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On the Road with Neil Young

In July of 1993, I went on a twelve-day road trip with my two kids, then aged nine and six, driving a Ford Aerostar minivan from Highland Park, New Jersey, a suburb of New York (the whole state is a colonial appendage of the metropolis, ever more pavement even unto Pennsylvania), to Glen Ellyn, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, where my brother and his family had recently moved. I had just sent the manuscript of my second book to the publisher-—that was Pragmatism and the Political Economy of Cultural Revolution, 1850-1940-—and was feeling pretty pleased with myself.

But I was also feeling pretty unhappy about my ten-year old marriage. I’d been Mr. Mom for three years by then, and the rewards of the role were now beginning to look like excuses for inertia and estrangement. My wife wouldn’t be on the road with us, she’d be flying in for the weekend only, because she couldn’t afford any time away from her high-pressure publishing job in the city. Driving toward Chicago, the place I still called home, I started to ask myself why I had to stay married. Did I actually need a wife to be a father? Did I want to become a cliché out of Updike and start fucking the neighbor’s wife?

So when my wife and I were briefly alone in my brother’s living room on the Saturday of her arrival—-I had picked her up at O’Hare an hour earlier-—I said, “You know, we have to talk, because, well, I think we have nothing left in common, nothing to talk about, except these kids. I’m sorry, it’s hard to say, but I don’t see why we’re married. Not anymore, I mean, I don’t see the point.”

She said, “Are you drunk? Don’t be absurd.” She left the room. I didn’t know how to follow her, or follow up, so I left the house. I walked around my brother’s fancy new neighborhood in a daze, wondering if I meant what I said. I drove her to the airport the next day, in what the 19th century called grim silence.

That conversation happened again and again, and more frequently, over the next ten years, until there really was nothing left to talk about, not even the kids. Meanwhile I left home three times, and finally escaped on the third try. And yes, I did start fucking the neighbor’s wife.

In retrospect-—and what other standpoint is there?-—being on the road that summer wasn’t just a pleasure. It was the beginning of the end of the marriage, because the time I spent with those kids let me see them as real people who would outlast any change in the relationship between their mother and me. Over this long haul, they became individuals in their own right, not merely my children.

The soundtrack of this process of mutual recognition—-on the road that summer, I believe my children began to see me as a person, not merely their father-—was composed by Neil Young, Van Morrison, and Merle Haggard.

We tuned into lots of radio stations along the way, of course, because this was the technological moment just before the Internet and satellite radio redefined telecommunication, and this was also the musical moment of grunge, heavy metal, hip-hop, and over-produced pop: we heard songs by Pearl Jam and Nirvana, Metallica, DelAmitri, and (I think) Green Day, but the signals always receded, so we kept falling back on the three cassette tapes we carried across country. (I admit, though, that I had one other tape up my sleeve, N.W.A.’s “Straight Outta Compton,” which I would’ve played had the others failed.)

That bass line was my design. I wanted these kids to hear the origins and the echoes of the tastes they were already developing: I wanted them to hear the generation that had made the music of their time possible. But my curriculum couldn’t have worked if the musicians themselves weren’t compelling. I suppose I could’ve brought the blues tapes I had compiled over several years for my cultural history courses. I didn’t because I was afraid that music would sound too ancient, too old-timey, too much like a lesson plan, not enough listening just for fun.

No matter, Neil Young stole the show. The kids loved Van and Merle, especially “Brown-Eyed Girl,” “Moondance” and “Ramblin’ Fever,” but they dug Neil. His strange, whiney, breathy voice captured them. The reedy sound of it held us together in silence for hundreds of miles. “The Needle and the Damage Done,” “Old Man,” “Rockin’ in the Free World” . . . by the time we got to Cedar Point, Ohio, they knew all the verses, and they were involuntarily singing or murmuring along. When I told them about “Almost Cut My Hair” from the CSNY album, how it had changed my life—-“I had an Afro!””—-they laughed hysterically and told me they couldn’t believe my hair was ever longer than it was right then, when I looked, I am told, like a state trooper.

Cedar Point was our first day’s destination, recommended by a graduate student at Rutgers, Andrea Volpe. It’s a whole township on Lake Erie devoted to the art of the amusement park. We found a motel within a couple of miles from the park itself, with an indoor pool and access to convenience stores—-in other words, a snack and a swim for them, a twelve-pack for me.

Then we headed for the park. It was enchanting. I had always refused to take them to Disneyland or Disney World, on the grounds that I’d just be complaining all day about the premise and the purpose of the place, maybe even lose my shit and get jailed by Mickey Mouse. But Cedar Point was like Riverview, the amusement park on Belmont Avenue in Chicago that some developer tore down soon after I graduated from high school. My father grew up within a mile of that park and the other monument to old Chicago, Wrigley Field. He tested rides at Riverview when he was a kid. I tested girlfriends there when I was a kid.

Cedar Point was then an archeological marvel, the Olduvai Gorge of amusement parks: a shiny, high-tech set of new thrill rides built on the Paleolithic ruins of a funky circus, the place where the freaks, the barkers, and the runaways were the founding fathers. We spent three hours walking, talking, and riding, no lines—-it was a Thursday night—-then eating a late dinner on the grounds, in a real restaurant, no fast food. We were exhausted by the time we found the Aerostar and drove back to the motel.

We settled into our room, two king-size beds and a huge TV. They drank Cokes from the vending machine, I drank beer from the twelve-pack I had put on ice. I scrolled through the channels for a few minutes without any protest or plea from the children in the other bed, and then they started shrieking.

I had missed it. It was Neil Young in concert! I fell asleep while it was still in progress, long before they did. They talked about it all the way to Chicago the next day. The only interruptions of their intense conversation were cuts from the Neil Young cassette, and these were played on demand by the driver to prove a point one or the other was making. They were already composing the kind of notes a fan draws on in debate with fellow aficionados: “No, man, that wasn’t the concert of 1993, you’re thinking of the Grammy awards, when he sang ‘Rockin’ in the Free World’ with Eddie Vedder.”

When I hear Neil Young these days, this is what I think of, two kids finding their own voices through his. Or was it three?

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How to be in pain

Oxycodone is a good idea. Unless it puts you to sleep.

Once upon a time, I was having back trouble (spinal stenosis), nothing unusual for a man my age. I had already scheduled surgery at Mount Sinai when a semi-famous friend mentioned my condition to a truly famous biographer who happened to be my former colleague. He thereupon insisted that I see his own doctor, a good friend and a semi-famous upper-East Side neurosurgeon—-few patients, many patents—-who took no insurance.

Impressed by this portfolio of cultural capital, I went to see the neurosurgeon. His waiting room looks like the bookstore I’ll open when I inherit some money from unknown relatives. A well-lighted place, real books on wooden shelves, the New York Review of Books and the LRB as well as The New Yorker strewn artfully, art books the size of your body opened on tables, people poring over them as if being a patient isn’t the point of being there.

No paperwork, no bullshit, just human kindness—-“have a seat, he’ll be right with you”—-and then the doctor himself comes out to the waiting room and calls my name. We shake hands, I’m even more impressed, but I keep looking around for a reality check, you know, like, someone with a clipboard. None ever appears.

When we get into his office, first thing he says is, “This won’t cost you any more than two thousand dollars, no matter what we find in there.” I protest, because I know that the anesthesia alone, and I mean just the drugs, not the attending physician, will run into five, maybe six figures, but he waves my words away.

Then he says, “You’re an alcoholic. You’re going to have a vexed relationship to the painkillers I have to prescribe for the post-op. Oxycodone, oxycontin, hydrocodone. These will fuck you up, big time.”

I say, “How do you know I’m an alcoholic?” And then, self-righteousness rising, so my diaphragm now begins to feel like a furnace, I point my finger at him and say, “Are you saying I’m an addict, already?”

“I read your medical records, that’s how I know you’re an alcoholic. It’s not rocket science. Yes, you’re an addict. Already. You have the same ‘genetic defect’ that doomed the Indians. When you take a painkiller, let’s say 5 milligrams of oxycodone or hydrocodone or whatever, you’ll go right to sleep. Your body just doesn’t know how to deal with this kind of depressant.”

“I do OK with pain,” I say, relaxing, reclining, and I feel like I’m apologizing, “so maybe I can just avoid the oxycontin,” and here I’m remembering that relatives of mine were addicted to this shit.

“No, you can’t,” the semi-famous neurosurgeon says, “it’ll hurt too much, and aspirin won’t help. The point is to see your own vulnerability. I guarantee that you’ll get addicted if you take it according to my own prescription. Then what? Do you understand what I’m saying?”

Well, yeah, I do, but it’s four years later, Doc. Meanwhile, you’ve dug into my lumbar vertebrae twice, and your colleagues have rummaged around elsewhere, in both my knees, just to begin with. These painkillers you’re talking about are now just there, not “over there” like something I reach for in desperate need, nah, they’ve become no more important than aspirin.

I understand what you’re saying.

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“As I would not be a slave . . .”

“As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy.”

That’s Abraham Lincoln in 1857, from an unpublished fragment he jotted and folded and stored, but never uttered in public. It’s a startling idea about liberty, equality, and democracy worth thinking through in view of our national disgrace in these times.

Having witnessed the death of Michael Brown and the exoneration of his uniformed murderer, Darren Wilson, not to mention the police slaughter of a 12-year old black boy who was playing with a toy gun, you might be tempted to give thanks that you don’t live in those neighborhoods where the cops go to find crime. Which is to say, you might be tempted to console or congratulate yourself for being white.

Think again. What Lincoln is saying here is that liberty can’t survive the eclipse of equality, no matter the cause of that eclipse—race, class, whatever.

Democracy requires both liberty and equality. Freedom is not just the absence of external constraint in the form of state power, as the earnest neoliberals of our time, utilitarians all, would like to think. No, it consists of access to the resources (income, culture, society, education, etc.) that allow you to realize your natural talents, to become the self you imagine before its possibility even appears as a practical question-—it’s the freedom to project yourself into a world that doesn’t yet exist.

So conceived, my liberty depends on yours, because your intelligence is one of those crucial resources to which I need access. I can’t become what I hope to unless you can, too, unless you function not as my secretary, my servant, my slave, or my muse, but as my equal partner in the imagination and the construction of what lies ahead, what we might create. Only then will you and I be free of the constraints that culture, society, and education produce. Only then can we be free of the past.

My liberty requires our equality. My freedom is endangered to the precise extent that yours is—-to the precise extent I can take liberties that you can’t—-regardless of where we live. This is not an ethical principle with no purchase on the real world. It’s just a fact, the underside of Lincoln’s aphorism.

So do feel sorry for all the young black men who have died in vain, and their families, and their friends and their neighborhoods. But do also start worrying about yourself. John Donne was right. That bell you’re hearing tolls for thee.


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Heir Apparent to Thomas Friedman

Timothy Egan clearly sees himself as the rightful heir to Thomas Friedman, who is willing to say anything, no matter how inane or offensive, as long as it guarantees him air time and column inches. Three weeks ago, Egan claimed that sports are the most progressive force of our time, no matter that Muhammad Ali was barred from boxing in his prime for daring to oppose the Vietnam War from the standpoint of his solidarity with the Nation of Islam, or that the last bastions of homophobia are the two most popular professional leagues.

Two weeks ago, he claimed that “commencement bigots” had hijacked freedom of speech and diversity of opinion. His primary case in point was Condoleeza Rice, who, as George W. Bush’s National Security Adviser, heedlessly promoted a needless invasion of Iraq and earnestly defended torture—-not just any kind, but waterboarding—-as the necessary corollary of a larger “war on terror.” According to Egan, she stepped down from her $35,000 gig at the Rutgers commencement because the “forces of intolerance” had silenced her. No matter that she declined the invitation because a grass-roots movement led by former undergraduates (most prominently, Larry Ladutke, a former student of mine), then taken up by a faculty petition, insisted that she had the right to express her opinion, and the opportunity to be honored and compensated as an exemplar of education, but not at the expense of and by the Rutgers community, faculty and students included, without its consent.

Here is how Egan addressed these issues, among them torture, in his column on “commencement bigots”:

“She canceled after a small knot of protesters pressured the university. It’s no contest who showed more class. Near as I can tell, the forces of intolerance objected to her role in the Iraq war. O.K. And by shutting her down the point is . . . what?

“The foreign policy that Rice guided for George W. Bush—two wars on the credit card, making torture a word associated with the United States—was clearly a debacle. Contemporary assessments were not kind, and history will be brutal. But if every speaker has to pass a test for benign mediocrity and politically correct sensitivity, commencement stages will be home to nothing but milquetoasts. You want torture? Try listening to the Stanford speech of 2009, when Justice Anthony M. Kennedy gave an interminable address on the intricacies of international law, under a broiling sun, with almost no mention of the graduates.”

In her official capacities as National Security Adviser and Secretary of State, Rice advocated waterboarding in the name of an unjust war that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. What’s the big deal? You want to know what torture is? Never mind Guantanamo, go directly to a Stanford commencement, where, exposed to the California sun, they make you listen to a Supreme Court justice drone on about the rule of law as it regulates the behavior of nations at war.

And now today, Timothy Egan berates Americans for digging “a serous national memory hole.” They’re ignorant of their own past, and so they keep saying stupid things. It’s not just the 18 year-olds who lack a “firm grasp of our nation’s history.” No, “look at the top”: “Opinion leaders, corporate titans, politicians, media personalities, and educators-—dunce caps for all.”

Tom Perkins, Ken Langone, for example, who’ve been “comparing the plight of our country’s very rich to the objects of Hitler’s wrath.” And Sarah Palin, who has “recently declared that torture is as American as Sunday school”! OMG, what were they thinking? Rich people aren’t persecuted as Jews were in the Germany of the Third Reich, also, c’mon, the Constitution prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, and did I mention that torture is a violation of human rights and international law?

Do I have to spell this out? Today Timothy Egan accuses Americans of lacking exactly what he does—-historical consciousness, a sense of the past and its weight. “One doesn’t expect Palin to know that the Eighth Amendment prohibits ‘cruel and unusual punishment,’ or that torture is banned by international treaties signed by the United States. But is it too much to ask for her to realize that Imperial Japan, our enemy in World War II, was prosecuted for waterboarding?”

No, it’s not too much to ask of her. How about you, Tim? As a student or faculty member at Rutgers, how would you feel if the Board of Governors announced that it was giving an honorary degree to Sarah Palin, plus an honorarium for her commencement address? Would you join a small knot of protesters, or just chalk it up to fair and balanced free speech?

Timothy Egan is so incapable of thinking historically about his own ideas, let alone his own country, that he approached two of the worst historians on the planet for explanations of the lack he attributes to the rest of us, and was happy with their dumb answers.

“I asked a couple of the nation’s premier time travelers, the filmmaker Ken Burns and his frequent writing partner Dayton Duncan, why so many Americans can’t even place the Civil War in the right half-century, or think we fought alongside the Germans in World War II.”

Burns thinks the problem is a lack of “civics” in the school curriculum, which he compares to the “operating system” for citizenry: if only we grasped it, we’d “know how government is constructed” and appreciate its design. As if I’d be a better driver if I understood internal combustion or a better blogger if I could write code. Duncan goes for the profoundly tautological: “Americans [have] tended to be ‘ahistorical’” because they “choose to forget the context of our past.” Like Egan, and like most professional historians, he mistakes his own intellectual affliction for a cultural epidemic.

Egan begins and ends with slavery and the Civil War, as I suppose he must. He complains that according to a Pew Study of 2011, “nearly half of Americans think the main cause of the Civil War was a dispute over federal authority—-not slavery.” He laments the fact that “the South was allowed to promote the inaccurate narrative of ‘the Lost Cause’-—[it was] all about states’ rights and Northern aggression.”

No matter that for a century Americans were taught that slavery was a secondary issue in the coming, the conduct, and the conclusion of the Civil War, by teachers, by statesmen, by progressive historians like Charles and Mary Beard. No matter that William H. Dunning of Columbia meanwhile supervised dozens of PhD dissertations that proved Reconstruction was no less a tragedy than the Civil War itself, because the cause of racial equality was never more than a childish dream. No matter that the Dunning School ruled the journals and the presses—and the movies—until the 1950s.

I survey my students in the 100-level survey class, asking them what they think was the proximate cause of the Civil War. They split according to what they’ve been taught in high school, states’ rights here, slavery there. Why not?

Here’s a longer look at the question of History Standards.

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Marty and Me

Martin J. Sklar (b. 1935), one of the great historians of the 20th century, died last week in Harrisburg, PA. Here is something I wrote about him back in 2012 but refrained from publishing until now. I was trying then to guarantee that his intellectual legacy wouldn’t be reduced to his late rantings about the Obama administration. Now I’m just hoping.


The first time we stopped talking for ten years—this was the winter of 1979—I figured I’d never see the man again. His parting shot was “You’ve always been locked in an Oedipal struggle with me, Livingston.” My response was, “What else is new, you’re my teacher, Marty, what does a student do except try to kill off his figurative father? But I really don’t want to fuck your wife, and my mother is dead.” I was nowhere near sober when I said it. Neither was he when he heard it. (Among other things, we were disagreeing about how I had replaced him as the editorial writer at In These Times: he thought I was breaking his one-man strike against the publisher, I thought I was doing good.)

But I knew this old mole would haunt me. Altogether we haven’t spoken for at least twenty years of a forty-year acquaintance; that’s half of the time since we met. No matter. He’s always there, in my head, an ancient superego—-I almost said spirit-—with unlimited access to every waking dream I write. His name is Martin J. Sklar. I have elsewhere said that he’s the most original and profound thinker I’ve ever encountered, in print or in person, and by now this roster runs from Aristotle to Zizek.

But I write this preemptive memorial because Sklar has recently published an e-book called Letters on Obama (From the Left), a document that could disfigure his intellectual legacy, as a late codicil to a will can obliterate its original intent. I write in sorrow—-I feel like I’ve been disowned all over again—-but also in the hope of restoring, or at any rate clarifying, this legacy.

The Letters are, in fact epistolary—they are dated documents sent to unnamed friends (with the exception of Ronald Radosh) and to avowedly right-wing pundits, celebrities, and lawyers, among them Norman Podhoretz and John Yoo. There is also the inevitable letter to President Obama, telling him what must be done to save the economy and the nation. The tattered, hasty, digressive quality of the letters make the book seem urgent, suggesting that the first person form of address must matter to readers. But in fact its urgency derives from Sklar’s performance as a voice in the wilderness-—he believes that his warnings about the totalitarian and fascist implications of the “Obama regime” have been ignored, and that all his previous thinking has led him to this crossroads.


I met him in 1971 because I was getting involved, as an undergraduate at Northern Illinois University, in the social-democratic successor to SDS and the wider Left called New American Movement. He and James Weinstein (also John Judis, Nick Rabkin, and others affiliated with Socialist Revolution, a new journal out of San Francisco) were the intellectual heavyweights of this moment. I was introduced to the mix by my mentor Marvin Rosen, a young faculty member of the History department at NIU. Like everybody else on the scene, he had been thoroughly radicalized by his glancing experience of the cultural revolution made by the New Left, and had been galvanized by Sklar’s arrival in DeKalb, Illinois-—Marty had taken a job as an assistant professor at NIU in 1970, with a mere M.A. from Wisconsin but ecstatic endorsements from William Appleman Williams, Eugene D. Genovese, Hayden White, and Christopher Lasch, not to mention Howard Beale and Fred Harvey Harrington or the backing of old friends like Carl Parrini, another Wisconsin alumnus, in Northern’s department of History.

With New American Movement, Marty and Jimmy, et al., were trying to put political-institutional flesh on the intellectual skeleton they had assembled first at Studies on the Left, the Madison-based journal, founded in 1960, which they moved to New York in 1963; then in the “seminars” they convened in 1968 along with Genovese, Williams, Lasch, and Gar Alperovitz; and then again at SR. NAM was a vital organism until 1975. We held the organization’s annual meeting at the NIU Student Center in the summer of 1974-—the summer of Nixon’s resignation!—-when my (then) wife was elected to the National Interim Council because she was a non-white female who also happened to be smart, funny, and deeply committed to the cause. Then it bled out, neatly punctured by the old intellectual vampires of the New Left, flowing quickly toward variations on the laughable themes of “workplace organizing” and Marxist-Leninist purity.

The intellectual skeleton Sklar and Weinstein had assembled wasn’t very complicated, but it was incredibly controversial on the Left of that moment. Its spine was made of these vertebrae: socialism wasn’t a foreign import, Marxism was already the mainstream of intellectual discourse (see: the humanities, NYRB, TNR), mere radicalism was insufficient to the task of revolution, electoral politics would be essential to the success of the Left, liberalism wasn’t the antithesis of anything important, and all of American history—-every goddamn speck of it—-was a potentially usable past, right down to constitutional jurisprudence and ruling-class consciousness. SR became the display case for these fragile bones until Jimmy and Marty revealed their next project, the new Iskra, which they called In These Times. Take a cursory look at SR ca. 1973-1977, and you’ll find a lot of articles, letters, and manifestoes by members of the DeKalb chapter of NAM, by myself among others.

Sklar left NIU in 1976 to write editorials for ITT, once again hoping to make a difference on the Left, and for the Left, construed as a real movement reaching beyond the campus. The History department had voted overwhelmingly in favor of his tenure even though he lacked a PhD and had expressed no interest in getting one. (He could have through the University of Rochester, where he was ABD, but he told me later that he suffered through the 70s from writer’s block; it didn’t show in the brilliant editorials he wrote for ITT). Carl Parrini and I had collaborated on a ten-page letter endorsing tenure for Marty, noting the various uses to which his unpublished work had been put by established scholars and lesser mortals without proper acknowledgment (for example, an undergraduate paper written for Merrill Jensen on Alexander Hamilton and manufacturing). Al Young had written an even longer letter to the same effect.

But we all knew he was gone, and some of us followed him—-one of the benefits of graduate school at NIU was the opportunity to participate in the discussion and articulation of ITT’s founding principles.

In that last year at Northern, Sklar taught a year-long reading/research seminar called “The Corporate Reorganization of American Society, 1896-1914.” The syllabus ran more than 50 pages—every week was densely packed with a dozen readings from the period and more contemporary takes on this so-called Progressive Era. It was an event. I couldn’t stand it. Don’t get me wrong, I learned a lot, and you could say that my dissertation book of 1986 on the Fed was one result of that seminar; you could say the same about his book of 1988. But as I told Marty in December of 1976, then again that winter day in 1979, I dropped the course after the first semester because I believed he was teaching us what to think, not how—-I was sure that everybody in the class, myself included, approached each reading with one question in mind: what does Sklar want us to make of this?


Most people have one big idea in their lives, and they pursue it more or less relentlessly, albeit unconsciously. I don’t mean that Isaiah Berlin was right about hedgehogs and foxes. I mean instead that most of us don’t change our minds often enough to have a new idea, or even a fresh insight, so we’re pretty much destined to be hedgehogs, always rooting in the first intellectual territory we claimed.

Martin J. Sklar is different, but he’s not a fox as Berlin would classify this intellectual species. No, Marty has had at least four big ideas in his eight decades on this earth. I’ll list them, and let them sink in: (1) corporate liberalism, ca. 1900-present; (2) the disaccumulation of capital, ca. 1919-present; (3) post-imperialism as a dimension of American/Open Door diplomacy, ca. 1900-present; (4) the mix of capitalism and socialism in the development of the US, ca. 1900-present.

Sklar coined the term “corporate liberalism” in his seminal essay on Woodrow Wilson, first published in Studies on the Left 1 (1960): 7-47. Over the next ten years, the term—the concept—entered the lexicon of the New Left, in both its activist and its academic guises, to the point where SDS manifestoes (“America and the New Order” [1963]) and scholarly monographs (including Weinstein’s own Corporate Ideal in the Liberal State [1968]) routinely deployed it. (Jeffrey Lustig’s eponymous book of 1986 remains a mystery to me because it contains no mention of Sklar and no trace of the larger “oral tradition” that sustained both intellectual and political interest in the concept after 1960—where did he think this idea came from?—but then he was a political scientist.) In subsequent decades, the concept also became a point of contention for social/labor historians who mistook it for a claim that corporate liberals were omniscient rulers from the capitalist class, and who, accordingly, disputed its explanatory scope in the name of working-class agency and insurgency. By the 1980s, however, diplomatic historians up against old-school Wisconsin revisionism, particularly Melvyn Leffler and Michael Hogan, had started using “corporatism” to characterize the Cold War alliance forged between internationalist businessmen, politicians, scholars, and State Department policy- makers, having somehow forgotten that this concept carried the anti-liberal connotations of syndicalism, statism, and fascism.

Sklar tried to correct everyone in The Corporate Reconstruction of American Capitalism, 1890-1916: The Market, the Law, and Politics (1988), the book that issued from his Rochester PhD dissertation of 1982, which was supervised by his old friend Gene Genovese. (Sklar left ITT in 1979, in a dispute with Weinstein over control of the editorial pages, quit smoking, then reanimated his academic career by returning to the legal history of anti-trust which had preoccupied him in the 1960s.) In this now neglected book, he stressed that corporate liberalism was (a) the cross-class social movement that created corporate capitalism by accommodating small business, absorbing—not annihilating—Populism, and addressing socialism; and (b) the cross-class ideology that preserved and renewed the two core liberal principles of American politics, viz, the supremacy of society over the state (the sovereignty of the people) and the priority of individual identity over any functional, occupational, or ethnic group. In short: it wasn’t a ruling-class conspiracy, and it wasn’t corporatism.

Sklar clearly failed to convince anyone, most notably himself, that the distinction he made between corporatism and corporate liberalism was worth maintaining—-for he now denounces what he calls the “Obama regime,” the center-left coalition that obviously upholds Woodrow Wilson’s vision of “positive government,” as a totalitarian band of gangsters and fascists bent on merging the Party and the State, thus erasing the difference between state and society. I am not making this up, but don’t take my word for it: see Letters on Obama, Part I.

What Sklar hasn’t learned from his own close study of American politics is that the difference between the American and, say, the German response to the catastrophe of the Great Depression was the liberal inheritance that insisted on the priority of the individual and the supremacy of society over that state. The expiration of the NIRA in 1935 signifies the end of FDR’s experiment with state-centered syndicalist planning, and the end of American flirtation with fascism. The closest we have since come to a quasi-fascist reprise occurred when George W. Bush and Dick Cheney claimed the powers of a “unitary executive” under cover of a “war on terror”: the Party and the State of War did then merge, but only briefly and tentatively, in the moral darkness of Guantanamo. Note that the military, normally the armature of fascist dictatorship, fought back against the violations of liberal principle proposed and enacted by the Bush administration. So did Republicans in the Senate.

To suggest, as Sklar now does in the Letters, that Obama and his apparatchiki are fascists, that the ferociously anti-statist opinions of Tea Party Republicans represent the last stand of our liberal inheritance, or that George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, John McCain, Sarah Palin, and Mitt Romney represent a robust left wing of the political spectrum, is to repudiate what he has so painstakingly taught us. It is to sacrifice historical judgment on the altar of political purpose—-exactly what he has always said he can’t abide.

I have no objection, mind you, to redrawing the ideological map that locates Left and Right. As Sklar’s student, acquaintance, and part-time translator, I’ve long been urging us to relinquish the ideas that have petrified our thinking on this very difference, particularly the idea that liberals, radicals, and conservatives have nothing in common (cf. Corey Robin on the reactionary mind as radicalism in reverse). But his recent Letters ignore, invert, and distort these categories. It’s one thing to put them in motion, keep them in question. It’s quite another to render them meaningless.

If you want to revisit the arguments of the 1988 book, which seem quaintly dignified in view of the Letters, you can read my review for In These Times-—“It was worth waiting twenty years for,” Weinstein said when he asked me to review it—-or see my “How to Succeed in Business History Without Really Trying” Business & Economic History 2nd series (1992). Or go to the book itself, but make sure you memorize pp. 6-9, 29-35, 362, and 436-37 before deciding where you stand.


Long before the book, while a PhD student and SDS leader at the University of Rochester, Sklar had invented the notion of disaccumulation: see his “On the Proletarian Revolution and the End of Political-Economic Society,” Radical America (May-June 1969): 1-41, reprinted in The United States as a Developing Country (1992). It’s not an easy read. Suffice it here to say that Sklar used Marx’s theory of accumulation to show that in the second and third decades of the 20th century, output and productivity began to increase without additional inputs of either capital or labor—-for the first time in human history. In other words, growth proceeded as the function of a declining volume of net private investment, on the one hand, and a technologically driven extrication of living labor from goods production, on the other.

The implications of these trends are momentous. To begin with, the labor theory of value becomes moot, as “socially necessary labor” recedes and workers become mere watchmen and regulators in a production process in which they were once the main characters. The capital-labor relation that created class conflict and consciousness recedes accordingly, changing social relations (including consciousness) to the same extent. Any intelligible relation between the production of value through work and the receipt of income is obscured at best. And consumer expenditures no longer represent a constraint on economic growth because their proportional reduction of saving and investment no longer matters—again, growth proceeds as a function of declining net investment.

A half century ago, Roy Harrod and Evsey Domar translated John Maynard Keynes’s General Theory (1936) into a theory of growth, which is, by definition, a theory of crisis as well. The result, the “Harrod-Domar model,” is still part of the macroeconomics curriculum, probably because it draws so heavily on the Marxist sources and tangents of the Keynesian Revolution, including Michal Kalecki and the Soviet planning debates of the 1920s. You might say that John Judis and I are the Harrod and Domar of Sklar’s concept of disaccumulation; for we have tried, over the years, to translate it into a theory of growth and crisis. The results are not yet part of any curriculum I know of, but you can sample John’s efforts at The New Republic as recently as 2013 and mine in Pragmatism and the Political Economy of Cultural Revolution (1994) or Against Thrift (2011).

In view of the trends specific to disaccumulation, the worst possible fiscal policy is to reduce taxes on corporate or business profits, in the hope that higher profits will induce more private investment, thus more jobs, higher productivity, and increased per capita incomes. This policy will always and inevitably produce bubbles, because once disaccumulation commences, profits become more or less superfluous—-they aren’t required to drive growth via investment, so they flow toward speculative markets, as in the 1920s, and as in the long boom-bust cycle following the Reagan Revolution, ca. 1983-2009, when transfers of income shares from labor to capital made not just for inequality but for economic crisis, or rather produced crisis by enhancing inequality.

To suggest, as Sklar now does in the Letters, that a tax-cutting, pro-business fiscal policy must be the cause of the (liberal) Left is to ignore the economic history of the 20th century illuminated by his own theory of capital disaccumulation-—and to consign the majority of Americans, not just the young and the old, to a future in which penury becomes normal and business cycles become unmanageable. The last time I spoke to Marty (on the phone in 2003), we argued angrily about the probable effects of the Bush tax cuts. I said another bubble, another crash, he said solid growth. If we may judge from the Letters on Obama, not even the Great Recession has changed his mind, despite the fact that it was a phenomenon made predictable and preventable by his own intellectual efforts of 40-plus years ago.


Sklar’s brother Richard, a political scientist at UCLA (now emeritus), is credited with the concept of “post-imperialism,” which he introduced in 1976. Richard developed the concept as a way of sketching a de-centered, post-colonial, trans-national order managed, but not dominated, by a corporate bourgeoisie without borders—-think Hardt & Negri’s Empire (1999) minus Spinoza and you’ve got a grip on the argument. Richard was interested mainly in what a post-imperialist order would mean for the new nations of Africa and, by analogy, the developing countries of Asia. His brother saw a bigger picture.

Marty had already made original contributions to the revisionist cause with his M.A. Thesis on Wilson and the China consortium. William Appleman Williams said as much in the 2nd (1962) edition of The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (1959), when he cited Sklar’s analysis of John Hay’s third installment of the Open Door notes (see also Ivan Dee’s essay in Lloyd Gardner, ed. Redefining the Past [1984], a festschrift in honor of Williams, as well as Gardner’s introduction).

The key to that analysis, in the thesis of 1960 and after, was the significance Hay accorded to investment in defining “a fair field and no favor” as the goal of an Open Door world. To my knowledge, Sklar and Parrini are the only revisionists from the Wisconsin school convened by Harrington and Williams who have understood and emphasized this dimension of modern American imperialism, as theory and in practice. Scholars from other disciplines, particularly economics (Bill Warren, Jeffrey Frieden), have also understood it, but none so thoroughly, and none, save perhaps Hardt & Negri, have grasped its post-imperialist implications. (Long story short: Hobson and Hilferding notwithstanding, once investment rather than trade drives imperial goals, the “transfer of technology” becomes the material means of hegemony, and this transfer must reduce the quotient of exploitation in the relation between imperial powers and host nations.)

In a short published piece of 1999, Sklar examined those implications, suggesting that as early as 1900, US policy-makers were designing and implementing, to the extent American power permitted, the post-imperialist world order they called the Open Door. In doing so, he was both preserving and transcending what Williams had wrought in Tragedy, and what his brother had written in 1976. He wasn’t the first to go beyond Williams or to broaden the chronological scope of “post-imperialism”—-Keith Haynes did that—-but he was the first to recast modern American diplomacy as an intellectual continuum animated by the quest for a world in which imperialism was a relic of barbarism.

You will laugh out loud at this proposition, and reach for Noam Chomsky or Andrew Bacevich when your diaphragm has returned to normal. I still think Sklar was right, and that this big idea of his needs elaboration. The trouble is, he doesn’t.

Since 2001, he has instead been railing against “the Islamists” and their threat to western civilization in the clinically hysterical rhetorical mode made familiar by Paul Berman, Christopher Hitchens, and Dick Cheney: those terrorists might as well be Nazis, therefore we need to take the fight to them as we did in the 1940s when confronted with a comparable existential threat! And as we did in (the farce of) 2003. The Letters accordingly depict the inevitable military withdrawals from Afghanistan and Iraq as appeasement of the enemy, and indeed cast Obama as a stealthy infiltrator—-as someone trying to tilt the world in favor of the Islamo-fsacists. The alternative to such appeasement, according to Sklar, is more boots on the ground in the Middle East, permanently, and more power to a president willing to rely on John Yoo’s tortured rendition of the Constitution. Again, I am not making this up: see for yourself in the Letters, Parts 2 and 3.

Sklar has, in this sense, repressed and mutilated the intellectual legacy offered him by the policy-makers he studied, by Williams, and again by his own brother: he has disowned himself. For if they taught us anything, and if the catastrophe called the 20th century has any lessons still worth learning, it is that military superiority means nothing in the long run-—maybe even in the short run, from the Gulf of Tonkin, say, to the Tet Offensive—-and that the expansion of executive power inevitably means the decay of democracy.


Sklar denies that his concept of “the mix”—-the interpenetration of capitalism and socialism in the development of the US in the 20th century—-has any genealogical roots in the postwar notion of a “mixed economy” (a notion that had social-intellectual sources in the idea of a “post-industrial society,” which was, however, a form of resistance to the idea of totalitarianism). He might have a point. His definitions of socialism and capitalism are deeply informed by historical consciousness and evidence rather than moral categories and imperatives. Still, I wish he had acknowledged some of these bourgeois roots, as I wish he had acknowledged them in developing the concept of disaccumulation.

But there is no doubt that “the mix” as Sklar presents it makes us think differently about the relation between capitalism and socialism. If you take him seriously, you can’t believe that these are the terms of an either/or choice, or stages of a necessarily linear historical progression. You have to start looking for socialism in places you wouldn’t expect to find it because you begin to understand that it has no predictable political valence—-it can be democratic, it can be despotic, it can be both—-and that it can never simply replace capitalism.

In analyzing the causes of the Great Recession, Sklar suggests that the socialist components of “the mix”—-Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, among others-—were as culpable as the capitalist components. Here again he might have a point, if only he made it. Instead, he writes as if the necessary regulatory corrections contained in Dodd-Frank are at best onerous and at worst evidence of the Obama regime’s quest for statist command of the market. And once again a tax-cutting, pro-business policy becomes the cure for everything that ails us.

One of the crucial moves that Sklar made in explaining “the mix” was to claim that socialism and statism aren’t identical, or, to put the same proposition another way, that socialism resides in and flows from markets, commodities, and price systems—in and from what we typically associate exclusively with capitalism. Regulation of the market in the name of social goals is of course a result of public policy enforced by state power and judicial rulings, but it’s also the result of price systems managed, modulated, and changed by non-governmental organizations such as trade unions, interest groups, and consumer boycotts.

I would like to take Sklar as seriously as I have in the past, but he has now decided that every policy proposed by the Obama regime enlarges the regulatory role of the state, and thus distorts “the mix” between public and private enterprise-—as I suppose any fascist regime would do. He has chosen to ignore the vast and still mounting evidence that shows the president is perfectly willing, indeed eager, to accredit and subsidize private enterprise in seeking both economic recovery and long-term growth.


I would go to court to challenge this spastic codicil, these Letters on Obama, if there were such a place to register my disapproval and disagreement. But there’s no such place, and if there were, how would my standing be measured? I’m not Martin J. Sklar’s heir apparent any more than Ronald Radosh or John Yoo is.

No, I write to restore your memory, not mine—-I don’t want you to let this late deviation determine your approach to the rest of what the man has given us. I’m not asking you to overlook it, as if you need to forgive him for a “senior moment.” I’m asking you to ignore it altogether.

As I have elsewhere argued, Gene Genovese’s political odyssey makes sense—-he could never locate a source of redemption or renewal in the actually existing social relations of his time, so he posited a world elsewhere that was the intellectual’s equivalent of religious faith. Marty Sklar was, until recently, too Hegelian for that—-socialism was immediately practical and eminently plausible, he insisted, or it was pie in the sky. As both Hegel and Marx taught us, either we assume the ethical principles we live by are at least faintly legible in the historical circumstances we live with, or we become utopians (radicals or reactionaries) seeking escape from the world as it is.

In a tragic parody of Genovese, Sklar has turned himself into another reactionary utopian, desperate to find a principle of hope in a world elsewhere. He’s able to register the political decadence of actually existing socialism—-but he locates it “domestically,” unlike Genovese and every other leftist, in the “fascist” denouement of the New Left carried out by the “Obama regime,” rather than in the “deviations” of a Stalinist Soviet Union or in the more recent vandalization of socialism in the People’s Republic. Meanwhile Sklar is unable to recognize the atrocities generated daily by actually existing capitalism: these are somehow figments of the Left’s deluded imagination. As a result, he has no historical grounding for his arguments except the epoch of Civil War and Reconstruction, where, as you might imagine, Obama is cast as Tilden, not Lincoln.

So “the mix” still has a verifiable, empirical significance for Sklar, but the intellectual balance the concept once gave him are gone. When socialism becomes fascism, capitalism looks like the moral high ground. No wonder he now searches for validation on the Right by writing fan letters to Podhoretz and Yoo—-where else can he turn?

Martin J. Sklar was one of the great historians of the 20th century. For much of that century, he was also a faithful servant of the Left at its very best. He tried to change its course, to make it a self-consciously mainstream movement rather than a marginal collection of individuals devoted to dissent—-which is to say defined by faith in another world which would appear after capitalism, after exploitation, after this life in these times. In 1957, in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Hungary, he founded the Socialist Club in Madison with that mainstream possibility in mind; it was soon the most popular student organization on campus. With the same possibility in mind, he founded Studies on the Left, Socialist Revolution, and In These Times. In this sense, he, too, was a man of faith. He believed in what was evident yet unknown, and acted upon it. He conveyed, no, he lived, the conviction of things unseen.


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True Detective

I was wrong about this show, and I’m glad to admit it. My confession follows, as written over the last six days.


I’m as intrigued as anyone by HBO’s “True Detective,” to begin with by the performances, or rather by the actors. My question going in was, What did these gifted, dedicated men find in these scripts that was so compelling? I can’t yet answer this question—-but see below—-I suppose because the clunky metaphysics of Rust Cohle’s monologues make me laugh, just when I’m supposed to be paying serious attention. But then maybe it isn’t a laughing matter-—maybe it ain’t metaphysics.

So my question is, are the performances given narrative edges by the sultry, languid, oppressive, and thus seductive atmosphere of the endless swamp that seems not just to surround but to saturate every move of these characters, showing up symptomatically as the worry beads of sweat? Do I want to watch this series because it’s so damn gorgeous, drawing me nearer to Rust and Marty with every aerial or long shot of the bayou? Do I watch because I’m desperate for them to break out of those rooms where their memories have been tested by, then confined to, the legal fictions that bound them as badge-wielding law men?

Hell, yes, to all of the above.

The narrative pace is leisurely, in keeping with the temperature, the humidity, the sea level of the place: everyone and everything is slowly sinking under the weight of some previous mistake, some external mass, whether it’s original sin or the return of the repressed river. Meanwhile, the smaller details of the performances, which are conveyed more immediately by the antithetical physical presences of the partners—-one slim, still, almost whispering, the other bulky, restless, always blustering—-are etched on the huge vegetative background of this location, where they register more materially than in those police procedural rooms. But it’s as if the visual and the verbal dimensions of the story occupy different time zones, or rather the competing cosmic spaces of Cohle’s alcohol-soaked, science-fictional confessions.

I report on these possibly eccentric responses to “True Detective” as a result of Ross Douthat’s NYT blog post, which led me to Andy Greenwald’s mostly snarky but very smart and suggestive reading of the series at the Grantland website, dated January 8, 2014. Here is how Greenwald summarizes his complaint:

“’True Detective’ is in desperate need of [someone] to reflect and maybe modulate the darkness its posters brag about. Someone to provide even a fleeting glimpse of real life. It wouldn’t even necessarily need to be a woman—although that would certainly help, as the few onscreen women who aren’t wearing antlers or grinding on poles are given little to do but get angry or aroused. . . . It would just need to be something genuine and relatable that could float to the show’s dank, oily surface: a joke, a heartfelt desire, a decision not made on either end of a loaded gun. Because despite what recent television trends would have us believe, darkness isn’t a stand-in for depth or maturity. Without light to balance it, darkness is incapable of revealing any profound truths. On its own, darkness merely obscures.”

It’s a brilliant passage because for all its glitter and flourish-—I’ll always remember “a decision not made on either end of a loaded gun”—-it leads us back to the text we’re trying to understand, “True Detective,” and asks us read it more closely. Still, it led me elsewhere, back to another text altogether, Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis (1953).


Let me explain. This term I’m teaching a brand new undergraduate course on historiography. The two required “textbooks” in the class are Karl Lowith, Meaning in History (1949) and Hayden White, The Content of the Form (1987), which, for all their differences, treat the religious, chiliastic, eschatological sources of modern historical consciousness with the seriousness they deserve. Last Friday I taught Lowith’s chapter 9, on Augustine, alongside Auerbach’s chapter 3, “The Arrest of Peter Valvomeres,” where the fresh, realistic voice of The Confessions first emerges to challenge the somber, elevated, classical style of ancient historians like Tacitus and Ammianus Marcellinus. These historians clung to the conventions that allotted different rhetorical registers to the well-born and the lowly—-according to these conventions, the technique of realistic imitation was fit only for the comic depiction of servants or slaves-—but they described the world of late antiquity with a new sensory awareness and intensity.

Ammianus was a former commander of a Roman Legion who wrote in the mid-to-late fourth century A.D., as a contemporary of Augustine. But they were worlds apart, even though they knew the same Rome.

In volume 15 of his histories, Ammianus writes of a Roman mob and the arrest of its ringleader with the distant aplomb of his predecessor Tacitus, in a proudly stoic manner that contrasts the seething, mindless mass led by Peter Valvomeres against the steely, virtuous resolve of Leontius, the prefect who accuses him: “sitting in his carriage, with an imposing confidence, he gazed with piercing eyes into the faces of the packed crowd raging all about like serpents.”

In The Confessions, Augustine writes of the same seething mass, but transposes the contest between bloodlust and virtuous repose to a conflict within the same man, his friend Alypius, an avowed Stoic who, when finally exposed to the spectacle of the gladiatorial amphitheater, can’t resist: “directly he saw that blood, he therewith imbibed a sort of savageness.”

As Auerbach then explains in Augustinian rhythms, “And it is not merely a random Alypius whose pride, nay whose inmost being, is thus crushed; it is the entire rational individualistic culture of classical antiquity: Plato and Aristotle, the Stoa and Epicurus. A burning lust has swept them away, in one powerful assault.”

Ammianus, the good soldier, clings to that rational individualistic culture, but his hold on it is slipping fast, because the pitiless gaze of his imperial eyes—-the elevated style of classical antiquity—-can’t make sense of the ending that is already upon him: with these narrative formulae in hand, he can describe decadence, deformity, cruelty, idiocy, and treachery in great detail, but he can’t respond to these gruesome circumstances with anything more creative than resignation. That is why Auerbach characterizes this historical moment as a rhetorical crisis:

“From the end of the first century of the Imperial Age something sultry and oppressive appears, a darkening of the atmosphere of life. It is unmistakable in Seneca, and the somber tone of Tacitus’ historical writing has often been noted. But here in Ammianus we find that the process has reached the stage of magical and sensory dehumanization.”

The brutally realistic depiction of a similar darkening is what has reanimated television in our time, from “The Sopranos” and “The Wire” to “Breaking Bad” and now “True Detective.” The “difficult men” at the heart of these series are, like Ammianus, stoic observers and resolute narrators—-and yes, practitioners—-of spastic violence drained of public or political purpose. Thanks to Andy Greenwald, I could begin to think of these shows as instances of late imperial romance, as John McClure has characterized the genre in novels (think Robert Stone), as doomed attempts to make sense of ubiquitous and yet random violence. Here, then, is the pivotal passage in Mimesis that Greenwald drove me back to:

“Ammianus’ world is very often a caricature of the normal human environment in which we live; very often it is like a bad dream. This is not simply because horrible things happen in it—-treason, torture, persecution, denunciations: such things are prevalent in almost all times and places . . . . What makes Amminanus’ world so oppressive is the lack of any sort of counterbalance. For if it is true that man is capable of everything horrible, it is also true that the horrible always engenders counterforces and that in most epochs of atrocious occurrences the great vital forces of the human soul reveal themselves: love and sacrifice, heroism in the service of conviction, and the ceaseless search for possibilities of a purer existence. Nothing of the sort is to be found in Ammianus. Striking only in the sensory, resigned and as it were paralyzed despite its stubborn rhetorical passion, his manner of writing history nowhere displays anything redeeming, nowhere anything that points to a better future, nowhere a figure or an act about which stirs the refreshing atmosphere of a greater freedom, a greater humanity.” [my italics]

That’s the fundamental difference between Ammianus and Augustine, who witnessed the same decline of the same Roman Empire. The new atmosphere conjured in The Confessions both presupposed and predicted a profound change of moral climate—-something redeeming, something waiting on a distant horizon of nonetheless urgent expectation. That’s not the difference between Cohle and Hart, the stoic and the cynic, at least to begin with, nor the difference between Jimmy McNulty and Bunk Moreland (“The Wire”), and it’s not the difference between Walter White and Jesse Pinker (“Breaking Bad”), either.


In any case, it’s the possibility of a change in moral climate-—I don’t know how else to put it—-that Andy Greenwald asks us to consider when he states: “Without light to balance it, darkness is incapable of revealing any profound truths. On its own, darkness merely obscures.” I have enlisted Auerbach to emphasize Greenwald’s point, and to amplify my own complaint about “True Detective,” but we’re addressing rhetorical worlds separated by seventeen centuries. What is the point of this juxtaposition?

As it turns out, we’re actually addressing the same rhetorical world. Auerbach is explaining the intellectual darkness that fell on late imperial Rome, and suggesting that Augustine’s unlikely alternative carried the day. Greenwald is explaining the darkness that has fallen on late imperial America, and pleading for an Augustinian alternative. Both are claiming that the received tradition—-the narrative convention of the time—-represses and mutilates such an alternative.

In these terms, Rust Cohle is the stand-in for the unhappy consciousness of late imperial America. He’s the Ammianus Marcellinus for our time—-the stoic who knows only darkness because he has suffered the loss of a child, then seen too much depravity as an undercover narc, yet is willing to soldier on. But he’s also a stand-in for H. P. Lovecraft, the sci-fi writer whose stubborn rhetorical passion was the creation of insanely profuse psycho-topographic landscapes which invariably translate the interiors of his characters into exteriors, or rather read the former as the latter.

Rust speaks Lovecraft, as Michael M. Hughes has shown in a wonderfully detailed analysis of Episodes 2 and 3. ( When Cohle reads aloud to Marty from the murdered Dora Lange’s journal, he is quoting Dora’s citation of Robert Chambers, whose 1895 collection of short stories called The King in Yellow was practically copied into later short fictions by H. P. Lovecraft. “I closed my eyes and saw the King in Yellow,” Dora has written in crayon, “moving through the forest.”

Indeed Lovecraft’s “cosmic despair” is precisely what Nic Pizzolatto, the creator and writer of the series, has told the Wall Street Journal he wants to express in his story. Lovecraft himself explained such despair this way: “A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable outer, unknown forces . . . a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain—a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.”

For Lovecraft, this suspension or defeat of natural laws led only inward and backward, toward the bad dreams of his childhood, which he always insisted were his primary literary antecedent, or—-as in Poe, another antecedent—-toward the madness of characters who couldn’t bear the weight of any past. Either way, the outer world, in all its increasingly unnatural malignance, would be left intact. Reporting on or retreating from this world was the only conceivable response—-it could not be redeemed, in words or deeds. Here darkness falls, over and over.

So Greenwald and I were right, up to this point. Ammianus had returned to haunt the bayou via the tortured soul of Rust Cohle, always the stoic witness to what would never change. His rhetorical paralysis is on display in those droning, sophomoric monologues, lifted directly by Pizzolatto from Lovecraft’s delirious cosmogony. The sodden, sunken, rotten landscape of “True Detective,” where every creature or object is another sign of both decay and danger, this bayou is a febrile projection worthy of Lovecraft at his worst, and of Ammianus at his best. It’s where Rust’s cosmic despair-—his unhappy consciousness, his unbending stoicism—-gets written as the brittle alternative to death and/or chaos. It’s what I came to watch, anyway.


But only up to a point. The last episode is a powerful retort to Greenwald’s complaint, and mine, and, as such, it departs decisively from its rhetorical origins in “The Sopranos” and “The Wire” and “Breaking Bad,” and, equally important, from the science fiction peddled by Lovecraft. With extraordinary production design and cinematography, the last episode revisits Lovecraft’s profuse subterranean grottoes, where the story typically ends with the revelation—-not the solution-—of long-buried crimes. But suddenly it breaks out of the narrative conventions those cable precedents, and previous episodes of “True Detective,” and Lovecraft himself, had perfected.

Just when we think the reunited partners are both as good as dead, an Augustinian alternative erupts from the grotesque psycho-topography of post-Katrina America. Darkness recedes as the bright arc of a flare bends toward the portal of the ancient rotunda where the original sinner, the man with the scars, has always tortured and slain his helpless victims-—where Rust and Marty, having killed that man, now wait helplessly for rescue, that is, redemption.

Hart the skeptic and the cynic has led us to this place. He’s the man who, once upon a time, responded to every provocation with the kind of sharp physical gestures that bordered on violence, and sometimes spilled over. Now his thickened body moves slowly, painfully, deliberately, at the pace his partner used to set. He finds the key that unlocks the case by comparing shades of green paint in case file photographs-—by looking at old pictures.

In the final scene, Marty gently leads us toward another place, the place we’re supposed to be, in the here and now, but now armed with hope. He does so by changing the subject, or, if you like, the narrative key. Rust wants to talk about the ineffable “substance” he entered on the verge of death, where he could feel his daughter’s love. Marty lets him say his ontological piece, as always, and then reminds him of Alaska, where the boy Rust used to make up stories while watching the stars. He’s trying to bring that boy back to life, back to this life.

“It’s just one story,” Rust says, “The oldest.”

“What’s that?”

“Light versus dark.”

Then we know Marty is bringing us back to this life, not some other-worldly aftermath, because he looks up, toward heaven, but he refuses its rewards, he says,

“Well, I know we ain’t in Alaska, but it appears to me that the dark has a lot more territory.”

“Yeah,” Rust says, “you’re right about that.”

That’s where the cable precedents, and previous episodes, would have ended. That’s where I thought this was ending. Darkness falls, over and over. There is no alternative to stoic resignation in view of the grotesque realities that constitute our time.

Then Marty hoists Rust out of the wheelchair, and the two of them limp toward nothing more than a parking lot. And now Rust speaks the naïve truth of the faith they’ve discovered.

“You’re lookin’ at it wrong,” he says, “the sky thing.”

“How’s that?”

“Once there was only dark. You ask me, the light’s winnin’.’”

Me, too.


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Snowden as the Alien: From Right to Left

Aha, now Edward Snowden is a Russian spy. This charge, levied by Mike Rogers (R-MI) over the weekend, would seem to oppose what Sean Wilentz claimed in the last issue of The New Republic, that Snowden is a right-wing libertarian nut (supporter of Ron Paul, no less) who wants to destroy the legitimacy of government as such.

An uncanny symmetry worthy of any Cold War melodrama resides within this opposition, however, and Snowden himself nails it in this interview at The New Yorker: liberals and conservatives alike view any significant disturbance of consensus on the legitimacy of the post-totalitarian, national security state as an external shock to a healthy system–that is, an “alien” intrusion on American tradition, which must then be narrated as the non-heroic residue of conspiracy.

In short, the paranoid style is the stock in trade of Snowden’s critics, not an explanation of his actions.

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