A. J. Liebling, “Normandy Revisited” (1958): War and Nostalgia

The film The Best Years of Our Lives famously explored the trauma of returning from war to a working class community that no longer understood you. The war gave a sense of meaning, a community, and a purpose that could not be recreated in one’s banal hometown. Marriages broke up and veterans took to drink. Others came back less than whole and found additional challenges. If A. J. Liebling’s Normandy Revisited is a guide, this was in some ways the experience of war correspondences. Perhaps this is why so many journalists move from war to war and never settle for working for a local newspaper, reporting on the fair.

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Normandy Revisited has more in common with Liebling’s book on food Between Meals than some of the other war writings I have been looking at. He often looks back with nostalgia at the war and his exciting experiences covering the war (with a knowledge that such events will never come again), but much of this nostalgic musing is done at French cafes in Normandy. It is hard not to wonder whether this book was an excuse for Liebling to enjoy consumption and conversation in his second home of France. It is a work of leisurely tourism and thus cannot be fully separated from the privilege someone like Liebling enjoyed at the birth of American hegemony. While I do not find much useful in nostalgia (I prefer a Prometheanism) and when that nostalgia is for a war that one did not need to fight except in print it should trouble us, there is perhaps something to the human preference for action to banality. I suspect many leftists look at revolution (or the high point of the I.W.W. or a particularly inspirations strike) with a similar nostalgia.

What I find sad in the juxtaposition of his war memories with his experiences touring Normandy a decade after D-Day is the apparent loss of the leftist potentialities that formed a crucial part of the anti-fascist struggle. (See my earlier posts on Liebling for more on these.) Instead we are given Liebling’s participation in a culture of affluence. The following comes after a two page description of a meal.

This has developed from a merely culinary into a geographical digression, but I can never approach the memory of that meal without wanting to go into it. It has the same attraction for me as Costello’s saloon. I seldom encounter a pheasant nearly so good nowadays, and when I do, an hour d’oeuvre and possible a tripe is all I can manage at one meal besides the bird. (I am writing this on a lunch exclusively of turtle soup, as I am trying to take off weight.) (913)

Perhaps a more useful reading of Normandy Revisited is to set it next to Between Meals and take another look at the Dionysian pursuit of pleasure. In my post on Between Meals, I argued for a more sympathetic view of Liebling’s quest for pleasure as a reaction against a capitalist culture of scarcity and restraint. The reason more of us cannot consume epically is due to the even more grotesque consumption and accumulation by the ruling class. We should not confuse Liebling’s obesity and fondness for food with the obesity of the millionaires and billionaires. Perhaps my brief moral outrage has to do with his enjoyment of these pleasures on a graveyard of soldiers and radical dreams. I had forgotten that in the context of the Nazi occupation of France, merely keeping a harvest or enjoying a surplus was not allowed.

 

From the perspective of human freedom, perhaps it is also good that the wounds of war were so easily healed. Signs of war, of course, could not so easily forgotten. Some buildings were left in partial repair. Widows had to come to terms with dead husbands. Liebling’s report from the Hôtel du Cheval Blanc shows little evidence of the previous conflict, except the proprietor’s dead husband and the fact that the hotel had to be rebuilt. Instead of trauma we get:

When I came downstairs to await the Le Cornecs in the cafe that evening, the chromium-florescent bait had brought in two couples who sat up at the bar. The women’s tight, round little bottoms perched up on the bar stools like the tops of swizzle sticks. The V-backs of their motoring dresses started just above the caudal cleft, their hair was rose platinum, and their voices suggested they wore microphones in their garter belts. They and the men, who looked like comperes in a marseilais road show, were drinking Scotch, as everybody does in France now who does not wish to be taken for a tourist. (917)

One quickly notices in this book (if not in his earlier projects) that Liebling always saved one eye for the ladies and his books would have been much shorter had an editor removed these descriptions. I wonder how many of these women he discusses knows they have been so immortalized for sitting at a barstool, riding a bicycle or showing off their “French frame” (no time to look up page number for that reference but it is there).

Where does this obligation to feel nostalgia, grief, and trauma for a war come from? I am pondering a fictional visit to Normandy made by the titular character in Saving Private Ryan. For that character the war was a life of guilt and torment. The film-maker, and I suspect the nation as a whole, demands this emotion from its people. Considerable energy is spent in memorials, films, holidays, parades, and speeches. Lincoln passed over the suffering and sacrifice of soldiers in one line to get to the real significance of Gettysburg, the war as social revolution. In contrast, the cult of war memorials wants a nation who thinks opposition to the state is somehow opposition to the war dead. This is a profoundly reactionary sentiment and had no place in a projectural life and a politics of the future. We should let the dead be dead.

Tyranny of historical memory

Tyranny of historical memory

Liebling’s reports form his trip show that the Parisians did not remember the war with guilt. Perhaps it is an American obsession. Liebling does describe a charity event for veterans, but it was apparently not drown in tears, bad patriot music, and political leaders calling on our divine duty to the war dead.

As Liebling suggested in The Road Back to Paris, he could not really cover the war from cafes, but we should be fortunate that is may turn out to be a very good place to cover the aftermath of the war. So let me suggest: Down with nostalgia and guilt when it comes to the great wars of the past and our own lives. It has no place in the world we want to build.

A. J. Liebling, “Uncollected War Journalism” (1939-1963): Infrapolitics and Resistance

Haven’t they any cooperatives? It is to the interest of the dairies to be clean. Then they would get a premium for the milk. It is just like the ships. If you have a good ship, with the proper number of watertight compartments and all new safety things, then you pay such a low insurance rate, you know. And if you treat the crew right, it is a good crew, and then you don’t have to pay so many men. In Denmark it has all worked out beautifully. In a cooperative one bad one hurts all the others. (596)

Is it not amazing that we find in a small report by an overweight American journalist about the fate of the Danish navy during World War II, such a concise argument for anarchist principles of organization? I argued in my last posts on A. J. Liebling’s World War II writings that we see in the fighting of the war plenty of unrealized potentialities. Here, perhaps, is another one. In any case, readers of the New Yorker cannot say they were not by none other than a Danish sailor.

Liebling’s reports from the Second World War are insightful on many levels. They speak of the experience of common soldiers, the character of commanders, and the perceptions of war from the home front. Of most long-term significant is what his stories reveal about the winning of the war and the power of vernacular forms of protest. As important as the military was to the victory, the painting Liebling presents of occupied Europe is one a Gulliver being tied down by thousands of little strings. Liebling had a fascination and love for France, which comes through in his writings. He even wrote an entire book on the French resistance, The Republic of Silence (of which two selections are included in this collection). Their contribution was not simply armed resistance, but a great diversity of infrapolitics (a term coined by James Scott for unseen and underground political action).

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One of the most memorable in this collection of war reports to the New Yorkers (pp. 573–815 in World War II Writings) is about the “V” campaign. The campaign used radio to encouraged people in occupied territories to write the letter “V” on public buildings with chalk. The letter was given different meaning depending on the local language. When transformed into morse code, it became the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. In effect, this turned a piece of German music into an international symbol of resistance (to the great annoyance of the Germans). Liebling estimates that this cheaply run campaign kept two German divisions from the front in attempt to suppress graffiti, but the use of a musical phrase for resistance was impossible to repress.

The radio broadcasts encouraged other forms of day to day resistance to the occupation, which may have had a cumulative effect that shaped the war’s outome. The colonel in charge of the program said in one broadcast:

This week I’m asking you to buy anything and everything and leave nothing for the Germans. Buy before your money becomes worthless. . . . Farmers, soon you’ll be getting your harvests in. The Germans want to get their hands on your crops, but there are ways to hide them. You will neede to keep your families from starving during the winter, and if you can save a little more than you need for yourself, it will be worth its weight in gold. . . . A lot of you city people have insurance policies. Nearly all the insurance companies have been bought up by the Germans, so every time you burn a hole in your carpet or break some china, don’t forget to claim; bury the Germans in paperwork. And if you can’t do any of these things, mark up the V where they’ll see it. Beat out the V rhythm. (608–609)

Of course, the effectiveness of this sort of thing could not be determined by the bureaucratic institutions that ran the war, but they likely helped cultivate an anti-fascist ethos in these countries and may have helped prevent its reemergence.

“The Lancaster Way” shows how small industries in small towns in England became critical production centers in for the war effort, while also sustaining a strong working class culture and spirit of autonomy. The vernacular ingenuity of these smaller urban spaces was, according to Liebling, nothing short of stunning.

Another set of articles I would like to highlight are those dealing with the French press under Nazi occupation. Liebling was interested in how the press in a city could keep its independence while also suffering from increasing corporate centralization. His 1964 book The Press is about the threat to democracy by centralized media ownership. While we might think that the press was completely restricted under the Nazis, we find the opposite was the case. “The only great nation with a completely free press today is France. All valid French newspapers are illegal.” (653) The press, in open rebellion of this censorship flourished. I suppose by the same logic, the most repressed spouse is the most likely to seek out affairs. Liebling describes the various major underground newspapers, their varied perspectives, and how they got into print. Repression created a solidarity of varied perspectives, which ultimately proved a boon to the left. “The Gestapo called them all Communists. This is an example of Nazi and collaborationist propaganda that had boomeranged. . . . the words ‘Communist’ and ‘patriot’ in the French popular mind. . . became synonyms, which gives an increased impetus to the Leftward tendency caused by the treason committed by the great industrialists.” (655) Had the Germans allowed some press freedom, what may have emerged was a waffling “neutral” newspaper that was politically anodyne and a complicit supporter of the occupation. Through censorship, the Germans created a radical French media culture. Later, Liebling suggest this contributed to the post-war alliance between the French working class and the intellectuals.

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Liebling’s Second World War writings teaches us that the people can trap the state in its own rhetoric, immobilize it through non-participation, and silence it. The tools and strategies used by the European resistance are still available to us even if they will look different in application. The power of infrapolitics has never really declined.

A. J. Liebling: “The Road Back to Paris,” (1944): Part Two, The Values that Won the War

If one American division could beat one German division, I thought then, a hundred American divisions could beat a hundred German divisions. Only the time was already past when Germany had a hundred divisions to spare from the Russian front, plus God knows how many more to fight the British, plus garrison troops for all the occupied countries. I knew deep down inside me after that that the road back to Paris was clear. (308)

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In The Road Back to Paris, A.J. Liebling is interested in the values that won the Second World War (or in 1944 made victory inevitable). His approach to the war was patriotic but not irrationally so. If he could not resist pro-American statements that come off as rather shallow, such as his claim that American soldiers would do well in the war because of how competitive Americans were on the basketball court, he was in the main an internationalist and much of his war journalism is trying to get at the underlying solidarity of working people that won the war. Nowhere is this made clear more than in the central events of the book, Liebling’s trek back to the United States on a Norwegian cargo freighter in the winter of 1941. It is placed centrally in the book. It is also a central in the sense that when he set out America was not in the war, but when he returned to New York it was. Finally, it is thematically central. Through the sailors on the freighter we learn about the values of the working people who won the war.

I opened this post with the final passage in the book, which rightfully reduced war to a number games. Earlier in the text, while following the Americans in North Africa, Liebling pointed out that Washington wanted a 100% mechanized war. The result of a bureaucratic conflict, run by technocrats applying cost-benefit models. Of course, this is part of the ideology that won the war, a rather inhuman technocratic logic. But I do not think that was all that was at work nor would it have been enough. More impressive is the massive international democratic solidarity, rather striking in a world that was becoming progressively less free during the first half of the century. The first half of the book spent time describing the rising tide of fascism in France and such sentiments were even positioned in in the army (and we know similar movements were power in the United States during the Great Depression).

The Chapter “Westbound Tanker” is a window into this solidarity and a discussion on bravery during a war run by actuaries. While the 1%–2% loss rate on trans-Atlantic freighter voyages was something Liebling himself could brush off, only making one voyage. For the sailors who were committed to the service in the merchant marine during the war, this was an oppressive fact of life, without dramatically affecting their performance. A similar experience was shared by bomber crews that strangely listened to melancholy music before missions. In addition to the risk, they faced rapid changes in destination and a general uncertainty about the future. The war was out of their hands; the same was true for the soldiers.

When you are in a convoy it is sometimes impossible to remember whether a thing happened yesterday or the day before yesterday or the day before that. You watch the other ships and you read whatever there is to read and you play jokes on the ship’s cat. (195)

If  Liebling’s reportage is to be believed, the time was also spent getting to know each other. Liebling reveals the histories and stories of many of these common, unheroic (in the classical sense) sailors. Christmas dinner became a time for sharing experiences, stories, songs, and drink. Mostly Norwegian (the ship was ordered to Allied ports when the Germans invaded Norway) but had crew members from other allied nations. Ideologically they were diverse as well, with some communists on board, but these were not barriers to the crews solidarity, which was quite strong and reinforced as often as possible with drink and merriment and trying to catch a glimpse of “bathing girls” while cruising past Miami Beach. What is coming through to me, more than anything else, is just how much the war was fought by a motley crew.

Liebling’s arrival in North Africa (with gout as a symbol of his relative privilege) leads to some interesting observations. One is that a fascist apologist ruling clique in North African towns (Oran in Algeria is highlighted) being put into a revolutionary situation by the mere presence of this motley crew. Before 1939, this town was a center of radical leftist politics and the fall of France made it possible for the bosses to solidify their rule. In a model copies again and again, capital found undemocratic systems—especially fascism—quite useful in entrenching their power. A result of their triumph, Allied sympathies were high in the town among these suppressed leftists. Of course this situation seemed to exist across North Africa and led to the creation of the seemingly impressive “Corps France d’Afrique.” “Jews, Moslems, foreigners held in concentration camps, former soldiers of the Foreign Legion, and anybody not formally enrolled with a regular class of the Army Reserve could volunteer in a new catch-all organization . . . which was promised immediate service in the front lines.” (231) I wonder if this was modelled off the International Brigades in Spain. The fact that we may have here a model for a broad anti-fascist movement involving such a diverse group in the Muslim world makes it worthy of future study.

French troops in Oran

French troops in Oran

There is no reason to think that the grassroots organization, solidarity, and resistance that struck Leibling as so power worked to be an effective counter to the growing bureaucratic nature of the war. The fact that actuarial tables at insurance companies had to be reformulated when the war broke out should be morally troubling, but it is likely just a sign of the times. Insurance companies knew how likely it was a sailor would due on a voyage, just as commanders new how likely it was soldiers would return from a particular mission. War had become a number games. (As Ambrose Bierce taught readers decades earlier war become a numbers game in the nineteenth century.) These are competing sides of the allied war efforts and even if the number games won the war, it is the diversity and solidarity that allowed many on the Allied side to begin to imagine a very different world.

A. J. Liebling: “The Road Back to Paris,” (1944): Part One, Ideologies and People at War

The circumstances of a man’s capture are more significant than this tone of voice in replying to the interrogating officers. It is to a prisoner’s interest to be cocky, after capture, for he is under the surveillance of his fellows and the governance of superiors whose Naziness is likely to be in proportion to their rank. The Geneva Convention was never drawn up to cover an ideological war; there is no inducement for the German prisoner who is democratic or just anti-war to let anyone know what is on his mind. Vanity also counts in the prisoner’s attitude. He likes to think of himself as a Teutonic heor even when he knows he has quit cold. (71)

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A historical analysis of the failures of political anarchism in the twentieth century needs to come to terms with the central events of that century: the Russian Revolution, the Chinese Revolution, and the Second World War. The horrors of ideologies at war, backed by triumphant and largely unquestioned state power is troubling to ponder. One thing that is clear from my reading of A. J. Liebling’s The Road Back to Paris, a collection of Liebling’s war correspondence published while the war was incomplete, if not undecided, is that the ideological nature of the war was comparatively weak among the largely working class soldiers. As the prisoner of war camps in France show, it is actually quite difficult to get people to kill and die for the state. Even prisoners required constant surveillance by superiors in order to enforce their commitment to the Nazi cause.

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The Road Back to Paris is divided into three parts (“The World Knocked Down,” “The World on One Knee,” and “The World Gets Up”). From these titles, the general narrative of the world parallels a general interpretation of the war as a catastrophe followed by a difficult and hard-won victory. What Liebling does not give us is a general military history of the conflict. His columns followed his life as a war correspondent, first in France and then after the fall of Paris in Britain and North Africa. He did cover D-Day and returned to Paris, but is documented in another collection of his war writings. As we recall from his other journalism, Liebling was very interested in how things worked at the vernacular level. His examinations of aspects of New York City are really at the gutter level and his findings about how cities actually work are striking. It is the same with his reading of the war, which he often covered from brothels, cafes, and prisoner of war camps.

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In the first part of the book, Liebling encounters numerous people who were not very interested in fighting. German leadership aside, it did not seem that there was anyone who was particularly interested in another war. Liebling reported that the English seemed to have found a “new form of patriotism” based on the principle of fighting a war without war. Of course, that was from the rather subdued period between the conquest of Poland and the conquest of France. Now I do not find his to be a compelling case for pacifism, nor am I very interested in debating the moral necessity (or not) of the Allied war effort, merely to point out that it took a violent autocracy to convince its people to fight and even then it was not an easy sale as the prisoner of war camps suggested.

We can also see from Liebling’s account that if the Second World War was a war of ideologies, no one seemed very sure of the ideology on their side.

Remoteness from the war affected everybody, but there were at least two groups in our country that tried consciously to minimize our danger. They were precisely these that had worked to the same end in France—a strong faction of men of wealth and the Community party. The money people wanted to prove fascism more efficient than democracy, the Communists that democracy offered no protection against fascism. A military victory for the democracies would shatter the pretensions of both. (120)

True enough, but in Liebling’s mind, democracy was a hard sale during those dark years of 1940 and 1941. Something Liebling did not take up (at least as far as I have read) is how much the values of democracy and equality would be both pushed to the limit and betrayed over the course of the war. As far as he got in this direction was his desire for an early start to American involvement because of the needs of governmental “war powers.”

After the fall of France, Liebling returned to the United States for a while where he signed up for the draft (he was still in his thirties although over weight). After this he returned to war correspondence for the New Yorker by sailing to England on a rather perilous trek amid German submarine warfare. In London, Liebling reported on how the impact of the war on people’s lives. One striking passage is about a young woman who had to get herself drunk everytime German bombers hit the city, leading to a perpetual cycle of hangover and drunken binges.

While Liebling did not have many encounters with soldiers, he did start the book with some anecdotes about American soldiers in North Africa. These soldiers were incredibly creative. One invented a new way of making coffee he was sure could have made him rich. They created their own cultural life and did what they could to make their relatively small world (for wars are fought by people largely ignorant of the battlefield) livable. The common soldier is not so unlike any of us, being pulled by forces rather outside of our control (capital, urban planning, institutional imperatives). What is not on their mind was the slugfest of ideologies that supposedly drove the war.

If these ideologies are often missing from the perspectives and experiences of the soldiers and citizens fighting the war, they still had an impact, as a conversation with a  Polish member of the government in exile who saw anything less than the dismemberment and total destruction of Germany as treason. Liebling’s friend responded to this understandable—if destructive and irrational—hatred with: “It was so disgusting, so human, so deplorable.” (155)

A. J. Liebling, “The Press,” (1964)

Put out a few months after his death, The Press, collects A. J. Liebling’s diverse writings on the state of journalism in the United States. In the sharp and humorous style that characterized most of his work, Liebling exposes the decline of the newspaper in the United States as an important element of civil society. This type of argument is, of course, old news by now. We have been hearing about the decline of the newspaper for years now. Media consolidation, the rise of the Internet commentators lacking the ability and skills to report, the 24-hour news cycle, and downsizing in newspaper are all clear to us, now. What strikes a 2013 reader of Liebling’s The Press is how predictable all of that was and how the roots of that decline went back to the early 20th century. I suppose Liebling’s critique has three parts. The first is that profitability of a newspaper interferes with its role in civil society. The most profitable newspapers are the only newspaper in town, making competition for stories rare and ensuring that much will be unreported (because with a captive audience one need to necessarily report in order to get buyers-or so they thought until the Internet). Media consolidation makes newspapers more profitable at the expense of the losing companies and the public good. A second critique that runs through The Press is that the newspaper is no longer speaking for the public interest and rather speaking to class interests (or some other subset). His analysis of the coverage of strikes, for instance, shows the press supporting owners while feigning objectivity.  This third critique is a bit more technical, but has to do with the ways in which news spread between papers, exaggerate claims, or carry on lies. They are essentially becoming gossip rags. Again, the fault for this seems to lie in media consolidation. With no need to compete for stories, there is no reason to have a bureau in Moscow, which means international news will largely rely on slight rewritings of wire stories. At best this is harmless, at worst it leads to the promulgation of falsehoods or exaggerations, as Liebling shows in the case of reportage on Chiang Kai-shek’s military strength.

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The Press is made up of six pieces previously published by Liebling throughout his career, so these are not a deathbed condemnation of his profession. His chapter titles suggest clearly his major themes: “Toward a One-Paper Town,” “No-News,” and “Not Too Lopsided.” Liebling does very well describing what ails the newspaper industry, but what of the solutions? In fact, it seems to Liebling that the solution is quite simple. “[A] large number of competing newspapers, permitting representations of various shades of thought, are a country’s best defense against being stampeded into barbarism.” (911)  A greater diversity of views, leading not to greater amateurism but rather a greater focus on professionalism as papers compete for accuracy and relevance. That is certainly fine for his day. We have a more challenging problem today, namely, that diversity has not necessarily led to more professionalism. This blog, for example, is the product of someone who is entirely untrained in literature, politics, or philosophy but I discuss them all. In a search for Melville’s Mardi, I come up long before many real professional Melville scholars. (I mention this as one of my more commonly-viewed pages, which is also one of my worst efforts written during last Christmas over heavily spiked eggnog.) For better or for worse, good commentary, good reporting, and thoughtful analysis often gets shoved aside by. This is essentially David Simon’s renewal of Liebling’s argument. Simon is seeming to say that a one-newspaper town is acceptable as long as it has professionals, is committed to reporting on urban institutions engaged in the public interest, and (of course) financially viable. I do not recall him saying much about competition between newspapers. Maybe the hey-day Liebling recalls, when a city had half-a-dozen competing papers was too far gone for Simon to pine over.

Sorry for the string of clips:

If you watch those clips, you will see that Liebling and Simon essentially start from the same place, in a belief that the role of the newspaper is that of preserving civil society and that this job is impossible to carry out unless newspapers are not primarily concerned with the bottom line. I reckon a product-first focus would do much to aid the universities, another bastion of civil society almost completely engulfed by the profit motive, as well.

Another model that Liebling suggests, as he loses hope that competition can ever again be the force that provides objective and professional journalism is the endowed newspaper. “I think that a good newspaper is as truly an educational institution as a college, so I don’t see why it should have to stake its survival on attracting advertisers of ball-point pens and tickets to Hollywood peep shows. And I think that private endowment would offer greater possibilities for a free press than state ownership.” (698–699) Liebling hopes that an endowment model (rather than the daily panhandling for ads, would to more to ensure objectivity as long as those endowments were offered up without strings attached. I suppose this works well enough in other areas; I am not sure how often corporate sponsors of opera companies complain about what is put on each season. Yet, the news had more opportunities for opposing the interests of the elite so I am not as sure as Liebling is that the endowment model would work.

Some of what Liebling documents is just humorous and not necessarily a sign of illness. The tendency of the press to inflate stories to fill column inches (the media’s slow watch of Stalin’s death is fascinating if only because each days reporting could only report that he still lived). This may be how 24 hour cable stations now make their money but Liebling is able to present it as a fascinating piece of Americana.

As I see it, Liebling’s The Press is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the history of media in the United States. It is not as strong in imagining creative alternatives for the nature of reporting in free societies – Liebling was, after all, institutionalized and a professional but not so much so that he could not manage a critique of the press. One issue he did not speak much on was the division of labor among workers in newspapers. I know some anarchist publishers (AK Press) have managed to rethink how work is divided to ensure that no one person has too much power. In my brief experience with newspaper (I work at one now at a copy desk) only a handful of people in the company have any power over what appears in print and for the rest of us, the job is pretty Taylorized and repetitive. I guess that a newspaper of the future would need to be prefigurative.

A. J. Libeling, “Between Meals” (1962): Celebration of Pleasure

Outside of reviews on restaurant windows, this may be the first piece of food journalism I have ever read. I have never cared much about food nor believed that food was a very important thing to spend one’s money on (compared to opera, books and booze anyway). Indeed, as a vegetarian, I always found the “foodie” craze a rather vile celebration of excess, undertook at the cost of violence against animals. A. J. Liebling’s Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris did not convince me to start caring about food but I find myself in agreement with Liebling on one important point: that a life centered on pleasure and appetite is certainly better than one of restraint. Between Meals is a book that actually documents an entire host of appetites, not confined just to meals.

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When you did a Google search for this book by its title–neglecting the author–you find a host of pages calling for restraint. This suggests Liebling’s theme, that taking that extra meal is not a sin.

Liebling begins nostalgically (as he often does) of the time before the First World War when heroic eating was a respected pastime in Europe. “I have known some of the survivors, octogenarians of unblemished appetite and unfailing good humor–spry, wry, and free of the ulcers that come from worrying about a balanced diet–but they have had no emulators in France since the doctors there discovered the existence of the human liver.” (558) A common theme running through his work is that excess is not as unhealthy and restraint. This is probably a clearer case to make with sex, which he does in the second chapter on a M. Mirande. Liebling connects the new regime of restraint on eating with the emerging sexual restraint he saw in France. “He had the pleasure of women. Currently pleasure and women are held matters incompatible, antithetical, and mutually exclusive, like quinine water and Scoth. Mirande also gave women pleasure; many women had pleasure of him. This is no longer considered a fair or honorable exchange.” (574)

One of the major points running through Between Meals is that food is a subjective experience and in this runs some of its power. While the rich can certainly explore food more freely than the poor, there are many foods that the poor enjoy that the rich will rarely get to try. It is an experience shaped in no small degree by class. Tastes in food, wine, lovers, and cities are all ultimately individualized. Interestingly, Liebling is interested not only in the food and his company but in the chefs, who all tended to be colorful, emotionally expressive figures.

The story in Between Meals does not have a moral tale at the end. He does include a chapter about his time at a weight loss “prison,” which failed, as we might expect. (When was the last time a prison rehabilitated a criminal?) The book ends with a narrative of Liebling’s love life during the 1920s in Paris, again connecting the consumption of food with sexuality. Both have been labelled as evils, reflective of excess unsuited to the cultivation of a thrifty, diligent working class. Malthus more of less says this when condemning both charity to the poor along with the the working-poor’s reproductive lives.

Liebling died a very fat man, probably his interest in food played a role in his weight. It is not clear from the biographical details I have that this slowed him down at all. From the 1940s until his death in 1963 he traveled all around the world, spending much of his time in Europe. He continued writing until the end. He tried a few times to lose weight but failed. However, it was not the weight that directly killed him, he died of heart and renal failure after a bout of pneumonia. Perhaps the weight did not help matters, but I do not get the sense that he regretted his appetites at the end. This work, published a year before his death is not a biography of the appetites that killed him. Instead it is a celebration of appetite and a call for a certain degree of professionalism, based on the idea that if you want to write about something (including food) you best know it well.

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Personally, I am a bit conflicted about consumption. Taking the world as it is, I think working people should certainly be allowed to consume more. As the producers of the real wealth in the world, they have a right to consume at least as much as they produce in addition to their right to the commons (‘the common treasury of mankind’). Social inequality and stagnant wages has made it more difficult for working people to consume, although they are producing more than before, and more efficiently. However, I am also a believer that we should move toward less work and less consumption. In my own case, I am now working 6 hours a day but making more money than my modest lifestyle requires. I would much rather work 1-2 hours a day but take home a larger cut. As is commonly remarked, we have moved from to a consumer society which directed increased productivity into disposable goods rather than in time off. However we got here, and David Graeber makes a good argument about this in his article on “bullshit jobs,” I think that moving away from work, spreading it out (so that the unemployed and underemployed can contribute meaningfully), redefining what meaningful and remunerative work entails (so that service, raising children, homeschooling, etc. are not second shifts), and ending Puritanical prohibitions on healthy excess are important components of a free society.

Seems it might be a good time to revive the Bacchus cult

Seems it might be a good time to revive the Bacchus cult

 

A. J. Liebling, “The Jollity Building” (1962)

The Jollity Building by the journalist A. J. Liebling is a fascinating examination of New York City’s history from below, by looking at one community between Forty-second street and fifty-second street in Manhattan known as the Telephone Booth Indians, a population of hucksters (“in what my Marxian friends would call a state of pre-primary acquisition”). The emphasis on “telephone booth” comes from the necessity of each member to have access to public phones for their lives. “The Telephone Booth Indians are nomads who have no attained the stage of culture in which they carry their own shelter. Like the hermit crab, the Telephone Booth Indian, before beginning operations, must find a habitation abandoned by some other creature, and in his case this is always a telephone booth.” (412)

jollity

The Jollity Building really seems to read like a history from way, way below, or perhaps what we can call a history from the gutter. It almost required a journalist to tell this story. Historians, focused on documents and official narratives, would tend to miss people like the mobile Telephone Booth Indians. But they seem to us, through Leibling’s account, to be entirely necessary to a full understanding of how the city worked politically, economically, and socially.

The book is made up of four stories. The first is about Izzy Yereshevsky, from Jewish peasant blood, who owned a cigar store on Forty-ninth street. Now, while Izzy himself seems legitimate (even refusing to drink and working all day), he is surrounded by a large population of more marginal people who are absolutely dependent on the cigar store as a center of their lives. Izzy offers credit (by accepting bad checks), helps book bets, and provides a neighborhood center of sorts. “The I. & Y. is also a free employment agency for hat-check and cigarette girls who meet concessionaries there. On winter nights, too, a few bedraggled ladies without escort come in to warm their feet.” (418) Places like Izzy’s cigar shop are the most important institutions for the working poor of the city.

The next story called “Tummler” is about Hymie Katz, a more suspicious figure from the neighborhood. He runs horse race betting establishments, clubs, whiskey wholesaling and other businesses crucial to the area but unlike Izzy lacked some of the legitimacy, partially because he constantly changed what he was doing. One club he ran made $250,000 in fourteen months. His social life is no more stable. As an unmarried man, Hymie is free to focus on his entrepreneurial activities. His clubs suggest a sort of capitalism from below, they are even capitalized from the gutter, so to speak. “All Hymie needs to open a night club is an idea and a loan of fifty dollars.” (421)

The next story is a closer look at the “Jollity Building” itself and the Telephone Booth Indian schemers. “A Telephone Booth Indian on the hunt often tells a prospective investor to call him at a certain hour in the afternoon, giving the victim the number of the phone in one of the booths. The Indian implies, of course, that it is a private line. Then the Indian has to hang in the booth until the fellow calls. To hang, in Indian language, means to loiter.” (432) This scheme requires them to sit all day in the lobbies so they become a conspicuous part of the neighborhood life. Inside the building there is a rich cultural life as well, as many tenants teach singing or dancing lessons, while others promote entertainers. The “Jollity Building” is really a history of entrepreneurial capitalism from below.

The final part of this short book, called “Yea Verily” moves our gaze up a bit, but we still find ourselves in the realm of scheming. It is about “Colonel John R. Stingo” who wrote articles for the New York Enquirer. He is a con-artist on a slightly larger scale than the Telephone Booth Indians. Liebling wrote about him in another work (The Honest Rainmaker). We see in some of Liebling’s other works (most notably The Press) that he was suspicious of journalism, but in this work it is hard to know for sure if Liebling is not playing a con on us (I suspect all journalism is the same, despite its desire for objectivity). Liebling had a history of falsifying names in stories himself. Stingo wrote on horse racing. Bear in mind, all of these stories were written and published separately before coming together in The Jollity Building. I think he wanted us to see the Telephone Booth Indians and Stingo as playing similar games. However, it ends with a rather interesting perspective on the role of truth in journalism (or any writing). “So I think the story is essentially, or in its entails, true, which is what counts.” (552) In this, Liebling suggests that the journalism may often replace deeper truths with banal truths.

stingo

Another theme of the work is that the institutions that matter to the people are not the institutions that are typically deemed important. A building lobby, a cigar store, the pub, a night club, a gossip-laden newspaper all played important roles for the people Liebling looked at in this work, perhaps much more important roles than the police stations, schools, or government offices that tend to be the center of attention of newspaper writers.

 

A. J. Liebling, “The Earl of Louisiana” (1961)

The Earl of Louisiana is Liebling’s nostalgic study of regional politics in an era when regional politics were being enveloped by a national mass culture and national political forum. It is not insignificant that the subject of this book, Earl Long — brother of the the Great Depression-era governor of Louisiana Huey P. Long — made his last bid for governor in 1959, one year before the famous Kennedy-Nixon televised debates. The later foreshadowed the emergence of a national political culture, shaped heavily by television media. Despite spending some of his last term as governor in a mental institution for his erratic behavior he remained a strong governor and decided to run for what would have been a fourth term (he served three terms off and on between 1940 and 1960), but lost to Jimmie Davis — a musician (Country Music Hall of Fame inductee) turned two-term politician. All of this makes for an interesting context for local politics, and something I have come to feel some nostalgia over myself after reading The Earl of Louisiana.

earl

Liebling starts with the in the Great Depression era politics were so local that people like Huey Long could make the same jokes at every public appearance (there was no national media to scoop stump speeches). Today, such repetition is laughable. Huey Long, who thought he could become president based on his successes in his state on social reform, seemed not to know that his achievements (such as free text books) were long in place in most of the Northern states.  But the broader point is that what seems ridiculous to the majority makes perfect political sense locally. But it is safe to say, I think, that someone who had just left a sanatorium today (or just been caught leaving a brothel, or slapped with paternity suits) might not have much luck in even regional politics today. With 24-hour news channels desperate for a story, they would likely turn all of that into national news.

Here are some looks at these colorful characters.

We need to accept this fact with some hesitation. Liebling’s book was written during the emergence of the Civil Rights movement and more importantly during the era of massive resistance by Southern state governments to school integration. Those same colorful local political cultures that allowed someone like Huey Long to emerge also made it possible for so many white Southerners to find integration inconceivable. Part of Liebling’s attraction to Earl Long was his relatively moderate position on Jim Crow laws. By the 1959 election, he supported expanded voting rights for blacks and an end to some Jim Crow laws. While this may have been politically motivated (he wanted the black vote) it did put him in the rare position of being a Southern democratic not to openly race bait at every chance. Some were even making a campaign point that the Fourteenth Amendment (the basis for most civil rights laws) was not legally ratified. This is also a product of the bizarre local politics.

Earl Long at work

Earl Long at work

“He had no need of the race issue; white poverty and the backwardness of the state gave him all the ammunition he needed. He adopted a policy of speaking disrespectfully of Negrores in public to guard against being called a nigger lover, and giving them what they wanted, under the table, to make sure they would vote for him. As the poorest Louisianians of all, they benefited disproportionately from his welfare schemes; it would be a dull politician who would try to disfranchise his own safest voters.” (354)

One example of this strategy was when he discovered that black nurses were not being hired at a hospital, he used racial outrage over white nureses waiting on black men to force the hospital to hire black nurses. I am not sure if this shows indifference, opportunitism, or “three-dimensional chess” but it worked in getting black nurses hired at the hospital.  In any case, however we read Earl Long’s racial policies, Leibling shows how his absence did not help matters in the context of the civil rights struggle. The final chapter documents through newspaper articles how race baiting was quickly becoming common again. At the very least, the Longs, Liebling suggests, prevented the worst of these horrific policies.

Well, populism and local idiosyncratic politicians is certainly Janus-faced. It can often break free of the rigidity and stagnation of the national realm (often irrelevant to the local) but it can also cultivate and nurture the most strange and odd perspectives, without sustained outside criticism. A national political culture may be able to reign in local tyrants but it also seems to make getting things done harder.

I dwell on this because the most common criticism of anarchism I have heard from people (outside of criticism of utopianism) is that it we will just end up with thousands of local cultures each pursuing their own odd values system. Of course, as long as this is not internal oppressive, I do not have a problem with it. In an age of global capitalist banality, where taking a job in Beijing looks, feels, smells, and tastes like taking a  job in the US (same hierarchies, same computers, same cubicles, same exploitation), I doubt that a diversity of local bizarre cultures may not be instantly better.

 

 

A. J. Liebling, “The Sweet Science” (Part 2)

The second half of The Sweet Science consists mainly of descriptions of major fights, but these stories, which would otherwise be largely uninteresting to general readers without a strong aptitude for sports, build on many of the themes hinted at through the first hundred pages of A. J. Liebling’s epic analysis of mid-century boxing. Essentially we are given a portrait of the rapid rise and fall essential to democratic capitalism.

I forgot to include a picture of the LOA volume last time.

I forgot to include a picture of the LOA volume last time.

I must point out at first that I am not a believer that “democratic capitalism” is what most people think of when they think of either democracy or capitalism. Nor do I think it is a a likely replacement of the brutal corporate-dominated system we sometimes call “late capitalism.” Rather, we can see it as a truly more democratic economic arrangement than corporate or institutional capitalism. Let’s simply define it as a participatory economy made up of individual producers whose success and failure are largely determined by their individual capacity. Of course, we can notice immediately that this has never existed (and as Liebling shows us, it is not a proper description of even the brutal equality of the ring). Yet, it is a useful exercise to read into the ring this ideal of the so-called anarcho-capitalists, and recognize its potential and failings.

In what ways does the “Sweet Science” parallel at least some aspects of the cutthroat American economy?

1. As Liebling’s use of Pierce Egan shows, it was a long-standing part of the American tradition going back to the early republic. If anything, it is in that period that the perfect model of boxing emerged. Like our myth of democratic capitalism, rooted in the revolutionary and the early republic, boxing had a past golden age that contemporary observers can always look back to, a time without the corruption of institutions.

2. No matter how corrupted by outside forces there is a certain brutal equality to the ring.  Whether this existed at any moment (at least for white men) in American history, I will let historians decide, but I am certain that is is central to the mythology of the US economy. Our revolution was intended to destroy the inequality in conditions brought by birth, rank, title, or blood. It did that to a degree (certainly abolishing a formal aristocracy). Unfortunately, the ring can never replace real life. Even if two boxers, trained down to pure strength, can stand or fall on their individual merits, few of us in the real world can escape family, talents, psychology, and other things we have limited control over.

3. The ring also enforces a lack of entrenched power. Champions rise and fall with the seasons. Listen as he describes the end of the Moore-Marciano fight that ends his book. “Moore’s ‘game,’ as old Egan would have called his courage, was beyond reproach. He came out proudly for the ninth, and stood and fought back with all he had, but Marciano slugged him down, and he was counted out with his left arm hooked over the middle rope as he tried to rise. It was a crushing defeat for the higher faculties and a lesson in intellectual humility, but he made a hell of a fight.” (223) Such was the almost random fate of all great fights. And this is perhaps the best that democratic capitalism can offer us. Even the best vacuum salesman can fall due to a new model or the rise of a retail giant.

4. We can also see the eager participation of the entire community in the games. In many ways, this is the central point of The Sweet Science. Liebling, too fat and old to fight anymore, enjoys boxing like most us do, as a part of a mass audience fully invested in the battle. Setting aside the role of the audience as a democratic space in itself (with much more radical potential than the ring itself), it can be interpreted as a function of consumer society in which consumers get invested in the success or failure of their favorite products, television shows, or films. (Scan the Internet for five minutes if you do not believe this is true.)

Of course, this is not an ideal model for us to embrace. First, it only seems to suggest a more rapidly changing ruling class and provides some hope to those at the bottom of society. For those on the sidelines, there is only vicarious success. If equality of opportunity only creates a Darwinian world of brutal competition, social instability, and continual anxiety about self-worth caused by our failings or lack of success, we are not that much better off. It may only provide some benefits over institutional banality in that it is a bit more exciting.

We should, perhaps give up on the idea that capitalism can be reformed into something democratic and see it as best as a winner-take-all free-for-all, with brutal consequences for any losers and only fragile, material, and ultimately unsatisfying rewards for the victors. The democratic capitalism of the ring is no better than the brutal equality of the Roman gladiators. One of the great successes of the television series, Spartacus: Blood and Sand was its ability to capture some of these same themes.

A. J. Liebling, The Sweet Science (1956). Part One: A Democracy in the Ring

A. J. Liebling was one of the most significant American journalists from the middle of the twentieth century. He was born and raised in New York City in an Jewish-Austrian immigrant family.  From the time of his youth, he traveled heavily visiting Europe twice before he was ten. He started writing journalism for his school newspaper in his teenage years as he followed World War I. His early adulthood showed many signs of a strong contrarian and democratic spirit that would inform much of his journalism. Most notably he was kicked out of Dartmouth College for not attending required church services and fired from The New York Times for faking names in stories.  He would eventually settler at The New Yorker, but only after his vibrant 20s, where he moved around between New York and France, taking and quitting jobs, and writing freelance. At The New Yorker, he would produce his most significant war writings as a foreign correspondent, following the Allied War effort.  The works collected in the Library of American volumes on Liebling are in two groups. The first (which I will examine later) are his World War II works.  The volume open in front of me, looked at his varied works written in the last twenty years of his life, covering topics as diverse as boxing, Southern politics, and journalism (amazingly he predicted the one-newspaper down and the current decline in the role of newspapers due to centralized media ownership).

A. J. Liebling Sitting at Desk

The Sweet Science is about boxing and collects many interesting pieces about the rise and fall of different champions such as Rocky Marciano and Joe Louis. More than sports journalism, however, The Sweet Science tells us one story about American society, culture, values, and character in the middle of the last century.  When Liebling started watching following boxing, the United States was entering a period where we can really start to talk about a national culture, thanks to national sports leagues, the movie industry, radio, and the “Americanization” of immigrant communities. Many of these trends are evident in Liebling’s own life.  He not only participated in the creation of mass culture, but he also became a firm supported of the United States during the first and second world wars. Boxing was part of this mass culture that brought in people from different classes, ethnic backgrounds, and races into one building to observe and in many ways participate in the fights. Liebling also lived through what Michael Denning called the “proletarianization” of American culture during the Great Depression.  It was during this epoch that working-class values infected American culture at many levels.

ss

Liebling takes considerable time thinking about his predecessor, the compiler of Boxiana, Pierce Egan, who documented the boxing world of the early nineteenth century.  Through this, Liebling is able to show an interconnected world that existed at the margins of legitimate culture but provided a historical continuity to the very beginnings of the republic. It is boxing, not baseball, that is the American pastimes.

One striking aspect of Liebling’s account of boxing is his description of its participatory elements. In fact, his book begins with an analysis of why it is better to see a fight in person.  His main reason is that you can participate through shouted advice.  Its democratic character  is suggested in the following quote. “Addressing yourself to the fighter when you want somebody else to hear you is a parliamentary device, like ‘Mr. Chairman . . . ‘ Before television, a prize-fight was to a New Yorker the nearest equivalent to the New England town meeting. It taught a man how to think on his seat.” (16)  Not only was it participatory, but it was diverse as well.  Liebling’s ability to converse about boxing with a driver is suggestive of its important place in the development of a mass participatory culture. The requirement that mass culture be participatory is something that Liebling takes for granted.  He correctly predicts that television would sap this potential. Now, people see fights–if at all–at home, losing that democratic forum. “Television, if unchecked, may carry us back to a pre-tribal state of social development, when the family was the largest conversational unit.” (17)  He later compares television fights to the Irish potato: cheap and quickly adopted at the expense of a more nourishing diet.

match

Boxing is also a working-class sport in every way.  Its heroes were commonly from the streets, its greatest fans were from the same streets. The shouting from the audience revealed that the crowd saw themselves as coming from the same world as the fighters. Early in the account he describes the origins of several champions, all of whom invariable come from working class towns. The second World War undermined the craft by sending those working class boys to war rather than the unemployment lines and then the gyms.

There is also a brutal equality to the ring, that seems to reflect the cutthroat nature of American capitalism. “The division of boxers into weight classes is based on the premise that if two men are equally talented practitioners of the Sweet Science, then the heavier man has a decided advantage. This is true, of course, only if both men are trained down hard, since a pound of beer is of no use in a boxing match. If the difference amounts to no more than a couple of pounds, it can be offset by a number of other factors, including luck.” (51) This actually reads to me like a fairly realistic depiction of democratic capitalism. In both capitalism and boxing there is a gap between the ideal and the reality, but at least in boxing the working class kid could, through training and motivation, having a good chance of being “trained down hard.” Capitalism is so thoroughly unfair that no amount of training (college, perhaps) can give us a fighting chance.  Perhaps this is part of the attraction of boxing.

Listen with me, as Liebling describes the nature of the boxing crowd. “It was a might crowd–paid admissions 47,585, and, counting deadheads like me, a total attendance of more than fifty thousand.  There were fifteen hundred occupants of working-press seats alone, including a major general in uniform and Joe Louis. As is usual at big outdoor fights nowadays, platoons of young hooligans from the bleachers stormed down on the field in successive waves, to take over better seats than they had paid for. Legitimate ticket-holders who arrived late managed as best they could. In some cases, with the aid of ushers and special cops, they expropriated the squatters.” (93)  Ah, a class war for seats.  How wonderful.