Edward Rothstein

A Critic at Large, Part II

VTR Date: January 26, 2012

Edward Rothstein discusses the legacy of slavery and civil rights issues.


GUEST: Edward Rothstein
AIR DATE: 01/28/2011
VTR: 09/21/2011

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.

And I’ll repeat what I said last week in introducing my guest … that just a quarter century ago the professional assignments of the guest journalist sitting at this table then elicited an introduction from me filled with admiration and more than a bit tinged with envy.

And so it is today as it was last week.

Then, of course, so long ago, it was the New York Times’ Daniel Goleman, whose “beat” was the behavioral sciences and who reported regularly on some of the most interesting psychological themes one could imagine … from the uses and misuses of memory to individuals’ changing patterns of personality to the roles that aging and a growing sense of our own mortality play in diminishing our anxieties in middle age.

Well, now my guest is the New York Times’ Cultural Critic-at-Large Edward Rothstein, whose “beat” strenuously but happily is ideas and the arts, museums and notions about war and slavery and justice and religion and all those wonderful things that make one envy Mr. Rothstein his journalistic tasks.

Of course, my guest is well prepared academically for his assignment … as he was for his previous position as Chief Music Critic of The Times.

A graduate of Yale, he holds a doctorate from the famed Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, has done graduate work in mathematics at Brandeis, and earned a Master’s Degree in English literature from Columbia University.

In short, ideas seem all to be grist for my guest’s mill. And I’d like to pick up this time with some of the other pieces that you’ve written over the years that astound me so.

And I, I think I should ask first … where do these assignments come from? Your own head?

ROTHSTEIN: Ah, sometimes … there’s, there was a period where I was doing regularly … a column every two weeks, where I would be sort of taking a look at books or exhibitions or events and inventing the subject.

When I’m covering exhibitions now … in a sense … I’m presented with this array of exhibitions around the country and some have to be covered because they’re major exhibition openings in major places.

But others can be selected or others discovered. I mean one of the adventurous aspects of covering museum exhibitions is that when I travel I like to search … I have a rental car and I will drive one or two hours outside whatever city I’m in to see other things that might sound interesting, if I’ve looked them up on the Internet.

I mean one of the most remarkable, odd things, for example, was a … an exhibition about the history of ventriloquism that I stumbled on …

HEFFNER: That I didn’t read.

ROTHSTEIN: … outside of Cincinnati where a collector had several thousand ventriloquist dummies lined up in various rooms with his telling the history of ventriloquism. So, you know, one never knows exactly what is going to happen. And that’s one of the exciting things about the job. Some things … so some things are discovered, some invented and some presented.

HEFFNER: So the Internet plays some sort of roll here.

ROTHSTEIN: Yes. I mean actually, it’s a, it’s a fantastic resource also for getting background on a particular subject because it, it won’t … it doesn’t replace the books, books and research, but one can get a sense of a range of opinions or how people have reacted to various things at various times.

So it’s … I never go without checking things out on the Internet in one way or another.

HEFFNER: You wrote a piece about the Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington. Were you considered hostile at that time? Were there some people who thought that it was a negative … too negative a review if that’s the word?

ROTHSTEIN: You know I think … I, I didn’t like this memorial at all …

HEFFNER: You made that clear.

ROTHSTEIN: (Laugh) … and I … this is an example of one of these pieces where I got a tremendous amount of mail and almost all of it agreeing with me. And I was surprised by that. Because the Memorial, as I said in the review has tremendous importance and significance, the fact that Martin Luther King was being honored in a Memorial and that this dissident preacher would be taking his sort of place among the greatest of the nation’s sort of leaders seems to me entirely right and is a … is something that is, is to be applauded.

And I think that made the sort of inadequacies of this Memorial all the more sort of painful to actually have to look at. And I … I think there are certain things that have such historical importance, like this Memorial, or similarly, like the plans for the African American Museum on the mall opening in 2015. That there’s a responsibility that goes along with it because the subject is so important and it’s a chance to sort of set people’s perspective for the next 50 years as they go and, and look and experience these things.

I mean the effect of the design of the mall was really was really a sort of a post … as it now is … was almost a post Civil War sort of creation … that is you have the Lincoln Memorial on one end at the other end near the Capitol … you have the Grant Memorial, which no one really pays that much attention to now because Grant no longer has that sort of symbolic significance.

But you go into the Lincoln Memorial, I don’t know anybody who’s not moved by it. Even, even though this is so … the statue of Lincoln is just so gargantuan in, in a way … that verges on kitsch itself … you stand there and, and it’s sort of slightly dark, but you, you are obviously in the presence of something that’s bigger than you … and then deservedly bigger … because you have the complete text of the Gettysburg Address or the … is it the Second Inaugural … on the, the two opposing walls with the statue in the center.

And you can just read this text … stand there and, you know, sort of look up and read it and just … it’s, it’s as much the place … as much Lincoln’s words as the place.

And this … so that Memorial becomes a sort of touchstone for our understanding of this nation and its best and greatest achievements. That kind …

HEFFNER: You felt that wasn’t true …

ROTHSTEIN: I felt that was not true of, of King. And, and it’s a shame, but that’s … anyway, that was my take on it.

I think people … when, when I was there since I, I see many people going to the Memorial and I think many people, particularly … one day I was there and many African Americans are, are legitimately moved by this … the fact of the Memorial.

Whether or not they would be moved more if the Memorial itself would be better, I can’t say. But I can say I would be moved more if the Memorial were different.

HEFFNER: Going from Dr. King I, I, I … I, I … going back to what you had written about … now this was this year … 2011 … “Emancipating History” … you had visited the old slave mart museum in Charleston and had written so touchingly about the experience, which is not given to very many people. I mean slavery, touching it, seeing it, understanding it is not given to many of us and I, I was impressed when the piece appear and then the great historian Annette Gordon Reed wrote a letter to the Editor, “Thereafter, Edward Rothstein and his fascinating look at Charleston’s new efforts to highlight slavery writes correctly, Most White Southerners didn’t even own slaves, but slavery’s presence was widely accepted.

And she goes on to write, “Passive acquiescence, however, was not the only way non-slave holders participated in slavery, the South was a slave society in the same way that we are a nation that promotes home ownership. One does not have to own a home to get the benefits and burdens of the housing market.”

“Moreover,”, she concluded, “individuals who cannot afford to own slaves rented them as needed. Finally racially based slavery handed every White person in the South a measure of power over Blacks whether they owned slaves or not.’”

So, your piece was sort of two-fold, what you wrote and what she wrote to the Editor thereafter.

ROTHSTEIN: I, I think that letter’s, you know, absolutely correct. I mean I didn’t … whatever I did say, the review was not meant to be exclusive of others.

And I think what, what the case is, is that I don’t think we yet fully recognize in the way the extent to which slavery has sort of shaped the United States. And this sort of primal sort of sin of the United States is something that’s still … is a historical burden.

When I, when I was in the South for this piece, I also went around to various museums in Charleston area and to plantations in the area. And aside from the fact that slavery is only now becoming part of the sort of narrative that is told at plantation homes or in histories … I mean, when I say “part of the narrative” I mean a full recognition of slavery as, as that peculiar institution and what it meant … and yet there is something still very strange about all this, because here we’re talking about … since the Civil War, one would think that certain issues, or certain perspectives about American history and its past have sort of been turned into sort of common places so that we all, sort of, basically agree that it is … except that if there is a way in which … take a look at the Civil War through the eyes of the South and through the museums of the South.

You have a sense of a parallel, alternate universe in a way. And I’m not saying that this is some Jim Crow sort of exaggeration, but I’m saying that the assumption that the issue of national unity and that the victory of the North was in some sense the victory of the nation as a whole, something that we assume … that Gettysburg sort of Memorial sort of assumes that this is … you know, this war was fought, the South was wrong, and lost. The North won, but in this North winning, the Union won. And the Union incorporates the South.

Well, to a great extent in museums in the South this is not quite the way things still feel, that is … that the South still portrays itself as having been invaded and still as the victim of this war. And in many cases the issue … the issues that created the grounds for the Civil War are not fully engaged … they are sort of dealt with in euphemism or the idea that there were … that are other ways of seeing things.

There’s a Civil War Museum in Richmond, Virginia, that has labels on every … on many of its panels where it will say, “Here’s … I forget what abbreviation they use, but they’ll essentially say, “This is the Northern point of view, this is the Southern point of view, this is the African American point of view of particular events that happened.”

What you can’t do in this case is end, end up getting a, a unification of the sense of “Well, what was resolved? What did happen? What were the issues?” If they aren’t fully recognized then is, in some way, this war still an open sore for the South?

Is the issue of its relationship to slavery and the North’s sort of association with slavery because of the importance of establishing the Union from the very start with the Constitutional Convention … is that something that we can fully understand?

HEFFNER: Why … I, I’m puzzled … why does this surprise you after all that the “South shall rise again” is a cry we’ve heard so often, that the Confederate flag is flown in so many places, at so many times, that indeed it seemed as though Southern inspired historians won the war of the text books for our schools.

I guess as an historian I’m terribly much aware of that fact. And as you are, very much aware of how that issue remains in our lives.

ROTHSTEIN: Well, I think one reason why I expected something different is that …

HEFFNER: In the museums?

ROTHSTEIN: … in, in the museums and, and … is that, to a great extent in the last 50 years things have transformed in an amazing way with …that the … there are all through the South these Civil War Memorial … I mean not “Civil War” … I mean civil rights commemorations. There are sort of … there are plenty … there are plenty … there’s plenty of evidence that major aspects of this past have been sort of sloughed off.

And there is … there, there is a sort … there has been a political transformation, I think, in the South that … the South … that they’re replacing the South where it’s so clear … you can go to some of the cities of the South now and there are almost like immigrant cities because you have new waves of immigration coming from Asia and from Mexico and from … and, and some … Africa … from Europe … so that in some ways you had … particularly when the economy was in better shape … the idea that, say, some of these cities were becoming cosmopolitan. And that we in the North were, in some ways, sort of a little bit more constricted in our perspective.

So there is counter wave and, and that has been, I think, strong in Southern politics as well. So I don’t, I don’t … I guess this accounts for some of my sort of amazement that this … the Civil War is still an issue that is being fought.

HEFFNER: Well, fought and in so many books … won again, but by the South, rather than the North.


HEFFNER: Which, of course, makes me turn to the piece you wrote in 2009 … “One Man’s Crusade Against Slavery Seen From Two Angles” … in Richmond … you wrote from Richmond … you wrote about John Brown’s body lying … moldering in the grave. What, what is our fix and what was your fix on, on this?

ROTHSTEIN: Well, there were … there were two simultaneous exhibitions about John Brown. One was at the New York Historical Society and one was at the Virginia Historical Society. And the, the Virginia … the New York Historical Society Exhibition was essentially championing John Brown as a sort of precursor to the Civil Rights Movement.

The Virginia Historical Society exhibition raised all of these questions that … whether or … it sort of surveyed the extent to which John Brown’s sort of encouragement of slave rebellion and his, his actions were … well they caused controversy at the time … they divided the political public in the North as well … maybe less in the South … but, but certainly there were … even the Liberal politicians of the North were divided over his tactics and what it meant for the possibilities of, of abolitionism.

But also raising these questions about “Well, was John Brown essentially any different from a terrorist?” Because there are these horrific accounts, actually, of John Brown and his men coming upon a cabin and slaying people inside, who had nothing whatsoever … did not own slaves themselves, had no personal connection to the slavery economy and the idea was in, in a sense to create the sense of terror and outrage that would eventually lead to abolition which was not quite what happened.

So the question is … so the question I raise is “Well, okay, how are we to look at this now?”

Now, how are we to interpret it … John Brown? We’d like to … we think of slavery as so horrific that anything was justified in this … in this … in the attempt to undo it.

Well, if we look closely at John Brown can we say that this is the case? I mean there was on display in Virginia this huge six foot pike with a blade on it that was used as an assault weapon. Is this something that we would say if somebody has a strong moral conviction about what they believe that they should be able to wield this weapon in the service of whatever that cause happens to be?

I didn’t come … end this with any conclusion … but I actually thought that there were aspects of this because the Virginia Historical Society had … was playing against these … the split that we were just talking about and because they … part of their constituency is far, far to the Right of what I’m talking about … they ended up raising questions which were not really the issue here in New York.

But at the same time I think are interesting to think about. That at what point are we willing to say this kind of act … and, and the reason … the other reason why this came up is because this the justification for terror or the understanding of terror has been a theme that has been with us for the last ten years since 9/11.

HEFFNER: You wrote about that … in your comments on the Spielberg movie about terrorists …


HEFFNER: … how did you, how did you end up feeling about that?

ROTHSTEIN: Well, I haven’t thought about that movie in a while. But the thing is … the Spielberg movie Munich, if I’m remembering all this correctly … was a sort of dramatization of the Israeli response to the massacre of its athletes at the …

HEFFNER: At the Olympics.

ROTHSTEIN: … the Olympics. And the report is that the, the Israeli’s sent assassins into Europe to essentially eliminate anybody who had anything to do with this Black September attack on … in, in Munich.

I felt this movie was … say, duplicitous … or distorting of history because it was based on a memoir or, or a couple of books … but in particular a book by one of the members of this team in which … the way the movie portrays it is that the, the … these Mossad agents were racked by remorse and guilt over what they had done.

And the implication of the movie … particularly in the closing scene where you see this sort of disillusioned Mossad agent standing, I think, in Queens with the image of the World Trade Center in the background … remember this is after the World Trade Center’s gone …


ROTHSTEIN: … the implication is that in some way what we … what has happened is a sort of wave of sort of tit-for-tat and that the, the amplification of terrorism was in some way connected with the decision to respond to the Munich terror attack in this way.

The actual book by the Mossad agent is not wracked with guilt at all. That was something completely imposed on the story by its current authors. So this already is something that is worth taking a look at. Why this sort of sense … why does the story have to be told so that thee is this guilt and then, is this an accurate portrayal of how terrorism works?

HEFFNER: Did you … do you feel that in raising those questions you were reflecting your own attitudes toward Israel?

ROTHSTEIN: Oh, ahemm, yes … I mean in the sense that if, if … if I do not accept the fact that … let me see how to, how to put this … the only way the argument makes sense to say that there’s this cycle of violence … is if one accepts that there is a sort of symmetry of positions.


ROTHSTEIN: ….and, and this is something that’s kind of an argument that was made very much around 9/11, as well. That is … there’s a sort of symmetry … that is … essentially it goes back to the line about one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.

If one accepts that and that perspective on the world than there are all kinds of things that … consequences of one’s understanding that fall into place.

If one questions that then there are other ways of looking at these things. One has to understand terrorism in a different way and, and one responds to it in a different way. So in that sense … I think when … I think it, it’s not dealing with the particulars of a particular issue, but more a perspective on what one considers to be the nature of terrorism and the people and why the people who conduct, who do such things do them.

HEFFNER: So, when you write you criticism, we’ve got all of Ed Rothstein there … his politics, his esthetics, we don’t separate them out.

ROTHSTEIN: Right. I mean what I tried to do is … I don’t assume that my readers are going to agree with me or have the same perspective that I do. What I would like to be … to do … in, in essays is to, to really argue something as clearly as I can and to raise questions that if they’re answered differently from the way I raised them, the fact that I’ve made the argument is at least something that has to be responded to, or a question that has to be answered.

So I’m sort of … I’m, I’m in a way engaged in a dialogue or trying to engage in a dialogue through the article.

HEFFNER: Well, you succeed and I know that I’m going to be the other part of that dialogue as I read you for years to come. And I want to thank you so much for joining us here on The Open Mind.

ROTHSTEIN: Thank you, it’s been a pleasure.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

And do visit the Open Mind website at www.theopenmind.tv

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.