Thursday, November 26, 2015

Ink Flowed Like Blood

For Kraus, World War I was a kind of media event, in which hypocritical journalists whipped up xenophobia in the unthinking crowd and drove the killing on.

A scene from a 2014 stage production in Austria of ‘The Last Days of Mankind.’ENLARGE
A scene from a 2014 stage production in Austria of ‘The Last Days of Mankind.’ PHOTO: GEORG SOULEK
The epic play “The Last Days of Mankind,” now available in a comprehensive new translation by Fred Bridgham and Edward Timms, is widely regarded as the masterpiece of Karl Kraus (1874-1936), a writer who is still relatively little known outside his native Austria. Kraus was a loner, allergic to any kind of community, and his collaborative projects seldom lasted very long. His journalistic attacks on a variety of targets elicited numerous lawsuits and led on one occasion to his being physically assaulted in the street. Thanks to family wealth, he was able in 1899 to found his own magazine, Die Fackel (The Torch), for which he recruited contributors such as Oskar Kokoschka, Heinrich Mann,Arnold Schoenberg, August Strindberg and Frank Wedekind. Even this level of collaboration was too much for him, however, and from 1911 Die Fackel with rare exceptions published only his own work.
Kraus’s specialty was satire and polemic. Fearless and feared, owing allegiance to no political party or tendency, he was above all else a moralist. He directed his invective against pretentious newspapers, lazy journalists, corrupt politicians and intolerant nationalists. His targets included Zionism, the creation of Theodor Herzl (Kraus publicly renounced his Judaism at the turn of the century); psychoanalysis, newly invented by Sigmund Freud; and sexual hypocrisy and repressiveness, demonstrated in the crusade of his erstwhile mentor, the German magazine editor Maximilian Harden, against the homosexual entourage of the German Kaiser Wilhelm II. Kraus became famous not only through Die Fackel, which he continued to publish into the 1920s and early 1930s and which had a circulation of 40,000 at the height of its fame, but also through hundreds of public readings and dramatic one-man shows, which attracted audiences of thousands. He faced his greatest challenge when Austria declared war on Serbia following the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Bosnian Serb, leading to the outbreak of World War I in August 1914.


By Karl Kraus
Yale, 645 pages, $40
While fellow writers such as Hugo von Hofmannsthal hurried to place their talents in the services of the Austro-Hungarian cause, Kraus fell into silence for a number of months before starting to publish critical articles on the representation of the war in the press, provoking intervention by the official censors on numerous occasions. What angered him in particular was the heroic language used by reporters, columnists and propagandists, a language that concealed the brutal realities of the war on the eastern and Italian fronts and, increasingly, as the Allied blockade of the Central Powers took effect, on the home front as well. 
While Die Fackel was getting into repeated difficulties, Kraus began to draft “The Last Days of Mankind,” writing most of it before the war finished. As he wrote, his growing disillusion with the war pushed him to a more left-wing political stance, so that the anti-Semitic tone of the earlier parts gradually vanished and his antiwar, anti-Habsburg rhetoric grew shriller. Unable to publish the play during the war itself, he brought it out in four special issues of Die Fackel in 1918-19, then published an expanded version in 1922. By this time it had grown to monstrous *proportions, extending, in Messrs. Bridgham and Timms’s translation, to over 600 pages and losing any structure or coherence it might originally have possessed.
Kraus’s prime target in the play was the Austrian press. The war, indeed, was for him a kind of media event, in which irresponsible and hypocritical journalists whipped up mindless patriotism and xenophobia in the unthinking crowd and drove the war on in a red haze of unrealism. Early on in the play, a mob storms and trashes a hairdressing salon because the owner’s name is Serbian. The crowd is egged on by the historian Heinrich Friedjung, a real figure who in a famous court case a few years before had been shown to have used forged documents in accusing prominent Austrian politicians of being in the pay of the Serbian government. “Unless I’m very much mistaken,” Kraus has him telling the crowd, “documents relating to the Slovensky Jug plot for a Greater Serbia will be found in this hairdresser’s—the plot I started to uncover back in 1908.” The whole passage relentlessly pillories the unscrupulous use of conspiracy theories by rabid Austrian nationalists to further their own ends.

Kraus was equally biting in his contempt for the impersonal language in which death, destruction and human misery were coldly described in official documents—“human raw material,” “holding on to the bitter end,” “doing one’s bit” and so on. He ridiculed the sermons with which priests justified the war and pilloried the moral irresponsibility of officers who talked of war as if it was a kind of hunting party. “Universal conscription has turned mankind into a passive noun,” one of the play’s characters notes. Austrians had been reduced to “cogs in the machine.”
As the war went on, Austria-Hungary came more and more under the thumb of its German ally. Kraus’s play portrayed the Germans as rabid militarists and annexationists: “The moment has now arrived,” he has a German liberal politician saying, “when the result of the war can only be a peace based on the expansion of our borders to the east, to the west, and overseas, with Germany as a world power setting the agenda.” While the aged Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph (“that formidable nonentity”) talks, sings and signs documents in his sleep (“Can’t stand the Prussians—they tricked me into it!” he mutters somnambulistically), Kaiser Wilhelm II rants and raves in a militaristic frenzy, declaring that the collapse of the Russian armies in 1917 is due to divine intervention. In a withering parody of the flattery that constantly surrounded the Kaiser, Kraus has his generals declare: “When we make our breakthrough, with the help of God and poison gas, we owe it exclusively to Your Majesty’s brilliant strategic planning.”
In recurrent dialogues between two anonymous characters, the “Optimist” and the “Grumbler” (a partial version of Kraus himself), the pretensions of the craven press and the falsehoods of the government are mercilessly punctured. The war, says the Grumbler, is “a daily lie out of which printers ink flowed like blood, the one feeding the other, pouring out like a delta into the great ocean of insanity.” Horrifically injured soldiers lurk in the background while journalists prattle on about deadlines and column inches. Much of the effect of “The Last Days of Mankind” comes from juxtapositions of propaganda with realities such as these.
Kraus’s play was perhaps the first docudrama, in which genuine documents were combined with a fictional representation of real events. Could it ever work onstage? The play has nothing resembling a plot or even a progression of events; perhaps it is best regarded as a verbal and dramatic mine from which chunks can be quarried and rearranged to deliver something more coherent, more intelligible and more polished.
Kraus himself thought the play “would take some ten evenings” to perform but recognized that it did not really lend itself to the theater, remarking that it was “intended for a theater on Mars.” The modern reader has to agree. Kraus himself thought “The Last Days of Mankind” unperformable because “theatregoers on planet earth would find it unendurable.” But in fact the main reasons were, and remain, practical. Quite apart from its inordinate length, the play has a vast number of scene changes that would be impossible to manage. In Act III, just to take one example, we move from Scene 24 to Scene 31 in fewer than three pages: beginning with a conversation between two followers of a conservative newspaper to “In front of the War Ministry” (a mere six lines) to a crowd of 50 draft dodgers on Vienna’s Ringstrasse (one line), back to “In front of the War Ministry” (six lines again), to inside the Ministry, then to “Innsbruck: a restaurant” (four lines), “Market square in Grodno, Belarus” (another crowd), and finally “a German front unit.” This would be impossible to manage in a live theatrical performance.
In contrast to these very brief scenes, the collage technique used by Kraus leads to the inclusion of some very long documents that would lull an audience to sleep if they were read out in the theater in full. Act V, Scene 54, for example, has the Grumbler reading a document that goes on for more than six pages. The speech by an Austrian general at a ceremonial banquet that constitutes the next scene is four pages long. And even if these scenes could be adapted, as they might be in the 21st century, for film or television, the 50-odd “apparitions” that conclude the play are completely impossible to stage in any medium, moving as they do from a mountain path with “thousands of carts” and “an enormous mass of humanity” to the dining car of the Balkan Express, a winter scene in the Carpathians, “a turnip field in Bohemia,” a bomb falling on a school, and a procession of gas masks. Another scene has the instruction: “Twelve hundred horses emerge from the sea, come ashore, and set off at a trot,” all speaking in unison.
As these elaborate directions indicate, “The Last Days of Mankind” demands a cast of thousands. Most of the characters are unidentified in the dialogue, so that a theater audience would with rare exceptions find it impossible to guess who they were unless the management supplied surtitles as opera houses do, distracting the audience from the action. The characters in any case are not real characters at all. They are merely the mouthpieces for documents reprinted by Kraus: “The document takes human shape; reports come alive as characters and characters expire as editorials,” he wrote in his preface to the play: “the newspaper column has acquired a mouth that spouts monologues; platitudes stand on two legs, unlike men left with only one.”
Kraus himself cut the play by three-quarters to make a performance version, put on the stage in 1928. He rearranged some scenes to give it more chronological coherence and deleted many others, including all the discussions between the Optimist and the Grumbler. An English version of this edition appeared in 1974. In 1982 there was a production by the Glasgow Citizens’ Theatre, repeated the next year at the Edinburgh Festival, of scenes specially translated by Robert MacDonald, later broadcast by the BBC. It had a huge effect on the historian Niall Ferguson, who saw it as a college student and rated it “certainly the most powerful theatrical experience I have ever had. . . . As I left the theater that night,” he later wrote, “I resolved that I must teach myself German, read Kraus’s play in the original and try to write something about him and about the war.” A college friend of mine who attended the same production told me: “Really long, chaotic, loud, hugely energetic. Didn’t really have much of a clue what was going on but just carried away by the momentum of it all. . . . Immense sense of relief when it was over.”
Kraus’s original German presents many challenges to the translator, especially perhaps its incorporation of Viennese slang and its rendering in prose of a variety of accents. Fred Bridgham and Edward Timms opt to put these colloquialisms into present-day American, as if the action was set not in Vienna but in the Bronx. “Look,” says one character in the prologue, “d’ya recognize those broads there?” In a rival translation currently in progress, by Michael Russell, available online, this is simply rendered as “Look! Do you recognize those two over there?” In Act II Scene I an untranslatable derogatory term for Italians, “Katzelmacher,” is translated by Mr. Russell as “Greaseballs” and by Messrs. Bridgham and Timms as “dagoes,” which is just as serviceable, except that the latter translation has “them dagoes” and omits the final phrase, “Also natürlich!,” which appears in Mr. Russell’s version as “That’s their nature, isn’t it?” One can’t help feeling that the attempt to use modern English colloquialisms to express the Austrian everyday language of a century ago is misguided, and the plainer version is likely to last longer. And if the intention is to produce a text for performing, surely it’s better to leave matters such as pronunciation to the actors rather than prescribing the accents they should use.
These problems of translation stem from the play’s deep anchoring in the street life of Vienna and the multinational cacophony of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As the historian Eric Hobsbawm, who was born in 1917 and grew up in Vienna in the 1920s, wrote in one of his last essays: “For Viennese of my age, ‘The Last Days,’ despite all allusions to forgotten figures and forgotten events of the day, is comprehensible, even taken for granted. But this is hardly the case for others, particularly for non-Austrian readers.” This is certainly true. Even Hobsbawm’s phenomenal memory must have struggled at times to identify figures from a time when he was under 2 years of age. Messrs. Bridgham and Timms provide a combined glossary and index, but uninitiated readers will find themselves constantly turning to the back of the book to try and figure out who’s who, and the notes could often have done with some amplification. A full, page-by-page list of Kraus’s sources would have been even more helpful.
Among students and practitioners of modern Austrian and German history and literature, “The Last Days of Mankind” has for many years enjoyed cult status, helped immeasurably by Edward Timms’s lifelong advocacy and in particular by his magnificent two-volume study “Karl Kraus: Apocalyptic Satirist.” Kraus and his work have influenced a wide variety of writers, from Walter Benjaminand Elias Canetti to Thomas Szasz and Jonathan Franzen. On hearing of his death in 1936, Bertolt Brecht’s verdict was: “As the epoch raised its hand to end its own life, he was the hand.” One of Kraus’s own last works was a bitter satire on Nazism, whose opening words, famously, were: “Nothing occurs to me about Hitler.”
But satire is perhaps the least durable of all art forms. It can only transcend its own time and reach a wider audience if it frees itself from the shackles of contemporaneity and addresses universal topics in universal terms, like Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels” or, in a more savage mode, his “Modest Proposal.” Even George Orwell’s two masterpieces, “Animal Farm” and “1984,” still assigned reading in English schools, now require elaborate explanations of the history of the Russian Revolution and the nature of Stalinist and Nazi rule before children can understand them.
Judged in the court of literary immortality, “The Last Days of Mankind” ultimately fails these tests of universality and durability. As an indictment of the misery and futility of war and the hypocrisy and moral bankruptcy of its advocates, there is more power in the 28 lines of Wilfred Owen’s poem “Dulce et decorum est” than in the hundreds of pages of Kraus’s magnum opus. For all its sophistication and its flashes of bitter humor, “The Last Days of Mankind” remains in the end a provincial work, unlikely ever to enter the central canon of world literature.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Slide in home ownership threatens the American Dream: Note for a lecture, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United"

Spencer Lubitz, a 29-year-old broadcast journalist with his career ahead of him, feels the same way: "I can't commit long term. I need mobility.''

Rick Hampson, USA TODAY

NORTH LAS VEGAS, Nev. — A decade ago, when 5,000 settlers a month were arriving in this valley, the suburban frontier moved out into the desert so fast the zip codes couldn't keep up.

Then came the financial crisis, and the frontier stopped at places like the back fence of 4132 Recktenwall Ave.
The four-bedroom house there, meant to be owned by its residents, is today a rental. And the Severance family, meant to be owners, are its $1,365-a-month renters.
It's all part of a national shift away from home ownership and toward renting.
The U.S. home ownership rate peaked 10 years ago. Since then it has dropped from over 69% to under 64%, where it was a half century ago, with each percentage point representing more than a million households.
An Urban Institute study this year predicted that in 15 years the home-owning rate will sink to 61%. Baby Boomers — far more apt to own than members of succeeding generations — will move or die. And Millennials, now 18 to 34, will be slow to own, either because they can't afford to or don't want to.
The shift to rental in single-family homes is visible on streets like Recktenwall. Between 2005 and 2009, about 80% of such houses in greater Las Vegas were owner-occupied; by 2013, that had dropped to 71%, a 12,000-unit shift.
Nationally, the number of single-family detached house rentals increased by 3.2 million between 2004 and 2013, according to Harvard's Center for Housing Studies.
The Severances lost their first house to foreclosure in 2009, and haven't been able to buy another. Bryan Severance, 37, admits this rental is OK for his family of six, "but it's not ours. There's something about owning your own home.''
America, we've long told ourselves, is a nation of homeowners. It's part of our national credo: A family that owns its home cares for it and improves it, luxuriates in its memories and profits from its sale.
A home is a comfort, a burden, an investment, a status symbol. Above all, as Bryan Severance says, it's yours.
But now this most tangible measure of the American Dream is in doubt.
Consider the Millennials. Although a MacArthur Foundation survey this year found that 88% aspire to own a home, and 53% say it's a high personal priority, relatively few are following through.
Homeownership among households headed by those 30 to 34, which was above 50% for decades, is at a record low 45%. The first time homebuyer's median age, once under 30, is now almost 33.
Millennials face many economic barriers, including student loan debt, income stagnation and tighter credit rules imposed after the housing crash of 2007-08 and attendant subprime loan scandal. All inhibit either the ability to save for a down payment or to secure the mortgage financing used by most home buyers.
Rents are rising, creating unprecedented burdens in many regions. That should encourage people to buy homes, but it also eats away over time at the savings needed to do so.
But the homeownership decline is not entirely tragic. For the footloose, the empty-nested, the risk-averse and assorted others (contract workers, military servicemembers) renting makes sense.
When Linda Slayden, 64 and semi-retired, moved to Las Vegas from South Bend, Ind., she rented. Back home she had owned a Tudor-style house and a condo, but says, "I left those worries behind.''
Spencer Lubitz, a 29-year-old broadcast journalist with his career ahead of him, feels the same way: "I can't commit long term. I need mobility.''
Home ownership, once akin to Mom and apple pie, has become the subject of a policy debate.
Advocates say it's a bedrock of middle class prosperity, and cite research showing that owners take better care of the property and are more civically engaged than renters.
Joel Kotkin, an analyst based at Chapman University in Southern California, says home ownership is under assault by "elites" — urban planners, academics, even financiers — who oppose the edge-of-suburbia development that made houses affordable in the first place.
Those seeking to prevent sprawl, he says, want a new "tenement era'' populated by "rental serfs.''
No one opposes single-family home ownership per se. But Christopher Leinberger, a developer, researcher and writer, says that many Americans want to live in more compact neighborhoods closer to mass transit and less dependent on cars. And such precincts traditionally have had more renters than owners.
In this view, home ownership is merely a residential option (albeit one that enjoys the mortgage interest tax deduction), and one not necessarily best suited for a more fluid economy and more environmentally conscious times.
Home ownership was not always the American dream. It didn't become a widespread aspiration until the 1920s, or a practicality for most until after World War II, when mortgage aid for veterans and construction of interstate highways helped push the ownership rate over 50%.
Every postwar president embraced the ownership dream, none more enthusiastically than Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
Concerned with disadvantaged minority groups' lag in home ownership, both promoted policies, such as tax credits and easier mortgage terms for first-time buyers, that helped home ownership rise to record levels.
But too many loans to people with no ability or inclination to pay them off helped create a financial bubble, which burst with disastrous results for the economy. Home ownership, once one of the few things on which Democrats and Republicans agreed, became a political pariah. Rarely has a national ideal fallen so far so fast.

The housing crash's ground zero was Las Vegas. People who thought you couldn't lose money on a house lost everything. At one point, an astonishing three quarters of Las Vegas mortgage holders owed more on their homes than they were worth, a percentage that still hovers around 25%.
That's one of many factors suppressing home sales. Another is the fact that millions of houses have been flipped to rentals by investors who snapped them up at rock-bottom prices years ago.
One was 4123 Recktenwall.
When a burglar broke in the front door last month, Bryan Severance realized once again how much he wants to own his own home.
Bryan says the place needs a stronger door, a security camera and decorative window grills. "If I own a home, I can make a home safe,'' he says.
Bryan and Melissa bought a house in 2003, the year after they married. Bryan took over his father's business and in the boom years, expanded it quickly with funds borrowed against their fast-appreciating house. When the economy collapsed, they lost the business and the house.
After renting for five years, they tried to buy again. They had their heart set on a house with a big covered backyard patio — ideal for family movie nights. But the lender pulled out at the last minute because the way Bryan's employer listed his income made it look as if he had two jobs. The Severances lost about $4,000 in pre-closing costs.
It's a typical story these days: A sale undone by a combination of a borrower's sullied credit history, and a lender's post-crash aversion to risk.
Melissa still chokes up thinking about the house. "That was going to be the house where we made memories for our family.''
The Recktenwall house was worth about $325,000 when it was completed in 2007 near the peak of the market. The owner lost it to foreclosure, and it was sold to an investment company for $135,000 in 2011.
The poignancy of having to rent a house that was built to be owned by families like them is not lost on Bryan and Melissa. They are members of Generation X, whose home ownership rates are 5% lower than others of the same age in previous decades.
"We're an unlucky generation,'' Bryan says. "We bought our house in the boom, and lost it in the bust. And now the market's rising again without us.''
When she moved to Las Vegas last year from Minnesota, LuAnn Chiesi thought she knew what a rental apartment complex looked like. Then she visited one called Veritas, which opened in 2010.
Three pools. Three gyms. Free Wi-Fi.The covered outdoor fire pit. The coffee bar. The Halloween Candy Carnival.
"This is not the place you lived in when you got out of college,'' says LuAnn, who's 61, retired and recently married.
Rents are rising to record levels around the nation. In markets like Las Vegas (unlike New York, San Francisco and other densely settled cities) it's cheaper to buy than rent — if you can get a mortgage.
Most of Veritas' 1,000 residents, who include a smattering of Generation Xers with young kids, could afford to own a home, but choose not to.
Veritas, where monthly rents range from $1,400 for three bedrooms to $850 for one, is part of a growing class of amenity-rich apartment complexes that offer an alternative to owning. In fact, most of the nation's newly constructed housing is now rental.
LuAnn and her husband Robert took a three-bedroom apartment for what they assumed would be a year, "until we found something to buy,'' she recalls. "Isn't that what you're supposed to do?''
But the Chiesis found they didn't miss lawn mowers or mortgage payments. "I don't care if I ever own a house again,'' LuAnn says. "When the lease was up this year, we looked at each other and said, 'Why would we ever move?''
A year ago, the odds seemed against Lindsay Bell or Hazel and Ralph Lacanienta becoming home owners. They'd lost their house to foreclosure in 2011. And she was a teacher's aide making less than $34,000 a year who'd never even owned a credit card.
But now Lindsay, 28, a single parent with a 9-year-old daughter, owns a condominium in a gated community with a pool and a gym. And the Lacanientas and their three kids have a three-bedroom house in the region's most prestigious master planned community.
Their experience shows how, despite the end of the national policies that pumped up homeownership, some people are becoming homeowners through a combination of personal thrift, institutional aid and sheer persistence.
In 2012 Lindsay sought help from Neighborhood Housing Services of Southern Nevada, a non-profit that received grants from Wells Fargo and the Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco to help first-time home buyers. Lindsay completed a course on how to buy and maintain a home; saved $6,000 for a down payment; and received $30,000 toward the purchase of the house, on the condition she not sell for five years.

After three years of saving, looking, and living with relatives, she bought a two-bedroom condo with an attached garage for $105,000. Her monthly mortgage payment is $337, which she says is cheaper than renting and allows her to save.
Paying rent is "like giving money away,'' she says. "I want my money to make me money.''
She revels in the memory of her daughter Ayden running to claim her bedroom; turning cart-wheels inside the empty living room; and hosting sleepovers for the first time.
This home, she says, is her legacy — "something I can give to my daughter.''
The Lacantientas are what their real estate broker, Bryan Kyle, calls "boomerang buyers.''
In 2002 the couple bought their first home for $211,000. In three years it almost doubled in value.
Ralph had begun selling real estate. When business began to slide he doubled down, borrowing against their house to buy more properties. Soon, the Lacantientas owed $352,000 on a house whose value had sunk to $170,000.
They were able to rent another house. Ralph started selling used cars, and eventually opened his own dealership. This year they bought another house in the same community for $356,000.
Despite having lived through the crash, "I'm not scared of owning,'' Ralph says, as the family puppy, Enzo, runs around the two-story living room. "The value could go down, but we've learned our lesson. We always want to owe less than the house is worth.''

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

America has never actually welcomed the world's huddled masses

María Cristina García | The Washington Post,

November 22, 2015

For a growing number of politicians, this month's attacks in Paris mean it's time to stop bringing Syrian refugees to the United States. The risk that the Islamic State might send infiltrators in disguise, the theory goes, outweighs America's usual attitude toward taking in desperate people from around the world. "Our nation has always been welcoming, but we cannot let terrorists take advantage of our compassion," House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wisconsin, said Tuesday. "This is a moment where it's better to be safe than to be sorry." By the middle of this past week, more than half the country's governors had declared that their states wouldn't accept any resettled Syrians. Things had changed after Paris.

In truth, they hadn't. The outcry over resettling a relatively small number of Syrian refugees - far fewer than France vowed to take in even after the attacks - isn't an exception; it's more like the rule. Yes, the United States has been generous: Since 1948, close to 4 million refugees have come here. But despite our reputation as a haven for the oppressed, those admissions have always been controversial. There is one way the Syrian refugees are different, though: They, and others who have arrived after 9/11, are among the most carefully vetted in American history.

U.S. refugee policy dates to the end of World War II. During the 1930s and 1940s, the nationturned away thousands of Jews fleeing the Third Reich, even though our immigration quotas remained unfilled. Politicians justified their actions by arguing that German spies and subversives might be hiding among the refugees, but anti-Semitism was the more likely motivation for American neglect.

After the war, President Harry S. Truman and his allies on Capitol Hill urged Congress to authorize the admission of displaced and stateless people from Europe. Financial aid to war-torn nations was not enough, they argued; the United States had a moral obligation to accept a share of the refugees. Even as Americans became more fully aware of the horrors of the Nazi death camps, Congress resisted. It took three years to pass the 1948 Displaced Persons Act, which brought in more than 200,000 Europeans (mostly ethnic Germans) over the next two years. The law discriminated against Jewish and Catholic refugees, and Truman was tempted to veto it because it was "wholly inconsistent with the American sense of justice." Still, the law officially launched U.S. refugee policy. Together with the 1953 Refugee Relief Act, it facilitated the entry of almost 600,000 European refugees.

In 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower had to convince a wary American public that it was in the national interest to accept Hungarian refugees. A Hungarian rebellion against Soviet domination had elicited a brutal crackdown that forced more than 200,000 refugees into Austria and Yugoslavia and destabilized two countries still reeling from World War II. Opponents argued that communist spies and saboteurs would arrive with the refugee flow and harm the nation. Supporters said the United States had a moral responsibility to the Hungarian rebels and to the European host nations - especially since the U.S. government had encouraged the rebellion through propaganda broadcasts on Radio Free Europe.

The Eisenhower administration enlisted the help of public relations firms to generate positive press for the refugee program and "sell" the Hungarians to the public. For the next year, Americans were subjected to a massive media blitz, with story after story on Hungarian freedom fighters, comparing them to American patriots and stressing their love of liberty and democracy. Eventually, 38,000 Hungarians were admitted, many of them screened and registered at Camp Kilmer, New Jersey.

Subsequent groups faced similar backlashes. The 200,000 Cubans who were paroled into the United States from 1959 to 1962 after Fidel Castro's rise to power were predominantly white, middle-class and professionally trained, but that did little to pacify Americans, especially those living in South Florida, who bore the brunt of the refugee crisis. While the national media celebrated the refugees' heroism and "American" values (one Newsweek story enthusiastically told readers, "They're OK!"), letters to politicians and civic leaders revealed growing anger and frustration in Miami. Over the next five decades, South Florida residents would see many more refugees from Cuba - through the freedom flights from 1965 to 1973, the 1980 Mariel boatlift and the attempts in 1994 by more than 30,000 Cubans to flee by boat - as well as arrivals from Haiti, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Colombia. Today, Miami is home to one of the most successful Latino business communities in the nation, but the demographic shift scared away many non-Hispanic white residents, who resented the cultural transformation of "their" city.

Polls in the 1970s found opposition to the continued entry of Vietnamese refugees and other Southeast Asians fleeing the devastating war in Vietnam and its aftermath. News stories about the high casualty rates of Vietnamese boat people stranded at sea and about squalid refugee camps in Thailand did little to change public opinion: By 1979, only 32 percent of Americans surveyed wanted to accommodate more Southeast Asian refugees, and the government struggled to find people willing to sponsor them. Americans complained that the refugees were culturally "unassimilable," politically suspect, self-interested migrants who came to mooch off the welfare system. Resentment fueled conflict in many communities across the country, from Philadelphia to Port Arthur, Texas, to Los Angeles.

Cuba and Vietnam (along with the Soviet Union) eventually became the top source countries of refugees during the Cold War. As in the Hungarian case, the White House took the lead in crafting refugee policy, so much so that Congress passed the 1980 Refugee Act to make admissions more accountable to public will. Since then, the White House, in consultation with Congress, has established an annual refugee quota, with numbers allotted to different regions of the world. These allotments reflect geopolitical and foreign policy interests, as well as humanitarian obligations.

But 9/11 completely changed our refugee policy. In the wake of the terrorist attacks, the George W. Bush administration restructured the immigration bureaucracy to convey a greater sense of safety to the public. Refugee admissions were casualties of that restructuring. The annual quota constantly goes unfilled; 2013 marked the closest we came to meeting it after 9/11, although even before then, the quota was almost never met. Refugees now face many bureaucratic hurdles: They must be investigated by national and international intelligence agencies; their fingerprints and other biometric data are checked against terrorist and criminal databases. They are screened for disease. They are interviewed and reinterviewed by consular officials. In sum, they must prove that they are worthy of refuge in the United States.

The State Department reports that refugee applicants can expect to wait on average 18 to 24 months for processing and screening, but humanitarian aid workers on the ground report a much longer wait. Just like other immigrants, refugee applicants are not guaranteed admission. There is no "waiting list" per se, and the selection process can be capricious. Even Iraqi and Afghan translators, already cleared to work with U.S. military personnel, have difficulty securingrefugee status or special immigrant visas. If many in this doubly vetted population can't get visas, those without connections will encounter still greater obstacles.

This past week's political rhetoric warns that the Syrian refugee population, dominated by young men traveling alone, poses a risk. But adult males traveling solo are the least likely to be admitted to the United States unless they can demonstrate persecution. U.S. resettlement policies favor women and children, the elderly and the infirm, victims of torture, and religious minorities. Those with family here are also prioritized.

As generous as our refugee policy has been, the real burden is borne by countries that border areas of crisis. The Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, near the Syrian border, for instance, is home to 80,000 people. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees refers only 1 percent of refugees for resettlement in third countries such as the United States. The refugees our nation admits each year are but a drop in the proverbial bucket.

In September, the Obama administration announced that it would increase the annual refugee quota over the next two years to accommodate a larger number of Syrians. The quota, set at 70,000 to 80,000 for more than a decade now, will increase to 100,000 by October 2017. This will be the largest refugee quota since before 9/11. But the numbers are allotted by region, not country, and Syrians compete for visas with many other displaced people. In 2012, amid Syrian President Bashar Assad's violent crackdown, only 31 Syrian refugees were admitted to the United States. This year, despite the ongoing civil war and the rise of the Islamic State, just 1,682 refugees came from Syria - 2.4 percent of the total refugee admissions. The administration promises that at least 10,000 of the coming year's 85,000 refugees will be Syrian, but the numbers will probably be smaller.

Is it possible that a terrorist will arrive undetected in the small pool of admitted refugees? No system is 100 percent secure. Even tourism can pose a potential threat: The Tsarnaev brothers, responsible for the Boston Marathon bombing, arrived in the United States on tourist visas in 2002 and became legal residents when their parents were granted asylum. So it was the asylum bureaucracy, not the refugee system, that handled their case. But what immigration official can predict that children will be radicalized on American soil?

So some fears and suspicions are understandable. But we can't always protect ourselves from our homegrown assassins, either. (Who predicted Columbine, Sandy Hook, Charleston?) We live in a society unable to guarantee safety on our streets and our college campuses, in our movie theaters, churches and schools.

Sixty years ago, Eisenhower reminded the nation that the United States must accept its "full share" in assisting victims of oppression. That remains true. Denying vulnerable populations - and populations we made vulnerable - the chance to make a case for refuge goes against everything our country claims to stand for. If fear paralyzes our movements, dictates our policies and erases a proud humanitarian tradition, then those who wish us harm will celebrate indeed.

María Cristina García is the Howard A. Newman professor of American studies at Cornell University.

Almost half of Americans say racism is a ‘big problem’ in society: poll - Note for a lecture, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United"

By David Sherfinski - The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 24, 2015

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Almost half of Americans — 49 percent — say racism is a “big problem” in society today, according to a poll conducted by CNN and the Kaiser Family Foundation.

That’s a greater percentage than in 2011 — 28 percent — or in 1995, when 41 percent said racism was a “big problem.”

About two-thirds of blacks (66 percent) and Hispanics (64 percent) said racism is a big problem, compared to 43 percent of whites.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

A new book of poetry

Michelle Chan Brown


Michelle Chan Brown was born in London and grew up in Prague, Krakow, Moscow, Belgrade and Kiev. Her first book, Double Agent, was winner of the 2012 Kore First Book Award, judged by Bhanu Kapil. Her second book, Motherland, with Wolves, is forthcoming in 2015 [JB: it has just appeared]. Her work has appeared in Blackbird, Cimarron Review, The Missouri Review, Witness and many other journals and anthologies. A Kundiman fellow and two-time Pushcart Prize nominee, Michelle is poetry editor of Drunken Boat [see]. She lives in Almaty, Kazakhstan, where she is a Fulbright scholar, at work on non-fiction and a third poetry collection [JB: Michelle has just returned to the USA, upon the completion of her fellowship].

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Questions on the sequence of tenses in English

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Am currently reading a quite interesting book, Rosemarie Ostler's Founding Grammars: How Early America’s War Over Words Shaped Today’s Language, which I picked up while roaming in my neighborhood's public library in Washington, D.C. (For all of America's faults, our public libraries cannot be included among them.)

So far as I can tell, the author of Founding Grammars does not deal with the issue of sequence of tenses (I abbreviate it as sot; see also [a] and [b]). The term, fully spelled out or abbreviated, is not mentioned in the index.)

In order to make sure I actually understand sot (which I use "intuitively” while writing), I checked Wikipedia, which states that "[i]n some languages the tense tends to be ‘shifted back’, [JB - note the British usage of the comma after the quotation mark] so that what was originally spoken in the present tense is reported using the past tense (since what was in the present at the time of the original sentence is in the past relative to the time of reporting). English is one of the languages in which this often occurs." (As Russophiles know, such is not the case in Russian.)

But, if you'll allow me to speculate -- "me" being a plain, non-specialist grateful user of a public library -- authoOstler often does not seem to respect the sequence of tenses in English, at least in spirit, in her text, by rather abruptly shifting tenses, within individual paragraphs in order (I speculate) to “liven up” her prose. Among many examples (p. 258):
“Lexicographer Bergen Evans was a vocal champion of the new [Merriam-Webster] dictionary. Several months after Follett’s savage attack, the Atlantic published a rejoinder by Evans. [And now here's the abrupt change of tenses, from past to present:] Evans also tackles the question of what purpose a dictionary is supposed to serve. In answering it, he takes on the major criticisms ….”
Authors/grammarians/linguists of the world unite! What are your thoughts on forget-the-sot prose?

Friday, November 20, 2015

More Mexicans leave than enter USA in historic shift - Note for a lecture, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United"

Alan Gomez,

For the first time in more than four decades, more Mexican immigrants are returning to their home country than coming to the United States, according to a report released Thursday.
From 2009 to 2014, an estimated 870,000 Mexicans came to the United States while 1 million returned home, a net loss for the United States of 130,000, according to the report from the Pew Research Center. That historic shift comes at a time when immigration has become a contentious focal point in the 2016 presidential race, as Republicans and Democrats argue over how best to modernize the nation's immigration system.
Mark Hugo Lopez, director of Hispanic research at the center, said the net decline in Mexicans was driven by the Great Recession in the United States that made it harder to find jobs, an improving economy in Mexico and tighter border security.
In coming years, he said, the number of Mexicans may increase again if the U.S. economy continues to improve. But steady growth of Mexico's economy and tighter controls along the southwest border mean the United States won't see another massive wave of legal and illegal immigration like it did in recent decades, when the number of Mexican-born immigrants ballooned from 3 million to nearly 13 million, he said.
"The nature of immigration itself is beginning to change," Lopez said. "It looks likeMexican migration is at an end."
The reversal of Mexican migration doesn't mean that the United States is seeing fewer immigrants overall, just that their countries of origin are changing.
The United States has seen a record number of Central Americans fleeing violence in the past few years, straining the country's ability to process their requests for asylum. In addition, Lopez said, immigrants from China, India and other Asian nations are coming as students and high-tech workers. Eventually, Asians will become the dominant share of the immigrant population, he added.
Roy Beck, president of NumbersUSA, a group that advocates for lower levels of legal and illegal immigration, said it would be a mistake to view the slowdown in Mexican migration as the end of the United States' immigration boom. He said the country continues to see a massive stream of foreign workers entering on work visas, sometimes overstaying those visas and sometimes sponsoring their entire families to come with them.
He said those workers, combined with their relatives who can later join them in the United States through the country's generous family migration rules, represent constant job competitors for underemployed Americans.
"The effect on the American worker is pretty much the same, whether they're coming from Mexico or anywhere else," he said.
The slowdown in Mexican migration also means that the profile of Mexican-born immigrants in the United States has changed dramatically. They have become more settled in the U.S., are older on average and have completed high school and college at higher rates. For example, 76% of Mexican-born immigrants in the United States had not completed high school in 1990. By 2013, 42% had completed high school and 18% had started or graduated from college.
Among the other findings in the report:
• Only 14% of the 1 million Mexicans who returned to their country since 2009 said they did so because they were deported. A majority said they returned of their own accord, with 61% saying they did so to reunite with family.
• Mexicans have fewer ties to people living in the United States. In 2007, 42% of Mexicans surveyed by Pew said they kept in contact with friends or family in the United States. In 2015, that figure had fallen to 35%.