to her grandmother in
Saudi Arabia directly she also apparently favored the match, perhaps because she is in
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hopes that marriage with someone from Turkey will lead the entire family from living in
the United States, which she has always opposed, to Turkey, which is closer to Saudi
Arabia. However, Errol likes the United States and does not have any intention of leaving
in the immediate future.
Originally, Nadia had persuaded Errol to move his business from New Jersey to the
Washington, D.C., area so that she could remain close to her family, but then Nadia
agreed to move to New Jersey to be with him. These changes in the ideas about place of
residence are a simultaneous reassertion of the convention shared by both Nadia and
Errol that the woman moves to the man's household and an indication of Nadia's new
independence from her natal family. Significantly, after less than six months in New
Jersey, Errol and Nadia moved back to Washington, D.C., initially residing with her
family before they found their own apartment. Nadia and Errol renegotiated their living
arrangements, and Nadia again asserted her wish to be near her own family. Despite the
norm that the husband's business should dictate family location, Errol acquiesced to
Nadia, another sign of Nadia's ability to assert herself and of their adaptation to the
United States. No members of Errol's family reside in the United States except for a
There are several important considerations mentioned in the preceding section that
recommended this match in Nadia's eyes. First, I believe she prefers the life she has in the
United States to one in Saudi Arabia or anywhere else for that matter. Many times she
referred to the freedom she has. She said, "The life is good there [in Saudi Arabia, that is,
materially prosperous,] but there is no freedom." One lives by asking permission of
senior relatives about how, when, and where one may go. Second, Nadia does not have to
live under the authority of a mother-in-law as she would if they resided in Turkey or if
Errol had senior relatives living here. While she is accustomed to living under her parents
authority, a mother-in-law traditionally imposes authority in areas such as the
performance of household tasks. There would also probably be strong pressure to become
pregnant quickly, and Nadia wants to "wait at least a year" and have "three or four
children at the most."
Errol's business is the creation of custom-designed lamps, sculptures, mirrors, and other
home decor items. He sells them wholesale to stores and occasionally on a retail basis.
When he first came to the United States, he worked in a gas station in order to save
money. Having resided in New York, California, and New Jersey, he apparently doesn't
care about the location of his business and generally is willing to accommodate her. In
fact, some of Errol's pieces could easily have been sold from her art gallery, another
important element of compatibility
As I recorded them in my notes, Nadia described the events that led up to her marriage:
At first his parents, who are in their 6os, were not enthusiastic. They thought he was
marrying an "American." They wanted him to get married in Turkey but he likes the
freedom of the United States. This guy Hakimi [a member of their ethnic group] knew
this guy [Errol] for four or five years. Hakimi is a little older. He called me about it
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himself He had gone to his mother and she had talked to my mother. She [her mother]
was bugging me about it. I asked Hakimi what he was like and he said, "He is beautiful
inside and out." So I agreed to meet him but with no promises.
When they first met, the young man came to her family. He sat by her father and did not
say much while Nadia mainly stayed in the kitchen. Her father thought, "here's another
rejection," because he did not think the young man sophisticated, which he thought was
what Nadia was looking for and why she had turned down so many. They really did not
speak together except to say hello. On the next day after this initial meeting with the
family, Errol and Nadia were allowed to go to a restaurant and talk to each other. They
shared many perspectives and had many common interests. She consented. Nadia's father
then investigated the man and his family background before agreeing to the arrangement
by having a friend in Turkey go talk to the parents.
It was late April when the engagement was announced amidst a large social gathering
where Nadia's family fed over two hundred people in their house. The engagement is the
occasion on which presents are given to the groom by the bride's family and to the bride
by the groom's family. Nadia and Errol exchanged gold rings. She picked out a diamond
ring for herself as the engagement ring, because having the kind of jewelry she wanted
was important to her. At the engagement, there were no other significant gifts of gold,
traditional components of Afghan bride-gifts. Nadia does not favor elaborate gold
jewelry, although Errol has promised to get a few pieces from Turkey so that the honor
and traditional value of a woman, measured in her own gold, can be maintained. Nadia
and Errol do not wish to subject themselves to surreptitious gossip by the ethnic
community, but they also do what they choose even about such traditional gifts as gold
Engagements have taken on many customs once saved for the wedding celebrations
themselves. For example, the bride and groom dress formally and are escorted into the
crowd while a Qur'an is held over the bride's head. This used to be part of the third day of
the wedding celebration in Afghanistan rather than part of the engagement celebrations,
from which the bride herself was often absent to show herself modest. Gifts were
presented to her by a woman related to the groom who displayed them to those present.
Engagements and weddings were celebrated separately by men and women in
Afghanistan, while in the United States men and women are present at the same
Nadia's father did not want to have separate engagement, contract, and marriage
celebrations but rather to have the contract or nikah finalized at the engagement
celebrations. All that is needed for the contract, the Islamic part of a marriage
arrangement, is for witnesses to be present, for the bride and groom to consent, and for a
payment, mahr, to be specified in a written document. The couple is then married
according to Islam. However, Nadia and Errol's engagement was held during the period
between the end of Ramadan and the end of the festival that commemorates Abraham's
sacrifice, Id-i Qurban, a time when it is not customary for marriages to take place.
Nadia's father said that this customary prohibition is not Islamic law and wanted to go
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ahead; he wanted his daughter and future son-in-law married as soon as possible so that
there would be no illicit sexual temptation when the two were alone together. Both
Nadia's mother and Errol's mother objected, however, so the engagement and contract
could not be combined.
In July, after the second festival, Nadia's father arranged for the contract. There was no
large party-only five witnesses. Errol was the one surprised at the contract because he
apparently did not know about mahr. When this sum was to be specified, Nadia's father
said $1000 at which point, according to Nadia's account, her mother rolled her eyes and
said $5000. This was the amount written with the understanding that $1500 would be
paid soon and $3500 eventually. Errol did not know what any of this was about and
thought the practice was out of the Dark Ages, perhaps, I thought, because mahr was
made illegal in Turkey in the I920s. However, Nadia's father's explanation was that Errol
had not been at home for some years before his emigration to the United States and was
ignorant of the core practices of Islam still done by many Turks. The mahr is used to set
up the couple's household and is not a source of financial gain for Nadia's family.
For the contract, the family sent no notifications or invitations, and Nadia as well as her
parents heard plenty of criticism from people who were not asked to be there, but she
shrugged it off. She spoke of her relief that the pressure was over. She again mentioned
the sense of freedom she felt that no longer did she have to ask her parents' permission
when she went out at night. However, this "freedom" was more ambiguous than it
seemed. When Nadia wanted to drive up alone to see Errol in New Jersey, she still asked
for permission, but her father now would not answer. He told me that he did not care
what they did, stating, "They are married." This meant that they could be alone together
as much as they wanted, but Nadia did not want to consummate the marriage until after
formal wedding celebrations were held in the spring. This desire to wait seemed not to be
the fear of a sexual relationship but the wish to do things properly in the right time in the
right way. In a way, they dated after marriage to get to know each other.
The Wedding Celebration
Until the spring final wedding celebration, Nadia continued working and living at her
parents'. She and Errol did the marriage license and blood tests at the time of the contract
and so could then complete the other paperwork-Nadia changing her name on official
documents, and so on. They spent months saving money and planning for the wedding
celebration. Nadia consulted the wedding planner magazines that show all the bridal
dresses. Her problem in buying the dress was that most were too low cut; again she
attempted to reconcile her Islamic-based values with her desire to be fashionable in the
Nadia and Errol (and mostly Errol) were paying for the final wedding celebration. Nadia
chose the Holiday Inn in northern Virginia for the occasion because the manager is an
Afghan and because they allow outside catering, which meant that Afghan food could be
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brought in. She and Errol also stayed there for their wedding night. The food, the hotel,
and other expenses cost them over $10,000, and because Errol is paying these bills, they
decided that he is not to pay the mahr previously agreed on. Nadia would have flower
girls precede her but no bridesmaids because her sisters did not want to participate in that
way. Perhaps they still felt some sense of not wanting to be the center of attention since
traditionally it was not considered appropriate for unmarried girls to push themselves
forward. Though she had dreamed of Hawaii for the honeymoon trip, Errol suggested
Florida, and though they originally planned to honeymoon two days after the celebration,
their disagreement about the destination as well as financial considerations delayed the
trip. They returned to New Jersey two days after the wedding.
Nadia visited Errol quite often in the period between the contract and the final
celebration. Occasionally, accompanied by one of her sisters, she stayed at her father's
cousin's house in Brooklyn. She spent some time looking at apartments and finally found
one. When Errol came down to visit her, even the day before the wedding, he stayed with
one of her relatives in a different house. I don't know how much time they ever had to be
Nadia herself basically arranged the wedding celebration, a tuy, with Errol's help. She did
not ask her parents for anything, and when her father offered at the very end, there was
some tension between them. She had enough invitations printed for 350 guests because
her mother had said, "If you invite everyone, no one can be offended." The invitations
had gold printing on the inside of the white cards. She hired the services of a still
photographer and a video cameraman.16 She found a caterer for the Afghan food-four
kinds of rice pilafs, and several kinds of meat and chicken kebabs, salad, spinach,
cornstarch pudding, and baklava for dessert, enough for 350 big eaters. Only Sprite and
Coke were served as the drinks because Nadia is, in fact, a strict Muslim. She realized
that some of the more assimilated guests would take advantage of the hotel bars, but she
deprecated that fact.
The cake, purchased and set up by its creators, was to be five tiers with whipped cream
flowers on the outside and a light sponge cake inside with small pieces of fruit in between
some of the layers. She hired one band to play Afghan music and another, who were
friends of Errol's brother, to play Turkish music. To go with her white dress with train
and faux pearl bodice, she made both her own veil with three tiers of net down to the
floor attached to a headband of faux pearls and rhinestones and her bouquet of white silk
flowers. She and Errol made thirty-five centerpieces for the tables, which were silk
flowers in pots color coordinated to go with the hotel reception room's green and maroon
decor. Nadia made the ring bearer's pillow and four flower basketseach decorated white
with white silk flowers, white satin bows, and pearls-as well as the decorated cover in
Wedding videos are important for many Afghan ethnic groups. David Edwards in "Afghanistan,
Ethnography, and the New World Order," Cultural Anthropology 9 (I994): 354, reports on one that he
viewed with some Pashtun men in Washington, D.C., that included only the men's celebration in Peshawar,
Pakistan. As Margaret Mills, "Response to David B. Edward's Afghanistan, Ethnography, and the New
World Order,"' Cultural Anthropology 9 (1994): 363, points out in commenting on Edwards, some ethnic
communities do allow mixed sex viewing. She notes that the diversity of the interpretations of these
electronic texts provides perpetually emergent retextualizations.
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which was wrapped a copy of the Qur'an. She also purchased a decanter, two elegant
goblets, and an ornate cake knife and server, all of which she decorated with small white
silk flowers. The striking aspect of Nadia's concern with all these details is that she saw
the wedding as her concern and under her control. Brides in Afghanistan were never this
powerful. Mothers and mothers-in-law with the help of their female kin made all these
decisions about food, clothing, and decoration. The bride essentially did nothing except
agree, wait to be taken to the groom's parents' house, and appear obedient, even if she
were really exuberant and excited.
The pace accelerated around three weeks before the tuy, at which point the bridal
showers were scheduled. These each fulfilled a different purpose and indicate the ease
with which Nadia and her friends and family move between different cultural traditions.
Her mother sponsored one party, which was actually a version of the henna party, usually
held in Afghanistan the night before the contract. About eighty senior women attended
the party and brought gifts. Everyone's hands were decorated with henna, a celebratory
activity considered to make hands beautiful and to bring good fortune. Then her mother's
brother's wife sponsored a party, similar to a typical bridal shower, for unmarried girls,
who also brought gifts. Finally, about fifteen of Nadia's closest friends surprised her with
a party in a restaurant, where she received more gifts.
The weekend before the final celebration, Nadia's parents took all the household goods
that they were giving the couple and the assorted wedding gifts to the newly rented one-
bedroom New Jersey apartment and moved her in. Some family and friends helped. This
move essentially paralleled the move to the groom's parents' household that would take
place immediately after the contract in the traditional marriage celebrations. It was at this
time that one of the most significant parts of traditional Uzbek marriage rituals took
place, the singing of "Yar Yar," the lovers' song. In Kunduz, "Yar Yar" was sung
whenever the bride was escorted outside of her mother's house during traditional
marriage rituals. It highlights the sadness of the family that must lose a daughter. For
example, some verses say:
Don't throw the stone in the river because it will not return Don't give your daughter far
away, he will take her and go The one who gives her daughter far away has a pale face
Tears from her eyes flow like a stream.
The move away was thus marked with "Yar Yar," but the wedding celebration itself
would lack this element. The wedding as Nadia envisioned it would not be sad; it would
be that fairyland dream that one sees in American bridal magazines with some elements
from wedding celebrations as they were done in Kabul by the more sophisticated
members of their group.17
There are also events in these wedding celebrations similar to marriage rituals in Uzbekistan. An
example is the singing of the wedding song, "Yar Yar." Visitors from Uzbekistan occasionally are invited
to attend weddings of the community in the United States. Likewise, wedding celebrations among the
community members who live in Saudi Arabia also have similar practices. A discussion of all the variants
of wedding customs in their different locations is beyond the scope of this essay.
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When I arrived at her parents' house two days before the wedding celebration, Nadia's
first remark to me was that she felt sick. She said her stomach felt funny and she was not
eating. She had classic symptoms of prewedding jitters complete with butterflies and
weight loss. She was also frantically trying to complete everything at the last minute,
fixing parts of the four flower girls dresses and her sisters' clothes. At parties like this,
women dress in evening wear: long dresses, sequins, and bugle beads. It is not easy to
find dresses that are fancy enough and yet sufficiently covered, and two of her sisters'
dresses had to have black mesh demi-blouses sewn into the tops. On the day before the
wedding, a couple of women came over to help prepare a special food, malida, which is
set on the wedding table directly in front of the bride and groom and may be eaten
sprinkled on cake or as a pinch of sweetness. It is a fragrant powder made of pulverized
bread crumbs, sugar, oil, and cardamom that is customarily served at fancy weddings in
Kabul. It took the women about five hours to make two platters full. Her mother also
fixed seven large plastic bags filled with meat to give away. These represent zakat, alms,
one of the five duties of Islam. On joyous occasions such as weddings, their custom in
Afghanistan was to give specially prepared food to the poor.
The wedding day was not without complications and problems. Nadia had arranged to
have her sisters' hair as well as her own fixed at a local salon. However, all except one
did not like the results, so they went home and rewashed their hair. Nadia redid her hair
herself, burning herself with the curling iron in the process; the resulting burn mark
caused considerable teasing throughout the evening about her "hickey." Her sister, a new
driver, drove her with her wedding gown and most of the other important people and
objects of the wedding in their family van to the hotel. At a major intersection on the
highway, they ran out of gas, arriving at the hotel about three hours after Nadia had
originally planned. They immediately went up to one of the two rooms they had reserved
so that she could put on her makeup and dress with the assistance of two friends. Finally
all the last minute activities were completed. Errol was given his boutonniere, and the
petals were pulled off bundles of fresh flowers for the flower girls' baskets. The wedding
party went to the hotel lobby to get their pictures taken sometime around 8:00 P.M., after
the time guests had been asked to come according to the invitation. Fortunately, the party
was to last until 2:00 A.M., and guests knew they should come late.
The appearance of the guests shows the diversity of Muslim practice among this group in
the United States. Some married women, the strictest, are just as elegantly and
sophisticatedly dressed as the others, but their clothes cover them from wrists to ankles,
and they wear scarves over their hair. Other women leave out the scarves. Others dress as
if Islamic norms of modesty no longer apply and look as if they are about to go to a
nightclub, barely covered in sequined dresses and wearing shoes with three- or four-inch
heels. The men wear suits and ties.
The most important event of the evening's celebration occurred at 10:00 P.M. when the
grand procession of the bride and group entered the party. One band's emcee announced
each person as they entered the room and headed toward the far end of the dance floor.
First the flower girls and ring bearer walked in. The bride's younger sister followed
carrying the decanter and goblets. Then the bride and groom came in together, followed
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by the bride's younger brother who held the Qur'an over the bride's head. They walked
into the room across the dance floor and lined up there for more photos. At this time, the
bride and groom exchanged gold wedding rings. Since they were already married, there
was really no other ritual except for this final social acknowledgement of their married
Nadia and Errol began the dancing as a couple. Dancing continued for about forty-five
minutes before dinner was served; usually husband and wives danced together by facing
each other but without touching. Women also danced facing each other as partners or in
groups. The strictest Muslims, the women who dress most conservatively and men who
are leaders of the Islamic community, did not dance because dancing is considered to
have the potential of promoting lascivious and disruptive behavior.19 Though the steps
are traditional Uzbek dance, this is not the way dancing proceeded at parties in Kunduz;
there women danced individually as entertainment for the bride and groom or as display
before the rest of the women. The mixed dancing at weddings, with its connotation of the
open display of women's sexuality, is a significant symbol of the Americanization of
these marriage rituals. First, husbands and wives are tied together as couples whereas in
Afghanistan men and women as gender groups celebrate by themselves. Second, the
women are not afraid to express themselves in front of men in this way. In Afghanistan,
women acting in this way would be considered to have essentially prostituted themselves,
and their menfolk would be dishonored. In the United States, however, where sexuality is
so blatantly displayed in the media, this fairly moderate exhibition becomes less
After dinner was served, dancing continued for the rest of the evening. Dancing is
significant for it means rejoicing at the happiness of the bride and groom. The bride's
brother commented to me that though he is twenty years old and has been to many
weddings, this is only the second time that he ever danced: "It's a lot different when it's
your sister than when you're just visiting." The only other activity was the bride and
groom drinking a goblet of fruit juice from the decanter, an act reminiscent of the bride
and groom's champagne toast at American weddings.
At two in the morning when the guests had to leave, many said good-bye to Nadia and
Errol at the reception room’s entry door. Nadia was occasionally tearful at her farewells.
She and Errol then retired to one of their two reserved rooms. Nadia's sisters went to
sleep in the other hotel room as a treat.
For an analysis of the traditional marriage rituals in a rites of passage framework, see Shalinsky, "Battle
for the Bride," 1-13.
As indicated, dance and music are a part of the traditional wedding celebration. However, indulgence in
such activities was considered to promote sexual immorality. See Shalinsky, Long Years of-Exile, 91, for a
specific example. The general ideology is that the arousing of passion and selfishness leads to the lack of
community responsibility, especially for women who then tempt men away from their duties also. The most
complete analysis of this is provided in Audrey Shalinsky, "Reason, Desire and Sexuality: The Meaning of
Gender in Northern Afghanistan," Ethos 14 (I986): 223-43.
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The next day Nadia's mother and a few others prepared a special brunch for the
newlyweds before they returned to New Jersey. Nadia, always thoughtful, had brought
bouquets of flowers for all the women because it was the day before Mother's Day. I
remember how she looked, model slim, her face heartshaped with high cheekbones, and
her hair in waves several inches past her shoulders. Her traveling brideclothes were a
beautifully cut beige jacket with a chiffon skirt, pretty enough for a less formal wedding.
One of the women said, "She glows like a bride," and so she did.
Since lives are always unfinished stories, I am left with many questions. Where will
Nadia work? How soon will she have children? Will they go to live in Turkey? Will they
ever have a honeymoon? How will she and Errol negotiate their marital decisions? How
much of a force will Islam remain in their lives? Nadia's story appears to be a more
positive story than those that are described for many women refugees. She clearly had a
great deal of control over whom she married and how the celebrations took place. Yet she
remains a devout Muslim, probably more so than her husband. She did not become
estranged from her family and ethnic network, which was intricately involved in
introducing her to Errol. There seems to be a complicated interweaving of disparate
elements of identity: the Uzbek and Afghan identity giving way to the Muslim identity,
the middleclass identity carried over from Afghanistan gaining new expression with
United States consumerism. There may indeed be an important renegotiation of gender
relations and ideology in the immigrant context since Nadia never presented herself, nor
was she constrained to display herself, as the downcast and forlorn bride who is reluctant
to leave home, the major symbol of the modest obedient daughter-in-law.20 Nadia waited
until she found whom she wanted to marry and basically organized a series of
celebrations that integrated a few traditional cultural elements (food and songs) and some
Muslim elements (a contract) with many American-style components (dress and
decorations). Nadia and her husband are obviously still negotiating about career and
location as do many young married couples in the United States.
In my field diary, I commented about how sad I felt that so many customs were lost or
were so transformed in their current contexts that they seem to mean something rather
different than they did before.21 How much of that nostalgia was a product of my own
ethnographic creation? After all, even in the 1970s, the people of this community, who
were of middle-class mercantile background, moved back and forth between Kunduz and
Kabul and attended celebrations in both places. Wedding celebrations were perhaps even
in the 1970s a powerful indicator of contextual and situational readjustment. The society
was not isolated or static, as political events demonstrated. As transnational migrants
Clifford called attention to gender renegotiation in immigration situations in his essay, "Diasporas," 3I4.
As for many communities of exile, there is some nostalgia as a mode of discourse and representation.
However, this is not as institutionalized as for Iranians in the United States. See Hamid Naficy, "The
Poetics and Practice of Iranian Nostalgia in Exile," Diaspora i (I99I): 285-30I, for the Iranian case.
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today, people from this community attend weddings in Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Saudi
Arabia, and the United States, adjusting to the differences easily enough. How odd that I,
the ethnographer, recognize and can articulate more examples of the ways their cultural
practices have adjusted and feel more nostalgia than they about some aspects of their
changed culture, and yet my work and sometimes even my presence evoke in them the
very nostalgia that I have mentioned.
Nor does the community seem as necessarily linked to territory as it once did in my
ethnographic constructions. Rather notions of territory, homeland, and nationality seem
to be constructed positionings of persons as they reconceive multiple layers of identity in
new situations such as diaspora. Even the home itself has a transformed meaning in the
new context. Gender, class, and Islam likewise interact, and their intersection is part of
the process of the rearticulation of identity. Nadia's story has been one of creativity and
of a complex pattern of resistance and accommodation to social and political forces in
disparate and even contradictory situations. For the present, she and her husband work
together in their store in the Washington, D.C., suburbs. Living near her family but not
enmeshed in it, they create their own new home and practice Islam as part of the
American Muslim community struggling to be middle class. Their individual experiences
with transnational forces have enabled them to gain strength and perseverance that should
serve them well.
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Anita Pleumarom coordinates the Bangkok-based Tourism Investigation & Monitoring
Team and is the editor of New Frontiers, a bi-monthly news bulletin focussing on
tourism, development and environment issues in the Southeast Asian Mekongsub-region.
Tourism, Globalisation, and Sustainable
BEFORE getting into the cold facts of global economics, let me begin with another story
to warm up. I was perplexed when I recently read in the newspaper that Thailand's
forestry chief had said: 'Humans can't live in the forest because human beings aren't
animals. Unlike us, animals can adapt themselves to the wild or any environment
naturally.' This was to legitimatise the government's plan to remove hundreds of
thousands of rural and hill tribe people from protected areas. This man, who is in charge
of conserving the forests, is at the same time very strongly pushing to open up the
country's 81 national parks to outside investors and visitors in the name of 'eco-tourism'.
Can we conclude, then, that the forestry chief considers developers and tourists as
animals that know how to adapt to the forest and behave in the wild naturally?
While authorities want to stop the access to forest lands and natural resources of village
people, another group of people - namely tourism developers and tourists with lots of
money to spend - are set to gain access to the area. While authorities believe that local
people, who have often lived in the area for generations, are not capable of managing and
conserving their land and natural resources - under a community forestry scheme for
example - they believe they themselves in cooperation with the tourist industry can
properly manage and conserve 'nature' under a national eco-tourism plan. Taking the
above quote seriously, cynics may be tempted to say there is obviously a gap between
'human rights' and 'animal rights'.
How is this story linked to globalisation? First of all, that humans cannot live in the forest
is - of course - not a Thai concept. It is a notion of Western conservation ideology - an
outcome of the globalisation of ideas and perceptions. Likewise, that eco-tourism under a
'good management' system is beneficial to local people and nature is also a Western
concept that is being globalised. In fact, Thailand's forestry chief thinks globally and acts
locally. A lesson that can be learned from this is that the slogan 'Think Globally, Act
Locally' that the environmental movements have promoted all the years, has not
necessarily served to preserve the environment and safeguard local communities' rights,
but has been co-opted and distorted by official agencies and private industries for profit-
making purposes. The tourism industry is demonstrating this all too well.
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Many developing countries, facing debt burdens and worsening trade terms, have turned
to tourism promotion in the hope that it brings foreign exchange and investment.
Simultaneously, leading international agencies such as the World Bank, United Nations
agencies and business organisations like the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC)
have been substantially involved to make tourism a truly global industry.
However, tourism in developing countries is often viewed by critics as an extension of
former colonial conditions because from the very beginning, it has benefited from
international economic relationships that structurally favour the advanced capitalist
countries in the North. Unequal trading relationships, dependence on foreign interests,
and the division of labour have relegated poor countries in the South to becoming tourism
recipients and affluent countries in the North to the position of tourism generators, with
the latter enjoying the freedom from having to pay the price for the meanwhile well-
known negative impacts in destinations.
Travel and tourism has emerged as one of the world's most centralised and competitive
industries, and hardly any other economic sector illustrates so clearly the global reach of
transnational corporations (TNCs). Over recent years, the industry has increasingly
pressured governments around the world to liberalise trade and investment in services
and is likely to benefit tremendously from the General Agreement on Trade in Services -
a multilateral agreement under the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
GATS aims to abolish restrictions on foreign ownership and other measures which have
so far protected the services sector in individual countries. For the hotel sector, for
example, GATS facilitates franchising, management contracts and licensing. Moreover,
foreign tourism companies will be entitled to the same benefits as local companies in
addition to being allowed to move staff across borders as they wish, open branch offices
in foreign countries, and make international payments without restrictive regulations.
Foreign investment will also be increasingly deregulated under the GATT/WTO system.
According to the Agreement on Trade-Related Investment Measures (TRIMs), foreign
companies will no longer be obliged to use local input. The Multilateral Agreement on
Investment (MAI) proposed by The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and
Development (OECD) countries goes even further, calling for unrestricted entry and
establishment of foreign firms, national treatment, repatriation of profits, technology
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Accordingly, the WTTC has recently presented its 'Millennium Vision' on travel and
tourism, including the following key areas:
Get governments to accept travel and tourism as a strategic economic
development and employment priority;
Move towards open and competitive markets by supporting the implementation of
GATS, liberalise air transport and deregulate telecommunications in
Eliminate barriers to tourism growth, which involves the expansion and
improvement of infrastructure - e.g. the increase of airport capacity, construction
and modernisation of airports, roads and tourist facilities.
On a tour through South-East Asian countries in February 1998, WTTC president
Geoffrey Lipman also strongly supported the privatisation of state enterprises,
particularly airlines and airports. His visit in Thailand, for example, coincided with the
announcement of British Airways - a prominent member of the WTTC - that it was
interested in taking over 25% of Thai Airways International. And the British Airport
Authority promptly followed up by proposing to buy a major equity share in the
provincial airports of Chiang Mai, Phuket and Hat Yai, which are all located at popular
tourist spots. However, the selling out of state companies to foreigners has been facing
growing public opposition in Thailand so that privatisation is not progressing as planned.
Meanwhile, even the voices of the tourism industry in Asia are urging a cautious
approach towards globalisation. Imtiaz Muqbil, a renowned tourism analyst based in
Bangkok, warned: 'The independence of thousands of small and medium size enterprises,
including hotels and tour operators, is at risk.' This is because most local enterprises will
hardly be able to compete with foreign companies. Moreover, Muqbil suggested that as
an outcome of globalisation, Asian countries may face 'the prospects of huge growth in
leakage of foreign exchange earnings.' In conclusion, he said, 'The radical restructuring of
travel and tourism ... could strike at the heart of national economies. It is already a well-
established fact that in some developing countries, more than two-thirds of the revenue
from international tourism never reaches the local economy because of the high foreign
exchange leakages. Now, as the new free trade and investment policies are being
implemented, their balance sheets may even worsen because the profits and other income
repatriated by foreign companies is likely to grow larger than the inflow of capital. That
means, the claims that globalisation and liberalisation of tourism will bring wealth,
progress, social achievements and improved environmental standards to developing
countries need to be seriously questioned.
A recently published document by the UN Conference on Trade and Development
(UNCTAD) states that Asia-Pacific countries urgently need to bolster their bargaining
positions in the field of tourism services and negotiate better terms in exchange for
opening their markets. However, governments have barely had time to examine the
potential impacts of globalisation, and many local tourism-related companies are already
in financial trouble due to the economic crisis. So it is very unlikely that they can
strengthen their negotiating power. Even major Asian airlines can hardly survive in this
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crisis-hit business environment; the recent temporary closure of Philippine Airlines is an
Economic globalisation has also generated considerable criticism because it comes along
with the erosion of power of governments. Opponents argue that local and national
institutions will no longer be able to properly fulfil their responsibilities such as
providing social services, preserving the environment, and implementing sustainable
Indeed, the multilateral agreements facilitating globalisation have shown little, if any,
concern for social and ecological issues. On the environment front, the WTO has
discussed proposals to introduce 'environmental standards' and 'eco-labels' developed by
international setting bodies. Critics say this move is likely to be dominated by TNC
interests, which attempt to appropriate the environmental agenda and push for self-
regulation. Meanwhile, existing national environmental policies and laws adopted by
democratically elected governments will be undermined.
The WTTC, for example, vows to 'promote sustainability in travel and tourism' through
its Green Globe programme, but - as its 'Millennium Vision' document states - 'strongly
believes that the environmental policy agenda should focus on (the industry's) self-
improvement, incentives, and light-handed regulation as the preferred approach'.
The increasing influence of private sector interests on international forums negotiating
the environmental agenda has reinforced concerns that genuine efforts to set up a more
stringent framework for the tourism industry may be jeopardised. In this context it is
important to note that the seventh session of the UN Commission on Sustainable
Development (CSD) this year will include important discussions on the issues of
So far, the UN General Assembly has adopted a resolution on 'Sustainable Tourism' as
part of its 'Programme for the further implementation of Agenda 21', the action
programme adopted at the Rio Earth Summit. This resolution acknowledges the need to
consider further the importance of tourism in the context of Agenda 21. Among other
things, it states: 'For sustainable patterns of consumption and production in the tourism
sector, it is essential to strengthen national policy development and enhance capacity in
the areas of physical planning, impact assessment, and the use of economic and
regulatory instruments, as well as in the areas of information, education and marketing.'
Furthermore, the resolution calls for participation of all concerned parties in policy
development and implementation of sustainable tourism programmes.
What is important to keep in mind is that this UN resolution stresses the need for a
democratic regulation of tourism development, which is in stark contradiction to the
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lobbying efforts by the agents of tourism globalisation towards deregulation and an
industry-led and self-regulated scenario.
This conflict featured prominently at the fourth Conference of Parties to the UN
Convention on Biological Diversity (COP4) in Bratislava, Slovakia, last May, which
included discussions on the integration of biodiversity into sectoral activities such as
tourism. Many government delegates there resisted attempts by the German government
to get approval from the Ministerial Roundtable at COP4 for a programme to develop
global guidelines on biodiversity and sustainable tourism. Observers noted that the
increased promotion of interests of the powerful German tourism industry at the UN level
by the German government has been conspicuous over recent years.
Official and NGO representatives were surprised by the insistence of the Germans to
work on global guidelines and to seek endorsement for this programme from the CSD.
The delegate from Samoa, for example, reiterated that sustainable tourism is a
complicated issue that will be dealt with by the CSD next year and complained: 'We are
not in favour of some of the top-down approaches we have seen here (at COP4).' Other
delegates expressed concern over the relevance, objectives and funding of the proposed
Significantly, critical observers warned that an ill-advised proposal on global guidelines
under the Convention could have devastating consequences for local and indigenous
communities - socially, culturally and ecologically. 'The tourism industry's propensity
towards unrestricted growth and its commoditisation of indigenous cultures must be
recognised as clearly unsustainable,' commented an NGO representative during the
Meanwhile, there are justifiable fears that under the new economic globalisation
schemes, sustainable and eco-tourism activities will even further enable TNCs to gain
commercial access to ecologically sensitive areas and biological resources and accelerate
the privatisation of biodiversity, all to the detriment of local communities' land and
resource rights and the natural environment. As the Austrian environment minister told
delegates at COP4, 'Sustainable tourism offers new market
Vague, with buzzwords
Indeed, the debate on tourism principles and guidelines is a tricky one - not only because
it is heavily overshadowed by politics of global players. Another point of concern is that
guidelines and programmes, as discussed and adopted by advocates of sustainable
tourism at the international level, naturally remain very vague. Usually, they are also
overly euphemistic, with buzzwords abounding: e.g. empowerment of local communities;
local participation and control; equitable income distribution; benefits to nature
conservation and biodiversity protection; etc.
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A tourism researcher from the University of British Columbia, Nick Kontogeorgopoulos,
suggested that attempts to implement tourism projects based on such guidelines are
bound to fail altogether because it is simply impossible to apply them to highly disparate
and heterogeneous destinations. He says, 'While these altruistic principles are laudable in
theory, the absence of place-specific context strips them of empirical evidence.' In
conclusion: Not the global game, but local circumstances and conditions represent the
essential determinant of success for sustainable development.
In Asia, social and environmental activists argue that the inflationary tourism policies in
the context of globalisation have greatly contributed to the present economic crisis.
During the era of the so-called bubble economy, indiscriminate and unsustainable
investments led to the rapid conversion of lands into massive tourism complexes,
including luxury hotels, golf courses and casinos, and related infrastructure such as
airports, highways, and dams to generate electricity. With economic liberalisation, the
tourism, real estate and construction industries boomed, backed by local banks and global
speculative capital. An essay written by renowned tourism critic and media activist Ing.
K. reflects the anger of many Thais about the developments that have led to the country's
bankruptcy. She presents the hard facts as follows:
Land speculation became a national pastime, permeating every beautiful village,
however remote. Land prices skyrocketed. Villagers sold agriculturally productive
land to speculators. Practically overnight, fertile land became construction sites.
The plague kept spreading; corruption got out of control. National parks and
forest reserves were encroached upon by golf courses and resorts ...
Many instant millionaires were made, but much of this new rich money was not
wisely invested in productive ventures. Instead, most of it was spent on luxury
"dream" products and services, in pursuit of the consumer lifestyle.
Many of these people were merely imitating tourists and were influenced by the
prevailing free-spending frenzy. Greed and consumerism devastated whole
communities all over Thailand, raising the temperature even higher, on every
level of society...
In the end, we have nothing to show for it but whole graveyards of unsold high-
rise condominiums, shophouses, golf course and resort developments and housing
Now, all discussions and work programmes relating to the implementation of global and
local Agendas 21 and sustainable development appear - more than ever -removed from
reality in view of the unfolding Asian crisis - a human disaster with millions of
unemployed and landless people falling below the poverty line. According to the latest
figures from UN agencies, more than 100 million people in the region are newly
impoverished. And there are growing fears that the machinations of unregulated global
speculative capital now threaten to ruin not only Asian economies but the rest of the
world as well.
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A major question that needs to be addressed in this context: Where will all the money
come from for sustainable development and tourism projects? In Thailand, for example,
the World Bank and the Japanese OECF have agreed to provide loans to improve and
expand tourism as part of a social investment programme (SIP) aimed at tackling the
problems of unemployment and loss of income arising from the economic crisis. It has
been stressed that tourism development is crucial for the country's economic recovery,
and 'community participation' and 'sustainability' are mentioned as major components in
projects. But critics have warned that firstly, tourism is not a quick commodity that can
pull the country out of its economic pains. And secondly, much of the borrowed money
will be used for new developments in national parks and biodiversity-rich areas in the
drive to promote 'eco-tourism'.
Let me confront you with a provocative idea now. It is not the longstanding efforts by the
many experts promoting and working on the implementation of global and local Agendas
that bring us closer to sustainable tourism. Ironically, it is rather the current all-embracing
crisis which may eventually make tourism more sustainable - at least in environmental
First of all, a basic problem of sustainable tourism has been the rapidly expanding
numbers of travellers. But as a result of the crisis, tourism growth has come to a
standstill. Due to currency devaluation, increasing unemployment, declining income and
deflation, Asian markets are collapsing. Even the numbers of Japanese going abroad for
holidays are now declining for the first time in 18 years. European and American
holidaymakers have also shunned South-East Asian countries because of 1997's smog
disaster, caused by forest fires in Indonesia, and political turmoil in the region - e.g. in
Burma, Cambodia and - more recently - Indonesia.
As the economic contagion is spreading, the travel fever that had gripped Russia and
other East European countries after the fall of the Soviet Union is also on the wane, as the
Russian currency, the rouble, has plummeted dramatically and the economy slumps.
Moreover, amid the decline of business activities in Asia, stockmarket slumps and fears
of a global recession, nervous companies around the world are limiting corporate travel
spending. The WTTC, which had earlier in 1998 forecast growth averaging 7% a year
throughout 2008, now expects the global tourism market to remain flat in the next years.
This may be bad in terms of economics but, unquestionably, the environment will benefit
from stagnating or even decreasing tourist numbers.
For instance, the air travel industry has been identified as one of the biggest
environmental villains in tourism. With fewer people travelling, however, the Asia-
Pacific aviation industry is now flying into a deep recession. Airlines are fighting for
survival by closing or cutting unprofitable routes, selling aircraft and cancelling orders
for new aircraft. Governments are forced to cut budgets for airport expansion and
construction. Ultimately, that means less pollution and less environmentally damaging
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The real estate and construction industries, which are both inextricably linked to the
tourism industry, were the first industries that crash-landed when the Asian bubble
economy burst. As a result, many speculative and unsustainable hotel and resort
development projects have been abandoned, and new construction is down to a trickle.
An excellent example is golf, which became a symbol of globalised leisure and tourist
lifestyle in Asian tiger societies. But as the frenzy to build luxurious golf course
complexes - including hotels, housing estates and shopping centres - has almost stopped
completely, and middle-class people affected by the crisis are turning away from the
expensive sport of golf, environmentalists can be relieved: The malaise of rampant land
grabs, national park encroachments, deforestation, etc. related to golf courses is no longer
as threatening as it was a few years ago.
On the other hand, while many tourism-related companies may have scrapped or
postponed potentially harmful projects, one needs to acknowledge that because of the
financial crunch, public and private investments in environmental protection are also
being cut. Moreover, there have been warnings that the crisis has resulted in an upsurge
of crime, prostitution, drug abuse and other social vices related to tourism.
But most importantly, Asian societies are beginning to realise that the current global
economic capitalist system has utterly failed to bring achievements in all terms. Now
burdened with having to pay for the activities of unscrupulous speculators and
additionally suffering from free-market-oriented structural adjustment programmes
imposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), people are losing faith in a
globalised economy. Some experts even go so far as to say that free trade and investment
liberalisation is 'yesterday's story'. Malaysia in particular has recently taken decisive steps
to shut itself off from global markets by strictly controlling foreign capital flows.
Asian governments are now likely to move towards greater self-reliance as they are
pressured by people of all walks of life to look into economic strategies that are chiefly
based on domestic financial resources and the domestic market. This involves the
strengthening of the agricultural sector and local industries to protect people's livelihoods
in the first place. Forces still seeking to further prop up economically risky service
industries such as tourism are likely to be weakened.
Moreover, the crisis has also created considerable public debate about the impacts of
global culture and lifestyle, including the issues of consumerism and the wasteful and
unproductive use of resources. In several Asian countries - such as Korea, Thailand and
Malaysia - outbound tourism is now being discouraged as it is seen as conspicuous
consumption that has contributed to the negative balance of payments.
The issues of democracy and human rights are also gaining momentum in the region. As
never before, people are making use of their civil rights and call for transparency and
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democratic procedures to phase out corruption and harmful government policies and
development plans. The growing opposition of Thai environmentalists and villagers to
the move of the government to open up protected areas for 'mass eco-tourism' is just one
All in all, I believe, the current Asian crisis, which is likely to become a global crisis,
poses a fundamental challenge - and an important opportunity - to re-evaluate the issues
of globalisation, sustainable development and tourism. As Asian societies begin to
acknowledge that rapid economic growth under global regimes has devastating effects on
people's lives and the environment, we may find that a stringent regulation of tourism,
which involves a stricter limitation of tourist numbers and a halt to the unlimited spatial
expansion of tourism, is better than further promoting tourism growth and hoping that
this growth can be handled with 'good management', education of tourists, etc. What the
current crisis really appears to confirm is - what many tourism critics have been saying
all along - the global tourism industry just cannot be propelled towards sustainability
under the conventional economic and political structures. That means, efforts to
implement social and environmental agendas and sustainable tourism are unlikely to
progress unless profound structural changes take place in the global system.
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By Epictetus, 135 A.C.E.
Translated by Elizabeth Carter
1. Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion,
pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our
control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our
The things in our control are by nature free, unrestrained, unhindered; but those not in our
control are weak, slavish, restrained, belonging to others. Remember, then, that if you
suppose that things which are slavish by nature are also free, and that what belongs to
others is your own, then you will be hindered. You will lament, you will be disturbed,
and you will find fault both with gods and men. But if you suppose that only to be your
own which is your own, and what belongs to others such as it really is, then no one will
ever compel you or restrain you. Further, you will find fault with no one or accuse no
one. You will do nothing against your will. No one will hurt you, you will have no
enemies, and you not be harmed.
Aiming therefore at such great things, remember that you must not allow yourself to be
carried, even with a slight tendency, towards the attainment of lesser things. Instead, you
must entirely quit some things and for the present postpone the rest. But if you would
both have these great things, along with power and riches, then you will not gain even the
latter, because you aim at the former too: but you will absolutely fail of the former, by
which alone happiness and freedom are achieved.
Work, therefore to be able to say to every harsh appearance, "You are but an appearance,
and not absolutely the thing you appear to be." And then examine it by those rules which
you have, and first, and chiefly, by this: whether it concerns the things which are in our
own control, or those which are not; and, if it concerns anything not in our control, be
prepared to say that it is nothing to you.
2. Remember that following desire promises the attainment of that of which you are
desirous; and aversion promises the avoiding that to which you are averse. However, he
who fails to obtain the object of his desire is disappointed, and he who incurs the object
of his aversion wretched. If, then, you confine your aversion to those objects only which
are contrary to the natural use of your faculties, which you have in your own control, you
will never incur anything to which you are averse. But if you are averse to sickness, or
death, or poverty, you will be wretched. Remove aversion, then, from all things that are
not in our control, and transfer it to things contrary to the nature of what is in our control.
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But, for the present, totally suppress desire: for, if you desire any of the things which are
not in your own control, you must necessarily be disappointed; and of those which are,
and which it would be laudable to desire, nothing is yet in your possession. Use only the
appropriate actions of pursuit and avoidance; and even these lightly, and with gentleness
3. With regard to whatever objects give you delight, are useful, or are deeply loved,
remember to tell yourself of what general nature they are, beginning from the most
insignificant things. If, for example, you are fond of a specific ceramic cup, remind
yourself that it is only ceramic cups in general of which you are fond. Then, if it breaks,
you will not be disturbed. If you kiss your child, or your wife, say that you only kiss
things which are human, and thus you will not be disturbed if either of them dies.
4. When you are going about any action, remind yourself what nature the action is. If you
are going to bathe, picture to yourself the things which usually happen in the bath: some
people splash the water, some push, some use abusive language, and others steal. Thus
you will more safely go about this action if you say to yourself, "I will now go bathe, and
keep my own mind in a state conformable to nature." And in the same manner with
regard to every other action. For thus, if any hindrance arises in bathing, you will have it
ready to say, "It was not only to bathe that I desired, but to keep my mind in a state
conformable to nature; and I will not keep it if I am bothered at things that happen.
5. Men are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form
concerning things. Death, for instance, is not terrible, else it would have appeared so to
Socrates. But the terror consists in our notion of death that it is terrible. When therefore
we are hindered, or disturbed, or grieved, let us never attribute it to others, but to
ourselves; that is, to our own principles. An uninstructed person will lay the fault of his
own bad condition upon others. Someone just starting instruction will lay the fault on
himself. Some who is perfectly instructed will place blame neither on others nor on
6. Don't be prideful with any excellence that is not your own. If a horse should be
prideful and say, " I am handsome," it would be supportable. But when you are prideful,
and say, " I have a handsome horse," know that you are proud of what is, in fact, only the
good of the horse. What, then, is your own? Only your reaction to the appearances of
things. Thus, when you behave conformably to nature in reaction to how things appear,
you will be proud with reason; for you will take pride in some good of your own.
7. Consider when, on a voyage, your ship is anchored; if you go on shore to get water you
may along the way amuse yourself with picking up a shellish, or an onion. However, your
thoughts and continual attention ought to be bent towards the ship, waiting for the captain
to call on board; you must then immediately leave all these things, otherwise you will be
thrown into the ship, bound neck and feet like a sheep. So it is with life. If, instead of an
onion or a shellfish, you are given a wife or child, that is fine. But if the captain calls, you
must run to the ship, leaving them, and regarding none of them. But if you are old, never
go far from the ship: lest, when you are called, you should be unable to come in time.
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8. Don't demand that things happen as you wish, but wish that they happen as they do
happen, and you will go on well.
9. Sickness is a hindrance to the body, but not to your ability to choose, unless that is
your choice. Lameness is a hindrance to the leg, but not to your ability to choose. Say this
to yourself with regard to everything that happens, then you will see such obstacles as
hindrances to something else, but not to yourself.
10. With every accident, ask yourself what abilities you have for making a proper use of
it. If you see an attractive person, you will find that self-restraint is the ability you have
against your desire. If you are in pain, you will find fortitude. If you hear unpleasant
language, you will find patience. And thus habituated, the appearances of things will not
hurry you away along with them.
11. Never say of anything, "I have lost it"; but, "I have returned it." Is your child dead? It
is returned. Is your wife dead? She is returned. Is your estate taken away? Well, and is
not that likewise returned? "But he who took it away is a bad man." What difference is it
to you who the giver assigns to take it back? While he gives it to you to possess, take care
of it; but don't view it as your own, just as travelers view a hotel.
12. If you want to improve, reject such reasonings as these: "If I neglect my affairs, I'll
have no income; if I don't correct my servant, he will be bad." For it is better to die with
hunger, exempt from grief and fear, than to live in affluence with perturbation; and it is
better your servant should be bad, than you unhappy.
Begin therefore from little things. Is a little oil spilt? A little wine stolen? Say to yourself,
"This is the price paid for apathy, for tranquillity, and nothing is to be had for nothing."
When you call your servant, it is possible that he may not come; or, if he does, he may
not do what you want. But he is by no means of such importance that it should be in his
power to give you any disturbance.
13. If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid with regard to
external things. Don't wish to be thought to know anything; and even if you appear to be
somebody important to others, distrust yourself. For, it is difficult to both keep your
faculty of choice in a state conformable to nature, and at the same time acquire external
things. But while you are careful about the one, you must of necessity neglect the other.
14. If you wish your children, and your wife, and your friends to live for ever, you are
stupid; for you wish to be in control of things which you cannot, you wish for things that
belong to others to be your own. So likewise, if you wish your servant to be without fault,
you are a fool; for you wish vice not to be vice," but something else. But, if you wish to
have your desires undisappointed, this is in your own control. Exercise, therefore, what is
in your control. He is the master of every other person who is able to confer or remove
whatever that person wishes either to have or to avoid. Whoever, then, would be free, let
him wish nothing, let him decline nothing, which depends on others else he must
necessarily be a slave.
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15. Remember that you must behave in life as at a dinner party. Is anything brought
around to you? Put out your hand and take your share with moderation. Does it pass by
you? Don't stop it. Is it not yet come? Don't stretch your desire towards it, but wait till it
reaches you. Do this with regard to children, to a wife, to public posts, to riches, and you
will eventually be a worthy partner of the feasts of the gods. And if you don't even take
the things which are set before you, but are able even to reject them, then you will not
only be a partner at the feasts of the gods, but also of their empire. For, by doing this,
Diogenes, Heraclitus and others like them, deservedly became, and were called, divine.
16. When you see anyone weeping in grief because his son has gone abroad, or is dead,
or because he has suffered in his affairs, be careful that the appearance may not misdirect
you. Instead, distinguish within your own mind, and be prepared to say, "It's not the
accident that distresses this person., because it doesn't distress another person; it is the
judgment which he makes about it." As far as words go, however, don't reduce yourself
to his level, and certainly do not moan with him. Do not moan inwardly either.
17. Remember that you are an actor in a drama, of such a kind as the author pleases to
make it. If short, of a short one; if long, of a long one. If it is his pleasure you should act a
poor man, a cripple, a governor, or a private person, see that you act it naturally. For this
is your business, to act well the character assigned you; to choose it is another's.
18. When a raven happens to croak unluckily, don't allow the appearance hurry you away
with it, but immediately make the distinction to yourself, and say, "None of these things
are foretold to me; but either to my paltry body, or property, or reputation, or children, or
wife. But to me all omens are lucky, if I will. For whichever of these things happens, it is
in my control to derive advantage from it."
19. You may be unconquerable, if you enter into no combat in which it is not in your own
control to conquer. When, therefore, you see anyone eminent in honors, or power, or in
high esteem on any other account, take heed not to be hurried away with the appearance,
and to pronounce him happy; for, if the essence of good consists in things in our own
control, there will be no room for envy or emulation. But, for your part, don't wish to be a
general, or a senator, or a consul, but to be free; and the only way to this is a contempt of
things not in our own control.
20. Remember, that not he who gives ill language or a blow insults, but the principle
which represents these things as insulting. When, therefore, anyone provokes you, be
assured that it is your own opinion which provokes you. Try, therefore, in the first place,
not to be hurried away with the appearance. For if you once gain time and respite, you
will more easily command yourself.
21. Let death and exile, and all other things which appear terrible be daily before your
eyes, but chiefly death, and you win never entertain any abject thought, nor too eagerly
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22. If you have an earnest desire of attaining to philosophy, prepare yourself from the
very first to be laughed at, to be sneered by the multitude, to hear them say,." He is
returned to us a philosopher all at once," and " Whence this supercilious look?" Now, for
your part, don't have a supercilious look indeed; but keep steadily to those things which
appear best to you as one appointed by God to this station. For remember that, if you
adhere to the same point, those very persons who at first ridiculed will afterwards admire
you. But if you are conquered by them, you will incur a double ridicule.
23. If you ever happen to turn your attention to externals, so as to wish to please anyone,
be assured that you have ruined your scheme of life. Be contented, then, in everything
with being a philosopher; and, if you wish to be thought so likewise by anyone, appear so
to yourself, and it will suffice you.
24. Don't allow such considerations as these distress you. "I will live in dishonor, and be
nobody anywhere." For, if dishonor is an evil, you can no more be involved in any evil
by the means of another, than be engaged in anything base. Is it any business of yours,
then, to get power, or to be admitted to an entertainment? By no means. How, then, after
all, is this a dishonor? And how is it true that you will be nobody anywhere, when you
ought to be somebody in those things only which are in your own control, in which you
may be of the greatest consequence? "But my friends will be unassisted." -- What do you
mean by unassisted? They will not have money from you, nor will you make them
Roman citizens. Who told you, then, that these are among the things in our own control,
and not the affair of others? And who can give to another the things which he has not
himself? "Well, but get them, then, that we too may have a share." If I can get them with
the preservation of my own honor and fidelity and greatness of mind, show me the way
and I will get them; but if you require me to lose my own proper good that you may gain
what is not good, consider how inequitable and foolish you are. Besides, which would
you rather have, a sum of money, or a friend of fidelity and honor? Rather assist me,
then, to gain this character than require me to do those things by which I may lose it.
Well, but my country, say you, as far as depends on me, will be unassisted. Here again,
what assistance is this you mean? "It will not have porticoes nor baths of your providing."
And what signifies that? Why, neither does a smith provide it with shoes, or a shoemaker
with arms. It is enough if everyone fully performs his own proper business. And were
you to supply it with another citizen of honor and fidelity, would not he be of use to it?
Yes. Therefore neither are you yourself useless to it. "What place, then, say you, will I
hold in the state?" Whatever you can hold with the preservation of your fidelity and
honor. But if, by desiring to be useful to that, you lose these, of what use can you be to
your country when you are become faithless and void of shame.
25. Is anyone preferred before you at an entertainment, or in a compliment, or in being
admitted to a consultation? If these things are good, you ought to be glad that he has
gotten them; and if they are evil, don't be grieved that you have not gotten them. And
remember that you cannot, without using the same means [which others do] to acquire
things not in our own control, expect to be thought worthy of an equal share of them. For
how can he who does not frequent the door of any [great] man, does not attend him, does
not praise him, have an equal share with him who does? You are unjust, then, and
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insatiable, if you are unwilling to pay the price for which these things are sold, and would
have them for nothing. For how much is lettuce sold? Fifty cents, for instance. If another,
then, paying fifty cents, takes the lettuce, and you, not paying it, go without them, don't
imagine that he has gained any advantage over you. For as he has the lettuce, so you have
the fifty cents which you did not give. So, in the present case, you have not been invited
to such a person's entertainment, because you have not paid him the price for which a
supper is sold. It is sold for praise; it is sold for attendance. Give him then the value, if it
is for your advantage. But if you would, at the same time, not pay the one and yet receive
the other, you are insatiable, and a blockhead. Have you nothing, then, instead of the
supper? Yes, indeed, you have: the not praising him, whom you don't like to praise; the
not bearing with his behavior at coming in.
26. The will of nature may be learned from those things in which we don't distinguish
from each other. For example, when our neighbor's boy breaks a cup, or the like, we are
presently ready to say, "These things will happen." Be assured, then, that when your own
cup likewise is broken, you ought to be affected just as when another's cup was broken.
Apply this in like manner to greater things. Is the child or wife of another dead? There is
no one who would not say, "This is a human accident." but if anyone's own child happens
to die, it is presently, "Alas I how wretched am I!" But it should be remembered how we
are affected in hearing the same thing concerning others.
27. As a mark is not set up for the sake of missing the aim, so neither does the nature of
evil exist in the world.
28. If a person gave your body to any stranger he met on his way, you would certainly be
angry. And do you feel no shame in handing over your own mind to be confused and
mystified by anyone who happens to verbally attack you?
29. In every affair consider what precedes and follows, and then undertake it. Otherwise
you will begin with spirit; but not having thought of the consequences, when some of
them appear you will shamefully desist. "I would conquer at the Olympic games." But
consider what precedes and follows, and then, if it is for your advantage, engage in the
affair. You must conform to rules, submit to a diet, refrain from dainties; exercise your
body, whether you choose it or not, at a stated hour, in heat and cold; you must drink no
cold water, nor sometimes even wine. In a word, you must give yourself up to your
master, as to a physician. Then, in the combat, you may be thrown into a ditch, dislocate
your arm, turn your ankle, swallow dust, be whipped, and, after all, lose the victory.
When you have evaluated all this, if your inclination still holds, then go to war.
Otherwise, take notice, you will behave like children who sometimes play like wrestlers,
sometimes gladiators, sometimes blow a trumpet, and sometimes act a tragedy when they
have seen and admired these shows. Thus you too will be at one time a wrestler, at
another a gladiator, now a philosopher, then an orator; but with your whole soul, nothing
at all. Like an ape, you mimic all you see, and one thing after another is sure to please
you, but is out of favor as soon as it becomes familiar. For you have never entered upon
anything considerately, nor after having viewed the whole matter on all sides, or made
any scrutiny into it, but rashly, and with a cold inclination. Thus some, when they have
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seen a philosopher and heard a man speaking like Euphrates (though, indeed, who can
speak like him?), have a mind to be philosophers too. Consider first, man, what the
matter is, and what your own nature is able to bear. If you would be a wrestler, consider
your shoulders, your back, your thighs; for different persons are made for different
things. Do you think that you can act as you do, and be a philosopher? That you can eat
and drink, and be angry and discontented as you are now? You must watch, you must
labor, you must get the better of certain appetites, must quit your acquaintance, be
despised by your servant, be laughed at by those you meet; come off worse than others in
everything, in magistracies, in honors, in courts of judicature. When you have considered
all these things round, approach, if you please; if, by parting with them, you have a mind
to purchase apathy, freedom, and tranquillity. If not, don't come here; don't, like children,
be one while a philosopher, then a publican, then an orator, and then one of Caesar's
officers. These things are not consistent. You must be one man, either good or bad. You
must cultivate either your own ruling faculty or externals, and apply yourself either to
things within or without you; that is, be either a philosopher, or one of the vulgar.
30. Duties are universally measured by relations. Is anyone a father? If so, it is implied
that the children should take care of him, submit to him in everything, patiently listen to
his reproaches, his correction. But he is a bad father. Is you naturally entitled, then, to a
good father? No, only to a father. Is a brother unjust? Well, keep your own situation
towards him. Consider not what he does, but what you are to do to keep your own faculty
of choice in a state conformable to nature. For another will not hurt you unless you
please. You will then be hurt when you think you are hurt. In this manner, therefore, you
will find, from the idea of a neighbor, a citizen, a general, the corresponding duties if you
accustom yourself to contemplate the several relations.
31. Be assured that the essential property of piety towards the gods is to form right
opinions concerning them, as existing "I and as governing the universe with goodness
and justice. And fix yourself in this resolution, to obey them, and yield to them, and
willingly follow them in all events, as produced by the most perfect understanding. For
thus you will never find fault with the gods, nor accuse them as neglecting you. And it is
not possible for this to be effected any other way than by withdrawing yourself from
things not in our own control, and placing good or evil in those only which are. For if you
suppose any of the things not in our own control to be either good or evil, when you are
disappointed of what you wish, or incur what you would avoid, you must necessarily find
fault with and blame the authors. For every animal is naturally formed to fly and abhor
things that appear hurtful, and the causes of them; and to pursue and admire those which
appear beneficial, and the causes of them. It is impractical, then, that one who supposes
himself to be hurt should be happy about the person who, he thinks, hurts him, just as it is
impossible to be happy about the hurt itself. Hence, also, a father is reviled by a son,
when he does not impart to him the things which he takes to be good; and the supposing
empire to be a good made Polynices and Eteocles mutually enemies. On this account the
husbandman, the sailor, the merchant, on this account those who lose wives and children,
revile the gods. For where interest is, there too is piety placed. So that, whoever is careful
to regulate his desires and aversions as he ought, is, by the very same means, careful of
piety likewise. But it is also incumbent on everyone to offer libations and sacrifices and
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first fruits, conformably to the customs of his country, with purity, and not in a slovenly
manner, nor negligently, nor sparingly, nor beyond his ability.
32. When you have recourse to divination, remember that you know not what the event
will be, and you come to learn it of the diviner; but of what nature it is you know before
you come, at least if you are a philosopher. For if it is among the things not in our own
control, it can by no means be either good or evil. Don't, therefore, bring either desire or
aversion with you to the diviner (else you will approach him trembling), but first acquire
a distinct knowledge that every event is indifferent and nothing to you., of whatever sort
it may be, for it will be in your power to make a right use of it, and this no one can
hinder; then come with confidence to the gods, as your counselors, and afterwards, when
any counsel is given you, remember what counselors you have assumed, and whose
advice you will neglect if you disobey. Come to divination, as Socrates prescribed, in
cases of which the whole consideration relates to the event, and in which no opportunities
are afforded by reason, or any other art, to discover the thing proposed to be learned.
When, therefore, it is our duty to share the danger of a friend or of our country, we ought
not to consult the oracle whether we will share it with them or not. For, though the
diviner should forewarn you that the victims are unfavorable, this means no more than
that either death or mutilation or exile is portended. But we have reason within us, and it
directs, even with these hazards, to the greater diviner, the Pythian god, who cast out of
the temple the person who gave no assistance to his friend while another was murdering
33. Immediately prescribe some character and form of conduce to yourself, which you
may keep both alone and in company.
Be for the most part silent, or speak merely what is necessary, and in few words. We
may, however, enter, though sparingly, into discourse sometimes when occasion calls for
it, but not on any of the common subjects, of gladiators, or horse races, or athletic
champions, or feasts, the vulgar topics of conversation; but principally not of men, so as
either to blame, or praise, or make comparisons. If you are able, then, by your own
conversation bring over that of your company to proper subjects; but, if you happen to be
taken among strangers, be silent.
Don't allow your laughter be much, nor on many occasions, nor profuse.
Avoid swearing, if possible, altogether; if not, as far as you are able.
Avoid public and vulgar entertainments; but, if ever an occasion calls you to them, keep
your attention upon the stretch, that you may not imperceptibly slide into vulgar manners.
For be assured that if a person be ever so sound himself, yet, if his companion be
infected, he who converses with him will be infected likewise.
Provide things relating to the body no further than mere use; as meat, drink, clothing,
house, family. But strike off and reject everything relating to show and delicacy.
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As far as possible, before marriage, keep yourself pure from familiarities with women,
and, if you indulge them, let it be lawfully." But don't therefore be troublesome and full
of reproofs to those who use these liberties, nor frequently boast that you yourself don't.
If anyone tells you that such a person speaks ill of you, don't make excuses about what is
said of you, but answer: " He does not know my other faults, else he would not have
mentioned only these."
It is not necessary for you to appear often at public spectacles; but if ever there is a proper
occasion for you to be there, don't appear more solicitous for anyone than for yourself;
that is, wish things to be only just as they are, and him only to conquer who is the
conqueror, for thus you will meet with no hindrance. But abstain entirely from
declamations and derision and violent emotions. And when you come away, don't
discourse a great deal on what has passed, and what does not contribute to your own
amendment. For it would appear by such discourse that you were immoderately struck
with the show.
Go not [of your own accord] to the rehearsals of any
authors , nor appear [at them] readily. But, if you do appear, keepyour gravity and
sedateness, and at the same time avoid being morose.
When you are going to confer with anyone, and particularly of those in a superior station,
represent to yourself how Socrates or Zeno would behave in such a case, and you will not
be at a loss to make a proper use of whatever may occur.
When you are going to any of the people in power, represent to yourself that you will not
find him at home; that you will not be admitted; that the doors will not be opened to you;
that he will take no notice of you. If, with all this, it is your duty to go, bear what
happens, and never say [to yourself], " It was not worth so much." For this is vulgar, and
like a man dazed by external things.
In parties of conversation, avoid a frequent and excessive mention of your own actions
and dangers. For, however agreeable it may be to yourself to mention the risks you have
run, it is not equally agreeable to others to hear your adventures. Avoid, likewise, an
endeavor to excite laughter. For this is a slippery point, which may throw you into vulgar
manners, and, besides, may be apt to lessen you in the esteem of your acquaintance.
Approaches to indecent discourse are likewise dangerous. Whenever, therefore, anything
of this sort happens, if there be a proper opportunity, rebuke him who makes advances
that way; or, at least, by silence and blushing and a forbidding look, show yourself to be
displeased by such talk.
34. If you are struck by the appearance of any promised pleasure, guard yourself against
being hurried away by it; but let the affair wait your leisure, and procure yourself some
delay. Then bring to your mind both points of time: that in which you will enjoy the
pleasure, and that in which you will repent and reproach yourself after you have enjoyed
it; and set before you, in opposition to these, how you will be glad and applaud yourself if
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you abstain. And even though it should appear to you a seasonable gratification, take
heed that its enticing, and agreeable and attractive force may not subdue you; but set in
opposition to this how much better it is to be conscious of having gained so great a
35. When you do anything from a clear judgment that it ought to be done, never shun the
being seen to do it, even though the world should make a wrong supposition about it; for,
if you don't act right, shun the action itself; but, if you do, why are you afraid of those
who censure you wrongly?
36. As the proposition, "Either it is day or it is night," is extremely proper for a
disjunctive argument, but quite improper in a conjunctive one, so, at a feast, to choose the
largest share is very suitable to the bodily appetite, but utterly inconsistent with the social
spirit of an entertainment. When you eat with another, then, remember not only the value
of those things which are set before you to the body, but the value of that behavior which
ought to be observed towards the person who gives the entertainment.
37. If you have assumed any character above your strength, you have both made an ill
figure in that and quitted one which you might have supported.
38. When walking, you are careful not to step on a nail or turn your foot; so likewise be
careful not to hurt the ruling faculty of your mind. And, if we were to guard against this
in every action, we should undertake the action with the greater safety.
39. The body is to everyone the measure of the possessions proper for it, just as the foot
is of the shoe. If, therefore, you stop at this, you will keep the measure; but if you move
beyond it, you must necessarily be carried forward, as down a cliff; as in the case of a
shoe, if you go beyond its fitness to the foot, it comes first to be gilded, then purple, and
then studded with jewels. For to that which once exceeds a due measure, there is no
40. Women from fourteen years old are flattered with the title of "mistresses" by the men.
Therefore, perceiving that they are regarded only as qualified to give the men pleasure,
they begin to adorn themselves, and in that to place ill their hopes. We should, therefore,
fix our attention on making them sensible that they are valued for the appearance of
decent, modest and discreet behavior.
41. It is a mark of want of genius to spend much time in things relating to the body, as to
be long in our exercises, in eating and drinking, and in the discharge of other animal
functions. These should be done incidentally and slightly, and our whole attention be
engaged in the care of the understanding.
42. When any person harms you, or speaks badly of you, remember that he acts or speaks
from a supposition of its being his duty. Now, it is not possible that he should follow
what appears right to you, but what appears so to himself. Therefore, if he judges from a
wrong appearance, he is the person hurt, since he too is the person deceived. For if
anyone should suppose a true proposition to be false, the proposition is not hurt, but he
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who is deceived about it. Setting out, then, from these principles, you will meekly bear a
person who reviles you, for you will say upon every occasion, "It seemed so to him."
43. Everything has two handles, the one by which it may be carried, the other by which it
cannot. If your brother acts unjustly, don't lay hold on the action by the handle of his
injustice, for by that it cannot be carried; but by the opposite, that he is your brother, that
he was brought up with you; and thus you will lay hold on it, as it is to be carried.
44. These reasonings are unconnected: "I am richer than you, therefore I am better"; "I
am more eloquent than you, therefore I am better." The connection is rather this: "I am
richer than you, therefore my property is greater than yours;" "I am more eloquent than
you, therefore my style is better than yours." But you, after all, are neither property nor
45. Does anyone bathe in a mighty little time? Don't say that he does it ill, but in a mighty
little time. Does anyone drink a great quantity of wine? Don't say that he does ill, but that
he drinks a great quantity. For, unless you perfectly understand the principle from which
anyone acts, how should you know if he acts ill? Thus you will not run the hazard of
assenting to any appearances but such as you fully comprehend.
46. Never call yourself a philosopher, nor talk a great deal among the unlearned about
theorems, but act conformably to them. Thus, at an entertainment, don't talk how persons
ought to eat, but eat as you ought. For remember that in this manner Socrates also
universally avoided all ostentation. And when persons came to him and desired to be
recommended by him to philosophers, he took and- recommended them, so well did he
bear being overlooked. So that if ever any talk should happen among the unlearned
concerning philosophic theorems, be you, for the most part, silent. For there is great
danger in immediately throwing out what you have not digested. And, if anyone tells you
that you know nothing, and you are not nettled at it, then you may be sure that you have
begun your business. For sheep don't throw up the grass to show the shepherds how much
they have eaten; but, inwardly digesting their food, they outwardly produce wool and
milk. Thus, therefore, do you likewise not show theorems to the unlearned, but the
actions produced by them after they have been digested.
47. When you have brought yourself to supply the necessities of your body at a small
price, don't pique yourself upon it; nor, if you drink water, be saying upon every
occasion, "I drink water." But first consider how much more sparing and patient of
hardship the poor are than we. But if at any time you would inure yourself by exercise to
labor, and bearing hard trials, do it for your own sake, and not for the world; don't grasp
statues, but, when you are violently thirsty, take a little cold water in your mouth, and
spurt it out and tell nobody.
48. The condition and characteristic of a vulgar person, is, that he never expects either
benefit or hurt from himself, but from externals. The condition and characteristic of a
philosopher is, that he expects all hurt and benefit from himself. The marks of a
proficient are, that he censures no one, praises no one, blames no one, accuses no one,
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says nothing concerning himself as being anybody, or knowing anything: when he is, in
any instance, hindered or restrained, he accuses himself; and, if he is praised, he secretly
laughs at the person who praises him; and, if he is censured, he makes no defense. But he
goes about with the caution of sick or injured people, dreading to move anything that is
set right, before it is perfectly fixed. He suppresses all desire in himself; he transfers his
aversion to those things only which thwart the proper use of our own faculty of choice;
the exertion of his active powers towards anything is very gentle; if he appears stupid or
ignorant, he does not care, and, in a word, he watches himself as an enemy, and one in
49. When anyone shows himself overly confident in ability to understand and interpret
the works of Chrysippus, say to yourself, " Unless Chrysippus had written obscurely, this
person would have had no subject for his vanity. But what do I desire? To understand
nature and follow her. I ask, then, who interprets her, and, finding Chrysippus does, I
have recourse to him. I don't understand his writings. I seek, therefore, one to interpret
them." So far there is nothing to value myself upon. And when I find an interpreter, what
remains is to make use of his instructions. This alone is the valuable thing. But, if I
admire nothing but merely the interpretation, what do I become more than a grammarian
instead of a philosopher? Except, indeed, that instead of Homer I interpret Chrysippus.
When anyone, therefore, desires me to read Chrysippus to him, I rather blush when I
cannot show my actions agreeable and consonant to his discourse.
50. Whatever moral rules you have deliberately proposed to yourself. abide by them as
they were laws, and as if you would be guilty of impiety by violating any of them. Don't
regard what anyone says of you, for this, after all, is no concern of yours. How long, then,
will you put off thinking yourself worthy of the highest improvements and follow the
distinctions of reason? You have received the philosophical theorems, with which you
ought to be familiar, and you have been familiar with them. What other master, then, do
you wait for, to throw upon that the delay of reforming yourself? You are no longer a
boy, but a grown man. If, therefore, you will be negligent and slothful, and always add
procrastination to procrastination, purpose to purpose, and fix day after day in which you
will attend to yourself, you will insensibly continue without proficiency, and, living and
dying, persevere in being one of the vulgar. This instant, then, think yourself worthy of
living as a man grown up, and a proficient. Let whatever appears to be the best be to you
an inviolable law. And if any instance of pain or pleasure, or glory or disgrace, is set
before you, remember that now is the combat, now the Olympiad comes on, nor can it be
put off. By once being defeated and giving way, proficiency is lost, or by the contrary
preserved. Thus Socrates became perfect, improving himself by everything. attending to
nothing but reason. And though you are not yet a Socrates, you ought, however, to live as
one desirous of becoming a Socrates.
51. The first and most necessary topic in philosophy is that of the use of moral theorems,
such as, "We ought not to lie;" the second is that of demonstrations, such as, "What is the
origin of our obligation not to lie;" the third gives strength and articulation to the other
two, such as, "What is the origin of this is a demonstration." For what is demonstration?
What is consequence? What contradiction? What truth? What falsehood? The third topic,
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then, is necessary on the account of the second, and the second on the account of the first.
But the most necessary, and that whereon we ought to rest, is the first. But we act just on
the contrary. For we spend all our time on the third topic, and employ all our diligence
about that, and entirely neglect the first. Therefore, at the same time that we lie, we are
immediately prepared to show how it is demonstrated that lying is not right.
52. Upon all occasions we ought to have these maxims ready at hand:
"Conduct me, Jove, and you, 0 Destiny,
Wherever your decrees have fixed my station."
"I follow cheerfully; and, did I not,
Wicked and wretched, I must follow still
Whoever yields properly to Fate, is deemed
Wise among men, and knows the laws of heaven."
Euripides, Frag. 965
And this third:
"0 Crito, if it thus pleases the gods, thus let it be. Anytus and Melitus may kill me indeed,
but hurt me they cannot."
Plato's Crito and Apology
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Paragraphs on Conceptual Art
Sol Lewitt, for Artforum (June, 1967).
The editor has written me that he is in favor of avoiding “the notion that the artist is a
kind of ape that has to be explained by the civilized critic”. This should be good news to
both artists and apes. With this assurance I hope to justify his confidence. To use a
baseball metaphor (one artist wanted to hit the ball out of the park, another to stay loose
at the plate and hit the ball where it was pitched), I am grateful for the opportunity to
strike out for myself.
I will refer to the kind of art in which I am involved as conceptual art. In conceptual art
the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a
conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made
beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that
makes the art. This kind of art is not theoretical or illustrative of theories; it is intuitive, it
is involved with all types of mental processes and it is purposeless. It is usually free from
the dependence on the skill of the artist as a craftsman. It is the objective of the artist who
is concerned with conceptual art to make his work mentally interesting to the spectator,
and therefore usually he would want it to become emotionally dry. There is no reason to
suppose, however, that the conceptual artist is out to bore the viewer. It is only the
expectation of an emotional kick, to which one conditioned to expressionist art is
accustomed, that would deter the viewer from perceiving this art.
Conceptual art is not necessarily logical. The logic of a piece or series of pieces is a
device that is used at times, only to be ruined. Logic may be used to camouflage the real
intent of the artist, to lull the viewer into the belief that he understands the work, or to
infer a paradoxical situation (such as logic vs. illogic). Some ideas are logical in
conception and illogical perceptually. The ideas need not be complex. Most ideas that are
successful are ludicrously simple. Successful ideas generally have the appearance of
simplicity because they seem inevitable. In terms of ideas the artist is free even to
surprise himself. Ideas are discovered by intuition. What the work of art looks like isn't
too important. It has to look like something if it has physical form. No matter what form
it may finally have it must begin with an idea. It is the process of conception and
realization with which the artist is concerned. Once given physical reality by the artist the
work is open to the perception of al, including the artist. (I use the word perception to
mean the apprehension of the sense data, the objective understanding of the idea, and
simultaneously a subjective interpretation of both). The work of art can be perceived only
after it is completed.
Art that is meant for the sensation of the eye primarily would be called perceptual rather
than conceptual. This would include most optical, kinetic, light, and color art.
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Since the function of conception and perception are contradictory (one pre-, the other
postfact) the artist would mitigate his idea by applying subjective judgment to it. If the
artist wishes to explore his idea thoroughly, then arbitrary or chance decisions would be
kept to a minimum, while caprice, taste and others whimsies would be eliminated from
the making of the art. The work does not necessarily have to be rejected if it does not
look well. Sometimes what is initially thought to be awkward will eventually be visually
To work with a plan that is preset is one way of avoiding subjectivity. It also obviates the
necessity of designing each work in turn. The plan would design the work. Some plans
would require millions of variations, and some a limited number, but both are finite.
Other plans imply infinity. In each case, however, the artist would select the basic form
and rules that would govern the solution of the problem. After that the fewer decisions
made in the course of completing the work, the better. This eliminates the arbitrary, the
capricious, and the subjective as much as possible. This is the reason for using this
When an artist uses a multiple modular method he usually chooses a simple and readily
available form. The form itself is of very limited importance; it becomes the grammar for
the total work. In fact, it is best that the basic unit be deliberately uninteresting so that it
may more easily become an intrinsic part of the entire work. Using complex basic forms
only disrupts the unity of the whole. Using a simple form repeatedly narrows the field of
the work and concentrates the intensity to the arrangement of the form. This arrangement
becomes the end while the form becomes the means.
Conceptual art doesn't really have much to do with mathematics, philosophy, or nay other
mental discipline. The mathematics used by most artists is simple arithmetic or simple
number systems. The philosophy of the work is implicit in the work and it is not an
illustration of any system of philosophy.
It doesn't really matter if the viewer understands the concepts of the artist by seeing the
art. Once it is out of his hand the artist has no control over the way a viewer will perceive
the work. Different people will understand the same thing in a different way.
Recently there has been much written about minimal art, but I have not discovered
anyone who admits to doing this kind of thing. There are other art forms around called
primary structures, reductive, rejective, cool, and mini-art. No artist I know will own up
to any of these either. Therefore I conclude that it is part of a secret language that art
critics use when communicating with each other through the medium of art magazines.
Mini-art is best because it reminds one of miniskirts and long-legged girls. It must refer
to very small works of art. This is a very good idea. Perhaps “mini-art” shows could be
sent around the country in matchboxes. Or maybe the mini-artist is a very small person,
say under five feet tall. If so, much good work will be found in the primary schools
(primary school primary structures).
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If the artist carries through his idea and makes it into visible form, then all the steps in the
process are of importance. The idea itself, even if not made visual, is as much a work of
art as any finished product. All intervening steps –scribbles, sketches, drawings, failed
works, models, studies, thoughts, conversations– are of interest. Those that show the
thought process of the artist are sometimes more interesting than the final product.
Determining what size a piece should be is difficult. If an idea requires three dimensions
then it would seem any size would do. The question would be what size is best. If the
thing were made gigantic then the size alone would be impressive and the idea may be
lost entirely. Again, if it is too small, it may become inconsequential. The height of the
viewer may have some bearing on the work and also the size of the space into which it
will be placed. The artist may wish to place objects higher than the eye level of the
viewer, or lower. I think the piece must be large enough to give the viewer whatever
information he needs to understand the work and placed in such a way that will facilitate
this understanding. (Unless the idea is of impediment and requires difficulty of vision or
Space can be thought of as the cubic area occupied by a three-dimensional volume. Any
volume would occupy space. It is air and cannot be seen. It is the interval between things
that can be measured. The intervals and measurements can be important to a work of art.
If certain distances are important they will be made obvious in the piece. If space is
relatively unimportant it can be regularized and made equal (things placed equal
distances apart) to mitigate any interest in interval. Regular space might also become a
metric time element, a kind of regular beat or pulse. When the interval is kept regular
whatever is ireregular gains more importance.
Architecture and three-dimensional art are of completely opposite natures. The former is
concerned with making an area with a specific function. Architecture, whether it is a
work of art or not, must be utilitarian or else fail completely. Art is not utilitarian. When
three-dimensional art starts to take on some of the characteristics, such as forming
utilitarian areas, it weakens its function as art. When the viewer is dwarfed by the larger
size of a piece this domination emphasizes the physical and emotive power of the form at
the expense of losing the idea of the piece.
New materials are one of the great afflictions of contemporary art. Some artists confuse
new materials with new ideas. There is nothing worse than seeing art that wallows in
gaudy baubles. By and large most artists who are attracted to these materials are the ones
who lack the stringency of mind that would enable them to use the materials well. It takes
a good artist to use new materials and make them into a work of art. The danger is, I
think, in making the physicality of the materials so important that it becomes the idea of
the work (another kind of expressionism).
Three-dimensional art of any kind is a physical fact. The physicality is its most obvious
and expressive content. Conceptual art is made to engage the mind of the viewer rather
than his eye or emotions. The physicality of a three-dimensional object then becomes a
contradiction to its non-emotive intent. Color, surface, texture, and shape only emphasize
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the physical aspects of the work. Anything that calls attention to and interests the viewer
in this physicality is a deterrent to our understanding of the idea and is used as an
expressive device. The conceptual artist would want o ameliorate this emphasis on
materiality as much as possible or to use it in a paradoxical way (to convert it into an
idea). This kind of art, then, should be stated with the greatest economy of means. Any
idea that is better stated in two dimensions should not be in three dimensions. Ideas may
also be stated with numbers, photographs, or words or any way the artist chooses, the
form being unimportant.
These paragraphs are not intended as categorical imperatives, but the ideas stated are as
close as possible to my thinking at this time. These ideas are the result of my work as an
artist and are subject to change as my experience changes. I have tried to state them with
as much clarity as possible. If the statements I make are unclear it may mean the thinking
is unclear. Even while writing these ideas there seemed to be obvious inconsistencies
(which I have tried to correct, but others will probably slip by). I do not advocate a
conceptual form of art for all artists. I have found that it has worked well for me while
other ways have not. It is one way of making art; other ways suit other artists. Nor do I
think all conceptual art merits the viewer's attention. Conceptual art is good only when
the idea is good.
Sentences on Conceptual Art
1. Conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalists. They leap to conclusions that
logic cannot reach.
2. Rational judgements repeat rational judgements.
3. Irrational judgements lead to new experience.
4. Formal art is essentially rational.
5. Irrational thoughts should be followed absolutely and logically.
6. If the artist changes his mind midway through the execution of the piece he
compromises the result and repeats past results.
7. The artist's will is secondary to the process he initiates from idea to completion. His
wilfulness may only be ego.
8. When words such as painting and sculpture are used, they connote a whole tradition
and imply a consequent acceptance of this tradition, thus placing limitations on the artist
who would be reluctant to make art that goes beyond the limitations.
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9. The concept and idea are different. The former implies a general direction while the
latter is the component. Ideas implement the concept.
10. Ideas can be works of art; they are in a chain of development that may eventually find
some form. All ideas need not be made physical.
11. Ideas do not necessarily proceed in logical order. They may set one off in unexpected
directions, but an idea must necessarily be completed in the mind before the next one is
12. For each work of art that becomes physical there are many variations that do not.
13. A work of art may be understood as a conductor from the artist's mind to the viewer's.
But it may never reach the viewer, or it may never leave the artist's mind.
14. The words of one artist to another may induce an idea chain, if they share the same
15. Since no form is intrinsically superior to another, the artist may use any form, from an
expression of words (written or spoken) to physical reality, equally.
16. If words are used, and they proceed from ideas about art, then they are art and not
literature; numbers are not mathematics.
17. All ideas are art if they are concerned with art and fall within the conventions of art.
18. One usually understands the art of the past by applying the convention of the present,
thus misunderstanding the art of the past.
19. The conventions of art are altered by works of art.
20. Successful art changes our understanding of the conventions by altering our
21. Perception of ideas leads to new ideas.
22. The artist cannot imagine his art, and cannot perceive it until it is complete.
23. The artist may misperceive (understand it differently from the artist) a work of art but
still be set off in his own chain of thought by that misconstrual.
24. Perception is subjective.
25. The artist may not necessarily understand his own art. His perception is neither better
nor worse than that of others.
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26. An artist may perceive the art of others better than his own.
27. The concept of a work of art may involve the matter of the piece or the process in
which it is made.
28. Once the idea of the piece is established in the artist's mind and the final form is
decided, the process is carried out blindly. There are many side effects that the artist
cannot imagine. These may be used as ideas for new works.
29. The process is mechanical and should not be tampered with. It should run its course.
30. There are many elements involved in a work of art. The most important are the most
31. If an artist uses the same form in a group of works, and changes the material, one
would assume the artist's concept involved the material.
32. Banal ideas cannot be rescued by beautiful execution.
33. It is difficult to bungle a good idea.
34. When an artist learns his craft too well he makes slick art.
35. These sentences comment on art, but are not art.
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The following is excerpted from A Separate Reality, Carlos Castaneda’s account of his
experience as a student of a Yaqui sorcerer Don Juan. The idea of “controlled folly” has
been very important to me whenever I feel overwhelmed by the world. (And in putting this
reader together, I’m definitely getting there.) I’m pretty sure that Don Juan wasn’t
excluding women from his “knowledge.” (He did have women students.) We can all of us
benefit from a little reflection on our own folly now and then…
Excerpt, On “Controlled Folly”: A Separate Reality
I told you once that our lot as men is to learn, for good or bad," he said. "I have learned
to see and I tell you that nothing really matters; now it is your turn; perhaps someday you
will see and you will know then whether things matter or not. For me nothing matters,
but perhaps for you everything will.
You should know by now that a man of knowledge lives by acting, not by thinking about
acting, nor by thinking about what he will think when he has finished acting. A man of
knowledge chooses a path with heart and follows it; and then he looks and rejoices and
laughs; and then he sees and he knows.
He knows that his life will be over altogether too soon; he knows that he, as well as
everybody else, is not going anywhere; he knows, because he sees, that nothing is more
important than anything else.
In other words, a man of knowledge has no honor, no dignity, no family, no name, no
country, but only life to be lived, and under these circumstances his only tie to his fellow
men is his controlled folly.
Thus a man of knowledge endeavors, and sweats, and puffs, and if one looks at him he is
just like any ordinary man, except that the folly of his life is under control. Nothing
being more important than anything else, a man of knowledge chooses any act, and acts it
out as if it matters to him.
His controlled folly makes him say that what he does matters and makes him act as if it
did, and yet he knows that it doesn't; so when he fulfills his acts he retreats in peace, and
whether his acts were good or bad, or worked or didn't, is in no way part of his concern.
A man of knowledge may choose, on the other hand, to remain totally impassive and
never act, and behave as if to be impassive really matters to him; he will be rightfully true
at that too, because that would also be his controlled folly.
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I pulled all of our readings straight off the web so that you all would easily be able to see
them in context if you’d like without having to log into a database. This is a new thing for
me (I usually go to the academic databases), but I ended up being pretty happy with the
number of primary texts I was able to get for us this way.
A Primitivist Primer
Rethinking the American Dream
Excerpts from A Walk In The Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail
The Anosognosic’s Dilemma: Something’s Wrong but You’ll Never Know What It Is
Gender Issues in the Afghanistan Diaspora: Nadia's Story
Tourism, Globalisation and Sustainable Development
Gen. McChrystal's Credibility Problem
Paragraphs on Conceptual Art
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