Rieff, David 1952–

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RIEFF, David 1952–

(David Sontag Rieff)


Born September 28, 1952, in Boston, MA; son of Philip Rieff (a university professor) and Susan Sontag (a writer and critic). Education: Princeton University, A.B., 1978.


Home—Manhattan, NY.


Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc., New York, NY, senior editor and director, 1979-89; New York Institute for Humanities, New York, NY, program director, 1980-85; Empire State Summer Writing Program, Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, NY, member of writing faculty, 1990-95; freelance writer, 1989—. City University of New York, visiting professor in creative writing, 1985-86. Senior fellow, World Policy Institute at the New School; fellow, New York Institute for the Humanities at New York University; member of the board, Arms Division of Human Rights Watch and of the Central Eurasia Project of the Open Society Institute; member, Council on Foreign Relations.


Princeton Club.


(With Sharon DeLano) Texas Boots, Penguin Books, (New York, NY), 1981.

Going to Miami: Exiles, Tourists, and Refugees in the New America, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1987.

Los Angeles: Capital of the Third World, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1991.

The Exile: Cuba in the Heart of Miami, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1993.

Notes on the Ottoman Legacy: Written in a Time of War, Champion International Corporation (Stamford, CT), 1993.

Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1995.

(Editor, with Roy Gutman, and contributor) Crimes of War: What the Public Should Know, Norton (New York, NY), 1999.

A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2002.

At the Point of a Gun: Democratic Dreams and Armed Intervention, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2005.

Contributor to periodicals, including the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Le Monde, New Republic, Harper's, Atlantic, El Pais, and Foreign Affairs. Contributing editor, New Republic, 1990—; deputy editor, World Polity Journal, 1998—; author of column for Salmagundi magazine.


Writing primarily about places and people, David Rieff's books move through Texas, Miami, Los Angeles, and Bosnia, before taking on the larger sphere of war crimes. His topics are contemporary, controversial, and often impressionistic rather than strictly factual. He is, as Chris Goodrich noted in Publishers Weekly, "interested in places people believe they understand but, in reality, do not comprehend in any deep sense."

Rieff's first book, Texas Boots, is a study of cowboy boots. His next, Going to Miami: Exiles, Tourists, and Refugees in the New America, was described by John Rothchild in the Los Angeles Times Book Review as "a well-written and provocative account" of a culture "deeply divided." The critic went on to say: "In Rieff's Miami, we have the first example of a U.S. city controlled by people who imagine they are someplace else, and who view the rest of the country to which they are nominally connected as 'foreign.'" Nicholas Lemann commented in the New Republic that Rieff's book "is a collection of observations and impressions, not a line of argument." Rothchild wrote that Rieff got very close to the Cubans in writing this book, going beyond the well-known fact of Miami's Latino atmosphere to tell "the emotional story, splitting his time between Anglos and Cubans, reporting on opinions from both sides of the rancorous cultural divide."

Los Angeles: Capital of the Third World was judged by a critic in the Economist to be a "powerful and troubling guide to America's most intriguing city" and a "touchstone for the future direction of America." Challenging existing assumptions about Los Angeles as a superficial place associated only with making aircraft and movies, Rieff's book concentrates on the broad mixture of hardworking recent immigrants whose presence brings both change and energy to the city. Having lived in Los Angeles before many of the more recent immigrants arrived there, Rieff was struck by the gap between the lives of middle-class "Angelenos" and the minorities who often worked as domestic help. He spent more and more time in the city, riding city buses, getting the feel of life among poorer immigrants, and becoming interested in the unseen and unrecognized role played by the immigrants in the life of the city. He began to see Los Angeles as a "harbinger of things to come," as Chris Goodrich reported in Publishers Weekly.

In his next book, Rieff returned to his interest in Cuban culture in America. The Exile: Cuba in the Heart of Miami, declared Enrique Fernandez in the Los Angeles Times Book Review sounds a wake-up call for the Cuban community in America. Fernandez wrote that Rieff shows that "the exile is over," and that Cubans in America have "become what its members feared most: merely Cuban-Americans." A Publishers Weekly contributor called the book a "sensitive and engrossing discourse" about Cuban exiles who "have become more American than they realize," despite their continued collective dream of a return to Cuba. Fernandez continued: "Rieff gives us a fascinating intellectual portrait of a people misunderstood by their hosts and probably even by themselves."

Nomi Morris praised Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West in Maclean's as an eloquent, "unadorned tour de force." Morris attested that "Rieff's important book is not easily categorized. It is not a work of history, or a scholarly analysis of Yugoslav politics, or a military chronicle. It is not an orderly book neatly listing names and dates. It is an impressionistic work." She went on to credit Rieff's modus operandi for his inevitable point of view: he went to Bosnia to observe firsthand what was happening. He then returned to write Slaughterhouse, and as Morris noted, the book "condemns what he came to detest." The result was what Morris called "an epitaph for Bosnia, or for us." Mary Carroll, writing for Booklist, called Slaughterhouse "perhaps the most powerful, passionate, and penetrating dissection by a Westerner of the ongoing Bosnian tragedy."

Rieff's Crimes of War: What the Public Should Know was called a "valuable, distressing book" by Geoffrey Best in the Times Literary Supplement. Best described it as "the first good book on the laws of war to be edited and mostly written by non-academics." Edited with Roy Gutman, Crimes of War includes not only articles edited by Rieff and Gutman, but also original pieces written by them as well. "The content [of the book] is magnificent," Best believed. Containing more than one hundred essays, as well as photographs, the text is organized into three central themes: definitions, violations, and detailed case studies of nine late-twentieth-century conflicts, including the Arab-Israeli war, Bosnia, the Iran-Iraq war, Liberia, and Rwanda. Although written primarily for an audience of journalists, the book is considered to be well suited for a broader audience of readers trying to understand war crimes within the contexts of contemporary conflicts and international law.

A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis is an "emotionally raw and deeply personal argument that humanitarian organizations must be free from the constraints of the demands of donor governments and the broader ideological concerns of the human rights or 'good governance' movements," reported Nick Robinson in Yale Human Rights and Development Law Journal. "Humanitarianism," Robinson noted, "must be free to simply aid those in need." Rieff clearly recognizes and stresses in his book that the "humanitarian endeavor … is an approach to human suffering that upholds the status quo: it provides relief, not rescue," remarked T.K. Vogel in Ethics & International Affairs. "The humanitarian answer to injustice is alleviation, not remedy," Vogel added. "The reality is that aid enables a person to survive for the day, but does little to structurally change the situation of either an individual or a nation," Robinson observed. The constraints placed upon aid organizations by donor governments, the often oppressive governments in the areas slated to receive the aid, and the sheer vastness of the need for aid, also leads to assistance not reaching those who need it most; humanitarian aid can thus be transformed into a political weapon wielded by those in power. In some cases, such as that of Bosnia, the presence of aid organizations and peacekeepers delayed the intervention by Western countries, leading to prolonged suffering and additional bloodshed. In other cases, Rieff found an attitude among aid agencies that help should be directed only at the "deserving poor," and that "if suffering in the short-term produces better government, that suffering is justified by the long-term benefit," Robinson stated.

Though much humanitarian effort is driven by the genuine desire to help those who suffer, good intentions and appeals for help to a diffuse international community are not enough, Rieff argues. "In his view, aid agencies are not capable of changing the political institutions that create this suffering, and they should not attempt to do so," Robinson noted. Humanitarianism, Rieff believes, must remain outside of the influence of politics if it is to retain any degree of moral right. "The understandable impulse of many aid workers faced with the political impotence of pure alleviation was to abandon neutrality and impartiality in favor of a rights-driven agenda," Vogel explained. This type of humanitarianism, however, "was in turn discredited by the increasingly visible dependence of aid on politics." Rieff endorses a humanitarianism untainted by politics and uninfluenced by governmental policy, but he acknowledges the difficulty of achieving such a goal in a world where suffering seems an inescapable fuel for political aspirations. Robinson commented that "Rieff's book is a welcome critique of the claims being made upon humanitarianism today." A Bed for the Night "is important for asking all the right questions—not simply about the humanitarian endeavor, but also about the meaning with which we have infused it, inevitably setting it up to fall short of our hopes," Vogel concluded.

At the Point of a Gun: Democratic Dreams and Armed Intervention is a collection of articles by Rieff that illustrate his transformation from a interventionist who supported limited use of arms in places such as Africa and Kosovo to a reasoned observer who has examined his previous position and reached a very different conclusion. In the book's later pieces, Rieff questions his former endorsement of military intervention, especially in terms of the lessons learned and difficulties encountered in the Iraq war. Library Journal contributor Jack Forman called the book a "thought-provoking, very personal analysis." Rieff "has the intellectual and moral courage to publicly change his mind and show how he became convinced—on the streets of Iraq and in hot spots such as Kosovo" that neoconservatives hoping to spread democracy and humanitarians wishing to end ethnic cleansing and deliver food share a false trust in weaponry and a not-so-subtle imperialism," commented Robert Roth in Sojourners. For Rieff, only in limited cases, such as Rwanda and Kosovo, can a case for military intervention be made. Rieff's work provides, Roth observed, a "clear-eyed secular analysis that war is failing repeatedly around the globe."



Booklist, March 15, 1995, Mary Carroll, review of Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West, p. 1304.

Christian Century, December 13, 2003, review of A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis, p. 22.

Economist, September 28, 1991, review of Los Angeles: Capital of the Third World, p. 100.

Ethics & International Affairs, April, 2003, T.K. Vogel, review of A Bed for the Night, p. 169.

Library Journal, August, 1999, Zachary T. Irwin, review of Crimes of War: What the Public Should Know, p. 76; May 15, 2005, Jack Forman, review of At the Point of a Gun: Democratic Dreams and Armed Intervention, p. 129.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 19, 1987, John Rothchild, review of Going to Miami: Exiles, Tourists, and Refugees in the New America, p. 1; September 19, 1993, Enrique Fernandez, review of The Exile: Cuba in the Heart of Miami, p. 1.

Maclean's, May 13, 1996, Nomi Morris, review of Slaughterhouse, p. 63.

Nation, January 24, 1994, Ilan Stavans, review of The Exile, p. 97.

National Review, May 29, 1995, J.B. Kelly, review of Slaughterhouse, p. 58.

New Republic, November 23, 1987, Nicholas Lemann, review of Going to Miami, p. 37; March 20, 1995, Anthony Lewis, review of Slaughterhouse, p. 29.

Publishers Weekly, September 27, 1991, Chris Goodrich, interview with David Rieff, p. 40; June 21, 1993, review of The Exile, p. 95; March 21, 2005, Sarah F. Gold, "A Moving Target," interview with David Rieff.

Sojourners, September-October, 2005, Robert Roth, "Is Peace Realistic?," review of At the Point of a Gun, p. 43.

Times Literary Supplement, August 20, 1999, Geoffrey Best, review of Crimes of War, p. 9.

Washington Monthly, October, 1991, Richard Turner, review of Los Angeles, p. 59.

Washington Post Book World, October 4, 1987, review of Going to Miami, p. 1.

Yale Human Rights and Development Law Journal, Annual 2004, Nick Robinson, review of A Bed for the Night, p. 184.


Identitytheory.com,http://www.identitytheory.com/ (June 4, 2006), biography of David Sontag Rieff.

University of Siena Web site,http://www.unisi.it/ (June 4, 2006), biography of David Sontag Rieff.

World Policy Institute Web site,http://www.worldpolicy.org/ (June 4, 2006), biography of David Sontag Rieff.*