Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Troublemakers (Malcolm Gladwell, the New Yorker)

source of the image

What pit bulls can teach us about profiling.

Issue of 2006-02-06
Posted 2006-01-30

One afternoon last February, Guy Clairoux picked up his two-and-a half-year-old son, Jayden, from day care and walked him back to thei house in the west end of Ottawa, Ontario. They were almost home. Jayden was straggling behind, and, as his father’s back was turned, a pit bul jumped over a back-yard fence and lunged at Jayden. “The dog had his head in its mouth and started to do this shake,” Clairoux’s wife, JoAn Hartley, said later. As she watched in horror, two more pit bulls jumped over the fence, joining in the assault. She and Clairoux came running and he punched the first of the dogs in the head, until it dropped Jayden, and then he threw the boy toward his mother. Hartley fell on her son protecting him with her body. “JoAnn!” Clairoux cried out, as all three dogs descended on his wife. “Cover your neck, cover your neck.” neighbor, sitting by her window, screamed for help. Her partner and a friend, Mario Gauthier, ran outside. A neighborhood boy grabbed hi hockey stick and threw it to Gauthier. He began hitting one of the dogs over the head, until the stick broke. “They wouldn’t stop,” Gauthier said “As soon as you’d stop, they’d attack again. I’ve never seen a dog go so crazy. They were like Tasmanian devils.” The police came. The dog were pulled away, and the Clairouxes and one of the rescuers were taken to the hospital. Five days later, the Ontario legislature banned th ownership of pit bulls. “Just as we wouldn’t let a great white shark in a swimming pool,” the province’s attorney general, Michael Bryant, ha said, “maybe we shouldn’t have these animals on the civilized streets.

Pit bulls, descendants of the bulldogs used in the nineteenth century for bull baiting and dogfighting, have been bred for “gameness,” and thus a lowered inhibition to aggression. Most dogs fight as a last resort, when staring and growling fail. A pit bull is willing to fight with little or no provocation. Pit bulls seem to have a high tolerance for pain, making it possible for them to fight to the point of exhaustion. Whereas guard dogs like German shepherds usually attempt to restrain those they perceive to be threats by biting and holding, pit bulls try to inflict the maximum amount of damage on an opponent. They bite, hold, shake, and tear. They don’t growl or assume an aggressive facial expression as warning. They just attack. “They are often insensitive to behaviors that usually stop aggression,” one scientific review of the breed states. “For example, dogs not bred for fighting usually display defeat in combat by rolling over and exposing a light underside. On several occasions, pit bulls have been reported to disembowel dogs offering this signal of submission.” In epidemiological studies of dog bites, the pit bull is overrepresented among dogs known to have seriously injured or killed human beings, and, as a result, pit bulls have been banned or restricted in several Western European countries, China, and numerous cities and municipalities across North America. Pit bulls are dangerous.

Of course, not all pit bulls are dangerous. Most don’t bite anyone. Meanwhile, Dobermans and Great Danes and German shepherds and Rottweilers are frequent biters as well, and the dog that recently mauled a Frenchwoman so badly that she was given the world’s first face transplant was, of all things, a Labrador retriever. When we say that pit bulls are dangerous, we are making a generalization, just as insurance companies use generalizations when they charge young men more for car insurance than the rest of us (even though many young men are perfectly good drivers), and doctors use generalizations when they tell overweight middle-aged men to get their cholesterol checked (even though many overweight middle-aged men won’t experience heart trouble). Because we don’t know which dog will bite someone or who will have a heart attack or which drivers will get in an accident, we can make predictions only by generalizing. As the legal scholar Frederick Schauer has observed, “painting with a broad brush” is “an often inevitable and frequently desirable dimension of our decision-making lives.”

Another word for generalization, though, is “stereotype,” and stereotypes are usually not considered desirable dimensions of our decision-making lives. The process of moving from the specific to the general is both necessary and perilous. A doctor could, with some statistical support, generalize about men of a certain age and weight. But what if generalizing from other traits—such as high blood pressure, family history, and smoking—saved more lives? Behind each generalization is a choice of what factors to leave in and what factors to leave out, and those choices can prove surprisingly complicated. After the attack on Jayden Clairoux, the Ontario government chose to make a generalization about pit bulls. But it could also have chosen to generalize about powerful dogs, or about the kinds of people who own powerful dogs, or about small children, or about back-yard fences—or, indeed, about any number of other things to do with dogs and people and places. How do we know when we’ve made the right generalization?

In July of last year, following the transit bombings in London, the New York City Police Department announced that it would send officers int the subways to conduct random searches of passengers’ bags. On the face of it, doing random searches in the hunt for terrorists—as opposed t being guided by generalizations—seems like a silly idea. As a columnist in New York wrote at the time, “Not just ‘most’ but nearly every jihadi who has attacked a Western European or American target is a young Arab or Pakistani man. In other words, you can predict with a fair degree of certainty what an Al Qaeda terrorist looks like. Just as we have always known what Mafiosi look like—even as we understand that only an infinitesimal fraction of Italian-Americans are members of the mob.”

But wait: do we really know what mafiosi look like? In “The Godfather,” where most of us get our knowledge of the Mafia, the male members of the Corleone family were played by Marlon Brando, who was of Irish and French ancestry, James Caan, who is Jewish, and two Italian-Americans, Al Pacino and John Cazale. To go by “The Godfather,” mafiosi look like white men of European descent, which, as generalizations go, isn’t terribly helpful. Figuring out what an Islamic terrorist looks like isn’t any easier. Muslims are not like the Amish: they don’t come dressed in identifiable costumes. And they don’t look like basketball players; they don’t come in predictable shapes and sizes. Islam is a religion that spans the globe.

“We have a policy against racial profiling,” Raymond Kelly, New York City’s police commissioner, told me. “I put it in here in March of the first year I was here. It’s the wrong thing to do, and it’s also ineffective. If you look at the London bombings, you have three British citizens of Pakistani descent. You have Germaine Lindsay, who is Jamaican. You have the next crew, on July 21st, who are East African. You have a Chechen woman in Moscow in early 2004 who blows herself up in the subway station. So whom do you profile? Look at New York City. Forty per cent of New Yorkers are born outside the country. Look at the diversity here. Who am I supposed to profile?”

Kelly was pointing out what might be called profiling’s “category problem.” Generalizations involve matching a category of people to a behavior or trait—overweight middle-aged men to heart-attack risk, young men to bad driving. But, for that process to work, you have to be able both to define and to identify the category you are generalizing about. “You think that terrorists aren’t aware of how easy it is to be characterized by ethnicity?” Kelly went on. “Look at the 9/11 hijackers. They came here. They shaved. They went to topless bars. They wanted to blend in. They wanted to look like they were part of the American dream. These are not dumb people. Could a terrorist dress up as a Hasidic Jew and walk into the subway, and not be profiled? Yes. I think profiling is just nuts.”

Pit-bull bans involve a category problem, too, because pit bulls, as it happens, aren’t a single breed. The name refers to dogs belonging to number of related breeds, such as the American Staffordshire terrier, the Staffordshire bull terrier, and the American pit bull terrier—all of whic share a square and muscular body, a short snout, and a sleek, short-haired coat. Thus the Ontario ban prohibits not only these three breeds bu any “dog that has an appearance and physical characteristics that are substantially similar” to theirs; the term of art is “pit bull-type” dogs. Bu what does that mean? Is a cross between an American pit bull terrier and a golden retriever a pit bull-type dog or a golden retriever-type dog? I thinking about muscular terriers as pit bulls is a generalization, then thinking about dangerous dogs as anything substantially similar to a pit bull i a generalization about a generalization. “The way a lot of these laws are written, pit bulls are whatever they say they are,” Lora Brashears, kennel manager in Pennsylvania, says. “And for most people it just means big, nasty, scary dog that bites.

The goal of pit-bull bans, obviously, isn’t to prohibit dogs that look like pit bulls. The pit-bull appearance is a proxy for the pit-bull temperament—for some trait that these dogs share. But “pit bullness” turns out to be elusive as well. The supposedly troublesome characteristics of the pit-bull type—its gameness, its determination, its insensitivity to pain—are chiefly directed toward other dogs. Pit bulls were not bred to fight humans. On the contrary: a dog that went after spectators, or its handler, or the trainer, or any of the other people involved in making a dogfighting dog a good dogfighter was usually put down. (The rule in the pit-bull world was “Man-eaters die.”)

A Georgia-based group called the American Temperament Test Society has put twenty-five thousand dogs through a ten-part standardized drill designed to assess a dog’s stability, shyness, aggressiveness, and friendliness in the company of people. A handler takes a dog on a six-foot lead and judges its reaction to stimuli such as gunshots, an umbrella opening, and a weirdly dressed stranger approaching in a threatening way. Eighty-four per cent of the pit bulls that have been given the test have passed, which ranks pit bulls ahead of beagles, Airedales, bearded collies, and all but one variety of dachshund. “We have tested somewhere around a thousand pit-bull-type dogs,” Carl Herkstroeter, the president of the A.T.T.S., says. “I’ve tested half of them. And of the number I’ve tested I have disqualified one pit bull because of aggressive tendencies. They have done extremely well. They have a good temperament. They are very good with children.” It can even be argued that the same traits that make the pit bull so aggressive toward other dogs are what make it so nice to humans. “There are a lot of pit bulls these days who are licensed therapy dogs,” the writer Vicki Hearne points out. “Their stability and resoluteness make them excellent for work with people who might not like a more bouncy, flibbertigibbet sort of dog. When pit bulls set out to provide comfort, they are as resolute as they are when they fight, but what they are resolute about is being gentle. And, because they are fearless, they can be gentle with anybody.”

Then which are the pit bulls that get into trouble? “The ones that the legislation is geared toward have aggressive tendencies that are either bred in by the breeder, trained in by the trainer, or reinforced in by the owner,” Herkstroeter says. A mean pit bull is a dog that has been turned mean, by selective breeding, by being cross-bred with a bigger, human-aggressive breed like German shepherds or Rottweilers, or by being conditioned in such a way that it begins to express hostility to human beings. A pit bull is dangerous to people, then, not to the extent that it expresses its essential pit bullness but to the extent that it deviates from it. A pit-bull ban is a generalization about a generalization about a trait that is not, in fact, general. That’s a category problem.

One of the puzzling things about New York City is that, after the enormous and well-publicized reductions in crime in the mid-nineteen-nineties, the crime rate has continued to fall. In the past two years, for instance, murder in New York has declined by almost ten per cent, rape b twelve per cent, and burglary by more than eighteen per cent. Just in the last year, auto theft went down 11.8 per cent. On a list of two hundre and forty cities in the United States with a population of a hundred thousand or more, New York City now ranks two hundred-and-twenty-second in crime, down near the bottom with Fontana, California, and Port St. Lucie, Florida. In the nineteen-nineties, the crime decrease wa attributed to big obvious changes in city life and government—the decline of the drug trade, the gentrification of Brooklyn, the successfu implementation of “broken windows” policing. But all those big changes happened a decade ago. Why is crime still falling?

The explanation may have to do with a shift in police tactics. The N.Y.P.D. has a computerized map showing, in real time, precisely where serious crimes are being reported, and at any moment the map typically shows a few dozen constantly shifting high-crime hot spots, some as small as two or three blocks square. What the N.Y.P.D. has done, under Commissioner Kelly, is to use the map to establish “impact zones,” and to direct newly graduated officers—who used to be distributed proportionally to precincts across the city—to these zones, in some cases doubling the number of officers in the immediate neighborhood. “We took two-thirds of our graduating class and linked them with experienced officers, and focussed on those areas,” Kelly said. “Well, what has happened is that over time we have averaged about a thirty-five-per-cent crime reduction in impact zones.”

For years, experts have maintained that the incidence of violent crime is “inelastic” relative to police presence—that people commit serious crimes because of poverty and psychopathology and cultural dysfunction, along with spontaneous motives and opportunities. The presence of a few extra officers down the block, it was thought, wouldn’t make much difference. But the N.Y.P.D. experience suggests otherwise. More police means that some crimes are prevented, others are more easily solved, and still others are displaced—pushed out of the troubled neighborhood—which Kelly says is a good thing, because it disrupts the patterns and practices and social networks that serve as the basis for lawbreaking. In other words, the relation between New York City (a category) and criminality (a trait) is unstable, and this kind of instability is another way in which our generalizations can be derailed.

Why, for instance, is it a useful rule of thumb that Kenyans are good distance runners? It’s not just that it’s statistically supportable today. It’s that it has been true for almost half a century, and that in Kenya the tradition of distance running is sufficiently rooted that something cataclysmic would have to happen to dislodge it. By contrast, the generalization that New York City is a crime-ridden place was once true and now, manifestly, isn’t. People who moved to sunny retirement communities like Port St. Lucie because they thought they were much safer than New York are suddenly in the position of having made the wrong bet.

The instability issue is a problem for profiling in law enforcement as well. The law professor David Cole once tallied up some of the traits that Drug Enforcement Administration agents have used over the years in making generalizations about suspected smugglers. Here is a sample:

Arrived late at night; arrived early in the morning; arrived in afternoon; one of the first to deplane; one of the last to deplane; deplaned in the middle; purchased ticket at the airport; made reservation on short notice; bought coach ticket; bought first-class ticket; used one-way ticket; used round-trip ticket; paid for ticket with cash; paid for ticket with small denomination currency; paid for ticket with large denomination currency; made local telephone calls after deplaning; made long distance telephone call after deplaning; pretended to make telephone call; traveled from New York to Los Angeles; traveled to Houston; carried no luggage; carried brand-new luggage; carried a small bag; carried a medium-sized bag; carried two bulky garment bags; carried two heavy suitcases; carried four pieces of luggage; overly protective of luggage; disassociated self from luggage; traveled alone; traveled with a companion; acted too nervous; acted too calm; made eye contact with officer; avoided making eye contact with officer; wore expensive clothing and jewelry; dressed casually; went to restroom after deplaning; walked rapidly through airport; walked slowly through airport; walked aimlessly through airport; left airport by taxi; left airport by limousine; left airport by private car; left airport by hotel courtesy van.

Some of these reasons for suspicion are plainly absurd, suggesting that there’s no particular rationale to the generalizations used by D.E.A. agents in stopping suspected drug smugglers. A way of making sense of the list, though, is to think of it as a catalogue of unstable traits. Smugglers may once have tended to buy one-way tickets in cash and carry two bulky suitcases. But they don’t have to. They can easily switch to round-trip tickets bought with a credit card, or a single carry-on bag, without losing their capacity to smuggle. There’s a second kind of instability here as well. Maybe the reason some of them switched from one-way tickets and two bulky suitcases was that law enforcement got wise to those habits, so the smugglers did the equivalent of what the jihadis seemed to have done in London, when they switched to East Africans because the scrutiny of young Arab and Pakistani men grew too intense. It doesn’t work to generalize about a relationship between a category and a trait when that relationship isn’t stable—or when the act of generalizing may itself change the basis of the generalization.

Before Kelly became the New York police commissioner, he served as the head of the U.S. Customs Service, and while he was there he overhauled the criteria that border-control officers use to identify and search suspected smugglers. There had been a list of forty-three suspicious traits. He replaced it with a list of six broad criteria. Is there something suspicious about their physical appearance? Are they nervous? Is there specific intelligence targeting this person? Does the drug-sniffing dog raise an alarm? Is there something amiss in their paperwork or explanations? Has contraband been found that implicates this person?

You’ll find nothing here about race or gender or ethnicity, and nothing here about expensive jewelry or deplaning at the middle or the end, or walking briskly or walking aimlessly. Kelly removed all the unstable generalizations, forcing customs officers to make generalizations about things that don’t change from one day or one month to the next. Some percentage of smugglers will always be nervous, will always get their story wrong, and will always be caught by the dogs. That’s why those kinds of inferences are more reliable than the ones based on whether smugglers are white or black, or carry one bag or two. After Kelly’s reforms, the number of searches conducted by the Customs Service dropped by about seventy-five per cent, but the number of successful seizures improved by twenty-five per cent. The officers went from making fairly lousy decisions about smugglers to making pretty good ones. “We made them more efficient and more effective at what they were doing,” Kelly said.

Does the notion of a pit-bull menace rest on a stable or an unstable generalization? The best data we have on breed dangerousness are fatal do bites, which serve as a useful indicator of just how much havoc certain kinds of dogs are causing. Between the late nineteen-seventies and th late nineteen-nineties, more than twenty-five breeds were involved in fatal attacks in the United States. Pit-bull breeds led the pack, but th variability from year to year is considerable. For instance, in the period from 1981 to 1982 fatalities were caused by five pit bulls, three mixe breeds, two St. Bernards, two German-shepherd mixes, a pure-bred German shepherd, a husky type, a Doberman, a Chow Chow, a Great Dane a wolf-dog hybrid, a husky mix, and a pit-bull mix—but no Rottweilers. In 1995 and 1996, the list included ten Rottweilers, four pit bulls, tw German shepherds, two huskies, two Chow Chows, two wolf-dog hybrids, two shepherd mixes, a Rottweiler mix, a mixed breed, a Cho Chow mix, and a Great Dane. The kinds of dogs that kill people change over time, because the popularity of certain breeds changes over time The one thing that doesn’t change is the total number of the people killed by dogs. When we have more problems with pit bulls, it’s no necessarily a sign that pit bulls are more dangerous than other dogs. It could just be a sign that pit bulls have become more numerous

“I’ve seen virtually every breed involved in fatalities, including Pomeranians and everything else, except a beagle or a basset hound,” Randall Lockwood, a senior vice-president of the A.S.P.C.A. and one of the country’s leading dogbite experts, told me. “And there’s always one or two deaths attributable to malamutes or huskies, although you never hear people clamoring for a ban on those breeds. When I first started looking at fatal dog attacks, they largely involved dogs like German shepherds and shepherd mixes and St. Bernards—which is probably why Stephen King chose to make Cujo a St. Bernard, not a pit bull. I haven’t seen a fatality involving a Doberman for decades, whereas in the nineteen-seventies they were quite common. If you wanted a mean dog, back then, you got a Doberman. I don’t think I even saw my first pit-bull case until the middle to late nineteen-eighties, and I didn’t start seeing Rottweilers until I’d already looked at a few hundred fatal dog attacks. Now those dogs make up the preponderance of fatalities. The point is that it changes over time. It’s a reflection of what the dog of choice is among people who want to own an aggressive dog.”

There is no shortage of more stable generalizations about dangerous dogs, though. A 1991 study in Denver, for example, compared a hundred and seventy-eight dogs with a history of biting people with a random sample of a hundred and seventy-eight dogs with no history of biting. The breeds were scattered: German shepherds, Akitas, and Chow Chows were among those most heavily represented. (There were no pit bulls among the biting dogs in the study, because Denver banned pit bulls in 1989.) But a number of other, more stable factors stand out. The biters were 6.2 times as likely to be male than female, and 2.6 times as likely to be intact than neutered. The Denver study also found that biters were 2.8 times as likely to be chained as unchained. “About twenty per cent of the dogs involved in fatalities were chained at the time, and had a history of long-term chaining,” Lockwood said. “Now, are they chained because they are aggressive or aggressive because they are chained? It’s a bit of both. These are animals that have not had an opportunity to become socialized to people. They don’t necessarily even know that children are small human beings. They tend to see them as prey.”

In many cases, vicious dogs are hungry or in need of medical attention. Often, the dogs had a history of aggressive incidents, and, overwhelmingly, dog-bite victims were children (particularly small boys) who were physically vulnerable to attack and may also have unwittingly done things to provoke the dog, like teasing it, or bothering it while it was eating. The strongest connection of all, though, is between the trait of dog viciousness and certain kinds of dog owners. In about a quarter of fatal dog-bite cases, the dog owners were previously involved in illegal fighting. The dogs that bite people are, in many cases, socially isolated because their owners are socially isolated, and they are vicious because they have owners who want a vicious dog. The junk-yard German shepherd—which looks as if it would rip your throat out—and the German-shepherd guide dog are the same breed. But they are not the same dog, because they have owners with different intentions.

“A fatal dog attack is not just a dog bite by a big or aggressive dog,” Lockwood went on. “It is usually a perfect storm of bad human-canine interactions—the wrong dog, the wrong background, the wrong history in the hands of the wrong person in the wrong environmental situation. I’ve been involved in many legal cases involving fatal dog attacks, and, certainly, it’s my impression that these are generally cases where everyone is to blame. You’ve got the unsupervised three-year-old child wandering in the neighborhood killed by a starved, abused dog owned by the dogfighting boyfriend of some woman who doesn’t know where her child is. It’s not old Shep sleeping by the fire who suddenly goes bonkers. Usually there are all kinds of other warning signs.”

Jayden Clairoux was attacked by Jada, a pit-bull terrier, and her two pit-bull–bullmastiff puppies, Agua and Akasha. The dogs were owned by twenty-one-year-old man named Shridev Café, who worked in construction and did odd jobs. Five weeks before the Clairoux attack, Café’ three dogs got loose and attacked a sixteen-year-old boy and his four-year-old half brother while they were ice skating. The boys beat back th animals with a snow shovel and escaped into a neighbor’s house. Café was fined, and he moved the dogs to his seventeen-year-old girlfriend’ house. This was not the first time that he ran into trouble last year; a few months later, he was charged with domestic assault, and, in anothe incident, involving a street brawl, with aggravated assault. “Shridev has personal issues,” Cheryl Smith, a canine-behavior specialist wh consulted on the case, says. “He’s certainly not a very mature person.” Agua and Akasha were now about seven months old. The court order i the wake of the first attack required that they be muzzled when they were outside the home and kept in an enclosed yard. But Café did no muzzle them, because, he said later, he couldn’t afford muzzles, and apparently no one from the city ever came by to force him to comply. A fe times, he talked about taking his dogs to obedience classes, but never did. The subject of neutering them also came up—particularly Agua, th male—but neutering cost a hundred dollars, which he evidently thought was too much money, and when the city temporarily confiscated hi animals after the first attack it did not neuter them, either, because Ottawa does not have a policy of preëmptively neutering dogs that bite people

On the day of the second attack, according to some accounts, a visitor came by the house of Café’s girlfriend, and the dogs got wound up. They were put outside, where the snowbanks were high enough so that the back-yard fence could be readily jumped. Jayden Clairoux stopped and stared at the dogs, saying, “Puppies, puppies.” His mother called out to his father. His father came running, which is the kind of thing that will rile up an aggressive dog. The dogs jumped the fence, and Agua took Jayden’s head in his mouth and started to shake. It was a textbook dog-biting case: unneutered, ill-trained, charged-up dogs, with a history of aggression and an irresponsible owner, somehow get loose, and set upon a small child. The dogs had already passed through the animal bureaucracy of Ottawa, and the city could easily have prevented the second attack with the right kind of generalization—a generalization based not on breed but on the known and meaningful connection between dangerous dogs and negligent owners. But that would have required someone to track down Shridev Café, and check to see whether he had bought muzzles, and someone to send the dogs to be neutered after the first attack, and an animal-control law that insured that those whose dogs attack small children forfeit their right to have a dog. It would have required, that is, a more exacting set of generalizations to be more exactingly applied. It’s always easier just to ban the breed.

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Sunday, January 29, 2006

The Murrow Doctrine (by Nicholas Lemann, the New Yorker)

Note to the image: Edward R. Murrow (from the Edward R. Murrow Center of Public Diplomacy, The Fletcher School, Tufts University)

link to the image source

Why the life and times of the broadcast pioneer still matter.

Issue of 2006-01-23
Posted 2006-01-16

There is a memorable entry in William Shirer’s “Berlin Diary” in which he describes—as, in effect, something that happened at work one day—the birth of broadcast journalism. It was Sunday, March 13, 1938, the day after Nazi troops entered Austria. Shirer, in London, got a call fro CBS headquarters, in New York, asking him to put together a broadcast in which radio correspondents in the major capitals of Europe, led b Shirer’s boss, Edward R. Murrow, who was on the scene in Vienna, would offer a series of live reports on Hitler’s move and the reaction to it

Shirer had to overcome two problems: CBS had no staff in Europe except Murrow and himself, so he had to find newspaper reporters in Berlin, Paris, and Rome; and then he had to line up shortwave transmitters that could carry the reporters’ voices to the United States. Somehow, he and Murrow pulled it off. “One a.m. came,” Shirer writes, “and through my earphones I could hear on our transatlantic ‘feedback’ the smooth voice of Bob Trout announcing the broadcast from our New York studio. Our part went off all right, I think. . . . New York said on the ‘feedback’ afterwards that it was a success. They want another one tonight.”

After that, the exigencies of war in Europe turned Shirer and Murrow—and, over the next few years, a crew of additional CBS radio reporters like Howard K. Smith, Charles Collingwood, and Eric Sevareid—into unusually busy and prominent members of the working press. When Murrow returned to the United States for a home leave in the fall of 1941, at the age of thirty-three, he was more famous and celebrated than any journalist could be today. A crowd of fans and reporters met his ship at the dock. CBS gave him a banquet at the Waldorf-Astoria, with eleven hundred guests in attendance and millions more listening in via a national radio broadcast. Franklin Roosevelt sent a congratulatory telegram to be read aloud, and the poet Archibald MacLeish offered the most eloquent of many in-person encomiums, in which he said, “You burned the city of London in our houses and we felt the flames that burned it.”

It seems obvious now that the country was eager for broadcast journalism from Europe, so you wonder why CBS didn’t realize that when it sent Murrow there in the first place, in 1937. Aside from the technical difficulties of broadcasting across the ocean, and the historical indifference of Americans to news from overseas, the answer is that CBS didn’t think of itself as being in the news business. Instead, it was an entertainment company, under vague but frightening instructions (they came from the federal government, which had life-and-death power over the future of the networks) also to offer material that was uplifting and public-spirited.

The Radio Act of 1927 established a system in which the government owned the airwaves; rather than broadcast itself, however, it would grant licenses for locations on the spectrum to private companies, though only—fateful phrase—“if public convenience, interest or necessity will be served thereby.” The Communications Act of 1934, which created the Federal Communications Commission, adopted the same language. During the debate over the Communications Act, two U.S. senators (one was Robert F. Wagner, of New York) proposed that one quarter of the spectrum be given over to purely educational stations. That, as Sally Bedell Smith writes in her 1990 biography of CBS’s founder, William Paley, “would have been devastating to commercial broadcasters.” The proposal was defeated, but still, with the New Deal at its apogee and with other Western nations setting up state broadcasting systems like the BBC, CBS had reason to be vigilant about protecting its public-interest flank.

It was in the aftermath of the fight over the Communications Act that CBS hired Murrow—and the company thought it was getting an educator, not a journalist. Murrow came from a nonprofit organization called the Institute of International Education, which set up lectures and student seminars all over the world (including, as Murrow later had occasion to regret, in the Soviet Union) and helped scholars to leave Nazi Germany. Like all great stars, Murrow was complicated; he was both a rawboned son of the West—he’d grown up in Washington state, and worked in logging camps—and a rising young man of the Eastern establishment. He was elected a member of the Council on Foreign Relations while still in his mid-twenties. Murrow’s title, when he joined CBS in 1935, was Director of Talks.

CBS sent Murrow to London with the title of European Director. When Murrow hired Shirer, a wire-service reporter who’d lost his job, as CBS’s man on the Continent, Shirer was under the impression that he was leaving journalism. “Murrow will be a grand guy to work with,” he writes in his diary, less than six months before the Anschluss broadcast. “One disappointing thing about the job, though: Murrow and I are not supposed to do any talking on the radio ourselves.” By then, Murrow was breaking that rule, but still, until the war began, he and Shirer were bookers, producers, good-will ambassadors, and technology logisticians more than they were reporters. They were making sure that nobody could fairly accuse CBS of ignoring world affairs.

Seasons of retrospective Murrow-worship have come regularly since his death, in 1965, of lung cancer, at the age of fifty-seven. Usually, they coincide with a bad moment for television journalism: a reporting scandal, newsroom budget cuts, censorship, attacks from outsiders, the cancellation of a respected program, the death of a prominent broadcaster. We are in such a season now. Its most obvious manifestation is George Clooney’s black-and-white movie about Murrow’s confrontation with Senator Joseph McCarthy in 1954, “Good Night, and Good Luck.” A few months earlier, a gift box of Murrowiana called “The Edward R. Murrow Collection,” which CBS had originally produced on videocassette in 1991, was released on DVD. In 2004, Bob Edwards, the former National Public Radio host, published a short book called “Edward R. Murrow and the Birth of Broadcast Journalism.” (Anchors tend to invoke Murrow on ascending to, and on leaving, their jobs.)

Both Edwards’s book, explicitly, and “Good Night, and Good Luck,” obliquely, make it clear why this is a Murrow season. It looks as if, once again, right-wing politicians are trampling on civil liberties in the name of protecting the country from a terrifying global threat. Commercialism and superficiality seem regnant in broadcast news. Owners avoid controversy, cut budgets, and focus on producing the profits that Wall Street demands—we’re back in the fifties. Murrow represents a kind of implacable, heroic journalistic courage that could sweep away all the obstacles in its path.

Bob Edwards’s book is slight—a useful summary of Murrow’s life story, but not a real addition to our understanding of him. “Good Night, and Good Luck” is not history, exactly, but it is ambitious and stylishly done. As claustrophobic as the nineteen-fifties were in liberal memory (most of the action takes place in a few drab, crowded, smoky rooms, and most of the characters are men with white shirts and slicked-down hair), the film makes you feel trapped inside a culture intolerant of dissent and worshipful of normalcy and prosperity, being subjected to a relentless onslaught by McCarthy and his allies that nobody had the courage to resist. Clooney and his star, David Strathairn, elected to portray Murrow as a grim, tight-lipped cipher who never ingratiates himself or even smiles, and laughs only mirthlessly, as a way of indicating how bad things are. He’s a martyr who seems to be in constant torment. The movie briefly shows Murrow hosting his celebrity-interview show, “Person to Person,” but presents him as suffering through it.

Clooney’s film takes great pains to be accurate about all the specifics. It isn’t just the way people dressed and carried themselves; every word Strathairn says on the air, Murrow said on the air. Those Murrow shortcomings (by today’s lights) that pertain to the McCarthy story, such as his having voluntarily signed the CBS loyalty oath, are duly inserted somewhere or other in the screenplay. Still, without ever misstating anything, “Good Night, and Good Luck” leaves you with the impression that Murrow was an early, and the dispositive, attacker of McCarthy, and that isn’t exactly the case. Murrow was genuinely courageous, and not just in this instance, but the real story is more complicated.

The part of Murrow’s journalistic career that was most glorious and least difficult was his radio reporting during the Second World War—especially during the Battle of Britain. One can imagine Murrow’s sudden appearance generating some harrumphing today, since he’d neve worked as a reporter before, but he was immediately terrific at it. He had a great story to cover, but it’s a journalistic skill to maneuver onesel into that situation; he could easily have remained in New York in the late thirties. Murrow’s reporting conveyed the feeling of a corresponden who’s all over his story, who goes everywhere and knows everybody. He seemed to experience life with a special intensity and empathy, and h could capture those qualities in his reports

In broadcasting from a London rooftop while German bombers were overhead, Murrow was among the first to use ambient sound in radio journalism, and he also called more vivid attention to the plight of Londoners, as well as to himself. He spoke to the listener as a friend. Bob Edwards quotes in entirety a couple of Murrow’s most famous radio broadcasts: one from a bombing run from England to Berlin and back (Murrow made twenty-five of these trips, which were so dangerous that some of the people around him thought he had a death wish), the other from the liberation of Buchenwald. Here is a passage from the first:

The clouds were gone and the sticks of incendiaries from the preceding waves made the place look like a badly laid out city with the streetlights on. The small incendiaries were going down like a fistful of white rice thrown on a piece of black velvet. As Jock hauled the Dog up again, I was thrown to the other side of the cockpit, and there below were more incendiaries, glowing white and then turning red. The cookies—the four-thousand-pound high explosives—were bursting below like great sunflowers gone mad. And then, as we started down again, still held in the lights, I remembered the Dog still had one of those cookies and a whole basket of incendiaries in its belly, and the lights still held us. And I was very frightened.

And here is one from the second:
In another part of the camp they showed me the children, hundreds of them. Some were only six. One rolled up his sleeve, showed me his number. It was tattooed on his arm. D-6030, it was. The others showed me their numbers; they will carry them until they die.

During the war, Murrow never had to play the role of the dispassionate reporter. He was an important player in the Allied war effort, and under the circumstances, that did not conflict with his journalistic role. Murrow’s special significance was in making Americans see, through hi broadcasts about the Blitz, that the European war was not something faraway and irrelevant. When Harry Hopkins, F.D.R.’s right-hand man came to London for a visit, eleven months before Pearl Harbor, he met with three people on his first day in town: Anthony Eden, Winsto Churchill, and Murrow. Churchill was a personal friend as well as a journalistic subject, and Murrow had a wartime affair with Churchill’ daughter-in-law, Pamela Digby Churchill, who later married Averell Harriman. On Pearl Harbor day, Murrow was in the White House for long-planned private dinner with the Roosevelts, who, despite the distraction, didn’t cancel the appointment. (F.D.R. understood the power o radio as well as any politician.) In 1956, Murrow briefly and quietly advised Adlai Stevenson on how to use television in his Presidentia campaign. In 1958, thinking seriously about running for the Senate from New York as a Democrat, he consulted privately with both Paley an Harry Truman

After the war, Murrow never found a role at CBS that was as perfect a fit as his post in London had been. He first took up an executive position, called Director of Public Affairs. It may not comport with the Murrow we think we know—the man who always called himself “this reporter” in public and who made no secret of his disdain for network suits—but he was in fact a gifted spotter and manager of journalistic talent. In any case, Murrow didn’t last long in that job. The advent of television found him as, once again, America’s best-known broadcast journalist, and, though he grumbled about the new medium, he soon became America’s top television newsman. By dint of trial and error, and of inspired hiring, Murrow wound up as a pioneer of virtually every variety of television journalism except evening-news anchoring: the documentary, the celebrity interview, the prosecutorial investigative piece, the on-the-scene sociological report, the expert-rich treatment of an “issue,” the gee-whiz account of one of the world’s wonders, the scary, exciting bout with danger.

But what looks now like a string of triumphs was accompanied by tension and agony on all sides. A. M. Sperber’s extensively researched 1986 biography of Murrow presents him as one of the great troubled souls. He regularly worked himself into a state of exhausted collapse. He was moody to the point of clinical depression. He was literally smoking himself to death, even as he gave on-air reports on the dangers of cigarettes. At fifty, he had the look and the elegiac attitudes of an old man, and his important work was behind him. He fought constantly with his superiors—though not in the straightforward manner of the pain-in-the-ass reporter in a newsroom. He served on CBS’s corporate board of directors and, despite everything, maintained a workable personal friendship with Paley. As is true of his successors at the pinnacle of television news today, he was one of the highest-paid people in the country. He lived in a Park Avenue apartment during the week and a Dutchess County estate on weekends. Somehow, it never impaired his connection with middle-class Americans that he was always impeccably turned out in elegant suits, suspenders, shirts with cufflinks, and (his everpresent and most vivid physical prop) a perfectly cupped cigarette.

Almost as soon as the Cold War began, with President Truman’s intervention on behalf of the antiCommunist regime in Greece, in 1947, CBS and, in particular, Murrow were struggling with the question of how to respond to the excesses of American antiCommunists. Murrow’s personal position was always clear—anti-Communist but, domestically, opposed to the antiCommunists of the Republican right—yet he was a public figure who was called upon to take stands, and in that regard he vacillated between boldness and caution. He had a falling out with William Shirer in 1947, after the shaving-cream company that sponsored Shirer’s regular radio broadcast pulled out and CBS killed the program. Shirer said that the sponsor had dropped him because he was too liberal, especially in questioning Truman’s support for the regime in Greece; he left CBS and for years didn’t speak to Murrow, whom he blamed for not protecting him. But after CBS’s correspondent in Greece, George Polk, was assassinated, in 1948, Murrow went on the air and criticized America’s ally in the dawning global struggle, by saying, “Greece is in the grip of politicians who are amazingly unwilling to serve anybody except themselves.” And when Senator McCarthy made his first sensational accusations, in early 1950, Murrow said on the air, “If the weight of the public testimony has tended to show that so far, Senator McCarthy’s charges are unproven, that is not my responsibility.”

Then Murrow seemed to pull back. In late 1950, he signed the CBS loyalty oath without evident protest, and he elected not to crusade against McCarthy, despite occasional entreaties from friends, during the next three years. It isn’t clear why Murrow held fire for as long as he did. He’d lost a sponsor, Campbell’s Soup, and that may have made him circumspect. Sperber’s view is that he was just weary and not in the mood for a fight. He had a master politician’s sense of timing, and he may have sensed that, with the war being fought in Korea, the moment wasn’t right for an attack on anti-Communism. Also, the political pressure on the broadcast networks, which during the New Deal came from the left, had moved to the right. Senator John Bricker, of Ohio, an ally of McCarthy’s, had proposed federal legislation to regulate the networks (then as now, individual stations were federally regulated, but not the networks themselves). Sponsors didn’t like political controversy, either; CBS had a business interest in trying to ride out the McCarthy period.

During the nineteen-forties, the networks, under an agreement they’d made with the F.C.C. called the Mayflower Doctrine, were prohibited from editorializing on the air. Murrow was always an opponent of that policy. During his time as an executive, he drafted and presented to Paley an alternative, in which broadcasters could express opinions and those who disagreed would be given the opportunity to respond on the air. In 1949, the F.C.C. rescinded the Mayflower Doctrine and replaced it with the Fairness Doctrine, which was similar to Murrow’s suggestion. It made more explicit the requirement that broadcasters air public-affairs programming, and lifted the ban on editorializing in exchange for a requirement to provide equal time to opposing views. (Just a few years earlier, the federal government had forced the breakup of NBC—that’s where ABC came from—so broadcasters had reason to take Washington’s wishes very seriously.) When, eventually, Murrow did take on McCarthy, it was the Fairness Doctrine that made it possible, and that mandated McCarthy’s disastrous reply.

The run-up to Murrow’s McCarthy broadcast began with a program in the fall of 1953 on Milo Radulovich, an Air Force Reserve lieutenan from Michigan who had been dismissed from the service because his father and sister had unspecified Communist affiliations. McCarthy himsel was not involved, but Murrow saw something in the case, which involved a blue-collar Midwestern immigrant’s son, rather than a tweedy-diplomat type like Alger Hiss. The broadcast led to the Air Force’s reversing its decision. In November of 1953, McCarthy’s menacing chie investigator, Donald Surine, buttonholed one of Murrow’s reporters, Joseph Wershba, in a Washington corridor, complained about th Radulovich program, and showed Wershba some news clips from the thirties about the Moscow Summer School, which Murrow had helped ru when he was with the Institute of International Education. This added a new note—a direct personal threat to Murrow that he’d better shut up, o McCarthy would take him down—and, along with the success of the Radulovich program, overcame any remaining hesitancy that Murrow ma have had about attacking McCarthy

By the time the first “See It Now” program on McCarthy aired, on March 9, 1954, McCarthy was past the height of his powers. Just a few weeks earlier, he had picked a fight with the Army, an overreach that led to his Waterloo, the Army-McCarthy hearings. At that point, the most powerful press baron in the country was Henry Luce, and his magazines had been intermittently critical of McCarthy for years. Of the major news organizations, only Hearst was ardently pro-McCarthy. (In the original McCarthy show, Murrow gestures to a large stack of leading newspapers—the Times, the Herald Tribune, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Chicago Tribune, and many more—that opposed McCarthy.) President Eisenhower, who had disappointed Murrow and other liberals by campaigning with McCarthy in 1952, made an unspecific speech about the importance of civil liberties in the fall of 1953. Murrow picked an opportune moment to strike; if he’d waited even two more months, it would have been difficult to present him now as the man who discredited McCarthy.

The broadcast itself, which was the first of four—two “See It Now”s on McCarthy, McCarthy’s reply, and Murrow’s reply-to-the-reply—uses the national disenchantment with McCarthy to full advantage. Murrow took pains to put onscreen McCarthy’s most plainspoken, all-American opponents, like Senator John McClellan, of Arkansas. Murrow’s other main weapon was McCarthy himself. The Senator was awful on-camera, and the program catches him scratching, pulling at his ear, gesticulating purposelessly, giggling, and fiddling with his hair. To see him in action is to understand instantly what was most chilling about him: he would accuse just about anybody (including, in his rebuttal, Murrow) of being a Communist, without offering any solid evidence. Murrow, on the other hand, spends the first program in a magnificent controlled fury, handsome and composed—an attitude all the more effective because the public knew that he could be genial and easygoing on-camera.

It is impossible to imagine the McCarthy broadcasts happening today. Although there is some dispute over whether Paley asked Murrow not to do the first show, everybody agrees that Murrow and his exuberant producer, Fred Friendly, decided to go ahead on their own, without asking anyone’s permission, and informed only Paley himself in advance, the day before it aired. But no problem: they got half an hour of prime time on a Tuesday night. The program ended with Murrow looking straight into the camera and saying, “The actions of the Junior Senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad and given considerable comfort to our enemies.” He responded to McCarthy by saying that the American public would have to decide “who has served his country better, Senator McCarthy, or I.” (Newsweek ran a cover story not on McCarthy but on whether journalists should editorialize.) It was great television, because it was a showdown between a journalist and a politician, but the days when a major figure on network television can pick that kind of fight, and openly state political opinions on prime time, are long gone. Today, famous broadcast journalists are far more likely to battle each other than Washington officials. Murrow’s McCarthy shows make an absurdity of the modern-day conservative accusation that, say, Dan Rather represents the introduction of a heretofore unknown ideological strain into broadcast journalism. The Murrow broadcasts were far more nakedly political than anything on network television today, and came from a source with a much bigger share of—and more adoration from—the audience than anybody has now.

Although the forms of broadcast journalism on the McCarthy broadcasts are recognizable, the style, including Murrow’s intensity and earnestness, seems antiquated. Murrow and Friendly used long, long takes—four, five, six minutes of footage at a time, on a half-hour program—that feel as stately as a daguerreotype. Onscreen, Murrow was perfectly capable of being reverential, or amused, with powerful and celebrated people, as well as tough; what’s striking now is how unhip and unironic he was. For arts coverage, the DVD boxed set gives us Murrow interviewing Grandma Moses and Louis Armstrong—when the real story was Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk and the Abstract Expressionists. “Harvest of Shame,” the great “CBS Reports” documentary on migrant farmworkers, which represented Murrow’s last major appearance on television, is also impossible to imagine on network television today—one hour, the day after Thanksgiving, 1960, of horrifyingly unpleasant images of poverty and hunger—and its aesthetic is straight out of the socialist-realist Depression-era work of Dorothea Lange and Pare Lorentz and Russell Lee. It’s worth remembering that the first news star to outshine Murrow was not one of his CBS colleagues, the more neutral and calming Walter Cronkite, but the very young David Brinkley, of NBC, who created a sensation during the 1956 political Conventions with a dry-Martini on-air style meant to communicate that he found politicians and public affairs amusing. That was a note that Murrow could not strike. He wasn’t anti-authority, he was authority.

“Good Night, and Good Luck” begins and ends with another famous Murrow moment, a speech to the broadcasters’ trade-associati n convention in 1958 in which he blasted television for being frivolous and too timid. It was probably a conscious parting shot: the president f CBS, Frank Stanton, fired back (by telling th Times’ television critic that the questions on “Person to Person” were shown to guests in advance), and Murrow took a year’s leave of absence, returning to CBS only briefly before accepting a job from President Kennedy as director of the United States Information Agency—as, in effect, the chief propagandist for an American government he admired. We’re meant to think that Murrow’s dire predictions of television’s descent into profitable meaninglessness have come true.

But the outlines of his critique have been around since the dawn of American broadcasting. The best journalists, like Murrow, are often sentimentalists who subscribe to the great-man theory of history and see public affairs as a titanic struggle between heroes and villains. It shouldn’t be surprising that, half a century later, the standard answer among journalists to the problems Murrow saw in broadcasting is, in effect, “Bring back Murrow!” Nostalgia has even set in about the old press barons, whom journalists took pleasure in detesting back in Murrow’s day—better to have a Paley or a Luce, or even a William Randolph Hearst or a Roy Howard, calling the shots than hedge-fund managers. The formula is a kind of romantic dream: larger-than-life news heroes, backed by public-spirited owners whose primary consideration is not profit.

The better way to insure good results, in any realm of society, is to set up a structure that encourages them; we can’t rely on heroes coming along to rescue journalism. The structure that encouraged Murrow, uncomfortable as it may be to admit, was federal regulation of broadcasting. CBS, in Murrow’s heyday, felt that its prosperity, even its survival, depended on demonstrating to Washington its deep commitment to public affairs. The price of not doing so could be regulation, breakup, the loss of a part of the spectrum, or license revocation. Those dire possibilities would cause a corporation to err on the side of too much “See It Now” and “CBS Reports.” In parts of the speech which aren’t in the movie, Murrow made it clear that the main pressure on broadcasting to do what he considered the right thing came from the F.C.C. The idea that, in taking on McCarthy, Murrow was “standing up to government” greatly oversimplifies the issue. He was able to stand up to a Senate committee chairman because a federal regulatory agency had pushed CBS and other broadcasters to organize themselves so that Murrow’s doing so was possible.

It isn’t possible anymore—not because timid people have risen to power in journalism but because the government, in steady increments over the past generation, has deregulated broadcasting. The Fairness Doctrine no longer exists. Regulation, license revocation, or reallocation of the spectrum are no longer meaningful possibilities. The advent of cable television brought a new round of debates over government-mandated public-affairs programming, with the result that private companies were granted valuable monopoly franchises in local markets; in return, they were required only to provide channels for public affairs, not to create programming. That’s why cable is home to super-low-cost varieties of broadcast news, such as C-SPAN, local publicaccess channels, and national cable-news shout-fests, rather than to reincarnations of the elaborately reported Murrow shows from the fifties. The rise of public broadcasting has freed the networks to be even more commercial.

On network television, no news star would openly disavow Murrow’s legacy. The standard today is to have smart, competent, physically magnetic people who do straight news gravely and celebrity interviews empathetically, and who occasionally, strategically, display moral passion and then retreat, as Anderson Cooper, of CNN, did during Hurricane Katrina. Everyone suspects them of being lightweights when they first ascend, and then, when they retire, wonders if we’ll ever see their like again. If being in the Murrow mold entails occasionally editorializing on the air, and letting it be known that you aren’t getting along very well with your superiors, there are only a very few Murrow legatees—Ted Koppel and Bill Moyers come to mind, and they’ve left network television.

News that makes money is alive and well; the incentive to present news that doesn’t, like all of Murrow’s great work, is gone. It is difficult for journalists to grapple with the idea that outside pressure—from government officials!—could have been responsible for the creation of the superior and memor-able journalism whose passing we all mourn. But look what has happened since it went away.

link to the original posting

The Master of Modernismo (by Roberto González Echevarría, the Nation)

In Spanish, there is poetry before and after Rubén Darío.The Nicaraguan (1867-1916) was the first major poet in the language since the seventeenth century, the end of the Golden Age whose masters included Garcilaso, Saint John of the Cross, Fray Luis, Góngora, Quevedo and Sor Juana. And despite an abundance of great poets in the twentieth century on both sides of the Atlantic--García Lorca, Alberti, Salinas, Cernuda, Neruda, Vallejo, Paz, Palés Matos, Lezama Lima, to name a few--his stature remains unequaled. The poetic revolution led by Darío spread across the Spanish-speaking world and extended to all of literature, not just poetry. He ushered Spanish-language poetry into the modern era by incorporating the aesthetic ideals and modern anxieties of Parnassianism and Symbolism, as Garcilaso had infused Castilian verse with Italianate forms and spirit in the sixteenth century, transforming it forever. Darío and Garcilaso led the two most profound poetic revolutions in Spanish, yet neither is known abroad, except by Hispanists. They have not traveled well, particularly in English-speaking countries, where they are all but unknown.

Darío's case is the most baffling because he is nearly our contemporary, whereas Garcilaso, who lived from 1501 to 1536, can today be safely left on library shelves along with Petrarch, Ronsard and Spenser. Besides, Garcilaso has by now been so thoroughly assimilated into Spanish poetic discourse that it is easy to overlook his presence in the poetry of Neruda and Paz. Darío's innovations, style and even manner are still contemporary, however, as are the polemics that his poetry provoked among other poets, professors and critics. What is more, his influence penetrated all levels of Latin American and Spanish society, where his voice is still audible in the lyrics of popular love songs; the artistic movement that he founded, Modernismo, had a tremendous impact on everything from ornaments to interior design, from furniture to fashion. Darío, more than a Nicaraguan poet or a Latin American poet, was a poet of the Spanish language--and its first literary celebrity, embraced throughout Latin America and Spain as the most original and modern of poetic voices.

Darío published his first major collection of poems, Azul..., in 1888. He was 21 and living in Valparaíso, Chile, where he had moved two years earlier in search of a broader horizon than that offered by Central America. Azul..., a slender book of 134 pages, was to become a turning point in Spanish-language literature, not only for poetry but for prose. Its success is proof of the serendipity at work in literary history. Here was a privately printed book of poetry, written by a virtual unknown, published in a port city that was vibrant and cultured but far from the centers of literary activity in Latin America and Spain: Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Madrid and... Paris. As Walter Benjamin famously said, Paris was the capital of the nineteenth century, and this was no less true for the poets, intellectuals, diplomats and exiles of Latin America's fragmented world, which had great cities but no natural center, as New York was for the United States or Paris itself for the French. True, the first anthology of Latin American poetry, América poética, was published in Valparaíso by the Argentine Juan María Gutiérrez in 1846, but the Chilean port was no Paris--it wasn't even Madrid.

The initial reactions to Darío were hostile. The great thinker and poet Miguel de Unamuno first said that a feather stuck out from under Darío's hat, a derogatory reference to his Indian background, while Marcelino Menéndez y Pelayo--the most influential critic and scholar ever in Spanish--stopped his history of Latin American poetry (the first written) in the 1880s, exactly at the point when Darío and Modernismo began to make their mark. A Francophobe, Menéndez y Pelayo frowned upon Darío's love of French poetry and culture. Fortunately, Darío had the audacity to send Azul... to the powerful Spanish critic Juan Valera. Valera wielded his considerable influence as an author, critic and member of the Royal Spanish Academy of the Language to launch the young poet's career with two "letters" about the book, which were printed as prologue in later editions of Azul.... Brilliant and probing, Valera's letters touch upon everything that is relevant about Azul..., and all subsequent commentary on Darío's work is, in some way, a gloss of them. Though also critical of Darío's adoption of French ways, Valera recognized his genius and predicted a bright future for the Nicaraguan--a priceless endorsement by an established personality in the world of Spanish letters.

Another factor that contributed to Darío's sudden celebrity and his itinerant career as ambassador of the new poetry all over the Spanish-speaking world was a new feature of modern life that his poetry reflected: communications. Steam navigation, the transatlantic cable and the proliferation of newspapers--some of them, like Chile's El Mercurio, of the highest quality and influence--disseminated literature with a speed never seen before. And it brought together writers from all
corners of the Hispanic world with an ease that was also unprecedented. All of them could meet in Paris and become conscious of belonging to a continental literature that transcended individual countries because of the more capacious and swifter ships propelled by steam and by the increased commerce among Latin American nations and between those nations and the rest of the world. Darío's travels and the circulation of his books owed a great deal to these developments, as did his immersion in French literature, something he shared with Latin American artists and intellectuals then and now. Azul... was published in a small place, but it appeared at a moment when the world was becoming smaller.

Rubén Darío was born in the Nicaraguan town of Metapa, now Ciudad Darío. His parents named him Félix Rubén García Sarmiento, and, as he himself boldly admitted, Indian and African blood coursed through his veins. (He later changed his name to the briefer, euphonious Rubén Darío, incorporating a patronymic that his father's family had used; it also has, of course, classical connotations.) Raised in the politically and intellectually
active city of León, he acquired there a vast and deep cultural education during childhood and adolescence. He also became thoroughly familiar with contemporary French poets both great and minor. In the process he learned enough French to write passably good poems in it. As for his knowledge of Spanish poetry, it was that of a prodigy, a Mozart of poetry. Tomás Navarro Tomás, the most accomplished expert on Spanish versification in modern times, offered the following statistic after having surveyed the corpus of Darío's poetry: He used thirty-seven different metrical lines and 136 different stanza forms! Some of the metrical and rhyme schemes were of his own invention.

The possibility of becoming so well read in the periphery of the Spanish-speaking world is due to the uniformity of language and culture imposed on their empire by the Catholic monarchs and their successors as well as by advances in commerce and communications. The Spanish empire, organized as a vast bureaucracy, favored writing and learning to promote and conserve cultural and religious orthodoxy. While the cost was high, the benefits were also considerable, one being that a subject could feel connected through writing to the centers of power and learning, both to the viceroyalties in Mexico and Peru, and to Spain itself. Communications and trade resulting from interest in the region by the modern European imperial powers brought to Latin American ports the latest goods, including books, without the restrictions imposed before independence. Darío began to write and publish verse by the age of 12, but his career took off when he moved down the Pacific coast to Chile, a thriving country with a lively artistic and intellectual elite that immediately recognized and rewarded his talents.

What made Azul... so influential? It was a mix of poetry and prose (brief stories) in a precious style evoking a timeless, mythic world of fairies, princesses and artists in pursuit of an aesthetic ideal, an ideal of beauty that would restore to the world its lost unity and harmony. This is art's highest mission, and Darío espoused it with religious fervor. (He was a Catholic, but he delved into the occult and other fin de siècle fads, as Cathy Jrade has detailed in an essential book, Rubén Darío and the Romantic Search for Unity: The Modernist Recourse to Esoteric Tradition.) The artists in Azul... are constantly frustrated in their efforts by mindless, decadent aristocrats. There is thus a rift between the ideal pursued and the possibility of its attainment, a constant in Darío's work that accounts for its melancholic undertones. But there are no fissures in the execution of the poems or prose pieces, which seem to have purged from the language anything vulgar or worn out, and to have distilled poetic forms to levels of unimaginable perfection. Spanish had never been written like this. But in all this perfection there is always a sense of longing, of wonder and even self-doubt. This is why Darío chose the swan as the emblem of his poetics: The animal combined artistic purity in his shape and white feathers with the wistful question mark of his curved, elegant neck. Darío drew heavily from classical mythology as well as pre-Columbian American myths and the whole spectrum of Western history and culture. Indeed, culture is always Darío's point of departure, rather than reality, whether his own inner reality or that of the external world.

If all this seems dated, consider a García Márquez story such as "La Prodigiosa Tarde de Baltazar" ("Balthazar's Marvelous Afternoon"), in which a craftsman builds a beautiful birdcage at the request of a child, only to have his parents refuse to pay for it. He winds up drunk, stretched out on the road. It is the same predicament of the artists in Azul.... In the story "El Rey Burgués," for example, a poet is left to freeze in the garden cranking a music box for the amusement of his rich patrons. The self-contained temporal scheme and elaborate system of inner correspondences in One Hundred Years of Solitude are both remnants of the Modernista aesthetics pioneered by Darío, as is the baroque prose of the Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier, not to mention Borges's exquisite craft as a storyteller. And one would be hard pressed to find a poet writing in Spanish who was not influenced by Darío.

Darío's poetic career unfolded in two halves. The first, the aestheticist Darío, turned into its convex mirror image in the second, the more reflexive and reflective Darío--the deep Darío, as the cliché used to go. The break between the two was announced, according to an earlier school of Darío readers, by the opening line of his 1905 work Cantos de vida y esperanza: yo soy aquel que ayer no más decía--"I am the one who would only yesterday say." (In Spanish, this line has become a wistful way of saying you're no longer what you used to be.) The self-critical stance of the Cantos led many to speak of two Daríos, one enthralled by empty verbal pyrotechnics and another beset by profound personal and poetic anxieties.

This position is no longer held by authoritative critics. While it is true that Darío was burdened by his own poetry and poetic persona, which had created an entire artistic movement, he was merely making explicit what was implicit in his early books: the futility of the search for an aesthetic ideal coupled with the need to relentlessly continue it; the anguish he felt at the meaninglessness of the universe, the illusory and deceptive nature of language and his sense of emptiness; the ultimate disappointment of erotic pursuits. The two Daríos are, in fact, the same Darío using different poetic conventions to express the same things. A new Darío did emerge in his later poetry, as his work took on a more political tone, reflecting his feeling that his stature entitled him to speak for the Spanish world. This is evident in "Canto a la Argentina," which presages Neruda's Canto general. But Darío's politics are at this stage an extension of his earlier ideas about language and art, not a new ideology.

It was in 1898, with the Spanish-American War, that Darío's and Modernismo's politics jelled. While he and other Latin Americans applauded the liberation of Cuba, Puerto Rico and other colonies from the crumbling Spanish empire, they became keenly concerned about the emergence of the United States as a new imperial power. The United States had not only crushed the Spanish army but also, by casting aside
the Cuban liberation army, stunted the island's potential political growth and freedom. To Darío and the Modernistas, the Spanish world seemed helpless in the face of American expansionism, not only in politics but, even more important, in culture. Countries that traced their cultural and religious roots back to Rome would now be taken over by a colonial power that was Anglo-Saxon and Protestant and that espoused a pragmatic approach to material progress that was dangerously at odds with their culture. It was José Enrique Rodó, not Darío, who forcefully articulated this widely shared anxiety in "Ariel" (1900), the most influential essay ever written in Latin America. Rodó, an Uruguayan Modernista and an admirer of Darío, argued that the Latin countries ought to remain faithful to their common culture, a civilization of the spirit (hence "Ariel") that, in contrast to the United States, valued art and good taste rather than economic growth and consumer products. Darío echoed this position in rousing poems such as "A Roosevelt," where he speaks on behalf of an America that "still prays to Jesus Christ and still speaks the Spanish tongue." The "still" shows Darío's fear for the future of Latin America: He calls the United States in this poem "el futuro invasor," the future invader.

The Spanish-language poets who came after him and favored the conventionalities of presumably more "natural" poetry in language and prosody rejected the first Darío and embraced the second. But eventually most realized their error. No matter how much they struggled with the musical Darío of "Sonatina," they had to surrender to him. No Spanish-language poet has been the subject of so much writing by other poets. Major poets like Luis Cernuda (1902-63) and Gastón Baquero (1918-97), for instance, mocked the early Darío, yet they granted him so much credit that they ended up helping to reinforce his reputation. Baquero, a Cuban and a "pure poet," had to concede that with Darío "there emerged a sense of the aesthetic dignity of the poem in itself as a careful construction, full of self-respect, that no one has been able to abolish." In spite of all that is ephemeral in Darío, he also proclaims that "everything creative, the whole future of literature, is latent in him." His body can be stripped of all its flesh by his critics, he says, "but the bones will be found to be made of diamond." Cernuda, a Spaniard, said that Darío, like his distant ancestors, the natives of the New World, allowed himself to be duped by the Europeans by trading his gold for a handful of shining trinkets. Darío, he claimed, had picked up from the French a tendency to assess the worth of things not in themselves but because they had been valued earlier and often by others. Still, Cernuda could not stop himself from devoting a brainy essay to Darío, if only as a kind of exorcism. Pedro Salinas (1891-1951), another major Spanish poet, wrote an entire book on Darío, as did his countryman, the Nobel Prize winner Juan Ramón Jiménez (1881-1958). And the Mexican poet Octavio Paz (1914-1998) wrote one of his most beautiful and probing essays about the Nicaraguan. Darío's stature as a classic writer seems now beyond dispute. But only in Spanish.

Darío's circulation and reputation in English will not be helped by the publication of this carelessly conceived and executed anthology of his prose and verse. The selection of the poetry is particularly poor, leaving out some of Darío's most important poems. Edited and introduced by Ilan Stavans, a professor of Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College, Rubén Darío: Selected Writings includes few of his long poems in their entirety and organizes the collection in a manner that is more confusing than enlightening. The arrangement of the poems, which tries to follow a thematic division made by Darío toward the end of his life, is not chronological. Hence there is no sense of Darío's poetic evolution, as if his work were created in a timeless void. The subdivisions draw their headings from the lines of a poem whose translation is particularly appalling. Greg Simon and Steven White's poetry translations are not only awkward; they make basic errors that are beyond the usual disputes about word choice. For instance, where Darío describes himself in his former poetic state as "muy siglo diez y ocho" (meaning that he was very "eighteenth century" in taste), the translation inexplicably reads "and those that come from the eighteenth century." A different kind of error is found in the translation of the line from "Coloquio de los centauros" (a major long poem from which only a stanza is excerpted here) that reads "cada hoja de cada árbol canta un propio cantar," rendered as "Each leaf on the trees sings with its own goal." Leaves with goals? This terrible assemblage of words not only completely misses the rhythm created by the repetition of sounds; worse, it hardly conveys what the Spanish says, which is more like "On every tree each leaf sings its own song." It would be embarrassing and painful to compile such mistranslations.

The English renditions are simply not poetic, which is the worst thing a translator can do to a Darío poem. And contrary to Stavans's assertion in the introduction that this anthology is "the most ambitious attempt ever to make the Nicaraguan poet comfortable in English," there are others that are better, one as recent as 2004. In 1965 Lysander Kemp, a truly accomplished translator, brought out Selected Poems of Rubén Darío, with Paz's powerful essay as prologue (the book came out in paperback in 1988). For the poetry, the reader would be much better served by going to those books. Andrew Hurley's translation of the prose is better, but not brilliant (as Darío nearly always is), and it may be the only valuable contribution this book makes. Hurley is no Gregory Rabassa, Edith Grossman, Margaret Sayers Peden, Esther Allen or Sarah Arvio, the leading translators of Spanish into English, but he is reliable and workmanlike.

Stavans's introduction lacks scholarly credibility or academic reliability. It is riddled with clichés (Darío is a "man for all seasons"), lacks a single new idea worth considering and does no justice to the considerable body of Darío criticism. Like the translations, it contains elementary mistakes, some laughable. For instance, Stavans attributes the famous line encouraging poets to reject Darío by twisting the swan's neck to the Mexican Modernista Manuel Gutiérrez Nájera, when it was written by his compatriot Enrique González Martínez. He also blithely declares that "Latin America never had a Romantic movement per se," an elementary error that he could have avoided by reading any history of Latin American literature or one of those academic critics Stavans derides with unearned, comic self-assurance. Stavans even writes that Darío's "health deteriorated rapidly in the years following World War I," when the poet had been dead for two years at war's end in 1918. His health could hardly have gotten worse.

There are poets condemned to remain within their own language. Because of its many failings, this anthology cannot possibly help Darío overcome this fate.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

George Melly: Kinds of loving - can we have it both ways? (by George Melly, the Independent)

Note to the image: It is a image published on the New Yorker.

Straight, gay, bisexual? Who cares? The Liberal Democrats may be imploding after recent revelations, but the writer and jazz singer George Melly, seduced in his youth by an older couple, has no regrets about the 70 years he's spent proving that variety is the spice of life

Published: 28 January 2006

It is for me an odd phenomenon that in my three volumes of autobiography I was as frank as I was able about my diverse sexual periods, and yet it is only with my most recent, and possibly last book, Slowing Down, that my 70 years or so of largely joyful variations on this or that aspect of sexuality have occupied a large part of my interrogation by journalists. Bisexuality did, after all, occupy a considerable part of my life - and, like Edith Piaf, without regrets.

Firstly, however, I would like to counter a few entirely mistaken attitudes - held by those, for example, for whom any alternative to heterosexuality is "unnatural''. Not in nature, it isn't. I read only last week that stallions, housed together without mares, soon divide into "males" and "females", some passive, some active, the former adopting all the flirtatious come-ons of the real females.

As for homophobes, I suspect that many of them are rigorously suppressed gays themselves, others the templates of their hyper-respectable parents or the mores of the more uptight suburbs.

On another level there are those whose bisexuality is combined with the seduction of pre-adolescent children, and indeed with sadistic motives often ending in torture and murder. "Paedophilia" has become a witchhunt, and is in most cases rightly deplored, but the old maths master who gently smacks the bottom of a boy or squeezes the thigh of a pretty pupil who gets a sum wrong should only be the subject of much ribaldry.

The worst and most scandalous recent example of victimisation was the humiliation of Michael Jackson. The salacious press couldn't believe their luck. Their victim, while admittedly sleeping with small boys, was reduced to despair (my wife, a rather severe moralist these days, remarked that she could imagine nothing more exciting for a hero-worshipping lad than to be played with by Michael Jackson). He was found guilty by the press and, while a certain humanity affected the judge, Jackson is probably damaged mentally for life.

I do believe that there are "evil people'', whether their behaviour has roots in their childhood or no. But condemning all "paedophilia", from the mass murderer to the bum-smacking old usher, is over the top. Alan Bennett's recent play The History Boys deals sensitively with this issue. And we should not forget how at the end of the 19th century homosexuality was an object of British hysteria. The judge in the Oscar Wilde case declared he would sooner try "a decent murder''. The recent civil partnership celebrated by Elton John and his partner would have been greeted in 1900 with total disbelief.

So I hope having made my own attitude clear, having thrown aside what I think of as dead wood, let us celebrate bisexuality according to my lights. Beauty comes into it, a particular kind of beauty. The faces of those I found entirely attractive tended to be feminine without being effeminate. I liked big sensuous mouths, astounding eyes, long lashes, well- placed ears and long necks. On the other hand I preferred masculine bodies, thin rather than fat, but not those of exaggerated "sculptured'' muscles. Long, elegant legs - but then, in my gay or heterosexual periods I've always been a "leg man''. One of my fantasies during my gay episode was of black boxers in white socks.

Of course in Britain there has always been a tolerance towards female impersonators, from the Victoria and Edwardian music hall onwards. The pantomime, too, is a festival of transvestism, with its glamorous female "principal boy'' and the usually grotesque "dame'', yet there are camp comics who have aroused the hostility of the more severe members of gay lib: Danny La Rue, Larry Grayson, John Inman and others were all attacked for making a joke of homosexuality. But I believe that this has led to greater tolerance through laughter.

I've often wondered about the boys who played women in the Shakespearean and early Stuart theatre. Were they the loved ones of male actors? In the heyday of ancient Greece, boys were the true loves of adult and educated men, a fact carefully concealed by the teachers of old- fashioned classical history in Dr Arnold's day. There have been attempts to defend bisexuality. The novelist and essayist Colin MacInnes (Absolute Beginners) wrote a piece in the critical magazine Encounter entitled "Love Him Love Her''. While no doubt sincere, this piece was undoubtedly hypocritical. As far as I know, Colin - and I knew him very well - was entirely gay, with a special penchant for black men (Cassius Clay, as he was called then, was his dream lover).

My first bisexual experience was with a middle-aged man and his attractive but no longer young wife (I've written a portrait of the husband in Don't Tell Sybil). His name was ELT Mesens - Eduard - and he was a fanatical businessman, exceptionally severe with me when I worked for him later in his gallery, but equally a poet - and a good one - a collagist, an exhibition organiser, a brilliant collector and a bad drunk. This eventually killed him at the age of 69.

His attempt to revive Surrealism during the post-war indifference to the movement was a complete failure. The intellectuals (many of them gay) who had found it "amusing'' before the war thought of it now as old hat. Only a few young poets and a handful of painters remained faithful, and they had very little money to keep a commercial venture going. Neo-romanticism was the new fashion, spiced up by a little decorative Cubism and pretty colours. It was all we could sell, and later, in desperation, ELT allowed artists to hire the rooms. Meanwhile, in the cellars languished masterpieces by Ernst, Tanguy, Arp, Delvaux, etc - and especially Magritte, ELT's almost lifelong friend and supporter.

So it closed down; the directors, all rich men, withdrew their support, but ELT and Sybil held on to their own wonderful collection - and several decades later the movement was (dread word) reassessed and the pair became multimillionaires.

A further complication was that André Breton, Surrealism's saintlike leader and originator of the movement, forbade any contact with his early comrades Louis Aragon and Paul Eluard, who had become at various times Stalinists, while others were expelled or resigned for becoming official war artists or accepting prizes and money given by state organisations, or for deliberately commercialising their works.

ELT was forced for a time to live largely on his wife, she earning a good living as chief buyer for a great store. He was soon in demand to organise important exhibitions, which he executed with great knowledge and precision. Before he died his last words to me, shouted, were: "I remain a Surrealist to my fingernails!''

My sexual initiation by this couple had come several years earlier, when I was still in the Navy; Le petit marin was Sybil's affectionate nickname for me. The gallery, still crippled by commercial building regulations in the post-war years, was only half-built, but their flat on the top floor was complete. One grey Sunday afternoon Eduard and I were in the living room, discussing, as was his wont, sex. Sybil, who was in an armchair reading, as was her custom, a detective novel, suddenly intervened: "Instead of talking about it, why don't we go into the bedroom and do it?''

Later I came to believe that this proposition had been rehearsed, but at the time I thought of it as spontaneous. So we went into the bedroom and "did it'', me apprehensive because I'd never had a woman before. I needn't have worried. ELT, stripped naked to his socks, as in early pornography, shouted with evident satisfaction: "You are fucking my wife!'' I acquitted myself without difficulty and later he took my place while I sat near by, and after that we got into bed together and dozed and made love à trois, with gentle satisfaction.

What I learnt that afternoon above Brook Street W1 was that women were not all frigid virgins and would not only say "yes'' but even "would you''. I felt somehow a more complete grown-up.

While Sybil was still very attractive, Eduard was far from my physical ideal. With his plump face and immaculately combed hair he resembled one of his idols, Maurice Chevalier. Indeed, all surrealists dressed like their bourgeois enemy, the better to shock them, and society had accepted "bohemianism'' as something quaint, somehow licensed among "mad artists''.

ELT had been a member of the movement in its golden age, a friend of great poets and painters. In my eyes this gave him considerable glamour, and he still visited Breton when in Paris. Several years before, on my first visit to the movement's then secretary, Simon Watson Taylor, I had hypocritically attacked homosexuality, having read somewhere of Breton's almost insane homophobia. Simon disabused me.

Breton aside, many of the Surrealists were bisexual and Eluard, in particular, offered his second wife, Nusch, to his friends - including, I gathered, ELT himself and Picasso. Orgies, too, were not unknown.

ELT, especially in his cups, was interested in men - he was, indeed, arrested in a public lavatory by one of those odious personages of the time, a police agent provocateur, dressed, as was their practice, as a handsome, possibly gay, civilian. He charged Eduard with expressing too much interest in his penis over the marble stall. Sybil spoke up for him in court, and her respectable appearance and professional occupation got him off.

Much later on, after the gallery had closed, he asked me to help him hang the collection in their new flat off Baker Street. Here he expected our mutual sexual collaboration to continue, and to include certain fantasies. I had to put up with these with concealed disgust.

Both before and after our troilism I slept with many men and women I liked but by no means fancied. This, I rationalised, was because to refuse would have made them feel rejected - and I reckoned that I would eventually be glad to receive similar kindnesses. And so I'm for ever grateful to ELT and Sybil. I continued along these lines until I fell in love with my second wife - a love which continued for several passionate years before it died away, although she now looks after me and makes sure I don't miss my appointments.

I remember so much with delight - including even a threesome with young lesbians. I've always found them attractive, probably because of their androgynous appearance. In more recent times beautiful young men have again entered my fantasies and take up their role in mental orgies with a cast of night nurses, handsome young blacks and pin-up girls from The Sun. No pain for anyone, though. Just imagined pleasure.

Thank you Eduard, thank you Sybil.

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Friday, January 27, 2006

Out and proud? (by Philip Hensher, the Guardian)

Note to the image: Simon Hughes

link to the source of the image

Twenty years ago, a homophobic campaign won Simon Hughes a seat as an MP. Yesterday, despite denying it last week, he admitted he'd had relationships with men. Is this what the Lib Dems really want in a leader, asks Philip Hensher

Friday January 27, 2006

To Westminster insiders, or to anyone prepared to take an interest in who may or who may not be gay, Simon Hughes's acknowledgement yesterday that he has had homosexual relationships might be one of the least surprising "revelations" of recent years. Twenty years ago, Hughes won an exceptionally bitter by-election in Bermondsey against the Labour candidate Peter Tatchell, who has since gone on to a career as a gay activist. The election was characterised by some truly poisonously snide briefing against Tatchell on the grounds of his sexuality, from both Tatchell's own party and, especially, from SDP party workers. Hughes has recently apologised for the way that by-election was conducted, but what has followed him around ever since is the routine assumption that Hughes, too, was gay. Any gay dinner party which drifts on to the favourite game of listing gay MPs doesn't get far before someone says "Simon Hughes", followed by a mass rolling of the eyes.
So, not a surprising revelation, nor, given the way Hughes has chosen to talk about these matters, is it likely to be welcomed very enthusiastically by gay people themselves. Asked directly only last week if he was homosexual, he said, "No." It seems unlikely that Hughes would have chosen this moment to come out, and one could guess that the Sun, which broke the story, showed him some incontrovertible evidence and invited him to comment. His description of his way of life does not seem, in any way, a confident or positive one - "Nobody has a perfect life ... People make mistakes and have to go public sometimes on things they may have wished to keep private.

"It would be very sad," Hughes continued, "if people who have always been single or who are homosexual felt that their sexuality prevented them from holding high office." That is certainly true. But what about people who have always lied about being homosexual? In the current climate, shouldn't an electorate be entitled to hold doubts about people who, by strenuously maintaining secrecy and making an issue out of their conspicuous shame, make themselves a clear target for blackmail?

The "outing" against their will of two candidates for the leadership of the Liberal Democrats now has a distinctly old-fashioned flavour. Mark Oaten's "affair" with a male prostitute, revealed last week, or Hughes's "chatline" misdemeanours; they just should not happen any more. Twenty or 30 years ago, homosexual MPs were more or less obliged to lead the life of Oaten or Hughes; on the one hand marrying some concupiscent or tragically ignorant woman or, on the other, maintaining perfectly seriously to the constituency that they just had not found the right girl.

In those circumstances, gay politicians managed as best they could. Some, like Tom Driberg, lived lives of extraordinary boldness - Driberg is reputed, walking over Hungerford foot bridge in a dense London fog, to have dropped to his knees before a surprised but ultimately rather grateful policeman. Others, such as Margaret Thatcher's PPS, Peter Morrison, were quietly desperate, largely derided in crude terms; it was of him that Jeremy Hanley remarked that at last Margaret had got herself an aide who knew how to carry a handbag.

There were always rather more of them than the public could have guessed. Matthew Parris this week said, "There were plenty of homosexual MPs when I was in the house ... In the days when, as an MP, I used to cruise on Clapham Common, I bumped into at least one colleague." Parris presents it as all rather jolly in its lecherously clandestine way, but that kind of life in practice offered only anonymous support - the idea of two gay MPs having an affair with each other is, somehow, immediately implausible. Many such figures were horribly bullied by their colleagues. The Scottish Labour MP Gordon McMaster, who committed suicide in 1997, he accused fellow Scottish MPs in his suicide note of ostracising and ridiculing him. I remember seeing the poor man in London gay clubs, a lonely, embarrassed and obviously shame-ridden figure, his eyes flickering round as if he were about to be exposed at any moment.

This kind of secret existence was probably inevitable until recent years. One could not expect that legislators would be quick to make a positive feature, when appealing to the electorate, of a way of life that was illegal until 1967. It might be argued that, until recent years, an able candidate would find his or her electoral message being lost in a welter of idle speculation about his private life and so could be justified in the suppression of the truth, or even a suggestion of the false.

That can hardly be justified any longer. The first gay MP to discuss his sexuality in public, Chris Smith, did so over 20 years ago. Since then, quite a few have come out once in parliament, and, increasingly, have stood for parliament as gay men or women, without ever having disguised or lied about their sexuality in their private lives. Now, they exist on all sides of the political spectrum. Nick Herbert, the gay Tory MP for Arundel & South Downs, won a seat at the last election with almost no fuss. In the current issue of Gay Times, four MPs are cheerfully photographed in shirtsleeves on the dancefloor; there is no air of shame, or even what there would have been five years ago - bravery. And there are plenty of others the magazine could have chosen to feature.

There is no doubt that life as a gay MP is now perfectly possible, whatever party you represent or whatever views you hold. Of course, there is ridicule and prejudice to face - the House of Commons is a very robust arena, and parts of it are quite frank about expressing their views on gay people, racial minorities or women.

But we are fast approaching the point where the electorate and a politician's colleagues are entitled to ask what justifies a politician leading an effectively clandestine life. Any reasonable person will turn away from Oaten's behaviour with some distaste; making a parade of his family for political gain and behaving in a way that is calculated to involve a wife and two small children in a very public humiliation, is simply inexcusable behaviour.

And perhaps the Lib Dems should be asking themselves whether they should really be thinking of electing a man as leader who would clearly prefer still to be keeping these apparently shameful secrets, who gives the impression of regarding his affairs with men as "mistakes", who, until last week, was lying in response to a perfectly reasonable question on the subject and who compares his sexuality to "an albatross round [his] neck". Whatever dubious psychological state of mind these peculiar comments reveal, the suspicion cannot be avoided that here is someone who might have been vulnerable to pressure from some very unsavoury quarters. Is someone who has chosen to live most of a life in shame and shrilly defended "privacy" really a safe person to put in charge of a political party?

Hughes is right: the fact of someone being homosexual should not debar them from holding high political office. But it ought to be someone who regards their homosexuality just as a heterosexual regards their sexuality: unremarkable, uninteresting to strangers, not worth talking about and, for many reasons, not worth thinking about concealing or lying about.

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