Eric Scigliano was intrigued by the announcement that United Airlines, caught up in post-September 11 woes, tapped John Creighton Jr. as its new CEO. Creighton, retired president of the timber giant Weyerhaeuser, has also sat on the board of
the California-based oil multinational Unocal since 1995--the period in which Unocal became the main US corporate suitor seeking to do business with the Taliban, alleged protectors of Osama bin Laden, alleged mastermind of the terrorist plot that resulted in the September 11 crashes of two United planes. In 1995 Unocal conceived a pipeline from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan and Pakistan to the Arabian Sea and enlisted Saudi, Pakistani, Japanese, Korean and Indonesian partners. In December 1997 Unocal hosted Taliban delegates in Texas, and even took them to the beach. It also gave nearly $1 million to a job-training program in the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, out of up to $20 million it spent on the pipeline effort. After the Taliban took Kabul in 1996 and women's groups protested its increasingly intolerant policies, Unocal hung on. Finally, in the wake of Osama bin Laden's fatwa on the United States, of embassy bombings and US missile reprisals, it withdrew from the pipeline project (for more details: www.thenation.com).
The copious references to God in public life these days leave the Rev. Peter Laarman of the Judson Memorial Church in New York City unimpressed. He sent us what he calls "Among the Reasons God May Temporarily Be Unavailable to Bless America." Among them: (1) because God has had it up to here with the assumption that prayers for national exemption from pain and tragedy deserve an answer; (2) because God is too busy processing Americans' prayers for their high school football teams; (3) because God takes for granted that the bombs falling on Kabul are America's real prayers; (4) because such a tasteless and lurid efflorescence of red, white and blue (including flags wrapped around church steeples) gives God a massive headache.
YOU READ IT HERE FIRST
"Even more damning is the Saudi terrorist link. According to a New York Times story, US officials have concluded that 'much of the financial support for terrorists who attack Americans... comes from wealthy individuals from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf allies of the United States.' Moreover these same officials concede that the principal problem is not state-sponsored terrorism, which the United States continues to target, but the emergence of sophisticated privately financed networks of terrorists" (Sherle Schwenninger, The Nation, October 7, 1996).
NEWS OF THE WEAK IN REVIEW
Call him irresponsible. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on civilian casualties caused by US bombing: "Responsibility for every single casualty in this war, be they innocent Afghans or innocent Americans, rests at the feet of the Taliban and Al Qaeda."
Covered with ash and dust, the survivors of the attacks on the twin towers would barely have made it to their homes that evening of September 11 when the first reports started coming in of assaults, in various parts of the United States, on Arab-Americans, Pakistanis and Indians. It was not only the South Asians with Muslim names who were the victims of attacks but, in a bizarre twist, even the Sikhs, who, because of their beards and turbans, were assumed to be followers of the Saudi Osama bin Laden. When asked about the harassment of Sikh cabbies, a spokesman for the New York Taxi Workers Alliance told a reporter, "Americans saw Lawrence of Arabia and think all Muslims wear turbans."
Mistaken identity, of course, has been the province of much postcolonial fiction. An important feature of this writing is the manner in which misrecognition has haunted all cognition. History is often a detour into fiction in this literature, an attempt to create a narrative of the self in a fantasy zone of displacement, mirroring in some ways the history of the immigrant (which is, of course, what many of the prominent postcolonial writers are). Witness a recent letter in the New York Times by a Sikh man in Kansas who feared being attacked. The letter proposed a plan that perhaps one could be forgiven for reading as part mimicry, part mockery: "Tomorrow morning when I go out, I will be wearing a nice red turban, white shirt and blue pants, our national colors, walking proud as a peacock, smiling at people I love and live with in our great country." (The peacock, incidentally, is the national bird of India. The principal colors of its plumage are, improbably enough, different from the colors of the US flag.)
Where else can we find such crazy hybridity? A postcolonial writer who has often been credited with mixing the mundane with the magical, and history with fiction, is Salman Rushdie. He applies the same formula, with the uneven effect that has also by now become another Rushdie hallmark, in Fury, his latest novel. The story is set in New York, and with what might appear to be something akin to prescience, at least to those who religiously read astrology columns each week, Rushdie has chosen as his theme the idea of violence in the big, mad city.
While remaining glued to the television set like the rest of America recently, I have often thought of Rushdie's new book. In particular, I have thought of an Urdu-speaking Muslim taxi driver in Manhattan, Ali Majnu, whom Rushdie makes use of on two occasions for a couple of pages. Majnu is introduced to the readers as a bigoted prophet on wheels, screaming deliverance as he skids on Tenth Avenue: "Islam will cleanse this street of godless motherfucker bad drivers.... Islam will purify this whole city of Jew pimp assholes like you and your whore roadhog of a Jew wife too." The cabbie appears again, 110 pages later. This time he says, "Islam will cleanse your soul of dirty anger and reveal to you the holy wrath that moves mountains." Then, switching to English, Majnu addresses another driver, "Hey! American man! You are a godless homosexual rapist of your grandmother's pet goat."
Lucky Ali Majnu. Unlike the other sullen, equally rude working-class immigrants in Fury, each from a benighted corner of the globe, Majnu at least gets a few colorful lines. Majnu stands alone in the novel for the whole of Islam and also for the "wealth-free" from South Asia. This is the brown man's burden, the burden of having to symbolize or answer for more than one is. Shall we regard it as a consolation that Rushdie doesn't force this character to carry the additional load of interiority or even a minimum of complexity? One is reminded of literary critic Michael Gorra's comment about Rushdie's first, great success, Midnight's Children: "Yet I remain troubled that a book about the nightmare of history, a book meant to disturb, cannot make me care about the individual characters to whom that history happens."
We know next to nothing about Ali Majnu. And yet, because Rushdie doesn't shirk big themes, he feels obliged to peremptorily link Majnu's road rage to the failure of the talks between Ehud Barak and Yasir Arafat at Camp David. Thus, we are simply told that our cabbie, whose first name means "beloved," was "Indian or Pakistani, but, no doubt out of some misguided collectivist spirit of paranoiac pan-Islamic solidarity, he blamed all New York road users for the tribulations of the Muslim world." No doubt.
Rushdie's presumptuous protagonist, his voice indistinguishable from the author's, is Malik Solanka. Solanka was born in Bombay and educated in England. Now this 55-year-old former professor and doll-maker has arrived in America. In an $8,000 a month rented apartment in New York City, his sleep is interrupted by calls from the wife and child he has left behind. Solanka seems to have an unfailing ability to attract beautiful women half his age. When he is not having sex or walking around the city suspecting himself of having killed rich young heiresses with kinky tastes, Solanka continues to drop observations on nationalism, religion, Elián González and Monica, as if he were enrolled in cultural studies classes at Columbia.
The spheres of academia, sex and worldly passion have recently been explored with some subtlety by Philip Roth in The Human Stain and The Dying Animal. Saul Bellow's last novel, Ravelstein, also comes to mind. Like Roth and Bellow, even if with greater volubility than either, Rushdie can deliver lucid lines on the state of our complex world; again like them, he explores in this novel, although with an embarrassing sentimentality, sexual ecstasy and human finitude. However, there the similarities end. Unlike for the American writers, Rushdie's real theme is success. Sex is only a substitute for, or perhaps only proof of, what Rushdie really cares about, which is stardom.
The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Rushdie's previous outing, was a nearly 600-page anthem to the love of Vina Apsara and Ormus Cama, two world-famous rock stars. Fury, at half the size, remains fully as starry-eyed about global popularity. Solanka metamorphoses from a dull academic to a television personality: He hosts history-of-philosophy programs using dolls that he has created himself. Solanka's protagonist is called Little Brain. Soon, to the surprise of other dull academics, Solanka's show becomes a cult classic and then blossoms into "a full-blooded prime-time hit." It is this, rather than the mythical story of the furies--the three women in Solanka's life--that provides the novel with its underlying theme. And what is likely to drive the reader to fury is the narrator's relentless discourse on success and wealth and chic consumer products even while appearing to denounce them.
Early in the book, we are told that Solanka has decided on "using the material of his own life and immediate surroundings and, by the alchemy of art, making it strange." The Russian Formalists and other proponents like Brecht called this aesthetic principle "the alienation effect," or estrangement. You do not need a degree in psychoanalysis to see that the estrangement that really propels Fury is of another sort. We usually call it divorce.
The failure in love gives fury to Malik Solanka's life and the lives of the others around him. Solanka's best friend, Jack Rhinehart, is a journalist. After we have been told that his refrigerator is stocked with "larks' tongues, emus' testicles, dinosaurs' eggs," we are also told that he has stopped writing meaningful journalism. Instead of visiting the war zones, Jack has begun writing "lucrative profiles of the super-powerful, super-famous, and super-rich." He has turned to writing novels that chronicle the loves, the misdeeds, the sexual practices, the cars, of the rich. These novels are about "the lives of today's Caesars in their Palaces." The reason that Jack has started writing this trash is that his exotically beautiful, estranged wife has been squeezing him for money. The "long, languid, pale" Mrs. Rhinehart has "the sticking power of a leech."
It took me a while to see that the book I was holding in my hand pretty much matched the description of Jack's writing. But even after I had finished reading the novel, I could not decide whether Rushdie was publicly venting his fury about what he thought had led to a degradation in art or, in a way that was equally disturbing, was simply seeking to justify the book he had now written about the subject. Fury aims at providing, it would be polite to assume, social satire. But it suffers from what Solanka in another context calls "tragedy of insulation." The story remains bound up in the persona of the protagonist, who appears utterly complicit in what he wants to lampoon. And, in our hero's view, the rulers are brutal, and the ruled, brutish. That leaves us with the garrulous Solanka and his dream girl, Neela, whose sole specialty seems to be to induce whiplash in passing males. This is not enough even to salt the satire.
By the time the novel comes to an end, we find that Solanka's dolls have begun to strut on the global stage. His Puppet Kings, stories about a mad cyberneticist, a drowning planet, cyborgs and lotus eaters, have been put on the web. Suddenly they are all the rage in the hyperlinked universe, perhaps only because everyone who plays the game can become a little Malik Solanka. A little brain. We learn that the dolls have inspired a rebellion on the Fiji-like island of Lilliput-Blefuscu, a rebellion that goes horribly wrong. But by then the reader is weary of art's (read Rushdie's) ambition to inspire world revolutions or, at least, global commercial success. You begin to wish that Rushdie would be content with U2 singing his songs, enjoying the rush of stepping up at Wembley Stadium to have "80,000 fans cheering you on." Here, in these pages [July 9], Rushdie wrote of a photo from that evening: "There I am looking godlike in Bono's wraparound Fly shades, while he peers benignly over my uncool literary specs. There could be no more graphic expression of the difference between our two worlds."
Yes, the difference... But, who am I to now remind Rushdie of that?
The difference between a tabloid celebrity and a serious writer is not so much worth addressing. It is more useful, I think, to ponder the ironies of a self-professed leftist author writing novels that, despite the invocation of deeply democratic themes, are fundamentally undemocratic. I am being harsh. Yet I cannot find better terms to describe writing that is so possessed of a zeal for self-glorification. Equally bothersome, Rushdie's attention to small, ordinary lives is in a pronounced way abstract, uncaring and even hostile. On June 8 last year, he wrote a sympathetic Op-Ed column in the New York Times in which he pleaded for the acceptance of Fiji's Indians as Fijians. In Fury, an analogous group is inexplicably, far too easily, turned into a murderous military force led by a psychotic, megalomaniacal swine.
There might be a moral here for the academic Marxism of classrooms and fashionable literary salons; the less doubtful lesson is about postcolonial literature itself. That literature cannot be strengthened by gestures--Rushdie has been exemplary in this regard, standing up for progressive causes and writers' rights--but by the evidence of the writing itself. In this regard, it is not the leftist writer Rushdie but the rightist V.S. Naipaul, recently awarded the Nobel Prize in literature, whose work returns us to an engagement with the roots of writing and, through that process, the narrative of individual struggles and the geography of marginalization.
Despite his railings against "half-formed societies," you discover in Naipaul repeated tributes to small beginnings and small triumphs. And, instead of the Las Vegas feel that mars Rushdie's fiction, in Naipaul you get a record of the hurt of human failure. For the reader, there is no escape from being reminded of Naipaul's origins--in a family that had barely climbed out of indentureship in a plantation economy in far-off Trinidad. As in A House for Mr. Biswas, what we are offered is a classic account about heartbreaking achievement and the daily, tragicomic routine of unacknowledged lives.
This difference--between Naipaul and Rushdie, rather than between Rushdie and Bono--is worth fighting over. In contrast to Rushdie, the older, conservative Naipaul can be relied upon to make appalling public statements. Most recently, he has fulminated against delinquent youth in England: "I see that several generations of free milk and orange juice have led to an army of thugs." In some of his writings, particularly on Islam, Naipaul can also be awfully misleading. Indeed, many have conjectured that the Nobel for the Islamophobic Naipaul is a fallout of the events of September 11. If the eminences in Stockholm were searching for anything to condemn Osama bin Laden in Naipaul's fiction, they would have found little to console them. This is because, as Pankaj Mishra wrote in The New Statesman, Naipaul, unlike Rushdie, has "alchemized the trauma of early poverty and unbelonging into a bristly but always accessible humanism." With the younger writer, you get a politically correct but often hollow, and fleshless, postmodernism.
The opposition between Rushdie and Naipaul presents us with a lesson in great, unexpected irony. But the irony goes beyond just telling us something about the two writers. The paradox actually becomes a parable about mistaken identity, that wonderful, abiding theme of postcolonial writing. We learn that our lives find narrative form neither in the tired, familiar slogans of our captains nor in the symmetries of ideological camps, but in the differences that thrive behind settled, more clear-cut divisions.
Clear lines of opposition blur, for instance, when there is mimicry. Naipaul's new novel, Half a Life, begins with the words, "Willie Chandran asked his father one day, 'Why is my middle name Somerset? The boys at school have just found out, and they are mocking me.'" In response, the father, a small man in a small town in southern India, begins to tell the story of how the son was named after a famous writer who had been on a visit to India in the years before independence. We see the outlines of a story about Somerset Maugham and The Razor's Edge. But the story is also about the father's desire to mimic another man. That man is Gandhi. And the narrative, with the distant, pedagogical economy of a fable, draws us into a tale, touched with farce, about how love and writing and politics are born through imitation. The son rebels against the knowledge his father gives him. And, in what is also a mimicry of his father, but laced with his own difference, he begins to write stories that mock his father and their shared, pitiable condition.
In doing all this, the writer Naipaul is also mimicking himself. The story he is telling here echoes what we have read in his earlier books. His account of the agitations of people belonging to the untouchable caste borrows its energy from what Naipaul wrote in the opening chapter of his travel book India: A Million Mutinies Now. The pattern is repeated in what follows in Half a Life. The second part of the book follows young Willie Chandran's arrival in England on a scholarship. Willie's fumbling attempts at sex, the lack of money compounded by the poverty of his experience, are subjects that Naipaul also wrote about with some feeling in The Mimic Men. ("Intimacy: it was violation and self-violation. These scenes in the book-shaped room didn't always end well; they could end in tears, sometimes in anger, a breast grown useless being buttoned up, a door closed on a room that seemed to require instant purification.")
In Half a Life, we also accompany Willie on his path to self-discovery as a writer in London. This is Naipaul's turf. Again, as in his fragmentary memoir Finding the Center, Naipaul prepares us not only for the excitement of writing or its difficulties but for the discovery, touched with belittlement, of the colonial life as a subject of metropolitan consumption. Willie is told by a friend, "India isn't really a subject. The only people who are going to read about India are people who have lived or worked there, and they are not going to be interested in the India you write about." Today, when postcolonial fiction is all the rage, Naipaul's restaging of this account of his past--the men wanting Bhowani Junction and the women, Black Narcissus--allows us to place his own writing, and the shape that immigrant fiction has taken in the West, into a historical context of Western desires and demands.
The third and final part of Half a Life is set in Africa, where Willie goes after he meets Ana in London, a woman who is from a country that resembles Mozambique. This happens after Willie has married Ana, who was attracted to him because she finds in his book a story of her own past. It is Willie, insecure and without money, who asks Ana to return with him to her home in Africa. This travel to Africa, which for Naipaul has always been beset by Conradian tropes, returns us to a landscape of ruins and grim omens. At the same time, the tale is enlivened by a writer's sense of inquiry: "But I felt that the overseer had a larger appreciation of the life of the place; his surrender was more than the simple sexual thing it seemed. And when I next saw the mildewed white staff bungalows I looked at them with a new respect. So bit by bit I learned. Not only about cotton and sisal and cashew, but also about the people."
Rob Nixon, in London Calling, described Naipaul's first book of travel, The Middle Passage, as "a journey of rage into the terra incognita of the self." Naipaul's latest novel, in its final section, journeys into the darkness of the sexual self. It is a journey into a form of awakening and even grace--a new theme within the pattern of repetition I am tracing here--but it is also touched with a tender recoil from cruelty. Adulterous lovers copulate, literally, among snakes. Love is poisoned by the landscape of failure. Africa, then, no less than India in this story, plays a part in a fable, even if the fable is made up expertly from details of a well-recorded life.
This Africa, it would not be a stretch to say, is not very different from Rushdie's New York: Both are imagined by outsiders; both are places animated by fury. The difference lies in how the two novelists imagine the figure of the writer traversing the alien landscape that is so caught up in their fantasy and fear. And that is where, while absorbing all the stories in the news after the events of September 11, I came to an understanding that what Rushdie's Fury relentlessly offered was a species of the writer as exceptional, while what Naipaul's Half a Life returned us to was a sense of the writer as the opposite. In the circumstances of our times, I found resonant Willie Chandran's apperception of life on the streets of London after that social disaster called a race riot:
The newspapers and the radio were full of the riots.... It seemed to him that everyone was reading the newspapers. They were black with photographs and headlines. He heard a small old working man, years of deprivation on his face, say casually, as he might have done at home, "Those blacks are going to be a menace." It was a casual remark, not at all reflecting what was in the papers, and Willie felt at once threatened and ashamed. He felt people were looking at him. He felt the newspapers were about him.
This is a literature about us. Here and There. Willie Chandran, fearful that the papers are about him, teaches us that there is getting attention, and then there is getting attention.
Isaac Babel, the Jewish Cossack, told Konstantin Paustovsky, the playwright and publicist: "If you use enough elbow grease even the coarsest wood gets to look like ivory. That's what we have to do with words and with our Russian language. Warm it and polish it with your hand till it glows like a jewel." For instance:
The first version of a story is terrible. All in bits and pieces tied together with boring "like passages" as dry as old rope. You have the first version of "Lyubka" there, you can see for yourself. It yaps at you. It's clumsy, helpless, toothless. That's where the real work begins. I go over each sentence time and time again. I start by cutting out all the words I can do without. Words are very sly. The rubbishy ones go into hiding.
This is the Babel who so famously informed us in "Guy de Maupassant": "When a phrase is born, it is both good and bad at the same time. The secret of its success rests in a crux that is barely discernible. One's fingertips must grasp the key, gently warming it. And then the key must be turned once, not twice." Later in the same story, on the same page, comes a sentence quoted so often that it must be true: "No iron spike can pierce a human heart as icily as a period in the right place."
To be sure, as a kid in Odessa he loved Flaubert, and even wrote his first couple of stories in French. Adulthood was more difficult. One might say that the key's last twist, the ultimate shortening, the final polish, the iron spike, was a blank page. Accused in 1934 of the sin of "unproductivity," he told the first Soviet Writers' Congress that he had become a "master of the genre of silence." On the same occasion, just to prove how contrary he could be, Babel also defended the right of the writer to write badly: "Comrades, this is a very important right and to take it away from us is no small thing.... Let us give up this right, and may God help us. And if there is no God, let us help ourselves."
But back to his chat with Paustovsky: "I've got no imagination," he said. "All I've got is the longing for it." Which means: "I can't invent. I have to know everything, down to the last vein." This would explain why he thought "the most interesting things I have ever read are other people's letters." And how come, first in Odessa and then in Paris, he paid people to tell him the story of their first love. Ilya Ehrenburg likewise testifies:
Babel wanted to know everything: what his brother-soldier, a Kuban Cossack, felt when, after a two days' drinking bout, in a fit of melancholy, he had set fire to his own house; why had Mashenka of Land and Factory, after cuckolding her husband, taken up biokinetics; what sort of poetry did the White Guard Gorgulov, the French President's assassin, write; how did the old accountant seen once in the window of the Pravda office die; what was the Paris lady at the next table in the café carrying in her handbag; did Mussolini keep up his bluster when he found himself alone with Ciano...
It also explains why, as a 23-year-old apprentice journalist in 1918, he reported without fear or favor in the pages of Maxim Gorky's magazine Novaya Zhizn on every open wound in revolutionary Petersburg, from the anger of the unemployed, the panic of the disabled veterans and the mortality rate of newborn children to the murdered bodies that overwhelmed the morgue and the animals starving in the zoo. How's this for a flashy lead: "I'm not about to draw any conclusions. I'm not in the mood"? Or this, for editorializing:
Our government, as everyone knows, wallows in administrative bliss in only two cases: when we need to run for our lives or when we need to be mourned. During periods of evacuation and ruinous mass resettlement, the government's activity takes on a vigor, a creative verve, an ingenious voluptuousness.
And it may even explain how Babel, "with glasses on his nose and autumn in his heart," happened to be on a horse in the first place, on the Russian-Polish front during the civil war between Reds and Whites in 1920, pretending not to be Jewish even though everybody knew he was. His agit-prop dispatches to ROSTA, the state news agency, and The Red Cavalryman, the army's daily newspaper, can't be said to have glowed like jewels--"Slaughter them, Red Army fighters! Stamp harder on the rising lids of their rancid coffins!"--but he was just as hungry for extremes as he was for information. To his diary he confided darker ideograms that would translate, rubbed up and whittled on like ivory tusks, into Red Cavalry.
"Trickster, rapscallion, ironist, wayward lover, imprudent imposter," Cynthia Ozick calls him in her intro to this grand occasion of literature, the Complete Works--"and out of these hundred fiery selves insidious truths creep out, one by one, in a face, in the color of the sky, in a patch of mud, in a word. Violence, pity, comedy, illumination. It is as if he is an irritable membrane, subject to every creaturely vibration." And maybe he knew too much. He would return to Ukraine in 1929-30, for a firsthand look at the famine caused by collectivization. Two chapters are all we have of the unpublishable novel, Kolya Topuz, he was secretly writing about it when they came for him in 1939.
There are no longer any bees in Volhynia. We desecrated the hives. We fumigated them with sulfur and detonated them with gunpowder. Smoldering rags have spread a foul stench over the holy republics of the bees. Dying, they flew slowly, their buzzing barely audible. Deprived of bread, we procured honey with our sabers. There are no longer any bees in Volhynia.
(Babel, "The Road to Brody")
Like a plug of cork in a tub of blood, Ilya Ehrenburg could always be counted on to float. So while there is no reason not to believe him when he tells us in his Memoirs that Babel was "my most intimate and true friend, the author to whom I looked up as an apprentice to a master," we also know that he wouldn't say so in public until it was safe, decades later. That when Babel, after eight months of torture and a twenty-minute trial, was executed by a firing squad early in the morning of January 27, 1940, for Trotskyite terrorism and spying for France, Ehrenburg happened as usual to be abroad. That a prudent Ilya waited to declare himself till Stalin, too, was dead. Not to mention Mandelstam, Meyerhold, Pilnyak and Gorky (murdered). Or Mayakovsky, Yesenin, Tsvetayeva and Fadeyev (suicides). Or Akhmatova, Bulgakov, Olesha and Zoshchenko (zipped up in fearful silence; writing, if at all, for the crypt). Plus all the émigrés, castaways, jailbirds and boat people, from Bunin and Zamyatin to Aksyonov, Brodsky, Sinyavsky, Solzhenitsyn, Voinovich, Zinovyev and--in his portable Winter Palace, his Zemblatic mobile home--the gaudy Nabokov.
"True literature," said Zamyatin in 1921, "can only exist where it is created, not by painstaking and reliable clerks, but by madmen, hermits, heretics, dreamers, rebels and skeptics." Mandelstam added later, "Only in Russia is poetry respected--it gets people killed." After a visit to Osip in exile, Akhmatova wrote: "In the banished poet's room/terror and the muse watch by turn,/And a night is coming/that has no dawn." In The First Circle, Solzhenitsyn advised us: "A great writer--forgive me, perhaps I shouldn't say this, I'll lower my voice--a great writer is so to speak a second government, that's why no regime anywhere has ever loved its great writers only its minor ones." To Ehrenburg, in Moscow in 1938, Babel observed, "Today a man talks frankly only with his wife--at night, with the blanket pulled over his head."
Not Ilya, who loved to party. But neither Ehrenburg's sociability nor his evasive memoir explains why, in Paris in 1946, he went out of his way to lie to Babel's widow, Evgenia, telling her that Isaac was still alive, merely under house arrest. Or why, when he finally got around to something more approximate to the truth ten years later, he hit her between the eyes with the news that not only was her husband dead but that he had another wife and another child, on whose behalf Ehrenburg wanted Evgenia to sign a fradulent admission of divorce. She spat in his face.
More such lying faces should have been spat in: Andrei Zhdanov's, for instance, who called Akhmatova "half nun, half whore." Mikhail Sholokhov's, who wanted Sinyavsky shot and believed any author publishing in the West without permission deserved to be exterminated like the Colorado beetle. And the faces of the 70,000 censors, with their 300-page index of banned subjects--earthquakes, plane crashes, food shortages, crime stats, Trotsky. And all those Socialist Realists who rewrote their production novels about making sausage, tempering steel and pouring cement according to the ever-changing line. And every single one of the 130 writers, including Gorky and Zoshchenko, who went out to admire a new canal linking the White Sea with the Baltic, praised the project as a triumph of progressive penology, and forgot to mention that the canal had been built by the forced labor of 300,000 convicts, a third of whom had perished in the triumphant progressive process.
They would like to blame Stalin for everything. But Boris Pasternak reminded us in Dr. Zhivago of self-helping prisoners in a woodsy gulag in the 1930s:
They told us: "Here is your camp. Settle down as best you can."... We cut down saplings with our bare hands in the forest to build huts. And would you believe it, we gradually built our own camp. We cut down the wood to build our own dungeons, we surrounded ourselves with a stockade, we equipped ourselves with prison-cells and watch-towers--we did it all by ourselves.
Must we dig up all over again the bad faith and yellow bones? Yes, because generations of Americans grew up reading Russian literature, Soviet-styled, as if it were samizdat from the historical unconscious, the whirlwind's deep word; as if it either apostrophized a radiant future better than Oz, or cried instead from Dante's hell for help. ("We are the vanguard, but of what?" Babel wondered in his diary.) The cold war only intensified the hysterical quality of this reading, its gnomic-cryptic scuttle, its masquerade of spycraft. Never mind Babel versus Kafka. Who knew for sure if Gorky's Mother, radicalized by the factory workers, was a better person than our own, or Portnoy's? If Bely had done for Petersburg what Joyce would do for Dublin? If Blok was a sort of Rimbaud? If Symbolism, Futurism and Acmeism were better off with a NEP or a Five-Year Plan? If Pilnyak with his "men in yellow jackets" belonged on the shelf with Malraux? If it was absolutely necessary to read Olesha's Envy? If Dudintsev's gumption made up for the dreariness of Not by Bread Alone? Or, for that matter, whether Solzhenitsyn was really a nineteenth-century Russian novelist or just another messianic Old Believer, covered like an icon with soot and candlewax, part of the nostalgia craze?
No other writer of the Soviet era ever aroused as much American emotion as Babel. If his Red Cavalry and Odessa Tales impressed Gorky, Bely, Mayakovsky and Ehrenburg, as well as Malraux, Mann, Canetti and Brecht, they also wowed Hemingway, Bellow, Trilling, Paley, Howe, Malamud, Roth, Berryman and Carver. Even though "The Story of My Dovecote" is probably the best account of a pogrom and one of the finest stories ever written, Cynthia Ozick seemed to suggest in an essay on the 1920 Diary that when Babel traveled undercover with the Cossacks, he became what he impersonated. As if the rape and murder of Jews in the Pale of Settlement hadn't been a Polish specialty before Babel was born, she also used him as a stick to beat "the cruelly ignorant children of the Left who still believe that the Marxist Utopia requires for its realization only a more favorable venue, and another go." In her introduction here, she pulls that punch. But her doubts may have encouraged John Updike to assert, in his New Yorker review of the Complete Works on November 5, that Babel "to the end, sought to accommodate" an "increasingly totalitarian revolution." This is flabbergasting. He didn't run out of gas or--from the overconsumption of junk food, cheap sensations and disposable ideas--simply explode. He wasn't a fucking Rabbit.
It made sense that most Russian writers would at first welcome the revolution as a deliverance from a medieval mind haunted by fires, bears, church bells melted down into cannon balls and golden hordes of Scythians in cloaks of sewn-together scalps. Out of such a mind rode Ivan the Terrible's Oprichniki, secret police on black horses with severed heads tethered to their saddlebows, the dwarfs of Empress Anna, Pugachev in an iron cage and goat-smelling Rasputin. "Our brethren the Slavs," said Vissarion Belinsky, the critic who got Dostoyevsky into so much trouble, "cannot be awakened to consciousness quickly. It is a well-known fact that when the lightning does not strike, the peasant does not cross himself, he has no lord...whereas the holy mother La Guillotine is a good thing." Or so maybe it seemed to an alienated intelligentsia up to its eyeballs in vodka, dominoes, smoked fish, sable skins, onion domes, six-winged seraphs, a snuff box and the knout.
Although he confused Revolution with Resurrection, even Blok was enthusiastic at the start. Mayakovsky imagined himself in a "Cloud in Trousers" as both John the Baptist and "a sewage disposal operative...mobilized and drafted" by Lenin. If Mandelstam was predictably ambivalent as early as 1918--"We shall meet again in Petersburg,/as though we had buried the sun there"--not so Pasternak, an expert on "the maximalist temperament" of Russian intellectuals and their "nostalgia for the future," whose alter ego Zhivago rhapsodized:
The Revolution broke out...like a breath that's been held too long. Everybody was revived, reborn, changed, transformed. You might say that everyone has been through two revolutions--his own personal revolution as well as the general
one. It seems to me that socialism is the sea, and all these separate streams, these private individual revolutions are flowing into it--the sea of life, of life in its own right. I said life, but I mean life as you see it in a work of art, transformed by genius, creatively enriched.
Before long, of course, Pasternak, Akhmatova and little-did-he-know Bukharin would be petitioning Stalin for Mandelstam's life. Osip never mastered the genre of silence. By 1928, in "The Egyptian Stamp," he had decided, "Petersburg has declared itself Nero, and was as loathsome as eating a soup of crushed flies." In 1930 he would add: "Petersburg! I don't want to die yet! You know my telephone numbers. Petersburg! I've still got the addresses: I can look up dead voices." And then, in 1933, he attacked Stalin himself: "His fingers are fat as grubs,/And the words, final as lead weights, fall from his lips.... His cockroach whiskers leer/And his boot tops gleam.... He rolls the executions on his tongue like berries./He wishes he could hug them like big friends from home." It's amazing Mandelstam wasn't immediately whacked. But he was merely sent away for awhile, his murder postponed till 1938.
And here's the eerie part, which almost seems to mimic our own kinkiness with the Soviet texts. Stalin telephoned Pasternak in July 1934 to tell him he was letting Osip off the hook. Pasternak told Stalin during the same call that he'd like to meet and talk. "About what?" Stalin wanted to know. "About life and death," said Pasternak. So Stalin hung up on him. Such, in the Soviet Union, was the awful intimacy between the realm of the imagination and the ministries of fear. If Pasternak, who wrote a note to Stalin after his wife's suicide, had a sort of fool's license that kept him from dreadful harm, that license didn't extend to his mistress, Olga Ivinskaya, sentenced to five years in a labor camp. If Babel had been safe while Gorky was alive, Ehrenburg was no use once he disappeared. Bulgakov's life may have been spared because Stalin enjoyed a play of his, Days of the Turbins, so much that he sat through it fifteen times. A toadying poem by Akhmatova in 1949 got her son out of a labor camp, but didn't get her back into the Writers' Union so she could publish a book. And when that same son was arrested for the third time, in 1949, she burned all her papers.
It may seem perverse to spend so much emotion on such a minority--600 Soviet writers disappeared, most of them forever, into penal colonies, labor camps, torture chambers and psychiatric wards, whereas millions died in collectivization, and we haven't even gotten to the schoolteachers, garage mechanics, Catholic nuns and Jewish "refuseniks" found guilty of writing a letter, reading an article, seeking a visa or belonging to a human rights watch group--but these writers were remarkable. Twentieth-century literature isn't really worth imagining without Bely's St. Petersburg, Babel's Red Cavalry and Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita. They were also fascinating. Tsvetayeva and Rilke wrote poems to each other. Yesenin was married to Isadora Duncan. Modigliani did sixteen potraits of Akhmatova in Paris in 1911--and when she had to be evacuated from Leningrad during the siege, she took off by propeller to Tashkent clutching the score of Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony.
What had such a prodigality of personality and talent to do with party cells, cadre perks, city soviets, farm collectives, lapdog writers' unions, bought psychiatrists, secret policemen, technocrats on the pig-iron front, informers, apparatchiks or the three elements of Socialist Realism--narodnost (national character), ideinost (ideological expression) and partiinost (party spirit)--not to wonder why a Stalin would even be interested, much less suspicious (and of what?), with his love for Charlie Chaplin, his hatred of everyone else, his bad teeth and not very interesting Georgian inferiority complex, such a mensch for all the bloody seasons, but especially a Great Terror? Why trouble himself with a Babel and his minimalist fictions, his Cycladic sculptures and Yiddish spitballs? And then why, if everything was Stalin's fault, try a Sinyavsky for slander and a Brodsky for parasitism after Stalin was dead? Where is it written in any socialism that we gouge out the eyes of our brilliant children with Five-Year Plans? That we put a bullet through our own heart like Mayakovsky?
In his 1966 novel The Holy Well, Valentin Katayev, otherwise a time-serving rewrite man on the Socialist Realist pig-iron front, imagined a cat trained to speak by its Georgian master, who died trying to mouth the latest polysyllabic catchword. He also imagined a shadow that "never left me but followed a step behind," a "most rare cross between a man and a woodpecker...an informer, a bootlicker, an extortioner, and a bribetaker."
"Bring good men and we shall give them all our gramophones. We are not simpletons. The International, we know what the International is. And I want the International of good people, I want every soul to be accounted for and given first-class rations. Here, soul, eat, go ahead, go and find happiness in your life. The International, Pan Comrade, you have no idea how to swallow it!"
"With gunpowder," I tell the old man, "and seasoned with the best blood."
There will doubtless be gripes about this or that in Peter Constantine's translation, but not from me. I'm familiar with Babel only from previous translations, by Mirra Ginsburg, Max Hayward and David McDuff. Judging from these English variants, Constantine sometimes improves on his predecessors and sometimes fudges up or jaunties. But this is the Babel we already know--except much, much more of him, including dramas, screenplays, notebooks and journalism.
Besides, I was traumatized at an early age by two different translations of the very same passage in Turgenev's Fathers and Sons. In the Ralph Matlaw version, on page 91 of the Norton Critical Edition, we read: "And now I hope, Arina Vlasyevna, that having satisfied your maternal heart, you will turn your thoughts to satisfying the appetites of our dear guests, because, as you're aware, even nightingales can't be fed on fairy tales." But Neal Burroughs translates the same sentence, on page 122 of the Washington Square Press edition, this way: "And now, Arina Vlasyevna, I hope your maternal heart has had its fill, and you will see about filling our dear guests, for, as you know, fair words butter no parsnips."
Did you know that the Russian word for "parsnip" is "Pasternak"? And so must most of us make do with the edible roots of a writer while not quite hearing his whole song. Never mind. Some sort of magic-making happens anyway, or Toni Morrison and Kobo Abe wouldn't have been knocked out by English and Japanese translations of Gabriel García Márquez, who was himself overwhelmed by Jorge Luis Borges's translation into Spanish of Franz Kafka, who has also been translated into Italian by Primo Levi, who didn't care for Babel, and into Polish by Bruno Schulz, who was murdered about the same time as Babel. For that matter, Günter Grass read Tanizaki in Old Teutonic.
"If you think about it," Babel wrote in an early, breezy "Odessa" story, "doesn't it strike you that in Russian literature there haven't been so far any real, clear, cheerful descriptions of the sun?" He certainly obliged, although perhaps not cheerfully, with suns that hang down like the pink tongues of thirty dogs, suns that pour into clouds like the blood of a gouged bear, suns that soar and spin like red bowls on the tips of spears, suns that roll across the sky like severed heads. But he was equally interested in animate objects--grandmothers, schoolchildren, Hebrew teachers, landladies, pawnbrokers, prostitutes, police chiefs, playwrights, sailors, cash-register girls, medical orderlies, wrestling champions, dying bulls and peeping Toms. Plus, of course, the Cossacks and the Jews.
But most of all Babel was possessed by extremes of subjectivity looking for prose analogues, by "the fat and funny bourgeois [who] lie in the evenings in their white socks on couches in front of their funny, philistine dachas, digesting their meals beneath a dark and velvety sky, while their powdered wives...are passionately squeezed behind bushes by fervent students of medicine or law"; by the wings of angels, mounted on hinges, which have to be removed at night and wrapped in clean sheets; by the purchase of a prostitute with a loaf of bread; by gangsters on their way from a wedding to a brothel dressed up like hummingbirds; by a crucifix as tiny as a courtesan's talisman; by "the sweetness of dreamy malice, the bitter contempt for the swine and dogs among men, the flame of silent and intoxicating revenge"; by ancient synagogues, yellow walls and prophet-bearded Jews selling chalk, bluing and candlewicks; by the "captivating Stavitsky," smelling of perfume "and the nauseating coolness of soap," whose "long legs looked like two girls wedged to their shoulders in riding boots"; by honeybees and Spinoza and looking at the world as if it were "a meadow in May over which women and horses wander"; by a churchful of saints who "marched to their deaths with the flair of Italian opera singers"; by the chimneys of Zamosc, "the thievish lights in the ravines of its ghetto, the watchtower with its shattered lantern," the green rockets over the Polish camp and a"damp sunrise poured down on us like waves of chloroform"; by faith, love, death and cruelty.
Babel--who told "fairy tales about Bolshevism" all over the Polish front; who would live to regret "the foppish bloodthirstiness and loudmouthed simplicity with which in those days we solved all the problems of the world"; who asked of his executioners only that they "let me finish my work"--went into battle without bullets in his gun. "You believe in God, you traitor!" he was told. And: "I can see right through you! Right through you! What you want is to live without enemies, you'll do anything not to have enemies." And when the rabbi's son who looked like a young Spinoza ended up among the revolutionary dead, here's how Babel mourned him:
I threw everything together in a jumble, the mandates of the political agitator and the mementos of a Jewish poet. Portraits of Lenin and Maimonides lay side by side--the gnarled steel of Lenin's skull and the listless silk of the Maimonides portrait. A lock of woman's hair lay in a book of the resolutions of the Sixth Party Congress, and crooked lines of Ancient Hebrew verse huddled in the margins of Communist pamphlets. Pages of The Song of Songs and revolver cartridges drizzled on me in a sad, sparse rain.
This, of course, was his own jumble and his private rain. Nevertheless:
He died before we reached Rovno. He died, the last prince, amid poems, phylacteries, and foot bindings. We buried him at a desolate train station. And I, who can barely harness the storms of fantasy raging through my ancient body, I received my brother's last breath.
Once upon a time in an Isaac Babel story, there was in the Odessa seaport a boy named Karl-Yankel, as if to yoke Marx and shtetl. The Jewish Cossack had high hopes for him: "I grew up in those streets, now it is the turn of Karl-Yankel, but they did not fight for me as they are fighting for him, few people had any thought for me. 'It's not possible,' I whispered to myself, 'that you won't be happy, Karl-Yankel. It's not possible that you won't be happier than I.'"
We are the vanguard, but of what?
A little learning, the old adage has it, can be a dangerous thing.
Example: US Attorney General John Ashcroft's speech at the US Conference of Mayors.
His message: "Forty years ago, another Attorney General...
Robert F. Kennedy, came to the Department of Justice at a time when organized crime was threatening the very foundations of the Republic. Mobsters controlled one of the nation's largest labor unions [the Teamsters]. Racketeers murdered, bribed and extorted with impunity....
"Then as now, the enemy that America faced was described bluntly and correctly as a conspiracy of evil. Then as now, the enemy was well financed, expertly organized and international in scope. Then as now, its operations were hidden under a code of deadly silence.
His theme: "Attorney General Kennedy made no apology for using all of the available resources in the law to disrupt and dismantle organized crime networks. Very often prosecutors were aggressive, using obscure statutes to arrest and detain suspected mobsters. One racketeer and his father were indicted for lying on a federal home loan application. A former gunman for the Capone mob was brought to court on a violation of the Migratory Bird Act. Agents found 563 game birds in his freezer, a mere 539 birds over the limit.
His conclusion: "Robert Kennedy's Justice Department, it is said, would arrest mobsters for spitting on the sidewalk if it would help in the battle against organized crime.... It has been said that that was an effective policy, and I believe it was."
He then cites an unnamed "author" who "chronicled" Robert Kennedy's Attorney Generalship in support of his contention that the moral of this cautionary tale is that all sorts of freedoms and civil liberties will have to be sacrificed in any serious and effective war on terrorism.
At first I thought I might be the anonymous author to whom he referred, because I am indeed the author of Kennedy Justice*, a book about Robert Kennedy's Attorney Generalship, and I reported his use of the home loan mortgage applications and the Migratory Bird Act to "get" gangsters. But I also reported that the Migratory Bird Act conviction was eventually overturned, because it involved an illegal search and seizure. Ashcroft forgot to mention that, and he also neglected my larger point--that while Kennedy was indeed an effective Attorney General, his "Get Hoffa" squad and a number of his actions in the course of his war on organized crime lent themselves to easy abuse and were dangerous precedents for the future.
So much for the Attorney General's history lesson. Since September 11 our government has secretly rounded up and detained more than 1,000 people. Under the new antiterrorism law Ashcroft has not been required to tell us who they are, why they have been picked up, what their status is.
What is doubly distressing, however, is that the Attorney General's misreading of Robert Kennedy's Attorney Generalship was followed days later by the announcement that the President had signed a new executive order allowing the White House or a former President to veto release of presidential papers. This means that scholars and reporters as well as subsequent historical actors will be deprived of the raw materials that might help unlock the true lessons of our past. Taken together, the Attorney General's history lesson and the President's executive order suggest an unfortunate contempt for history.
The philosopher George Santayana famously observed that those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it. In this case we appear to have an Administration determined to distort it or, in the alternative, to withhold it.
* Now available from iUniverse.com, under the aegis of the Authors Guild.
"Our Democratic Moses is going to lead us to the promised land," United Mine Workers president Cecil Roberts told grizzled coal miners in rural Virginia on the eve of the November 6 elections that restored Democrats to top jobs not only in Virginia but in statehouses and city halls across the country.
The man Roberts was introducing, high-tech millionaire Mark Warner, was an unlikely Democratic Moses. A self-proclaimed "fiscal conservative" who overwhelmed his Republican foe with $5 million in personal spending and tactical outreach to independents and moderate Republicans, Warner sold himself as the sort of "new economy" Democrat that Al Gore tried so hard to be last year. The difference, of course, is that Warner won a clear victory, making him the first Democrat to secure his state's governorship since George W. Bush's father was President. And Warner won with a campaign that backed abortion rights, opposed celebration of Confederate holidays, embraced unions and called for better pay for public employees. That made him more than enough of a Moses for Cecil Roberts and other Democratic stalwarts--in Virginia and beyond. Shaken by their party's loss of last year's contested presidential election and by Bush's 90 percent approval ratings in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, Democrats were looking for a sign that their party was still in the game. And they got it.
Warner's win in Virginia--an Old Confederacy state that trended Republican through the 1990s--came on the same night that Democrats elected a former civil rights lawyer as Virginia's lieutenant governor, retook the New Jersey governorship, upset ten years of Republican control of both houses of the New Jersey legislature, took control of the Washington State House of Representatives and won most major mayoral and county executive contests. Though party chairs always try to spin off-year elections harder than is warranted, Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe could stake a legitimate claim to this year's bragging rights. Eight years after Republicans swept off-year contests and then used those victories to push their successful drive to win control of Congress in 1994, Democrats pretty much reversed the trend. "[Republicans] basically said...when they swept these offices that this bodes very badly for the Democratic Party. Well, I can turn around and say the same thing," bragged McAuliffe.
The rare exception is New York City, where Democrat Mark Green lost to billionaire businessman Democrat-turned-Republican Michael Bloomberg. Bloomberg won with strong end-of-the-campaign backing from outgoing Mayor Rudy Giuliani. He benefited as well from lingering anger among Latino and African-American voters, who felt Green's primary campaign had played on racial fears.
But Giuliani's coattails did not extend far beyond his city. Virginia and New Jersey Republicans relied heavily on television advertising featuring Giuliani endorsements, to little effect. New Jersey's Jim McGreevey countered with endorsements from police, fire and construction unions, which since September 11 have taken on heroic stature. Virginia's Warner also did something few Democrats have in recent years: He went after rural voters with a vengeance, returning repeatedly even in the critical closing days of the campaign to hard-hit coal-mining, textile and farming regions that Democrats often write off as lost to cultural conservatism. Warner's success in using economic themes to draw small-town and farm-country votes gives new impetus to McAuliffe's efforts to implement a rural strategy, to renew the party's national appeal.
Another new strategy, making use of initiative referendums to break legislative deadlocks on major issues, appears to be paying off for progressives. In Washington, voters overwhelmingly endorsed the highest cigarette tax in the nation to aid healthcare and a labor-backed move to create a "homecare quality authority" that will give expanded bargaining rights to state-paid homecare workers. Portland, Maine, voters endorsed universal healthcare. While it appeared Houston voters would narrowly endorse a measure prohibiting city-paid domestic partner benefits, gay rights backers won referendums in three Michigan cities, and Miami Beach voters said the city should provide city employee benefits to gay domestic partners. In San Francisco, though anthrax scares slowed counting of absentee ballots that will decide a pair of too-close-to-call votes on initiatives to take over local utilities, it appeared that at least one of two proposals was winning. Easily prevailing, however, were two solar-power initiatives designed to provide the policy and funding support for making the city a world leader in development of alternative energy sources.
America's longest-running metaphorical war, a campaign against a hidden and even less well defined enemy than terrorism, is the war on drugs. This one also has its insidious domestic threats, its overseas campaign of interdiction and extermination, its potential to foster guerrilla wars and destabilize governments. It too has been supported with little dissent from a Congress where few dare to question the prevailing orthodoxy.
Of course the analogy is misleading. There are huge differences between the threat of drugs and the threat of terrorism, whose very object is the slaughter of innocents. But to point out that obvious distinction is also to underline the excesses of a campaign whose cost in lives, privacy, social damage and political instability easily exceeds the more than $25 billion in tax money that the nation now spends on it every year. More than half of all those sent to federal prison are drug offenders.
Nonetheless, the most significant challenge to that orthodoxy so far--most of it from intellectual and social elites--is a free-market libertarianism that's as ideological and unrealistic, both as politics and policy, as the case for an all-out war. So the issue tends to be vastly oversimplified: the zero-tolerance absolutism of former US drug czar William Bennett versus the libertarian, free-market absolutism of economist Milton Friedman; prohibition with long prison terms even for simple possession versus decriminalization, including, at the margins, regulated commercial sale.
Robert J. MacCoun, a professor of law and public policy at Berkeley, and Peter Reuter, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, are certain that there is a third, and better, set of alternatives--more rational, based on experience, less sure of itself--that can thread its way, almost on a case-by-case basis, between the ideological poles and out of the morass in which US drug policy has been stuck.
In part that third way requires doing more--in needle exchanges, safe-use campaigns targeted at addicts and a whole range of non-drug policy issues like better welfare and healthcare. In part it means doing less--particularly through selective, targeted enforcement of prohibitions, shorter criminal sentences and fewer encroachments on civil liberties. MacCoun and Reuter make a sharp distinction between decriminalization and what they call depenalization, which differs from conventional prohibition not in restricting access but in limiting the severity of the penalties, particularly by replacing criminal with civil penalties. (In the case of cocaine, which they regard as far too destructive, they don't favor depenalization but only a reduction of the severe and unequal criminal sentences the United States imposes even for possession.) Nor do they support anything that would lead to commercialization even of soft drugs like marijuana, which they feel would bring--and, in places like the Netherlands, has brought--expanded use.
But their preference, often implicit, nonetheless follows a general European model that seeks overall harm reduction rather than merely a reduction in the prevalence of use, as US policy now does. They acknowledge that total harm reduction--mitigating the overall social costs not only of drug use but of prohibition and the criminal behavior associated with it--is not always an easy calculation. Among other things, calculations need to include measures of total consumption--reduction in heavy use--not just in the number of users. But it's certainly more realistic than measuring the success of policy simply by how many fewer people regularly use some illegal substance.
The implicit, and occasionally explicit, policy preferences in Drug War Heresies seem almost an afterthought next to the huge amount of data that forms the core of this book and that sheds light on almost every aspect of this issue. MacCoun and Reuter have surveyed and analyzed hundreds of studies, past and present, in this country, Europe and Australia, not just on drug policies but on experience with a range of issues that have parallels to this one--alcohol prohibition in the United States, tobacco regulation, legalized gambling, the enforcement of laws against prostitution. The real objective of the book is to document the complexity of drug policies, their often unintended consequences and, more fundamental, the lack of scientific foundation for so much of US policy. The analysis of these data, dispassionately presented in all their complexity, makes this an enormously important book. This is especially true because drug policy is a field where tendentiousness prevails, with the exception of a very few other works, like Mark Kleiman's Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (1992).
Needless to say, Drug War Heresies is hardly an easy read, much less an easy book to summarize. Nor will either side in this fight find it entirely to its liking. It leaves the standard slogans and clichés--that better policy research on things like marijuana, for example, would send the wrong message--lying in the dust. Excepting only Sweden, most of Europe, as MacCoun and Reuter make clear, is moving away from the punitive model, only rarely toward legalization and more commonly toward a far more realistic, nuanced, "harm reduction" approach not stuck in the puritanical mode that so much of US policy finds itself in. (And even the Swedes, who reject methadone maintenance and needle exchange, provide well-supported treatment and social services to addicts.) That hardly means that policies in the Netherlands, Britain, Spain and Italy, all of which they examine, are beyond question. All of them, as MacCoun said in a recent talk, are flawed in one way or another. But Europe is a rich source of lessons.
At the core of those lessons is the question of trade-offs: How much do the substantial reductions in crime and criminal justice costs (including the cost of police corruption) resulting from any loosening of criminal penalties, plus the benefits of safe-use programs, offset the costs imposed on families, individuals and neighborhoods from increased drug consumption?
And that, in turn, depends again and again on individual circumstances--on the details of the policy and the surrounding culture. The Dutch, for example, appear to have successfully depenalized marijuana possession without terribly significant increases in use, thereby reducing both the costs of incarcerating marijuana users and the associated human costs. In the mid-1980s, when passive depenalization--essentially, nonenforcement of laws against personal possession--became de facto decriminalization, marijuana became commercially available in coffee shops and use did drift up. But even that increase didn't drive up the use of hard drugs or increase drug-related crime. Other than producing an increase in patients seeking treatment for marijuana-related problems and occasional complaints from neighboring retailers about certain coffee shops, say MacCoun and Reuter, "we are unable to document any significant social harms accompanying increased cannabis use."
MacCoun and Reuter make clear that at times harm reduction can go badly wrong. After years of chasing an active heroin scene around its neighborhoods, Zurich established its so-called Needle Park (Platzspitz), thereby concentrating heroin users in one park near the main railroad station, in an effort to minimize petty crime and neighborhood nuisances, and to create a central location for providing health services to addicts. The experiment failed: It drew heroin users from far and wide, and turned the place into a "Hieronymous Bosch vision of a drug hell," which in turn was cited by prohibitionists everywhere as evidence that such ventures never work. But there were also gains: from AIDS outreach, which appears to have driven down HIV-positive rates, and from the efficient handling of medical emergencies. And while there were some notorious gang-related murders, crime rates were surprisingly low. Switzerland had a serious heroin problem before Platzspitz was created, but there is no evidence that overall use of heroin in the country increased as a result of it.
The book's general read of the overall European experience is that it has a lot to tell us about what is feasible. "The Dutch have shown that harm reduction can be used as a principle to guide decisions consistently; [it has] some successes to show and no disasters to hide. Italy has removed criminal sanctions for possession of small quantities of cocaine and heroin without experiencing much greater problems than their neighbors." Swiss trials (begun following the Platzspitz failure) "show that heroin maintenance programs can operate in an orderly and systematic fashion for the benefit of a substantial fraction of the clients." The authors also point out that American experience with the enforcement of prostitution laws indicates that the harms that theoretically follow from vice prohibition can be mitigated--though not eliminated--by selective enforcement. Indeed, despite America's moralistic views about prostitution and adultery, policing of prostitution has much in common with the discretionary policing of drug use in many European cities.
Conversely, however, MacCoun and Reuter also caution against excessive enthusiasm for the contention that regulatory policies are inevitably an improvement over outright prohibition. Recent US experiences with alcohol and tobacco illustrate the power of commercial marketing and the difficulty of maintaining or tightening regulatory controls in the face of that power. The evidence for both of those licit substances shows quite clearly that while "prohibition may cause considerable harm, eliminating prohibition does not mean eliminating drug-related harm." Put briefly, they contend that contrary to the libertarian enthusiasm for such a course, the alcohol and tobacco model has to be approached with a lot of caution. In the case of tobacco, for example, restrictions on promotion, product regulation and taxation have all been greatly attenuated by the industry's strategic use of political contributions and reframing of legal issues (e.g., making promotion of a dangerous product a free-speech issue).
Despite the wealth of research available to help guide drug policy, the tests and calculations--essentially on the harm-reduction principle--MacCoun and Reuter are under no illusion that there's any specific formula by which to evaluate reform proposals. In the end, value judgments still have to be made, weights attached to each element of harm. Politically, moreover, the burden of proof is still on reformers to show why their proposals are preferable to the status quo, no matter how dismal it is. And that's often complex. Much easier, unfortunately, are the simplistic warnings put out by government prohibitionists that any experiment--say, with safe-use programs or even good medical studies on the safety and efficacy of marijuana in reducing the nausea associated with chemotherapy or the loss of appetite of AIDS patients--would "send the wrong signal."
MacCoun and Reuter may overestimate the political obstacles blocking the kind of reform that they clearly seem to prefer. A call for "nonzero tolerance," they write, is tantamount to treason in some circles; but such a call might encourage more humane, less intrusive, less damaging ways of coping with drugs and their harms. They cite the passage of the first initiatives, in California and Arizona in 1996, permitting the medical use of marijuana, which they call "at best sloppy," because those ask doctors to make decisions without adequate scientific evidence. But their book apparently went to press before the wave of recent ballot measures and state laws: medical marijuana initiatives in six or seven other states, state laws liberalizing sterile syringe access and reducing prison terms for drug possession, and California's Proposition 36, passed in the fall of 2000, which requires all those convicted of simple drug possession or drug use to be sent to treatment rather than prison. All suggest that, at least before the terrorist attacks of September 11, the public may have been in a far more tolerant and reformist mood than its elected leaders.
Still, the authors are right that despite polls showing that Americans believe the drug war has been a failure, it's a political standard, not a philosophical or analytic one, that reformers have to meet. And that standard is quite protective of the status quo. The combination of high uncertainty about the outcome of any change; the partial irreversibility of any bad outcomes; and a pervasive tendency for decision-makers to favor the status quo pose steep barriers for reformers. Despite the high number of Americans incarcerated for nothing more than marijuana offenses--an affront to a liberal society's belief in the benevolence of government--reactions to existing policies have not been strong enough for politicians to risk any real reforms. A punitive stasis prevails.
Yet even in the face of such passive resistance, Drug War Heresies should pose a formidable challenge, not necessarily to cause pursuit of the policies and trial programs that MacCoun and Reuter seem to favor--maintenance, reducing the penalties for use of marijuana, more judicious drug law enforcement--but to pay attention to the data, end the misrepresentation of information where it exists and go after it where fear has repressed even research, especially in assessing the consequences and efficacy of existing policies.
More fundamentally, the book may also introduce policy-makers to the relatively novel thought that prevalence reduction and use reduction are not the same. While cocaine prevalence has gone down, they point out, "total cocaine consumption and its related harms have remained relatively stable." It may also make clearer that harm reduction is not simply a flag flown by closet libertarians who are philosophically opposed to all prohibitive drug laws.
At the same time, Drug War Heresies leaves no doubt about the limits of policy--and on that score it's important for a lot of other fields. It's doubtful, as the authors say, that a complete solution to the US drug problem exists. The major differences between the American and European illicit drug situations, they suggest, may be rooted as much in broader societal differences, in the peculiarities of geography or in other policies--in lack of healthcare or unequal income distribution--as in drug law per se and its enforcement. That's particularly true of treatment programs, which, even under the best of circumstances, will only be partially successful. But that hardly eliminates the need for reform, in reducing the severity of sentences and the intrusiveness of drug law enforcement, and shifting to more selective, targeted enforcement.
Such a course, MacCoun and Reuter acknowledge, reflects only their opinion. But they leave little doubt that the evidence indicating a need for major reform has both an empirical and an ethical basis. "To scorn discussion and analysis of such major changes, in light of the extraordinary problems associated with current policies, is frivolous and uncaring." For many reasons this book isn't easy; but for anybody seriously and earnestly concerned about drug policy, it is likely to become indispensable.
When I interviewed Robert Bly on an icy London evening in December 1997, he talked about the Eskimo. This was a short while after the English publication of his second popular prose work, The Sibling Society, a book far more radical in its propositions and conclusions than Iron John had been. Where the earlier book dealt with the boy-child's journey to maturity, this new book focused on the end of that journey--adulthood--or, rather, the lack of it in contemporary society. Without getting too close to what remains a touchy topic in liberal society, the book circled around the subject of authority, trying to wrest it from its negative associations and historical abuses. Bly was interested in the meaning of maturity, which he posited as a state of dignity, clarity and power, and he was concerned about the effects of our having removed the positive hierarchies and limitations that previously aided our passage to genuine adulthood. So he was intrigued to have read somewhere that the Eskimo were the most adult people on the face of the earth. This was because, as he put it, "Adulthood is connected, in some mysterious way that no one understands, with the number of limitations that there are in your life." And of course the deprivation and difficulty of living with extreme weather and other conditions give ample limitations.
But the reason we turned to the Eskimo was that we were speaking about poetry, and poets have always had to work with limitations. Most of the poets of Bly's generation--he spoke specifically of Ginsberg, James Wright and Louis Simpson--learned and practiced traditional forms at the beginning of their careers. "And then free verse came, and we went into free verse, which is really un-Eskimo-like behavior." He and his young fellow poets gave up their limitations and wrote the free-form work for which they are now best known. But Bly went on to say, "I'm 70 now, and I'm more and more interested in finding limitations in poetry, so I'm going back and finding ones, even though I don't have to."
He had then just published in the United States his last volume of new work, Morning Poems. The self-imposed limitation that governed that book was the discipline of writing a poem every morning--following the habit of his friend William Stafford, who woke early most mornings to write, from the period of his internment as a conscientious objector during World War II until his death in 1993. Bly explained that his own working method had been to remain in bed until he finished the poem, which on some days meant getting up at dawn, on others at noon.
The Night Abraham Called to the Stars has a different set of limitations entirely: The poems are all written in an invented eighteen-line form consisting of six three-line stanzas, with unrhymed lines of between nine and fourteen syllables in length. The stanzas, like those of the Islamic ghazals on which Bly based his form, are not necessarily linked in theme or narrative. As Bly put it in his introduction to the volume of Ghalib's ghazals that he translated with Sunil Dutta, "It slowly becomes clear that we are dealing with a way of adventuring one's way through a poem utterly distinct from our habit of textual consistency in theme" (The Lightning Should Have Fallen on Ghalib). Like Ghalib's work, Bly's new poems often jump from praise to despair, from absurdity to love, but sometimes he runs lines on between stanzas, as in the first poem, from which the book takes its title:
Do you remember the night Abraham first called
To the stars? He cried to Saturn: "You are my Lord!"
How happy he was! When he saw the Dawn Star,
He cried, "You are my Lord!" How destroyed he was
When he watched them set. Friends, he is like us:
We take as our Lord the stars that go down.
("The Night Abraham Called to the Stars")
The poems of the book's final section tighten the limitation by requiring also that each stanza end on the same word:
I never understood that abundance leads to war,
Nor that manyness is gasoline on the fire.
I never knew that the horseshoe longs for night.
During my twenties I worked in the opal mines.
No one could open the door to Saturn's house.
I had no choice but to live in my father's night.
("Noah Watching the Rain")
Since his 1994 volume, Meditations on the Insatiable Soul, Bly's work has more clearly expressed his interest in spiritual themes, and in the imagery and storytelling of several spiritual traditions, especially the Gnostic heritage and that of Sufism, the mystical aspect of Islam. Indeed, the title of that book was itself a translation of a distinction observed in Sufism--it designates the lowest aspect of the nafs, the fourfold Sufi concept of the soul. In The Sibling Society, Bly quoted Dr. Javad Nurbakhsh, head of the Nimatullahi Order of Sufis, and the person to whom his new poems are dedicated:
This nafs is of a bestial character that harasses other created beings and consistently sings its own praise. It always follows its own desires and grazes on the field of material nature; it drinks from the spring of the passions and knows only how to sleep, eat, and gratify itself.
Rumi sometimes calls this the "Animal Soul," which he symbolized as a snake in a poem quoted in The Sibling Society. The poem tells the story of a snake-catcher who goes into the mountains: "He wanted a friendly pet, and one that would amaze/audiences, but he was looking for a reptile, something/that has no knowledge of friendship." He finds a snake that he believes to be dead, but that is actually only sleeping, which wakes and eats him as well as the audience gathered round to witness his remarkable bravery. The "insatiable soul" is like this--mean, unpredictable, likely to harm us and those around us; it will not be our friend.
This has become a commanding image in Bly's work: It stands for all the powers of immaturity, for all that blocks us from true individuation and adulthood, eventually for what most fundamentally keeps us from union with the Beloved, the transcendental ideal for which Sufi mystics long. In the new poems, this nafs has different names and a range of imageries--sometimes Bly speaks of it directly, as when he writes, "We all live close to our greedy souls./We have inherited so many longings/That in the other world our name is 'So Many.'" But it is invoked, too, when he says "a dove's breastbone is a cathedral of desire." This nafs is the animal aspect of our consciousness not only in the sense that it is desiderative, but in that it is also frequently stupid, motivating us to do things we regret, or to harbor feelings that harm us or others, or simply to think in ways that are foolish and ridiculous:
My greedy soul and I share the same room.
When I see a book written two thousand years
Ago, I check to see if my name is mentioned.
("The Five Inns")
Without directly invoking this nafs, Bly speaks of its effects when, in another poem, he confesses some of the stridency and opinionatedness of his own earlier writing:
One teaspoon of envy was enough for me
To attack Robert Lowell; with a tablespoon
I could have taken on Henry James or Abelard.
("The Way the Parrot Learns")
One of the stages of the journey described in Iron John is a period of humiliation, which Bly termed katabasis, a word referring to military retreat but derived from Greek roots meaning literally "to go down." In the Iron John story it refers to a time when the young hero works in the kitchens of a castle, way down in the building's basement, close to the earth. The kind of self-parody and playful confession in the passage quoted from "The Way the Parrot Learns" exemplifies a kind of katabasis in Bly's mature work. Increasingly in his last few books he has considered his past work and opinions, and reflected with humility and sadness on some of his own attitudes. Eating the Honey of Words, the new and selected volume published in 2000, included some telling revisions of earlier work, changes that usually made the poems less strident and opinionated. In another of the Abraham poems, Bly admits, "The muddler you are reading has lied to you/Often." Humiliation is one of the best ways of dealing with the "hungry soul": It longs for praise and gratification--telling the truth undermines its vanity and desire. A poem about a painting by Rembrandt ends saying, "The father protects his son by washing him in the night." The line is ambiguous: The father washes the child at nighttime, and in the waters of darkness. Another poem declares, "The soul is in love with marshy ground and snails,/With mud, darkness, wind, smoke and fire." This elemental imagery of descent runs through Abraham--there is much mud here. "My poems are sad," Bly writes. "How could it be otherwise?" But his poems are also joyful, filled with a reflective pleasure in the passing moment but tinged with sadness at each moment's ending. The collection begins and ends with poems about setting stars, the closing lines of the final poem circling round to the book's first words, quoted above:
People in love with the setting stars are right
To adore the baby who smells of the stable, but we know
That even the setting stars will disappear at dawn.
Like the line about the father washing his son in the night, there is poignant ambiguity in this image, for though, like Abraham, we are "destroyed" when we watch the stars we love go down, it is into the brightness of day that they disappear.
Many of the poets who began writing around the time Bly did have already died; almost all the masters and exemplars who guided him are long dead, many have already faded from public memory, some from literary memory. The patterns of influence within his work are wide-ranging--Bly has read voraciously in the literatures of many languages and times. Among his contemporaries, the late William Stafford stands out more and more clearly as Bly's closest confrère--his vision and his sympathies were similarly broad, and he expressed in his poems a sense of care and value that resonates with Bly's work. The poems of The Night Abraham Called to the Stars mark the ripening of a new current in Bly's career: Now in his mid-70s, he is writing with tremendous energy and clarity and force, and producing some of the best work of his long career.
During a reading at the Globe Theatre in London, Bly spoke of Rumi as the most popular poet in America. The expression of longing is one of the most characteristic aspects of Rumi's poetry--the longing of the aspirant for his spiritual teacher, of man for God, which is often expressed in Sufi poetry as longing for the Beloved. The Night Abraham Called to the Stars expresses this yearning more urgently than any of Bly's prior work, and it's certain to be said that his poems are influenced by Rumi. But the points of coincidence run deeper than this, and too closely likening Bly's new poems to those of the great Sufi teacher is to take away from Bly's achievement. He has previously made versions of Rumi's work--as he has of work by Ghalib, Kabir, Tranströmer, Machado and others. Bly tells at least one story in Abraham that was told previously by Rumi. Coleman Barks, who is probably the best known of Rumi's many contemporary translators, has spoken of the pivotal role of Bly's early encouragement in his decision to dedicate so many years to the task of translation. But the poems of The Night Abraham Called to the Stars express more than influence, a word meaning, literally, a flowing-in from another source--Bly's poems flow from the same source as did Rumi's, the great current of longing for reality, for true maturity, the devotee's call to the Beloved.
The new USA PATRIOT Act has brought into being an unprecedented merger between the functions of intelligence agencies and law enforcement. What this means might be clearer if we used the more straightforward term for intelligence--that is, spying.
I'm being vigilant these days, per Mr. Ashcroft, watching the neighbors. It hasn't done much to advance national security, I must admit. Would instead that books could float in the air and be inhaled as easily as a spore, infecting us with their ideas, their zeal, their humanity, their--vigilance. For writers are first and foremost close watchers, and we rely on them for that, whether it's David Halberstam studying the political context of George Bush Sr., Bill Clinton and the generals who surrounded them and marveled so at the efficacy of stand-off bombing (hence Halberstam's title, War in a Time of Peace); or Paula Fox (Borrowed Finery) refracting her painful childhood memories (her parents' arrangements, as near as she could work out, were "permanently temporary") across a distance of seven decades.
This books issue opens with John Leonard's examination of Isaac Babel's Complete Works. "No other writer of the Soviet era ever aroused as much American emotion as Babel," writes Leonard, who calls the book a "grand occasion of literature." Babel himself lamented that "I've got no imagination. All I've got is the longing for it." Of course, he wrote from a society under amorphous (but very real) threat of death, which included an encompassing assault on writers and intellectuals--a condition requiring true vigilance and courage on their part, simply to relate the truth. "We are the vanguard, but of what?" Babel asked.
That same question, in a different context, has been asked by those in the vanguard of postcolonial writing. The new novels of Salman Rushdie and V.S. Naipaul (recent winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature) are taken up by Amitava Kumar, who has some surprising things to say, given the well-known politics (and impolitics) of each writer. "Despite his railings against 'half-formed societies,' you discover in Naipaul repeated tributes to small beginnings and small triumphs," Kumar writes, an acknowledgment of "the daily, tragicomic routine of unacknowledged lives."
One very acknowledged life is that of the writer Naomi Wolf, taken up by Susan J. Douglas and Meredith Michaels, in a dispute over feminist--or antifeminist--approaches to motherhood. "Now who needs Pat Robertson, Dr. Laura or Operation Rescue when you can have Naomi Wolf? She blames female irresponsibility for unwanted pregnancies and suggests that most abortions are as frivolous as a haircut," they write. Social friction is also examined in Peter Schrag's look at drug-war "heresies" and Richard D. Kahlenberg's dissection of the school voucher debate. "Perhaps we should be thankful that the right has...shifted its strategy of putting a black face on crime and welfare, and instead is depicting African-Americans as striving for educational opportunity," he writes. Rounding out the issue, we have a report on Robert Bly's Sufi-inspired poetry, on business motivational books and on Jennifer Egan's new novel Look at Me, in which the characters lead double lives. So be vigilant.
After nearly two months of living with terror, both horribly real and fancifully imagined, we still know next to nothing about the true source of our immobilizing fears or can we even agree how t
What could be more ominous than a movie about a black cop and a white cop? All the combinations are worn too smooth to move anymore, from streety-mouth kid Eddie and stinky old Nolte to madcap Mel and wise old Glover. As for the chronic theme of cop realpolitik and consequent corruption, stop it! Bored now! Plus, today's cop movies are lousy with hard-shelled softies who attain grudging racial rapprochement in the heat of the night prowl of gangbangerland. Most cop-movie makers should be turned over to the authorities.
So my hopes were low for Training Day, noted music video director Antoine Fuqua's flick about a Dirty Old Pragmatist, Alonzo (Denzel Washington), showing a Dewy Rookie, Jake (Ethan Hawke), the bloody LAPD ropes. But instantly, Denzel won me over. Nasty in black from his thug cap to his victim-stomper boots, he manages a better evil makeover than I could have imagined.
The odor of sanctity has clung too much to this man. He's forever playing upright symbols in do-good dramas: Biko, Malcolm X, white-coated docs, white-collar lawyers, black righters of wrong. When he's a rebel, it's for a cause: a submarine hero defying a warmonger commander, a Gulf War hero ashamed of his medal, a Civil War hero demanding dignity. His films' titles tell the story: Courage Under Fire, Cry Freedom, Glory. And he's preposterously perfect; when Newsweek needed an actor whose ideal facial symmetry illustrated the science of human beauty, Denzel was their man. He wouldn't boost his career by doing the blockbuster Seven: It seemed "evil" to him. His Oscar might as well have been for Best Moral Actor--in fact, they should make all the Oscar statues in his image. They would seem more purely gold.
So the badder-than-Bad Lieutenant Alonzo is the role Denzel needs as desperately as the genre needs him. And he's better than Harvey Keitel in basically the same part. Harvey's hypocrite narc bellowed his degradation through a megaphone of self-pity; Denzel, armed with a smarter script, plays Alonzo like an insinuating jazz sax, all tricky riffs that hide melody's meaning from the uninitiated. For the longest time, it's hard for us to tell that Alonzo really is wholly evil.
We regard him through the big button eyes of Jake as Alonzo lays down the law in his "office," a low-down Monte Carlo rolling through LA's scarier scenes. "Unlearn everything you learned at the academy; it'll get you killed," snaps Alonzo. So far, so Popeye Doyle. "In order to protect the sheep, you got to go after the wolves. And to catch a wolf, you got to be a wolf." What keeps this from being familiar is Alonzo's skill at keeping Jake, and us, off balance. When you see it written down, you see it's horseshit. But while Alonzo's talking, you're intimidated by his flashpowder temper, seduced by his teasing, inviting grin, mesmerized by his rousing preacher phrasing (Denzel's real-life father was a preacher), manipulated by his ambiguous cackle when you invariably get everything wrong. Jake is also scared of the vision of the future Alonzo shows him: a cop writing parking tickets, or helping a lady with a flat tire. If Jake can't prove he's a wolf in his first twenty-four hours on the job, he won't pass Alonzo's muster, and that's his sole shot at getting ahead.
Ethan, a wispy poet onscreen and off, who can't seem to grow a proper beard at 30, seems an unlikely partner for Denzel. That's why Denzel forced the studio to cast him. The contrast is so extreme, it makes the innocence/cynicism collision seem fresh. Jake, unstreetwisely bookish, terminally earnest, reminds me of my nice, white friend on the National Book Critics Circle who watched Menace II Society and afterward asked a friend, "Hey, how come those two gang guys called each other 'Holmes'? I mean, what are the odds they're both named Holmes?" In scene after relentless scene--staged by inner-city émigré Fuqua without much rhythmic sense overall but with great feeling for lingo, place and pace--Denzel points out to Jake the horrors of the narc cop's beat. The two men are like mahogany and balsa wood; weigh them in a balance and the balance becomes a catapult, with poor Jake soaring, bewildered.
The great thing is, race isn't just a cliché in Training Day. It is a climate of opinion, a toxic haze. When Alonzo shakes down a carful of white college kids who're in the hood to buy pot, threatening to make them walk home, there's real zeal in it, and palpable fear in the kids. When Jake decides he'll knuckle under to whatever test Alonzo devises, Alonzo gloats, "My nigger!" with a contempt that also suggests a perverse admiration. It's practically impossible to convey racial emotions without lapsing into cliché, or ill-informed, overpaid-screenwriter cluelessness, or sincere but poorly dramatized rage. You need a ferocious and delicate touch, and dialogue like music. That's what you get in Training Day.
Thanks to the obbligato of menace, only the very pulpiest and most preposterous parts of the story break the spell of plausibility. It plays so naturally when Alonzo goads Jake into smoking the pot they've seized--"To be truly effective, a good narcotics agent must know and love narcotics!" (Comparable scenes in the 1991 druggie-narc film Rush came off all phony, and that was a nonfiction story. To be truly effective, a good narcotics story must be written more persuasively than real life.) But uh-oh. Jake's point of view from the lurching Monte Carlo turns all absinthe-hued and woozy, and Alonzo gleefully informs Jake that what he just smoked was PCP-laced pot. (When Paul McCartney, urged to puff PCP by Harry Nilsson, inquired if it was fun, Nilsson reflected, then replied, "No.") Alonzo tells Jake not to worry about getting busted: The captain's got their backs, he'll warn them about urine tests a week ahead. "It's not what you know, it's what you can prove!"
It's all fixed, all part of Alonzo's grand plan to topple the kingpins. He takes the greenish Jake on his rounds: He ambiguously bonds with a fine-Scotch-sipping Überdealer (Scott Glenn), roughs up a wheelchair-bound street-level dealer (rapper Snoop Dogg, pretty good) and conducts a larcenous search in the home of a sarcastic, very stoned woman (singer Macy Gray, who's terrific--how ever did she learn to act so convincingly stony?).
When Alonzo pays a visit to the South Central crime neighborhood he rules with feudal impunity, the movie starts to shed some of its hard-won street cred. The street feels right: Fuqua and Denzel actually consulted the locals for dialogue and authenticity tips. And the look of this gangland is refreshingly sinister, not just stylized. But events take a turn for the hackneyed, partly because of the pressure to come up with a conventional studio-movie finale. Alonzo's motives are revealed, reductively. Something about Russian mafia gambling debts. The Russian mafia--that's our new deus ex machina when plotting gets desperate. Forced to get simply wicked, Alonzo sheds the many skins that kept us guessing. There is a remarkably preposterous denouement involving a Catholic schoolgirl saved from rape--no spoiler, you'll see it coming for an LA mile--and a rather too drawn-out shootout, formulaic chase and man-to-man rooftop-hopping smackdown.
But I'm not complaining. At least Training Day offers a reasonably satisfying ending to a coherent story, a task the vast majority of movies no longer even pretend to care about. Denzel finally gets a role that outdoes Don Cheadle, whose funny, scary villain stole Devil in a Blue Dress from him. Ethan gets an arc from liberal wimp to scarred nihilist with a heart of gold; in the end, it proves to be a fair acting fight between him and his great career benefactor. When Jake the worm and his narc-cop master mix it up in a niftily choreographed Mexican-standoff scene, Alonzo eyes him with a newly proud contempt. For an instant, you get the idea that Alonzo really still buys just a bit of his own line of bull--that he was just a gruff drill sergeant, traumatizing the kid for his own good, just to prepare him for this day. Today, a mere cub cop earns his wolf badge.
Denzel could earn an Oscar, but I doubt it. The Academy, more corrupt than Alonzo, is easily scared, especially by black men not driving Daisy or driving home obvious lessons that make Academy members feel good. But no matter. Alonzo appears to be spitting real venom; he's having as much fun as Roy Cohn in Angels in America. Training Day proves we underestimated Denzel Washington in esteeming him; his performance cries freedom and shatters the shackles of niceness. Now, that's glory.
This week, George W. Bush began peddling the "three legs" of his program to "restore confidence in the economy": fast-track trade legislation, his big-oil energy program and a multibillion-dollar piñata of corporate and high-end tax cuts. In other words, his old agenda repackaged as a response to war and recession. None of these could have been enacted prior to September 11. And remarkably, all are still in trouble now. The President's soaring opinion polls aren't making his agenda any more palatable.
In the war abroad, the President captured the middle ground by spurning the calls of the holy-warrior conservatives for a war of civilizations against Islam. By going with Colin Powell and coalition, United Nations-sanctioned diplomacy and a war targeted on Osama bin Laden, Bush cemented his support across the political spectrum. Democrats like Senator Joe Biden are now leading the defense of Administration policies.
Initially, Democrats offered similar support at home. Bush started meeting regularly with the leaders of both parties. Together they rushed through $40 billion in emergency appropriations for war and reconstruction and the $15 billion airline bailout, which did nothing for workers. They handed Attorney General Ashcroft virtually all the intrusive powers he sought in the antiterrorist legislation. Republican senators led the charge to federalize airport security, a bill that passed the Senate 100 to 0. House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt pledged that he would allow "no light and no air" between the President and the Democrats.
Bush seemed to reciprocate, even pledging $20 billion to New York City for rebuilding, and pinching Senator Chuck Schumer's cheek on national TV. He then signed off on the bipartisan principles for an economic stimulus put together by leaders of the budget committees.
But "patriotism," as that old Tory Dr. Samuel Johnson quipped, "is the last refuge of a scoundrel." Eight days after the terrorist attack, the Wall Street Journal laid out the scoundrel agenda in an editorial arguing that Bush's newfound popularity made his "agenda far more achievable"--including billions more in tax cuts, drilling in the Alaska wilderness and the appointment of reactionary judges. Scoundrel time opened immediately. Senate Republicans held up the defense bill, trying to attach the President's energy program to it. They filibustered foreign assistance appropriations, trying to force Democrats to confirm some of Bush's Neanderthal judicial nominees. House Republicans sat on the emergency airport security bill, theologically opposed to making that a federal function. US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick campaigned for fast-track trade authority, suggesting that its opponents, like bin Laden, reject the modern world. And House majority leader Dick Armey and others in what Newt Gingrich called the "perfectionist caucus" of the party went ballistic at Bush's embrace of a balanced stimulus package and marched up to the White House to bring the President to heel.
So, House Republicans passed, on a virtual party-line vote, a shameless special-interest bauble of corporate and upper-end tax cuts in the name of stimulus. The bill showers two-thirds of its $212 billion, three-year benefits on corporations and three-fourths of its individual tax cuts on the top 10 percent of income earners. In the name of giving a temporary boost to the economy, the bill permanently repeals the alternative minimum tax on corporations (a law that insures that no matter how clever their lobbyists and accountants, profitable corporations have to pay something in taxes). Laughably, the House bill makes the repeal retroactive for fifteen years, with the result that IBM gets $1.4 billion in rebates, General Motors $833 million, General Electric $671 million and Enron (the leading Republican contributor) $254 million.
More than 500,000 workers have been thrown out of work since September 11. Two-thirds will get no help from our unemployment insurance system. Few will be able to sustain health insurance for their families. But Dick Armey dismissed bolstering unemployment insurance as against "the American spirit," and Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill scorned it as part of a "spending package, not a stimulus package." Similarly, even as cities and states face a deepening fiscal crisis, the White House opposes any assistance to them in the stimulus bill.
War profiteering is as old as the Republic. But usually the corporations involved are producing something for the war effort, not simply raiding the Treasury. And usually Presidents try to curb the profiteers. Now Bush cheers them on, announcing that he is "very pleased" with the House bill.
The blatant plunder in the House bill finally sparked a reaction. AFL-CIO president John Sweeney, already enraged by the airline bailout, mobilized workers across the country to demand aid for the unemployed. Progressive Democrats revolted in the House caucus, stiffening resistance to the Republican bill. Focus groups and polling showed people angered by the corporate profiteering. This was tonic for the courage of Democrats setting up a battle over the bill in the Senate. At the same time, Senate Democrats faced down the Republican filibuster on judges. Lack of support deferred votes on fast-track trade authority in the House and on the energy bill in the Senate.
Bush seems intent on pushing his flawed stimulus bill and forcing a vote on fast track. The corporate wing of the Democratic Party is busy brokering a back-room deal. But the scoundrel patriots are disgracing the flag they drape themselves in. They can succeed only if the public remains distracted by anthrax and Afghanistan. If people of conscience in both parties stand up and the public gets a whiff of what's going on, Bush may find that even the leader of a nation at war can't sell these lemons.
A full year has now passed since the scandal of Election 2000 delivered an illegitimate presidency to American government, and, no, we have not moved on. We have not put it out of our minds, as pundits and politicians urged in the name of civic propriety. We have forgotten neither the raw power-grab engineered by hustler-statesmen from the Republican Party nor the blank-faced astonishment of Democratic leaders too slow to grasp what was under way. We have not forgiven the Supreme Court's rightist majority for its outrageous--felonious, as Vincent Bugliosi wrote in these pages--usurpation of the democratic process. We will not let it drop.
Yes, of course, Americans are now turned elsewhere in their thoughts. George W. Bush is leading the country in a perilous time and wins nearly unanimous approval in public opinion polls, since Americans want the terrorists to be brought to justice. But these circumstances do not rob us of independent minds and voices. Something terribly wrong happened to American democracy one year ago, and this grave injury has not been healed, or even honestly acknowledged and addressed.
As a recent report from the Election Reform Information Project described, virtually nothing of significance has been done by national legislators to clean up the mess in our election machinery or to approach more fundamental reform ideas. There have been notable exceptions: Senator Christopher Dodd and Congressman John Conyers, for example, have pushed for a bill that sets universal standards for voting machines and tackles problems of access. But bipartisan indifference has been more the order of the day. If there must be reform, politicians figure, let's wait until after our own 2002 re-election campaigns. By then, voters probably won't care, and the broken-down machinery that encourages low-turnout elections and safe incumbency can survive unchanged. Such an attitude amounts to further sabotage of the democratic faith.
The media, too, have fallen silent on the events of a year ago. It is not just the report of a consortium of major news organizations on the Florida vote that we await with growing impatience but more important, the return of ongoing coverage of reform efforts as well as attempts to get to the bottom of what happened.
Here is unsolicited advice for this President: The time will come, perhaps sooner than Washington imagines, when the approval polls are no longer at 90-plus percent and people are again focused on your shortcomings. At that point, voters will recall the irregularities that put you in power and your refusal even to acknowledge that there's anything wrong with the electoral system. It would be wise of you to prepare by spending a modest bit of your political capital on pushing for real reform.
To the opposition party, we offer a warning: In the long run, you will not be rewarded for your timidity and neglect. The fact that so many Democrats have lost their voice on a matter so important to democracy reminds people of your lack of leadership in many other matters.
To citizens we say: Hold on to your anger. Use it to fuel efforts to seek an accounting of what happened in 2000 and as an organizing tool to promote democratic reform.
If September 11 was this generation's Pearl Harbor, the Bush Administration's war on terrorism is still in early 1942, when the news from the front was bad, and the home front was panicky and confused. Now the instant-gratification warriors of the press are rushing in to turn things around. Columnists William Kristol and Charles Krauthammer grumble that the Administration is operating under too many constraints. Impatience with the air campaign has sparked calls by the Sunday morning punditocracy to send in substantial ground troops beyond the small contingent already there. Senator John McCain calls for B-52 carpet-bombing. Polls show a rising number of Americans doubt the war on terrorism will succeed.
Our concern is less about fine points of military strategy than about the possibility that the human and political costs of the war might outweigh any gains in national security and undermine America's moral credibility in the fight against the perpetrators of September 11. The bombing campaign may or may not be militarily effective--who knows, since our only information comes from the Pentagon and Al Jazeera--but civilian casualties are eroding support among coalition allies. TV pictures of devastated neighborhoods and wounded civilians fuel anger against America throughout the Arab and Muslim world and provide rallying cries for extremists, who could destabilize fragile governments in Pakistan, Indonesia and elsewhere. Sketchy reports from inside Afghanistan suggest that the bombing is turning people's loyalty back to the Taliban--making more difficult any covert operations aimed at capturing the "Evil One." It has sent waves of humanity to huddle on Pakistan's closed borders. As winter sets in, as many as 5 million face dire food shortages.
At home, Congress passes a counterterrorism bill "without deliberation and debate," according to Senator Russ Feingold, the lone senator who cast a historic vote against the ill-named PATRIOT Act. The act grants the Feds sweeping powers that break down the firewall between intelligence-gathering and criminal justice. Nothing in the bill would have prevented the disaster of September 11. And yet Bush and House GOP leaders still balk at passing the one measure that could have: federalizing airport security. Meanwhile, the Justice Department continues to resist legitimate requests for information about the 1,107 people it has detained in connection with the September 11 attacks. Civil liberties organizations and others, including this magazine, have filed a Freedom of Information Act request for information about those detained, warning that the government's "official silence prevents any democratic oversight of [its] response to the attacks." The government should comply.
Ultimately, the antiterrorism campaign could have disastrous consequences if America alienates its allies abroad and its people at home. The United States must reassure--by words and deeds--the majority of Muslims who oppose the terrorist attacks that the purpose of US military action is not to punish Afghans for the actions of Osama bin Laden. To this end, it should work more closely with the United Nations by curtailing military actions that hamper relief activities and by supporting UN efforts to build a coalition government that represents all parties in Afghanistan.
Polls show that an overwhelming majority of Americans favor a multilateral effort against terrorists, including working through the UN. Add to this stepped-up international policing efforts that must be the backbone of any global antiterrorism campaign and financial countermeasures that target identifiable terrorist groups. As Jonathan Schell writes on page 8, "In a war on terrorism--as distinct from a war on a state--it is politics, not military force, that will probably decide the outcome."
Just as I wonder
whether it's going to die,
the orchid blossoms
and I can't explain why it
moves my heart, why such pleasure
comes from one small bud
on a long spindly stem, one
blood red gold flower
opening at mid-summer,
tiny, perfect in its hour.
Even to white-
haired craggy poet, it's
pistil and stamen, pollen,
dew of the world, a spoonful
of earth, and water.
Erotic because there's death
at the heart of birth,
drama in those old sunrise
prisms in wet cedar boughs,
in washing evening dishes
or teasing my wife,
who grows, yes, more beautiful
because one of us will die.
If there is one expression that ought to be discarded from the current discourse right away, it is "The Street." Its usage combines the pseudo-knowing with the pseudo-populist, and I have almost never seen it employed except as part of a revelation of extreme ignorance or extreme selectivity. Those who claim to know or understand "The Street" are pretending to be sensitive to overseas public opinion while actually making the extremely arrogant assumption that they can act as its interpreters. As a term, it is only slightly preferable to "the mob" and, as applied to South Asia or the Middle East--which it almost invariably is--carries an additional freight of racial condescension.
GIVING WITH ONE HAND...
US airdrops of food packages for the Afghans have run into a problem: fears that unexploded bomblets from cluster bombs, small cylinders with yellow jackets, could be confused with the yellow food packets. US psychological operations has broadcast warnings in Dari and Pashto not to touch the bomblets. Unexploded cluster bomblets caused numerous casualties during the Gulf War and in Kosovo, when soldiers and civilians, particularly children, touched them.
THERE ARE TERRORISTS AND TERRORISTS
Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg writes: In a climate when dissent is silenced and immigrants lose basic rights in the name of national security, School of the Americas Watch, dedicated to closing the US Army training program that has produced some of Latin America's most violent human rights abusers, is feeling the chill. On October 10, when Eric LeCompte, SOA Watch outreach director, and Hendrik Voss, an SOA Watch volunteer, tried to enter Canada to conduct nonviolence training, they were detained by Canadian immigration services. Canadian and US officers searched their belongings and car, paying particular attention to SOA Watch materials. After checking the FBI database, Canadian immigration officers informed LeCompte that he would not be allowed into Canada because of his arrest in 1995 (in a protest against the fingerprinting of welfare recipients). "We were told we would not be allowed into Canada because they thought we were going to encourage Canadians to protest," LeCompte said. After the two were ordered to leave Canada, Voss, a German citizen, was threatened with deportation and detained for one night by US immigration. Voss's journal, which contained information on SOA Watch events and other demonstrations, was photocopied by US officers and later returned to him. SOA Watch has been told by Columbus, Georgia, city officials that it will be denied a permit to protest peacefully outside the Fort Benning gate in November, a protest held legally for the past ten years. The organization has been asked to protest elsewhere in the city. "This year security concerns must outweigh the location," reads a letter from Bobby Peters, the mayor of Columbus, to SOA Watch program director Jeff Winder. SOA Watch has retained the ACLU of Georgia and is engaged in discussions with the mayor.
SEND US YOUR FAVORITE MEDIA SOURCE
For an upcoming special issue, readers are invited to submit brief letters nominating their favorite independent media outlet. It can be a website, alternative newspaper, magazine, public-access TV show, as long as it's useful, imaginative, witty, socially conscious--and worthy of wider attention. Submit it by November 21 to firstname.lastname@example.org, with the subject line "Favorite Media Outlet." Please include street address and phone number.
NEWS OF THE WEAK IN REVIEW
* Nobel Prize winner V.S. Naipaul says Islam has "had a calamitous effect on converted peoples. To be converted you have to destroy your past, destroy your history. You have to stamp on it, you have to say my ancestral culture does not exist, it doesn't matter.... this abolition of the self demanded by Muslims was worse than the similar colonial abolition of identity." Clearly he didn't win the Nobel Peace Prize. * CNN chairman Walter Isaacson issued orders to correspondents that in reports with footage of civilian deaths and devastation in Afghanistan they should remind viewers that the Taliban harbors terrorists who killed 5,000 Americans in the September 11 attacks. Isaacson said it seemed "perverse to focus too much on the casualties or hardship in Afghanistan," and he doesn't want CNN to become a platform for Taliban propaganda. Why not a crawl under the pictures saying, "Those people got what was coming to them"?
For the straight-faced Pentagon press corps--assured by so many commentators that irony ended on September 11--Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's pointedly ironic remarks on October 18 about war news must have come as a great surprise. "Let's hear it for the essential daily briefing, however hollow and empty it might be," Rumsfeld gibed, in open mockery of the beat reporters' request for regular updates from the Afghanistan front. "We'll do it. Five days a week, not seven." The straight men, converted to court jesters, laughed heartily at the Secretary's joke.
Thus do we witness the death throes of independent war coverage by a free press, a once-popular notion that reached its apogee in the latter stages of the war in Vietnam. Rumsfeld is old enough to remember the infamous "Five O'Clock Follies" in Saigon--dubbed as such by a skeptical media--at which US military spokesmen spouted all manner of upbeat nonsense to bored reporters. But in those days most of the media knew that the briefings were shot through with lies--they made fun of the briefers, not the other way around. Today the government is prosecuting its military campaign in near-complete secrecy, confident that journalists will salute without the slightest irony.
How we got to Rumsfeld's joke is not, of course, very funny. The military establishment, particularly within the Army, was deeply wounded, not only by losing the actual war in Vietnam but also by losing the image of morality and innocence that accompanied US soldiers into battle in World War II and Korea. The smartest among them decided to promote the absurd idea that the press "lost" Vietnam by demoralizing the American people with inaccurate, sensational reporting born of too much access to the battlefield. The public relations war planners were ably assisted by journalists like Peter Braestrup, who argued, for example, that the Tet offensive, while clearly a public relations defeat for the United States, was in reality a decisive military defeat for the Vietcong. Hence, protested the revisionists, the television images of besieged American GIs in Hue unfairly portrayed a losing cause, when victory was still within our grasp. We could have won the war!
Attached to this theory was the equally specious suggestion that US reporters were fundamentally unpatriotic and cynically scoop-hungry, happy to reveal military secrets that would get American soldiers killed. In truth they were overly patriotic in the early years of Vietnam. And as for fatal security breaches, they never occurred--not once--though that hasn't stopped the government propagandists from establishing ground rules for coverage worthy of Catch-22: "We would much rather have open reporting," purrs Pentagon spokesperson Victoria Clarke, as long as it doesn't endanger the troops. But it always turns out that "open reporting" compromises "operational security."
Successive administrations and the Pentagon, impressed by British media control of the Falklands/Malvinas war, refined their wartime PR strategy with each post-Vietnam operation: During the Grenada invasion they simply kept quiet and left the press behind; in Panama they formed combat "pools" (small, closely supervised and noncompetitive groups of reporters required to share information) that departed Washington well after the first wave of troops had landed and then were confined to a military base until most of the action was over; in the Gulf War the pools were enlarged, but their military minders made sure that they never arrived in time to see any killing. Not only were pictures of corpses banned during the Gulf War but pictures of coffins were banned as well. The first Bush Administration was distressed by split-screen TV images showing rows of pine boxes from the Panama invasion at Dover Air Force Base, while the adjacent President glorified the sacrifice of US troops in Operation Just Cause.
During the bombing of Belgrade, in a weird turn of political correctness, the Clinton PR apparatus even forbade reporters from revealing the last names of bomber pilots for fear their families might receive hate mail. The Clintonites had learned their lesson about information management the hard way in Somalia in October 1993, during the so-called UN peacekeeping mission. There, US reporters were run out of the capital by Somali violence against journalists and by dire warnings from the US military. Fortunately, a courageous Canadian reporter, Paul Watson of the Toronto Star, stayed on to witness the bloody disaster that ensued when US Army Rangers helicoptered in to try to seize the warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid. Watson's photograph of the half-naked corpse of an American soldier being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu shocked the nation, and Clinton pulled out the troops, minus Aidid.
The current Bush public relations team fears a Somalia scenario even more than pictures of dead Afghan civilians. Jubilant Taliban soldiers stomping on mutilated Americans might chill the hot-blooded majority, gulled since Grenada into thinking wars can be fought cleanly, surgically and casualty free. Consequently, the Pentagon hasn't even bothered to form the national media pools promised ten years ago in its last round of negotiations with the Washington bureau chiefs of the major newspapers and TV networks. It hardly matters whether the Defense Department invokes official censorship, since getting to the scene of combat will be next to impossible. As with the Kosovo campaign, in which Serbian state television provided the best pictures, the land of the free will essentially be left with the Al Jazeera network for its war coverage. The Taliban hates war correspondents even more than Colin Powell does.
The White House news policy is unremarkable, given that all governments lie in wartime and all governments try to stem the flow of bad news. What is remarkable is the passivity of the US media. Evidently afflicted with a guilt complex after Vietnam, the owners of the major newspapers and networks long ago ceased to protest Pentagon manipulation, and now they feel justified by simple-minded polls that show reflexive support for "military security." Ted Turner was the last media baron to stand up to the government--over its objection to Peter Arnett's presence in Baghdad during the Gulf War--but he no longer owns CNN and Arnett doesn't work there anymore.
The most revealing statement about the supine state of the media comes from Washington Post ombudsman Michael Getler: "There's got to be a forceful advocate at a high place in the administration who also understands that the press's ability to carry out its mission is important." Why not his chairman of the board, Donald Graham, or Arthur Sulzberger Jr. of the New York Times?
Does anyone care about the principle of informed consent, implied though not specified in the Constitution? Does anyone think the people need to know what the military is doing in their name? Or, put another way, does anyone think that citizens have a right to change their minds, based on accurate, corroborated information about the war? What about soldiers led by incompetent commanders; don't they need witnesses too?
The Nation, along with other small publications and Agence France-Presse, sued unsuccessfully to break up the media pool racket in 1991. The lawsuit was mooted by the end of the Gulf War, but the judge wrote a favorable dismissal, so perhaps a new legal challenge is in order. Meanwhile, we can watch Al Jazeera, based in freedom-loving Qatar, and hope for the reappearance of Paul Watson.