Rand Richards Cooper

Rand Richards Cooper is Commonweal's contributing editor. 

By this author

Remembering Robert Stone

The end of the year approaches, a time for thinking about those who were with us a year ago and no longer are. Today I’m thinking about novelist Robert Stone, who died in January. My friend and fellow Commonweal contributor Jonathan Stevenson has written a fine assessment of Stone’s oeuvre.  For my part, long ago Stone was my teacher; some months back I wrote an appreciation, and I want to offer it here, for Commonweal readers who admired his work. 

As a novelist Stone earned renown for his mordant renderings of American recklessness abroad and tumult at home. In a valedictory appraisal, the Times’ critic Michiko Kakutani judged him “one of the few writers to capture the apocalyptic madness of America in the 1960s,” praising his “dense, philosophical, baroque” prose for “conjuring the emotional temperature of a time and place with extraordinary intensity and fervor.”

That extraordinary intensity characterized the man himself. In 1977 I took Bob Stone’s fiction-writing class at Amherst College, where he was Visiting Writer for several years. At that point he was best known for his Vietnam novel, Dog Soldiers, and for his association with novelist Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, whose escapades were captured in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. One afternoon a week for three hours, a dozen of us would sit in a seminar room in the English building, Johnson Chapel, discussing our stories and monitoring our teacher’s intense and enigmatic presence.

Staff Picks: The Poetry of John Updike

A book I’m glad to have read this year is the Selected Poems of John Updike. It brings me back to a day thirty years ago, when I took a bus out to Seton Hall University to hear Updike read. In a smallish lecture room he stood behind a lectern and, in a quiet voice adorned with the slightest lisp, he read... poems. The audience was surprised and perhaps a bit restive. Turns out Updike had agreed to do the reading only on the condition that it be poetry and not prose.   

Heist!

OK, this one is just for fun. Every now and then I read a news story rich in the kind of detail that discloses a journalist taking special delight, reveling in the quirks and serendipities that define “human interest.”

I also have a weakness for heist movies.

If you do too, maybe you relished this article in the New York Times recently, about the team of four geriatric bank robbers arrested in London after drilling through the wall of a safe-deposit vault and making off with $30 million in gold, jewelry and gems. It is Grumpy Old Men meets Ocean’s Eleven – and I’ll be shocked if we don’t see it in theaters in a couple of years.

As I noted above, the devilishness, and the delight, are in the details. Thus, we learn that the crew that pulled off the heist ranged in age from 60 to 76; that they consulted a book called Forensics for Dummies; that the 76-year-old ringleader took a public bus to the job – using his senior pass to ride for free – and wore “distinctive striped socks” later easily identified on security tape; that they were assisted by a mysterious red-haired man, still unidentified, named “Basil”; that they practiced using their diamond-tipped drills by watching Youtube videos; that despite their aches and old bones they shimmied down an elevator shaft to reach the basement; that they bungled the job the first time, drilling through the concrete wall only to find themselves unable to move the safe-deposit cabinet bolted to the floor and blocking the hole – and so returned two days later with different tools, to finish the job; that one of the gang brought insulin with him to ward off his diabetic shakes; that the security company ignored the alarm because it had recently been triggered by an insect; that the gang ultimately gave itself away by bragging about the caper at their local pub, over “heaping plates of bangers and mash;” and, finally, that their chief regret was failing to take a group selfie in front of the vault.

You really can’t beat that as a treatment for a screenplay.

Prompted by this story, and by the end-of-the-year rite of making lists, I’ve put together my top-dozen list of heist films (with Wikipedia links), in roughly descending order:

The Transgender Moment

The battle over transgender rights stayed in the headlines this fall. A few weeks ago, The New York Times detailed the finding by federal education officials that an Illinois school district broke the law by not allowing a transgender student who identifies as a girl to change and shower in the girls’ locker room. And voters in Houston repealed a 2014 anti-discrimination measure, the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO), that prohibited bias in housing, employment, city contracting and business services on the basis of race, age, sexual orientation and gender identity. It was the last of these protected classes that caught all the flak.

Though the Houston ordinance had broad application, the repeal campaign focused exclusively on... bathroom issues. Labeling HERO “The Bathroom Ordinance,” opponents crafted a campaign with a stark message – “No Men in Women’s Bathrooms!” The slogan framed the referendum as a public-safety issue, both inciting and exploiting the fear that granting transgender people the right to use the bathroom of their choice would allow male sexual predators to gain entrance to women’s rooms by posing as women. “It [is] about protecting our grandmoms and our mothers and our wives and our sisters and our daughters,” asserted Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who supported repeal. The campaign aired a disgraceful TV ad. Shot in black and white, with ominous background music, it shows a man entering into a women’s restroom and hiding in a stall. A little girl wearing a school backpack walks in. “Even registered sex offenders could follow young girls into the bathroom,” says the voiceover, “and if a business tried to stop them, they’d be fined.” The ad ends with the man entering the girl’s stall and shutting the door. “Stop Houston’s Bathroom Ordinance,” pleads the narrator. “It goes too far.”

What Terrorists Want

In the aftermath of  Paris and San Bernardino, cries for increased security and policy shifts to counter ISIS leave a basic question unanswered: what do the terrorists want? The immediate goal, of course, is to inflict pain, create mayhem, and sow fear. But what is the ultimate goal? What were the attackers in Paris trying to achieve? What did the “radicalized” Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik hope to accomplish in San Bernardino – and believe strongly enough in that they gave up a life with their newborn child to try it? And what role does religion play in all of this?

Terrorism is easiest to grasp when its aims are concrete and specific. Hold hostages to exchange for prisoners held by the other side. Draw world and media attention to a cause. Advance geopolitical goals. Alter a powerful nation’s foreign policy. (Remember the 1983 Beirut barracks bombing, and how quickly Reagan pulled out our troops afterward?) Terrorism in Ireland involved trying to prevail in a civil and colonial war. Narcoterror in Mexico and elsewhere reflects brutal infighting over drug markets along and an attempt to cow governments, police forces and journalists. European terror groups in the 1970s, such as the Red Army Brigades and Baader-Meinhof Gang, acted on ideological animus in the hope of effecting political revolution. Ditto the Shining Path in Peru. Palestinian terrorists hijacked three airliners in 1970 to win the release of colleagues imprisoned in Great Britain and Germany. The Tamil Tigers were the terror wing of a secessionist insurgency. And on and on.

Climate Confessional

Years ago, when I was in my late twenties and living in Washington DC, I had a German houseguest for a week, a woman named Irena who was spending her summer touring the U.S. My girlfriend and I had a tiny apartment with no guest room—but that was no problem for Irena. She slept in the living room on a small folding mat she’d brought with her. I was impressed by how light she traveled. Everything she needed for six weeks was contained in a small backpack. In the days she spent with us, she proved a remarkably easy houseguest, almost invisible. If she used a dish, she washed it immediately. To get around DC she politely declined the use of our car, and took public buses instead. Looking at her tidy pile of neatly folded stuff in the corner of our living room, I recall thinking, Here is a person dedicated to minimizing the ripple she makes as she passes through the world. She took up such little space, made such little impact. In comparison I felt like an oaf of consumption, a wasteful giant, lumbering heedlessly through life.

I’ve thought about Irena during the current climate meeting in Paris, and about how individuals and nations respond to the challenge of climate change—or don’t. An article in the Times delineates Germany’s leading role in reducing dependence on fossil fuels, calling it a “global model.” The country has been busily investing in renewable and other alternative energy sources (solar, wind, bioenergy), reducing fossil-fuel consumption even as it phases out nuclear power (a decision made after the Fukushima disaster), all measures taken by way of following an ambitious plan to cut 1990-level greenhouse gas emissions by 80% within sixty years. In the process, Germany has managed to do something no other developed country has achieved: cut energy use without shrinking the economy. Usually, it takes a recession to diminish energy use. Germany is doing it by the efficient execution of an assiduous design.

Guilty Until You Show Us Otherwise

Yesterday, amid the still-unfolding aftermath of the atrocity in San Bernardino, the NPR show On Point featured a panel including Yasir Qadhi, an American-born Muslim of Pakistani ancestry who is a Sunni cleric and professor of religious studies at Rhodes College, a Presbyterian-affiliated liberal arts college in Tennessee. Host Jane Clayson asked Qadhi what his first thoughts were, as an American Muslim, upon hearing news of another mass shooting. He said: “Our first thought always is, ‘Please, let it not be a Muslim who did it, let it not be a Muslim, let it not be a Muslim.’” (You can listen here.)

The reason for that desperate plea is the immense weight of suspicion that falls upon adherents in the Muslim diaspora following every jihadi-like attack. Qadhi went on to argue passionately that it is wrong for American Muslims to be questioned about their commitments, or have to show their bona fides, after such dreadful events. Violent lunatics are dispersed among all religions, he pointed out; when a mass murderer who happens to be Christian commits gruesome mayhem, nobody cares about his religion, and no one assails or interrogates other Christians, or seeks to tar them with a taint of suspicion about their allegiances. “Why isn’t the same courtesy extended to American Muslims?” he asked.

His remarks echoed those of Moustafa Bayoumi, a Professor at Brooklyn College and author of This Muslim American Life: Dispatches from the War on Terror, on the Colin McEnroe show on Connecticut Public Radio two weeks ago (listen here), days after the attacks in Paris. Bayoumi said that when asked to denounce such events, he refuses—because the very request assumes that his intentions and allegiances are in doubt, and that he might in fact sympathize with such assaults; and that assumption, he insisted, is outrageous. 

Burdens & Blesings

I spent a weekend in Vermont with three old college friends, an annual fall ritual. We’re in our mid-fifties, and talk centered on our children, who range in age from my nine-year-old to the twenty-five-year-old of one of my pals. We also talked about our parents. One of us has both still living; one lost both years ago; the other two have one parent remaining. All the surviving parents are facing major health challenges.

Singleminded and Singlehanded

When I was a small boy, my father liked to thrill me with an adventurous game. Coming home from the Little League field or an errand to the hardware store, he’d let me ride in the trunk of his black Corvair, challenging me to guess when we were home by reckoning the pattern of turns I could feel. He’d throw in a detour or two to make the game harder, as we called back and forth to one another through the dashboard panel: this being a Corvair, with its rear engine, the trunk I was riding in—the trunk my father, a physician, felt comfortable stowing me in—was in the front.

Can we say that Americans in 1965 were a tad less safety-minded, automotively, than they are today?

The end of my father’s and my heedless little game, and of his owning that car, was already in sight. For that year—in fact, fifty years ago today—a brash young Connecticut lawyer named Ralph Nader published a muckraking broadside, Unsafe at Any Speed, that skewered General Motors, and the Corvair in particular, for its appalling safety record. When the dust settled, Nader had forged a role for government in automobile safety and all but singlehandedly fashioned the concept of public-interest activism.

Wilson Revisited, Revised... and Rescinded?

While last week I mused about the future legacy of the current president, news stories this week, including a front-page article in the Times, detail the crumbling reputation of a former one. Woodrow Wilson, 13th president of Princeton University and 28th President of the United States, turns out to have expressed – and enforced -- racist sentiments that were widespread in his day. Should Princeton strike his name from places of honor on campus?

As the Times reports, a group of Princeton students calling itself the Black Justice League recently put up posters highlighting racist remarks made by Wilson, demanding that the university “publicly acknowledge the racist legacy of Woodrow Wilson” – and, more concretely, that it find a new name for its renowned Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, as well as for Wilson College, a residence hall on campus. Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber agreed to discuss these demands with university trustees, and meanwhile promised to remove a mural of Wilson from the residence hall dining room – and has caught flak from culture warriors who see such responses as craven capitulation.

I’ve addressed this topic twice before in this space – once concerning symbols of the Confederacy and the controversy over Calhoun College at Yale, and again concerning Lord Jeffery Amherst, the mascot of my alma mater (update: last week, according the Times, the Amherst faculty voted unanimously to jettison Lord Jeff). But the renaming movement extends well beyond campus brouhahas over political correctness. It points up the challenge of how a society goes about altering its memorials to reflect evolving beliefs and changed politics. And that’s a fascinating subject.