Roger Cohen’s “stubborn hope” for democracy
Talking to the veteran New York Times foreign correspondent about the emotional roots of this age of nationalism, what he’s learned about hatred and atonement, why he became an American, and more
I will embarrass Roger Cohen, the veteran New York Times foreign correspondent, by telling you that he, as much as anyone, taught me how to write about the world. Not in a classroom or even through an actual relationship at first; just through reading him as a young man who wanted to write, wanted to cover the world, wanted to meditate on the dilemmas of the age.
I wrote to him when I wasn’t yet a reporter, just words of admiration. Then I was lucky enough to get a job at The New York Times, in India, and I wrote to him some more, asking for advice, appreciating his pieces, trying to learn from him. And he always wrote back, always spent those minutes he didn’t have to helping a young writer find his way and find his voice.
I tell you this not only because it mattered a lot to me but also because I think it gets at something fundamental in the spirit of Roger’s dispatches from around the world, which are collected in a new book collection out this week, An Affirming Flame. In an age of so many dehumanizing forces — from the crushing pressure of the forces of big capital to the ascendant authoritarian movements to the soul-sapping technologies that consume our days — Roger has chased the flame of the struggle for humanity.
His body of columns from around the world, collected in An Affirming Flame, cover various topics, bouncing from here to there. But there are deep threads connecting the work. It amounts, I think, to an inquiry into whether the better angels of human community can prevail in the end: whether atonement and forgiveness can prevail over hatred and resentment; whether democracy can prevail over authoritarianism; whether love can prevail over hate; whether the rule of law can prevail over force.
I am so happy to be sharing this conversation I had with Roger with you all, below. You don’t want to miss this one, trust me.
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In your new book, An Affirming Flame, you call this “the Age of Undoing.” What do you mean?
A lot of assumptions that we had about the world heading in a liberal democratic direction have simply collapsed. There's been an undoing of the international order. There's a transition underway from an American-dominated world to one with really no single power dominating. So it’s a very combustible and, I think, uncertain situation. The international legal order has been violated, not for the first time obviously, but severely violated by President Putin's decision in flagrant violation of Article 2 of the United Nations treaty to invade a sovereign state, try to destroy that state, and occupy a large part of it.
A lot of our certainties about the world were also undone by the COVID-19 epidemic, which stemmed from Chinese concealment initially of what was going on, and former President Trump's period of long obfuscation, all of which resulted in the contagion being much worse and having devastating consequences. People talk openly these days about the possibility, remote perhaps, of nuclear war. People did not do that even a short while ago. There's, I think, a feeling of uneasiness in people's lives, uncertainty as to what will happen even in the coming year. So, yes, a lot has been undone in terms of the framework within which much humanity lived their lives.
In your roaming around the world, one of the things that makes your columns work as a collection is that certain themes keep coming up again and again, and you pursue them. One of them, obviously, is hatred, and you start the introduction to this new book talking about hatred. You conclude something that I have to say sounded both very true and very terrifying to me. You quote the Polish poet Wisława Szymborska about the superior powers of hatred. "Hatred," she writes, "vaults the tallest obstacles. It creates erotic ecstasy." She writes, "Since when does brotherhood draw crowds? Has compassion ever finished first?" And about hatred, she writes that it knows how to make beauty.
It struck me as so profoundly true. I wonder in your long coverage of hatreds from the former Yugoslavia to elsewhere in Europe, looking at your own origins in South Africa, and beyond, at the United States, have you come to share her conclusion that hatred has it easier in a way that democracy is always outgunned and at a disadvantage?
Democracy and freedom are perpetually at risk. They're fragile, and great vigilance is needed to preserve them. That said, they're also powerful in the sense that there is a very strong human yearning to be free, and there's a very strong human yearning to be able to make choices about governance, about who is going to govern their country. But to underestimate hatred, to think that we've somehow overcome it or had reached with the new millennium and the end of the Cold War, some superior stage of development where hatred would disappear, and countries would realize the benefits of cooperation and hatred would be set aside, that was a very dangerous illusion.
The appeal of nationalism, of scapegoating, and of identifying an enemy is very powerful. It creates a tribal form of allegiance and it gets the blood up. I mean, look at how former President Trump began his campaign and vaulted immediately to the first place among potential Republican candidates in 2015, simply by saying that Mexicans were rapists. It got people's blood up. It focused on an enemy, and often these enemies are imagined.
A lot of human beings are looking for meaning in their lives, particularly in our atomized societies today, where people spend more and more time on social media. It’s supposed to connect us and does in some ways, but also, I think, it isolates people, as of course COVID-19 did, too. So they're looking for the savior figure who tells them who the enemy is and who to hate. And so, yes, hatred is a powerful and fundamental human emotion, and any suggestion that it's somehow been overcome once and for all is foolish and misguided because, as I said at the beginning, freedom and democracy are fragile. That is a lesson we all have to learn. A republic, if you can keep it, as Ben Franklin put it at the foundation of the United States. If you can keep it.
I love this idea of the human desire for meaning. One of the things that you have specialized in is political emotion and the psychological underpinnings of the big, hard things happening in the world. Something that feels very tricky right now is that we are each explaining our own nationalist uprising through very localized explanations, but the same thing is happening in all these places that do not have a common history.
India does not have the history of American slavery, anti-Blackness as an ideology, and white supremacy, but the same basic forces are at work. There are very few people who've been able to explain why these forces of nationalism and disinformation are all flaring up in these places that don't have necessarily a common past. Do you think this notion of meaning-making and an era in which people have been starved for an explanation of their condition offers a better kind of explanation of why the same thing is happening in so many different places?
I think there's some of that. The nature of our societies is anxiety-inducing. When you are in any public situation, probably 75 percent of people are looking at some little screen, and that little screen is delivering all kinds of things all the time.
How many people gaze out of a window these days when they're traveling? How many people bother to look around? How many people even know where they are? A lot of people don't have any idea where they are because the GPS is steering them. So I think that can easily contribute to deep states of anxiety and disorientation. Of course, autocratic national leaders feed on disorientation. Disorientation also abets the erosion of the distinction between truth and falsehood, which is another fundamental characteristic of our societies today.
What, in the end, provokes people to rise up? Very high on that list is a sense of being routinely humiliated, routinely overlooked, and becoming routinely invisible. There's been quite a lot of that, which also, I think, lay behind the beginnings of the Arab Spring in Tunisia and moved across the Arab world -- a movement that ultimately did not bear fruit in the way that was hoped but still was a powerful thing.
You write about your own family's Jewish experience of having to move around the world and find safe harbor in South Africa, Britain, and, for you, the United States. In this moment of rising anti-Semitism, again and to quite terrifying levels, I wonder how you understand the continuing power of the anti-Semitic project. Century after century, why does it continue to work?
The Jews have long been outsiders in society throughout history. They’ve been confined to the shtetls, confined to the margins of society, and denied access to various professions until really the 19th century. Suspicion of the outsider, of somebody who's different, of course, is not confined to Jews. I mean, look at the view of Muslims in Europe. Look at the anti-Muslim hatred that former President Trump tried to stir up in the United States. But I think there's something about the Jew that just stirs something very primally as a form of hatred. There's a very abundant literature, of course, to draw on and come up with these anti-Semitic tropes.
The Jewish "cosmopolitan." Stalin used that phrase. Trump used that phrase. The sense of somebody who crosses borders and has no real nation. I think Jews tried over centuries to feel secure in many Western societies. God knows German Jews fought valiantly in World War I. They came back from the war with the iron crosses and displayed them prominently in their homes, and none of that saved them from the gas 25 years later. It made absolutely no difference. My great-great uncle was a Jewish chaplain during World War I. Researching a previous book about my family that I wrote, I found letters from him asking whether the sacrifice of thousands of Jews at the front in World War I would finally convince the British that Jews belonged and were entirely part of our societies.
Zionism grew out of that, and the State of Israel grew out of that. There's no question that the politics of the Middle East and Israeli oppression of the Palestinians have contributed, too, especially in Europe. The line between rabid anti-Israeli sentiment and forms of anti-Semitism has become very, very, very faint in many instances. I would argue it has disappeared in some. So that's another contributing factor. I just think that in times of unease, economic hardship, and the difficulty we are living in at the moment, these anti-Semitic reflexes come easily to the surface.
I want to ask you about becoming American, the culmination of that long family saga you've written about from Lithuania, South Africa, Britain, and elsewhere. You write in the book, "America asks not where you come from, what ancestry you may boast, but what you can do. Its gaze is fixed forward. Anyone can dream of becoming an American as I did, and therein lies part of the country's magnetism." You're someone who has sampled the wares of many countries, more than most people who've ever lived. You could choose to make lots of places home. What motivated you to choose the United States?
I think, above all, it was what you just quoted. It was this sense that I could live freely in the United States. That if I worked hard, I could achieve what I wanted to achieve, that nobody would question where I came from. You can become a New Yorker almost overnight. Becoming an American is not complicated. It's not that complicated to become an American compared to becoming German or French or anything else. There's no degree of being American. You are an American once you swear your oath to the Constitution, and you uphold and cherish those rights and responsibilities.
As a British Jew of South African descent, being Jewish in New York City and in the United States was a form of exuberant liberation. Look, in Britain, as a Jew, there's no ceiling to what you can achieve. But when there's some remark about the stinginess of the Jews or the shape of a nose, the convention is that you pretend not to have heard. You're quiet. The British Jews were Jews in a whisper, Phillip Roth said, and I concur. I reached a point in my life where I was not going to be quiet. If I heard such a remark, and one does still, then I’d say, What the hell are you talking about? That does not really happen, or at least it's not happened to me, in the United States. So there was a sense of being freer, of belonging more in that way.
I think about that idea of becoming American so much. My parents immigrated from India to the United States in the late '70s and had a decade or so in Cleveland, Ohio. Not exactly a cosmopolitan hotbed, but they found what you found. The idea that they could become of this place was largely unquestioned. Then, ten years later, in 1989, they had kind of gotten bored of it, the adrenaline rush of being an immigrant had worn off and they decided to do it again, and we moved to France. I would say my sister and I had a great time for three years, but my parents not so much. It was mixed.
From the first day they got there, they realized that it was not the same ballgame. That the way they could have become American and had become American, there just wasn't an idea of that in France. People could be perfectly nice to you, but there were a million messages from day one that this will never belong to you.
There's also very little precedent in history for a country kind of forged of the world in this way that America is. The thing you're describing, I think you and I share the romance of that idea. I like the idea, you like the idea. You like the liberation it gave you. My parents liked the liberation it gave them. And yet I think there are nationalists in the United States and elsewhere who say, "Beautiful concept, but it doesn't work." People need a shared identity. People need shared blood. This is an experiment that has no evidence of success. I wonder what you'd say to that.
I disagree. I think the United States, for all its immense difficulties, for all the racism that has still not been eradicated, for all the fears that Trump played on endlessly of the end of a white-dominated America, is about churn. That is its fundamental vitality and its fundamental advantage. In France, there's this concept of “un Français de souche,” which is very hard to translate, but it essentially means a French person who is rooted in France and who is tied to France for all eternity.
So you would have the Français de souche, and then you would have your parents. They could never be quite as French. I don't think that idea really exists in the United States. As I said, it's about what you can do and what you contribute. The degree to which where you've come from matters, I think, is relatively limited. Yes, there are difficult transitions going on in the United States demographically. Yes, there's a movement to try and arrest the development of the country and sort of freeze America in some kind of “Mad Men,” 1950s, white-male-dominated image. But it's not going to happen.
Donald Trump can't make it happen, and nobody else can make it happen because the American idea is stronger than that, in my view. There's no other country like it on earth, which is not to say it's better. It's just to say that it's different. America is the land of second chances. Why? Because a lot of the people who came to American shores came in search of a second chance. They came for economic opportunity. They came to escape war. They came to escape persecution. They came for a thousand different reasons, but they wanted to take that risk. I think that spirit is alive in the United States. I've always felt it wherever I've traveled in the U.S.
I wanted to ask you about the idea of atonement. You've written a lot about Germany and South Africa. You've also written about places like the American South, which has a very different relationship to atonement for the past. I wonder what sense you've made of places that can look at their pasts honestly and atone versus places that have not.
It was very difficult for me and my family, as a Jewish family, to move to Berlin, which we did in 1998. It was just as the capital was moving from Bonn, a small town in the western part of Germany, back to the locus of the horror, back to the Reichstag, back to the foreign ministry moving into a Third Reich building. There was this whole confrontation with the past that coincided with the time that I spent there. I came away from that three-year experience with a deep respect for the Bundesrepublik Deutschland.
It didn't happen immediately. It didn't happen overnight. It took decades. It was progressive, and it's still going on. But I think the German confrontation with something so horrendous that it defies comprehension, even after long, long study, has been, in the end, pretty remarkable. Everywhere you look and turn in Germany today, you are reminded of what Germany did. The mass murder of six million Jews and a war that destroyed Europe. I'm not talking just about reparations, which have been enormous, but also just this idea of transparency.
The most complete form of atonement for what happened is, of course, is almost impossible. Germany has certainly tried, but it's a very difficult thing to do. Has the United States atoned for slavery? I don't think so. Has Turkey atoned for the Armenian Genocide? Certainly not. They’ve not even accepted its veracity. It is very hard for a human being to look at the destructive sides of one's personality and try to overcome them or atone for them. That is very difficult. It's very hard for nations, I think, to see themselves clearly.
I wanted to ask you about the model of the foreign correspondent that you've spent your life working in. It's a model that is changing right now, as you know, and publications like The New York Times are hiring more local reporters from places to explain their own countries. That's certainly a new and growing phenomenon. There's a skepticism now, I think, of the Western outsider coming in to pronounce about places, and yet it continues to be very important work in the hands of the right people. Do you think the kind of old model of foreign correspondent that you came up in can be defended against some of these newer tendencies?
I think the eye of an outsider on a country or place, if that outsider is sensitive and prepared to read into the history, and prepared to listen to a broad spectrum of people, and has intuitions about what she or he is seeing, listening to, smelling, absorbing, touching — as a foreign correspondent, all your senses have to be on alert — I still think that the attempt to convey in this powerful, vivid, fair, and truthful way is a very important exercise.
I'm not sure I fully understand the question. I mean, of course, for a Russian to write about Russia, for an Indian to write about India — yes, of course. But I don't think it's one or the other. I certainly think there's something wrong or misplaced about trying to extend this notion of impermissible cultural appropriation to the work of a foreign correspondent. I would reject that wholeheartedly. I just don't agree with that.
I share your view. When I published my first book, on India, in 2011, I went to India on a book tour a few months after it came out, and there was a real furore in the Indian press. Some publications said an Indian-American doesn't have the right to write about India and pronounce on India. Now, of course, I reject that. When I was teaching journalism at NYU in the graduate program, a lot of my students kind of shocked me by saying, “As a white journalist, I feel like I shouldn't write about the Black community because I can never understand their experience.” I was just thinking, I don't think that's going to be very good for anybody to have these kinds of walls, but that idea is out there. I'd love to hear you just defend this notion that the outsider has something to say and something to see. I think that's an underappreciated idea right now.
Look, journalism has changed so much. As you know, I started out filing by telex from Beirut in the early '80s after the Marines got blown up and feeding encoded tape into a machine. Everything has changed in the way journalism is done, and journalism, at least the kind I practiced, used to happen on paper. Now it happens digitally. And, of course, once the form changes, so does the content. The figures on completion of New York Times articles by people reading them are quite depressing. Maybe 15 to 20 percent of people read to the end of the article. If it's audio, it's more like 90 percent. If it's video, it's even higher.
Attention spans are shorter. People get used to consuming news in a different way. I'm now 67, and I feel lucky that I timed my career more or less when I did, because of some of the cutting up and shortening. I mean, a lot of it is exciting. New storytelling forms are very positive.
It's a changed world, but what has not changed, in my view, is the essential. That's being the boots on the ground, looking in somebody's eye. A telephone interview is 1/100th of what you can get from an interview with somebody in person, pontificating about some country you've never visited. That's true of 95 percent of Americans talking about Iran. It's difficult to get there, and I acknowledge that, but it's always second best.
Being there, holding power to account without fear or favor, and trying to make it make a difference doesn't happen that often. But every now and again, something that you write does give a little nudge in one direction or another, hopefully a good one.
When I was looking at the body of your columns, something that really struck me is your emotional lens on politics. Others really emphasize policies, structures, and big ideologies. I don't know if you resonate with this view of yourself, but it seems to me you are looking at emotion and psychology often as the real thing that is going on beneath the other apparent things we're seeing. Can you talk to me about how, as a methodology, you go about doing that?
I think patience is important. I think it's important in an interview to sit through the silence. You never know when the phrase that jolts will come out, the phrase that causes you to see something you haven't seen or to have an idea for how you might cast a story or reveal something very fundamental. I've always been most interested in telling wider stories through individual stories and finding the points of intersection between national psyches, if you like, and individual human psyches.
In Bosnia, I remember an actor who was half Serb and half Muslim and had nowhere to go in Serbia because he couldn't be half Serb and half Muslim anymore. When I met him, he was quite a famous actor. He'd had both his legs blown off by a Serbian shelling and had just emerged from a hospital in a wheelchair, was drinking whiskey and drinking quite heavily. We talked about the war and what had happened, and the conversation went on for quite a long time. Then he told me quite late in the conversation, “You know when I was in the hospital, my wife was on the floor below me.” “Why?" I asked. "She was giving birth to our third child.” I said, “Really?” And he said, “Yes, she was on the floor below me giving birth to our third child.”
He said, “My father came to see me, and he said something to me that was very important.” "What?" He said, “My father said to me, 'A child needs his father, even if he's just sitting in the corner.’” I mean, the man I was interviewing was never going to walk again. He said to me, “And that's why I'm sitting here talking to you, because, otherwise, I was going to take my life."
Again, it's moments like that where you get some deep insight into the psychology of a human being that then leads you to all sorts of reflections. I think, in the end, that's just who I am, and that's what interests me above all in what I've done. It's not to say that I'm uninterested in broad ideas and history, but in the end, it comes back to each of us as an individual and the choices people make and what drives them.
The quote that gives your book its title, “An Affirming Flame,” comes from a poem. Can you tell us about the quote and why it captures some of your optimism for Team Democracy?
It comes from Auden's poem “September 1, 1939.” The lines in question are the last lines of the poem, which go,
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.
Of course, Auden is writing about the outbreak of World War II. He's writing about the flickering points of light of people who continue to uphold the kinds of values that we've been talking about today — the importance of freedom, the rule of law, democracy, and human dignity and human rights.
I come from South Africa. My parents were both born in Johannesburg. Their forebears came from Lithuania. My family has moved every generation, and, of course, moving is a possibility. It's also a loss at some very deep level, which can be very hard. I spent a chunk of my infancy in South Africa and then would go back regularly as a child. The coming cataclysm in South Africa was inevitable. The four million whites, the 30 million oppressed Blacks. The Black population living under an appalling, dehumanizing, and crushing system of Apartheid would rise up and take back what was rightfully theirs. I remember my cousins talking about how this swimming pool in Johannesburg would be red with blood next year if I came back.
It was coming, and it was inevitable, and it didn't happen. It didn't happen because of Mandela and those lines on the wall of his cell: "I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul,” and his extraordinary inner strength. He did precisely what I was talking about earlier. He decided to place the future over the past. To not seek blood and vengeance but to seek reconciliation and possibility with, of course, accountability for the worst crimes.
If you have South Africa in you, then there is this stubborn hope. There is that affirming flame. There is the belief that even in the most apparently hopeless situations, we must not abandon that stubborn hope and pursue the better outcome and the better side of our natures. I continue to believe that's possible.
Roger Cohen is the Paris bureau chief of The New York Times, a veteran foreign correspondent for the paper, and a former Op-Ed columnist. He is the author of several books, including An Affirming Flame, which goes on sale this week.
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