By the Way • October 5, 2014

Report: The People’s Climate March

The march announced itself by force of numbers, and by its feel. No one seemed angry. This is not to say that the marchers had been bought off, or didn't understand the long odds facing them, or even that they aren't angry. But they are taking a clever rhetorical detour around a problem.


By Max Larkin

NEW YORK, NY. — I traveled down to New York for the People’s Climate March, I admit, out of a sense of political curiosity. I care, but like many Americans I’ve found it hard to rate the climate over poverty or prison or the foreign-policy fires that break out from time to time. By chance a friend and I had joined an interfaith brigade, a subsection in the People’s Climate March had assembled on West 58th Street, in the shadow of The Shops at Columbus Circle and CNN HQ. It was around eleven o’clock.

At the front of the crowd, Rabbi Jay Michaelson stood at the stern of an ark-shaped float on the back of a truck, wearing a technicolor tallit. The ark was a new construction; organizers hoped it could be reused in other parades down the line. Right then it held ministers and kids, markers and tape; a few volunteers wore horse masks or had paper unicorn horns strapped to their heads, and signs that read: “We Missed the Boat Last Time,” etc., etc.

Michaelson blew a shofar after speeches and prayers made onstage; he’s newly a rabbi and comes from a career in activism. Even today, he said, he’s “more of a march-in-the-streets rabbi than a pray-in-the-pews rabbi.” He’s also a columnist on environment and politics for the Jewish Daily Forward.

Two days before Michaelson had written that the green movement needed to appeal to the mainstream to be successful. In the fight for gay rights, he had learned about the all-importance of political messaging. He spoke candidly:

It was market-tested to death. When that movement was about gay rights, it was a big loser. It didn’t work, and nobody was motivated. When it turned into ‘love is love’, ‘we just want what everybody else wants: family, love, connection’ — and faith leaders played a big part in that — that message worked. It wasn’t cynical. It’s not that that’s not true. It was true. But which side do you emphasize?

He looked out over the group: “Calling it the ‘People’s Climate March’ — it isn’t exactly a frame that reaches out.”

We paused while some of the Muslim delegation began silently to pray toward Central Park, backed by an inflatable mosque. The crowd — Buddhists with banners, little platoons of hippie Catholics, here and there anti-nuclear T-shirts, crafty, hand-painted signs — was very definitely “progressive”. How would a People’s Climate March look to people who would never think of attending?

Suddenly an organizer tapped me on the shoulder: “We need to get going, so would you—?” The Rabbi and I said a quick goodbye, I hopped off the boat, then we all were off. The ark seemed to drift away on a sea of shoulders.

The march followed the line of the park, passing a ‘climate vigil’ sat in cross-legged meditation on the grass. There was no overwhelming sound; the march had no sergeants. The signs read: “There is No Planet B”, “Don’t Frack With U.S.,” “Ashamed Republican” with an arrow pointing down at the man holding it. Children, long-haired teens, nuns, and expatriates walked unregimented, in drifting formations. An older woman wearing a paper bag as a hat — she had written “Recycle” on it in Sharpie — emerged as a swaggering presence nearby. (One of the amazing things about the movement is the respect it has for its grandmothers.)

We made the turn down Sixth Avenue, and marched into the heart of Manhattan. A family pushed their luggage across the street and through the crowd on a trolley. There was Fox News HQ; a building-side crawl reminded passersby of ISIS. Then we passed the banks, with all-glass facades that made them look all the emptier, the more forbidding.

Nobody threw a brick. A young man, in full Caledonian dress, blew a bagpipe; behind him people danced to a Brazilian drumline. The “Recycle” lady strutted along alone, between banks of public and parochial-school students. Bryant Park was quiet, bracketed by a police cordon. For those present, midtown Manhattan was transformed. Did anyone notice?


The movement’s answers may come from repurposing a history. In 2002 the administration of George W. Bush reintroduced a doctrine of preemptive war, or “anticipatory self-defense.” For obvious reasons that language has fallen into disuse (though we are now fighting a limited preemptive war against the jihadis of ISIS, who pose, it’s said, “no immediate threat” to the American people).

But let’s not let perfectly sound moral thinking be abandoned entirely, when it has only been misapplied. Preemption itself is not evil: in a risk-ridden and high-velocity world, it’s common sense. And finally we may have a problem worthy of its use — and hundreds of thousands of people are marching over it. We might, borrowing a phrase from the philosopher William James, consider the climate movement as the moral equivalent of preemptive war: brigades of clean-energy advocates, barge-stopping kayakers, arborists, aquaculturists, and architects, toiling and thinking and building as if the worst is still avoidable.

In his original essay, James predicted that we might civilize ourselves by putting the “barbarian virtues”, so popular with so many American men, to civic work: in football and Americorps and the Civilian Conservation Corps, where the struggle is against nature and privation, a cordial opponent or our own limits.

In 1977 Jimmy Carter pitched the nation on treating our energy dependency as an opportunity to rally and fight a common cause in this nature using this very rhetoric.

But maybe it would be best if the climate movement today proposed a grander kind of struggle. The enemy ought to be, beyond oil and even capitalism, a defect in national, or human, consciousness — the immature American wish to remain outside of history, our tendency to treat every small emergency as a fire to be managed, an opportunity to avoid the big ones.


After turning at one last barricade, the march continued on to Eleventh Avenue where it dried up uneventfully: no speech. It was an evanescent kind of civil action, like weather. It was a dazing kind of day, but by the time I left New York the next morning I was impressed.

The march announced itself by force of numbers, and by its feel. No one seemed angry. This is not to say that the marchers had been bought off, or didn’t understand the long odds facing them, or even that they aren’t angry. But they are taking a clever rhetorical detour around a problem.

I thought of Kurt Vonnegut’s terrifying poem of extinction, “Requiem”.

When the last living thing

has died on account of us,

how poetical it would be

if Earth could say,

in a voice floating up


from the floor

of the Grand Canyon,

”It is done.”

People did not like it here.

If there was a common message to the march, it is this: “We do like it here, don’t we?” (And love is love, isn’t it?)

I hope that the marchers — especially the youngest among them — another generation tempered by war and peace that is bitter and uneven, can help the rest of us relearn our history, relearn that there is history beyond four-year cycles and Long Wars, and that the United States has a lot of making up to do.

We are finding it harder to ignore the consequences of our actions and self-aware, with the medium of the internet and the medium of the atmosphere as instructors. We have the fear of shame that would come from a world whose barrenness testified to our carelessness. And all we will need, in a sense, is prompting: if not from storm and drought, then from such marches as this one in September.

To do this the activists will need to be militant, but un-military — they will need, much of the time, to smile and be peaceable and commonsensical: to remind us how worthy all this is, Chris Hedges be damned.

In a tight huddle toward the end of the walking some twenty-two-year-old finished up a pep talk to others in his group: “Organize, organize, organize!” Everyone around him cheered, and even sighed. It’s the call that Stokely Carmichael made after a long march fifty years ago this summer, and it still sounds like the answer.

Podcast • August 29, 2014

WWI, In 12 Photos

The World War I photographs are as horrible as any current-events coverage Taylor might post, but they're also weird. They have a mood; they are uncanny. You don't know how to dismiss them, and so you can't. Looking at the French priest blessing a prop plane in the mire, you have to ask, “What was he thinking?”

By Max Larkin

This spring a series of more than 400 photographs from the First World War appeared  on “In Focus,” The Atlantic’s photography blog.  It was spread out across ten thematic parts, and it bespoke an enormous amount of curatorial effort by Alan Taylor, the blog’s editor.

The World War I photographs are as horrible as any current-events coverage Taylor might post, but they’re also weird. They have a mood; they are uncanny. You don’t know how to dismiss them, and so you can’t. Looking at the French priest blessing a prop plane in the mire, you have to ask, “What was he thinking?”

When I spoke to Taylor, he said that this was what had driven him to do more than a year’s worth of work on the series was this quality: the strangeness of these images, many of them found on postcards printed for a world transfixed by the war that was tearing it apart. Taylor’s photographic record is so great that it seemed an invitation to go further and to get lost, in a few of these images. It may be that this is how we get to know war: not by fighting it, but by seeing it again — as strange.

This is a series of interviews on a few images or trends in images, conducted with three experts. Thanks to all of them for their participation.

Alan Taylor, on a waste of a war

w_35 Taylor comes at these images not as a expert not on war but on photography. He was struck by the jerry-rigged quality of the war’s technology, its planning, and the tentative efforts of all parties to get ahead of each other. They are ‘like us’, but they are also like their grandparents — people we have forgotten.


Soldiers of an Australian 4th Division field artillery brigade walk on a duckboard track laid across a muddy, shattered battlefield in Chateau Wood, near Hooge, Belgium, on October 29, 1917. This was during the Battle of Passchendaele, fought by British forces and their allies against Germany for control of territory near Ypres, Belgium. (James Francis Hurley/State Library of New South Wales)

Passchendaele was the most hellish scene of the entire war. This was taken in 1917, after years of fighting at Ypres, by Frank Hurley, an Australian photographer and one of those actual adventurers the early twentieth century produced. (He was the cameraman during the long marooning of the Shackleton expedition to the South Pole, and managed to live until 1962.)


A German communications squad behind the Western front, setting up using a tandem bicycle power generator to power a light radio station in September of 1917. (National Archive/Official German Photograph of WWI)

Here is that blend of old and new worlds, consummated by ingenuity in the service of the fighting. Taylor also described an image of rockets tied with twine to the struts of a biplane. It was an age before precision strikes.


On the Western front, a group of captured Allied soldiers representing 8 nationalities: Anamite (Vietnamese), Tunisian, Senegalese, Sudanese, Russian, American, Portugese, and English. (National Archive/Official German Photograph of WWI)

This photograph has an ethnographic quality to it. It is a staged lineup of soldiers imprisoned by the Germans. It leaves no doubt about this being a “world war”.


The British Aircraft Carrier HMS Argus. Converted from an ocean liner, the Argus could carry 15-18 aircraft. Commissioned at the very end of WWI, the Argus did not see any combat. The ship’s hull is painted in Dazzle camouflage. Dazzle camouflage was widely used during the war years, designed to make it difficult for an enemy to estimate the range, heading, or speed of a ship, and make it a harder target – especially as seen from a submarine’s periscope. (National World War I Museum, Kansas City, Missouri, USA) #


A Marine kisses a woman during a homecoming parade at the end of World War I, in 1919. (AP Photo)

Taylor ended his entire series with this image: different year, different peace, same kind of kiss.

Ann Thomas of the National Gallery of Canada, on propaganda

Thomas, the museum’s curator of photography, put together “The Great War: The Persuasive Power of Photography“, an exhibition running through November 16. The exhibition is designed to show photography at work in wartime: as tools of state power, as symbol of military organization, or as a keepsake for loved ones at home. One captured Canadian soldier even used his personal photographs to remind German captors that he had family waiting for him. Thomas accentuated the tense relationship between the scenes in the “epic mode” described by Susan Sontag and the personal portraits of soldiers.

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William Ivor Castle (Great Britain, 1877–1947), 29th Infantry Battalion advancing over “no man’s land” through the German barbed wire and heavy fire during the Battle of Vimy Ridge, 1917, 320 × 610 cm. Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa (a001020).

Here, Canadian Corps soldiers are shown after a 1917 victory over German forces on Vimy Ridge on the Western Front. Those are German bodies in the foreground. This image was used as a massive window on the war in a state-sponsored exhibition in London, which Thomas recreated at the National Gallery. Max Aitken, later Lord Beaverbrook, a Canadian businessman, first organized these exhibitions as a tool of persuasion, putting an image like this one — an image of a decisive victory, printed 10 feet by 20 feet — in front of a public that might have come to question the purpose or the hope of victory.

Panoramic Camera Company, 122nd Overseas Battalion, C.E.F. –Port Carling, Muskoka, Ontario 1914–18, gelatin silver print, 24 × 90.2 cm. George Metcalf Archival Collection, Canadian War Museum, Ottawa (CWM 19910241-005).

This is a group portrait of the 122nd Overseas Battalion taken in rural Port Carling, a small township about four hours from Ottawa. There are officers on horseback, bandmembers, a stream of soldiers running back over the bridges: then one old man in the middle who may not, Thomas surmises, have known he was going to be in the very center of this panoramic photograph.

WWI-L16_74_Lo_Res (1)

Unidentified photographer, Unidentified Soldier 1914–18, gelatin silver print, 13.5 × 8.7 cm. Private collection.

The caption says it all: this is a portrait of an unknown German soldier from an unknown year, one of hundreds of small keepsake photographs that adorn one entire wall of the National Gallery’s exhibition. We don’t know anything about this image, or what it’s supposed to be saying, except that the soldier himself has a face worth studying.


Catharina Slautterback of The Boston Athenaeum, on war posters

At the Athenaeum, Catharina Slautterback presides over a collection of thousands of posters from the First World War, which make for an interesting parallel case to the war’s photography. Select posters are being presented starting next week through January 2015 as part of an exhibition entitled “Over Here!: World War I Posters from Around the World.”

Ms. Slautterback chose three posters that seemed to her to show how Britain, Germany, and France established themselves as fearsome war powers on the homefront.


C. R. W. Nevinson (1889-1946), Now. Back the Bayonets with Your War Savings Certificates., 1918. Color lithograph. London: Printed by the Dangerfield Printing Company. Boston Athenaeum. Gift of Bartlett H. Hayes, 1985.

This one stands out because of its high-design aesthetic, not in the conservative magazine style of most of the war posters. It might just as well come from the Summer of Love, except for the array of knives on it. And Slautterback points out that we miss the violence of this poster because of its modern look, even to the point of forgetting what the bayonets are supposed to do.

8164 This German poster touts “Our Smashing Success” in 1914: the wreck of Liège, Belgium, using shells just like this one, in the first battle of the war. Throughout the Germans preferred the blackletter typefaces and monochrome compositions seen here, which make for a harsh contrast with some of the rainbow-colored optimistic American examples on show at the Museum of Fine Arts.

The Howitzer that fired this shell (depicted at Originalgröße, or full size, on the poster) came to be known as Dicke Bertha, or “Big Bertha”. It was so named, some say, for Bertha Krupp, the heiress and director of the Krupps corporation, which then made armaments and today makes coffee machines.


Slautterback’s last poster was intended to celebrate, or at least raise money for, an army of black Africans fighting fiercely alongside French and Vietnamese soldiers. But what is this drawing supposed to do: amuse, impress or terrify? And why did all those feelings seem to lie so close together when it came to this war, and not to others?

Podcast • January 12, 2013

Gregory Buchakjian in Beirut: A Course of Catastrophe

Gregory Buchakjian looks at the Arab uprisings of the last two years and sees not an exception but an extension — at best a pause, not a change, along a course of catastrophe. The pattern ...

Gregory Buchakjian looks at the Arab uprisings of the last two years and sees not an exception but an extension — at best a pause, not a change, along a course of catastrophe. The pattern of the Middle East since 1945, he’s saying, has been warfare that resolves nothing: that always stops short of treating the agony of Palestinians displaced and more recently occupied by the young state of Israel. Do we know yet what it means that tyrannies have been toppled in Egypt and Tunisia? Or that vicious close-up war has broken out in Libya and Syria? “In Lebanon,” he says, “we are used to saying — ‘we don’t know.’ We’re in a region that gets relief now and then, but not reconciliation.” We’re scanning the Arab upheavals from the intersection of Greg Buchakjian’s artistic passions, photography and history, and from the views not far from his window of war damage and construction cranes in his hometown Beirut. He is my kind of informed, digressive, mercurial talker with angles that could sound unconventional in America, but not unrecognizable…

Gregory Buchakjian at home in Beirut.  Photo by Leonardo Matossian.

Gregory Buchakjian at home in Beirut. Photo by Leonardo Matossian.

The French have an expression, le sens de l’histoire, the direction of history, mainly based on the French Revolution and the American Revolution that preceded it. The meaning is that history moves from dark ages to enlightenment and the liberation of people. Well, I don’t agree with that ‘direction of history.’ We are living today in an era of neo-liberalism when the world is commanded by brokers and bankers… We are not moving toward enlightenment and humanism. The world is going toward the enrichment of a category of people who are ruling over economic empires. So if the direction of history is to let some companies take the place of states and empires, I don’t see myself in it. I don’t find it a good direction… We are talking about the Arab world, which is one of the most violent regions in the world. I am not optimistic about the Arab world because I am not optimistic about the world as a whole.

Gregory Buchakjian in conversation with Chris Lydon in Beirut, December 2012.

I am trying out on Greg Buchakjian my romantic notion that the revolutionaries in Tahrir Square were pushing a “universal panic button” for all of us — about their habitat and ours, their economics of inequality and ours, about blind state brutality far and wide. He hears rather “a cry of despair” in the revolts today and two years ago, speaking directly for a population that is young, poor, angry and out of luck in its current prospects. Either way, is the ongoing Arab rebellion a signal that the world can hear? Greg Buchakjian is drawn to smaller readings and smaller gestures — toward the planting of walnut trees in Lebanon; or, in Japan, to the farmers who are engaging ducks to fight insects that infest rice plants. Or in his own case, to making a photographic record of the houses and lives being crushed and abandoned in the real estate war — “and it is a war” — in Beirut as we speak.

Gregory Buchakjian Archive, Beirut, 2011 Ultrachrome print, edition of 5 ©Gregory Buchakjian

Gregory Buchakjian Archive, Beirut, 2011 Ultrachrome print, edition of 5 ©Gregory Buchakjian