Thursday, August 19, 2010

Mikhail Shvydkoy: Russia, US share musical past

Mikhail Shvydkoy: Russia, US share musical past

Natalia Viktorova, The Voice of Russia

The Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York has held a trial performance of a new Russian-American musical. Mikhail Shvydkoy, Special Presidential Representative for International Culture Cooperation, is the author and producer of the project.

“Vremena ne vybirayut” (“Times cannot be chosen”) - this is how the musical is called in Russian. The American version sounds like “The Thirties forever”. In a phone interview from New York Mr. Shvydkoy explained the meaning of the musical’s title:

"It had been my dream for many years to stage a performance on the music of 1920-1930ss, both Soviet and American, because it turned out that it had always united the two peoples, or if you please, two states."

This music was written by those composers who had spent their childhood in the late 19th and early 20th centuries: they revived old Ukrainian, Russian, Romanian, Hungarian, and Jewish melodies, and after that their music became known in America and in the Soviet Union. Very few people nowadays know that Irving Berlin, who wrote “God Bless America”, was born in Tyumen, in Siberia.

And one of the Pokrass brothers, Samuil, who in 1920 wrote a marching song which became a combat hymn for the Red Army, moved to the U.S. afterwards and there worked as a composer for Hollywood, and wrote music for “The Three Musketeers” movie.I wanted to tell the audiences about these common musical roots uniting Russia and the U.S. So I decided to do this together with young American and Russian actors.The idea was to prove that this music still moves people`s hearts.

Mr.Shvydkoy, who is also the project’s playwright, told the VOR about the plot: "The play has two major lines of narration: the one is about modern life, featuring people working for a retro music radio, a story about an American media group merging with the one in Russia.The other line in the plot features an American music-hall star, her memories of how she had come to the Soviet Russia, found her love there and later was parted with her beloved.

The performance was created by 10 Russian and 10 American actors.They all are young, some of them have just graduated from drama schools, while others are employed by theatres already. They did not know each other before the project was launched. But two weeks was enough for them to start understand each other perfectly and sing songs both in Russian and in English. This is a good sign because we see that we can do something good together."

Mr. Shvydkoy`s opinion is shared by his colleague, Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, Judith McHale, who attended the musical’s trial performance. Mikhail Shvydkoy comments.

"The mere fact that she and her colleagues cut short their vacation to attend the performance, proves that for many U.S. citizens such kind of joint projects with Russia are quite important, and not only for diplomatic reasons," says Mr. Shvydkoy.

“The Thirties Forever” musical was staged by the Russian director and set designer, while the American side was responsible for choreography and vocals. First nights in Moscow and in New York are scheduled for April 2011 and 2012 respectively.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Two Churchills

The Two Churchills
The World That Made Him and the World He Made

Review By Richard Toye, New York Times

Illustrated. 423 pp. A John Macrae Book/Henry Holt & Company. $32

Winston Churchill is remembered for leading Britain through her finest hour — but what if he also led the country through her most shameful one? What if, in addition to rousing a nation to save the world from the Nazis, he fought for a raw white supremacy and a concentration camp network of his own? This question burns through Richard Toye’s superb, unsettling new history, “Churchill’s Empire” — and is even seeping into the Oval Office.

George W. Bush left a big growling bust of Churchill near his desk in the White House, in an attempt to associate himself with Churchill’s heroic stand against fascism. Barack Obama had it returned to Britain. It’s not hard to guess why: his Kenyan grandfather, Hussein Onyango Obama, was imprisoned without trial for two years and tortured on Churchill’s watch, for resisting Churchill’s empire.

Can these clashing Churchills be reconciled? Do we live, at the same time, in the world he helped to save and the world he helped to trash? Toye, one of Britain’s smartest young historians, has tried to pick through these questions dispassionately. Churchill was born in 1874 into a Britain that was coloring the map imperial pink, at the cost of washing distant nations blood-red. He was told a simple story: the superior white man was conquering the primitive dark-skinned natives, and bringing them the benefits of civilization.

As soon as he could, Churchill charged off to take his part in “a lot of jolly little wars against barbarous peoples.” In the Swat valley, now part of Pakistan, he experienced, fleetingly, an instant of doubt. He realized that the local population was fighting back because of “the presence of British troops in lands the local people considered their own,” just as Britain would if she were invaded. But Churchill soon suppressed this thought, deciding instead that they were merely deranged jihadists whose violence was explained by a “strong aboriginal propensity to kill.”

He gladly took part in raids that laid waste to whole valleys, writing: “We proceeded systematically, village by village, and we destroyed the houses, filled up the wells, blew down the towers, cut down the shady trees, burned the crops and broke the reservoirs in punitive devastation.” He then sped off to help reconquer the Sudan, where he bragged that he personally shot at least three “savages.”

The young Churchill charged through imperial atrocities, defending each in turn. When the first concentration camps were built in South Africa, he said they produced “the minimum of suffering” possible. At least 115,000 people were swept into them and 14,000 died, but he wrote only of his “irritation that kaffirs should be allowed to fire on white men.” Later, he boasted of his experiences. “That was before war degenerated,” he said. “It was great fun galloping about.”

After being elected to Parliament in 1900, he demanded a rolling program of more conquests, based on his belief that “the Aryan stock is bound to triumph.” As war secretary and then colonial secretary in the 1920s, he unleashed the notorious Black and Tans on Ireland’s Catholics, to burn homes and beat civilians. When the Kurds rebelled against British rule in Iraq, he said: “I am strongly in favor of using poisoned gas against uncivilized tribes.” It “would spread a lively terror.” (Strangely, Toye doesn’t quote this.)

Of course, it’s easy to dismiss any criticism of these actions as anachronistic. Didn’t everybody in Britain think that way then? One of the most striking findings of Toye’s research is that they really didn’t: even at the time, Churchill was seen as standing at the most brutal and brutish end of the British imperialist spectrum. This was clearest in his attitude to India. When Gandhi began his campaign of peaceful resistance, Churchill raged that he “ought to be lain bound hand and foot at the gates of Delhi and then trampled on by an enormous elephant with the new Viceroy seated on its back.” He later added: “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.”

This hatred killed. In 1943, to give just one example, a famine broke out in Bengal, caused, as the Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen has proven, by British mismanagement. To the horror of many of his colleagues, Churchill raged that it was their own fault for “breeding like rabbits” and refused to offer any aid for months while hundreds of thousands died.

Hussein Onyango Obama is unusual among Churchill’s victims only in one respect: his story has been rescued from the slipstream of history. Churchill believed the highlands, the most fertile land in Kenya, should be the sole preserve of the white settlers, and approved of the clearing out of the local “kaffirs.” When the Kikuyu rebelled under Churchill’s postwar premiership, some 150,000 of them were forced at gunpoint into detention camps, later called “Britain’s gulag” by the historian Caroline Elkins. Obama never truly recovered from the torture he endured.

This is a real Churchill, and a dark one — but it is not the only Churchill. He also saw the Nazi threat far ahead of the complacent British establishment, and his extraordinary leadership may have been the decisive factor in vanquishing Hitlerism from Europe. Toye is no Nicholson Baker, the appalling pseudo­historian whose recent work “Human Smoke” presented Churchill as no different from Hitler. Toye sees all this, clearly and emphatically.

So how can the two Churchills be reconciled? Was his moral opposition to Nazism a charade, masking the fact that he was merely trying to defend the British Empire from a rival? Toye quotes Richard B. Moore, an American civil rights leader, who said that it was “a most rare and fortunate coincidence” that at that moment “the vital interests of the British Empire” coincided “with those of the great overwhelming majority of mankind.” But this might be too soft in its praise. If Churchill had been interested only in saving the empire, he could probably have cut a deal with Hitler. No: he had a deeper repugnance to Nazism than that. He may have been a thug, but he knew a greater thug when he saw one — and we may owe our freedom today to this wrinkle in history.

This is the great, enduring paradox of Churchill’s life. In leading the charge against Nazism, he produced some of the richest prose poetry in defense of freedom and democracy ever written. It was a check he didn’t want black or Asian people to cash, but as the Ghanaian nationalist Kwame Nkrumah wrote, “all the fair brave words spoken about freedom that had been broadcast to the four corners of the earth took seed and grew where they had not been intended.” Churchill lived to see democrats across Britain’s imperial conquests use his own hope-songs of freedom against him.

In the end, the words of the great and glorious Churchill who resisted dictatorship overwhelmed the works of the cruel and cramped Churchill who tried to impose it on the world’s people of color. Toye teases out these ambiguities beautifully. The fact that we now live at a time where a free and independent India is an emerging superpower in the process of eclipsing Britain, and a grandson of the Kikuyu “savages” is the most powerful man in the world, is a repudiation of Churchill at his ugliest — and a sweet, unsought victory for Churchill at his best.

Johann Hari is a columnist for The Independent newspaper in London.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

China's Deficit in American Studies

August 12, 2010

China's Deficit in American Studies

By Terry Lautz, The Chronicle of Higher Education

China faces a worrisome imbalance of intellectual trade with the United States. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Chinese know less about the United States than Americans know about China. Most Chinese students and scholars interested in the United States concentrate either on English language and literature or on Sino-American diplomatic history and policy studies. There are few opportunities for fieldwork in the United States, and scholarly work on American domestic politics is "woefully inadequate," according to a Peking University specialist in American studies.

By contrast, Americans have done surveys, oral histories, and archival research in the humanities, social sciences, and sciences all across China, including such sensitive areas as Tibet and Xinjiang. Since China's opening to the West, 30 years ago, Americans have acquired remarkably detailed insights about nearly every aspect of traditional and contemporary China. "Just as American scholars go to Hunan and Guangxi," a Chinese academic told me, "Chinese should know more about Arizona and Ohio in order to be familiar with the 'real' America."

I conducted interviews in China for the Ford Foundation's Beijing office last year to review the state of American studies in China and to make recommendations for increased interaction between specialists in China and the United States. Since 1989, Ford has been one of the few private providers of financial support for American studies in China, but its support has dwindled in recent years.

My survey showed that Chinese scholars and policy analysts are increasingly ready and able to move beyond the narrowly focused approach that has dominated American studies in China in the past. "We need to study the economy, society, history, and culture of the United States, not just what Obama said yesterday," said one observer. He and many others are eager to investigate the cultural, ethnic, and religious factors that help to explain America's behavior and its foreign-policy decisions. As it stands now, "China equates American diversity with chaos, not realizing it is the strength of the U.S.," says an American professor.

Reflecting their own history and values, Chinese tend to value group interests over individual rights. When President Obama was preparing for his first trip to China, last fall, a Chinese foreign-ministry spokesman said the president should appreciate China's opposition to Tibetan independence because he is a black president who understands Lincoln's "incomparable role in protecting the national unity and territorial integrity of the United States." Most Americans found that comparison far-fetched.

The relative thinness of China's grasp of the American way of life should not be surprising. The serious study of the United States is still young, and China has lacked the resources to look beyond practical and immediate issues such as language, business, law, and diplomacy. Topics including race and ethnicity have been neglected.

American institutions, both public and private, are inadequately prepared to respond to changing Chinese imperatives for in-depth learning about the United States. There are several reasons. First, Americans often take their own culture for granted, assuming that U.S. interests and values are widely known and easily accessible. Second, American studies as practiced in the United States is an eclectic, interdisciplinary field that does not always match up well with Chinese academic disciplines. Third, there is a widespread perception that the U.S. government is responsible for explaining America to the world. But with limited resources, concerns about security, and a focus on the Muslim world, the consensus is that U.S. public diplomacy is not getting the job done.

The list of obstacles goes on: American foundations, think tanks, and universities provide far more support for the study of China and U.S.-China relations than for American studies. Many promising Chinese students with backgrounds in American studies are recruited into China-studies programs in the United States, where they have obvious comparative advantages. Over the years, the Fulbright Program in China has shifted from history and literature to fields such as law, business, foreign policy, and communications. And while there are opportunities for individual exchanges between our two countries, remarkably few institutional partnerships focus exclusively on American studies in China.

Despite all of those problems, there is a real opportunity for Chinese and Americans to work together. At a time when scholars in China are ready to move beyond the status quo, many American-studies scholars in the United States have embraced a global view of American history, politics, economics, and culture. They are becoming more aware of important research outside the United States, informing a transnational perspective. This is therefore an excellent time for Americans to both strengthen the study of the United States in China and promote the internationalization of American studies back home.

Here are some recommendations to improve the situation:

--Increase opportunities for Chinese to attend meetings of professional associations in the United States and for Americans to attend conferences in China.

--Expand networks for information about the United States through Web sites, conferences, and training programs. The U.S.-China Education Trust and the State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs offer good models.

--Provide incentives for Chinese scholars to publish articles in international journals, such as the online Journal of Transnational American Studies.

--Support certificate programs for Chinese graduate students and young scholars from less developed regions in China. Universities in China, Hong Kong, and the United States can organize summer institutes.

--Expand opportunities for student-exchange programs dealing with aspects of American society. These exchanges should be designed as long-term institutional partnerships.

--Sponsor Sino-American research projects on topics such as immigration, crisis management, poverty, climate change, religion, and Chinese-American studies.

--Create more pathways for Chinese government officials, diplomats, journalists, students, scholars, and policy analysts to learn about the United States. The National Committee on United States-China Relations and the Asia Foundation could expand existing programs.

--Organize a consortium of American foundations, with Chinese advisers, to review and help address China's priorities for American studies. Earlier efforts in the fields of international-relations studies and legal studies offer potential models.

--Establish a China-U.S. advisory group or commission, financially supported by the two governments but managed independently, to identify gaps and foster long-term efforts to promote American studies in China as well as Chinese studies in the United States.

China now expresses its soft power across the United States through 60 Confucius Institutes, which offer resources for teaching Chinese language and culture. Yet America has no equivalent organizations in China, partly because of objections from Chinese authorities. Instead the United States relies mainly on movies, sports, and corporate advertising to convey its core values. It was telling when after seeing the movie Avatar recently, a Chinese official enthusiastically told his American colleague, "This is real American genius."

It is obviously in America's interest for China to have a clear, objective, nuanced understanding of the United States. American colleges, universities, charitable organizations, and foundations should play an active role in rectifying the intellectual imbalance between the two countries. Sustained support for American studies in China will not put an end to suspicion and mistrust, but it does have the potential to smooth out bumps in the road ahead.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Norman Rockwell: VOA Russian report on DC exhibit and Rockwell's links with Socialist Realism

Норман Роквелл – «мастер капреализма»
Петр Черемушкин Понедельник, 09 августа 2010
Voice of America

Фото Фото предоставлено Smithsonian American Art Museum
Норман Роквелл "Первый раз в салоне красоты", 1972; image from article

В Вашингтоне, в Музее американского искусства, входящем в Смитсонианский институт, открыта выставка художника Нормана Роквелла, которая продлится до 2 января 2011 года.

На выставке, вызвавшей большой зрительский интерес, представлены работы Нормана Роквелла (Norman Rockwell) из коллекций знаменитых американских кинорежиссеров Стивена Спилберга и Джорджа Лукаса. Два выдающихся творца «фабрики грез» на протяжении многих лет скупали и коллекционировали работы художника почти как киноплакаты.

Автор «Списка Шиндлера» С.Спилберг признавался, что картина Роквелла из его коллекции «Мальчик на вышке для прыжков воду» (1947) представляла собой воплощение каждого фильма, за который ему пришлось браться. «Я чувствовал себя, как этот мальчик на вышке, наверное, в течение 12 лет, прежде чем взялся за «Список Шиндлера». Каждый из нас на новом этапе своей жизни оказывается лежащим вот на такой доске на вышке прежде, чем сможет сделать свой выбор», – говорит режиссер.

Чтобы понять причину неожиданного успеха экспозиции «Повествование: Норман Роквелл из коллекции Джорджа Лукаса и Стивена Спилберга», следует рассмотреть жизнь и творчество художника, которого мало знают в России, а порой и путают с известным в Советском Союзе американским художником-коммунистом Роквеллом Кентом. Впрочем, их путают и в Америке.

Норман Роквелл родился в 1894 году в Нью-Йорке и после возвращения с Первой мировой войны начал заниматься изобразительным искусством вплоть до конца своих дней в 1978 году. С 1920-х годов до 1960-х, за долгие 47 лет, Роквелл создал более 300 обложек в уже несуществующем, но когда-то массовом и популярном журнале «Сатердей Ивнинг пост» (Saturday Evening Post). Как написано на стенах выставочных залов, своими работами Н.Роквелл показал американцам «блеск Голливуда во время трудных лет Великой Депрессии, подпитывал нашу гордость и патриотизм во время Второй мировой войны и помог приспособиться к общественным переменам послевоенного восстановления».

Нормана Роквелла часто называют самым любимым американским художником. «Роквелл – предельно доступный реалист, чей изобразительный язык прямолинеен и показывает людям мир не таким, каков он есть, а каким его хотелось бы видеть, – сказала «Голосу Америки» известный американский социальный психолог и переводчик Линн Виссон. – Во времена моего детства он был на всех рекламах, открытках, обложках, но потом канул в никуда. Сейчас, когда США переживают экономический спад, нелегкие времена, людям снова понадобились положительные, немного приукрашенные образы Нормана Роквелла».

В книге отзывов о выставке можно прочитать такую запись: «Завтра я отправляюсь в Ирак и счастлив, что сегодня увидел замечательную коллекцию, собранную Спилбергом и Лукасом». Считается, что для некоторых сцен в фильме Спилберга «Восходящее солнце» вдохновением послужили картинки Роквелла. Представленная на выставке картина «Отъезд и возвращение» (1947) из коллекции Д. Лукаса напоминает кадр из американского кино, где присутствует большой автомобиль с багажником на крыше, папа с сигаретой в зубах, дети, жующие жвачку, бабушка, собака и мальчишки. Мир Норманна Роквелла предельно кинематографичен – это идеальный и старомодный мир, где поношенные ботинки никому не мешают, как в романах Чарльза Диккенса и Марка Твена, а дети умиляют даже своими выпавшими зубами.

Визитная карточка выставки – «Киностарлетка и репортеры» (1936). Ее считали портретом актрисы Джин Харлоу, но более вероятно, что изображена дочь другого художника, делавшего обложки в «Сатердей ивнинг пост», Марди Хофф. Ей очень хотелось «попасть в кино». В день, когда ее лицо оказалось на обложке, три кинокомпании сделали ей предложение, а через две недели она уже была в Калифорнии и подписывала контракт с компанией «ХХ-век Фокс».

Н.Роквелл еще и плакатист, призывающий американцев помогать солдатам на фронте. Он иллюстрирует те ценности, ради которых идет война с Гитлером. Это право жить без страха, право высказывать мнение, отличающееся от мнения других, и «Право на молитву» (1943). На этой картине у склонившихся в молитве людей тщательно, до гипертрофированности прорисованы все черточки лиц, подчеркнута каждая морщина на руке, обручальное кольцо на усталой руке и каждый выбившийся седой локон, ресницы и зрачки в воздетых к небу глазах. Фотореализм? Да. Творчество Н.Роквелла можно определить этим словом. Но есть в нем еще и идейное содержание. Американский оптимизм и идеализм, свобода верить в любого бога, право на равенство всех людей перед законом и право на инакомыслие, патриотизм и трудолюбие – вот какие идеи иллюстрирует Роквелл. Пожилой папа и мама в белом переднике, ставящие на семейный стол жирную индейку в день Благодарения, – живое воплощение американской мечты (1943), ради которой солдаты погибают на фронте. Пулемет на военном плакате «Нужно дать им всего вдоволь и вовремя» (1943) нарисован так реалистично, что кажется зритель чувствует исходящий от него запах машинного масла, а от пулеметчика в каске – запах пота. «Обратно в гражданскую одежду» (1945) изображает военного летчика, вернувшегося с войны и выросшего из коротких гражданских брюк. В военных образах Роквелла иногда проглядывает суровая плакатность советского художника Бориса Пророкова, но оптимизма у Роквелла, несомненно, больше.

Некоторые находят в картинах Роквелла черты, свойственные советскому соцреализму, только с поправкой на капиталистическую действительность. Например, одна из размещенных на выставке работ с веселой собачкой на переднем плане, очень напоминает картину народного художника СССР Федора Решетникова «Опять двойка». Хотя работа американского художника называется «Счастливого Рождества, бабушка! У нас новый “Плимут”».

Есть здесь и жанровые сцены, заставляющие вспомнить «Письмо с фронта» Лактионова и даже «Незабываемую встречу» Ефанова. Только в отличие от советских художников, Роквелл не скрывал, что работает по фотографиям и поставил производство своих произведений на массовый поток. В то время, как классики соцреализма выдавали свою работу на произведения искусства. Иногда творчество Роквелла можно сравнить с иллюстрациями к детским книжкам поэтессы Агнии Барто или с картинками питерского художника Алексея Пахомова, рисовавшего детей блокадного Ленинграда и сделавшего иллюстрации к «Рассказу о неизвестном герое» Маршака.

«Если угодно, это американский аналог советских фильмов “Кубанские казаки” и “Свинарка и пастух”, поэтому он так нравится деятелям Голливуда», – сказала мне российская посетительница выставки Таня.

В экспозиции музея Смитсониан «Тройной автопортрет» Роквелла – самая знаменитая вещь, ставшая символом американского искусства и репродуцированная во многих изданиях. Ныне картина находится в коллекции Стивена Спилберга. Эта работа, как никакое другое живописное произведение ХХ века, отражает не то, что раздвоение, а «растроение» личности художника, пытающегося справиться с неразрешимыми задачами, которые ставит перед ним время. Как у любого художественного открытия, у «Тройного портрета» глубокий смысл, заставляющий задуматься о смысле художественного творчества, о многослойности творческого «Я» художника.

Все три жены Нормана Роквелла были учительницами, и школьная тема ему была очень близка (говорят, что первым, кто заметил его дар рисовальщика, была именно первая учительница). В экспозиции есть картина «С днем рождения, мисс Джоунс», которая изображает нескладную училку, в умилении застывшую перед своим классом. На столе у нее лежат скромные подарочки – цветочки, яблочки.

Публике очень нравится картина Роквелла «Первый раз в салоне красоты» (1961-1972) – почти, как в СССР «В первый раз в первый класс». Рыжая девчонка, обалдевшая от своего взрослого положения в парикмахерском кресле, держит в руках портрет Жаклин Кеннеди – культовой красавицы Америки 1960-х годов. Склонившаяся над ней парикмахерша с наманикюренными ногтями и в туфлях-лодочках словно сошла с рекламы американской косметики в старом журнале «Лайф».

Нельзя не упомянуть, что серьезные искусствоведы считали произведения Нормана Роквелла не имеющими никакого отношения к искусству и воплощением «американской пошлости и мещанства». В частности, об этом писал Владимир Набоков, который считал, что «Дали, на самом деле, брат-близнец Нормана Роквелла, украденный в детстве цыганами».

Как бы то ни было, своими работами Норман Роквелл создал иллюстрированную историю Америки ХХ века в те времена, когда средства кино и телевидения еще не позволяли запечатлеть ее в цвете, раскрашенную и приукрашенную. И в наши дни мы можем судить о той Америке по чуть слащавым, немного наивным образам этого очень запоминающегося графика.

The Ground-Zero Mosque

The building of a Ground-Zero mosque has drawn much attention, including from persons interested in public diplomacy, given that a moving force behind the mosque project is Faisal Abdul Rauf, an Iman sent to the Mideast by the State Department to discuss life for Muslims in America. The discussions on whether the construction of the mosque should be allowed have been intense; so far as I can tell, however, it is hardly mentioned in the current media that among the victims of the 9/11 tragedy were Muslims, as pointed out in the below:

Muslim Victims of September 11th Attack -

. ... Thousands of innocent lives were lost on September 11, 2001, and our hearts and prayers go out to their families and loved ones. For several hundred of the victims of 9/11, grief and sorrow has been compounded by constant suspicion, bias, hatred, and attacks on the faith they hold dear.

Imagine being the family of Salman Hamdani. The 23-year-old New York City police cadet was a part-time ambulance driver, incoming medical student, and devout Muslim. When he disappeared on September 11, law enforcement officials came to his family, seeking him for questioning in relation to the terrorist attacks. They allegedly believed he was somehow involved. His whereabouts were undetermined for over six months, until his remains were finally identified. He was found near the North Tower, with his EMT medical bag beside him, presumably doing everything he could to help those in need. His family could finally rest, knowing that he died the hero they always knew him to be.

Or imagine being Baraheen Ashrafi, nine months pregnant with her second child. Her husband, Mohammad Chowdhury, was a waiter at Windows of the World restaurant, on the top floors of Tower One. The morning of September 11, they prayed salaat-l-fajr (the pre-dawn prayer) together, and he went off to work. She never saw him again. Their son, Farqad, was born 48 hours after the attacks -- one of the first 9/11 orphans to be born. In an interview with CTV Canada, she relates that in the months to follow, she mourned for her husband and endured the hostility of some ignorant people around her. "When they saw me ... I'm wearing a scarf. There is a hate look."

Or consider Rahma Salie, a passenger on American Airlines #11 that crashed into the North Tower. Rahma, a Muslim of Sri Lankan origin, was traveling with her husband Michael (a convert to Islam) to attend a friend's wedding in California. Rahma was 7 months pregnant with their first child. According to the Independent UK (October 11, 2001), Rahma's name was initially put on an FBI watch list, because her "Muslim-sounding" name was on the passenger manifest, and her travel patterns were similar to those of the hijackers (she was a computer consultant living in Boston). Although her name was eventually removed from the list, several of her family members were barred from taking flights to her memorial service. Her mother, Haleema, said, "I would like everyone to know that she was a Muslim, she is a Muslim and we are victims too, of this tragic incident.”

Partial List of Muslim 9/11 Victims:

Note: This list is as yet incomplete and unconfirmed. It has been compiled from the Islamic Circle of North America, the Newsday victims database, and reports from other major news organizations. The victims' ages, employers, or other personal information is included when available, along with links to further information or photos.

Samad Afridi
Ashraf Ahmad
Shabbir Ahmad (45 years old; Windows on the World; leaves wife and 3 children)
Umar Ahmad
Azam Ahsan
Ahmed Ali
Tariq Amanullah (40 years old; Fiduciary Trust Co.; ICNA website team member; leaves wife and 2 children)
Touri Bolourchi (69 years old; United Airlines #175; a retired nurse from Tehran)
Salauddin Ahmad Chaudhury
Abdul K. Chowdhury (30 years old; Cantor Fitzgerald)
Mohammad S. Chowdhury (39 years old; Windows on the World; leaves wife and child born 2 days after the attack)
Jamal Legesse Desantis
Ramzi Attallah Douani (35 years old; Marsh & McLennan)
SaleemUllah Farooqi
Syed Fatha (54 years old; Pitney Bowes)
Osman Gani
Mohammad Hamdani (50 years old)
Salman Hamdani (NYPD Cadet)
Aisha Harris (21 years old; General Telecom)
Shakila Hoque (Marsh & McLennan)
Nabid Hossain
Shahzad Hussain
Talat Hussain
Mohammad Shah Jahan (Marsh & McLennan)
Yasmeen Jamal
Mohammed Jawarta (MAS security)
Arslan Khan Khakwani
Asim Khan
Ataullah Khan
Ayub Khan
Qasim Ali Khan
Sarah Khan (32 years old; Cantor Fitzgerald)
Taimour Khan (29 years old; Karr Futures)
Yasmeen Khan
Zahida Khan
Badruddin Lakhani
Omar Malick
Nurul Hoque Miah (36 years old)
Mubarak Mohammad (23 years old)
Boyie Mohammed (Carr Futures)
Raza Mujtaba
Omar Namoos
Mujeb Qazi
Tarranum Rahim
Ehtesham U. Raja (28 years old)
Ameenia Rasool (33 years old)
Naveed Rehman
Yusuf Saad
Rahma Salie & unborn child (28 years old; American Airlines #11; wife of Michael Theodoridis; 7 months pregnant)
Shoman Samad
Asad Samir
Khalid Shahid (25 years old; Cantor Fitzgerald; engaged to be married in November)
Mohammed Shajahan (44 years old; Marsh & McLennan)
Naseema Simjee (Franklin Resources Inc.'s Fiduciary Trust)
Jamil Swaati
Sanober Syed
Robert Elias Talhami (40 years old; Cantor Fitzgerald)
Michael Theodoridis (32 years old; American Airlines #11; husband of Rahma Salie)
W. Wahid

And, would be it sacriligious to suggest that, among the victims of US reactions to 9/11, thousands upon thousands of innocent Muslims have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan (not to speak of courageous American soldiers dying for no reason, in the name of that military, moral, and linguistic obscenity, GWOT).

Monday, August 9, 2010

Bollywood and US Public Diplomacy

In connection with the assumption that American popular culture is historically bound to dominate the 21st century world (a view with which I take some exception: [see (1) (2)]), the below article by a subtle, experienced Indian ambassador who served in Africa during the last years of the past millenium, has some relevance to American public/cultural diplomacy today, which has a tendency (true, not shared by everyone involved in that activity) to assume the inevitability of everything culturally "American" becoming global/universally accepted -- from the use of social media to watching/imitating American Idol. To me, such a declaration about a putative 'inevitability' of the American way of life/culture worldwide is as naive, as parochial, a fatwa as the much publicized Western scholarly commentary made about "the end of history" as the Cold War was coming to close.

Mohammed Rafi of Africa - Gajendra Singh, MWC News:

Thirty years ago, when posted at Dakar, capital of Senegal in West Africa, I was going up in the lift to my office when a young lady joined me. After some hesitation she asked if I worked at the Indian Embassy. On my saying yes, she enquired if Mohammed Rafi was dead. I said I had heard so. Her face lost color and she started sobbing. When I enquired if I could do anything, through tears she replied that she had come only to confirm if the tragic news was true. There were many messages of condolences.

There was even a Mohammed Rafi Club in Dakar, which held annual singers competition to crown the Mohammed Rafi of Africa. So popular he was among Senegalese, but I marveled how a person so chosen was declared the best in the whole of Africa!

Rafi was one of the triad of singers my generation grew up listening and humming to his songs. The two others were Mukesh and Talat Mahmood. While Mukesh got clubbed with Raj Kapoor and for long, many in the Soviet Union, where Raj Kapoor’s films were very popular, thought that Raj Kapoor sang his film songs. In the autumn of 1998 when travelling along the old silk route from Andijan, in Ferghana valley and birth place of Babur to Tashkent, Samarkand, I stopped for a cup of tea before reaching Bukhara. The owner of the Chaihane, played a Mukesh song sung by an Ozbek, who he announced proudly, was the Mukesh of Uzbekistan. Of course he would not accept any money for the tea.

Talat with a crooner’s lilt in his soft voice was perhaps the finest singer of Ghazals, before they became a rage in India. Of course later there were other singers like Hemant Kumar, Manna Dey and Kishore Kumar, the last then surpassing almost all of them in popularity.

Born in 1924 near Amritsar, Rafi died on July 31, 1980. Trained in classical music, apart from Bhajans and Qawalis, he sang in a dozen Indian languages other than Hindi. Before Indians grew rich, could travel abroad and large number of engineers, scientists, doctors and managers migrated to North America, UK and Western Europe; Indian films were popular every where except for North America and Western Europe.

But Senegal, a former French colony. Was perhaps the most amazing of all the countries in its love for Hindi films? The Senegalese have no film industry of their own, although they produced a filmmaker of world repute, Ousmene Sembene, who likes Satyajit Ray, wrote his own stories, produced and directed them apart from being the art, decor and music director. He headed the Jury at India’s 1979 Film Festival.

The Senegalese are not too fond of French films except for small French elite and some Franco-phone Senegalese. The Arabs or rather the French speaking Christian Lebanese, mostly traders migrated to Senegal, Ivory coast and elsewhere to escape the conflicts in Lebanon and for better life, occupied the same position as Sindhi and Punjabi community does in East Africa. There were two theatres exhibiting French films and another few screening Lebanese or Egyptian films. But the majority of cinemas screened Indian films. Every week there had to be two fresh releases. The state monopoly which imported, distributed and exhibited films in its theatres, made 80% of its profits from Indian films.

The Senegalese had almost adopted the Indian film industry as its own. The pecking order in popularity was like in Bombay. At the height of Amitabh Bachchan’s popularity, when a film showing him as the brother of the heroine was screened it was an instant flop. They will have him only as a hero. Smitten girls in Senegal and neighboring Gambia would spend little fortunes trying to contact and speak to him on the telephone, then a luxury. Discussion about Indian films was common with Senegalese even at odd places, e. g. , while waiting for ferry to go to the island of Goree, from where Africans were exported to Americas by white slavers. Certainly, various Kumars, beginning with Dilip Kumar, Rajendra Kumar and others like Dharmendra were very popular. ’Mother India’ was a popular hit, so was ‘Yadon ki Barat’, which I had not seen and viewed only decades later on TV.

It was quite an experience for me and my children during their vacations in Dakar to watch Senegalese watching Hindi films in awe and wonder, clapping when an actor made his entry in the film the first time, even Mukri or Sundar. They lapped the Indian masala films and others with their legends and myths, like if you killed a snake, its alive mate will take revenge, the family fights between the couple and their in laws being the stuff of their daily lives. Like all Africans, fond of music and dance, Indian films had all they wanted- a total experience of life.

I went regularly to countries of my concurrent accreditation i.e. Gambia, Guinea Bissau, Cape Verde and Mali; in the last I visited the fabled Timbuctou (Travel to Timbuctou). But in Dakar with not much to do, after cocktails, I would go and tuck in a film. During my tenure of 28 months (1978-81) I saw more Indian films than in my 28 previous years put together. By the time I left I could differentiate between some of the Kapoors, Khannas, and Kumars and even between Rekha and Rakhee.

The Senegalese love for Indian films and what they could embrace from it as Indian culture blossomed into music clubs and groups. Apart from the Mohammed Rafi Club, there was another club named the Rajasthan Club, for some inexplicable reason. I attended a commercial show of ‘Dosti Bandhan’ club, house full even with entry ticket being around $ 2. Apart from singing of Indian film songs, it was a valiant attempt at reproducing dances from Indian films, with young Senegalese boys and girls dancing and miming the words with an LPs playing in the background. The’ piece de resistance’ was a dance by a tall willowy ebony colored Wolof male with rubbery flexibility gracefully replicating very slowly whatever he had imbibed from Indian films of Bharat Natyam, Oddissi and Kathak, all put together in a most sinewy way, outdoing even Sri Devi in Nagin. It was unbelievable (I later learned that he was performing at Paris’s famous night spot Moulin Rouge).

I invited the group for a reception one evening. Coming from middle class conservative families, they did not approve of Indian heroines and others donning western dresses; skirts and jeans and aping them. They were happier with Saris, Lehngas and Salwar Kameez. I presented to the groups LPs of Indian films and folk music. The video film was still in infancy. The Senegalese love and understanding of Indian culture through Indian films had a comic tragic example. A young Senegalese boy, who came to study at Poona’s Film and Television Institute, thought singing to Indian girls in the streets could charm them. It ended with not very happy experiences.

Our efforts to canalise export of films through Indian government agency failed, because they could not match the perks of smooth Sindhi film dealers in Morocco and elsewhere, selling far more copies than licensed in too many territories. Although AB Vajpayee was then the Foreign Minister, a proposal to open a Cultural Center in Dakar to teach Indian classical dances and music did not yield any results. The humble Bollywood masala film with its dances and songs can be used as a very powerful weapon of cultural diplomacy, through missions, Doordarshan, and Radio.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Taliban Propaganda Watch (not from the Washington Post)

060040UTC Aug 10 - Blog
with one comment

NOTE: This material is from web pages and forums carrying statements attributed to the Taliban, Taliban spokespersons or supporters of the Taliban, or analysis thereof. Posting of this material neither confirms nor endorses any of its content – it is shared for information only. When material translated into English is not available, Google Translate is used to translate the original – this is only a machine translation, NOT an official one.


RC South

Breaking new: US helicopter shot down in Kandahar, 30 US invaders killed – Screen capture of full statement at

Thursday, 05 August 2010 21:35 Qari Yousuf Ahmadi
KNADHAR, Aug. 05 – A US invading troops helicopter got shot down in Sothern Kandahar province today (Aug. 05) at about 2:30 pm, killing as many as 30 US invading troops and crew members, according to a recent report from the province. The enemy attack helicopter was brought down by Mujahideen rocket fire while on lower attitude over the district center, causing the helicopter to be set on fire in Panjwaii district of the province where the enemy copter fell down.
8 killed as enemy vehicle strikes IED blast in Kandahar

Thursday, 05 August 2010 21:30 Qari Yousuf Ahmadi
KANDAHAR, Aug. 05 – A roadside bomb in Southern Kandahar province’s Bashmol district hit and destroyed a roadside bomb a vehicle of the puppet ANA Thursday morning, killing 8 cowardly minions on board. 4 killed as enemy’s three military posts overrun

Thursday, 05 August 2010 21:31 Qari Yousuf Ahmadi
URUZGAN, Aug. 05 – According to the news report from Uruzgan province, Mujahideen, Wednesday evening, Aug. 04, at about 7:00 pm, carried out a large scale operation in Gizab district of Khost province, in which Mujahideen conquered three of the enemy military post, killing 4 cowardly soldiers of ANA and wounding several more with seizing a large amount arms and ammo from the possession of the enemy, consisting 10 Kalashnikov rifles and heavy and light machineguns besides three motorcycles. In news, Mujahideen attacked the enemy base of the NATO invaders near Tarin Kot city, the capital of Uruzgan, leaving the enemy base on fire but there size of the losses is not determined.


RC Southwest

15 US-UK and puppets killed in Marjah

Friday, 06 August 2010 01:05 Qari Yousuf Ahmadi
HELMAND, Aug. 05 – Mujahideen of the Islamic Emirate, in separate attacks in Marjah, Helmand, killed as many as 8 Afghan and foreign cowardly soldiers and wounded 7 others on Thursday (Aug. 05). A dozen of US terrorists killed or wounded as their 3 tanks eliminated in Helmand

Thursday, 05 August 2010 15:58 Qari Yousuf Ahmadi
HELMAND, Aug. 05 – In the late night hours of August 5, 2010, Mujahideen in Helmand’s Nad Ali district had one of the US tanks annihilated using an EID, while it is unclear how many of the US invaders were killed or injured in the bomb attack. Separately, Mujahideen in the neighboring Marjah district got two of the US tanks destroyed in separate IED attacks on Thursday morning (Aug. 05). However, the exact number of death and injury tall is not confirmed so far.
6 killed as US-led coalitions’ logistical convoy attacked in Helmand

Thursday, 05 August 2010 15:55 Qari Yousuf Ahmadi
HELMADN, Aug. 05 – At least 6 puppets escorting the enemy logistical convoy killed Thursday morning as Mujahideen rockets hit and destroyed three of the enemy logistical and military vehicles during and ambush attack in the province’s Nawa district, according to the report from the area. Blast in Helmand kills 6 puppets

Thursday, 05 August 2010 21:29 Qari Yousuf Ahmadi
HELMAND, Aug. 05 – At least 6 puppets were killed or wounded in Thursday when the enemy vehicles hit a roadside bomb in Helmand’s Musa Kala district.
Mujahideen battle British invaders in Helmand

Friday, 06 August 2010 01:03 Qari Yousuf Ahmadi
Helmand, Aug. 05 – One UK invader got killed with three more wounded Thursday when the enemy foot soldiers came under attack by Mujahideen in the outskirt of Helmand’s Gerishk district while the enemy troops were on the way to their nearby base, however, one of the Mujahids, too, hurt during exchange of fire.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Rockwell and Socialist Realism Exhibit -- an Update

--Norman Rockwell's "Russian classroom" from

For years I have been working, with an admirable Russian partner and with much (regrettably non-financial) encouragement, from knowledgeable persons interested in Russian-American cultural relations, on trying to organize an exhibit comparing Norman Rockwell to the Socialist Realists. Such an exhibit would illustrate (and of course could be expanded to cover) two wider themes, here presented as questions rather than declarations: (a) how the U.S. and USSR -- on the periphery of the so-called "European world" at the beginning of the previous century -- used images as instruments of persuasion in an effort to assure -- after WWI (when the "European world" fell to pieces) and especially after WWII (when the "European world," which some of its racist extremists defined as "white," committed its final act of self-destruction) -- that these geographical entities (the USA and the Soviet Union) would, in their own, "conflicting" ideological ways, define (to use one of today's an overly fashionable word), the world's "narrative," given the sunset of European empires.

Above US Image from

Above USSR Image from

(b) Even more generally and importantly, a Rockwell/Socialist Realism show would explore the historically tense relationship between art and propaganda, which of course goes back to Plato.

Given my interest in these issues, I found the images (which I posted on my most recent Public Diplomacy Press and Blog Review as found on the indispensable Boing Boing) -- Captured: America in Color from 1939-1943, as described by -- fascinating: "These images, by photographers of the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information, are some of the only color photographs taken of the effects of the Depression on America’s rural and small town populations. The photographs are the property of the Library of Congress and were included in a 2006 exhibit Bound for Glory: America in Color."

The Office of War Information, incidentally, was the US propaganda agency during World War II, responsible for both domestic and international "information." The Voice of America, founded in 1942, was under the OWI "umbrella."

The "captured America" images brought back fond memories of Leah Bendavid Val's superlative, ground-breaking exhibit, Progaganda and Dreams: Photographing the 1930s in the USSR and the US,

which in a minor way I assisted in bringing, as the American Cultural Affairs Officer at the American Embassy in Moscow, at the beginning of this century as part of the mission's public diplomacy outreach.

The exhibit, thanks to its brilliant curator and the Embassy's Russian partners from the Ministry of Culture (not to speak of Russian employees at the US Moscow Embassy), was an enormous success in the four Russian cities where it was shown -- in part because it "humanized" the Russian-American relationship by showing what Russians and Americans, in their different ways, "went through" during an important historical period.

When I tried to get funding for the show from the State Department "Democracy Commission" budget, my request was turned down by headquarters bureaucrats, because the exhibit had, I was informed, nothing to do with democracy-building.

So I, shamelessly, knocked at the private sector door -- Russian and American -- and got enough money to have the exhibit (Russian business persons could not understand how the "world's richest nation" had to beg for money for an exhibit). The corporate sponsors are too numerous to be mentioned here (Delta Airlines does need special mention: it airlifted the exhibit free of charge). We even had "Propaganda and Dreams" T-shirts, with a Russian photo (with a Cyrillic-alphabet caption) on one side and an American one (with Latin-alphabet caption) on the other.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Learn English from Mickey Mouse!

The US pavilion at the Shanghai Expo was considered a "corporate," rather than public diplomacy, event. And now China will learn English from Mickey Mouse ...

U.S. Should Prioritize English-Language Promotion, Frankie Sturm, World Politics Review

See also

Disney is picking up steam in China, and in addition to bringing cartoon characters, theme parks, and Americana, it's also bringing the English language. U.S. policymakers should take notice.

During the next five years, Disney will spearhead a massive expansion of English-language schools in China, from a mere 11 today to 148 by 2015. According to Russell Hampton, president of Disney Publishing Worldwide, the expansion could deliver operating earnings of more than $100 million.

It's obvious that a common language helps bolster trade (.pdf). This is good news for English-speakers, given the prevalence of English as the international language. However, Anglophones shouldn't rest on their laurels. Of the 30 fastest-growing economies in 2009, only five list English as an official language. Ten do not even list English as a secondary language. And as non-English-speaking nations expand their influence in the world economy, they will create an incentive for people to learn languages other than English. Indeed, from 2002 to 2007, the number of non-Chinese learning Mandarin jumped to 30 million. If China continues to out-invest the West in places like Africa, that number will only increase.

Teaching English can also provide a helping hand to U.S. public diplomacy. When other initiatives are falling on deaf ears, English-language training could pay dividends. Take Pakistan, where the U.S. is funding expensive television content that portrays the life of Muslims in America. Unfortunately, according to Katherine Brown, a former communications adviser at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul who recently returned from a research trip to Pakistan, such efforts are instantly received by their target audience as propaganda.

By contrast, Brown said via e-mail, "Pakistanis, especially the youth, admire American innovation, so what's most welcomed from American public diplomacy efforts is education and vocational training. Mix that in with English-language education, and America would be giving Pakistanis what they want: skills to succeed in a global marketplace."

English-language education represents low-hanging fruit for promoting America's image, because it supplies an existing and widespread demand.

The U.S. military also has an interest in promoting the English language, which at a most basic level facilitates interoperability. "A critical piece of building partnerships is the training required to become interoperable with our allies and partners," says Glenn Anderson, the deputy chief of security assistance policy and international training in the Office of the Deputy Undersecretary of the Air Force for International Affairs. "This training includes flight training, maintenance training, and other professional military education, but it also includes English-language training."

But there's a more long-term benefit, one that goes beyond the day-to-day imperative of interoperability and has to with building alliances and developing relationships. "Friendships [develop] in the classroom, and we see this when we bring in officers from other countries for English-language training," Anderson points out. "Now fast-forward 20 years, and some of those officers will be military and political leaders in their home countries. So all of the sudden we'll have friends in high places."

In spite of these benefits, the U.S. has not given English-language programming the funding priority it deserves. To its credit, the Obama administration did request (.pdf) additional funds for English-language programs in its FY2010 budget, but the overall numbers remain low.

In 2010, Congress appropriated (.pdf) $46.5 million for the State Department's English-language programs, and the State Department employed 28 English Language Officers. As for the military, the Air Force, which is responsible for the Defense Language Institute's English Language Center, estimates that it will need $4.4 million (.pdf) in 2011 to develop a plan for the strategic use of English and to expand programs to teach English to foreign security forces.

But these numbers remain small compared to funding for "critical need languages" such as Arabic. The Defense Language Institute, which is responsible for teaching foreign languages to America's service members, has seen its budget jump from $77 million in 2001 to a projected $435 million by 2015. Then there's the National Security Language Initiative, which aims to teach critical need languages to Americans of all ages from kindergarten on up. In its first year, 2007, it boasted a budget of $65.5 million.

U.S. funding for English programs looks even smaller when compared to a country that knows a thing or two about promoting its language: France.

France spends more than $1 billion each year promoting the teaching of the French language around the world. The Agence universitaire de la francophonie, a network of French-speaking universities, has a budget of about €40 million, most of which comes from the French government. Then there's the Agence pour l'enseignement français à l'étranger, which promotes French-language education all over the world. It receives €320 million per year from the French Foreign Ministry. That's beaucoup funding, and it has allowed France to maintain and expand political clout that it would otherwise not have.

Of course, teaching English won't root out the Taliban in Afghanistan or halt Iran's nuclear program. But in the quest for geopolitical leadership, it can give America a "soft power" edge that other nations cannot equal. At a time when pundits are heralding America's "decline," the English language offers the United States an easy way to lock in clear economic, diplomatic, and military advantages. If Mickey Mouse can make it work in China, surely America can make it work around the world.

Frankie Sturm is a fellow with the Truman National Security Project. He taught English in France from 2004-2006 and is a volunteer English teacher at Language ETC in Washington, D.C. Fellows.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Amnesia and Reinvention in America

Anne Applebaum, writing in the Washington Post, Tuesday, August 3, 2010; A15:

"Historical amnesia is at once the most endearing and the most frustrating of American qualities. On the one hand, it means that -- F. Scott Fitzgerald notwithstanding -- there really are second acts in American lives. People can move somewhere else, reinvent themselves, start again. On the other hand, our inability to remember what our policy was last week, never mind last decade, drives outsiders crazy."

See also

Sunday, August 1, 2010

July 26, 2010
Love Found Amid Ruins of Empire

By Gary Shteyngart

334 pages. Random House. $26.
Gary Shteyngart’s wonderful new novel, “Super Sad True Love Story,” is a supersad, superfunny, superaffecting performance — a book that not only showcases the ebullient satiric gifts he demonstrated in his entertaining 2002 debut, “The Russian Debutante’s Handbook,” but that also uncovers his abilities to write deeply and movingly about love and loss and mortality. It’s a novel that gives us a cutting comic portrait of a futuristic America, nearly ungovernable and perched on the abyss of fiscal collapse, and at the same time it is a novel that chronicles a sweetly real love affair as it blossoms from its awkward, improbable beginnings.

Mr. Shteyngart spent his earliest childhood in Leningrad, then moved with his family to the United States, and “Super Sad” reflects his dual heritage, combining the dark soulfulness of Russian literature with the antic inventiveness of postmodern American writing; the tenderness of the Chekhovian tradition with the hormonal high jinks of a Judd Apatow movie. This novel avoids the pretensions and grandiosity of Mr. Shteyngart’s last book, “Absurdistan,” even as it demonstrates a new emotional bandwidth and ratifies his emergence as one of his generation’s most original and exhilarating writers.

“Super Sad” takes as its Romeo and Juliet, its Tristan and Iseult, a middle-aged sad sack named Lenny Abramov and a much younger beauty named Eunice Park. He is the son of Russian immigrants, she the daughter of Korean immigrants, and for all their differences, both are afflicted by a lack of self-esteem — insecurities manifested in Lenny’s self-deprecating humor, his compulsive need to try to make others like him, and in Eunice’s bouts of anger and self-loathing, her fear that nothing she cares about can really last. Both are burdened with their striving parents’ unbearable expectations, and both are plagued by unlucky experiences in love. Slowly, haltingly, nervously, they begin to forge a partnership they hope will keep them safe in an unsafe world.

“Super Sad” takes place in the near future, and Mr. Shteyngart has extrapolated every toxic development already at large in America to farcical extremes. The United States is at war in Venezuela, and its national debt has soared to the point where the Chinese are threatening to pull the plug. There are National Guard checkpoints around New York, and riots in the city’s parks. Books are regarded as a distasteful, papery-smelling anachronism by young people who know only how to text-scan for data, and privacy has become a relic of the past. Everyone carries around a device called an äppärät, which can live-stream its owner’s thoughts and conversations, and broadcast their “hotness” quotient to others. People are obsessed with their health — Lenny works as a Life Lovers Outreach Coordinator (Grade G) for a firm that specializes in life extension — and shopping is the favorite pastime of anyone with money.

It’s “zero hour for our economy,” says one of Lenny’s friends, “zero hour for our military might, zero hour for everything that used to make us proud to be ourselves.”

But while Mr. Shteyngart’s descriptions of America have a darkly satiric edge, his descriptions of New York are infused with a deep affection for the city that is partly nostalgia for a vanished metropolis (in other words, Gotham as we know it today) and partly an immigrant’s awestruck love for a place mythologized by books and songs and movies, by everyone from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Frank Sinatra. He writes, for instance, of the “melancholy 20th-century light” of a summer’s day that can make “even the most prosaic, unloved buildings” appear “bright and nuclear at the edge of your vision.”

In another chapter he conjures the green paradise of Central Park as seen through lovers’ eyes: an Edenic expanse of trees and grass amid the city’s glass and stone. “We headed south,” Lenny says of a walk with Eunice, “and when the trees ran out, the park handed us over to the city. We surrendered to a skyscraper with a green mansard roof and two stark chimneys. New York exploded all around us, people hawking, buying, demanding, streaming. The city’s density caught me unprepared, and I reeled from its imposition, its alcoholic fumes, its hubris, its loud, dying wealth.”

As recounted in Lenny and Eunice’s own slangy diaries and their e-mail and text messages, their relationship is like a country song — a ballad of longing turning into love turning into loss. For him, it’s a case of love at first sight. For her, it takes a little longer: She has to persuade herself that Lenny’s schlubby looks don’t matter, that his devotion to her is real. Eunice worries that Lenny’s belief that “niceness and smartness always win” in the end is hopelessly naïve, while he worries that her oppressive childhood has made her brittle and mistrustful.

Slowly, however, she falls in love with her “sweet emperor penguin,” and step by step, they begin to negotiate the emotional and familial minefields that threaten their budding romance. But even as they do, the world around them is crumbling. There are riots involving LNWI’s (Lower Net Worth Individuals) and rogue elements of the National Guard. New York, Los Angeles and Washington are put on red alert, and when everyone’s äppärät stops working, there are rumors that Venezuela or China has detonated “a Nonnuclear Electromagnetic Pulse” in the atmosphere. Eunice is unable to reach her family in New Jersey or her best friend, Jenny, in California, and Lenny fears for his parents on Long Island.

“Things were going to get better,” Lenny writes. “Someday. For me to fall in love with Eunice Park just as the world fell apart would be a tragedy beyond the Greeks.”

In recounting the story of Lenny and Eunice in his antic, supercaffeinated prose, Mr. Shteyngart gives us his most powerful and heartfelt novel yet — a novel that performs the delightful feat of mashing up an apocalyptic satire with a genuine supersad true love story.

Turning Right

July 30, 2010 New York Times
Turning Right

A Biography

By Thomas L. Jeffers

Illustrated. 393 pp. Cambridge University Press. $35

The Contentious Magazine That Transformed the Jewish Left Into the Neoconservative Right

By Benjamin Balint

290 pp. PublicAffairs. $26.95
Over the past decade, “neocon” has become an all-purpose term of abuse among critics of the right. Yet few of these critics appear to realize that from the beginning there have been two very different branches of neoconservative thinking. The first aimed to bring sober, dispassionate analysis and a skeptical temper to questions of domestic policy; the second specialized in devising cogent, often highly polemical arguments in favor of a militarily aggressive foreign policy.

The first exercised its greatest political influence during the 1990s with Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani’s crime-fighting policies and the 1996 Welfare Reform Act. The second peaked in the years immediately after 9/11, when the administration of George W. Bush pursued a doctrine of unilateral pre-emptive war and set out to transform Islamic civilization at gunpoint. When critics denounce neocons, they rarely mean the first branch, which today is largely extinct. Instead, they mean the ideas and outlook associated with the second branch. That ultimately means the ideas and outlook of Norman Podhoretz and Commentary magazine, which he edited from 1960 to 1995.

Thomas L. Jeffers’s exhaustive but frustratingly uncritical biography, “Norman Podhoretz,” is most engaging in its early chapters, telling the story of how this brilliant and ambitious child of Jewish immigrants from Galicia rose from poverty in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn to become first, the star student of the great literary critic Lionel Trilling at Columbia University and then, at the age of 30, the editor of Commentary, the magazine of the American Jewish Committee and one of the two leading journals (along with Partisan Review) of the legendary New York Intellectuals.

By the late 1960s, Podhoretz’s considerable talents as a writer, critic, editor and high-spirited raconteur had won him a place at the center of the cultural and political action. Commentary published leading lights of the New Left like Paul Goodman, Herbert Marcuse and Norman O. Brown. Podhoretz jousted with Norman Mailer and Allen Ginsberg at parties and in print. He organized soirees for Jackie Kennedy.

Jeffers, a professor of literature at Marquette University, skillfully weaves together these and countless other stories of Podhoretz’s dramatic ascent to the peak of influence within the liberal intellectual world. But he runs into problems when he tries to explain Podhoretz’s march to the right, which began around 1970 and has never ceased. In 1972 Podhoretz broke from the Democratic Party to vote for Nixon. By the end of the decade, he was an enthusiastic supporter of Ronald Reagan. But it wasn’t long before he was taking to the pages of The New York Times Magazine to assail Reagan for insufficient toughness in confronting the Soviet Union and defending Israel.

By 2002, Podhoretz had moved so far right that he thought George W. Bush’s bellicose response to the 9/11 attacks was merely a good start; in addition to attacking all three members of Bush’s “axis of evil” (Iraq, Iran and North Korea), Podhoretz insisted that the United States needed to prepare for military assaults on Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Libya. Today he believes Sarah Palin would make a perfectly fine president.

How could a once thoughtful man spend the past 40 years transforming himself into a commissar? In his 1979 memoir, “Breaking Ranks,” Podhoretz himself described his initial lurch to the right as a perfectly sensible reaction to the excesses of the counterculture, the rise of a black power movement tainted by anti-­Semitism, the descent of the antiwar movement into nihilistic violence and the Democratic Party’s embrace of left-wing isolationism in 1972. Jeffers accepts this account but adds a surprising theological twist, telling us that in February 1970, Podhoretz experienced a mystical vision in the woods of upstate New York that convinced him “Judaism was true.” Jeffers has difficulty explaining precisely what this revelation meant, and how it inspired Podhoretz to change his political views, no doubt in part because it had no discernible effect on his observance of Jewish law and rituals. As Podhoretz himself puts it, he felt it unnecessary, both before and after the vision, “to go to services, eat kosher, all that stuff.”

To grasp the true significance of the vision, the reader must skip ahead about 120 pages in Jeffers’s narrative to a 1985 speech in which Podhoretz spoke of his pride at using Commentary to defend “my own” — “my own country” and “my own people.” In light of these comments, Podhoretz’s revelation appears to mark the moment in his life when he began to “unlearn” what, he said, he had been educated to believe as a liberal — namely, “that it was more honorable and nobler to turn one’s back on one’s own and fight for others and for other things in which one had no personal stake or interest.” Beginning with his vision in the woods, Podhoretz would devote his life to standing up for himself as a Jew and as an American against an ever lengthening list of those he deemed to be mortal enemies.

The story of American Judaism’s growing self-confidence — its increasing willingness to defend itself as well as its move from the periphery to the center of cultural and political power in the United States — is the unifying thread of Benjamin Balint’s beautifully written and richly researched history of Commentary from its founding in 1945 (15 years before Podhoretz took over), to 2010 (15 years after his retirement). By placing the man and the magazine in this broader context, Balint, a fellow at the Hudson Institute and a former assistant editor at Commentary, manages to strike just the right balance between respectful admiration and critical distance. The result is the best book to date about neoconservatism — and one offering far greater insight into the mind and career of Norman Podhoretz than Jeffers’s obsequious biography.

“Running Commentary” describes how the vision of the magazine in its early years was shaped by Elliot Cohen, its gifted founding editor. Cohen believed that intellectuals — writers who were seriously interested in the arts, literature and ideas — were bound to feel alienated from American life with its middle-class mores and middlebrow taste. That Commentary was a Jewish periodical in a predominately Christian country only intensified the feeling of estrangement. And yet by the time Podhoretz took over in 1960, the alienation had begun to wane, with the magazine tentatively, though still critically, affirming aspects of American life. In his first decade as editor, Podhoretz sharpened its critical edge, increasing its distance from the political mainstream. But by 1970, he had concluded that the criticism had gone too far, and that Commentary should take the lead in defending the United States, Judaism and Israel.

Podhoretz wasn’t wrong to sense a certain nobility in standing up for “one’s own.” Yet his self-defense, to the exclusion of other human values, be they moral, literary or intellectual, has come at a cost. Today Commentary regularly publishes essays that sound, in Balint’s apt words, “like speeches intended to buck up the troops or self-congratulatory sermons to the faithful.” As for Podhoretz himself, he has grown so intolerant of criticism and dissent, so terrified of impending doom at the hands of militant Muslims, and so furious with his fellow Jews that his intemperate rantings are dismissed by all but his neoconservative progeny. The Brownsville wunderkind has ended up an embittered, paranoid crank, standing by and for himself alone.

Damon Linker teaches writing at the University of Pennsylvania. His new book, “The Religious Test: Why We Must Question the Beliefs of Our Leaders,” will be published in the fall.