Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Roll Over, Cobra — Make Way For The Snake Charmer

The Cobra (Maureen Dowd) has been superceded at The New York Times by White House reporter, Maggie Haberman. Dowd writes Op-Ed essays for the NY Fishwrap that appear weekly (most recently May 27, 2017) and Haberman's articles appear with much greater frequency. Daily trumps (no pun intended) weekly. If this is a (fair & balanced) profile of the teller of the tale, so be it.

[x Elle]
Wanna Know What Donald Trump Is Really Thinking? Read Maggie Haberman
By Rachael Combe

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The man with the orange hair is making a scene. Maggie Haberman, a White House correspondent for the New York Times, stops midsentence to stare at his back as he gesticulates broadly and shouts at his dinner companions over the already considerable din at BLT Steak in Washington, DC, downstairs from the offices of the Times' bureau.

Haberman has what can only be described as a wildly expressive poker face: her slender, Clara Bow-ish eyebrows lifting, her tired eyes widening behind her smudged glasses, a tiny pinpoint of a mole on her upper lip emphasizing the thin line she's pressed her mouth into, the dimple in her chin appearing and disappearing as her jaw muscles shift. Intense is one of the words friends and colleagues most often use to describe her. As she regards the man with the orange hair, it's like watching a predator decide whether or not to go in for the kill.

"This place is so loud I want to put a bullet in my brain," she had said, matter-of-factly, when we first sat down for a late dinner, observing that so much hard-partying energy on a weeknight seemed more NYC than DC.

Like the president she covers, Haberman, 43, is a born-and-bred New Yorker and slightly ill at ease in Washington. She commutes to DC several times a week from her home in Brooklyn, where she lives with her husband and three young children. On this evening, she is recovering from the flu and has been up for the better part of two days, racing back and forth on Amtrak between her family and an Oval Office interview with the president, and speaking engagements at New York's Lincoln Center and DC's Newseum.

A lot of people would let it go, but Haberman signals to the hostess. Would she tell the man to "stop screaming"? A few minutes later, here he comes. He's tall with an athletic build and a military-style cut to his orange hair. He stands looking down at her, swaying a little, slightly walleyed, but he still has a big-man swagger. For a moment, it seems he might be coming over to tell off the reporter. I reflexively tense up; she doesn't flinch. "Can I join you guys? Are you doing an interview?" he asks, pointing at the recorder between us. He's hitting on her.

"Haven't you joined us already?" Maggie parries, her face inscrutable. The man is, it appears, too drunk to be able to discern if she's flirting or annoyed. "Can I come back?" he asks, uncertainly.

When Haberman demurs, politely but without apology, he is momentarily stumped. "Okay, well…fist bump?" he says, holding out his fist. She leaves it hanging for a moment—panic flashes across his face—but then gives him a bump. He is elated. "You're pretty!" he yelps like a sixth grader sent our way on a dare, and dashes off.

Journalists have become part of the story in the Trump administration, enablers and heroes of a nonstop political and constitutional soap opera, and last year Haberman was the most widely read journalist at the Times, according to its analytics. Many of the juiciest Trump pieces have been broken by her: That story about him spending his evenings alone in a bathrobe, watching cable news? Haberman reported and wrote it with her frequent collaborator, Glenn Thrush. The time Trump called the Times to blame the collapse of the Obamacare repeal on the Democrats? It was Haberman he dialed. When he accused former national security adviser Susan Rice of committing crimes, and defended Fox News' Bill O'Reilly against the sexual harassment claims that would soon end his career at the network? Haberman and Thrush again, with their colleague Matthew Rosenberg. And since President Trump fired FBI director James Comey, Haberman has been on the frontlines of the nonstop news bombshells that have been lobbed, bylining or credited with a reporting assist on around two dozen stories in two weeks. They range from an extraordinarily intimate account of a "sour and dark" Trump berating his staff as "incompetent" to the revelation that Trump called Comey a "nutjob" in an Oval Office meeting with the Russians the day after his dismissal, telling them that Comey's ouster had relieved the pressure of the investigation into possible collusion between Russia and his campaign.

Trump frequently complains about Haberman's coverage. He's tweeted, at various points, that she's "third-rate," "sad," and "totally in the Hillary circle of bias," and he almost exclusively refers to the Times as "failing" and "fake news." But no matter what Haberman writes about Trump, he has never frozen her out. Slate called her Trump's "snake charmer"; New Yorker editor in chief David Remnick recently likened Trump to her "ardent, twisted suitor." "I didn't care for that metaphor," Haberman says. She finds the framing of her relationship with the president in romantic terms "facile." No one suggests her male colleagues are "wooing" Trump.

While the president and the reporter couldn't seem more different—Trump, the flamboyant tycoon and Manhattan establishment aspirant known for his devil- may-care mendacity; and Haberman, a political insider known for her straight-shooting truth telling—the points at which their histories and personalities converge are revealing about both the media and the president himself. Trump wants what she can give him access to—a kind of status he's always craved in a newspaper that, she says, "holds an enormously large place in his imagination." Haberman, for her part, has become a front-page fixture and a Fourth Estate folk hero. "This is a symbiotic relationship," says an administration official. "Part of the reason" Haberman is so read in the Times "is because she is writing about Donald Trump."

The 1980s and '90s New York in which Haberman was raised is the same milieu in which Trump began his crusade to sand down his Queens edges and gild the Manhattan skyline. Haberman's father, Clyde, is a Pulitzer Prize–winning New York Times reporter, and her mother, Nancy, is a publicity powerhouse at Rubenstein—a communications firm founded by Howard Rubenstein, whose famous spinning prowess Trump availed himself of during various of his divorce and business contretemps. (Nancy worked on projects for Trump's business but says she never met him.)

Clyde and Nancy met at the tabloid New York Post—Clyde was a metro reporter there, and Nancy was a "copy boy" (what the Post called its entry-level cub reporters back then). Maggie grew up on the Upper West Side, attending PS 75 and the Ethical Culture Fieldston School, a private school in the Bronx. Haberman had her first byline in 1980, when she was seven years old, writing for the Daily News kids' page about a meeting she had with then-mayor Ed Koch. Pictures of the incident show Haberman talking nonstop as an uncharacteristically silent Koch stares at her, slightly astonished. Clyde covered Trump very sporadically in the 1980s and '90s. None of this is to say that the Habermans and Trumps were showing up at the same dinner parties, but Manhattan can be a provincial place, among a certain inside crowd.

Haberman graduated in 1996 from Sarah Lawrence College, where she studied creative writing and psychology. She tried to get work in magazines, but she ended up bartending at Cleopatra's Needle, a jazz club on the Upper West Side frequented by Columbia University students, before eventually landing a job at the Post as a "copy kid" (the new politically correct term at the paper). Haberman says she'd had no interest in journalism up to this point. She wrote fiction. "Short fiction, always somewhat curiously resembling my own life," she says. "The news was something my dad did." It was simply desperation for a job other than bartending that led her to newspapers. "She's like Michael Corleone," Thrush says, "sucked into the family business." (Both her brother, Zach, and her husband, Dareh Gregorian, work at the New York Daily News.)

Mostly, copy kids at the Post did errands and administrative work, but once a week they would be named "Josephine reporter" or "Joe reporter" of the day and sent out to learn the ropes. Stu Marques, then metro editor of the paper, hired Haberman and oversaw her early training. "In the beginning, you're going to a lot of crime scenes. You're going to see if people were killed," Marques says. "We were pretty demanding in terms of getting quotes, good-quality ones"—which, in tabloid terms, means they have to be memorable and true—"and getting them fast." He noticed right away that Haberman had talent. By 1999, Marques put Haberman on the City Hall beat, where she covered then-mayor Rudy Giuliani, a Trump friend.

In those days, the future president was a fixture in Page Six, the Post's gossip column. In the midst of his second divorce, from Marla Maples, Trump was a maestro of controlling his tabloid image, calling in tidbits about himself. Haberman was learning the same art—how to "punch through" in a daily news cycle, as New York Times political reporter and frequent collaborator Alexander Burns puts it. The quick-hit rhythm that Trump and Haberman were both fine-tuning teed them up perfectly for today's Twitter-paced news environment. "Maggie's whole career has been about grabbing people by the lapels," Burns says. She believes in the power of breaking incremental news—not holding every-thing back for a long read. She's "wickedly competitive," says Gregg Birnbaum, the former Post editor (now senior political editor at NBC News Digital) whom Haberman credits with drilling into her head, "Do not get beat, do not get beat."

It was at City Hall that she met Thrush, who was working at the New York tabloid Newsday. At first Thrush didn't like her, mistaking her voraciousness for shtick. "My enduring image of her is, she's standing outside the [press] van, she has a cigarette already lit in one hand, she's lighting a second one because she's forgotten that she has the first one lit, right? And she's got a BlackBerry and a flip phone going at the same time. And I'm like, This is total bullshit, this is not a real person, nobody is this way," Thrush recalls. Over time, however, as Haberman did not get beat, did not get beat, he realized she was for real. For the next decade, she worked for both the Post and the other tab in town, the New York Daily News, covering Hillary Clinton's senate campaign, Michael Bloomberg's mayoralty, and Clinton's first presidential campaign. (The first time she quoted Trump in a piece was in 2006: "Real-estate mogul Donald Trump talked up Clinton as the next president in Florida on Friday night, reportedly saying at a state GOP fund-raiser, 'She's a brilliant woman and she's going to be a very, very formidable candidate.... Absolutely I think she can win, especially if the war's still going on.' " The next time Haberman wrote about him was in 2009—"Terror Tent Down at Camp Trump" was the headline—when Trump allowed Libyan dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi to pitch a Bedouin-style tent on the lawn of his estate in Bedford, New York.)

In hindsight, Haberman was building a reservoir of knowledge and contacts that would make her probably the best-sourced reporter of the 2016 campaign. Significantly, she was accumulating sources who were close to Trump, who knew when he was angry and what he watched on TV and how he could only sleep well in his own bed. Her expertise wasn't just Trump—it was the Trump psyche.

Haberman jumped to Politico in 2010, where she covered him full-bore for the first time; he was then flirting with the idea of joining the 2012 Republican primary and beginning to spread the lie that Barack Obama was not born in the United States. Three years later, she moved to the Times as it beefed up its political staff in advance of the 2016 campaign. By the time Trump formally announced his candidacy in June 2015 and Haberman was assigned to his campaign, she'd been reporting on him for a decade.

It's why he deals with her, Haberman says: "Longevity, just being around him a long time, is something he values." Whereas most of the country knows Trump foremost as a reality-TV star from his time on "The Apprentice," Haberman remembers that he was a New York institution before he became a national figure. "The Triborough and Empire State view of Trump is very different from the national view of Trump," she points out. "His whole thing has always been to be accepted among the New York elites, whom he sort of preemptively sneers at—that thing that people do when they are not really sure if they will be completely validated, where they push away people whose approval they are seeking. You know, he plopped himself down on Fifth Avenue"—a reference to the 58-story Trump Tower—"and he still was not treated seriously by New York's business elite. I would argue he is now occupying the most expensive and valuable real estate in the country. And he is still surrounded by people who don't take him seriously, who he knows do not value him. And laugh at him."

While speaking on a New York Times Women in the World panel at Lincoln Center in April to a very Trump-unfriendly crowd (Nikki Haley, Trump's ambassador to the United Nations, was booed during her interview with Greta Van Susteren before Haberman came onstage), she kept repeating basic facts about Trump—that he has been on both sides of most issues, that he's influenced by the last person he spoke to—and getting huge laughs from the audience. "I'm actually not trying to be funny," Haberman said, correcting them, and, when they continued to laugh, insisting, "Again, I'm not doing a comedy line."

Once, in July 2015, she did laugh, on "This Week With George Stephanopoulos," at something Democratic congressman Keith Ellison said about Trump having "momentum" going into the primaries. Haberman says her mirth had to do with the ridiculousness of talking momentum so early in the campaign; Trump took it as her mocking his chances of winning the Republican nomination. He's brought up the moment repeatedly over the past two years, including during Haberman's recent Oval Office interview with him. She says they were talking about infrastructure when, "out of nowhere," he raised the "This Week" laugh.

"You're going to bring this up every time, aren't you?" she says she told him. He "kind of chuckled" and replied, "It's like therapy."

Haberman is growing weary of the DC establishment's seeming inability to metabolize the president's personality. "There has been a very protracted shocked stage in Washington, and I think people have to move past that. Because otherwise you're just never going to be able to cover him," she says. "Every moment cannot be, 'Wow! Can you believe what he just did?' Yes, I can! Because he is the same person he was during the campaign."

Her measured stance infuriates Trump's detractors, who harangue her on Twitter for "normalizing" the president. But it gives her added credibility when she argues, as she did when Trump fired Comey, that one of Trump's aberrant moves is a big deal.

As Twitter blew up as Trump compounded the backlash against Comey's dismissal with an incredible series of missteps, Haberman shot out an exasperated tweet of her own: "What is amazing is capacity of people who watched the campaign to be surprised by what they are seeing. Trump is 70. Ppl don't change." She echoed the same thought to me in email dispatches as she and her colleagues furiously traded scoops with the Washington Post last week. "I'm really not surprised. He is who he is and he's not going to change. And that's going to mean certain situations are fraught. But who he is is also why he won and why he tripled down after 'Access Hollywood,' " the political crisis which Haberman says is probably the yardstick Trump is using to measure his response to the current situation. Just as he didn't back down after being accused of sexual assault, she says he is unlikely to walk away from this fight or resign. "I do not think he is enjoying the job particularly, and that is based on reporting," she says. "But I also know he can't allow himself to ever quit." The appointment of a special counsel Robert Mueller last week "took some of the air out of his tires" but he is still spoiling for a fight, Haberman says. She doesn't see any climactic resolution to the Trump saga coming anytime soon.

When Trump gave an undisciplined press conference a few weeks into his presidency, the DC press and pols were comparing it to late-stage Nixon, Thrush says. But he and Haberman say it reminds them of New York politics; they see Trump's presidency more as a "national mayoralty…it's got that scale, it has that informality," Thrush says. "And it's not just any mayoralty; it's a late-'80s, early '90s New York mayoralty." Adds Haberman, "Some Ed Koch. A lot of Rudy Giuliani."

Haberman is careful, even in the current free-for-all, to avoid the snide attitude many of the New York intelligentsia have taken toward Trump and his administration. She is not a fan of "SNL"'s impression of Kellyanne Conway as a psychopathic fame whore. (But, she says, Melissa McCarthy's Sean Spicer portrayal more accurately captures him.) And probably because her mother is a publicist, she doesn't view Trump's press flacks, or flacks in general, as the enemy. "I used to really cringe at the way my colleagues would talk to spokespeople," she said. One communications staffer after another told me that they appreciate the fact that she never blindsides them. "Maggie doesn't camouflage. She's perfectly willing to walk like a redcoat into the middle of the field and let everyone know she's there because she's going to get [her story]," says Kevin Madden, a Republican communications veteran who has worked for John Boehner, George W. Bush, and Mitt Romney. She never hedges her angle to try to protect her access, only to give politicians an unwelcome surprise when they read the story in the morning—a practice some journalists follow that Haberman calls "the stupidest thing I've ever heard of. They're going to lose [their access] anyway," she says. "What do they think—that it's going in a secret newspaper?"

And while there are still hard feelings toward the Times from Hillary Clinton operatives and voters—they complain that the paper obsessed over Clinton's e-mail scandal but failed to give commensurate ink to Trump's ties to Russia and potential conflicts of interest, among other subjects—multiple people I spoke to who worked for Clinton are careful to draw a distinction between Haberman and the institution of the Times.

The first time I met Haberman, we were in the airy, modern cafeteria of the New York Times building in Manhattan. She was on her phone. She was also on her laptop. She was texting, taking calls, e-mailing, and Gchatting with colleagues and sources. Her daughter was home sick from school with a fever. She had a story that was about to go live on CNN, for whom she is a political analyst, called. "I'm wearing a sweatshirt, and my hair is in a bun," she told the producer. She suggested a colleague to go on TV in her stead. She was thinking aloud about her schedule—she doesn't keep an actual calendar, not on paper, not on her phone; it's all in her head. James Carville wanted her to come to Louisiana to talk to a class, but her kids were about to go on school vacation. The phone rang, and she started laughing when she looked at her iPhone display. "Speak of the devil," she said into the phone. Through it all, she never missed a beat in our conversation. It was like watching someone juggle fire while standing on a tightrope.

Friends and colleagues say this is her standard operating procedure. "She is literally always doing four things," says her friend and former New York Post colleague Annie Karni. Haberman once said in an interview that she talked to 50 people a day. Not true, says Risa Heller, a spokesperson for Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner: "She speaks to 100 people a day." One colleague says she didn't realize there was a limit to how many Gchats you could have going at one time until she saw Haberman hit the maximum.

Brian Fallon, who was a campaign spokesperson for Clinton, says that Haberman was in touch with him and his staff so often that it was like she'd been assigned to cover them. "On more than one occasion, somebody would fly out of their desk and [announce something] that the New York Times was about to post, or a story the Times was working on, or some random bit of gossip, and then somebody else would pop their head up and say, 'Oh, did Maggie just tell you that?' Because she was literally talking to 16 people within our campaign at the same time."

She says she does most of her work from her car, shuttling her kids around, dashing between the office in Times Square and her apartment. She's called me as she was driving—swearing and running late—between an errand at the American Girl doll store and a dinner party. She's e-mailed me from the NYPD tow pound—a place she said she'd already visited twice that month. She almost never turns her phone off. "She's got it with her at all times," says her husband, Dareh Gregorian. She'll wake up in the middle of the night and, instead of rolling over and going back to sleep, pick up her phone and start working.

Last June, Haberman got the tip that Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski had been fired while she was sitting in the audience at her son's kindergarten graduation. Ashley Parker, now a Washington Post White House correspondent but then one of Haberman's colleagues at the Times, says Haberman confirmed the tip and wrote the story on her phone during the graduation. Her son didn't have school after the ceremony, so Haberman brought him with her to a politics meeting at the Times. "She came into the Page One conference room, and there was this huge round of applause," Parker says. "Part of it was for her son graduating kindergarten, and part of it was for Maggie for breaking this awesome scoop."

"Maggie's magic is that she's the dominant reporter on the [White House] beat, and she doesn't even live in Washington. She was the dominant Trump reporter on the campaign, and she didn't travel with him. She's so well-sourced and so well-connected that she doesn't need to," Karni says. "It's like she's in the building, but she's not even in the city. You don't even know where she is—she could be anywhere. Like, floating in the sky."

In late April, Haberman spoke on (yet another) panel, this one at the 92nd Street Y, with her colleague Alex Burns. She wore an iteration of her usual uniform: black pants, black jacket, reddish-pink blouse, and an air of bone-crushing fatigue. The audience was, as always, hanging on her every word, hungry to have her translate Trump into someone they could understand. One attendee chastised another for looking at her phone, saying that its light was distracting, as though we were all at a cliffhanger movie.

When the moderator of the panel, Jeff Greenfield, a veteran reporter and host of PBS's "Need to Know," remarks that a Democratic senator told him the Republican senators think Trump is "nuts," Haberman prefaces her response with "I don't know that I'd go with the diagnostic that you used," but then offers—with specific details that are more enlightening and perhaps more damning—that she had lunch with a Republican senator who has been astonished to discover that Trump watches his every move in the media, calling him directly to parse his TV appearances and quotes he's given the print press.

Greenfield introduced Haberman by saying that he couldn't remember a reporter having established a relationship with a president quite like hers with Trump. The next day, I called him—he's an old family friend of the Habermans and has known Maggie since she was about three days old—to ask him to elaborate. Greenfield said there are journalists who have been tight with presidents before; he cited Chalmers Roberts, a Washington Post reporter who'd been close to Kennedy and, later in life, admitted he'd compromised himself by giving Kennedy overly favorable coverage. Lyndon Johnson gave preference to Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Walter Lippmann, and Lippmann had once gone so far as to secretly write part of a speech for Johnson—and then write a story praising the speech. "The difference is, Maggie is in no sense carrying water for Trump," Greenfield said. "And yet Trump seems driven to connect with her."

When Haberman interviewed Trump in the Oval Office this April, he was making his usual complaint about how unfair her coverage is. Haberman did not let it slide. "I have respect for you, sir, but you have called me to thank me about my coverage over the past year and a half at different points," she told him.

Trump responded, jokingly, "Really? That must have been a long time ago. I'm having a hard time remembering it." Some of his aides laughed.

Haberman pressed her point: "It was two months ago. It was a story about Mar-a-Lago." Trump conceded this was true and the story was about an "8."

"I don't know if the scale was 1 out of 100 or 1 out of 10," Haberman tells me the day after that interview, "and, by the way, the goal is not to be thanked for coverage, to be clear. I do not want you to come away with that impression. I just wanted to make the point that we were engaged in some revisionist history."

Trump has also sent her his famous press clippings with Sharpie notes on them, mostly with criticisms, but at least once with praise. Lately he's gone digital (sort of): He'll write the note on the clip, and then have White House Director of Strategic Communications Hope Hicks take a picture of the note and e-mail it to her. Kellyanne Conway defended Haberman last April in an interview, calling her "a very hard-working, honest journalist who happens to be a very good person." Hicks echoed Conway, e-mailing me a few days later that Haberman was "a true professional."

Haberman's bullshit detector is appreciated by partisans on both sides: Even if they can't spin her, they know the other side won't be able to spin her either. "You can change her mind," Madden says. "You can offer perspective, you can offer insight, you can offer details, but they've got to be locked down."

Haberman has reached the point in her career where sources are now chasing her, instead of the other way around—lying to her risks banishment and access to her news-promulgating prowess. "If you're going to come at her," says a Democratic operative, "you've got to come correct."

It makes her both an enticing challenge and a nettlesome problem for a president who does not let the truth get in the way of a good story. "This is a president who is always selling. When I speak to him, it's because he's trying to sell me," Haberman tells the audience at the 92nd Street Y. "And so he will take this chair and say to you, 'This is actually a table.' "

And this is the aspect of the job that Haberman tries to focus on in the midst of the storm of distractions his administration provides: holding him to the truth. "When we as a culture can't agree on a simple, basic fact set—that is very scary. That [Trump] is unconcerned by that, I think, is the big issue," she says. "This is a very precarious moment, in terms of what anyone can believe in. What erodes that is very dangerous." But effective salesmanship must be based in credibility—an area in which his administration has suffered significant set-backs in recent days. "So much of his approach is bending others to the way he sees things," she says. "I'm not sure the objective facts will let him do that this time."

Her father, Clyde, says he likes to think that honest journalism is "hardwired" into her. "She grew up in an environment where journalism that was as accurate as humanly possible was practically a religion," he says. These days, in her profession, the truth is a demanding god. "There's an enormous personal price that she pays, that people pay when they devote so much of themselves to this," Thrush says. "What you're seeing with Maggie Haberman is, you're watching one of the greatest people to ever do this job, giving a maximum effort."

When I tell Haberman what her colleagues say about her, she shrugs, like she's being complimented for breathing. "I'm just trying not to get beat," she says. "That's all I care about." She catches herself. "No, that's not all I care about. I care about getting it right. I care about telling a thorough story." # # #

[Rachael Combe is the Editor-at-Large at Elle magazine. Prior to joining Elle in 2000, she was a features editor at Glamour magazine. Combe received a BA (English language and literature) and an MA (journalism) from Columbia University.]

Copyright © 2017 Elle/Hearst Communications

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Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Just As Jimmy Clanton Sang "Just A Dream" In 1958, Professor Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen Digs Deeper Into Dreams Today

This author's academic pedigree has uncanny parallels for this blogger. The author received an undergraduate degree from the University of Rochester; this blogger's mentor at Texas Technique attended Rochester as an undergraduate. This man had great influence over this blogger as both a student and a teacher. He took a PhD in history from the University of Wisconsin at Madison and his mentor at UW-Madison was Merle Curti. The circle closed upon learning that the author of today's essay holds the chair named for Merle Curti at UW-Madison. She succeeded the late professor Paul Boyer to the Curti professorship after Boyer's retirement. No wonder this blogger admired the essay. If this is a (fair & balanced) non-scientific oneirology, so be it.

[x Aeon]
American Dreaming 3.0
By Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen

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It’s almost impossible to think about the promises and shortcomings of the United States and not think in terms of the ‘American Dream’. US advertisers promote its seductions of individual freedom and material comfort, while school teachers use it to impart civic values. Even in the rough and tumble world of US Realpolitik there is a special place for the ‘American dream’. It’s what helped to inspire Martin Luther King Jr’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech in 1963, animated Barack Obama’s memoir Dreams from My Father (1995), and gave the title to the 2001 ‘Dream Act’ on immigration reform.

Because the ‘American Dream’ is such a key phrase of the country’s self-understanding, it feels like a founding ideal of the US. However, it is not so old. It was scarcely used before the historian James Truslow Adams first popularised it in The Epic of America (1931) as both a vision that united centuries of US history, and also a universal human aspiration. It was, wrote Adams, ‘that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement’. The ‘American Dream’ represented equality, social mobility and opportunity.

No doubt, many American dreams today, just like Adams’s, King’s and Obama’s before them, are animated by these ideals. But all of these dreams are figurative. There’s nothing sleepy about them. They are the workings of an alert mind, seized by open eyes, intently scanning horizons of possibility, and fuelling incessant longing, driving ambition, or both.

But what about American dreams in the literal sense? The stuff of nighttime joys and terrors and fantasies and hauntings? There’s no question that the ‘American Dream’ does political work. So might it also be true that Americans literally dreaming at night are engaged in an important political activity?

This isn’t a crazy question. Many societies throughout human history have taken dreams as important, worldly documents. The history of human dreaming shows time and again how dreamers have come to a new understanding about themselves and their world through the processing of their nighttime minds. Dreams have proven to be mental activities through which humans have come to a novel idea, a much-needed methodology, and a revolutionary way of perception.

In a dream in 1619, René Descartes broke open the ‘foundations of a marvellous science’ (of what would become modern natural philosophy), which he later outlined in Discourse on the Method (1637). In a 1869 dream, Dmitri Mendeleev seized upon the periodic table of elements. In a 1912 letter, D H Lawrence described how dreams focus and give direction to his conscious cognition. ‘I can never decide whether my dreams are the result of my thoughts, or my thoughts the result of my dreams,’ he wrote. ‘It is very queer. But my dreams make conclusions for me. They decide things finally. I dream a decision. Sleep seems to hammer out for me the logical conclusions of my vague days, and offer me them as dreams.’

Many times in American history, private dreams have opened portals of new possibilities. Carl Jung’s ‘house dream’, for example, delivered to him the idea of a ‘collective unconscious’, one of the most important concepts for modern dream theory. During his 1909 voyage to the US with his mentor Sigmund Freud, Jung dreamed of moving downward through successive floors of a house. Each floor represented a different historical period: from ‘Rococo’ to ‘medieval’ then ‘ancient’. Finally, he descended to a ‘stairway of narrow stone steps leading down to the depth’. Jung did not doubt that the house symbolised his psyche. The deeper he went, the further he burrowed beneath his individual self and nearer to something mysterious, something ‘of an altogether impersonal nature underlying that psyche’. Jung’s house dream, as it is known to historians of psychology, gave him his ‘first inkling of a collective a priori’ in man.

Throughout his long career, Jung sought to popularise a more sophisticated awareness of the ‘wisdom of the dream’. But in one way, the great Jung was an unexceptional dreamer. For he, like so many dreamers before and after him, came to his big idea by way of a dream. Many dreamers have credited their nighttime dreams for providing not just a flash of inspiration, but even detailed instructions for bringing it to life.

No doubt, dreams present us with important realms of intellectual struggle, moral dilemma, aesthetic nourishment and existential doubt as well as certainty. It’s time, then, that dreams join the lectern and the journal of opinion as scenes of political thought.

How to assess the potential political uses of dreams? What new social worlds can be made of literal dreams? Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination (1950, 2008) can help to provide some answers. Trilling’s classic is a powerful meditation on how the individual imagination and private thoughts of a liberated intellect foster and protect democratic freedoms. Trilling wrote the book in the midst of the Cold War menace. He worried about the intensifying ideological arms race not simply between US democracy and Soviet totalitarianism, but also within US politics — between intellectual conservatism and liberalism. For Trilling, as for so many US intellectuals, the Old World provided a counter-example. The relative ease with which Europe had moved from imperialism to totalitarianism revealed, he thought, the dangers of a society that put limits on the free play of the mind and became, in his words, ‘bankrupt of ideas’. A liberal society, Trilling maintained, must privilege the individual imagination. It was, after all, the realm in which citizens — not subjects — make, test, affirm and reject political sentiments. Though Trilling never defined what he meant by ‘liberal’, he was clear what the liberal frame of mind was not – dogmatic, passionately committed to unexamined notions and beliefs, ideological. ‘Unless we insist that politics is imagination and mind,’ he maintained, ‘we will learn that imagination and mind are politics, and of a kind we will not like.’

Though no champion of literary romanticism, Trilling endorsed a vision of the vibrant imagination that lay at the heart of 19th-century romantic ideas of dreams. The romantics valorised dreams in their art and social theory as they believed that dreams provided a route to both individual liberation and social transformation. They maintained that while dreaming one is truly free, and that freedom of the imagination offers a bulwark against oppression.

A beautiful example of this romantic vision of the political work in an individual’s dreams is captured in the German folk song ‘Die Gedanken Sind Frei’ or ‘Thoughts Are Free’ (that is, from oppression, not gratis).

The romantic philologist and poet August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben first transcribed ‘Die Gedanken Sind Frei’ in 1842. In the same year, von Fallersleben was dismissed from Breslau university for his liberal politics. But in ‘Die Gedanken Sind Frei’, he whispers and giggles, baiting his oppressor with its lightness of spirits (the English translation is comparatively leaden and lumbering):

Die Gedanken sind frei,
wer kann sie erraten,
sie fliehen vorbei,
wie nächtliche Schatten.
Kein Mensch kann sie wissen,
kein Jäger erschießen.
Es bleibet dabei:
Die Gedanken sind frei.

Thoughts are free,
who can guess them,
they fly away,
like night’s shadows.
No person can know them,
no hunter shoot [them].
The fact remains:
Thoughts are free.

The folksong presents an exalted vision of an individual’s thoughts. Trilling called them the stuff of ‘imagination’, but these notions apply as well to dreams. They are the workings of the mind’s free play, which can act autonomously from political subjugation.

It’s a magnificent idea: come what may, and no matter who comes after me, my mental activities are mine. The state can deny me my rights. The market can exploit my labour. The court might throw my poor body in jail. But none of my oppressors can touch my thoughts, my imagination, my dreams.

Die Gedanken Sind Frei’ would be remembered today as nothing more than a sweet lullaby, or perhaps not remembered at all, if it hadn’t become a favourite song among political critics and activists to fight oppression. The anti-Nazi student activist Sophie Scholl, for example, used it as a means to flout fascism. Just months before her execution by the Nazis in 1943, she played the song on her flute outside her father’s jail cell in Ulm, to uplift his spirits and antagonise his tormenters. A little over a decade later, across the Atlantic, the folk singer Pete Seeger helped to bring the song’s image of the freedom of one’s dreams to US audiences. Just days before his defiant testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee in August 1955, Seeger choked out the song’s power to challenge and ennoble, to fight and to frolic:

I think as I please,
and this gives me pleasure
my conscience decrees,
this right I must treasure.
My thoughts will not cater
to duke or dictator.
No man can deny:
Die Gedanken sind frei!

And should tyrants take me,
and throw me in prison.
My thoughts will burst free,
like blossoms in season.
Foundations will crumble,
and structures will tumble.
And free men will cry:
Die Gedanken sind frei!’

No doubt, the prospect of an individual’s imagination as a preserve of freedom emboldened Scholl and Seeger. They believed that in safeguarding the boundaries of their innermost thoughts they were defying political domination. It is a very appealing notion. But is it accurate?

Charlotte Beradt’s The Third Reich of Dreams (1966) suggests that the verdict is ‘nein’. One of the most important modern collections of dreams from an oppressive political society, Beradt’s study reluctantly disproves the claim of a Nazi authority who maintained that ‘the only person in Germany who still leads a private life is the person who sleeps’. Beradt came to the idea of recording others’ dreams as a result of her own nightmares. Immediately after Hitler seized power in 1933, Beradt, a Jewish journalist living in Berlin, spent night after night being ‘hunted from pillar to post — shot at, tortured, scalped’ in her dreams. It occurred to her that she couldn’t possibly be the only one suffering through her sleep. So she set out to document as many dreams as she could of those who similarly faced oppression and possible persecution — namely Jews and critics of the regime — with the belief that ‘they might one day serve as evidence’ about ‘people’s deepest feelings and reactions as they became part of the mechanism of totalitarianism’.

The more than 300 people whose dreams she obtained from 1933-39 (when she was forced to flee Germany for London before moving to New York) suggest that, in a totalitarian society, even sleep wasn’t a safe space for the private self. Beradt compiled her dream reports directly through interviews and through the assistance of others. But in each case, she had to hide the material, write in code, and even send her notes to friends abroad for safekeeping. For even retelling a dream could be seen as an act of disobedience, and recording them, high treason.

Beradt was a reluctant voyeur of her subjects’ pain. She thus edited out all ‘dreams involving violence or any physical expression of fear’. This disclaimer strikes an unforgettable note, for it confesses that the reports that actually made it into the book, as sickening as they are, are the PG-rated versions. A 45-year-old doctor dreamt that all the walls in his apartment mysteriously disappeared. Then he hears over a loudspeaker announcement that, forthwith, the Nazis were outlawing all walls. A 30-year old woman dreamt that she immersed herself in molten lead because once it hardened, it would render her immobile, keeping her from being a threat to the Nazis. A woman milliner dreamt that she was talking to herself in her sleep (which she didn’t do), speaking to herself in Russian (a language she didn’t know) ‘so I’d not even understand myself and so that no one else could understand me in case I said anything about the government’. (So this is an example of a dreamer living under Nazi rule, who made herself unintelligible – even to herself – in order to survive.) If these are the dreams free of violence, then indeed violence must be understood in the narrowest possible way. And if these are the dreams free of violence, then ‘Die Gedanken Sind Frei’ is nothing more than an impossible dream.

Beradt’s reports demonstrate how deeply, inexorably social dreams really are. Even the most fabulous dreams offer neither escapist fantasies nor safe harbours providing refuge from the world outside. So what good could dreams possibly be in creating new political prospects?

It is precisely because the social world provides raw materials for private dreams that dreams can help us to think about society. Dreams are not, in other words, an escape from reality, but rather another way of thinking about what ‘reality’ in social and political life actually means. If Beradt seized on a function of dreams during politics in extremis, the logic of her method extends well beyond Nazi Germany. ‘Set against a background of disintegrating values and an environment whose very fabric was becoming warped,’ Beradt observed, ‘these dreams are permeated by a reality whose quality is unreal – a combination of thought and conjecture in which rational details are brought into fantastic juxtapositions and thereby made more, rather than less, coherent.’

Beradt does not foreclose treating dreams as illusions. Dreams can be fantastical, replete with grotesque exaggerations, surreal distortions, taunting beasts or even rainbow-maned unicorns to the rescue. However, in the process of scrutinising her dreams, as outrageous as they might be, the awakened dreamer can perceive with new eyes truths that the waking world might obscure, or seize on possibilities hitherto unimagined.

The great potential of dreams for our public life lay in their ability to help people question that which goes by the clumsy and overworked moniker of ‘reality’ in political debate. Taking dreams seriously can lead to the kind of fundamental, unobvious discussions that those who wield ‘reality’ to browbeat people into ignorant submission, or dutiful obedience to whatever status quo, use to defend it. But these are examples when ‘reality’ is on its best behaviour.

Often, ‘reality’ is called on in more insidious ways, as evidenced by its function in testy exchanges on the Senate floor, angry social media memes, and generally whenever it happens to be modified by the words ‘political’ or ‘economic’. In these occasions, ‘reality’ asserts, but doesn’t question. It bellows, but doesn’t listen. One need not take dreams literally in order to make use of them to see more clearly what’s being defended and what’s being overlooked or concealed during daily power struggles over ‘real-world’ politics.

Awakening from a nighttime dream to look under the iron covers of ‘reality’ weighing heavily on political imaginations can do valuable intellectual work. It invites people to take notice of the gaps between their nighttime dreams, anaesthetising versions of the ‘American Dream’ ideal, and their daily experiences. Put simply, were Americans to use their dreams as a counterpoint to the naive realism and facile idealism that marks today’s discourse, this would be enough to justify them as a resource for political thought.

The daily workings of the world will ever seek to shame the nighttime workings of the mind. In early September 2001, the US historian Robin Kelley was finishing his manuscript of Freedom Dreams (2002), a hopeful study of how African Americans’ radical dreams can ‘change the world’, when he witnessed from his window the twin towers of the World Trade Center go down. As he sent off the manuscript to his editor, US bombs, in misguided retaliation, were ‘raining down on the people of Afghanistan’.

Fortunately, Kelley didn’t take this unsubtle mockery as a sign that he should abandon his Dreams. He seemed to realise — as his dreamers before him did — that the US needs its dreamers most when the world seems to be shaming them.

Therein lies the subtle genius of the idea of the ‘American Dream’. It was never meant to be a description of facts. If it has any value, it’s as ‘a counsel of perfection’, as the US philosopher Richard Rorty put it in Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America (1998). ‘You have to be loyal to a dream country rather than to the one to which you wake up every morning. Unless such loyalty exists, the ideal has no chance of becoming actual.’ The ‘American Dream’ is nothing more — but also nothing less — than an aspirational ideal.

At present, when so many, including the powerful, find ‘alternative facts’ indifferent to evidence more compelling than the prosaic ones that welcome verifiability, the prospect of turning to dreams to work through our political conditions might seem reckless. But ignoring them altogether could be even more reckless, and even stupid. After all, if Americans lose touch with a third of their problem-solving lives — just think of the actual, and perhaps even actionable — ‘American dreams’ they have lost. # # #

[Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen is the Merle Curti Associate Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Her most recent book is American Nietzsche: A History of an Icon and His Ideas (2011). She received a BA (history) from the University of Rochester (NY) and a PhD (history) from Brandeis University (MA). After a 3-year stay at the University of Miami (FL), she joined the faculty at UW-Madison.]

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Monday, May 29, 2017

The Theme Song For Our Time Is "It's Only Make Believe"

Tom Tomorrow (Dan Perkins) — succumbing to media fatigue coming out of the Middle East and Europe — gives way to VR (Virtual Reality) in today's 'toon. In the e-mail that brought today's TMW to this blogger's In Box, Tom (Dan) wrote:

This cartoon will probably make some readers think of The Matrix, or possibly the work of Philip K. Dick, but the actual inspiration is a science fiction novel called Simulacron-3 (1964, 1999), by Daniel F. Galouye. It’s the story of a computer scientist who develops a simulated world for purposes of market research, only to discover that he himself is a character in a simulated world, and that “reality” is one level up.

I’ve played with this theme once before, back during the very start of the campaign season, when things already seemed so weird and out of control that it seemed to fit the moment. In retrospect, we didn’t even know the meaning of “weird and out of control” back then, and I’ve been wanting to update it for the Trump presidency, perhaps to use as a recurrent theme. So if you have a vague feeling of deja vu reading this one, there’s a reason for that (which is why I have young Billy referencing the “last time” he had this discussion, in the first panel).

I wanted to include a small closing panel in which the Billy of the "real" reality, in the last panel, asks the Professor: "Hey do you think *we're* living in a simulation?" and the Professor replies, "Eh, never really thought about it." But alas, there was not room for this closing touch -- perhaps next time I visit the Simulacron.

And since it’s a holiday weekend again, I have to file my cartoon several days early, which is increasingly difficult in the era of Trump — I’m much more comfortable sitting on them until Sunday night, just in case there’s any late breaking news before the new one goes live on Monday morning. But at least this one isn’t tied to any specific news story (though the professor’s last two word balloons in the fourth panel will pretty much fit anything that might come up).

Have a good weekend, all. Next week will probably be full of surprises, because every week is these days.

Until then,

Dan (aka Tom)

And so, dizzy readers, we depend on TMW's Mad Scientist, Dr. Wilbur von Philbert — and his sidekick/apprentice, Billy — to offer a virtual explanation of how we got into this mess. It's not real! Is it? If this is a (fair & balanced) prophecy of a time where nothing is as it appears to be, so be it.

[x TMW]
The Simulacron
By Tom Tomorrow (Dan Perkins)

Tom Tomorrow/Dan Perkins

[Dan Perkins is an editorial cartoonist better known by the pen name "Tom Tomorrow." His weekly comic strip, "This Modern World," which comments on current events from a strong liberal perspective, appears regularly in approximately 150 papers across the U.S., as well as on Daily Kos. The strip debuted in 1990 in SF Weekly. Perkins, a long time resident of Brooklyn, New York, currently lives in Connecticut. He received the Robert F. Kennedy Award for Excellence in Journalism in both 1998 and 2002. When he is not working on projects related to his comic strip, Perkins writes a daily political blog, also entitled "This Modern World," which he began in December 2001. More recently, Dan Perkins, pen name Tom Tomorrow, was named the winner of the 2013 Herblock Prize for editorial cartooning. Even more recently, Dan Perkins was a runner-up for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning.]

Copyright © 2017 This Modern World/Tom Tomorrow (Dan Perkins)

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Sunday, May 28, 2017

We Live In A Time When Archie Bunker's Favorite Response Applies: "Stifle!"

At nearly the same time that this blogger discovered a terrific science essay on noise pollution in unpopulated areas, the blogger also happened upon a wonderful cartoon by Kim Warp of The New Yorker. The 'toonist was responding to the noise pollution on news media reports during last week's overseas sojourn by the Son-of-the-Beach (Mar-a-Lago) and it fits perfectly with the topic of noise pollution in our unpopulated areas:

And the prosecution rests. If this is a (fair & balanced) hope for the silencing of noxious noise, so be it.

[x The Atlantic]
A Not-So-Silent Spring
By Ed Yong

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If a tree falls in the forest, and there’s no one around, the National Park Service [NPS] will still hear it.

For the past decade, staff at the NPS have been lugging recording equipment into almost 500 sites around the US, in a bid to measure the sounds of the nation’s quietest places. For weeks at a time, sensors measured local noise levels, microphones recorded the actual soundscapes, and weather instruments noted temperature, air pressure, and other factors that affect the travel of sound. Collectively, the NPS recorded almost 1.5 million hours of sound—an extensive archive of bird songs and wolf howls, butting bighorns and tail-slapping beavers, rumbling thunder and rustling foliage.

Rachel Buxton from Colorado State University and her colleagues have now used their bonanza of data to map the extent to which excessive noise permeates American wilderness. The data revealed that a surprising swathe of protected areas are being carpeted by the clamor of human activity. People have doubled the background noise levels in two-thirds of these supposedly pristine zones, and increased noise by 10 times or more in a fifth of them. “If you could have heard something 100 feet away, now you can only hear it 10 feet away,” Buxton says of the latter.

That’s a problem. Over the past two decades, many studies have shown that human-made noise can cause stress, disrupt feeding, drown out mating calls, mask the approach of predators, and suppress the complexity of animal songs. It even affects species without ears: Some plants suffer as seed-dispersing animals are driven away. And in perhaps the most clean-cut demonstration of the harms of noise, one team of scientists set up a “phantom road” in Idaho—recreating the sound of passing traffic through speakers lashed to trees. That half-mile corridor of disembodied sound drove away a third of the local birds, and suppressed the weight of many of the species that stayed.

Noisy wilderness is a problem for people, too. One survey showed that as many people go to natural parks for their serene soundscapes as for their scenic landscapes. They find peace in quiet. For that reason, many scientists believe that noise should be treated as a pollutant—as significant and threatening as toxic chemicals in the water or irritating particles in the air. “Noise pollution doesn’t yet receive the attention other pollutants do,” says Angelika Nelson, from Ohio State University. “Hopefully the analysis in this new paper will help to increase people’s awareness of the effects it can have on us and other organisms, and change how we think about protected areas.”

In fairness, the NPS has long cared about sound. The Organic Act of 1916, which created the agency, charged it to “conserve the scenery and the national and historic objects and the wild life therein”, which subsequent policies took to include “natural soundscapes.” A few later acts [PDF], all meant to address the problem of noisy aircraft flying overhead pristine quiet, led to the creation of the agency’s Natural Sounds and Night Skies Division—the group responsible for the hard-won recordings that Buxton used.

Working with NPS engineers, her team used the assembled data to predict sound levels all over the US, taking account of factors like roads, aircraft routes, climate differences, tree cover, nearby rivers, and more. They also predicted what those levels would be like if humans weren’t around, to pinpoint the regions where our influence contributes to the greatest ruckus.

The team found that protected spaces are indeed quieter than unprotected ones, but many are still unacceptably noisy, including regions that are havens for endangered species. Around 58 percent of the areas had sound levels that were twice the natural baselines, and 14 percent had levels that were ten times higher. Even wilderness areas—remote and heavily protected regions that, by definition, are “untrammelled by man”—aren’t immune. Most of these were expectedly tranquil, but around 12 percent had sound levels that were twice the natural baselines.

“The biggest culprits by far were aircraft and vehicle noise,” says Buxton. Industrial land use was also a problem, including mining, forestry, and oil and gas extraction. And some sites, like Rock Creek Park and the National Mall in Washington, DC were inundated by the clamor of crowds.

“Not all species respond negatively to noise pollution,” says Catherine Ortega from Ecosphere Environmental Services. Her research has shown that birds like house finches and black-chinned hummingbirds not only tolerate the din, but benefit from the relative lack of more sensitive predators. Still, Ortega adds, such species are in the minority, and shouldn’t be seen as an excuse for inaction. “The most crucial point from this study is that we have an opportunity to strengthen and enforce regulations in more remote protected areas.”

“We actually have some really promising technologies for reducing noise,” says Buxton. There are quiet pavements whose porous structure better absorbs the noise from passing engines and tires, and sound-absorbing barriers that can help to reduce the cacophony of drilling rigs. Even when noise is inevitable, it can at least be corralled. “We can’t do away with flights altogether, but you could move a flight path over an already busy road rather than over a nice swathe of quiet area,” Buxton notes.

Even simple measures can make a noticeable difference, says Emma Lynch from the NPS. The staff at Muir Woods National Monument recently did an experiment where, on a random schedule, they stuck up a sign that declared part of the park as a quiet zone, and encouraged people to talk quietly and silence their phones. When the sign was up, the sound level in that zone fell by three decibels—a halving of sound energy, or the equivalent of losing 1,200 visitors but with no actual drop in footfalls. The signs are now permanent. In a similar way, Buxton’s map “gives managers of protected areas a way to see where mitigation can be applied to see immediate results,” says Lynch.

That’s ultimately what Buxton wants: to encourage people to listen. “The Grand Canyon is a visual spectacle but if you go into it, you hear the river going by and the birds in the trees,” she says. “It totally enhances your experience.” # # #

[Edmund Soon-Weng Yong (Ed) Yong is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covers science. Yong received a BA and MA (both in zoology) from Cambridge University as well as a MPhil (biochemistry) from the University College London. His approach to popular science writing has been described as "the future of science news." Yong's first book is I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life (2016).]

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Saturday, May 27, 2017

The Nexus Between Food And Our History Is Explained Right Here

At the end of the week (May 21-27, 2017), this blog features another woman writer, Casey N. Cep, who deftly traces the relationship of food with our history. She focuses on the South, but food is not confined to a single region of this country. There is more food than any of the stupid monuments to the nonsense of the Lost Cause. If this is (fair & balanced) culinary analysis, so be it.

[x TNR]
Southern History, Deep Fried
By Casey N. Cep

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It was 1838, and the young Englishman Philip Henry Gosse couldn’t sleep. He’d arrived in Alabama two months before, and was working as a schoolteacher for 21 young boys. An amateur naturalist, Gosse catalogued every living thing he saw: hawk moths and humble bees, turkey buzzards and crayfish, woodpeckers and whippoorwills. He also described all the things he ate. He wrote home about the watermelons that tasted like pink snow; hominy so good he could have it with every meal; figs that ripened mysteriously into a powdery blue skin. His favorite culinary discovery was a square dough dish, a little difficult to describe. “You see,” he wrote, “they are square thin cakes, like pancakes, divided on both sides into square cells by intersecting ridges.” The cells formed small pockets to capture sugar or jam. He advised eating “woofles” with butter.

Gosse’s Letters from Alabama was published two decades later, making him one of the first sojourners in the South to write about the region’s food. Rapturous accounts of southern cuisine have been made over and over again since then by strangers from all sorts of strange lands, and their outsider reports have appeared alongside resident voices from below the Mason-Dixon line. The latest of these homespun testimonials is The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South (2017) from John T. Edge, who was born in Clinton, Georgia, and lives now in Oxford, Mississippi. Director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, Edge grew up lunching at Mary Mac’s tearoom in Atlanta; he cured his undergraduate hangovers at a greasy spoon in Athens run by a member of the Ku Klux Klan Ladies Auxiliary.

When Edge made it to graduate school, he wrote his thesis on the forgotten potlikker and cornpone debate. In 1931, an editor of the Atlanta Constitution instigated a regional crisis when he wrote that Louisiana Governor Huey Long had dunked his cornbread into potlikker, the water left over from boiled collard greens. That editor, Julian Harris, had won a Pulitzer for his coverage of the Klan, but not even he was prepared for what came next: Six hundred letters poured into the newsroom arguing over whether it was better to crumble or dunk into potlikker. Centuries after Christians had stopped arguing about intinction, Southerners had their own sacramental crisis over cornbread and collards.

Edge is an ecumenist when it comes to such culinary crises, and that’s what makes him so wonderful a surveyor of the last 50 years of Southern history. The Potlikker Papers goes looking for the story of the South in its kitchens, fields, gardens, and groceries. Edge profiles the black cooks and maids who helped end Jim Crow, orders at the drive-thrus that dot America’s highways, follows the Delta mafia that controlled the restaurant pages of The New York Times, and lands in the Nuevo Sud of today. Decade by decade, Edge shows that we aren’t just what we eat; we are where that food was grown, how it was cooked, who cooked it, and who all gets to eat it with us.

Take, for instance, the case of Georgia Theresa Gilmore. She was in the pews of Holt Street Baptist Church in December 1955, when Martin Luther King, Jr. called for a boycott of Montgomery’s bus system. She brought along a hamper full of sandwiches that first evening, and as the boycott continued over the course of a year, she organized what she called “The Club from Nowhere,” a group of bakers and cooks who sold cakes and pies to activists and supporters, pouring the money they made back into the Montgomery Improvement Association. When the buses integrated, she kept cooking. John T. Edge describes how Gilmore’s brick house on Dericote Street became “an executive dining room for the civil rights movement.” She turned her home into a restaurant of sorts, with standing room only at times, and the likes of Attorney General Robert Kennedy and President Lyndon Johnson seated at her table.

Home restaurants and the women who staffed them were prototypes for what came next in the movement. The lunch counter stools of Greensboro, North Carolina are the only ones preserved in the Smithsonian, but there were thousands like them around the South where activists sat down, placed their orders, and refused to leave. Even after some owners removed the stools, black patrons stood for hours demanding service. By April of 1960, Edge says, there were sit-ins in 78 American cities, and by the end of that same year, more than 70,000 customers had participated in lunch counter protests. “Restaurants,” Edge writes, “were backdrops for change, stage sets where black and white Southerners negotiated an integrated future before a national audience.”

After blacks fought to integrate these public spaces, they fought for greater equality in private homes, too. They started a political conversation about hunger, pushing the federal government to address the forty million Americans who lived in poverty by the end of the fifties. The Great Society initiatives followed naturally from the integration campaign, and activists called attention to how assistance programs and food stamps were failing black and white families alike. Food was so integral to freedom that some civil rights leaders pursued alternative agriculture programs: In 1969, Fannie Lou Hamer founded Freedom Farm on a few hundred acres in Mississippi, leading an interracial exchange. “You can give a man some food and he’ll eat,” she said. “But give a man some ground of his own and a hoe, and he’ll never go hungry again.”

At the same time, more and more Americans wanted faster food. Edge shows how the South produced some of the most popular, enduring franchises. He shows us Colonel Sanders cursing and complaining about how he thought he sold his secret recipe, not his soul, to the businessmen who marketed his face and fried chicken around the world. Long John Silver’s fish were first fried in Lexington, Kentucky; Wilber Hardee got his start in Greenville, South Carolina. “In an era of convenience foods,” Edge argues, “the South emerged as a packager of American regional tastes and traditions.”

Alongside those still standing, Edge resurrects a whole network of black businesses that were crowded out of the marketplace. Mahalia Jackson might’ve wanted to walk in Jerusalem, but her “Chicken System” opened its flagship store in Memphis. “It’s Glori-Fried,” the chain’s slogan promised in 1968, becoming the first national fast food franchise with African-American management. A year later, James Brown was insisting that “if you don’t like Gold Platter, you ain’t got no soul,” promoting his restaurant chain around Macon, Georgia.

Food-wise, the South was already a culinary Camino de Santiago: Kansas City native Calvin Trillin made his name covering crime for The New Yorker, but he wound up publishing a travelogue of his meals around the region called American Fried in 1974. Jane and Michael Stern went on their own anthropological eating tour of the South that appeared as Roadfood in 1978. And later, John Egerton bested them all with Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, in History in 1987. Edge presents The Potlikker Papers as a sequel to Egerton’s book, and agrees with his literary ancestor’s assertion that food is the key to unlocking “the rusty gates of race and class, age and sex” in the South. He writes, “a place at the table is like a ringside seat at the historical and ongoing drama of life in the region.”

But like everything else, food gentrified. Edge looks at how Craig Claiborne, a Southern-bred The New York Times editor, transformed food writing from something that was mostly for women to something dominated by men. Encouraged by his friend Willie Morris, Claiborne also used the Gray Lady’s pages to promote Cajun, Creole, Soul, and Tex-Mex. He and other writers, editors, and chefs made Southern food into more than an eccentricity—it was suddenly something worth talking about and paying for.

That consumption became even more conspicuous when southern cooking shows took over the airwaves. The best of these television stars was Nathalie Dupree, a white woman who rolled pepper into her dumplings and everything else. She wore an AIDS ribbon during a 1985 tapping of her show "New Southern Cooking." She planned an Atlanta event for Salman Rushdie after the fatwa against him was announced, and then defended the Muslims who protested her party for him. She insisted on acknowledging the African-American slaves whose recipes were stolen for Southern mainstays, along with the Chinese immigrants who came to build the canals and whose sauces added flavor to Georgia cooking.

Dupree was ahead of her own time, and ahead of ours, too: Her modern equivalent, Paula Deen, was booted off the airwaves for racist comments. Instead of focusing on Deen’s downfall, though, Edge looks at the culinary historian Michael Twitty, who penned a popular open letter to the fallen chef in the summer of 2013. Twitty explained he wasn’t mad she used a racial slur, but “angry about the cloud of smoke this fiasco has created for other issues surrounding race and Southern food.” For years, he’d been researching his own family’s enslavement and the ways that African slaves had changed the culinary culture of America. “We are surrounded by culinary injustice,” he insisted, “where some Southerners take credit for things that enslaved Africans and their descendents played key roles in innovating.”

Just as the South was coming to terms with its past, the injustices of the present revealed themselves more starkly. Edge illustrates how the industrial agriculture that had come to dominate the economy and food culture of the region reinforced old systems of racist worker oppression. Whether it was Big Tomato in Florida, Big Pig in North Carolina, or Big Chicken in Arkansas, a new generation of workers was being exploited in the fields, factory lines, and slaughterhouses of America. In what Edge calls “political reckonings,” these laborers fought the greed that suppressed their wages and the gag rules that kept their life-threatening working conditions hidden from regulators and consumers alike. The results were mixed. It says a lot about the mountain of injustice in agricultural labor that one of the greatest triumphs of reform so far was getting farm workers an extra penny per pound for tomatoes by boycotting Taco Bell, McDonald’s, and Burger King.

The men and women who pluck fruits and pick vegetables mostly come to the South as migrants, bringing with them a rich culinary history and changing the southern foodscape as well as its landscape. For every xenophobic law in Alabama and Georgia, there are a thousand bodegas and tortillerias. As Edge explains, the South actually leads the country in immigration: “From Arkansas, arcing down into the plantation belt of Mississippi and sweeping upward into the Carolinas, minority populations increasingly constituted the majority.” These immigrants followed African slaves brought there in coffles, waves of Chinese workers recruited for cane fields, and Vietnamese refugees who came after the war and became fisher folk on the Gulf.

The tables of the New South are integrated and international. So were those of the Old South, although Southerners have feigned amnesia about their actual history for so long that they might have forgotten that New Orleans had Chinese restaurants as early as 1892, or that most of them ate hot tamales long before they knew what a hush puppy was. It’s convenient to pretend it was always just grits and gravy, but the South was never a monoculture.

The boundaries of the South are tricky, and like so many Southern storytellers, John T. Edge is of several minds about just what counts. He rejects the idea that the South can be defined by the latitude lines of geography or the timeline of secession, arguing the region is not only “a broad swath of land, comparable in size and sweep to Western Europe” and more than “a rejected political gambit, defined by brutality, economics, and global trade.” Instead, Edge argues for a South that is “an album of snapshots,” “a jukebox of 45s,” or, in the book’s own vernacular, “a menu of dishes.” # # #

[Casey N. Cep is a freelance writer from the Eastern Shore of Maryland. She has written for the digital and dead-tree pages of places like The New Republic, The New Yorker, and The Paris Review. Her first book, Furious Hours: Harper Lee and an Unfinished Story of Race, Religion, and Murder in the Deep South, is forthcoming from Knopf. Cep received a BA (literature) from Harvard College as well as a MPhil (theology) from Oxford University where she was a Rhodes Scholar.]

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