Saturday, September 30, 2006

John Patrick Shanley's Doubt At Seattle Rep

(L-R) Sister Aloysius (Kandis Chappell) shares tea, and suspicions, with Father Flynn (Corey Brill) in Doubt, by John Patrick Shanley. Directed by Warner Shook, scenic design by Michael Ganio, costumes by Frances Kenny, and lighting design by Allen Lee Hughes. On stage at Seattle Repertory Theatre through October 21, 2006. Photos copyright Chris Bennion 2006. Courtesy of Seattle Rep.

Review by Jeremy M. Barker

When the controversy over sexual abuse by Catholic priests reached fever pitch a few years ago (I hesitate to say “broke” because the issue and its extent were well-known if not widely acknowledged before), it was clear that it would receive dramatic treatment. People couldn’t trust their priests anymore, but evidence was so lacking, cases were 20 years old or more, some of the accusers were revealed to be shysters after a piece of lawsuit pie, and in the end the people fitting the bill for bad priests were congregants themselves. Into that void stepped John Patrick Shanley, long a fixture on the American stage but better known as the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of Moonstruck and the writer-director of the beloved but unsuccessful Joe Versus the Volcano.

Doubt, which won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize in drama and opened Sept. 21 at Seattle Rep., takes as its subject not the effect of sexual abuse by priests but rather the gray area that lies between fact and accusation, and its dramatic action somewhat unsurprisingly leads the audience to questions rather than answers.

The play takes place at a Brooklyn parochial school in 1964. The assassination of JFK has punctured the nation’s sense of security, and Vatican II is redefining the relationship between clergy and their parishioners. Sister Aloysius (played with relish by Kandis Chappell), the principal, is an old-school nun with which we are familiar in caricature: she’s gruff, no-nonsense and feared by the pupils. She clamps down on the kinder tendencies of her meek 8th grade teacher Sister James, who wants to relate to her students rather than rule over them.

Enter Father Flynn, a charismatic, Vatican II-style priest (played with a Kennedy-esque air by Corey Brill). He’s bringing a new, human face to the school: he’s engaging, personable, and wants to be more like his congregants--a part of their family, as he comments at one point. And thus the conflict is born: all of Sister Aloysius’s disagreeable qualities ultimately make her a indefatigable protector of her students, while all of Father Flynn’s kindness is cast in a sinister light when the possibility of sexual misconduct arises.

The suspicion comes from events surrounding one of Sister James’s students named Muller. An altar boy, he returns from a private meeting with Father Flynn is a disturbed state with alcohol on his breath. He also happens to be the school’s first and only black student, and later it’s revealed that he’s abused at home by his father for, it is implied, increasingly obvious homosexual tendencies. Thus race and sexuality are added to an already toxic stew of suspicion.

The child is the perfect victim: abused, different and an outsider in the school (and although he never accuses the priest himself, he’s also a perfectly unbelievable accuser, as was born out in the real-life court cases of the last few years).

As mentioned above, the play ends on a note of doubt rather than certainty: suspicions seem validated but proof remains elusive. Shanley strives to portray not the impact of abuse on the victim but rather the issue which the public faces in trying to comprehend the issue: who do we believe? It’s a play with a rather startling power to unsettle the audience, but ultimately it begs the question of whether or not it’s too didactic in its attempt to portray only the doubt. In the case of the Sept. 11 attacks, most dramatic interpretations (films, TV miniseries) have opted for an apolitical tone with regard to the attacks: there are bad guys (terrorists) but questions of responsibility and blame amongst Americans are assiduously avoided, and many critics have understandably been offended by attempts to portray an inherently political moment as devoid of politics.

Much the same criticism could be made of Doubt, which doesn’t directly address the question of blame for actual events. Did Sister Aloysius ultimately go far enough in trying to stop Father Flynn? We don’t know if Father Flynn is actually guilty, which allows for Sister Aloysius to be deeply troubled by her mixed-success at the end of the play; but particularly in the case of a historical piece, we have forty years’ perspective on the issue, and it’s fair to point out that by and large history has not judged people like Sister Aloysius kindly, since guilty priests continued on and were allowed to do more harm. Doubting is ultimately only one side of the story; the other is the record of actual victims, the impact on their lives, the lost promise, the private shame and ultimately public spectacle. Certainty also has a place in this story, but at least we must give Mr. Shanley the credit for having made clear the challenge people faced in grappling with such painful uncertainties, even if it leaves us ultimately wishing to at least partially reconcile our doubt with the painful clarity we now have on this issue.

“Doubt” plays at Seattle Repertory Theater Sept. 21 through Oct. 21. For more information and tickets, visit

This reviews appears in the September issue of The Seattle Sinner.

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Friday, September 22, 2006

Just Because They Were Wrong Doesn't Make Us Right

Not to be painfully duplicative as I know I've written about this before ("A Story of Political Disgust"), but one of the moments I keep coming back to in my life, which I suppose constitutes a formative experience, is something that happened to me on April 20, 1999, the day of the Columbine massacre. I was living in Ashland, Oregon, and attending Southern Oregon University, and the shooting for some reason struck me hard. I think the reason had to do with being young and recently out of high school and having recently been subjected to the similar events committed by Kip Kinkel in Springfield, Oregon, and having been thoroughly fed up with how out of touch the entire grown up world seemed to be about it, blaming video games and Marilyn Manson and all for teen violence rather than more obvious and prosaic (and true) causes.

So I took a ride from the University into downtown Ashland to get coffee and wander through a bookshop, which was what I like doing and tends to make me happy. And along the way I saw a group of protesters, standing in the greenway median, decrying the US bombing of Serbia.

Now, I can't say I supported the bombings, per se, but what struck me at that moment was the fact that I'd never seen them out there with posters protesting the ethnic cleansing. I suppose it seemed to me in that moment as if what they were doing was tantamount to protesting the police for storming Columbine to kill Dylan Klebold and his little buddy. (I know that's not what happened, but you see the point.) And what this experience has given me, I suppose, is a deep skepticism regarding anti-war protesters. It seems that what they oppose is not so much the rightness or wrongness of a given set of circumstances but rather the wrongness of war. Honestly, I can't say I've thought any of the military actions carried out in my life by the US were "right", but I also can't bring myself to have a knee-jerk opposition to war; it doesn't jive with my cynicism regarding the world, which I see as inhabited by a great many ignorant, cruel and violent people, in comparison to which pacifism seems rather idealistic.

So why bring this up? Tonight I was reading an essay by Tony Judt, who I normally find quite insightful, in the London Review of Books ("Bush's Useful Idiots," Sept. 17). The essay is an attempt to explain:

Why have American liberals acquiesced in President Bush’s catastrophic foreign policy? Why have they so little to say about Iraq, about Lebanon, or about reports of a planned attack on Iran? Why has the administration’s sustained attack on civil liberties and international law aroused so little opposition or anger from those who used to care most about these things? Why, in short, has the liberal intelligentsia of the United States in recent years kept its head safely below the parapet?

A fine undertaking as far as I'm concerned, and certainly something that I feel needs be addressed. But once again, I found myself disagreeing with an anti-war liberal. Judt's main purpose is to criticize liberal "intellectuals" who supported American military action to combat what's now apparently known as "Islamo-fascism." Personally, I wouldn't call the likes of Peter Beinart, Paul Berman and Thomas Friedman "intellectuals" so much as polemicists and talking heads, and to compare them to the likes of Arthur Schlessinger and John Kenneth Galbraith was, I think, a little hyperbolic. Beinart used to write the weekly editorial for The New Republic. That achievement sort of pales in comparison to Galbraith's The Affluent Society.

But that said, I found more troubling this attempt at an explanation:

The collapse of liberal self-confidence in the contemporary US can be variously explained. In part it is a backwash from the lost illusions of the 1960s generation, a retreat from the radical nostrums of youth into the all-consuming business of material accumulation and personal security. The signatories of the New York Times advertisement [here he is referring to an annoucement from 1988 signed by Schlessinger, Galbraith and others in deferse of liberalism] were born in most cases many years earlier, their political opinions shaped by the 1930s above all. Their commitments were the product of experience and adversity and made of sterner stuff.

Personally–and I think given the opening anecdote you can see where I'm going here–I think the opposite is true; it's the fact the Sixties are still with us which hurts us so much. The fact that vapid idealism animates many liberals is why Judt can go around chastising us for not opposing the war. He utterly ignores anti-war liberal institutions like The Nation (which is much more popular and wider read than The New Republic) and the massive protests before the war even started, and really, that's okay. Those people were never invited to the table and frankly never wanted the invitation. The exercise of power and defense policy is anathema to their ideology, and so they're not interested in the difficult decisions we have to make as a society and prefer to take the moral highground which simultaneously absolves them of culpability for the results of whatever policy–pacifist or militarist–the government takes.

So when Judt writes somewhat condescendingly of pro-war liberals, "Such insouciance in spite of – indeed because of – your past misjudgments recalls a remark by the French ex-Stalinist Pierre Courtade to Edgar Morin, a dissenting Communist vindicated by events: ‘You and your kind were wrong to be right; we were right to be wrong.'"

Honestly, I'm an anti-war liberal, but that's true. The opposition to the Iraq war was vapid, and the posters in the street reading "Bush = Voldemort" or "Frodo Failed" undermined the very legitimate criticisms of the Iraq war. Then, anti-war leftists brutalized John Kerry in 2004 for his vote in favor of authorizing the use of force in Iraq. While it's fine to question the intelligence of that vote on the grounds that Bush's already poor performance in Afghanistan augured poorly for Iraq such that he should not be trusted with the task, mostly the criticism was directed at him and other Democrats for not having been sufficiently pacifist. That point overlooks the reality that Senate Democrats hoped that by voting to authorize force, Bush would have to receive the support of the UN Security Council to proceed with war, and that the delay with the very real threat of conflict would force Saddam to change course. Arguably it did, and Hans Blix, the UN's chief weapons inspector, was reporting little of note on the WMD front until the looming invasion forced out he and his team. But right there you have American liberals letting their own blood, demanding stricter adherence to an ideology of opposition to war which supersedes any argument as to whether or not the war should be fought, and thus undermining the critics of armed conflict and feeding the political ammunition of the pro-war side.

So shame on you Prof. Judt: it's time we all grew up about American liberals. The wishy-washy New Left ethos hangs overhead like a stench-cloud of marijuana smoke and patchouli, and as long as that's the case, polemicists attached to the D.C. crowd like Beinart and Berman will continue to cast a long shadow over the American liberal intellectual crowd.

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Tuesday, September 19, 2006

More silly pseudo-economics in the newspaper

I hate writing about newspaper columns and reports, I really do. Many people complain about the perceived bias of the news media, but really, I'm not one of them. It's just that newspapers and columnists are dogs being wagged by the tail: if fundamentally their job is to report about what's going on, then the power to determine the topic of conversation is left to the newsmakers, the politicians and activists and so on, and not to the reporters, whose job is, well, to report.

So in a sense it's futile and pointless to both responding to them. They're just doing their job, and you're never going to make headway solving issues by attacking what mass media and politicians are saying. You have to embark on the far less glorious process of doing actual research. This is my fundamental problem with the blogosphere and the so-called "netroots," whose only purpose seems to be partisanship and yelling louder than the other guy. But still I find myself writing these blog entries about some moron of a newspaper columnist, despite my best intentions.

So what is it today? A lame column in The Seattle Times' business section, by Drew DeSilver, called "Low-paid illegal work force has little impact on prices".

In this piece of specious writing, Mr. DeSilver seeks to make the following point:

"You might assume that the plentiful supply of low-wage illegal workers would translate into significantly lower prices for the goods and services they produce. In fact, their impact on consumer prices — call it the 'illegal-worker discount' — is surprisingly small."

Fundamentally, the problem with his argument is already present in this statement: he seems to assume that businesses are hiring illegal workers to pass savings onto consumers (or more specifically, that's the so-called "realist" position adopted by the likes of the Bush Administration to sell worker-visa programs and amnesties to a skeptical public, that the workers are passing on savings to consumers; but Mr. DeSilver isn't quite so forthright to bring up this point). It's a brilliant straw man argument then.

"The bag of Washington state apples you bought last weekend? Probably a few cents cheaper than it otherwise would have been, economists estimate," he says. "That steak dinner at a downtown restaurant? Maybe a buck off. Your new house in Subdivision Estates? Hard to say, but perhaps a few thousand dollars less expensive."

Ah! So without illegal immigrants, we'd only be paying a few cents more per bag of apples, and the added cost of my house would negligible over time, what with appreciation and all! Brilliant!

Unfortunately, the real story is not to be found in the cost of a few items, but rather in the aggregate. The reason that companies hire lower-paid illegals to harvest apples isn't because they want to pass on a couple cents to consumers but because overall it saves them millions, once you add up all those nickles and times per bag of apples.

"At a local QFC, Red Delicious apples go for about 99 cents a pound," DeSilver writes. "Of that, only about 7 cents represents the cost of labor, said Tom Schotzko, a recently retired extension economist at Washington State University...If illegal workers disappeared from the apple harvest and wages for the remaining legal workers rose by 40 percent in response — and that entire wage increase were passed on to the consumer — that still would add less than 3 cents to the retail price of a pound of apples."

So it's that simple. Just oust the illegals, the legal workers will get better wages (remember, those illegals are taking our jobs, or just depreciating wages enough so that we won't want them) and consumers only have to pay a few cents more a bushel. It makes so much sense that it's a mystery why this isn't already being tried!

The answer, quite simply, is Walmart. Walmart may not be known for employing illegals, per se, but they are infamous for lowering their labor overhead in any way possible, in ways both legal and illegal. According to Mr. DeSilver's specious logic, Walmart would be receiving no real benefit for those couple percentage points of labor savings they squeeze out of their workers, which is of course simply untrue. Those few percentage points have allowed them to dominate much of the retail market. Firstly, Wall Street tends to punish anyone not aggressively cutting labor costs: witness Costco's regular quarterly whoopings for the sin of treating their workers better than Walmart. Secondly, despite the fact that both Walmart and illegal workers can be truthfully be accused of depressing wages, people still buy the stuff for those minute savings. After all, consumer savings need to be aggregated too, in order to grasp the big picture. Mr. DeSilver seems to be trying to make some sort of populist point by the end of his article, writing, "Of course, the "illegal-immigrant discount" affects different layers of society differently.

"The more often you eat out, stay in hotels or get your yard trimmed, the more you benefit from the illegal-immigrant discount.

"And by increasing the supply of low-skilled labor relative to high-skilled labor, illegal immigration effectively boosts the purchasing power of the better-educated, more-skilled — and richer — portion of society."

That's true in a sense, but misleading: that's like saying that rich people benefit more from shopping at Walmart since their total savings are higher, which is true but does not address the fact that everyone seems to shop at Walmart, and if those cost savings are primarily benefitting the upper echelons of society, then why the hell are the poor shopping there too, particularly when that's depressing their own wages and effectively making them poorer?

You can go on endlessly with this crap, but in the end you come back to one point: this is a political argument, not an economic one. The economic justification for why illegal immigrants are employed by American companies escapes Mr. DeSilver's analysis unscathed: they're looking for increased efficiency and lower costs, which cutting back on labor expenses achieves, particularly in labor intensive fields. What Mr. DeSilver is actually trying to accomplish, by talking about the mere pennies we're saving by having our apple picked by migrants, is to undermine part of the logic behind plans like President Bush's worker visa program. After all, if the American public gets only minute savings as a whole, the majority of which go to urban elitists, while our wages are substantially depressed in the process, then why sypathize with the plight of these workers?

Unfortunately, the argument would seem to go both ways, and what Mr. DeSilver doesn't address is exactly where his political sympathies lie, with legalization or deportation. After all, workers with the right to work in the US can demand legal workers' wages. Whether or not as a group legal immigrant workers will still work for less than American born workers would remain to be seen, but I have my suspicions.

Additionally, Mr. DeSilver does a disservice by not pointing out how the illegal immigrant workers issue is related to many of Americans' central economic concerns: its main impetus--cost savings--is the same driving our manufacturing jobs overseas, the same sending our customer service and computer programming jobs to India and China, and the same that's causing Walmart to frequently violate our laxly enforced labor laws. It's a cutthroat world out there right now, and by singling out illegal workers, Mr. DeSilver, I think, betrays his own political sympathies with the anti-immigrant right without saying anything about the uncertainties facing American workers, whose increased productivity has not translated into real wage gains.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

The Republican Myth of the Good Economy

Reading David Brooks is like heartburn to me--a long, persistent ache that's not debilitating but sure as hell puts you in a bad mood. I try to do it very little, but every so often I venture in, when, as today, I found myself reading The New York Times for relaxation during the evening.

And then there was the fact there was only one editorial today, which is pretty slim pickins, so with a heavy heart and stomach acid bubbling, I waded into "The Populist Myths on Income Inequality."

So, has Mr. Brooks wised up at all to the fact that income inequality is a growing problem in the US, and potentially troublesome to his Republican party, who've been winning elections on the strength of economically squeezed blue collar social conservatives? After all, the space his drivel occupies is shared not only by Paul Krugman but also, for the last month, by Thomas Frank. Well, in short the answer is no. As it turns out, only the rabble-rousing "populists" actually believe there's a problem. Favorite snotty, derisive comment: " The populists, who usually live in university towns, paint a portrait of unrelieved misery that badly distorts reality."

Really? That's a fascinating position, Mr. Brooks, do you care to explain exactly how we're all wrong?

"First, workers over all are not getting a smaller slice of the pie. Wages and benefits have made up roughly the same share of G.D.P. for 50 years."

Interesting point. Isn't that same period the one that saw the percentage of Americans in the work force explode due to women's lib? And what about all those illegal immigrants in the work force whom your party doesn't want there? This is same twisted logic that Republicans used to claim success for the student financial aid program expansion earlier this year: let more people in but don't increase funding. More people getting smaller pieces of the pie. Brilliant!

"Second, offshore outsourcing is not decimating employment. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, outsourcing is responsible for 1.9 percent of layoffs, and the efficiencies it produces create more jobs at better wages than the ones destroyed."

That's a fascinating point: let's skip towards the end of Mr. Brooks's argument. "Members of the second and much more persuasive school of thought on inequality say the key issue is skills. Lawrence Katz, formerly of the Clinton administration, now of Harvard, puts it this way: Across many nations, the market increasingly rewards people with high social and customer-service skills."

Huh. Really... Skills. You see, Mr. Brooks is using a pretty lame straw man argument: claim that we're saying outsourcing leaves people unemployed. Not true. The problem with outsourcing et al. is tied to its most basic economic tenet: comparative advantage. Well-paid American unionized manufacturing plant worker has a set of skills but is expensive, so the company moves operations to China where costs are lower. See, it's because the American worker is at a comparative disadvantage. That is, the problem with outsourcing is not that it leaves hundreds unemployed permanently, but that it targets well-paid American workers, mitigating the benefits of their skills and pushing down their earnings as they move into lower-paid jobs, which they can rarely escape because education and retraining are expensive.

Which brings us back to: "Fifth, declining unionization has not been the driving force behind inequality." An interesting question. Actually, unions often accept some responsibility for the cost of training their workers, it's called an "apprenticeship." Republicans frequently love to criticize unions as making the labor force inflexible, a claim to which there is some truth. But it's also true that unions serve as excellent way to train workers in new skill sets while they work by paying them fractional equivalents of full wages for their job. So why do Republicans hate unions? After all, Mr. Brooks's solution to what little problem he admits exists is effectively, "more money for retraining." "In short, government policy is not driving inequality and wage stagnation. But government hasn’t done much to effectively address the problem either, even though per-capita education spending has more than quadrupled since 1950."

Well, the reason Republicans don't want unions to play a role is because they don't like them. Same reason they don't support universal health coverage, which would actually help make America more competitive on the international stage because it lessens the burden of being unemployed and actually makes workers more flexible because they don't receive a punitive period of being uninsured after moving jobs. (Then there's the entire economic efficiency argument which holds that more preventive medicine and less paperwork and overhead would save billions a year, but whoever accused Republicans of actually being good at economics?) Republicans see unions as the devil: they support Democrats, help workers demand flexibility on the part of their employers (strange how businesses need to be granted flexibility on everything except employment, in which case all the flexibility is demanded of the workers, isn't it?) and guarantee higher wages (once again, employers need the flexibility never to do that; that's why Congress every year grants more H1-B visas, rather inflexible work visas that tie workers to their employer and are particularly used by the high tech sector to keep the market for jobs extremely competitive and thus suppress wage gains).

But to return to our sheep, as the French say, I believe I skipped two of Mr. Brooks's five ingenious points. "Third, jobs are not more insecure. Workers are just as likely to hold a job for 20 years as they were in 1969. Fourth, workers are not stuck in dead-end jobs. Social mobility is roughly where it was a generation ago."

Third point may be roughly true, but what does that prove, and what does that have to do with economic inequality? As for the fourth, that claim--which he chooses not to support--is highly debatable. First, I would point out that the last year in which the real wage of the American middle-class increased was 1974, so the claim that "Social mobility is roughly where it was a generation ago" is perfectly true, and that's the problem. He acts like we've all given up on how shitty a president Ronald Reagan was and bought the Republican line that his voodoo economics actually worked; they didn't, they sucked. And so did Clinton's. Only short-term evidence from the late 1990s ever showed real economic gains; more analysis of the data suggests that quite the opposite, over time there were no significant gains.

An insightful and little noticed article on this subject appeared a couple years ago in The New Republic ("False Positive," Jacob S. Hacker, Ph.D., 8/16/04).

"[I]n area after area, there's evidence of a vast shift in the economic security of most Americans--a massive transfer of financial risk from corporations and the government onto families and individuals," he writes. "This great risk shift has gone surprisingly underreported. Though we've heard about economic hardship, most of the stories concern static measures--poverty, inequality, wages, joblessness. That's in large part because no standard economic statistic tries to assess the stability of family income...What has become clear from [my] research is that family incomes rise and fall a lot--far more than one would suspect just looking at income-distribution figures. As a result, a surprisingly big chunk of U.S. income inequality--perhaps as much as half--is due to transitory shifts of family income, rather than permanent differences across families."

So, damn it, I've spent an hour researching a ranting response to that jackass David Brooks! My apologies. I shouldn't get so upset by someone whose facts are so painfully wrong. The purposeful obfuscation is glaring, which is was so funny to go online and find Paul Krugman's Friday column already up, which begins something like this:

"We are, finally, having a national discussion about inequality, and right-wing commentators are in full panic mode. Statistics, most of them irrelevant or misleading, are flying; straw men are under furious attack. It’s all very confusing — deliberately so."

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

"Whatever you do, don't mention the war!"

It’s always fun to see how literature makes the news, and if you’re a fan of contemporary German literature, these are the salad days for juicy controversy. Since April, two of Germany’s (or in one case, now Austria’s) most famous writers have caught the brunt of the 24-hour news cycle’s regurgitated outrage.

First, there was Peter Handke. An experimental novelist and playwright, born in Germany and raised in Austria, on April 6 a small news piece appeared in the lefty French newspaper La Nouvelle Observateur. Handke, who had attended Slobodan Milosovic’s funeral, was quoted as saying, “I am happy to be close to Slobodan Milosevic, who has defended his people,” and accused of “persist[ing] in his defense of ‘Slobo,’ [and who] considers that the Serbs are ‘the real victims of the war,’ approves the Srebrenica massacre and other crimes done in the name of ethnic cleansing.” (For a good overview and spirited defense of Handke, as well as the English translation of this quote, see this article.) Handke’s play scheduled for the winter season at the Comedie Francaise was quickly cancelled, and a prestigious German literary prize was rescinded in early May.

Then there was Gunther Grass. Grass won the 1999 Nobel Prize in Literature for having “broke “the spell that lay over the German past and sabotaged the German sublime, the taste for the somberly blazing magnificence of foredoomed destruction.” His 1956 novel The Tin Drum established him as the so-called conscience of his generation (whatever that means) who dared the Germans to live up to their responsibility for the Holocaust. But in June, in advance of the publication of his memoirs, it was revealed for the first time that at the age of 17, in 1944, Grass was conscripted into the elite SS, who were responsible for executing the death camps. Condemnation was swift: pundits called for his Nobel to be rescinded (they cannot be) and his honorary citizenship of the city of Gdansk, Poland (he was born there when it was the German city of Danzig) was called into question until he had a very public mea culpa with revered Solidarity founder Lech Walesa. (See the Time magazine article here.)

What’s so fascinating about the controversies, and what’s not much noted, is that they mirror the circumstances of the two writers’ first meeting, at the Group 45 conference at Princeton in 1966. (Yes, we’re getting all literary here.) Group 45 was an influential who’s who of German literati in the post-war era, and the writers in attendance included Grass, Peter Weise and Heinrich Boll. Handke, who was just a student, rebelled against what he saw as their moralizing tendencies and established himself as a nihilistic contrarian by staging his groundbreaking play Offending the Audience, in which four actors simply hurl epithets at the audience for about 30 minutes. The play was a riot, sending up the stuffy pretension of the elitists, who expelled an only too-happy Handke.

The writers he so offended were more fond of staging dramatic readings of the Nuremberg trials (Peter Weise’s The Investigation) or a criss-crossing of absurdist bluster and epic agitprop (Weise’s Marat/Sade or Grass’s The Plebians Rehearse an Uprising). Handke continued his career with such groundbreaking works as Kaspar, a dramatization of a feral child forced to learn language, which is reveaked to be one of society’s control mechanisms. Grass and Handke couldn’t have chosen more different paths: one of witness-bearing and consciousness-raising, the other of nihilistic abandon and art-for-art’s-sake playfulness.

And yet in the end, they were both brought down by the same beast.

In their defenses, Handke never excused or supported Milosevic (the Observateur later all but retracted the story), and Grass’s work is often stunning in its ability to delve into Germany’s grief stricken conscience and pull up all the nasty bits the nation would prefer to forget. But both were celebrities who played on their fame as public intellectuals, and it bit them in the ass. For my money, Handke is the sorrier of the two. Ever the skeptic, he never embraced a role as society’s conscience, but he nevertheless fell victim to a liberal society’s desire to see itself as the hero. His presence at Milosevic’s burial was not, as reported, to honor the man, but rather to explore the ways in which the west has rewritten the sordid history of the former Yugoslavia and ignored its own culpability in the crimes that took place there. But in a world where you’re either with us or against us, he was labelled the latter and left to hang. Grass on the other hand spent so much time encouraging his countrymen to accept responsibility for their own actions that it was with no little schadenfreude that they set upon him for not being able to practice what he preached.

And most amusingly? All this controversy over two writers, and none of it has anything to do with anything they wrote.

This artice was my far too esoteric books article for the September edition of The Seattle Sinner.
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