Woods Hole, Mass.
Katha Pollitt is my favorite Nation columnist, but guess what, Katha, you've got my objections to cloning embryo stem cells all wrong ["Subject to Debate," July 23/30].
Maybe now that it's public knowledge that researchers have been buying women's eggs so they can make human embryos for research, you may be getting the point. But if not, let me explain. Human eggs don't grow on trees. They are embedded deep inside women's bodies; not easy to get at, like sperm. To collect more than one at a time means you first have to give women hormones to shut their ovaries down. You then have to hyperstimulate their ovaries with hormones of another sort so that many more than the customary single monthly follicle and its egg mature. At the right time, you then puncture each follicle and suck out its egg. Sound good for women? Steptoe and Edwards, the scientific "fathers" of Louise Brown, didn't give her mother hormones because they feared it wasn't safe. They waited patiently for a follicle to mature and then collected the egg that eventually became Louise. But the fertility industry doesn't have time for such niceties. Now it's hormones and mass production.
The concerns Pollitt imputes to me are not what worries me. I worry about what this new "need" for human embryos will do to women. And do you know what? We may never know the answer, because in countries with proper healthcare systems where proper health records are kept, people are not permitted to buy and sell body parts. "The enemy isn't the research," Pollitt writes, "it's capitalism." Wrong again: The enemy is research under capitalism.
Professor emeritus of biology Harvard University
Board member, Council for Responsible Genetics (www.gene-watch.org)
It's unfortunate that the usually perceptive Katha Pollitt completely misses the point about human cloning in her column on this subject. Kids produced by in vitro fertilization are one thing: They are made from the standard starting materials--an egg and a sperm. The donor of either may request anonymity, but the resulting infant is guaranteed to be a full-fledged member of the human species, biologically speaking (as well as socially and legally, although these connections are rapidly being eroded in the current environment--see Lori Andrews, The Clone Age, Henry Holt, 1999).
A clone is quite a different animal, however. It is constructed of parts of cells (an egg missing its nucleus; the nucleus of an adult cell) that never meet in the course of reproduction. Evolution has never had to deal with, and arrive at correctives for, the errors introduced into the developmental process resulting from this atypical combination of cell parts. No wonder virtually all attempts at animal cloning have led to fetal deaths, multiple birth defects or severe health problems later in the lives of even the most sound-looking clones. This is not a set of problems that can be worked out in mice before confidently being attempted in humans; it is probably too complex to be fully controlled, and in any case, each species presents unique complications.
A Massachusetts company, Advanced Cell Technologies, has announced that it is now producing clonal human embryos as a first step in producing donor-matched therapeutic stem cells. And now biotechnology industry representatives have begun to make common cause with some of their anti-choice beneficiaries in Congress in trying to define such embryos as "not true human embryos" in order to thwart laws against their production and manipulation. Indeed, if Pollitt's blasé attitude toward the production of full-term human clones becomes prevalent, we can look forward to the day when the not-quite-natural, not-quite-artificial products of human cloning experiments (disconnected, as they would be, from any social network other than that defined by ownership rights) are also redefined as "not true humans." This would open the way to their finding use as sources of transplantable organs,experimental laboratory models or perhaps, for the most presentable examples, wounded hero status in the march of reproductive technology. Would Pollitt flip off concerns about "threats to 'human individuality and dignity'" in this not very distant brave new world?
STUART A. NEWMAN
Professor of cell biology,
New York Medical College
Board member, Council for Responsible Genetics (www.gene-watch.org)
On the question of human cloning, Katha Pollitt's usually reliable political insight has failed her. She dismisses the pro-choice statement calling for bans on human cloning--signed to date by more than a hundred women's health and reproductive rights leaders--on the grounds that the pending Congressional bills to prohibit cloning are the "brainchildren of anti-choice Republican yahoos."
But that's precisely the point: Human cloning and genetic manipulation are feminist-liberal-progressive-radical issues. We leave them to the anti-choice crowd at our considerable peril.
The recent deluge of news about stem cells has generated a great deal of confusion about cloning. Two clarifications are key: First, opposition to cloning can and does co-exist with support for research on embryonic stem cells, using embryos from in vitro fertilization procedures. Stem cell research and embryo cloning intersect, but they are technically distinguishable--and vastly different politically.
Second, looking at human cloning through the lens of abortion politics blurs and distorts its meaning. The prospect of cloned or genetically "enhanced" children is ominous because it could so easily trigger an unprecedented kind of eugenics, one implemented not by state coercion but by upscale marketing campaigns for designer babies.
Pollitt thinks this scenario unlikely. I invite her to reconsider. The marginal figures she mentions--the Raelians and the cowboy fertility doctor Panos Zavos--are not the only champions of human cloning, and they are far from the most dangerous.
Already biotech companies are jockeying for patents on procedures to clone and manipulate human embryos. And for several years now, a disturbing number of influential scientists, biotech entrepreneurs, bioethicists and others have been actively promoting human cloning and genetic redesign. Some are open about their ambition to set humanity on a eugenic path and to "seize control of human evolution."
One example among many is Princeton University molecular biologist Lee Silver. In multiple appearances on national television and in the newsweeklies, Silver has plugged the "inevitable" emergence of a genetic caste system in which the "GenRich" rule and the "Naturals" work as "low-paid service providers." Like others of his persuasion, he seems quite ready to abandon any pretense of commitment to equality--or even to a common humanity.
Pollitt is right to caution against accepting wildly overblown claims about the power of genes to determine everything from sexual orientation to homelessness. But it would be foolish to overlook the rapidly expanding powers of genetic manipulation, or to dismiss the possibility that the advocates of a "posthuman" future will achieve enough mastery over the human genome to wreak enormous damage--biologically, culturally and politically.
Free-market eugenics is not science fiction or far off. It is an active political agenda that must be urgently opposed.
Exploratory Initiative on the New Human Genetic Technologies
New York City
"It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's...Superclone?"--my column on cloning--was probably the most unpopular "Subject to Debate" ever. Clearly this is a vexed subject, with many aspects, some of which are noted in the letters above.
The hormone-stimulated ripening and extraction of eggs, which Ruth Hubbard vividly describes, are, as she notes, the basis of much assisted reproduction, including now-routine procedures like in vitro fertilization with one's own eggs. Indeed, many college newspapers advertise for egg donors, and many students are willing to go through the extraction process and to take on its risks in return for substantial fees. Cloning would expand this market--how much, we don't know--but the market already flourishes.
While I, too, am troubled by so many women undergoing procedures whose long-term safety is still unknown--I mentioned this in my column as a fair objection to cloning--the fact is that every day all sorts of people take risks for money, or knowledge, or pleasure, or survival. What makes eggs so sacred? And would Hubbard approve of cloning embryos if the eggs were obtained in the "patient," old-fashioned way?
Stuart Newman and Marcy Darnovsky raise "brave new world" scenarios that to me do indeed sound farfetched and wild, and not even all bad--why would it be bad to "design" healthy babies, cloned or not? In any case, cloning seems like an odd place to begin worrying about a society divided into classes destined from birth for different levels of health, wealth and personal development: We live in that society now!
I thought I was alone in being unable to hear the words "liberalmedia"
without thinking of Antonio Gramsci. But it turns out I have a comrade
in Rush Limbaugh.
Writing in an Internet publication called Bad Subjects
(eserver.org/bs), Charlie Bertsch quotes Rush letting his readers
in on the secret of "an obscure Italian communist by the name of Antonio
Gramsci [who] theorized that it would take a 'long march through the
institutions' before socialism and relativism would be victorious." Rush
goes on to note that "Gramsci theorized that by capturing these key
institutions and using their power, cultural values would be changed,
traditional morals would be broken down, and the stage would be set for
the political and economic power of the West to fall."
Not being a chronic masochist, I don't listen to Rush enough to know if
this bit of erudition is typical. But for a man who recently theorized,
aloud and at length, that Tom Daschle is actually Satan, it is typically
insane. What Gramsci brings to the party of contemporary media analysis
is not the left's "long march through the institutions," which, pace
Todd Gitlin, applies only to a few humanities departments, but the idea
of "hegemony" as a tool of political control. Hegemony flows not from
the barrel of a gun but from moral and intellectual consensus. It is the
politics of "hearts and minds."
Limbaugh would have us believe that the pinkos have taken over our
culture and are oppressing conservatives by mocking and excluding their
views from the hegemonic liberal media. But even intelligent
conservatives do not genuinely believe this. (Paging my main man again,
Billy Kristol.) Indeed, if you think Jack Welch and Andy Lack over at
NBC, Michael Eisner and David Westin at ABC, and Sumner Redstone and
Andrew Heyward at CBS are secretly conniving to spread the gospel of
world revolution, I'm afraid there is not much that can be done for you
this side of electroshock.
Let us take the case that has been in the news lately, AOL Time Warner's
CNN, which has recently been courting Limbaugh himself, and, according
to rumor, the no-less-nutty Bill O'Reilly. The rap on CNN is that it
leans too far leftward to attract the right-wing cable news audience
that is rapidly falling into the lap of "fair and balanced" Fox News.
Tom DeLay regularly refers to CNN as the "Communist News Network" and
has suggested a Republican boycott of its programs. The network's new
head, Walter Isaacson, recently made a high-profile diplomatic démarche
to DeLay's minions, outraging Democrats and inspiring fears of future
Perhaps CNN does see its financial salvation in becoming a kind of faux
Fox. In the meantime, if CNN were really run by liberals--to say nothing
of actual commies--we might hear a great deal more about Tom DeLay, for
instance. How about a CNN special dealing with DeLay's pre-Congressional career as an
exterminator, where he fought off three separate tax liens for failing
to properly pay payroll and income taxes, and twice paid former business
associates court-ordered settlements? Part two of the special might
focus on DeLay family values. Where are the family values, a liberal CNN
might ask, of a conservative leader who refuses to speak to his own
77-year-old mother and does not even invite her to the wedding of her
granddaughter? A network that can milk Gary Condit's affairs for a
billion consecutive hours should be able to find a few for a story this
More to the point, if CNN were actually a liberal station, it would
employ genuine liberals to host its shows. (I hear that Jesse Jackson
has a show, though nobody I have asked has ever seen it.) All right,
Bill Press is a decent match for Tucker Carlson on Crossfire, albeit
from a deep-inside-the-Beltway perspective. Al Hunt and Mark Shields
also qualify as liberals by the conservative hegemonic standards of
punditocracy discourse. But historically, no CNN "liberal" has proved an
ideological match for the fire-breathing zealotry of the pro-fascist Pat
Buchanan, the pro-McCarthy Robert Novak or even the charming apparatchik
Mary Matalin. And what of the rest of the schedule--Is Larry King a
liberal? Wolf Blitzer? Jeff Greenfield? Greta van Susteren? Howard Kurtz
and Bernard Kalb? The only way to apply this honorable label to the
likes of these nonideological, nonthreatening interviewers is to define
the word "liberal" to mean "not obviously insane."
CNN counts as "liberal" only in a universe where conservative political
hegemony is so strong that critics have lost the ability to think
clearly about anything. CNN does not cover trade from the perspective of
the antiglobalization movement.
It does not cover business from the perspective of the labor or
environmental movements. It does not cover war from the perspective of
the peace movement and it does not cover dictatorships (and illegal
military occupations) from the perspective of their victims. It does not
even cover George Bush from the perspective of the people who had their
election subverted. Indeed, a recent study of the guests on Wolf
Blitzer's Inside Washington recently found that the guests were more
often Republican than Democrat, more often conservative than liberal.
True, not all those who count as "conservative" are willing to go on
record about Tom Daschle's supernatural satanic powers, but that's why
we have Rush, Fox News, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, the
Weekly Standard, the Washington Times, the New York Post, Matt Drudge,
* * *
Obviously, most of this column was written before the attacks of
September 11. In light of those calamities, it's hard to believe that
anyone cared about Gary Condit's relationship with Chandra Levy and the
like. Still, the problems discussed above are not going anywhere. A
moment pregnant with so many unhappy possibilities as this one brings
home our need for a genuinely liberal alternative national news source
to the conservative/centrist mainstream. If only the critics were right
"Faceless cowards." This was mini-President Bush in the first of his
abysmal statements on the assault. Faceless maybe, but cowards? Were the
Japanese aviators who surprised Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941,
cowards? I don't think so, and they at least had the hope of returning
to their aircraft carriers. The onslaughts on the World Trade Center and
the Pentagon are being likened to Pearl Harbor, and the comparison is
just. From the point of view of the assailants the attacks were near
miracles of logistical calculation, timing, audacity in execution and
devastation inflicted upon the targets. And the commando units captured
four aircraft, armed only with penknives. Was there ever better proof of
Napoleon's dictum that in war the moral is to the material as three is
Beyond the installation of another national trauma, there may be further
similarity to Pearl Harbor. The possibility of a Japanese attack in
early December of 1941 was known to US Naval Intelligence. The day after
the September 11 attack, a friend told me that a relative working at the
US Army's Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey said that six weeks earlier
the arsenal had been placed on top-security alert. In late August Osama
bin Laden, a prime suspect, said in an interview with Abdel-Bari Atwan,
the editor in chief of the London-based al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper, that
he planned "very, very big attacks against American interests." On the
evening of September 11, Senator John Kerry said he had recently been
told by Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet that the agency
had successfully pre-empted earlier attacks by bin Laden's people. Maybe
the intelligence agencies didn't reckon with the possibility of assaults
in rapid succession.
The lust for retaliation traditionally outstrips precision in
identifying the actual assailant. The targets abroad will be all the
usual suspects. The target at home will be the Bill of Rights. Less than
a week ago the FBI raided InfoCom, the Texas-based web host for Muslim
groups such as the Islamic Society of North America, the Islamic
Association for Palestine and the Holy Land Foundation. Declan
McCullagh, political reporter for Wired, has described how within hours
of the blast FBI agents began showing up at Internet service providers
demanding that they install the government's "Carnivore" e-mail tracking
software on their systems.
The explosions were not an hour old before terror pundits like Anthony
Cordesman, Wesley Clark, Robert Gates and Lawrence Eagleburger were
saying that these attacks had been possible "because America is a
democracy," adding that now some democratic perquisites might have to be
abandoned. What might this mean? Increased domestic snooping by US law
enforcement and intelligence agencies, ethnic profiling, another drive
for a national ID card system.
That dark Tuesday did not offer a flattering exhibition of America's
leaders. For most of the day the only Bush who looked composed and
controlled was Laura, who happened to be waiting to testify on Capitol
Hill. Her husband gave a timid and stilted initial reaction in Sarasota,
Florida, then disappeared for an hour before resurfacing at an Air Force
base near Shreveport, Louisiana, where he gave another flaccid address.
He then ran to ground in a deep shelter in Nebraska, before someone
finally had the wit to suggest that the best place for an American
President at a time of national emergency is the Oval Office.
Absent national political leadership, the burden of rallying the nation
fell as usual upon the TV anchors, most of whom seem to have resolved
early on, commendably so, to lower the emotional temper and eschew
racist incitement. One of the more ironic sights of Tuesday evening was
Dan Rather talking about retaliation against bin Laden. It was Rather,
wrapped in a burnoose, who voyaged to the Hindu Kush in the early 1980s
to send back paeans to the mujahedeen being trained and supplied by the
CIA in its largest-ever covert operation, which ushered onto the world
stage such well-trained cadres as those now deployed against America.
Tuesday's eyewitness reports of the collapse of the two Trade Center
buildings were not inspired, at least for those who have heard the
famous eyewitness radio reportage of the crash of the Hindenburg
zeppelin in Lakehurst, New Jersey, in 1937. Radio and TV reporters these
days seem incapable of narrating an ongoing event with any sense of
vivid language or dramatic emotive power.
The commentators were similarly incapable of explaining with any depth
the likely context of the attacks. It was possible to watch the cream of
the nation's political analysts and commentating classes, hour after
hour, without ever hearing the word "Israel," unless in the context of a
salutary teacher in how to deal with Muslims. One could watch endlessly
without hearing any intimation that these attacks might be the
consequence of the recent Israeli rampages in the occupied territories,
which have included assassinations of Palestinian leaders and the
slaughter of Palestinian civilians with the use of American arms and
aircraft; that these attacks might also stem from the sanctions against
Iraq, which have killed more than half a million children; that these
attacks might in part be a response to US cruise missile destruction of
the Sudanese factories that were falsely fingered by US intelligence as
connected to bin Laden.
The possibility of a deep plunge in the world economy was barely dealt
with in the initial commentary. Yet before the attacks the situation was
extremely precarious, with the chance of catastrophic deflation as the
1990s bubble burst, and the stresses of world overcapacity and lack of
purchasing power taking an ever greater toll. George Bush will have no
trouble in raiding the famous lockbox, using Social Security trust funds
to give more money to the Defense Department. That about sums it up.
Three planes are successfully steered into three of America's most
conspicuous buildings, and the US response will be to put more money
into missile defense as a way of bolstering the economy.
In the immediate, before-it-sinks-in aftermath of the September 11
attack, one of the first catch-phrases to take hold--and be widely
deployed by TV commentators, politicians and citizen e-mailers--was,
"this changes everything." As the media cliché goes, time will tell how
much of American life will be altered by the assault. Clearly, politics
as we know it will not be the same in the weeks and months, and perhaps
years, ahead. As Tim Russert observed, while hellish dust clouds
billowed, "Suddenly the Social Security lockbox seems so trivial."
The hideous event will naturally dominate the national conversation.
There will be little media space for other matters. The budget battle,
the disappeared surplus, the Bush tax cuts, campaign finance reform,
patients' bill of rights, trade tussles, global warming--Washington's
agenda will be overwhelmed by the attack, to the President's distinct
advantage. And the terms of political discussion will dramatically
shift--again, mostly to George W. Bush's advantage. Two hours after the
first explosion, Representative Curt Weldon, a Republican from
Pennsylvania, declared, "The number-one responsibility" of the
government is not education or healthcare but the "security of the
American people." And national security hawks quickly began to shape the
debate to come. The issue for them is not what causes such unimaginable
actions. On Day One did you hear anyone--in an attempt to understand,
not justify, the horror--ask, Why would someone want to commit this evil
act? Or note that in this globalized age, US policy--its actions and
inactions overseas (justified or not)--can easily lead to consequences
at home? No, the national security cadre, out in force, mainly raised
questions of how best to bolster the military and intelligence
Before rescue efforts were up and running, the friends of that
establishment were mounting an offensive. Former Secretary of State
James Baker blamed the Church Committee, the Senate panel that
investigated CIA misdeeds in the 1970s, for what happened: "We went on a
real witch hunt with our CIA...the Church Committee. We unilaterally
disarmed in terms of intelligence." Newt Gingrich assailed rules on
intelligence gathering that limit CIA interaction with known terrorists,
and he asserted that the intelligence budget (about $30 billion) was
"too small." Others decried the prohibition on government-sponsored
assassination. Dan Quayle urged that the President be granted
"extraordinary powers internationally and domestically" to deal with
terrorists. (Asked what he had in mind, Quayle replied, "I'm not going
to get too specific.") John McCain, Orrin Hatch and Bob Graham--the last
of whom chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee--griped that the United
States has concentrated too much on technical intelligence (spy
satellites and high-tech eavesdropping) and has been negligent in the
ways of "human intelligence"--humint, in the parlance of spies.
More money would have to be poured into humint, they and others
remarked. Hatch also complained that "we've allowed our military to
deteriorate" and that the "Russians have a better tactical fighter than
we do." Former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger used the moment
to claim that "the defense budget is woefully underdone."
Some hawks and others did criticize US intelligence for failing to
detect the plot. Kenneth Katzman, a terrorism expert at the
Congressional Research Service, said, "How nothing could have been
picked up is beyond me--way beyond me. There's a major, major
intelligence failure, specially since the [previous] Trade Center
bombing produced such an investigation of the networks and so much
monitoring." No doubt, there will be official inquiries. But the
knee-jerk goal for most of the inquirers will be additional funds for
the intelligence community and the Pentagon. The spies will defend their
actions and plead, if only our hands were not tied, if only we had more
Given the horrors of the attack, these pleas will probably have
resonance. But the operating assumptions at work deserve close
assessment. Human intelligence against closed societies and secret
outfits has long been a difficult, almost impossible, endeavor. Hurling
money at it is likely no solution. During the Vietnam War, when
resources were unlimited, the CIA failed spectacularly at humint,
essentially never penetrating the inner sanctums of the enemy. Its
record of infiltrating the Soviet government was unimpressive (and the
same goes for China, Cuba and other targets). As for lifting existing
restrictions, imagine the dilemmas posed if the CIA actually managed to
recruit and pay murderous members of terrorist groups. What would the
reaction be, if one of the September 11 conspirators turns out to have
had a US intelligence connection?
Do not be surprised if the national security establishment even tries to
accelerate its push for Star Wars II before the debris is cleared. The
event tragically demonstrated the limits of a national missile defense
system. (And consider how much worse the day would have been had the
evildoers smuggled a pound of uranium onto any of the hijacked flights.)
But the loudest theme in American politics--perhaps the only audible
theme--in the time ahead will be the quest for security. With those
drums beating, the fans of national missile defense will continue to
argue that this remains a dangerous world full of suicidal maniacs
wishing the United States harm and that all steps must be taken as fast
as possible. Moreover, how many politicians will now question Bush's
budget-busting request to raise Pentagon spending by 10 percent?
Speaking about Bush, Senator Hillary Clinton said, "We will support him
in whatever steps he deems necessary." Whatever steps?
As the nation absorbed the shock, leaders and media observers repeated
the nostrum that the best way for the country to respond to such a foul
crime is to return to normal and signal that the nation's spirit and
resolve cannot be undermined. In that vein, one challenge is to not
allow the attack to distort the country's political discourse.
Unfortunately, extremism begets extremism, and the dark smoke of a dark
day will not be easily blown away.
In 1878, Henry James reported in these pages the outcome of Whistler
v. Ruskin, the buzz of the London art scene that year. Whistler,
Ruskin had written, was "a coxcomb," demanding "200 guineas for
flinging a pot of paint in the public's face." The painter sued for
libel, and was awarded nominal damages consisting of one farthing. The
trial was a Gilbert & Sullivan farce brought to life, since the language
of litigation in its nature is comically unsuited to aesthetic
determination. Ruskin's critical and Whistler's artistic reputation were
left largely unaltered by the verdict, but there is little question that
it was an immense personal defeat for Ruskin. The vehemence of his
critical prose registered the urgency he attributed to aesthetic
matters--so to call his language into question was to call into question
his vision of the world. Whistler probably was a coxcomb, whatever that
Edwardian epithet means. But Ruskin was a figure of tragic stature, and
the episode helped precipitate his final emotional breakdown.
The unhappy confrontation between Whistler and Ruskin is the subject of
a brooding introspective aria in the second act of Modern
Painters, the 1995 opera by David Lang and Manuela Hoelterhoff,
based on Ruskin's life. It was an inspiration to see in Ruskin a subject
suitable for operatic representation, and it recently occurred to me of
how few art critics this might be true. Ruskin's tragedy was internally
connected with his stature as a prophet of aesthetic redemption. If good
art is as integral as he believed to a good society, art criticism is an
instrument of social change. Ruskin could hardly have agreed with James
that it was at most an agreeable luxury--like printed talk. And Ruskin's
assessment of it has continued to inflect the art criticism of writers
who might not fully subscribe to his particular social vision. How are
we to explain the often punitive edge of critical invective if critics
supposed themselves engaged in mere agreeable discourse--like reviewing
restaurants, say, or fashion shows? The lives of art critics may not be
the stuff of grand opera--but face-offs between critics and artists have
at times risen to operatic heights because the art under contest was
viewed by both as possessed of the greatest moral weight.
I am thinking about opera just now because the art I want to discuss
here--Philip Guston's seventy-five caricatures of Richard Nixon, loosely
organized to tell a story--has its subject and something of its tone in
common with the 1987 opera Nixon in China, by John Adams and
Alice Goodman. If someone were inspired to compose an opera Guston in
Woodstock--the upstate New York village to which Guston withdrew
after a critical debacle in 1970--the climactic moment of it would be an
agon between the artist and the Ruskinian critic Hilton Kramer. Kramer
was by no means alone in deploring the turn Guston's art had taken in a
wildly controversial exhibition at the Marlborough Gallery. But the
language of his review in the New York Times, of which he was
then chief art critic, was worthy of Ruskin in acid indignation, and a
librettist would have no difficulty in composing a fierce duet between
the opposed protagonists. The contest, however, was far deeper than that
which pitted Ruskin against Whistler. It was deeper not just because
Guston was deeper as an artist and a man than Whistler ever aspired to
be, but because nothing less than the future of art history was at
stake. Kramer understood that the kind of art Guston was now making--to
which the Nixon drawings belong--was radically inconsistent with the art
to which he as a critic was dedicated in every fiber of his being. The
contest was, in my view, a surface reflection of a deep turn in art
history. Kramer saw in Guston the betrayer of a shared faith. What he
could not acknowledge was that Guston was helping consolidate a new
The review's headline, quoted now whenever Guston is written about, was
"A Mandarin Pretending to be a Stumblebum." Not only are the words
demeaning, but together they condense Guston's career into an unedifying
tale of artistic opportunism. Guston had in fact been regarded as the
most lyrical of the Abstract Expressionists, and in the spirit of full
disclosure I admit to having adored Guston's abstractions at the time. I
adore them still: I cannot look at one of those dense, shimmering works
without feeling the exaltation of pure beauty. In the way in which they
crowd the center of their canvases, they put me in mind of how Morandi's
boxes and bottles endeavor to occupy one another's spaces in the middle
of his compositions. The late critic David Sylvester, who admired them,
wrote in 1963 that Guston is "committed to luxury. His paint is
exceedingly rich, even luscious--in its texture, in its implications of
high virtuosity." Sylvester compared them with Monet's late paintings of
waterlilies, and described the paintings as intensely withdrawn and
private. The 1970 paintings, by total contrast, were huge pictures of Ku
Klux Klan figures in patched hoods, executed in a kind of classical
comic-strip style that was being reinvented at the time by Robert Crumb
in Zap Comix. It owed something to Krazy Kat, something to Mutt
and Jeff, something to Moon Mullins. I greatly admire Guston's raw
Klanscapes, but it would be an aesthetic category mistake to speak of
adoring them. They were not designed to gratify the eye but to injure
the viewer's sensibility. Kramer had no better way of characterizing him
than as pretending to a na vet Guston did not honestly possess. So he
was a false lyricist now masquerading as an artistic lowlife--a mandarin
pretending to be a stumblebum. Kramer probably did not write the
headline, but I'll co-opt whoever did for my libretto. And I'll use
Guston's own words from the time to give me my duet: "I got sick and
tired of all that Purity! I wanted to tell stories."
Artistic purity was much in the air at the beginning of the 1960s. In
his profoundly influential Modernist Painting of 1960, Clement
Greenberg described Modernism as a set of purgations, in which each of
the arts seeks to identify what is essential to its defining medium, and
eliminate everything else. "Thus would each art be rendered 'pure,' and
in its 'purity' find the guarantee of its standards of quality as well
as its independence." For Greenberg, illusion was an impurity in
painting, which properly should be abstract. Using their own words, we
can imagine another duet, early in Guston in Woodstock, between
Greenberg and Guston. For Guston must have had Greenberg's thesis
precisely in mind when, sitting on a panel that took place around that
same time, he said, "There is something ridiculous and miserly in the
myth we inherit from abstract art. That painting is autonomous, pure and
for itself, therefore we habitually analyze its ingredients and define
its limits. But painting is 'impure.' It is the adjustment of
'impurities' which forces its continuity. We are image-makers and
image-ridden." The confrontation could hardly be more stark. But it
sounds as if it refers to the dilemma that defined artistic
consciousness from the onset of abstraction and became acute in America
in the 1940s--whether to paint the figure or go abstract. There was
certainly a dramatic moment in the lives of each of the Abstract
Expressionists, with the exception perhaps of Motherwell, when they left
the figure behind and discovered the style through which each became a
master. Guston himself had gone through the crisis. But his painting of
1970 marked a crisis of an entirely different order. Guston did not
merely do the figure, as de Kooning had done in 1953 with his famous
Women. For de Kooning had discovered a way of having his cake and eating
it too--painting the figure using the same gestures that were so
effective in his great abstractions. But Guston did the figure in a way
that repudiated his entire philosophy of painting. It was, Guston later
wrote, "as though I had left the Church: I was excommunicated for a
while." The shift was precisely as dramatic as that from mandarin to
stumblebum. It really was like leaving the Church. But the decision was
not merely artistic. It was a moral decision that took an artistic form.
The question for Guston was how one could go on painting beautiful
pictures when the world was falling apart. The pursuit of aesthetic
purity was not an acceptable option. For Kramer, to abandon aesthetics
was to forsake art. Obviously this was not Guston's view. He needed to
find an art that was consistent with his moral disquiet. "The Vietnam
War was what was happening in America, the brutality of the world." And
here his language really does take on a lyrical intonation:
What kind of man am I, sitting at home, reading magazines, going into a
frustrated fury about everything--and then going into my studio to
adjust a red to a blue. I thought there must be some way I could do
something about it. I knew ahead of me a road was waiting. A very crude,
inchoate road. I wanted to be complete again, as I was when I was a kid.
I assume this soliloquy refers to the time of his retrospective
exhibition at the Jewish Museum in 1966. The abstractions of those
years, one can now see, had a crude, inchoate quality. But that was not
the road Guston was seeking. "There is nothing to do now," he went on,
"but to paint my life.... Keep destroying any attempt to paint pictures,
or think about art. If someone bursts out laughing in front of my
painting, that is exactly what I want and expect."
Guston began to work in two ways in the months ahead. "I remember days
of doing 'pure' drawings immediately followed by days of doing the
other, drawings of objects.... Books, shoes, buildings, hands--feeling a
relief and strong need to cope with tangible things." It is this return
to the commonplace objects of daily life, away from the exalted forms of
Abstract Expressionism, that became the central truth of 1960s art--in
Fluxus particularly, but also in Pop and even in Minimalism. The impulse
came from Zen, which had become so strong a spiritual current in New
York intellectual life. With John Cage, Guston attended Dr. Suzuki's
seminar in Zen at Columbia University, and he often alluded to Zen ideas
in his discourse. On the other hand, he was conflicted about Pop. With
several other Abstract Expressionists, he left the Sidney Janis Gallery
in 1962 in protest because it had organized an exhibition of Pop. But by
1967 he saw, through the work of Warhol and Lichtenstein, the power of
vernacular illustration. Unlike Lichtenstein, who used the vocabulary of
the comics to ironize high art, Guston was able to make it his own. He
was not pretending--he became a Zen stumblebum. The drawings were
and are brilliant. This may have solved his artistic quandaries, but not
his moral ones. For this he made use of the Klan.
The Klansmen, drawn in his new comic-strip style, were depicted in the
Marlborough paintings wearing tattered hoods, with slotted eyeholes,
riding through empty urban streets in stubby roadsters like Mutt and
Jeff, holding smoking cigar stumps between two extended gloved fingers,
or moving hither and thither in desolate symbolic landscapes, filled
with coarsely painted clocks, severed limbs, shoes, boards studded with
bent nails and a sun rising--or setting--behind the horizon. In one,
titled The Studio, a Klansman, holding the omnipresent cigar, is
shown painting a self-portrait under a bare light bulb. In later years,
Guston acknowledged that Studio was a kind of self-portrait--that
the hooded figures were all self-portraits in a way. "I almost tried to
imagine that I was living with the Klan. What would it be like to be
evil? To plan and plot." He was painting the evil in each of us in a
style every one of us knew. When he was a mandarin in 1957, he did an
exquisite abstraction called The Mirror. When he became a
stumblebum in 1970 he painted the kind of moral mirror in which Hamlet
meant to catch the conscience of the king.
The Nixon drawings belong to the last great phase of Guston's career,
and they constitute a kind of comic intermezzo. All seventy-five of them
were done in Woodstock in the late summer of 1971, and they appear to
have been conceived as frames in a kind of comic-strip book, narrating
the self-mythologizing life of our scariest politician. Guston titled
the book Poor Richard and made unsuccessful efforts to get it
published. The book's version of Nixon's story was in any case overtaken
by history. It was overtaken in the first instance by triumph--Nixon
actually went to China in February 1972, whereas that event is treated
with a fictive indefiniteness in Poor Richard (the drawings
having been completed the previous year). And of course it was overtaken
by Nixon's disgrace--by Watergate and resignation--in the years that
immediately followed. So the drawings remained almost unknown to any but
specialists in Guston's work until now, when, thanks to the initiative
of Debra Bricker Balken, they have been reproduced in their entirety in
the new book Poor Richard (University of Chicago), together with a
spirited explanatory essay by her, telling how they came about.
Moreover, the originals can be seen at the David McKee Gallery, 645
Fifth Avenue, New York City, September 7-October 6, and enjoyed for
their sharp humor and graphic brilliance. I can think of no historical
parallel in which a great artist has shown himself to be a cartoonist of
genius while engaging himself directly in the political reality of his
moment--though Picasso used a comic-strip format in the two etchings of
the Dreams and Lies of Franco.
Who knows what impact they might have had? Caricature has at times
succeeded in putting certain public figures in a light so unflattering
that their power has been damaged and even destroyed. It became almost
impossible for the French to take Louis Philippe seriously once they saw
him through Daumier's drawings as having the form of a pear--the term
connotes stupidity. Thomas Nast found such damaging ways of drawing Boss
Tweed and his corrupt Tammany cohorts that they were graphically and
then politically discredited. Nixon's nose and stubbled jowls were a
ready-made cartoon, with an irresistible resemblance to a cock and
balls, which is the way Guston shows him. Poor Richard is perhaps
too playful--too funny really--to have inflamed public indignation
beyond the point it had already reached at the time. But who can really
say? What would we think had Daumier's lithographs remained hidden until
today, and all we knew were his marvelous paintings of Don Quixote and
peasant women in a railway wagon? Or if Thomas Nast did not have the
outlet of Harper's Weekly, and the fierce caricatures of Boss
Tweed were discovered in an attic years after his death? The powers that
images can release are unpredictable, which is why censorship exists.
Even at their brilliant best, of course, there would have been a moral
disproportion between the ludic preposterousness of Nixon and his
cronies--Spiro Agnew, John Mitchell and Henry Kissinger, as they are
depicted in Poor Richard--and the actual evils of Vietnam and
Cambodia. Still, Nixon's soiled image has been so cleaned and polished
since his fall that the historically unaware might think him a candidate
for Mount Rushmore. So Guston's drawings might after all do some real
good in reminding us of the abject truth of a personage whose unique
character so combined evil and absurdity.
Nixon is first shown as a college football player, with shoulder pads
and a varsity letter. His features had not yet evolved into their
genital configuration, though the nose shows phallic promise. He is
given Little Orphan Annie eyes to emblematize his sham innocence. We
next see the politically obligatory poverty of his childhood home--a
log-cabin-style interior with wood stove and log pile, and a volume
titled LINCOLN prominently displayed on a bare table. In the next frame
Nixon is hitting the books hard, under a bare light bulb (note the
volume titled WILSON). Soon he is standing in his patched and ragged
garments with his faithful dog Checkers (in an inspired touch, Guston
shows the latter with checkerboard markings). Suddenly we are at Key
Biscayne, Nixon's favorite hang-out, soon to be kept company by
Kissinger (always represented as a pair of walking horn-rimmed glasses);
Agnew, in Hawaiian shirt and inseparable from his bag of golf clubs; and
Mitchell, never without his pipe. This is the cast of characters.
Pat--who plays an important role in Nixon in China--is not to be
I'll let the rights to Guston in Woodstock go--well--for a song.
But it has some wonderful theatrical possibilities I have not mentioned,
like a scene at the Marlborough opening, where a chorus of Tenth Street
painters sing "This isn't painting, Phil." Guston and de Kooning throw
their arms around each other, caroling together "It's all about freedom"
(Chorus: "This isn't painting, Bill"). Then a scene back at Woodstock,
where Guston and his neighbor, Philip Roth, entertain each other with
their hilarious Nixon imitations (Roth's satire Our Gang was,
like Poor Richard, an artistic product of those sessions).
History gives us a better ending than Guston dared dream of: Nixon
bidding farewell to his presidency as Kissinger's glasses mist with
tears--and a pilgrim chorus of Neo-Expressionist painters singing
Guston's triumph as the curtain falls.
We have taken a great wound, we Americans, and our first task is to rescue survivors if that is still possible, to grieve and to remain alert until we better understand what happened to us. The time will come soon enough to sort out the causes, who delivered this vicious attack and how we hold them accountable, then to assign official blame at home, if the facts require it. We should also begin deeper arguments about the political meanings, the failures in our own leadership and the role our government has chosen to play in the world. But right now, our minds are swimming in the same ghastly images. Dazed men and women, covered with dust, streaming north on foot from lower Manhattan. A TV videotape replaying the fiendish plot in which commercial airliners are turned into suicide bombs. The smoldering ruins at the Pentagon. The lost skyline in Manhattan. The bolt of fear: Where are my children? Questions spun through our heads, but all the circuits were busy. Terror leaves its sickening residue, the swooning sense of helpless vulnerability. That is the purpose.
One odd privilege of being American is that we have had very little experience with such blindsiding assaults, at least in modern times. Other countries became the battlegrounds, not ours. Other peoples were schooled in stoical expectations, knowing that the worst can happen and sometimes does, but not Americans.
It is essential now to stick to hard facts, not fearsome shadows or injured hubris (or the xenophobic hatreds already in the air). Yet the intelligence agencies that had not a clue what was coming were claiming within hours to have proof of who organized the attack. And figures like Henry Kissinger are already calling for an open-ended war against terrorist organizations--regardless of whether any evidence establishes their culpability.
Civil liberties, already under attack, were immediate targets. Legislators talked of granting the FBI and other agencies broad new powers--this despite the fact that the FBI is already intercepting a record number of calls. Some called for wholesale closing of US borders. On Tuesday, only Senator Joseph Biden, himself a key supporter of the noxious Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty bill of 1996, to his credit stood on the Capitol lawn to suggest that any incursions on civil liberties should be resisted.
After the dead are properly mourned, after we have reliably established how this happened and who was responsible, then we Americans must undertake a most difficult conversation among ourselves. Yes, we should speak with one voice expressing our compassion and outrage, but we need a multiplicity of voices, a true national debate about what sane national security means in the twenty-first century. The paradox is that if or when we engage in brutal reprisals, they will serve a cathartic function for the vast majority of justifiably outraged Americans. But let us not delude ourselves; they will inflame rather than deter. In the long run, the only way to deal with international terrorism is to build and support international institutions toward that end.
This is a pivotal moment when we should reconsider our posture toward the world and examine the true burdens and obligations of acting like an empire awesomely more powerful than any others and answerable to no one. To maintain international order, our military occasionally intervenes in what, for us, are meant to be casualty-free wars. Our economic order claims to spread democracy by imposing its own self-interested rules on poorer nations. Yet, as we learned and should have already understood, this great country is vulnerable too, beyond imagination. Whoever planned this vicious attack must have calculated that the United States is at a fragile juncture, its great prosperity sinking and uncertain leaders in power. They probably intended an unraveling, both of financial markets and the national confidence.
It may seem trite to say so, but the calamity does test our character. If we are shrewd about ourselves and truly brave, citizens will not yield to hysteria--or accept draconian new laws that undermine civil liberties--but will force these difficult questions into the political debate.
So it has come to this. The entire modern history of the Middle East--the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the Balfour declaration, Lawrence of Arabia's lies, the Arab revolt, the foundation of the state of Israel, four Arab-Israeli wars and the thirty-four years of Israel's brutal occupation of Arab land--all erased within hours as those who claim to represent a crushed, humiliated population struck back with the wickedness and awesome cruelty of a doomed people. Is it fair--is it moral--to write this so soon, without proof, when the last act of barbarism, in Oklahoma, turned out to be the work of home-grown Americans? I fear it is. America is at war and, unless I am mistaken, many thousands more are now scheduled to die in the Middle East, perhaps in America too. Some of us warned of "the explosion to come.'' But we never dreamt this nightmare.
And yes, Osama bin Laden comes to mind--his money, his theology, his frightening dedication to destroying American power. I have sat in front of bin Laden as he described how his men helped to destroy the Russian Army in Afghanistan and thus the Soviet Union [see Fisk, September 21, 1998]. Their boundless confidence allowed them to declare war on America. But this is not really the war of democracy versus terror that the world will be asked to believe in the coming days. It is also about US missiles smashing into Palestinian homes and US helicopters firing missiles into a Lebanese ambulance in 1996 and American shells crashing into a village called Qana and about a Lebanese militia--paid and uniformed by America's Israeli ally--hacking and raping and murdering their way through refugee camps.
No, there is no doubting the utter, indescribable evil of what has happened in the United States. That Palestinians could celebrate the massacre of thousands of innocent people is not only a symbol of their despair but of their political immaturity, of their failure to grasp what they had always been accusing their Israeli enemies of doing: acting disproportionately. All the years of rhetoric, all the promises to strike at the heart of America, to cut off the head of "the American snake'' we took for empty threats. How could a backward, conservative, undemocratic and corrupt group of regimes and small, violent organizations fulfill such preposterous promises? Now we know.
And in the hours that followed the September 11 annihilation, I began to remember those other extraordinary assaults upon the United States and its allies, miniature now by comparison with yesterday's casualties. Did not the suicide bombers who killed 239 American servicemen and 58 French paratroopers in Beirut on October 23, 1983, time their attacks with unthinkable precision?
There were just seven seconds between the Marine bombing and the destruction of the French three miles away. Then there were the attacks on US bases in Saudi Arabia, and last year's attempt--almost successful, it turned out--to sink the USS Cole in Aden. And then how easy was our failure to recognize the new weapon of the Middle East, which neither Americans nor any other Westerners could equal: the despair-driven, desperate suicide bomber.
And there will be, inevitably, and quite immorally, an attempt to obscure the historical wrongs and the injustices that lie behind the firestorms. We will be told about "mindless terrorism,'' the "mindless" bit being essential if we are not to realize how hated America has become in the land of the birth of three great religions.
Ask an Arab how he responds to the thousands of innocent deaths, and he or she will respond as decent people should, that it is an unspeakable crime. But they will ask why we did not use such words about the sanctions that have destroyed the lives of perhaps half a million children in Iraq, why we did not rage about the 17,500 civilians killed in Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon. And those basic reasons why the Middle East caught fire last September--the Israeli occupation of Arab land, the dispossession of Palestinians, the bombardments and state-sponsored executions--all these must be obscured lest they provide the smallest fractional reason for the mass savagery on September 11.
No, Israel was not to blame--though we can be sure that Saddam Hussein and the other grotesque dictators will claim so--but the malign influence of history and our share in its burden must surely stand in the dark with the suicide bombers. Our broken promises, perhaps even our destruction of the Ottoman Empire, led inevitably to this tragedy. America has bankrolled Israel's wars for so many years that it believed this would be cost-free. No longer so. But, of course, the United States will want to strike back against "world terror.'' Indeed, who could ever point the finger at Americans now for using that pejorative and sometimes racist word "terrorism''?
Eight years ago, I helped make a television series that tried to explain why so many Muslims had come to hate the West. Now I remember some of those Muslims in that film, their families burnt by American-made bombs and weapons. They talked about how no one would help them but God. Theology versus technology, the suicide bomber against the nuclear power. Now we have learned what this means.
Three of the most cheerful events in the past decade of American
publishing have happened within the preceding twelve months alone,
events which prove that despite the everywhere-decried effects of
corporations, chain bookstores and the Internet, literary publishing
remains, to some degree at least, about the books. In the first two
occurrences, at the trade publisher W.W. Norton and then at Henry Holt,
the same young editor--inspired by novelists Jonathan Franzen and
Stewart O'Nan--acquired and published several early novels of the
seminal American writer Paula Fox, followed closely by a collection of
short stories by Richard Yates, a writer with an enormous following
among contemporary American authors but who had fallen nearly entirely
out of print. Credit for the third happy event, this August, goes to
Norton again, for launching a republishing program of one of the
strangest and most fascinating writers of the twentieth century,
There's no downside to these three critically important, visionary
American writers being brought to new prominence. All had long, fruitful
careers, yet all failed, in the common wisdom, to find the audiences
they deserved. In the case of Yates and Highsmith, they never really got
into what Richard Ford calls "the permanent, big-money main arena of
American literary fashion" until after their deaths: Yates appeared in
The New Yorker for the first time only this year, and Highsmith
was brought into the limelight only by the Hollywood filming of The
Talented Mr. Ripley. Fox--who, in the first of two defining
differences from her peers in rediscovery, is alive and well and
publishing a memoir this autumn--also was published in The New
Yorker for the first time some thirty years after writing her first
novel, as well as being profiled in the New York Times Magazine,
among the other publicity attention that has recently found her.
Most interesting about the three closely linked rediscoveries, however,
is that each of these writers, in his or her way, concentrates nearly
exclusively on the darker side of human experience, particularly the
middle class, white experience, producing novel after novel of
relentless desperation and nearly unremitting sadness in characters who
lack few of the social or material means to be happy. Of the three--and
this is the second defining difference--Fox is the greatest artist,
exploring her difficult world with a perfected language, mordant humor
and transcendent literary insight that renders as art her portion of the
spectrum of human experience.
No such transcendence is to be found in either Yates or
Highsmith--although I may simply have missed it in Yates, having given
up after six or seven brilliant and brutalizing books, fearing that I
might find myself reaching for the Prozac or, like his characters, for
the bottle. In novel after novel, using unadorned language and an optic
uncolored by sentimentality, each sketches, establishes and explores
some of the most crushing emotions that humans can experience:
desolation, abandonment, hopelessness, addiction and pure brute loss.
They are, in this respect, Gothic novelists: novelists who have worked
with a very limited palette of human emotions, one that most notably
excludes joy or love, connection or harmony, completion or satisfaction,
differentiated from the classically defined Gothic by the fact that the
horrors they describe are not supernatural and exist largely in an
interior landscape, from which they haunt their characters' always
subjective and often liquored-up experience of reality. The characters'
condition, furthermore, most often surpasses any real tragedy that may
once have triggered it and has become, for these characters, a fact of
the human condition, one that will not be cured.
Yates is a literary writer, of course, and Highsmith, at least as
reflected by her many American publishers--ten or so in America, as
opposed to England, France and Germany, where one publisher in each
country supported her through her entire career--wrote "genre," although
that is a judgment that very few of her critics take seriously. The
classification rests largely on the fact that, early and often, people
tend to kill each other in Highsmith. But once one teases out the
ubiquitous murders and suicides, one sees that these are, in essence,
stories and novels with a great similarity to those of Yates, and fall
squarely within what could be called the literature of endogenous
depression. "Ralph took a quick, deep breath. He could have collapsed
with defeat, with unhappiness, and yet at the same time an insane energy
boiled within him." "Life was nothing but trying for something, followed
by disappointment, and people kept on moving, doing what they had to do,
serving--what? And whom?" This Gothic sensibility, this unremitting
sadness that Highsmith shares with Yates, is the more useful grounds for
classification of her notoriously unclassifiable writing, which is
shelved unpredictably in literature and mystery sections of bookstores.
More than anything else, Highsmith's lifework chronicles and explores
the fundamental mechanics of unhappiness, both emotional and ethical, in
which live her dissatisfied and unfulfilled characters.
Highsmith herself, born in Texas, lived in self-imposed exile. Her
largest audience by far was in Europe, and when she died six years ago
in Switzerland at 74, one of her bequests was of $3 million to the Yaddo
writers colony--European money, one presumes, given her own recounting
of being dropped by editors all over New York based on sales figures.
Her strange career was launched with one of the most accomplished books
she would write, Strangers on a Train, with which Hitchcock
brought her to immediate fame through his classic film of the same name.
She was no sooner launched, however, than she declared her independence
from commercial considerations: Her second book was a pseudonymous entry
into the period genre of the lesbian novel, with the difference that her
housewife, liberated from a stultifying and conformist marriage, defies
the moralizing rules of the genre and ends up happy.
There followed some two dozen novels and collections: stories of
miserable, dangerous and bizarre events in the most normal of settings.
Characters lose their lives to their fantasies, are blackmailed, commit
murders, become fundamentalists. Middle-class men find themselves
peering through women's windows, dogs are kidnapped, an architect is
jailed when a building he designed, through no fault of his own, falls
down on a group of children. Central among the novels is the celebrated
Ripley series, a subtle exploration of the life of a young American of
uncertain sexuality who escapes the bigotry of New York in the foxed
fifties for the comparative freedom of postwar Europe. Once there, he
proceeds to conduct a career of outward bourgeois normalcy supported by
a secret life of fraud, forgery and the constant willingness to kill.
In person, she was no less unexpected than her books. She was a kind,
soft-spoken woman who adored animals and expressed consistent commitment
to a broad range of liberal principles--one of her books is dedicated to
the fighters in the first Palestinian intifada, of the late 1980s--and
admired Graham Greene, Saul Bellow, Gore Vidal, Margaret Atwood and Iris
Murdoch. And yet, in an hourlong conversation I had with her in 1992, on
tape, she made pejorative comparisons between the inferior Swiss
children and, in America, Mexicans and "Negroes"; informed me that four
times as many "Slavs" were killed in the Holocaust as Jews and that it
is wrong therefore, to say that Auschwitz "was Jewish only" just because
"somebody whose grandmother" was killed there says so; and delivered
herself of the opinion that we should pay more attention to the fact
that "Afro-Americans" had pushed other "Afro-Americans" onto the slave
ships, although, she advised, I'd best not say so because I'd get
Unlike her conversation, however, in her work she never indulged in
bigotry or even small-mindedness and never laid blame. To the contrary,
the narrative sensibility with which she explored her vast fictional
universe was one of sensitivity and empathy not for the righteous--it is
the righteous, in Highsmith's universe, who suffer--but for the guilty,
who very, very often get away. And each time they do so, each time they
return to the world of the normal, which is unable, or unwilling, to
punish them, the line between them and us becomes a little bit more
The Selected Stories of Patricia Highsmith makes it possible to
experience virtually the entire range of which Highsmith was capable, an
experience of real emotional horror. And yet, to a degree of which
Yates, ultimately, was incapable, it is a horror that means something, a
horror that accuses the human condition of gross inhumanity and condemns
its victims for the cowardice--emotional, ethical and political--of
collaborating in their own misery.
Highsmith, the English journalist Lucretia Stewart has pointed out,
reserved some of her deepest compassion for animals, and it is in the
group of stories that opens this large collection that Highsmith's
strangeness, and daring, first becomes apparent. Selected stories from
The Animal Lover's Book of Beastly Murder all take up the improbable
challenge of presenting animal owners from their pets' point of view. As
one reads one sees that "beastly" is not, as is first assumed, used in
the most common adjectival sense to modify the noun "murder," but is
also murder literally carried out by beasts. Those are, in fact,
anything but beastly. They are calm, logical and richly deserved.
Chorus Girl, for example, is a long-lived circus elephant who has
outlasted her original, much-loved trainer. The new one, Cliff, is not
exactly abusive but acts with the quotidian cruelty of humans to
animals, beating the beast to train her. "I gave Cliff a kick, hardly
more than a prod, with my left foot. I caught him in the side, and I
heard a cracking sound like the breaking of tree branches. After that
Cliff did not move again." Djemal is a mistreated camel in an Arab
country, who, when his master turns his back, finds himself with the
opportunity to attack. "Djemal bore down and seized Mahmet's djellaba
and part of his spine in his teeth. Mahmet fell, and Djemal stomped him,
stomped him again on the head." The Baron, a small dog
left--apparently--to his master's partner, Bubsy, after his master's
death, is able to chew Bubsy's nebulizer tube out while Bubsy is
suffering an asthma attack.
Each of the stories succeeds in large part because of the purity of the
voice and the perfection of motivation that Highsmith invents for the
animals. The animals are the perfect murderers, killing with neither
malice nor, really, violence, in that their use of their physicality is
instinctual and they are, after all, only protecting themselves. They
are by nature cold: They don't love, nor do they really hate, and our
sense that they do is anthropomorphic. Nor can they be punished for
their murders, for which they have no legal liability--they can be put
down, as is Chorus Girl after killing her trainer, or attacked, like the
murderous overpopulation of Hamsters in "Hamsters vs. Websters." But
they are not really guilty in any conventional sense, because guilt is a
And it is this inability to experience guilt that, equally, so
fascinated Highsmith in her characters. Throughout this
volume--throughout her work--characters again and again find themselves
existing with the most appalling guilt, and yet are unable to experience
it, as when Roland's ferret Harry kills an old man and Roland finds
himself hiding the man's body. "Roland...realized that he didn't dare
think too much about what Harry had done.... Or--if Roland ever thought
of Harry as a murderer, he put it in the same realm of fantasy as the
murders in the books he read, real yet not real. It was not true that he
was guilty, or Harry either."
But Roland, despite his denial--"it was not true"--is guilty: He
literally used his wild ferret as a weapon to carry out his murder, he
hid the body and he did it all on purpose. And yet, like the animals, he
escapes both emotional guilt and legal responsibility. Again and again,
throughout these stories, characters kill with impunity. A businessman,
retired to a farm in Maine to recover from stress, finds himself feuding
with his neighbor; he shoots one of the neighbor's dogs, then takes to
spending "a lot of time up in his bedroom, binoculars and loaded rifle
at hand, in case anything else belonging to Frosby showed itself on his
land." He makes no judgment, never even remarks on the singularity of
how he has come to be spending his time: It simply is what he's doing.
With equal ease, he puts the neighbor, then himself, to death. The
father of a child with Down's syndrome expresses his frustration by
brutally murdering a passer-by. Thereafter the murder inhabits his
memory as an empowering incident, proving that he is not as helpless
before fate as his son makes him feel. A highlight of the collection is
"Something the Cat Dragged In," a story about an English country party
where the household cat brings in a pair of human fingers. "The two
fingers were dead white and puffy, there was not a sign of blood even at
the base of the fingers, which included a couple of inches of what had
been the hand. What made the object undeniably the third and fourth
fingers of a human hand were the two nails, yellowish and short and
looking small because of the swollen flesh." When the victim is
identified and his murderer found, the friends agree to bury their
secret. No judgment is required. In this artist's work, there are crimes
but little punishment.
If there are murders throughout these stories there are also suicides,
that particular form of murder where the victim and perpetrator are one.
A young actor faced with the death of his mentor attempts suicide.
"Simon rubbed his palms together, breathed deeply, and felt himself
smiling. He was happy, in a quiet and important way." A businessman
faced with exposure of murder calmly puts a gun barrel to his mouth. A
widow returns from helping a neighbor: "Somehow she knew she was going
to die that night. It was a calm and destined sensation. She might have
died, she thought, if she had merely gone to bed and fallen asleep. But
she wished to make sure of it, so she took a single-edged razor blade
from her shelf of paints in the kitchen closet--the blade was rusty and
dull, but no matter--and cut her two wrists at the bathroom basin." A
French woman, disappointed in her quest to befriend her favorite English
novelist, steps into traffic. "Odile had wanted to injure herself,
perhaps kill herself, though she had realized this only a few seconds
before she leapt into the taxi's path."
Like the guiltless and unpunished murders, suicide is an action that
exists wholly apart from everything else in the character's life, a
psychic event with its own volition entirely, available to the happy and
miserable alike. Highsmith's characters don't mourn death, they erase
it; they don't repress bad memories, they expunge them completely; and
when they do express the profound miseries that motivate them, they do
so in ways that mean nothing to them--through murders they don't
understand, acts of cruelty that seem unmotivated (precisely, in fact,
like the animals of the beastly murders).
In this placid coexistence of guilt, self-destruction and the
everydayness of consciousness hides the key to Highsmith's deep
strangeness: Her characters are, nearly to a one, psychotic rather than,
as is more familiar to readers, neurotic. Their guilt exists within
their psyches with complete self-containment, allowing for none of the
familiar "acting out" we're used to. There can be none: In
psychosis--for example, in multiple personality disorder--the mind is
perfectly divided, with the more normal portion of awareness having no
access whatever to the pathological, none of the little hints and signs,
interpretable dreams, recurrent guilts or other mental mechanics of
neurosis. "It was as if she had an unsolvable mystery within her.... She
didn't ever dream about the murder...in fact, she often thought it might
be better if she did dream about it."
Highsmith was a relentless opponent of aestheticized "style" in her
writing, and although she was capable of great lyricism, she employed it
very rarely. The result is a prose style that absorbs none of the shock
of what it describes, a diction that refuses to relegate horror to a
genre--noir, horror, mystery--where it would be, at least to some
degree, detoxified. Her universe only occasionally ventures out of the
determinedly middle class; her characters--engineers, bankers, writers,
academics, accountants--only occasionally are found outside a rigorously
defined normalcy, rendered all the more strange by her European exile,
which left them all, in speech and attitudes, stuck in the past.
That makes it tempting to think that Highsmith's underlying artistic
agenda is to uncover the horror of the normal. She does do that, but
what she's really after--and she goes after it in virtually every single
one of her books--is the normality of horror. What Highsmith wants to
tell us is that it's not the horrible violence we share with animals but
our ambivalent guilt, which is unique to us, that is truly strange. And
what she wants to tell us is that our denial--not mere repression but
outright denial--of the horror implicit in being human is universal.
Why, then, has Highsmith always been such a marginal figure in American
literature? The problem--and it's a huge one--Highsmith poses to her
critics and publishers is the unflinching harshness of her Gothic
palette, her restriction to such a limited and depressing range of human
experience. Because, as the Colombian novelist Santiago Gamboa puts it,
a novel is not part of our bibliography but rather our biography: A good
novel becomes nothing less than part of our experience of life's
possibilities. We may not individually have been fugitive female
anti-Vietnam War activists. Marge Piercy, however, supplies that portion
of life's possibility for us. We may not have been Palestinians angrily
confronting Israeli border guards, nor indeed Israeli soldiers
ambivalently policing Palestinians. Amy Wilentz insures that careful
readers know quite exactly what it is to be both. It is this act of
identification with an impossible other and their experience that makes
writing and reading, in the Mexican novelist Paco Ignacio Taibo II's
view, fundamentally subversive acts--no one who has been Anne Frank, he
points out, can be a Nazi.
When, therefore, a writer creates a universe too restricted in the
possibilities of human experience, a universe that concentrates too
deeply on the sad, there seems some bad faith about it, as if the writer
is misleading us in our growing conception of the world. To read
Highsmith without a sense of the ethical, even political, analysis of
guilt that winds through her whole life's work is, I think, to relegate
her to marginality, and this is in general what, in America, we have
done with her. We have, in a way, denied her insight--her painful and
complicated insight into guilt and denial--much as her characters deny
their guilt. That leaves her, so to speak, denied in the unconscious of
our literature much like guilt is denied in her characters: always
present, never cured, never acknowledged and never understood. Perhaps
that's not such a bad legacy. Perhaps that's what makes her work, as the
literary bull and commercial bear markets come and go, classic,
returning again and again in new movies, new reprints, new articles: a
body of writing that is joyless, plain, troubling and beautiful.
The immediate causes of the civil unrest in Cincinnati this past spring
are clear enough: White cops had been abusing and killing black
civilians. But why such police racism; was it too few officers of color,
a weak civilian review process, racist media?
Or was it genetic? Is racist terror embedded in the political DNA of
American policing? After all, the basic patterns of harassment that
triggered the mayhem in Cincinnati are some of the oldest and most
consistent in US history. Typically the story of policing starts with
the village-watch systems of the colonial Northeast, then moves to the
formation of the first municipal constabularies in New York, Boston and
But the real origins of today's "Five-O," "Rollers" or "Po-Po" lie with
the slave patrols of the Old South. By the time of the Civil War, every
county of the South deployed patrollers--or "pattie rollers" as
African-Americans sometimes called them. These protocops, ubiquitous
posses of armed white men, were the frontline defense against slave
rebellions. They worked only at night, riding from plantation to
plantation, stopping black people, searching their homes for contraband
and whipping any slave caught traveling without a written pass.
As the immediate agents of a white supremacist state, slave patrols
imbricated violence and racism into everyday life. They were crucial to
the reproduction of slave society and slave labor power, and served as
ideological invigilators in the construction of a paranoid and
hate-fueled caste system that persists to this day. The patrols were
central to southern society, but only now do we get the first
book-length examination of this antebellum gendarmerie. Prior to Sally
Hadden's Slave Patrols: Law and Violence in Virginia and the
Carolinas there were only a few short monographs from the turn of
the century (which Hadden addresses) and a few chapters in a lost and
barely read book, Police and the Black Community, by Robert
Wintersmith (which, surprisingly, Hadden does not address).
Along with the obviously racist dynamics of modern policing, patrollers
left us some specific concepts, like the police "beat." Pattie rollers
had "beats"--defined areas of operation--and worked in small mounted
groups called "beat companies." While the patrollers' main task was
controlling African-Americans, this also required the control of whites.
In many Southern counties all white men were forced to serve in the
patrols, and in some counties all white men were required by law to stop
and check the passes of any black people they met on the road at any
time. This was nothing short of state enforced racism.
A fairly straightforward history, Slave Patrols begins with a
look at the policing of slaves on Barbados, where the very first patrols
were established in response to an aborted slave revolt in 1649. After
that many Caribbean planters decamped to the Carolinas, bringing with
them slaves and the political technology of slavery: curfews, passes,
patrols and militias. Fundamentally, the patrols were a premodern system
of surveillance and policing designed to restrict slave mobility--a
crucial source of African-American social power.
Along with maintaining familial and romantic ties, black mobility
produced a vast network of interpersonal connections--the circuitry of
resistance--through which flowed news, plans, supplies, weapons and
people. Mobility was also crucial to the sub rosa economy, of nighttime
reexpropriations from the master's stores, fencing pilfered goods,
trading produce for liquor with poor whites and practicing traditional
medicine. And restricting mobility limited slave contact with Native
Americans and the fugitive slaves who (at least in the colonial era)
lived as social bandits on the edge of the plantation world. Containing
and limiting this informal resistance and its enabling underground
milieu helped prevent formal organized resistance like escapes and armed
By 1680 Virginia had also instituted patrols and required both slaves
and white indentured servants to carry passes when traveling, and over
the next century the whole South became increasingly militarized.
Hadden's account of this buildup shows a cyclical escalation in which
slave revolts or plots led to white panic, ramped-up vigilance and a
reinvigoration of patrols. Heightened security was usually followed by
increased calm, declining vigilance and then more resistance.
The trend toward ever more organized control in the South accelerated
after the Revolutionary War (during which more than 3,000 escaped slaves
fought for the loyalist Lord Dunmore, who offered freedom in exchange
for armed service). In 1777 Vermont had abolished slavery; Pennsylvania
followed three years later. From then on the "peculiar institution" came
under increased attack, as European powers outlawed the slave trade and
more "free soil" and abolitionism emerged in the North. By the early
antebellum period, the patrol system had fully evolved throughout Dixie.
A typical night on patrol involved three to six armed white men on
horseback riding the country roads in search of black people, stopping
at farms and plantations where they were authorized, regardless of the
property holder's wishes, to search slave quarters for visitors,
escapees or contraband like weapons, liquor, books and excessive
provisions that might indicate plans to flee. Violation of local
regulations led to on-the- spot whippings.
In some jurisdictions patrollers were paid from local taxes; in others
they were paid with bounties for catching "truant" or runaway
bondspeople. More often, the patrols were a form of corv?e labor, forced
upon the whole white male population by the society's more affluent
Before Hadden's book, numerous histories of slavery and black resistance
made passing mention of patrols, usually casting them as gangs of poor
whites, motivated as much by their own pathology as by legal structures.
This fits comfortably with America's official mock-up of the proverbial
racist: a blinkered, lowbrow hick. But Hadden takes that myth apart. For
example, in Norfolk County, Virginia, where in 1750 half the white
population owned no slaves, the bulk of patrollers were men of the solid
middle. Plantation plutocrats with twenty or more slaves frequently
bought their way out of service while poor whites tended to do as little
patrolling as possible. So, the bulk of patrollers were small-town
burghers like doctors, lawyers, printers and merchants, or they were
prosperous working farmers owning between one and five slaves. It is no
coincidence that this same class later formed the base of the Ku Klux
Klan during its first incarnation just after the Civil War, and even
more so during its infamous second rise just after World War I and into
Hadden's history is very well researched and her writing is smooth, but
the book's most interesting political ideas remain only half-exhumed.
One wants more discussion of the patrols' cultural impact: They policed
"blackness" and the color line, but they helped construct the meaning of
"whiteness" as violently anti-black. In fact, some patrols were
instructed to attack whites who strayed across the color line: One North
Carolina law instructed patrollers to whip any "loose, disorderly or
suspected person" found in the company of slaves regardless of the
person's color. Unfortunately, Hadden does not thoroughly explore this
nexus of violence, the law, race and identity. What the book does offer
is a very detailed accounting of who patrolled, how, when, where and
under what sort of legal guidance. Embedded within Slave Patrols
is the theme of surveillance. The patrols were technologies of
observation and intimidation, while the attendant system of slave passes
and wanted posters were embryonic forms of identification.
Picking up this history of surveillance and social control, from a
different angle, is Simon Cole's Suspect Identities: A History of
Fingerprinting and Criminal Identification. Cole's book is a
microlevel history of what Foucault called "capillary" forms of power.
In particular, Cole focuses on the state's evolving methods of
identifying deviants. He begins with the history of criminal
identification and judiciary record keeping in the Napoleonic courts and
jails around 1808, where convicts were simply listed alphabetically, a
system that provided no means to combat false identities. The 1839
invention of photography began to change all that. Starting in the
mid-1850s, once daguerreotypes were widely available, police in Europe
and America began creating "rogues' galleries" and photo albums
featuring known "criminals" and "degenerates." The NYPD, ever
innovative, led the way. By 1858 they had 450 "Ambrotype" photos on
file. Meanwhile, fingerprint identification was just beginning as an
administrative tool in colonial India.
William Herschel, chief administrator of the Hooghly district of Bengal,
first started experimenting with handprints on documents to verify the
identity of contractors and pensioners (he probably gleaned this
technique from similar ancient Hindu practices). His desire for greater
control over the local population was fueled in part by the massive
Sepoy Rebellion of 1857-8 and the resistance, chaos and widespread fraud
that followed in its wake. Herschel's prints helped create "real"
identities and thus shored up the power of colonial ledgers and files.
As in Hadden's story, we see the double helix of resistance and
repression developing together.
Along with Herschel, several other gentlemen were also "discovering"
fingerprints: Francis Galton, the father of eugenics and a cousin of
Darwin's, started studying fingerprints as part of his work on heredity
and race (he never did link print patterns to either), while Henry
Faulds, a physician working in Japan, first suggested using fingerprints
to identify criminals in an 1880 letter to the journal Nature.
Eventually, experts were able to divide all prints according to "loops,"
"whorls" and "arches." This allowed for simple storage and retrieval.
But "dactyloscopy"--as print reading was known--wouldn't become a
standard law enforcement tool for almost a generation more.
The height of criminological sciences in the late nineteenth century was
"Bertillonage," a complicated, and in retrospect rather silly, system of
body measurements developed in France by Alphonse Bertillon, son of one
of anthropology's founders. By the 1880s Bertillonage had proliferated
throughout the industrialized world, though the system's extremely
precise procedures and set of eleven bodily measurements were frequently
modified (or mangled) by local police departments and thus rendered
useless when exchanged between agencies. To simplify things,
fingerprints--infinitely unique and unalterable--got folded into the
Bertillon system as a convenience.
Police in India were the first to start fingerprinting, in 1897. By 1901
Scotland Yard had incorporated a form of fingerprinting into its
Bertillon system, and in 1906 the New York Police Department did the
same. From there, the technique soon eclipsed Bertillonage. By the early
1920s photos and prints made up the fundamentals of criminal
identification, and Bertillon had been almost completely discarded. Much
of Cole's book concerns itself with the ensuing techno-bureaucratic
intrigues and battles among a myriad of different print classification
systems and their proponents. These dry and politically pointless
sections would have been better left behind.
Interestingly, fingerprinting was always tied up with racism, but never
quite as racists hoped. For decades, eugenicists searched for racial
patterns within prints; what they found was a total lack of any such
distinctions. But following the lead of Herschel in India, white
administrators and police who "saw" Asians, Africans and Native
Americans as bafflingly homogeneous in appearance fell back on the
infinite uniqueness of fingerprints to control the poor, the deviant and
the subjugated. And throughout the development of modern identification,
people of color have often been the first targeted.
But what does all this mean? Cole, like Hadden, offers massive amounts
of research; but like Hadden, he is less than robust in his political
analysis. Suspect Identities is just a bit too straight. For
example, Cole briefly mentions ruling-class fears of international
anarchism during the 1890s as spurring on increased international
cooperation among big-city police departments and creation of effective
technologies of identification, but doesn't dig deep enough. The fact
is, fighting anarchists, reds and labor organizers played a very
important part in developing modern forms of identification and police
power. Likewise, the control and surveillance of immigrants and people
of color have always been tied up with the exploitation of their labor.
This larger political-economic context plays too small a role in Cole's
overly technical narrative. The result is something of a neutered
history that leaves readers feeling as if they are on a hunting trip,
only to discover that the gun is loaded with blanks.
To his credit, Cole is very clear and compelling about the implicit
racism associated with "biometrics." His last chapter brings the story
of fingerprinting full circle with an examination of DNA
identification's rapid spread. Like prints almost a century ago, DNA is
seen as unlocking biological truth, and in so doing it is reinvigorating
both the popularity of biological explanations for behavior and an
updated form of eugenics. Political complaints aside, both of these
books are empirically robust ventures into important, largely uncharted,
On Tuesday morning, a piece was torn out of our world. A patch of blue
sky that should not have been there opened up in the New York skyline.
In my neighborhood--I live eight blocks from the World Trade Center--the
heavens were raining human beings. Our city was changed forever. Our
country was changed forever. Our world was changed forever.
It will take months merely to know what happened, far longer to feel so
much grief, longer still to understand its meaning. It's already clear,
however, that one aspect of the catastrophe is of supreme importance for
the future: the danger of the use of weapons of mass destruction, and
especially the use of nuclear weapons. This danger includes their use by
a terrorist group but is by no means restricted to it. It is part of a
larger danger that has been for the most part ignored since the end of
the cold war.
Among the small number who have been concerned with nuclear arms in
recent years--they have pretty much all known one another by their first
names--it was commonly heard that the world would not return its
attention to this subject until a nuclear weapon was again set off
somewhere in the world. Then, the tiny club said to itself, the world
would awaken to its danger. Many of the ingredients of the catastrophe
were obvious. The repeated suicide-homicides of the bombers in Israel
made it obvious that there were people so possessed by their cause that,
in an exaltation of hatred, they would do anything in its name. Many
reports--most recently an article in the New York Times on the very
morning of the attack--reminded the public that the world was awash in
nuclear materials and the wherewithal for other weapons of mass
destruction. Russia is bursting at the seams with these materials. The
suicide bombers and the market in nuclear materials was that
two-plus-two that points toward the proverbial necessary four. But
history is a trickster. The fates came up with a horror that was
unforeseen. No one had identified the civilian airliner as a weapon of
mass destruction, but it occurred to the diabolical imagination of those
who conceived Tuesday's attack that it could be one. The invention
illumined the nature of terrorism in modern times. These terrorists
carried no bombs--only knives, if initial reports are to be believed. In
short, they turned the tremendous forces inherent in modern technical
society--in this case, Boeing 767s brimming with jet fuel--against
So it is also with the more commonly recognized weapons of mass
destruction. Their materials can be built the hard way, from scratch, as
Iraq came within an ace of doing until stopped by the Gulf War and as
Pakistan and India have done, or they can be diverted from Russian, or
for that matter American or English or French or Chinese, stockpiles. In
the one case, it is nuclear know-how that is turned against its
inventors, in the other it is their hardware. Either way, it is
"blowback"--the use of a technical capacity against its creator--and, as
such, represents the pronounced suicidal tendencies of modern society.
This suicidal bent--nicely captured in the name of the still current
nuclear policy "mutual assured destruction"--of course exists in forms
even more devastating than possible terrorist attacks. India and
Pakistan, which both possess nuclear weapons and have recently engaged
in one of their many hot wars, are the likeliest candidates. Most
important--and most forgotten--are the some 30,000 nuclear weapons that
remain in the arsenals of Russia and the United States. The Bush
Administration has announced its intention of breaking out of the
antiballistic missile treaty of 1972, which bans antinuclear defenses,
and the Russians have answered that if this treaty is abandoned the
whole framework of nuclear arms control built up over thirty years may
collapse. There is no quarrel between the United States and Russia that
suggests a nuclear exchange between them, but accidents are another
matter, and, as Tuesday's attack has shown, the mood and even the
structure of the international order can change overnight.
What should be done? Should the terrorists who carried out Tuesday's
attacks be brought to justice and punished, as the President wants to
do? Of course. Who should be punished if not people who would hurl a
cargo of innocent human beings against a fixed target of other innocent
human beings? (When weighing the efficiency--as distinct from the
satisfaction--of punishment, however, it is well to remember that the
immediate attackers have administered the supposed supreme punishment of
death to themselves.) Should further steps be taken to protect the
country and the world from terrorism, including nuclear terrorism? They
should. And yet even as we do these things, we must hold, as if to life
itself, to a fundamental truth that has been known to all thoughtful
people since the destruction of Hiroshima: There is no technical
solution to the vulnerability of modern populations to weapons of mass
destruction. After the attack, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld placed
US forces on the highest state of alert and ordered destroyers and
aircraft carriers to take up positions up and down the coasts of the
United States. But none of these measures can repeal the vulnerability
of modern society to its own inventions, revealed by that heart-breaking
gap in the New York skyline. This, obviously, holds equally true for
that other Maginot line, the proposed system of national missile
defense. Thirty billion dollars is being spent on intelligence annually.
We can assume that some portion of that was devoted to protecting the
World Trade Center after it was first bombed in 1993. There may have
been mistakes--maybe we'll find out--but the truth is that no one on
earth can demonstrate that the expenditure of even ten times that amount
can prevent a terrorist attack on the United States or any other
country. The combination of the extraordinary power of modern
technology, the universal and instantaneous spread of information in the
information age and the mobility inherent in a globalized economy
Man, however, is not merely a technical animal. Aristotle pointed out
that we are also a political animal, and it is to politics that we must
return for the solutions that hold promise. That means returning to the
treaties that the United States has recently been discarding like so
much old newspaper--the one dealing, for example, with an International
Criminal Court (useful for tracking down terrorists and bringing them to
justice), with global warming and, above all, of course, with nuclear
arms and the other weapons of mass destruction, biological and chemical.
The United States and seven other countries now rely for their national
security on the retaliatory execution of destruction a millionfold
greater than the Tuesday attacks. The exit from this folly, by which we
endanger ourselves as much as others, must be found. Rediscovering
ourselves as political animals also means understanding the sources of
the hatred that the United States has incurred in a decade of neglect
and, worse, neglect of international affairs--a task that is highly
unwelcome to many in current circumstances but nevertheless is
indispensable to the future safety of the United States and the world.
It would be disrespectful of the dead to in any way minimize the
catastrophe that has overtaken New York. Yet at the same time we must
keep room in our minds for the fact that it could have been worse. To
lose two huge buildings and the people in them is one thing; to lose all
of Manhattan--or much, much more--is another. The emptiness in the sky
can spread. We have been warned.
Where were you when it happened? Over and over one hears this, the
question always asked when time stands still.
I was sitting at my computer pondering an inquiry posed by a friend
regarding the conference that had just ended in Durban, South Africa,
"How did a meeting on racism end up so side-tracked by the Middle East?"
Everyone was using that word, "sidetracked." Anyway, a moment later, the
world had turned upside-down, and I was on the phone with another friend
who was asking, "Who on earth would do this?"
The first of these questions was easier to answer than the second. Few
newspapers devoted space to the full title, but it was, after all, the
World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and
Related Intolerance. It had been titled broadly for the explicit purpose
of being as inclusive as possible--an ambitious agenda, and therefore
perhaps something of a lightning rod for all the world's wars and
discontents. But both questions are swirling in my mind right now,
linked because of horrible happenstance, and I suppose that anything I
write will be wrong, skewed by fear, drenched with terrible foreboding
in a moment of pure chaos. But given chaos, my mind draws a line between
the only two dots I have been able to retain: the point before and the
point just after. And so I connect the degree to which Americans
dismissed the world conference and the degree to which the newscasters
to whom I am listening seem almost surreally naïve about resentment of
American policies in various places around the globe.
Just last week in the old world, in the other time zone, thousands of
delegates were engaged in an unprecedented struggle to communicate
across a dizzying array of cultures, laws, linguistic divides and
histories of hostility. The American press dismissed the meeting as a
Tower of Babel. "Doomed to irrelevance," is how a front-page story in
the International Herald Tribune described it. In the margin, I
had written with what now rings with grimmer and greater irony than I
could have anticipated: "Not doomed to irrelevance--rather invisibility.
And invisibility dooms us all."
As I write this, a terrified voice on the radio I have kept on for hours
now asks, "Why now, when the world is basically at peace?" Perhaps it is
because I follow world news more obsessively than most, but I find that
sort of statement deeply unnerving. The last several weeks have been
marked by a war in Macedonia, a fight for land in Zimbabwe, and
Protestants' lobbing missiles at small Catholic schoolgirls in Northern
Ireland. A Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up in front of a
French lycée in Jerusalem, his head landing in the playground as
children arrived for classes. In Congo, old-fashioned mercenaries,
reborn as global corporate armies-for-hire like Executive Outcomes, used
high-tech weaponry to obliterate angry, destitute villagers so as to
protect the interests of mineral and metal merchants. In Israel, leaders
defended a policy of "surgical" assassination. And in Fiji, tensions
continued between its indigenous and its ethnic Indian populations.
At the World Conference itself, there was so much more than what was
reported in the general American media: the Dalit protested the caste
system in India, Japanese untouchables did the same and Roma peoples
presented claims of human rights violations. North, Central and South
Americans expressed concern about the socially destructive and racially
divisive consequences of police profiling and the drug war. The Maori of
New Zealand, the Inuit of Canada, the Twa of Rwanda, Han ethnics from
China and Tibetan exiles--all these and more sent representatives and
concerns to the World Conference.
Back home in the United States, in weird counterpoint to this roiling
competition for land, resources and respect, the Bush Administration
spoke of the virtues of a new, global US dominance, or world American
empire. While media within the United States celebrated this as though
it were a cultural inevitability rather than a stated political
plan--the appeal of Hollywood movies, the delights of McDonald's burgers
and the liberating influence of L'il Kim were often cited--much of the
world beyond decried it as a breathtaking and untimely proclamation of
That all seems very distant now. "We will make no distinction between
the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbored them,"
says the President as I write. He means Afghanistan, explains a
commentator. But someone else mentions Pakistan, and someone else, a
suspicious Korean jet that has been forced to land near Seattle. A
little while later, the announcer says that some of the hijacking
suspects may have been harbored in Broward County, Florida, of all
places. Someone else points to Canada, or Maine, or Boston. Two of the
suspects, according to officials, rented a car with a New Jersey
driver's license. Although there is not yet any clear person or place
against whom to retaliate, 90 percent of the American people want
revenge, according to call-in polls (for not even in so great a tragedy
as this can we seem to dispense with call-in polls). There are reports
of bombs exploding in Kabul, although the State Department denies any
involvement, and some Arab-Americans fear becoming targets.
On the ground there are rumors of hundreds dead at the Pentagon and
anywhere from 5,000 to 50,000 unaccounted for in New York, but no
authority has provided an official estimate. Who knows? Who knows
anything anymore? As during the Gulf War, I sense that we're facing a
great paralyzing white wall of not knowing.
There is an eerie absurdity to the landscape in this moment, as I sit
writing and waiting to hear the fate of friends who work downtown. It is
as though someone planned not just to terrorize America but to do so by
scripting a scenario straight out of Hollywood's own lexicon of scary
movies. In slow motion reversal of all those scripts of guts and glory,
the Emmys have been canceled, the Latin Grammys have been canceled,
baseball and Jay Leno have been canceled, and throughout the tri-state
area, cosmetic surgeries have been rescheduled to free hospital workers
for the victims of an altogether different kind of fantasy made real.
New York City
There's only one explanation for your mystifying claim, in the July 23/30 "In Fact..." column, that "the rebates, unlike the broader tax cut plan, are progressive; everyone who pays taxes gets virtually the same amount": Space aliens must have kidnapped the Nation editorial board and replaced it with the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal. True, the tax rebates are marginally less regressive than the rest of the Bush tax cut package. But that certainly doesn't make them anything near progressive. First, the rebates are based on federal income taxes only; therefore, countless low-income Americans who pay significant federal payroll taxes, but not income tax, will receive no rebate.
Second, as has been documented by Citizens for Tax Justice, an additional 51 million low-income Americans who do pay federal income taxes will still receive no rebate or only a small one. Twenty-six percent of taxpayers--34 million--will receive no rebate, while another 13 percent--17 million--will receive a rebate of only about half the amount advertised. Thus, we must protest the tax cuts by donating the funds to progressive groups, particularly those that fight the poverty faced every day by the families not receiving rebates. I also endorse your readers' suggestion of donating the money to The Nation, assuming, of course, that the space aliens have returned your editors.
New York City Coalition Against Hunger
The rebates, originally a Democratic idea for dealing with the economic slowdown, give the same $300 to someone with a taxable income of $6,000 as to someone with taxable income of $600,000. That seems pretty progressive to us. We do, however, agree that we shouldn't have said every taxpayer will get virtually the same amount, as there are still many people who fall below the $6,000 level (thanks for providing us with the alien defense). Payroll taxes--which all workers pay to fund Social Security--are separate from income taxes. While justice would indeed lie in giving back some of that money and instead fully funding Social Security by removing the current cap on taxable earnings, at this moment such a proposal would probably only add to the deceitful hype surrounding Social Security privatization.
AND SPEAKING OF REBATES...
Baton Rouge, La.
An hour ago I spent the last of my tax refund check: I got my wife a manicure. I stayed in a mediocre hotel for a couple of nights, bought a couple of CDs on sale and had a great time at a local casino! Wow! It's gone. I could have helped pay for an elderly neighbor's medical expenses, supported the local homeless shelter, bought new books for the school library, but I didn't. I could have done any of the things federal and state governments do for the public good, but like most Americans I didn't. When I think of all the great things our money in aggregate could have accomplished, I feel sick about how I and most Americans trickled away our measly payoff. George W. Bush could have done so many noble and innovative things with these funds--but he didn't.
STRENGTHENING AMERICA'S FAMILIES
New York City
Judith Stacey, in "Family Values Forever" [July 9], describes me and my colleagues at the Institute for American Values as leaders of a "neo-family values movement" whose philosophy in the 1990s "triumphed over the religious far right, on the one hand, and progressive family politics on the other." And under Bush, Stacey argues, our movement is "prospering" and even "busting out all over."
Stacey's infatuation with our little group goes back years. In 1994, in Social Text, she announced that an institute-led "revisionist campaign for family values has flourished under Democratic skies." Unlike the efforts of "right-wing Republicans and fundamentalist Christians," the institute-led campaign "has an explicitly centrist politics, rhetoric, and ideology. A product of academicians rather than clerics, it grounds its claims in secular social science rather than religious authority, and eschews anti-feminism for a post-feminist family ethic."
In 1997, in Family Relations, Stacey worried at length that "the IAV and its associate organizations have been remarkably successful in attracting favorable media coverage." In 1998, in Footnotes, she fretted, "During the past decade the Institute for American Values has waged a vigorous, influential political campaign for neoconservative 'family values' while successfully representing itself as 'nonpartisan.'" During this time, Stacey and others formed a group called the Council on Contemporary Families, in effect named after the Institute's Council on Families, and intended by their own admission to function as a kind of anti-Council on Families in the public debate.
While I am flattered by this attention, and while I sometimes show Stacey's writings to others in order to demonstrate our group's amazing prowess, the truth is, Stacey is missing the point. As an analyst, her fundamental weakness is the tendency to view the world in conspiratorial terms. In attributing nearly everything that she thinks is wrong with today's family debate to one little group--the members of which most people, except for Judith Stacey and her friends, have never heard of--Stacey is in effect blinding herself to the real causes of contemporary social change, including changes in public opinion about marriage and families.
Besides the fact that we are, in her eyes, too influential, what seems to upset Stacey most is that we are ideologically hard for her to define (thus her shifting and consistently awkward formulations, such as "neo-family values"), since we bring together a very diverse group of scholars and leaders. Also in the July 9 issue, Katha Pollitt brings up again her longstanding complaint that Cornel West, widely viewed as a man of the left, is associated with the institute. Stacey and Pollitt are outraged that some of us won't stay safely put inside the tiny ideological boxes they've constructed for us.
Our most recent public statement, Watch Out for Children: A Mother's Statement to Advertisers, which critiques contemporary commercial advertising, was co-signed by Marian Wright Edelman of the Children's Defense Fund. Edelman was also an original member of the institute's board of directors. Do Stacey and Pollitt want to excommunicate her as well from their constantly shrinking church?
Before founding the institute, I was a Saul Alinsky-inspired community organizer, and before that, a VISTA volunteer. I am a lifelong Democrat. I have never, to the best of my memory, described myself as a "conservative," neo or otherwise, or as in favor of a political campaign called "family values," neo or otherwise. All of those terms are just Stacey calling people names. (Her description of Linda Waite of the University of Chicago, a liberal feminist professor of sociology who favors same-sex marriage, as a "neo-family values author" is so crude as to be comical.)
Regarding the status and future of families, there will always be clashes of opinion on specific issues, but the underlying question for progressives, if I may be so bold, is whether we believe, with Stacey, Pollitt and about two other Americans, that strengthening marriage and family life is almost by definition a bad thing, or whether we think that it might be a good thing, especially for children.
DAVID BLANKENHORN, president
Institute for American Values
David Blankenhorn misreads political differences for personal ones. He mistakenly claims that the marriage movement troubles me because I cannot pigeonhole its ideology. On the contrary, I object to the profoundly discriminatory and antidemocratic character of the policies it promotes.
Despite the presence of some well-intentioned individuals, the marriage movement, as my article documented, fosters economic, social and legal discrimination against all single adults as well as cohabiting couples and their children. Blankenhorn, for example, relentlessly extols the personal and social benefits of marriage but never advocates extending these privileges to same-sex couples. He exalts the two-parent family but belittles lesbian co-mother families for committing the sin of "radical fatherlessness." After my Nation article appeared, these political differences took on even greater urgency when the newly formed Alliance for Marriage launched a national campaign for a constitutional amendment to prevent any state from extending the benefits of marriage, or even of civil unions, to same-sex couples.
Far from believing, as Blankenhorn charges, that "strengthening marriage and family life is almost by definition a bad thing," I favor policies that strengthen successful families for everyone, not just for heterosexuals, the affluent or those who are allowed and choose to marry. The marriage movement insists that one size and shape of family fits all and implies that those who do not agree should be content to wear rags or to remain in the closet. In contrast, groups like the Council on Contemporary Families seek to improve the fabric of family relationships for all people without dictating a uniform they have to wear.
Salman Rushdie's gushy, giddy paean to U2, "The Ground Beneath My Feet" [July 9], is by far the worst thing I have ever seen in your magazine. It's quite a U-turn for this "edgy" Mohammed-defiler; perhaps a new career as a writer for People magazine will be waiting for him after this piece. Thanks for showing that, yes, liberals can be just as sophisticated in their pop-culture-artifact consumption as, well... the members of any early-nineties fraternity house. U2 sucks.
Kudos for publishing Salman Rushdie's reflections on U2. In doing so, you have tapped into that most vital market segment: the 20somethings of America. Within moments of reading the piece, this 25-year-old jumped on his DSL line and alerted a fellow 20-something U2 fan (and Nation reader) in Los Angeles. I expect the e-mail chain to continue.
While I applaud this careful surfing of pop culture, a warning: If you publish a Christopher Hitchens thought piece on the Back Street Boys or Britney Spears, I will cancel my subscription.
AUTHOR! AUTHOR! SEXY BEAST!
It's astonishing that so literarily hip a publication as The Nation would publish a rave review (Carl Bromley, "The Limeys") [July 9] of a film (Sexy Beast) without once mentioning the names of the fellows who wrote the script (Louis Mellis and David Scinto). By making the ubiquitous, knuckleheaded error of assuming that the director of the film is per se its author, you join the same criminal class as (I shudder to utter its name) the Los Angeles Times. Is this really the company you want to keep?
Monte Montgomery is to be congratulated for unmasking the criminal conspiracy that my comrades and I are involved in. Our organization had created a number of anti-George Bush, nonprofit shakedown operations (all concerned Nation readers should have received our solicitation by now--and, by the way, thanks) as a collective front for our diabolical ambition: To use tax rebate money sent to The Nation to erect a statue of Andrew Sarris, who popularized the auteur theory in America. Our demise, however, means that Montgomery--a screenwriter by trade--and his colleagues will no longer be able to hide behind the defense that the reason the film they wrote stank was the director or the studio.
In my own miserable defense: In my review I describe Sexy Beast as "the heist movie that Harold Pinter never got around to writing." I can't imagine higher praise for the (albeit unnamed) screenwriters.
SLOW FOOD IN AMERICA
In response to Alexander Stille's cover story on the emerging Slow Food movement in Italy [Aug. 20/27], we've had many requests for information on how to contact the movement on these shores. Here are its coordinates. Phone: (212) 988-5146; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; web: www.slowfood.com.
If they have come for the butterflies then
bless their breaking hearts, but the young pair is
looking nowhere except each other's eyes.
He seems like he could carry them both
over the street on great wings of grief tucked
under his coat, while all around them float,
like wisps of ash or the delicate
prism sunlight flashing off the city glass,
the orange-yellow-black-wing-flecked monarchs.
Migrant, they're more than two dozen today,
more long-lived than the species who keep
to the localized gardens--they're barely
a gram apiece, landing, holding still for
the common milkweed that feeds their larvae,
or balanced on bridges of plumegrass stalks
and bottle-brush, wings fanning, closing, calmed
by the long searchlight stems of hollyhock.
If they have come for the butterflies then
why is she weeping when he lifts her chin?
He looks like he's holding his breath back--
or is he trying to shed tears, too? Are
any left? He's got his other hand
raised, waving, and almost before it stops
the taxi's doors flare on both sides open.
Nothing's stirring in the garden, not us,
not the thinnest breeze among the flowers,
yet by the time we look again they've flown.
Bush lied. About
the cost of his tax cut. About who benefits. About his budget. He
lied when he claimed he could throw money at the military, fund a
prescription drug benefit, pass his tax cut and still not touch the
Social Security surplus. And he's lying now as his budget office
cooks the books to mask the fact that he's already dipping
into the Social Security surplus--without counting the full cost of
his military fantasies, or a decent drug benefit, or the inevitable
tax and spending adjustments yet to come.
every reason to rail about Bush's lies and to condemn his
irresponsible tax cut--about a third of which will go to the
wealthiest 1 percent (and for which, it should be noted, twelve
Democratic senators voted). But Democrats are about to lock
themselves in their own box with their posturing about the "raid on
the Social Security trust fund."
There is no lockbox and no
raid. The Social Security and Medicare trust funds are credited with
bonds for every dollar of surplus whether the money is spent, given
away in tax cuts or used to pay down the debt. Those bonds--the most
secure investment in the world--can be redeemed when Social Security
payments start to exceed payroll taxes. When the surpluses first
showed up, Clinton invented the notion that paying down the debt
would "save Social Security first" as a clever tactical ploy to fend
off Republican tax cuts. With the economy growing and unemployment
low, debt reduction had a threadbare rationale. But even then,
Clinton was forfeiting a historic opportunity to argue for meeting
vital needs: healthcare, housing, more classrooms and teachers,
preschool for all. Now Democrats have turned Clinton's tactics into
perverse principle. The trust fund surplus is "raided" if it doesn't
go toward debt reduction. House minority leader Dick Gephardt argues
that Bush should present a new budget--one with either less spending
or more taxes.
But the world economy is teetering on the
verge of a global recession. Japan is sinking. Europe is slowing.
Latin America is a basket case. The US stock market has tanked.
Corporations are slashing investment and laying off workers.
Consumers are starting to tighten their belts. State and local
governments are cutting programs. This is hardly the moment for the
federal government to run the second-largest surplus in history. And
Bush already has his tax cut for the wealthy. So all the Democratic
posturing about the lockbox puts pressure on spending. Already White
House flack Ari Fleischer says the squeeze "will prevent the
politicians from busting the budget and spending more pork." Worse,
Democratic talk about "raiding the trust fund" adds to the myth that
Social Security is at risk--a big lie that Bush is pushing to sell
private accounts and cuts in guaranteed benefits.
should be indicting Bush for turning his back on working families by
enforcing austerity in a time of need. They should be making the case
for extending unemployment insurance, aiding poor mothers (the first
to be laid off), making investments in housing, schools and mass
transit that can help jump-start the economy. And they should be
taking credit for the tax rebate that people are getting--that was a
Democratic idea that wasn't even in the Bush plan. Instead, Democrats
are whistling Calvin Coolidge and ceding the growth argument to Bush.
Bush says his tax cuts are needed to help the economy revive; that's
right--only he's lying about his tax cut. Most of it doesn't kick in
for years and goes to the already rich. Those cuts should be
reversed, particularly the ones in the estate tax, which is paid only
by the wealthiest families. Democrats should reclaim the money for
investment in making America better.
Now we have a
dishonest debate: Bush lies, and Democrats defend austerity in a time
of need. It's time for progressives inside and outside Congress to
find their voice and break with austerity politics.