Evie Wyld (The Bat Segundo Show #543)

Evie Wyld is most recently the author of All the Birds, Singing.

Author: Evie Wyld

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Subjects Discussed: The Call of the Wild as workplace novel, the stability of work in wild environments, physical labor and working in bookstores, coming from a family with a farming background, the engineering mindset, the virtues of being a messy writer, the interest in what we hold back, having to write moments that aren’t revealed to the reader, the dangers of creative pride, how to organize a messy 60,000 words on a floor using scissors and tape, structure and certainty, hating your book, attempts to write linearly and literally, the virtues of an innate rebellious streak, when flashbacks become integral to structure, the many insects within Wyld’s fiction, how horror films are more willing to dramatize the relationship between humans and animals, Jeffrey Lockwood’s The Infested Mind, entomophobia and Western culture, why sharks are misunderstood, Australian insects, Holiday Cigarettes, the autonomy of smoking, attempts to find control over your environment, kangaroos hit by utility trucks, appreciating life by confronting death, why kangaroos are mutinous, dogs vs. kangaroos, animals and social projection, sheep, when kangaroos stop being cute, pet kangaroos, when giving a character a job is the hardest part of fiction, sheep shearing pubs, farming pubs, sheep integrity, Ernest Hemingway, Robert De Niro and Method writing, imagination vs. process writing, getting bogged down in research, notes and memory, characters with palindromic names, bidirectional retreats to the past, how to get around writing boring scenes, romantic notions of writer’s block, why it’s important to write drivel, thinking on the page, despising the manuscript and knowing the moment when it needs to be plucked away, happy nightmares, families of solitary figures, eccentric exercise regimens, the back as a footstool, sheep killing as an ambiguous mystery, the Pulp Fiction briefcase, the appeal of monsters, the pros and cons of setting up reader expectations with a mystery, Stephen King’s It, disappointing endings, why seeing the monster isn’t relevant in storytelling, narrative entitlement, how novelists contend with increasing reader distractions, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Venn diagram of genre and literary fiction, the advantages of working as a bookseller, Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Wyld confronting her dead father’s records in the bookstore database, having a healthy suspicion of lists in a BuzzFeed age, Keith Richards’s Life, and the benefits of accidents and coincidences.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I had a rather strange way of entering this rather raucous novel. About three years ago, another critic Matthew Battles and I, we were having this online conversation about The Call of the Wild. And we were both arguing that Jack London’s great novel was actually a workplace novel. Because Buck, he’s forced to contend with the aggressive cubemate, like Spitz, and essentially he has to find individualism and this independent work ethic over the course of his journey. Your book happens to involve two dogs — one of them actually named Dog — and Jake has to learn sheep shearing and driving skills during her journey. Why do you think work became such a dominant part of this novel’s fixation in your efforts to contend with these rather feral environments, both in Australia and in England?

Wyld: Well, I think work is a way of normalizing yourself. It’s a way of getting yourself away from the stuff that’s actually happening in your life. A way of processing it. So I think for Jake, handling sheep is very much who she is. She expresses herself through wrestling with sheep and trying to keep them alive. And she tries to kind of make amends for some of the things in her life by working really, really hard and working very hard at looking after these sheep, trying to keep them alive, failing a lot of the time.

Correspondent: Why do you think it’s tied so much into the idea of existing in this kind of wild environment? That’s the real question. Why work is the defining quality of a naturalistic environment.

Wyld: I think it keeps you sane in some sense. I mean, I certainly find. that lives in the wilds of Peckham, where I am in London, I work very, very hard in the bookshop and I work very hard at writing novels. And I think it’s something to do with, as long as you’re working hard, you feel you’re existing in a way that is worthwhile, in a way that you feel like — sometimes you can feel like you’re very transient and that you’re slightly floating above the earth and you’re not really experiencing anything. And you find that if you actually do something physical to kind of make your mark on the earth, then it has a calming effect, I find.

Correspondent: Do you feel that there’s any difference between working in the wild of a bookstore and working in the rather saner, urban environment of sheep shearing?

Wyld: I think probably a fair amount of difference. I think I really admire physical work. I would love to…

Correspondent: How much physical work have you done?

Wyld: Well, I’ve done absolutely no sheep shearing. I don’t know how physical bookselling is. I lift the books.

Correspondent: It is pretty physical. I mean…

Wyld: Stacking shelves.

Correspondent: Stacking.

Wyld: Dusting. The whole lot.

Correspondent: Moving shelves for author events.

Wyld: Wrestling the odd shoplifter to the ground. That sort of thing. But, yeah, I think my mother’s family are Australian and they’re farmers. So it’s always been something that I have looked on with envy and amazement, really. This amazing, quite masculine work. Actually growing stuff. Actually keeping something alive.

Correspondent: Why didn’t you decide to enter the farming racket?

Wyld: Not sure I’m that talented, to be honest. My Australian family aren’t big readers or big intellectual kind of thinkers. But somehow they’re some of the most intelligent people. They can look at a broken tractor and they can fix it. And I find that incredible. And I don’t have that skill. I don’t have the maths, I think, mainly.

Correspondent: The sort of engineering brain to look upon some casual thing to fix and then you’ll be able to find a solution through a MacGyver situation by putting it back together.

Wyld: Put some oil on it. (laughs)

Correspondent: Yeah. Exactly. Well, the novel here is built on a series of alternating chapters. It’s almost this two-lane highway. You have this forward motion in the present and you also have these backwards chapters that depict Jake’s past. I’m wondering how this structure emerged, first and foremost. But how much of Jake’s background did you plan out in advance or come to know in the act of writing? Just to start off here.

Wyld: Well, I’m a very messy writer.

Correspondent: You need structure.

Wyld: Yeah. I tend to start in the middle and kind of work outwards.

Correspondent: Okay. So you just write all over the place.

Wyld: I just write all over the place and then I get to a point where I’ve written a certain amount of words. And I try and find what the story is, what the arc of the story is. So mostly for me the writing process involves getting to know the character. And for me, that involves their childhood, their family. It doesn’t always enter into the story in the end. But it’s central to me that I can’t understand who someone is unless I know about them before the sort of now of the book. So I’d written about 60,000 words. About a third of the book. Maybe half the book. And then I just realized that I was enjoying her as a character and I was enjoying her life in Australia and in the UK. But it was lacking tension. And there was just something really to be gained by folding it over on itself. And I’m a big fan of playing around with structure, only in terms of furthering the story, only in terms of not just for fun but because it’s so exciting to me when you have two objects that shouldn’t go next to each other and they create a third feeling.

Correspondent: Yeah. Did you find that your sense of Jake deepened when you had this structure in place? That you knew here even more intimately than you could ever possibly anticipate knowing?

Wyld: Yeah. I think so. I think there’s something about somebody who is trying very hard not to think about something that appeals to me and that makes me feel that they’re much more human.

Correspondent: It allows you to get outside of your own head.

Wyld: Exactly.

Correspondent: Because you’re sort of a cerebral person and you need something who isn’t a cerebral person to escape to.

Wyld: Yeah. I think there’s definitely something to be said for the things we hold back. I think they’re more interesting than the things we say a lot of the time.

(Loops for this program provided by danke, ozzi, and 40a. )

The Bat Segundo Show #543: Evie Wyld (Download MP3)

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Yiyun Li (The Bat Segundo Show #542)

Yiyun Li is most recently the author of Kinder Than Solitude. She previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #323.

Author: Yiyun Li

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Subjects Discussed: Moving on, sustaining characters who inhabit their own mystery while an overarching mystery exists to tantalize the reader, judgment of characters and simultaneous mystery, Edward Jones, working out every details of a story in advance, forethought and structure, the original two structures of Kinder Than Solitude, creating a structure alternating between the past and the present, thinking about a project for two years before writing, William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, time as a collage structure, photographs as a marker of identity, not really knowing what the characters look like in Kinder Than Solitude, why Li didn’t visually describe her characters, being an internal writer and reader, writing from inside the characters, Ian Rankin not describing Rebus over the course of more than twenty novels, Patricia Highsmith, Joan Schenkar’s The Talented Miss Highsmith, Tom Ripley’s manipulative nature, the dangers of general comments, problems when literary fiction describes objects in consummate detail instead of emotions, freedom and the courage to write about a character’s soul, Chinese Catholics who practiced in secret, priests executed as counterrevolutionaries in Communist-controlled China, underground faith and literary relationships, inevitable bifurcation in exploring an absolute, having to ask the question of whether a sentence is true before setting it down, questioning yourself in everything you do, the allure of family (and the impulse to run away from it), the mantras and maxims that flow through Kinder Than Solitude, coating truth in wise and optimistic sayings, the beauty and sharp internal emotions contained within Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart, subtlety and shock in relation to internal character examination, poison as a passive-aggressive form of murder, poison as a muse, Li’s accordion skills (and other revelations), the current American accordion player crisis, “I find your lack of faith disturbing” in Star Wars, when any idea (such as “bok choy”) can be sandwiched into political ideology, notions of planned economy in 1989 China, the personal and the politically being ineluctably intertwined, exploring prohibitions on American political fiction (also discussed in Dinaw Mengestu interview), James Alan McPherson‘s “Elbow Room,” contemplating why Americans are being more careful in discussing the uncomfortable, how the need to belong often overshadows the need to talk, Communist propaganda vs. digital pressures, extraordinary conversations in Europe, considering what forms of storytelling can encourage people to talk about important issues, William Trevor, the intertwined spirit and freedom of Southern literature, Carson McCullers, the flexibility of literary heritage, notions of New South writing, regional assignation as an overstated tag of literature, establishing liminal space through place to explore flexibility in time, despair without geography, feelings and time as key qualities of fiction, writing love letters to cities, James Joyce having to go to Trieste to write about Dublin, and whether place needs to be dead in order to make it alive on the page.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: There’s this point in the book where Moran says to Joseph, “Moving on? That’s an American thing I don’t believe in.” And then there’s this moment late in the book where one American is utterly devastated by what she learns about one of the characters. I’ll try not to give it away. All of the inferences she made are essentially thrown back into her face. And I think this novel dramatizes belief culture in very interesting ways. I’m wondering. How is belief formed or reified by a national instinct, whether it is American or Chinese? And how do you think the migratory impulse of “moving on” causes us to believe in people in very harmful ways? How does this affect you as a novelist? Someone who is asking the reader to believe in lies. Just to start off here.

Li: Right. You know, it’s interesting. Because I always say “moving on” is an American concept. The reason I said that was that, right after 9/11, I was so impressed. By the two months after 9/11. All the newspapers were talking about “moving on.” Americans should move on. And for me, that was quite incredible. Because I did not understand what “moving on” meant and that concept.

Correspondent: This is your introduction to “moving on.”

Li: Yes. And so it stuck with me. And of course, Moran borrowed that concept or Moran said “moving on” after 9/11. People talked about moving on. But the national belief, it’s interesting because I think this Western concept of “moving on,” you know, there’s always a second chance. There are always more opportunities in front of you if you just get over this hurdle. Now it’s becoming more an Asian thing. Only in the past maybe three or four years. If you look at not only China but Southeast Asia, Malaysia, Singapore, all these countries start to believe in moving on. We’re not going to stay in any moment. We’re just going to catch this wave of being.

Correspondent: You left out North Korea. (laughs)

Li: (laughs) Oh no. They can’t. So to me, that’s interesting. Because that’s a belief that, as people are migrating from East to the West, ideas are migrating from the West to the East. And, of course, people coming to America are returning to Asia. So there are these waves of ideas. So now, if you look at Chinese or other Asian countries, “moving on” is a big thing. You know, we’re not going to get stuck in a Cultural Revolution. We’re not going to get stuck in Tienanmen Square. We’re just going to move on to be rich.

Correspondent: But the thing about moving on, I mean, it’s used in two senses. You allude to this American impulse of, yes, well we can move on and have a second chance and start our life over. But there’s also this idea of moving on as if we have no sense of the past. That we have no collective memory or even individual memory. And I’m wondering, if it’s increasingly becoming a way to identify the East and the West, is it essentially a flawed notion? Or is it a notion that one should essentially adopt and then discard? Because we get dangerously close into believing in illusion?

Li: Right. I would feel suspicious of any belief and, again, as you said, moving on really requires us to say we’re going to box this kind of memory. We’re going to put them away so we can do something else. And, of course, as a novelist or as a writer, you always feel suspicious when those things happen. Because you’re manipulating memories. You’re manipulating time.

Correspondent: You’re manipulating readers.

Li: Yes.

Correspondent: So in a sense, you become an ideologue as well.

Li: Exactly. So I would say that anytime anyone says, “Let’s move on” or “Let’s look at history all the time,” I would become suspicious. Because both ways are ways to manipulate readers or characters.

Correspondent: So it’s almost as if you have to dramatize belief culture to be an honest novelist. Would you say that’s the case?

Li: Well, I would say it’s to question that belief culture. And I think when you question, there are many ways to question. To dramatize is one way to question. I mean, you can write essays. I can write nonfiction to question these things, but, as a fiction writer, I think I question the belief culture more than dramatizing it.

Correspondent: How do you think fiction allows the reader to question belief culture more than nonfiction? Or perhaps in a way that nonfiction can’t possibly do?

Li: I think they do different things. For instance, I’m not an experienced nonfiction writer. I do write nonfiction.

Correspondent: You can approach this question from the reader and the writer viewpoint too.

Li: I think for me the most important thing to ask as a fiction writer is you don’t judge your characters. So if they’re flawed in their belief culture, you let them be in that culture and do all the things so that the readers can come to their own conclusions. In nonfiction, I feel that a writer needs to take a stand probably more than a fiction writer.

(Photo: Karin Higgins)

(Loops for this program provided by danke, ozzi, decibel, michiel56, and OzoneOfficial. )

The Bat Segundo Show #542: Yiyun Li II (Download MP3)

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The Infinite Jest Review That Dave Eggers Doesn’t Want You To Read

In 2006, Little Brown published a 10th anniversary edition of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest that featured a foreword by Dave Eggers. Eggers’s introduction observed that Infinite Jest was “1,067 pages long and there is not one lazy sentence. The book is drum-tight and relentlessly smart and, though it does not wear its heart on its sleeve, its deeply felt and incredibly moving.” There was one significant problem with this assessment. It did not match, much less acknowledge, a review that Eggers had written for The San Francisco Chronicle on February 11, 1996, which claimed just the opposite:

Besides frequently losing itself in superfluous and wildly tangential flights of lexical diarrhea, the book suffers under the sheer burden of its incredible length.

Before Eggers was running away at the name “Abdulrahman Zeitoun” rather than attempt adulthood by owning up to the fact that he had turned a man who had ruthlessly assaulted his wife into a hero without acknowledging the darker truth and created a shadowy cash-distributing company called “Jableh LLC” within the intricate framework of an ostensibly philanthropic nonprofit, Eggers was busy trying to hide any nasty writing, or even the insinuation of such, that had come quite naturally from his mind. Eggers has refused to discuss any of this with anyone. Because even at the age of 44, this grown man remains a timid and irresponsible bumpkin who would rather pretend that his writing didn’t harm an innocent woman or whitewash the truth. He has evaded multiple efforts for comment on anything serious, speaking only through a ramshackle army of publicists and lawyers when he’s not attempting to tarnish or derail anyone who he considers “extreme” or not “straightforward.” (Just ask Neal Pollack.)

And he has succeeded in burying his original Infinite Jest review, quite possibly the apotheosis of his risk-averse and coldly vanilla taste. It was originally sussed out in 2006 by the vivacious contributors to the Wallace-l mailing list and further reviewed by the dearly lamented litblog Rake’s Progress. It has not been available in full online. Until now.

What follows is Dave Eggers’s complete review of Infinite Jest as it originally appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle:

AMERICA IN 2010: EVERYONE’S HOOKED ON SOMETHING
Novel portrays an escapist culture in which we are willing to die for pleasure

INFINITE JEST
by David Foster Wallace
Little, Brown; 1,087 pages $29.95

REVIEWED BY DAVE EGGERS

It’s post-millennial America, sometime after the Jack Kemp/Rush Limbaugh presidential administration. Giant deformed babies and herds of feral hamsters roam the blasted landscape of the Great Concavity, a gigantic toxic waste receptacle that covers much of what used to be Maine, New Hampshire, and upstate New York.

Relations between the United States and Canada are strained (due to the northerly directed fallout from the Concavity), and a bizarre cadre of wheelchair-bound Quebecer insurgents is planning a massive terrorist attack on the entertainment-lulled and drug-addled U.S. populace.

Federal budget shortfalls have necessitated the privatization of many formerly sacred American institutions. The Statue of Liberty is available for unique advertising opportunities, and for the right price, the government is selling the rights to time itself. The year is 2010, but it’s better known, in this era of subsidized time, as the Year of the Depend Undergarment. (2005 was the Year of the Trial-Size Dove Bar.)

Such is the provocative backdrop of David Foster Wallace’s brilliant, fat, and frustrating second novel, “Infinite Jest.” Science fiction it’s not. Though set against an epic landscape of environmental toxicity and corporate insinuation, at its core the book is an intimate and bleak portrait of the human fallout caused by a weak-willed country interested only in pleasing itself. Exploring the lives of those enslaved by TV, drugs, alcohol and emotional dependence, Wallace paints a picture, one character at a time, of the decline of a culture paralyzed by its need for escape and its willingness to die in the pursuit of happiness.

Like his earlier novel, “The Broom of the System,” “Infinite Jest” revolves around a peculiar and brilliant family. The Incandenzas are proprietors of the posh Enfield Tennis Academy, a combination athlete factory and elite academic high school. Jim Incandenza, the eccentric and hard-drinking Academy founder and family patriarch, has, after failing in his attempt to make it as a filmmaker, recently killed himself by sticking his head in a microwave.

His three sons — Orin, a celebrated punter for a pro football team; Mario, who has a birth defect and a heart of gold; and Hal, a linguistic genius and nationally ranked junior tennis player — struggle to come to grips with the void and legacy left by their father. But the family is coming apart at the seams. Avril, Jim’s widow, is seeing a 17-year-old. Orin has an uncontrollable habit of seducing and abandoning married woman. Hal, listless and increasingly withdrawn, is hooked on high-resign marijuana.

But the Incandenzas are the most normal in Wallace’s parade of physically and psychologically crippled characters. Down the hill from the Academy is Ennet House, a halfway house for recovering addicts. There resides a menagerie of people trying to start over: Don Gately, an ex-con who started drinking vodka at age 10 and is struggling through Alcoholics Anonymous; Joelle van Dyne, who starred in many of Jim Incandenza’s obscure films and who recently attempt to freebase herself to death; and Randy Lenz, a cocaine abuser who likes to set cats on fire. In stunning and brutal detail, Wallace shows how these characters attempt to soothe, through one substance or another, the wounds of their horrible childhoods.

Meanwhile, the Canadian terrorists, in their plans to bring the United States to its knees, are attempting to track down a mysterious and lethal video cartridge so entertaining that it’s rumored to render audiences forever catatonic. Its origin is eventually traced to Jim Incandenza, and all those close to him become subjects of investigation and pursuit. As the many story lines merge, the rebels get closer to what they hope will become the cinematic equivalent of the neutron bomb.

But the book is more about David Foster Wallace than anything else. It’s an extravagantly self-indulgent novel, and, page by page, it’s often difficult to navigate. Sentences run as long as 800 words. Paragraph breaks are rare. Aside from being incredibly verbose, Wallace has an exhausting penchant for jargon, nicknames and obscure references, particularly about things highly technical, medical or drug-related.

When people talk, they “interface.” When they think hard, they “wrack their RAM.” Things like tennis matches and math problems are described in excruciating detail. He has a fussy way with his adjectives and adverbs, while some — such as “ghastly,” which is used much too often — have that disingenuous feel that renders the narrative around them impotent.

Besides frequently losing itself in superfluous and wildly tangential flights of lexical diarrhea, the book suffers under the sheer burden of its incredibly length. (That includes the 96 pages of only sporadically worthwhile endnotes, including one that clocks in at 17 pages.) At almost 1,100 pages, it feels more like 3,000.

Still, if you can come to terms with his dense and labored style, the rewards are often tremendous. There’s no doubt that Wallace’s talent is immense and his imagination limitless. When he backs off and gives his narrative some breathing room, he emerges as a consistently innovative, sensitive and intelligent writer. In particular, while inhabiting the tortured, drowning minds of the addicts, he is devastating. Too often, however, “Infinite Jest” buckles under the weight of its own excess.

Of course, it seems as if that’s the sort of criticism Wallace expected. There’s a lot of the author in the frustrated film maker Jim Incandenza, who in his work had very little interest in telling a story, opting to experiment with handmade lenses and innovative lighting effect. Jim scorned pedestrian narratives and parodied established genres; he held his audiences in almost utter contempt, refusing to pander to their need for easily palatable entertainment. Finally he succumbed, making what he considered the perfect entertainment. Then he killed himself.

“Infinite Jest” also ends abruptly, leaving as many questions unanswered as does Jim’s suicide. Like his alter ego’s experimental films, the book seems like an exercise in what one gifted artist can produce without the hindrance of an editor. Subsequently, it’s also an exercise in whether or not such a work can sustain a reader’s interest for more than 1,000 pages and thus find an audience outside academia. Wallace’s take on that can be found in the book’s apt title: It’s an endless joke on somebody.

David Eggers is an editor of Might Magazine in San Francisco.

What Will Become of Uninformed Muttonheads Who Promulgate Misinformation on Slate About Public Libraries?

On April 22, 2014, Slate published a long, intellectually reprehensible, and dangerously ignorant article written by Michael Agresta, a self-described “writer and critic” who is such a condescending simpleton that he once compared Lena Dunham’s artistic growth with “a kid playing with this incredible new toy.” The true child is Agresta, who has opined on the state of public libraries with the consummate acumen of a competitive eater who lacks time to taste the hot dogs he stuffs down his gargantuan maw in his rush to hog the questionable spotlight. To say that Agresta gets public libraries very wrong is an understatement. It is like saying that Brad Paisley does not understand racism or Jenny McCarthy does not understand science. For this puffed up little Fauntleroy willfully insinuates, through the hack’s lazy technique of Googling one solitary link to support each foggy point emerging from the dim mist of an addled mind, that public libraries don’t have much of a shot at evolving in a digital age, even as he fails to pore through the considerable journalistic ink revealing what they’ve accomplished already and how many of these digitally inclusive achievements are rooted in principles more than a century old.

SudokuAgresta points to the NYPL’s present Central Library Plan (see my previous reporting), which threatens to shutter the Mid-Manhattan and SIBL branches while uprooting the main branch’s unprecedented research division in the Rose Reading Room, as something which would merely invite physical collapse. What he fails to consider is how shifting the research collection from beneath the main library to a New Jersey storage facility will cause considerable delays when any member of the public requests a special item (to say nothing of how the new architectural plan hopes to accommodate a heightened influx of visitors; all this was chronicled by The New York Times in 2012 but don’t count on Michael “I’ve Got a Slate Sudoku Puzzle to Fill In” Agresta for due diligence). He wrongly and smugly assumes, without bothering to look up the facts or talk with any public officials, that a library without books “seems almost inevitable,” even when the actual facts reveal regular people checking out physical books at the NYPL more than ever before: total circulation at 87 branches has risen 44% since 2008. This is because Agresta is not a journalist. He is a prevaricating muttonhead, little more than a dimebag propagandist, writing tendentious pablum that, like most of the rubbish published in Slate’s godforsaken cesspool, contributes to cultural dialogue much as rats enhance apartments.

alaWhile Agresta is right to point to (without citing it) the ALA’s 2011-2012 Public Library Funding & Technology Access Study’s alarming statistic that more than 40% of states have reported decreased public library support three years in a row, he hasn’t thought to contact the ALA to determine if this trend has continued. By contrast, it took me all of two minutes to contact the ALA’s Office for Research and Statistics. I got the current statistics 90 minutes later from a very helpful man named R. Norman Rose. It turns out that, in FY 2013, states reported that they were having an easier time soliciting funds for public libraries. Rose was good enough to inform me that the new report will be up on Monday. Agresta mischaracterizes the Pennsylvania Senate vote in which the Free Library of Philadelphia came close to shuttering. Active mobilization from the public — more than 2,000 letters directed at state legislators — prevented the so-called “Doomsday” Plan C from being enacted. In other words, the library is far from dead in America. A very active public is preserving it from hostile political forces and any dispatches about its future need to take this activism into account. Agresta then points to 200 public libraries shutting down in the United Kingdom without pointing to the far more interesting problem: nobody seems to know how many public libraries in the United States have closed.

loaburnFrom such dubious figures and distorted facts, Agresta concludes that we are apparently living in an “era to turn its back on libraries,” and he has the effrontery to pull the librarian’s answer to Godwin’s Law out of his chintzy pauper’s hat: the burning of the Library of Alexandria. After shuffling various apocryphal versions of the centuries-old story behind the conflagration like a lonely salesman playing solitaire in a motel room, Agresta then makes the reductionist conclusion that “even the smallest device with a Web browser now promises access to a reserve of knowledge vast and varied enough to rival that of Alexandria.” This is the foolish statement of a blinkered man who has never set foot in special collections, much less considered how books published only a few decades ago can quickly go out of print, often without a digital backup. As someone who sifted through invaluable special collections papers that nobody had touched in two decades only last week, I find Agresta’s conclusion risible. Agresta also doesn’t seem to understand that paper ages and that librarians exact tremendous care to keep invaluable archives preserved. (As scholar Sarah Churchwell informed me in an interview in February, Princeton has kept its F. Scott Fitzgerald papers so tightly sealed that not even the most fastidious historians are allowed to touch its pages.) And while digitization certainly helps when the original source isn’t available (and can often reinvigorate existing collections much as the NYPL Lab’s Menus and Map Warper pages do), not every piece of paper is going to get digitized. Libraries thrive when print and digital systems come together. The mistake by arrivistes like Agresta is when foolish rhetoric is trotted out in lieu of the facts:

If the current digital explosion throws off a few sparks, and a few vestigial elements of libraries, like their paper books and their bricks-and-mortar buildings, are consigned to flames, should we be concerned? Isn’t it a net gain?

carnegiepittAgresta then attempts to paint the Carnegie libraries as “the backbone of the American public library system” without pointing to one vital impetus behind the Scotsman’s philanthropy: Carnegie wanted libraries to be the most striking structures in small communities from both an architectural and communal standpoint. Early Carnegie libraries, such as the Free Library of Braddock, had recreational facilities and billiard tables on the first floor. As David Nasaw describes in his biography of Carnegie, Carnegie wanted these libraries to be perfect. The Pittsburgh library alone set aside space for a natural history museum, an art gallery, and a music hall, and involved one of the largest nationwide architectural contests of its time, involving 102 entries from 96 architects in 28 cities. Agresta’s boorish suggestion that libraries resembling strip malls are a continuation of Carnegie’s grand ideals is not only incorrect but an act of vulgar complacency, especially when this foolhardy Slate scribe has the audacity to suggest that “design benefits were ancillary, of course, to the fundamental purpose of the Carnegie libraries.” Further, one can see the communal legacy of Carnegie’s library in Houston today, with its cooking classes, toddler yoga, Photoshop classes, and afternoon movies. In other words, libraries have been “experimenting” with “maker spaces” for more than a century, not recently as Agresta claims. Agresta’s suggestion that wondrous projects highlighted by the Library as Incubator Project are a response to digital perils is quickly eradicated once one visits the Project’s About page. While digital collections are highlighted (as they naturally would in any library in 2014), the Project’s primary purpose is to encourage collaboration between libraries and artists. But that doesn’t stop Agresta from ending his paragraph with this preposterous zinger, parroting the “eloquent” Caitlin Moran:

It’s easy to imagine how a local institution built on these sorts of programs could continue to serve as hospital of the soul and theme park of the imagination long after all the paper books have been cleared away.

Even when Digital Public Library of America founder Dan Cohen tells Agresta, “We love the idea of making a connection between the digital and physical realm,” Agresta fails to ken the DPLA’s purpose, as clearly delineated on its About page. The DPLA’s chief goal isn’t to replace the physical library with the digital one. It is to provide digitized materials to other libraries in a valiant attempt to “educate, inform, and empower anyone in current and future generations.” There is nothing within this mission statement which suggests, as Agresta puts it, a “revamped” set of library ideals for the digital age. But don’t tell that to Agresta, who saves one of his most officious insults for the hardworking librarians who are an unspeakably invaluable part of what keeps libraries going.

Agresta waxes priapic about “book-fetching robots” at the Hunt Library that are similar to the ones “used by companies like Walmart at distribution centers,” as if Walmart was the more ideal model for libraries than the beautiful Beaux Arts edifices carefully considered by Carnegie. But for all of the BookBot’s organizational virtues, the sterile stacks aren’t allowed to be touched by humans, which means that any accidental discoveries must be performed through Virtual Browse.

As the above video demonstrates, with Virtual Browse, you can’t just pick a random book off of these shelves and flip through it. Instead, you have to do so through cold and clinical clicks through a web interface. Moreover, the BookBot is, at $4.5 million, a colossal waste of money, especially since it only returns about 800 books per day — the same work that two full-time students can do. Wouldn’t that money have been better spent on books or programs or top-notch librarians?

When high-tech systems this costly and this inefficient represent the professed future, and when Agresta cannot be arsed to do the math, Agresta’s suggestion that books are “making a quiet last stand” is both ignorant and laughable. And yet in presenting such a partial, incomplete, and uninformed tableau of the current library situation, especially in relation to the Central Library Plan, Agresta’s disgraceful article willfully twists the truth about a very important battle for communal public space into a presumed defeat. This is vile and irresponsible journalism that deserves nothing less than contempt. Michal Agresta should never be allowed to write a longform article on any subject again and the dimwitted editor who signed off on this unvetted and prepossessed drivel should be mercilessly flogged in the court of public opinion just outside the Columbia Journalism Review offices.

Ben Tarnoff (The Bat Segundo Show #541)

Ben Tarnoff is most recently the author of The Bohemians.

Author: Ben Tarnoff

Play

Subjects Discussed: Why 1860s California was especially well suited to literary movements, draft riots, Thomas Starr King, how Atlantic Monthly editor James Fields interacted with numerous emerging writers, the New England influence vs. the need to rebel, Charles Stoddard, rustic towns vs. cities battling each other in California over poetic merit, Bret Harte’s aesthetic tastes, how Harte transformed from critic to short story pioneer, how Mark Twain used the door-to-door subscription model to popularize The Innocents Abroad, the influence of the railroads upon what people read, Twain’s inability to command literary respect in America during his time, Twain’s popularity in England, the disreputable qualities of Twain’s appearance, Twain’s drawl, William Dean Howells, the Eastern literary establishment’s regressive assessment of Western style, how Twain used the lecture circuit to generate vital income, early standup comics in America, Artemus Ward the first standup comic in America, New York’s emergence as a media capital in the late 19th century, the development of Twain’s iconoclasm, present day interpretations of Twain as a cuddly avuncular type, Twain’s explosive temperament, Twain’s failed attempts at suicide, how original literary movements can spring from a unique location, present day Brooklyn writers who play it safe, how Twain’s lecture persona allowed him to escape becoming a newspaper hack, Twain vs. Ed Koch as meeter-and-greeter in the streets, the Bret Harte/Mark Twain friendship and feud, Bret Harte’s creative decline upon leaving California, Margaret Duckett’s Mark Twain and Bret Harte, the mysterious inciting incident in 1877 that set Twain off on Harte, Twain’s difficulties in getting his early short story collections published, the death of irony throughout American history, disparaging reports of Anna Griswold Harte (and attempts to find positive qualities about her), how much Bret Harte is responsible for Anna’s alleged sullenness, Bret Harte’s arrogance, Harte’s abandonment of his family, Harte’s aristocratic airs, Harte’s insistence upon a cab when arriving on the East Coast, Bret Harte’s hipster-like sideburns, “Ah Sin,” Twain and Harte perpetuating racist Chinese stereotypes, Twain selling out his principles, yellowface and the Cloud Atlas movie, Twain’s unremitting vengeance against Bret Harte, Twain’s obsessive detail in depicting his grudges, Twain’s tremendous rage and his tremendous love, Twain blaming himself for the death of his son Langdon, parallels between Charles Stoddard and Walt Whitman, Stoddard’s need for approval, Stoddard seeking autographs, Stoddard’s retreat to Hawaii, attempts to determine how much transgressive behavior there was in San Francisco during the late 19th century, Bret Harte rebuffing his literary friends when he moved to the East Coast, Ina Coolbrith as the first woman poet laureate in the United States in 1911, Coolbrith’s “When the Grass Shall Cover Me,” the crushing domestic responsibilities faced by Coolbrith (and stalling Coolbrith’s literary career), grueling library hours in the late 19th century, Stoddard’s South-Sea Idyls, Harte’s remarkably swift dissolution, Harte’s inability to take root in the East, Ambrose Bierce, whether Bierce arrived too late on the scene, pulp writers who lived at the Monkey Block in the early 20th century, Fritz Leiber’s Our Lady in Darkness, and whether any literary movement today can recapture the risk-taking feel of the Bohemians.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: Mark Twain and Bret Harte seem to be the big stars of this book. But what do you think it was about this particular area at this particular time that created this particular literature?

Tarnoff: Well, San Francisco in the 1860s has a lot of advantages for a writer. It’s peaceful. The Civil War never comes to California. So there’s no fighting on the coast and there’s no draft. Because Lincoln never applies the draft west of Iowa and Kansas.

Correspondent: And no draft riots.

Tarnoff: Right. Exactly. No draft riots. So it’s peaceful. It’s a great place to wait out the war. It’s very rich. Because it’s the industrial, commercial, and financial center of the region. So the massive amount of wealth that’s being generated in the City finances a range of literary papers. And it’s also very urban. It’s got about 100,000 people in the 1860s and that makes it by far the biggest city in the region, really the biggest city west of St. Louis. And that population is pretty cosmopolitan. Because of the legacy of the gold rush, you have people there from China, from South America, from all different countries in Europe. And I think that all of those are important factors behind producing the literary moment.

Correspondent: And for a while, speaking of St. Louis, it had the largest building west of St. Louis with City Hall.

Tarnoff: That’s right.

Correspondent: For a while. Until it got — I can’t remember which building it was that actually uprooted it. But it was a city of great progress and great buildings. I wanted to start off also by getting into the preacher Thomas Starr King. He’s this figure I have wanted to talk about forever. Because I have read, I’m sure as you have, the Kevin Starr books. The wonderful California Dream series. I’m grateful that your book has allowed me a chance to talk about him here. You know, it has always seemed to me that without King, you could not have had the literary culture that emerged. Because he was this really odd figure. He promoted New England writers. So he was kind of an establishment guy. But at the same time, he’s also the guy who introduces Bret Harte to James Fields, the Atlantic editor, in January 1862. Charles Stoddard — this wonderful poet — also held King up in great esteem. So he’s almost this insider/outsider figure who seems to corral the many literary strands of San Francisco that are burgeoning during this time and forming this new kind of movement that you identify as a Bohemian movement. So I’m wondering. What is your take on Thomas Starr King? Do you think that San Francisco would have been San Francisco if it had not been for that? And do you think that when The Overland Monthly appeared, that this was kind of the replacement for Thomas Starr King? Because at that point he had passed away. What of this?

Tarnoff: Well, Thomas Starr King is a fantastic figure. I think he really is a forgotten founding father of California. He’s so foundational politically, culturally, as you point out from the literary scene. He’s a fantastic mentor figure. You mentioned Charles Stoddard. There’s a scene in my book where Stoddard has just published his first poems in a big literary paper. He’s extremely shy and nervous. And Thomas Starr King comes to the bookshop where he works and tells him personally how much he loved his poems. So he’s a guy with a really personal touch and really cultivates these writers and offers them criticism. He’s an important figure from the point of view from the point of view of the Civil War as well, which is I think how he’s better known today. Because he travels throughout the state during the first year or two of the Civil War and preaches the importance of California staying in the Union. Which it probably would have stayed in anyway. But King is certainly a very persuasive champion of the Union and of abolition.

Correspondent: Yeah. But in terms of his literary contributions, I mean, he was again, like I was suggesting with this last question, this guy who was there to rebel against and this guy to garner favor with so you could actually get into some of the outlets. How did that work? Am I perhaps overreaching with my estimation of King as this great mirror that Twain, Harte, and all these other people looked at in order to find their own voices? To find their own particular perch to break into San Francisco journalism, literature, and all that?

Tarnoff: Well, I think he builds a link between the Eastern literary establishment and San Francisco. You mentioned his introduction of Harte to James Fields, the editor of The Atlantic Monthly. He also is friends with Longfellow and Emerson and all these literary lions who are really the most famous writers in the country at that point. And he gives these wonderful lectures on American literature in San Francisco. So he absolutely is a link between the East and the West. But he’s also someone to rebel against. I mean, he’s the father figure. You’re also trying to kill your father. And a lot of these guys — particularly Harte — you see him strain from that New England mold. Thomas Starr King sadly dies in 1864 young and prematurely. And in the coming years, Harte really develops his own style, which I think contrasts pretty sharply with those New England influences.

Correspondent: So what was essentially taken from King and even the New England influence? What made this particular area of the country the natural place to establish new voice, original voice, a rebellious voice, an iconoclastic voice?

Tarnoff: Well, Thomas Starr King has this great phrase in one of his sermons where he tells Californians they need to build Yosemites in the soul. And his point there, I think, is that they’ve been blessed with this majestic epic monumental landscape. This incredible natural beauty. And they need to create a culture and a literature, an intellectual scene, that’s commensurate with that great beauty. And the Bohemian scene really takes that advice seriously. And the West, I think, is such a fertile place for a new type of literature to develop. Which really does deviate from the path that King himself had hoped it would take. I mean, he wants California to follow closely in the footsteps of New England. He has a letter where he says California must be Northernized thoroughly by Atlantic Monthlies, by schools, by lecture halls. But the scene that he mentors after his death really takes things in a different direction, but I think makes good on his command to build Yosemites in the soul.

Correspondent: Well, it’s interesting how we’re talking about the variegated territories of California. Because Bret Harte would edit this poetry anthology and get into serious trouble. Because some of the rustic towns didn’t like the fact that they weren’t included. And he was flummoxed with all sorts of poetry entries for this thing. And he ended up choosing a lot of poems that dealt in the metropolises. So there was this rivalry and Harte was accused of being this florid sellout by some of the rustic towns. You point out in the book that actually the metropolises and the rustic towns and the mining settlements and all that had actually far more in common than they actually realized. So what accounts for this fractiousness and territorial temperament? Fractiousness in literary voices and literary temperament?

Tarnoff: Well, California’s a place where everyone wants to be a writer.

Correspondent: Like Brooklyn today!

Tarnoff: Right. Exactly. It’s like Brooklyn in 2014. But poetry in particular has a real prestige. Poets are pop stars. Poems are read at every public gathering. You need poetry in the public sphere all the time. And so all of these Californians — people who live in the countryside, people who live in the city — all think of themselves as a poet. So when Bret Harte is tasked with putting together a representative anthology of California poetry in 1865, he is overwhelmed with submissions and has a lot of fairly sarcastic, disparaging things to say about the quality of those submissions and ends up producing this fairly small volume with mostly his friends, like Charles Stoddard and Ina Coolbrith. And this ignites a kind of literary war between the city and the country. But as you point out, the distinction between the city and the country is not actually that great. I mean, the California countryside in terms of the mining and the farming operations is itself pretty heavily industrialized. We’ve got big economies of scale, a lot of heavy machinery. Places like Virginia City, in Nevada, where Mark Twain is for a few years, are highly urbanized areas. So the notion that it’s these kind of he-men in the frontier vs. the effete Bohemians in the city, it’s not totally accurate representation.

Correspondent: Well, in this sense, you’re essentially saying that the sphere of influence in both rustic town and big city is essentially homogeneous. That people are perhaps being inspired from the same physical things? I mean, what of literary tastes? What of the way that people express themselves? I mean, isn’t there an argument to be made that maybe these guys were right?

Tarnoff: Well, there’s certainly a distinction in terms of literary taste. I mean, I think both camps are living fairly urban industrialized lives. But they certainly have very different opinions about what constitutes good poetry. And Harte in particular, who is the editor of the volume, shies away from topics that he feels are too pastoral. That have too much of a certain type of California flavor, which he associates with the amateur poets. And he writes a parody of what one of those poems would look like in The Californian, which he edits. But Harte really wants to push California literature in general to a more metropolitan, to a more Bohemian, to a more sophisticated level and is very dismissive of what he feels is the kind of amateurish literary karaoke quality of some of the countryside poets.

Correspondent: Well, what is that sophisticated nature that Harte is demanding? What are we talking about? Are we just talking about endless poems devoted to being in the middle of nowhere? Essentially that’s what he’s railing against? He’s asking California to take itself more seriously, to write about civil, social, political topics? What are we talking about here?

Tarnoff: Well, the problem with Harte in these years — the mid 1860s — is he’s very good at being a critic. He’s very good at lambasting the quality of California literature, at its climate, at its boosters and philistines and capitalists. But he’s not great at producing good literature of his own. And that comes a little bit later in the decade when he starts to write these wonderful short stories. “The Luck of Roaring Camp” being the best known. And it’s not until that moment that I think he really makes good on his earlier promise to redeem California literature.

Correspondent: So he’s essentially quibbling with what he doesn’t like in order to find out what he does like and what he can actually build from the ashes he demonizes, so to speak.

Tarnoff: Exactly. He’s definitely in a more critical phase at that moment.

(Loops for this program provided by Martin Minor and nilooy. Also, Kai Engel’s “Chant of Night Blades” and Kevin MacLeod’s “Ghost Dance” through Free Music Archive.)

The Bat Segundo Show #541: Ben Tarnoff(Download MP3)

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Islamophobia, Extremism, and the War on Terror: Arun Kundnani (The Bat Segundo Show #540)

Arun Kundnani is most recently the author of The Muslims Are Coming.

Author: Arun Kundnani

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Subjects Discussed: How Islamophobia came to be, how the Obama Administration has continued an Islamophobic policy, the good Muslim and bad Muslim framework, Bernard Lewis’s “The Roots of Muslim Rage” as one of the key foundational Islamophobic texts, bogus terrorist studies that reinforce counterterrorism studies within the national security apparatus, flawed FBI radicalization models, how philosophical academics are making ideology virulent, Faisal Shahzad’s attempts to bomb Times Square, the Boston Marathon bombing, the NYPD’s “Radicalization in the West” study used to justify its Muslim surveillance efforts, Minority Report, zero tolerance, whether society or specific individuals should be blamed for Islamophobia, societal culpability in policy changes, changing the conversation about terrorism, the need to get out of 9/11’s shadows to address present realities, why Muslims who make any political statement are categorized as terrorists, fear in the Muslim community, Edward Snowden, how surveillance affects specific communities, the death of Fred Phelps, whether some over-the-top extremism is necessary to galvanize a civil rights movement, Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” when notable figures for justice embrace extremist labels, the queer movement, Malcolm X, the sudden transformation of Muslims into the “enemy” after 9/11, class distinctions and Islamophobia, the Prevent program adopted in the UK, New Labour’s culpability in misidentifying Muslims as “radical,” the Salafi movement, failed efforts to promote a counterextremism narrative, Homeland‘s Nick Brody and the inability of contemporary narratives to allow for a Muslim character to have a political voice that isn’t extremist, the vicious campaign to paint All-American Muslim as propaganda and the conservative effort to shut the show down, the Somali population in the Twin Cities, the al-Shabaab ring in Minneapolis, Congressman Peter King’s Islamophobic statements about mosques, when attempts to preserve constitutional rights are reframed as “noncooperation,” Operation Rhino, St. Paul’s AIMCOP program funded by a $670,000 DHS grant, law enforcement tenor dictated by power and money, the arrest of Najibullah Zazi, hyperbolic clampdowns on Islamic communities after an attempted plot is thwarted, financial incentives by local police departments to continue flawed counterterrorism strategies to receive federal grant money, fusion centers, why so much of surveillance and prosecution rationale is rooted in Muslim stereotypes, what can be done with the wasted resources, the Muslim Brotherhood’s fluctuating status as movement and terrorist organization by U.S. authorities, Mohamed Morsi, whether or not Western nations can view organizations in subtle terms, comparisons between the Cold War and ongoing American foreign policy ideas about Islam, the Egyptian revolution, the sharia conspiracy theory adopted by neoconservative Islamophobes that Islamic terrorism is the beginning of a hidden jihad, why Islamophobes like Robert Spencer and Frank Gaffney are able to infiltrate the mainstream, conspiracy theories and racist discourse, the English Defence League, Islamophobia promulgated by David Cameron, the lack of self-awareness among far-right groups, how Islamophobic groups have adopted the media strategies of the Left, neo-Nazis who rebrand themselves, positive developments, New York Muslims protesting NYPD surveillance programs, and how the generation of young Muslims can change present intolerance.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: So let’s go ahead and start off with why Islamophobia exists. The first and most obvious question is why any political strand of Islam, any vocal element that objects to an attack has come to be associated with terrorism. So I have to ask. Why has this continued twelve and a half years after September 11th? Why are all Muslims roped up into this misleading category?

Kundnani: One of the interesting things I think is that we had that early period in the War on Terror under the Bush years where we had this quite intense narrative of a clash of civilizations between Islam and the West. And Obama came in, trying to have a different kind of analysis. And actually what’s interesting is that the kind of popular Islamophobia in the media, the amount of racist violence against Muslims in the United States, it all went up under Obama. So in my analysis, what’s going on here is, as well as the kind of neoconservative narrative of a clash of civilizations, we also need to think about the liberal Islamophobia that’s been much more powerful under the Obama administration over the last few years.

Correspondent: What do you think the ultimate appeal of the Obama trigger effect here is for Islamophobia? Why have liberals fanned the flames here, do you think? Is it just a misunderstanding of policy? I can get into this further later on in this, but I wanted to get a general idea here.

Kundnani: I think, at root, what’s going on here is a kind of flawed analysis of what the causes of terrorism are. There’s a liberal analysis that says, basically, that some kind of religious extremism causes terrorism. And therefore you need to intervene in Muslim populations to make sure that people have the right interpretation of Islam. That’s actually the kind of basic analysis that we’ve had in this kind of later period of the War on Terror. Which means that you’re associating some interpretation of Islam with terrorism, right? And then from that flows all kinds of other things. So, for example, then you get the idea of the good Muslim and the bad Muslim, right? Because the bad Muslim is the one who interprets the religion in the wrong ways. So you want to put Muslims under surveillance to check that they have the right interpretation of their religion, etcetera, right? So I think a lot of what we’ve seen under Obama flows from that fundamental analysis, which actually doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

Correspondent: If it’s so flawed and it does not stand up to scrutiny, why then does it continue to perpetuate?

Kundnani: Well, one of the reasons is because from the liberal point of view, it seems like a better way of doing things than the kind of neoconservative clash of civilizations model, right? It has certain practical benefits from the point of view of managing this issue, right? This kind of fraught issue with all this fear ground up in the popular mind. So it enables you to say, “Well, you know, we’re partnering with Muslim communities to tackle extremism” and so forth. That sounds quite nice. That sounds quite effective. Even though the basic assumptions behind it don’t stand up to scrutiny.

Correspondent: You identify two strains of thinking about Islamic extremism in your book. The culturalists, who believe that Muslim communities are incapable of adapting to modern life because their Islamic culture essentially is extreme and is therefore incompatible, which leads to extremism. Then you have the reformists, who look not to Islamic teachings but ideologues who reinterpret Islam for violent and nefarious purposes. How could one article — Bernard Lewis’s “The Roots of Muslim Rage” in 1990 — be so prominently responsible for the development of these two ideas? Why do they continue to endure? Why do they continue to be so compelling? I mean, it seems to me that there are so many arguments against them. Yet these two ideological strains continue.

Kundnani: Right. Intellectually, the argument has been discredited time and time again. And so the reason that these ideas continue to circulate has nothing to do with their intellectual merit. But it’s more about the political convenience of those ideas. So we find it much easier to think about why people want to direct violence against our society. We find it much easier to answer that question by saying it’s their culture rather than, at least in part, our politics. And so I think because it’s uncomfortable for us to think about what the alternative to these narratives would be — the alternative to these narratives which involve us thinking about our foreign policy and the political effects of that in creating contexts within which terrorism becomes more likely — it’s much easier, rather than having that difficult conversation, it’s much easier to say it’s their culture, right? Or it’s not their culture, but it’s a minority who have adopted this ideology of extremism and that’s what causing it.

Correspondent: But we’ve had twenty years of this strain in both British and American society. Surely that’s enough time for people to perhaps call it into question or to actually think about it more sophisticatedly. And I’m wondering why — I keep going to the question “Why?” But I am trying to get something a little more specific over why this is still of appeal.

Kundnani: Some of the answers to that are about the ways in which it’s been institutionalized in various settings, right? So for example, since 9/11, we’ve had terrorism studies departments created with government funding in the United States and in Britain. And those terrorism studies departments have a set of incentives in terms of the funding and so forth to produce certain kinds of knowledge that serve the interests of the national security apparatus. So they will tend to avoid asking deeper questions about what lies behind violence, what is the politics of that, and instead try and deliver policy solutions that have embedded within them all kinds of assumptions about what they call radicalization. So that kind of institutionalizes these ways of thinking in a whole set of academic departments. Then you have these ways of thinking being institutionalized in the national security agencies. The FBI, for example, has a radicalization model. It’s an analysis of how someone goes from being an ordinary person to becoming a terrorist. Embedded within that is these same ideas of some kind of religious ideology driving it. The New York Police Department does the same thing. So all these ways of thinking are not just kind of free-floating in some kind of intellectual depaint. They are embedded in policy and practice in institutions.

Correspondent: Would you say that academics have essentially been influencing this interpretation for the last twenty years? I mean, there was a strain of articles recently about academics complaining about how they don’t actually get through to the masses. But this would seem to suggest that they are in a very nefarious way.

Kundnani: Absolutely. If you’re an academic and you want to be influential in government policy, be an academic in terrorism studies. Because that’s where you’re in and out of government departments. But what you have to give up is actually quite a large degree of scholarly independence. Because you’re effectively serving the intellectual needs of the government rather than any kind of idea of an objective independent study of what causes terrorism. That doesn’t really happen. So I think academics have been influential. Both the terrorism studies academics and the other ones — like Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington — some of those folks who are more on the philosophical level and geopolitical level who are thinking about these issues.

Correspondent: So if you get a philosophical academic, it could essentially activate a strain of virulent ideology.

Kundnani: Absolutely. Ultimately, all our kind of different forms of racism and so forth have some kind of intellectual history. They go back to people who innovate, who come up with new ways of being racist in an intellectual setting. And then that filters down to the streets over time. That’s how racism originates.

Correspondent: Sure. So you point to a time in the United States when this nation was considered more tolerant and inclusive towards Muslims. Immune from Muslim radicalization because of the apparent belief that a free market society was better at absorbing Muslims. That changed in 2009. There were a number of violent incidents that were believed to be associated with Islam, including Faisal Shahzad’s failed efforts to detonate a car bomb in Times Square. You point to a 2010 Bipartisan Policy Center report which concluded that the American melting pot had not provided protection against Muslim radicalization. Why were the government, the pundits, and the policy people so willing to change their tune in so short a time? Because that seems to me also a big part of this problem as well.

Kundnani: Right. So something interesting happens in the first few years of the Obama Administration, where you find that you do have one or two attempted terrorist plots that were serious plots, like the attempted car bombing in Times Square by Faisal Shahzad and one or two others. You also have a set of developments that happen in the FBI, where they’re starting to change how they do counterterrorism and becoming much more pro-active in sting operations, in bringing charges to some of the material support for terrorism, which involves criminalizing people’s ideological expressive activities rather than actual terrorist plots. So those kinds of things from the FBI drive up the numbers in terms of the kind of annual statistics on a number of attempted terrorist acts.

Correspondent: Drive up the numbers exactly how?

Kundnani: Well, because one of the things that we’ve seen is the FBI doing something when they have someone who seems to have what they would call an extremist ideology. Put informants in that person’s life and use these tactics of trying to pressurizing that person into being involved in an imaginary plot that would probably not have been something that they would have been predisposed to were it not for the FBI coming in and creating that environment around that person’s life. And this is something that the RAND Corporation has a very good phrase to describe. They call it “lubricating that person’s decision making” through government intervention. So I think the FBI started to put a lot more resources in doing those kinds of operations. Then the numbers come up. So it looks like we’ve got this objective increase in attempted terrorist plots, but actually it’s at least to a large degree the result of a change in FBI strategy around that time.

Correspondent: So you’re saying that the FBI essentially was cooking the books to get higher crime statistics. Is that what you’re basically saying?

Kundnani: Well, in effect, that’s what happened. I’m not sure that it’s some kind of conspiracy by senior leaders in the FBI to…

Correspondent: It’s a policy change.

Kundnani: It’s a policy change. And obviously you can see an incentive structure there where the FBI, as a result of doing that, seems like it’s a very efficient counterterrorism organization. Because it’s got all these terrorist plots happening in the United States and every single one of them is getting a conviction and that looks good on the annual report to Congress. What you won’t know unless you look in more detail is the fact that most of those plots are ones that the FBI itself has invented.

Correspondent: I’d like to get into the fine details of the radicalization model that the FBI was using in just a bit, but I want to actually ask did they essentially have this policy change before they had the radicalization model? What does your research suggest here?

Kudnani: The radicalization model goes back to the early years after 9/11. The policy shift, I mean, we don’t know what caused it. It may be that there had been a number of changes in legislation that came through in that period and it may be that new options were created for that. It may be that if you look at the data for terrorism convictions around that time, sort of 2008 and 2009, a big chunk of the people who were getting prosecuted is Somali Americans, who are traveling to Somalia to fight with al-Shabaab, which is designated a terrorist organization shortly before that moment. And so therefore, traveling over there becomes a felonious act. So that also becomes another of these kind of scare scenarios around that time, that maybe we’re going to have a huge problem of American Somalis going off to fight for al-Shabaab and coming back and committing acts of violence here, which actually never happened.

Correspondent: I will get into the Somali situation in just a sec, but I want to actually unpack the radicalization model a bit. You cite this 2006 memo from the Counterterrorism Division which suggests anger, watching inflammatory speeches online, an individual identifying with an extremist cause, Internet interaction with extremist elements, and acceptance of radical ideology, and eventually terrorism. What is the academic basis for this model? You also mention this 2007 NYPD study called “Radicalization in the West” that adopted a simplified version of models that were adopted by Quentin Wiktorowicz and Marc Sageman. What has made these specific ideas stick? Why hasn’t law enforcement passed a wider research net before adopting these models? Why are these radicalization models in place? They seem to me to be more like a sudoku puzzle.

Kudnani: Right. I mean, these radicalization models have come from — you mentioned the two key people here, Marc Sageman and Quentin Wiktorowicz, both of whom have a history within the intelligence world as well as in the academic world. They kind of cross those divisions. I think the reason those models have been used to the exclusion of any other kind of analysis and the reason that they’ve stuck is because they do something very important for the FBI and the NYPD — at least at first glance, which is they give them a tool for prediction.

Correspondent: Precog. Minority Report.

Kundnani: Right. This is Minority Report. It’s a way of saying, “We have a way of knowing who’s going to be a terrorist tomorrow. Even though they’re not a terrorist today.” And so having that claim to predictive power is what lies beneath the appeal of these studies.

Correspondent: And the problem with this is that they wake up from the amniotic fluid and instead of crying “Murder!” they say “Muslims!” So that’s problematic.

Kundnani: And they don’t stand up in terms of having that predictive capability. And that’s kind of obvious when you think it through. It would be ridiculous to think that someone growing a beard, which is one of the indicators, is a predictor of someone on the way to becoming a terrorist. Or someone wearing traditional Islamic clothing or joining a pro-Muslim social group. These are the various things that these studies talk about. So they don’t have this predictive power. But because they’re perceived as doing so, they become very important in these institutional settings and enforcement agencies.

Correspondent: Perceived by who?

Kundnani: By law enforcement agencies and by policy makers in DC. So the FBI has been instructed by the federal government since very soon after 9/11 to adopt what is called a preemptive approach to counterterrorism, right? Which means don’t wait until someone’s committing a crime. Go back to some point before that person’s committed a crime and arrest them there or intervene in their lives there. So from the point of view of the FBI, there’s a dilemma there. How on earth do you criminalize someone who hasn’t committed a crime yet but you think may do in the future? You have to have some kind of analytic way of predicting behavior. And so that’s the dilemma for them.

Correspondent: But if it’s a corrupted analytical model, surely there’s someone inside the FBI or even the NYPD who is basically saying, “You know, this doesn’t really cut mustard. We’re actually only doing this to get our numbers up.” Were you able to uncover…

Kundnani: I spent a bit of time interviewing a number of different FBI agents who work in counterterrorism and I put that question to them as well. And their answer was, “Well, if you think this radicalization model doesn’t work,” which they were open to that possibility that it doesn’t stand up in terms of its academic merits, “then give us another model that will do the same job.”

Correspondent: So they just need some kind of model.

Kundnani: Yeah. Because they’ve been told you need to predict. You can’t just go on what someone’s done. You need to go on what they’re about to do. That’s how counterterrorism works in the United States post-9/11. So for them, it’s not an option to say, “Okay, let’s just focus on who is actively involved in preparing a terrorist plot, who’s inciting terrorism, and who’s financing terrorism.” That would be my argument. What we should be doing here is focusing on that. And that gives us enough to be getting onward and has the advantage that we don’t widen our search to this kind of vague notion of ideology, which gets messy and uses up our hard-earned resources on things that we shouldn’t be worried about. Now that is not an option for the FBI. Because that’s what we as a society have told them that we don’t want. We don’t want them to wait. We want them to be preemptive.

Correspondent: We as a society? I mean, that seems really amorphous. Isn’t there some specific person who we can identify and say, “That is the person who caused this requirement, that the FBI…”

Kundnani: I don’t think so.

Correspondent: Really?

Kundnani: I think if you look at — for example, early on in the Obama Administration, there was the so-called underwear bomber. And if you talk to people in the Obama Administration, they will talk about that being a very scary moment for them because they felt for a moment, in the aftermath of that attempted attack, they lost the narrative. They were very much on the defensive. And for a moment, they thought, “We’re going to have this thing hanging over us that we weren’t tough enough on terrorism and we almost let this guy through.” And then they basically made the decision thereafter that we can’t allow that to happen again. Because if that hangs over us, we lose the political capital to do all the other things we want to do. So even if you convince people in the Obama Administration to do things a different way, they would say, “Our hands are tied by what society expects of us.” The fear in society around these things. The fact that we have now created a society in which it’s not enough to say we will minimize the risk of terrorism.

Correspondent: You have the zero tolerance thing.

Kundnani: Right. What society expects is absolutely no terrorist attacks of any kind at all and do everything possible with unlimited resources to deal with this problem. Even though we’ve had the Boston Marathon last year, dozens of people in jail, and three people killed. But we have 15,000 murders every year in the United States. So in terms of an objective assessment of the amount of harm that counterterrorism does to U.S. society, it would not be our top priority. But it has become our top priority. Half of the FBI’s budget is dedicated to counterterrorism.

Correspondent: But I don’t know if that’s really — that’s an answer that just doesn’t sit well with me. The idea that society is the one to blame when you’re using a flawed radicalization model to enforce counterterrorism, which actually isn’t true based off of some of the findings in your book, and you’re reinforcing stereotypes and you’re also disseminating further fear into the American clime, it seems to me that you’re the one responsible for generating the way that people react, that is this very society that people point to…

Kundnani: Sure. Sure.

Correspondent: I mean, I’m asking for some….there needs to be some person. Some kind of element here.

Kundnani: I think there’s all kinds of different agencies and individuals that are culpable here. No doubt. From the top down. From Obama, the leadership at the FBI, the whole national security apparatus. All of these different agencies and individuals are bound up in a set of practices that are causing great harm to our fellow citizens in the United States. But I would also say it’s a little bit too easy just to stop there. I would say we have all kind of got sucked into this culture of counterterrorism. The word “radicalization” is not just a word that you see in academic studies and police reports. It’s the word that is now in our everyday language, in how we talk about terrorism. We didn’t need the word “radicalization” fifteen years ago to talk about terrorism. But now it’s the normal way that we do it. So, for me, it’s a little bit too neat to pin the blame on government agencies. We need to acknowledge that there’s a cultural change we need in society more widely.

(Loops for this program provided by Martin Minor, danke, DesignedImpression, Blueeskies, and drkcarnivalninja.)

The Bat Segundo Show #540: Islamophobia, Extremism, and the War on Terror: Arun Kundnani (Download MP3)

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