Gideon Rose celebrates the winners of this year’s Arthur Ross Book Award: Patrick Radden Keefe, George Packer, and William Dalrymple. The program will include an award ceremony and a conversation with Keefe on the Northern Ireland conflict.
ROSE: Hi, everybody, and welcome to the eighteenth annual Arthur Ross Book Awards presentation.
First, let me give a warm welcome to Janet Ross and the other members of the Ross family. It's been a special pleasure to have their affiliation with this award and to honor Arthur's memory.
It was endowed in 2001 to honor nonfiction works in English or in translation that bring forth new information that changes the understanding of events or problems, develop analytical approaches that offer insight into critical issues, or introduce ideas that help resolve foreign policy problems. In shorthand, it's become the most celebrated award for this— for serious works in our field and related fields. And defined according to those parameters, the best that's been thought and said and expressed each year. We had an extraordinary crop this year.
But before I get to the authors and the books, William Dalrymple, George Packer, and Patrick Radden Keefe, let me first say something about the jury. This is my tenth year during the awards, and each year, it becomes more of a refuge, a haven. As the world outside slips ever further into darkness from the forces of the counter-Enlightenment, it's sort of like a haven to a place where facts matter, words matter, ideas matter, and people matter.
And both in the deliberations and the works that are honored, it's been a tribute, an honor, and a privilege to work with these people in what is the best example of the kind of process of this kind I know. And I just want to say thank you to this year's jurors who stand in for all the ones I've worked with. Lisa Anderson, Nicholas Eberstadt, Jose Fernandez, Sumit Ganguly, Michelle Gavin, Walter Mead, Susan Shirk, Calvin Sims, and Andrew Ross Sorkin. And all them displayed the best intellectual and moral standards of the profession.
And we deliberated in the kind of way that you're supposed to do with these things. And we talked honestly and we came to a collective decision that we all agreed with, and it's the way things used to be, it's the way things could be, it's the way things at least are in this little portion of the world that has been a deep pleasure to be part of that.
The books we had the privilege of reading this year, the finalists, were just an extraordinary feat.
Shoshana Zuboff's Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future and the New Frontier of Power. Powerful, architectural attempt to map out the digital world and how power plays out in that sphere.
Angela Stent's Putin's World: Russia Against the West and With the Rest is a searing and deeply penetrating analysis of Putin's Russia and what is happening now and what might come next.
Larry Diamond's Ill Winds: Saving Democracy from Russian Rage, Chinese Ambition, and American Complacency is the latest of a series of indispensable works on democracy from Larry that are huge things.
And David Treuer's The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present was an extraordinary look at a rarely told story of American history, which the jury was especially fascinated, because it was so far removed from much of what we had known and put new perspective on things.
All of those are wonderful books that we encourage you all to read and spend time with over these cold quarantine months.
The three that got the awards this year are just nothing short of remarkable. And what they all share is the ability to tell a story that resonates ever more deeply and accurately with the people who know it best. Every time you— everyone reads books, and they say, 'Oh, these are good books.' And then the people on the jury who actually know something about the subject might step in and say, 'Well, you know, actually, he got a little bit of this stuff wrong, or—' With all three of these books, everybody who knows the subject matter— the more you got to those people, the more they wanted to praise the books and rave about them.
And so with that, let me just start with William Dalrymple's, The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire. This book is an extraordinary discussion and history of the greatest corporate power of all time, you might say. We had a lot of talk these days about corporate power and structural things. You want to know what a company can do, look at the East India Company. And there is no better way to look at that and discuss what it did then through this book, which is an extraordinarily, beautifully written, amazingly researched, multi-archival study of multi different stuff. William Dalrymple will now come on to accept the award and answer just a couple of questions about it.
DALRYMPLE: Hi there, Gideon. Thank you, thank you very much.
ROSE: Great to see you. So tell us briefly, what did you— why did you write this book and what does it say and why should people read it?
ROSE: Give me a two-minute ad for the book.
DALRYMPLE: People have always talked about the British conquering India, but it's much more sinister than that. It wasn't a conquest out of Downing Street by the British government. It was a conquest out of one office in the City of London by corporation. And the corporation, at the time that it began taking over India, had a small office, just five windows wide. I mean, really a very modest premises and a century into its existence, the East India Company employed only thirty-five people in its head office. But it took over what was then the richest country in the world.
When the East India Company was founded, Britain controlled about seven percent of the world's GDP. But India, at the peak of the Mughal Empire, was the world's biggest producer. Forty percent of world GDP was coming out of India. And yet, when, by the middle of the eighteenth century, one London company had managed to take it over.
And that fact that it was corporate was occluded by the Victorians who sort of were embarrassed by the corrupt and corporate nature of the beginning of the story, and sort of turned it into a sort of Great British Empire building story. It wasn't. It was a story of corporate greed and this corporation invented many of the things we fear most about corporations today: the power of corporate lobbying, the power of corporate corruption. They were the first people to be caught bribing MPs, for example.
So it's both a story of imperialism, and it's a story of corporate corruption.
ROSE: How did you manage to tell such a sprawling—? First of all, how did you manage to research such a sprawling story in so many dimensions, logistically? And second, how the hell did you manage to tell it in such a way that it's so beautifully written and that you know you want to keep reading it rather than getting lost in the myriad details?
DALRYMPLE: Well, the second was easy in that it is a very exciting story. It's the story of a bunch of crooks sitting in an office in London, taking over the biggest country and richest country in the world, the country that just built the Taj Mahal. It's an extraordinary story. And the fact that this corporate nature had never been told before, hadn't been told for a hundred years beside this guy—
The collecting materials was the, of course, the great challenge. And this is actually my fourth book, there's a quartet. This is the concluding volume. And so I've been at this twenty years. It's a great honor, at this moment, at the end of this to get this award.
Particularly, I mean, two different languages. Obviously, the British stuff is very easy. And it's all sitting in the British Library, thirty-five miles of East India Company documents sitting in the bowels of the British Library. The Mughal stuff more difficult in that it's all in an in a dead language. It's in Mughal Persian. And I mean it's very like Persian, but it's got a lot of Indian words that are no longer in the Persian language. So that was more of a struggle.
ROSE: Did you have to learn Persian?
DALRYMPLE: Well, I worked closely with a guy called Bruce Wannell, who came to live with me for three years and we did it together. He didn't know the history, but he knew the language. And we worked at these documents, which we dragged out of libraries and provincial cities in India. Lots and lots of stories of ending up in very sort of one-horse towns with some half-closed library looking for a manuscript that everyone had forgotten existed. But lots of fun, getting it translated, turning it into history, and then finding, you know, then having to tell it as a yarn.
ROSE: But that's, I can't think of a better commercial for the book than what you've just given. So people should go out and read the book, if that sounds interesting. And if that doesn't sound interesting, there's something wrong with you.
Will, what has the reception been? Briefly, your last comment, what has its reception been in India?
DALRYMPLE: So the book, in a sense, is quite difficult for both the Brits and the Indians. For the Brits, it's a story of corporate asset stripping of an entire continent and the dodgy beginnings of their empire.
But for the Indians, it's also quite hard to swallow in that it's— it was done by Indian mercenaries working for this court. You know, there was no white army conquering India. It was Indian troops paid for by this corporation who did it. And the money that paid them came from Indian bankers. So it's a story of collaboration and corruption there too.
But I have to say, I mean, in both countries, I was very lucky in that was a number one bestseller in India for six months. So it's all very well, got very good reviews. And everyone quite likes a kind of story that, you know, gets all the dirty laundry out and that it certainly did.
ROSE: On that note, thank you, and congratulations for winning the bronze medal for this year's ARBA Book Award and the prize that comes with it. It's an honor to be associated with such a great book.
DALRYMPLE: Thank you, sir.
ROSE: Makenzie, next up. Hi, there.
Okay, so, our silver medal winner: George Packer's Our Man. This is Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century. I said before that all these books, the people who knew the subject matter were the biggest fans. That's true of this as well. And many of the people on this call knew Dick Holbrooke. I'll just say that, as somebody who thought I knew something about Dick Holbrooke, I was amazed to find after reading a book about a guy I've known on and off and worked with for twenty-five years, that I liked him both better and worse— that I thought more of him— or didn't like him better— I thought more of him and less of him at the same time after reading the book. And felt that I had barely known or scratched the surface in my actual human acquaintance. That kind of deep contact. And that was true, not just the whole book, but of all the characters in the book.
This is the portrait of not just Holbrooke as himself the hero of his own film, but zoomed out to show everybody else in the picture, that's the crew, the people who actually propped up and did the work for the great man and were the real heroes. And it's just a stunning accomplishment.
And George Packer is here to talk with us. And George, you know, the feeling, as with all of you guys, is just we are not worthy. So talk about your two minute commercial for what your book is about and why you wrote it and what it says.
PACKER: I wrote it because his papers suddenly became available about a month after he died. And his widow, Kati Marton, said that I could have them with no strings attached if I was going to write a book about him. At that point, I hadn't even thought of writing a book about him. But seeing those papers and wanting to get my hands on them and not wanting anyone else to get their hands on them was sort of a rather narrow motivation.
But as soon as I started reading them— and by the way, they were right behind me. William had the great pleasure of going into these little dusty, forgotten Indian libraries. I had all these papers and filing cabinets behind me. Holbrooke was really in my room crowding me out, making it hard even to get the door open because the filing cabinets were so big like him.
He was such a good writer, they're incredibly revealing about him and about his colleagues and rivals, and about the three wars that he was associated with.
He served every Democratic president in the in the State Department, from Kennedy to Obama. So his career takes you through some of the key phases of American foreign policy from 1963 to 2010. It's a pretty rich period. Hillary Clinton said to me he was sort of a zelig and that's not a bad description. He always seems to show up in the middle of things.
He also had his fingers in other pies like the media. He knew journalists, he seduced them, psychologically, he kind of loved being around them. And they liked him too. Hollywood, Wall Street, and foreign countries. So there's a big world that he is connected to.
And I wanted to paint a picture of both America in that world in those fifty years, which is a big story, but also a picture of ambition. That's what the book is really about. It's about what ambition looks like, how it operates, how it can get out of control, how it can get in your way, and how the U.S. government can or cannot contain a figure as outsized and, at times, out of control as Richard Holbrooke.
He's a great, mesmerizing character, much too big for a book in a sense. So what I wanted to do was write a book that captured his character and if you want we can talk about how I wrote it because that's the key to the book, I think, is the fact that it doesn't read like a biography.
ROSE: Okay, explain, briefly.
PACKER: I felt trapped by having to write a biography. All— you know, the idea of slogging through every high school class he took and talking to his high school friends, and it just didn't appeal to me. What I wanted to do was write a novel. I'm a failed novelist. And my most recent nonfiction books, three or four of them have all been modeled on novels.
And this was modeled on a novel so there's a narrator who isn't quite me. His voice is different from mine. It's an older person, it's kind of almost a condensation of some of the older colleagues of Holbrooke who are my key sources, people like Les Gelb, Tony Lake, Frank Wisner, and others. So it's a picture of a man as if the narrator knew him and followed him all through the story and is intimate with every detail of it. There's no evidence of research. I left that all for the notes at the end of the book. Instead, I wanted to have a kind of transparent, narrative quality that a novel has where you're just following the character through his life, and doing it in a way that doesn't require you to hear about every high school friend he ever had.
ROSE: I should say that you also put yourself into it as a character sometimes, talking to the reader.
ROSE: I actually— what?
PACKER: I think once because I wrote about him at the New Yorker, and that appears in the story because it got him into a lot of trouble with the Obama White House.
ROSE: So, Holbrooke, you come away from the book thinking that he was an impressive policymaker and humanitarian and an utterly self-absorbed moral monster. Explain and reconcile.
PACKER: Monster is a strong word. It's not a word I use in the book.
What I— the words I use in the first pages are idealism and egotism. He had large quantities of both, and you really have to look at the idealism in order to understand the egotism and vice versa. And there'd be no reason to write about him or read about him if the idealism weren't there, because otherwise it would just be a portrait of raw ego. He really did believe that America had an indispensable role as a world leader, he believed that we had to save refugees, he was one of the key voices in getting us to intervene in the terrible civil war in Bosnia when Europe was failing to stop it. So all of that. And he had a lot to do with the admission of a lot of Southeast Asian refugees after the Vietnam War. So all of that is to his credit, but his ego was also outsized.
And he couldn't— he had no control over it because he couldn't see himself. Lack of self-knowledge is sort of the key to his character. And in the end, it cost him everything because he couldn't understand why Barack Obama disliked him so much. So those two qualities need each other, they feed each other. And they are, they're sort of so integrated with each other that if you tried to fix him by somehow cutting out the ego, you would lose everything.
So you have to have it all in the case of Holbrooke. That’s not true of everyone, but with Holbrooke, I think it's true.
ROSE: Okay, so your last question: when you get to the larger question of American foreign policy, you want the book to be Holbrooke as a stand-in, or model for, or case study of, exemplar of the trajectory of the U.S. in this era. And I think you make a depressingly good case. I'm on the other side, eventually. But I think that I was almost swayed by it completely.
But there's one aspect of this that I'm wondering whether you've considered and it's not so much about the American role in the world so much as the American elite. Is Holbrooke actually characteristic of the American elite, which has over the last several years done very good things for itself and the world, and made the world a lot better place, objectively, by every statistical indicator you could imagine in varieties of ways, while at the same time helping itself, cutting deals, being corrupt on the sidelines, self-interested, and therefore losing the confidence of the people it was trying to help and/or lead?
Could it be said that the good sides of Holbrooke, even though he didn't get along with Obama, gave us Obama and the bad sides of Holbrooke and the establishment writ large gave us Trump?
PACKER: I'm not sure it gave us Obama but he did have some of the best qualities of an elite who saw the post-World War II generation as his model. He wanted to be Avril Harriman, he wanted to be Dean Acheson. Those were his heroes.
But, of course, the establishment had disintegrated by the time Holbrooke really came into his prime, so it wasn't possible to be them and instead he reigned over a period of kind of, yeah, of celebrity and of self-display and of the need to make noise and all those things.
And also, yes, a certain amount of corruption. Toward the end of his life, you know, he got involved in subprime, I mean, sweetheart loans from Countrywide Financial, and he was making a lot of money giving speeches in Ukraine being paid by oligarchs. So all the things that the elite ended up compromising themselves, Holbrooke was part of that.
But I still want to hold on to the idea that he was— he showed what could be done with those connections and with those advantages, rather than simply using them for his own advancement, his own advancement and the advancement of what he saw as the good of this country in the world. For him, there was no difference between the two.
ROSE: George Packer, thank you very much.
Read the book, it is mandatory reading for the history of American foreign policy, insight into America's role in the world, and one of the best books you'll read in this or any decade.
PACKER: Thank you.
ROSE: And our gold medalist winner, Patrick Radden Keefe's Say Nothing.
It would take extraordinary stuff to push past, to nose out at the finish line these other works. And that's what this is. Say Nothing is a story of the Irish Troubles and how it played out on a human level. It's a work of investigative reportage, of human empathy, and an ability to portray and get to the heart of very troubled times. And I want to talk about that with its author, Patrick Radden Keefe.
So Patrick, what is your two minute commercial for the book? Why did you write this? What is it about? And why should people read it?
KEEFE: You would think, at this point, I would have my elevator pitch down, but I'm humbled by Will and George. I'll see what I can do.
So on the one hand, it's a book about the Troubles, but it was funny hearing George talk about wanting to write a novel, wanting to write something that felt like a novel even though it was nonfiction. In some ways it's not surprising to me that I would resonate with that, George being one of my heroes as a writer and somebody whose work I've turned to for years. That was very much the approach I wanted to take with this book.
It started as a piece in the New Yorker about two women: a woman named Dolores Price who died in 2013 and had been a member of the IRA, the first woman to be admitted as a kind of frontline soldier to the IRA in the 1970s. And she, later in her life, after the Good Friday Agreement, looked back with some real discomfort, both at things she'd done during the Troubles when she was in the IRA, but also at the peace. And I think that for me, that was actually fairly interesting.
This may be my own naivete, but as an American, I had looked at the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 as this miracle, this kind of unambiguous triumph that the United States felt some, you know, a sense of ownership of in some ways because certain Americans were so critical in helping make it happen. And the idea that there were people who felt very disaffected by that was interesting to me.
There's another woman, though, a very different woman named Jean McConville, who was a widow and a mother of ten in Belfast in 1972, who was abducted one night by a gang of armed men in the housing complex where she lived. And she was never seen again, her kids grew up orphans, they didn't know what had happened to their mother.
And when Dolores Price died and I read this obituary, there was a suggestion that she might have had something to do with Jean McConville's death. And so the way this started was quite small. It was a story about these two women from very different backgrounds, one of them a victim, one of them a perpetrator, and the idea that they were joined by this act of violence.
And what I wanted to do was keep the aperture quite tight, and write what started as an article and then subsequently a book that would be different from most of the books that I've read on the Troubles in the sense that they wouldn't be comprehensive, they wouldn't necessarily have a kind of a clear political point of view, because I don't. I think these issues are quite complicated.
And that they would be told through the eyes of a series of people, so real people, but I treated them like characters, and there are about half a dozen of them. And it follows the story of this act of violence and the way in which it affects their lives over the course of several decades.
ROSE: Okay. You have to read this to understand how extraordinary it is, your book. So I encourage everybody to do that.
Let me give you a question, a version of what I asked Will. George was writing about toxic, rich, white men at the heart of the American foreign policy establishment. It doesn't take all that much to get into the heads of these creatures. We live with them. We know them. They're probably on this call.
William was recreating history and mentalities in an era very far away, very different, had to do extraordinary research, not just on what happened, but get inside.
You didn't have to— you had to do extraordinary research as well, not so much archival, although there was some of that, but you had to win the trust of people in a very insular community, to be able to get the story, to be able to tell it. You are an outsider, you're not Irish for the last century, you're male. You are— what— how were you able to tell this, to define this story and tell it?
KEEFE: Oh, there's a lot to unpack there. I mean, so that was absolutely the challenge. And it— there were two factors here.
One was that I wanted to tell the story in a very intimate way. It was important to kind of collapse the distance between the reader and these people. I wanted you to feel what it was like to be in Belfast in 1972, to know what it smelled like, to know what it sounded like. And I was very interested in radical politics and radicalization, in political violence and how those things happen, how these movements start, and how people get drawn into them. And so the headiness of that, the seduction of it had to feel very visceral.
The challenge was, not only was I an outsider, but the four real main characters in the book, Dolores Price, Jean McConville, a guy named Brendan Hughes, and then Gerry Adams were not people I could speak to. The first three were dead, and Adams wouldn't give me an interview. And so there was a sense in which I had to kind of overcome that additional challenge. I mean, you know, I would often kind of think about my choice to name the book Say Nothing and kind of kick myself because—
ROSE: Explain the title.
KEEFE: So the title comes from a Seamus Heaney poem, ‘Whatever you say, say nothing.’ And what it captures is, you know, it's funny, the cliche is that the Irish have the gift of gab, and everybody's always talking. And there's some truth to that. But it's also true, particularly in Northern Ireland, and particularly surrounding the Troubles that there was kind of a code of silence. There still is today. There are open secrets that people know about, but don't speak about.
And it was one odd feature of the Good Friday Agreement, that it was a forward-looking piece deal. You know, when they got the parties to the table and hammered out this deal, it was just decided that we're not going to address the past. How do you— do we have a Truth and Reconciliation Commission? You know, who do we prosecute, who gets, you know, gets off, gets clemency? None of these questions really were entertained in a serious way. Because if they had been, the parties would never have agreed. There would be no Good Friday Agreement. But as a result, you end up with this vacuum, where nobody really knows how to deal with the past.
And in some ways, what the book ends up being about is the ways in which the past haunts the present in Northern Ireland.
And, you know, to your question about being an outsider, I, you know, it's funny, I initially thought that would be a big deficit, a liability for me. And it turned out to be an asset. I think, in part, because the society over there is so tribal. And these issues are so vexed.
And you can talk to people in Northern Ireland. I mean, in Belfast, the minute somebody opens their mouth and starts talking, you just hear their accent. Immediately, it's possible for people to kind of plot them on a grid, right? I have a rough sense of where you're from, what your religion is, what your socioeconomic background is, your political affiliation, what sports teams you support.
And I was, as an outsider, kind of an alien, right? I parachuted in from New York and I kept going back. I made seven trips over four years and was slowly earning people's trust. But I came to find that actually being someone who had no tribe was helpful in persuading people to talk to me.
ROSE: How durable was the reconciliation and how much does the past haunt the present? Has Brexit and the raising of Irish issues resurfaced? Some of the stuff that you thought had gone for good?
KEEFE: Yeah, I mean, the peace has been durable.
As for reconciliation, reconciliation never happened. So part of the learning curve for me when I started this project in 2014 was just getting over there and realizing that the communities still live separately, that you have these what they call peace walls, which are these huge, towering walls that divide the religious communities, and that there are more of these peace walls now than there were in 1998, when the peace was finalized. So there's still a great deal of distrust and tension, and I do feel as though the past continues to be an issue.
With Brexit, you know, you asked for the two minute commercial. During the years I was working on this book, when people asked in a casual way, 'What are you working on?' I would say, 'Oh, it's a book about the Troubles and this murder in 1972. But it's really about right now. It's not about the past, it's not this thing that's safely in the outbox.'
And I always felt as though I had to persuade people of that, persuade myself, and then Brexit happened. And you realize that in this stunning act of disregard, the Brexiteers overlooked the idea that what the Troubles was really about was the Irish border. And the kind of careless way in which they don't appear to have given that a whole lot of thought, I do think could have potentially very dangerous consequences.
It has worked out much differently than I anticipated it would. I mean, you know, we will start to see in the new year what it looked like in practice, but I don't think there's any danger of return to the Troubles. I guess, I would say that pretty clearly, I think that conditions precedent that were there before are not there now. I think most people don't want to go back.
But could we see a renewal of tensions? We already have. And renewal of violence on the margins? We've seen that too. So I— you know, I think it's a dangerous time. The really interesting question for me is what Brexit could ultimately mean for the prospects of Irish reunification.
ROSE: Explain, briefly.
KEEFE: Well, I mean, I think that the, you know, another sense in which I was probably naive coming into this project—and some of this is, you know, me, the guy who grew up in Dorchester, Massachusetts, in a quite Irish-American milieu—is I think I had a sense that, you know, in Northern Ireland, all the Catholics want to reunify with the Republic, and everybody in the Republic wants to reunify with the North, and none of the Protestants in the north want to reunify. And getting over there and talking to people you realize, for most people, it's much more local. It's a pocketbook issue, right? That someone's identity is not necessarily a great indicator of how they feel about that question.
But the brilliance of the Good Friday Agreement, combined with the EU, was that you had this kind of creative ambiguity in which, if you lived in Northern Ireland, you could be both, you know, you were part of Ireland, and part of the UK. You were British, but you were also part of Europe. You could have both passports. You could go back and forth. You got the best of both worlds.
Brexit, I think no matter how you slice it, I mean, we don't know how it's gonna work out in practice, but once all these questions about fishing rights and everything else, I mean, the kind of myriad technical questions get resolved, it seems to me inescapable that you tell people in Northern Ireland, ultimately, you're going to be forced to choose, you know, that that ambiguity that people enjoyed all the benefits of for several decades—and that I think helped with the peace—is going to be difficult to sustain in the face of an actual Brexit.
ROSE: I suspect you may be right. In some ways, your book is a story of a society teetering at the brink and coming back from it, holding together, not quite going down all the way, not quite prepared reconciling, but— We're living through that here on our side of the pond.
What lessons for— we— the next— the new issue of Foreign Affairs, Jan/Feb 2021, due out soon, has a lead package on sort of American renewal, what can be done to put things back together, how do you make Humpty Dumpty work again? What if we said, ‘Gee, we're going to supplement this with, you know, lessons from different experiences and we're going to ask Patrick Radden Keefe.’ You know, what are the lessons from Ireland about putting them America back together healthily and rebuilding society, positive or negative lessons?
KEEFE: I think it's hard. I don't want to overstate the parallels because so much of our situation is so specific.
But I will say that the— you know, when I talked about wanting to have the reader know what it felt like in 1972, as I was researching and writing the book, that felt like a science fiction movie, to me. It felt like a— you know, to talk about the way in which Northern Ireland goes from 1969, where there's tensions, and then 1972, people are killing each other in the streets. It just kind of— the whole society just hopped the rails. In my mind, it was hard to picture. It was hard to think of how do you get from here to there. It was like a zombie movie.
And in the last year, my outlook has changed. And a lot of these questions that seem very remote to me suddenly came home. The one thing that I'll say I'm pretty certain about is that if you look at the early days of the Troubles, you had a situation in which there was very entrenched inequality in Northern Ireland, very systemic discrimination against Catholics. And you had a youth movement, a civil rights movement, that sprung up to try and address that.
And this is a story I tell at the beginning of the book, but a lot of these young people were students of the American civil rights movement. You know, they studied the Selma March, and they modeled their behavior on what American civil rights leaders had done. And then you get this kind of fork in the road where Northern Ireland goes in this very different direction. And it's interesting to look back in a kind of counterfactual way at what are the steps, what could have gone differently between say, '68 and '72, where the Troubles just doesn't happen. It looks more like the civil rights movement in the United States.
And one of the interesting lessons to be drawn there, I think, is irrational escalation on both sides, but particularly by the state, that you see a militarized response by the state, first by the police in Northern Ireland and then by the British Army. And that creates, I think, even really ardent Unionists, and certainly ex-British military folks who I interviewed for my book would agree there were huge mistakes made by the British in those early years, in which they escalated very suddenly, and I think created a crisis that then became deeply intractable.
ROSE: How accurate was The Crown's portrayal of Mountbatten's killing?
KEEFE: Yeah, I mean, fairly accurate, I think. That is— in terms of the sort of particulars of it, that is more or less as I understood it to have happened. I won't get into— Don't ask me about Margaret Thatcher, I'll put it that way.
I did think it was very telling in The Crown that in— it was either the first or the second episode, they showed actual footage of Bloody Sunday, so you had British paratroopers opening fire on unarmed civilians kind of without comment. They just showed you this footage. And then at the beginning of episode three, which is like the Diana has an eating disorder episode, they had a trigger warning saying, you know, ‘Our sensitive viewers may want to prepare themselves, there are scenes of bulimia.’
I thought it spoke volumes that we didn't get a scenes of Bloody Sunday warning.
ROSE: You know, it's funny you say that because I had a long talk with my daughter, a sixteen year-old, about exactly that subject with the comparison not being the shooting, but the Nazis for God's sakes. Like we don't need trigger warnings for Nazis. But that's a very interesting discussion about how different generations approach these issues. So I actually was glad for that particularly.
That's a segue to the popular culture because as our audience may not know, in addition to doing deeply serious, sober books like this, Patrick is a fascinating cultural commentator. I will use my last question before I turn it over to our very distinguished, very impressive audience who wants to ask all sorts of very serious questions of you.
I will ask you as my last question to talk a little bit about the CIA's promotion of popular songs. And did they write, did the CIA fund and disseminate the “Winds of Change” as a political act of covert cultural manipulation?
KEEFE: Yeah, I'm so glad this came up. I feel like the Council on Foreign Relations is the place to discuss this.
ROSE: Explain the context for the readers—
KEEFE: I will, indeed, for those who don't know. So I finished this book, Say Nothing, which was, you know, was four years of my life and it's a very dark book. I hope a compelling read but a very dark subject. And the next book, which I'm finishing now, is about the Sackler family in the opioid crisis. So another quite grim subject. In between, I wanted to have some fun.
And I had gotten a tip from a source of mine about ten years ago telling me this crazy story about the German kind of glam metal band, The Scorpions, who have a famous metal ballad called “Wind of Change,” which was a song that some people may remember as having been kind of the soundtrack to the end of the Cold War. It was played and people sang in the streets with their lighters. And the fall of the Berlin Wall, and then the collapse of the Soviet Union, and sort of the anthem to the wall coming down and the Soviet Union disintegrating.
And this tip that I got ten years ago was that that song wasn't actually written by The Scorpions, it was written by the CIA. And so I spent a year or so after finishing Say Nothing making this pretty mad cap, eight-part globe trotting podcast trying to get to the bottom of the story.
And if you think I'm going to tell people the answer and not compel them to listen to all eight episodes and get to the end, you're sorely mistaken.
ROSE: I'll let you do it if you will sing at least a few bars from “Wind of Change.”
KEEFE: I can whistle it, no hold on, I'm— [Whistles.] Not bad, right?
ROSE: That is it!
And I can't think of a better segue to our question and answer with our fabulous participant group. I give you Patrick Radden Keefe. He's here all week, folks.
Staff:[Gives queueing instructions.] We will take the first question from Fred Hochberg.
Q: Gideon, thank you. I love this program and tonight is no exception, though it's not quite as much fun without wine and hors d'oeuvres. But another year.
Patrick, you mentioned about Brexit, and you called it careless disregard of the Irish border. And I've always, I've often wondered during Brexit whether it was careless disregard, or it also talks about a lack of diversity. The people who plan Brexit were a rather insular group. You did not have people from other— no one who actually understood Ireland was even in the room, or so it was careless disregard. But it also talks about how you need a diverse people around the table to make important political decisions because otherwise you make a mistake like this, or something that is much harder to unravel as a result. So I just wonder if you could talk a little bit more about that.
KEEFE: Yeah, thank you. It's a great question. I mean, I feel as though the— you know, on this question of empathy, and trying to understand, trying to put yourself in the minds of others, it's hard for me to understand the Brexiteers. I feel as though so much of what was happening there, to me, seems so clearly irrational. I mean, I think that the point that you make about Ireland could just as easily be made about Scotland. And that, again, in the fullness of time, you can it all depends on what the ambition was in the first place. But the idea that you might lose Scotland first, and then Northern Ireland ultimately, really does kind of shrink the conception of what Britain is, right? You end up with Little Britain. So I think that's quite right.
I think it's about the diversity of the decision makers. I think there's certainly an element of this, that was just the, you know, the dog that caught the car, and then everybody's stuck with the decision.
The only other thing I would add is that I think some of this is about how history is taught. Since my book came out, it came out in the UK and Ireland, I guess it was, you know, it's quite a while ago now. And two years ago now. And I get emails from people telling me, you know, I never read this. We weren't taught this in schools, which seems extraordinary to me, that there's a kind of amnesia, I think, when it comes to the Troubles and the circumstances that gave rise to the Troubles. So I, you know, I find it all pretty confounding, to be honest with you, but thank you. Yeah, it's a very good point.
Staff:Our next question will be from Jeff Laurenti. Go ahead, Mr. Laurenti.
Q: Thank you, Meaghan. What's up, Patrick?
KEEFE: I know that voice.
Q: All right. Let me just ask, given the confessional nature of these supposed allegiances and identities, Catholic and Protestant, what did you find was the actual weight of the Church or the churches for the people's lives whom you spoke with? And what role did the Church or churches play in finally hammering out in an accord? And how much do they serve to underpin the continuation of the peace.
That is, was religion, per se, really the dividing line? Or was it a proxy for tribal identity simply with no question of actual religious faith in either Christian tradition?
KEEFE: It's a great question. Thank you, Jeff. I'll take— I'll sort of take those in reverse order.
I think you're— I don't think it was really about religion. I think religion was a proxy as often as not. It became much more of an identity issue. And certainly with a lot of the ex-IRA people that I spend time talking with them, many of them were very adamant that they were anti-sectarian, they were not sectarian. That wasn't why they got into this.
In terms of the Church, it really varied from one person to another. There were people who were deeply religious and thought about the things that they were doing and explicitly religious terms in terms of what would be sanctioned and what would not. And there were others who I think were Catholic, in name, you know, go to Mass from time to time, but not really, what you would call observant.
The Church as an institution is really interesting in the sense that it played a huge role for many, many years, a complicated role, an instrumental role, I think, in the peace process. There are not many unambiguous heroes in my book, but I would say Father Alec Reed is one of them. And he played an important role in terms of getting the different parties to talk.
But part of what I was fascinated by, during the four years I spent going back and forth to Northern Ireland, is the sense in which the Church has, in more recent years, just absolutely fallen in terms of its prestige, in terms of the role that it has in the society. I think this is largely coming out of the abuse scandals. It was striking for me in 2015, '16, '17, to be going over there and learning about the role of the Church played in the 1990s and in earlier decades, and seeing what I think unmistakably was an institution that just completely withered and influence.
Staff:Our next question will come from Trina Vargo.
Q: Hi, Patrick. It's a great book.
So many of the people involved are still alive. And I'm wondering what kind of feedback you've had about what you wrote about both Marian Price pulling a trigger and on Ricky O'Rawe's belief that it's suited Gerry Adams to let the hunger strike continue.
KEEFE: Ah, thank you. It's a great question.
I, you know, some— I mean, I've heard from some people, not from others. There were many for whom— there are many who have said nothing about the book in a fairly conspicuous way. The revelation about Marian Price that's in the book is an interesting one. Marian Price has denied it, but nobody else has. And quite a number of people have gotten in touch with me to say I, you know, it's not something that ever occurred to me, but it makes perfect sense. I should also say there are two people who are on record about knowing— This is about, for those of you haven't read the book, it's kind of a complicated question about who killed Jean McConville. There are two people who are on record saying that they know who it was, who the killer was, and they've both weighed in publicly about the book, and neither of them have suggested that I named the wrong person.
With O'Rawe, I mean, it, you know, it's, again, I think that the thing that I think is tricky, to be honest with you, for people about the book, is that I deliberately wrote it in such a way that it wouldn't be anyone's Bible. Like if anybody held the book up and said, finally, somebody has told the definitive story of my point of view on this conflict, in some ways, I would feel as though I hadn't done my job. And so I think it creates an awkward situation for people because no matter—
And I've heard from I mean, you name it. I've heard from every type of person, from ex-Special Branch cops to, you know, ex-IRA prisoners. And I think that most people find things to like in the book, but also things that make them quite uncomfortable and, honestly, that, to me, feels like a measure of a job well done.
Staff: Our next question will come from Mahesh Kotecha.
Q: Okay, can you hear me? Can you hear me?
KEEFE: I can.
Q: Is— are there questions only for Patrick, are they for any one of the three books?
KEEFE: You have to unmute yourself, Gideon.
ROSE: Unfortunately now just for Patrick.
Q: Okay, then I think my question, Patrick Keefe, is what would you draw as any lessons from what you've uncovered in Ireland in their struggles to the reconciliation as it were in the U.S.? I think Gideon started with or referred tangentially to that. Do you have any magic wand or gem?
KEEFE: I don't, I'm afraid. I don't have any easy answers.
And I— seeing the way in which the distrust among the communities in Northern Ireland has become so entrenched over decades to a point where people just live these very, these quite circumscribed lives in which they you know, they rarely really need to—
I mean, the most— for me, the kind of very telling anecdote— Belfast, if any of you have been there, tiny city. Very, very small city. And it has, like any city in the UK or Ireland, cabbies who are, you know, taxi drivers who have been doing this professionally for their whole lives.
And I remember at one point, I had to go and visit Billy McKee, who's only minor character in my book, but a legendary IRA man. And he lived in West Belfast. I was staying at a hotel. I flagged down a cab. I gave the guy the address where Billy McKee lived in this kind of densely Republican part of West Belfast. And the taxi driver was kind of visibly uncomfortable, confessed that he didn't know where that was exactly, you know, couldn't find the little street. We started driving. He didn't have GPS. And he started getting more and more lost and the more lost he was getting, the deeper we were getting into this West Belfast territory, where this clearly Protestant taxi driver felt uncomfortable.
And it was just striking to me because I felt as though, you know, it tells you something about the life of someone, right? That you're a taxi driver in a small city, but there's big chunks of the city that are just no-go zones for you. Where you wouldn't even know how to get your bearings. And I had a thousand experiences like that, where you realize that people live these quite circumscribed lives.
I worry that this is happening in real time in the United States. That it's happened. And I wish I had some kind of best practices to point to for ways in which people can cross ideological lines and find some common ground.
But I'm afraid Northern Ireland is one of those places where you don't really want to look for your examples because none of the examples are very promising.
Staff: Our next question will be from Ron Shelp. Mr. Shelp, please— perfect.
Q: Okay. Could we returned for a moment to Brexit. All that I follow about Brexit, which is not a lot—
Oh, I should say that I'm Ron Shelp. The pandemic has driven me to be an author and a struggling documentary filmmaker, which is maybe a good thing long-term.
But when you return to Brexit, it seems to me that the big issues they're dealing with are mainly Irish-related. If they can solve that, they can solve everything. And if they don't solve that, who knows what's gonna happen?
Do you agree with that? Is this sort of the primary issue they have to deal with if they're going to go through with Brexit at the end of the year?
KEEFE: I think is a primary issue.
And I think ultimately hammering out a trade deal with the EU is going to be really tricky and complicated. And once you get into the technocratic particulars of what Brexit is going to look like, particularly on an economic level, I just think it's going to be devilishly complicated.
I think there'll be a very, very long list of challenges. The Irish border is interesting, because I mentioned earlier in passing that I ended up kind of surprised. I mean, I was under the impression, you know, about eighteen months ago, even a year ago, that you would end up with some kind of a hard Irish border, a reintroduction of the Irish border.
And I remember being a kid and traveling. My father's family, you have to go back a century, but my father's family's from Donegal, which is part of the Republic, but it's fairly far north. So we went and I remember crossing the border. This would have been in the early 1990s. And it was scary. You know, there were there were guys with rifles checking the trunks of cars and sandbags and gun turrets.
And that changed to a point where, if you've been recently, you know, there's a highway and you just zip along. You don't even know that you've crossed the border. The way you can tell is your cell phone provider changes. That's the best way to know, if you're on the train, you've magically cross from one place to another. So that sort of frictionless existence that everybody has enjoyed has been the status quo.
The fear that I had was reimposition of the border, then you get tensions around that. It's almost certain that if you did that, that you would have people— you would need people— kind of people in uniforms on the border. And if you've got people in uniforms on the border, it's almost certain that kids would throw rocks at them, and where does it go from there? And so that was my big fear. And now we end up in a situation where as of, you know, just this week, it's been agreed that there aren't going to be border checks, North-South border checks, in terms of the land border. And so, in effect, for customs purposes, you're going to have this kind of dotted line in the Irish Sea.
And so you end up in a situation, at least for now, in which Irish nationalists, Irish Republicans who were alarmed at the idea of the reimposition of a border are probably going to feel a little better about this arrangement. But Irish Unionists who are terrified of being cut off from Mother England will be much less satisfied. I, you know, I think the tricky thing is, no matter how you slice it, you alienate a big constituency that was pretty happy with the status quo before.
Staff: Our next question will come from Michelle Gavin. Please accept the unmute now prompt.
Q: Hi, thanks so much. I hugely enjoyed your book.
And my question is about sort of the absence of reconciliation. And because your book was told through the stories of individuals, I'm wondering what you concluded about the weight on these people of saying nothing, of keeping these secrets, and the difficulty some of these characters had in trying to bear witness, even privately, even, you know, believing that this would, you know, that what they disclosed would never be shared in their lifetimes.
What did you come away with, in terms of, is it possible, really, for a society to have a lasting peace in the absence of kind of airing of the truth of what happened?
KEEFE: Oh, I mean, man, what a great, great question.
This was— to me, you've put your finger on the big theme that was most troubling for me as I worked on this. There's an idea that I was kind of on the tip of my tongue when I was writing the book and I couldn't quite find the words for it, but has since come into focus, to mix my metaphors, for me.
And it's if you read between the lines of, you know, when Gerry Adams talks or others in his circle, they never say it in so many words, but I think there's an implication and the implication is that maybe silence is the price of peace. Maybe it's not possible to have a full airing of what happened in the past and also have a peace that can endure.
And I thought about this a lot because, to state my own priors, right, I'm a journalist, I'm a writer, I have a natural desire to tell stories, and a kind of an empathetic belief that we as humans are hardwired to confess, to talk about things that upset us, to testify. And so that's what I do. I go out with my notebook and get people to talk to me. And often it's quite cathartic for them.
But there were moments along the way where I would have these encounters that could get quite testy with people who said, 'Don't go ask him questions about this stuff, don't go stirring it up. The peace is very fragile.' And I would be quite dismissive of that because, honestly, I think that that's often— I think the whole kind of peace is very fragile thing is a fig leaf for a multitude of sins, and that Adams and others have weaponized that sentiment in a way that is quite self-preserving. But at the same time, people would often come back at me and say, not without good reason, ‘You're going to get on a plane and fly back to New York. Like, you don't live here. You're going to stir this stuff up, and then not have to deal with the consequences.’ And I thought about that a lot, that weighed heavily on me, as I was writing the book.
I ultimately don't have any misgivings. And I thought carefully about what I wrote and I don't regret writing any of it.
But I think you're quite right, that this challenge of how do you speak in a culture where there's a sense that there can be real penalties for doing so? From social ostracization, which I've seen happen to a bunch of people who talked to me and who I came to know, to death?
And then there's the flip side of that, too, is another kind of interesting question, which is, so what happens when you do brush it under the rug? What happens when you when you commit to saying, 'All right, in the interest of peace, in the interest of just getting along, we're just going to kind of just try and reboot and Control Alt Delete. And we'll just sort of forget what happened in the past, or we'll do our best.' And I don't think it works. I mean, it's a—
I could say much more about this but the one thing I'll say is they have these studies now of trauma in Northern Ireland, and they've found cross-generational trauma in which you have children who were born after the peace. You have the, you know, ceasefire babies, and then kids who were actually born in peace, post-Good Friday, who have grown up with some degree of residual trauma because they are living in homes where there are just ghosts everywhere. They're living in homes with families that have experienced tremendous trauma, and have never had an outlet, never had a way to talk about it, and to process it.
And so I think, while there are certainly dangers to confronting the past, I also think that there are very real dangers to ignoring it.
ROSE: This is Gideon. Let me just take a two finger before the next question. This is a nonfiction book award. But I should point out a fiction recommendation. Kazuo Ishiguro's Buried Giant is a wonderful novel about a previous period of the British Isles trying to deal with the forgetting of violence and coming to terms with others. And it's actually a really good meditation on exactly these kinds of things. Ishiguro's The Buried Giant. Next question, Makenzie.
Staff: Our next question will be from Russell DaSilva. Please accept the unmute now prompt.
Q: Thank you very much. And thank you to Mr. Keefe for a marvelous book.
My question has to do with Gerry Adams. And this is a bit of a follow on from the last question. Gerry Adams is depicted in turns as someone who deny— went so far as to deny his involvement in the violence, but on the other hand may have been a pragmatist who saw a chance for peace and a chance to end the fighting, some kind of rapprochement. You spoke about the price of history might not be— might be just saying nothing. Is the price of history to lie about it?
KEEFE: You wonder! I mean, I said in an answer to an earlier question that the, that the book is nobody's Bible and it and— Adams is interesting, right? Because he's such a divisive figure. People feel so passionately about Adams. But he's so divisive. And even going out on the road, back when people went out on the road, and talk about the book, I would have these encounters where there are people who revere Gerry Adams, think of him as a Mandela figure, think that he should have won the Nobel Prize. And others who regard him really as just the Antichrist, I mean, as an absolute hate figure, just a world historical villain. And it's fascinating talking to those people and also hearing the reactions the book because my feelings about him are complicated.
I think he, I think, unquestionably he has lied again and again and again. I think he betrayed his comrades in the IRA without so much as a backwards glance. I think he has a kind of chilly, borderline sociopathic pragmatism in terms of the way in which he approaches any given situation.
But I also think that, unlike a lot of these other characters, Gerry Adams saw, at a certain point in the 80s, we cannot fight the British into the sea. This is not going to end with a military victory. There has to be a political settlement.
And the aspects of the book that make me uncomfortable, but I think in a productive way, have to do with the sense in which some of Adams' most unpleasant qualities may end up have been, you know, they may have been instrumental in some ways to the peace process, right? That in telling these lies about who he is and who he was, and in misleading the rank and file figures like Dolores Price and Brendan Hughes about his intentions, he may have been kind of creating a zone in which he could be the kind of interlocutor that a George Mitchell or Bill Clinton or a Tony Blair could deal with, and feel comfortable dealing with, and create the space in which he could actually get the movement to the negotiating table.
So to me, the ironies are pretty kaleidoscopic and I remain quite unsettled about these questions. But I think that there are some respects in which the qualities that, you know, as a character in a book you might dislike in Gerry Adams, as a statesman and a negotiator could have proved quite helpful.
ROSE: This is Gideon with another two finger. I, God, I really wish we had George back on now for a tripartite thing. I would love to have George weigh in on Holbrooke and this kind of question because I distinctly remember being at a Council meeting right after Dayton and watching Holbrooke present the Accords. And he made a good case for why it wasn't necessary to deal with war criminals for X, Y, and Z. And I was like— I turned to somebody next to me, I said, 'Why not? Gee, I had thought he was in favor of this and I thought this was like really necessary and— but he made a really good case. Maybe this was kind of legit.' And the person said to me, 'Are you kidding? He was fighting up until the end and he, God, he couldn't do it. And he's lying through his teeth now about how he never wanted it.' And the qualities you just talked about, you know, how did you just put it? Sociopathically pragmatist is an interesting—
KEEFE: Yeah, yeah, a kind of situationalist, sort of, yeah, ethics, right. Situational ethics.
ROSE: It would be very interesting discussed as cross time. Holbrooke never went to Ireland, did? I think he stayed away from that one?
KEEFE: [Laughs.] Only on vacation, I think.
ROSE: We have time for just a couple more, so Makenzie, a couple more.
Staff: Sure. Our next question will be from Noreen Doyle. Please accept the unmute now prompt.
Q: So it my question, really, was prepared but follows on. In fifty years’ time, will Gerry Adams be remembered as a statesman or a criminal?
KEEFE: It's an easy answer for me: both.
Q: [Laughs.] Thank you.
KEEFE: Thank you.
Staff: And our next question will be from Leigh O'Neill. Please accept the unmute now prompt.
Q: Thank you so much, Patrick. Big fan.
You open the book with a mention of the Belfast tapes, which are housed in a secret vault at Boston College. It's almost like the start to a mystery novel. And then you take us readers right over to Belfast and don't go much into the controversy over the tapes or the research project associated with them. Earlier in this decade, there was a bit of controversy. Can you just talk a little bit about your choices around that? On how in-depth you wanted to go into the Belfast tapes? And maybe a bit for this audience on why they're important? And how, if at all, the outcome of that specific case affected your own ability to conduct research for the book?
KEEFE: Yeah, great question.
I mean, I do, obviously, if you keep going in the book, I get to the— I talk about the Belfast tapes ad nauseum, some might think. So we do get there eventually in the book.
For those who haven't read the book and aren't familiar, I mentioned earlier that this started when Dolores Price died, for me. In 2013, I read this obituary, and one of the things that this obituary mentioned was that, after the Good Friday Agreement, there had been a secret oral history project at Boston College, that in this vacuum in which nobody really knew what to do about the past, BC decided— BC, which has had long, historical relations with Ireland, going back, really, to its founding, decided to start a project to try and memorialize what had happened in the Troubles. And to get the testimony of frontline soldiers from both sides as paramilitaries from both Loyalist and Republican groups to talk about their experiences.
The challenge for them was that, you know, there's no statute of limitations on these crimes. And so how do you get people to talk without fear of prosecution? And BC told them, if you come in and tell your stories, we'll seal them up, and only release them after you die. And so part of what the book gets into is the fact that Dolores Price gave one of these oral histories and a number of other characters in the book did as well.
But also it turns out, that was a promise that BC was not able to make. And so it turns out that there are these tapes in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, and the authorities in Northern Ireland become very interested in them. And as fast as you can say mutual legal assistance treaty, they get subpoenaed.
And so I tell the story at some length in the book about how that all unraveled, but for me this was, it was great, because it kind of brings the story into the messy present. It's a quite vivid and dramatic illustration of how explosive the past can be, that there were these recordings that had this tremendous potential to implicate people up to and including Gerry Adams, which is what ended up happening.
So I'm conscious of time so I won't go on at much, much greater length, but it was a big part of the story. And certainly part of what drew me to it in the first place.
ROSE: Thank you. And on that note, actually, we'll take that as the last question.
Patrick, let me just say, again, thank you for writing a fabulous book and for all the other great journalism you do. Same with George and Will.
You know, we were talking in the green room and we touched a little bit of here with Patrick about the work that goes into these books, and not just the legwork, but the turmoil soul-wise of pairing yourself with these figures, many of whom are not particularly pleasant people to live with mentally, and the authors have to not just do an extraordinary job of research and empathy, but live with horrible people in their heads and horrible events in their heads and lives for many, many years on end. We were talking earlier about the process of psychologically flushing your toxic subjects out so you could begin working on your next project without the sort of awful overhang.
And I just want to say thank you again to all of you because it's people like you doing work like this that helps us understand ourselves and our times and history.
And that's what the Arthur Ross Book Award was designed to reward and this year's finalists and this year's award medalists could not be a better representation of that. And it's been a pleasure and a privilege to be involved it.
KEEFE: Oh, thank you so much, Gideon. Thank you.