"Stop all printing of my play. I shall never write
another one again." So wrote the frustrated young Dr. Chekhov to his
publisher the morning after his new play, The Seagull, was
booed off the stage by an audience in St. Petersburg, outraged by its
incomprehensibility and Symbolist decadence.
disastrous opening night, on October 17, 1896, at the Alexandrinsky
Theater, is a legend in theater history. So is the fate of The
Seagull itself. The play, which Chekhov doubted would ever be
performed again, went on to crown the inaugural season of the Moscow
Art Theater two years later in a stunning turnaround, introducing a
confident young director/actor named Stanislavsky and a passionate
young actress named Olga Knipper (who later became the playwright's
wife). It was followed by three other masterpieces from the same
author for that theater company (Uncle Vanya, The Three
Sisters and The Cherry Orchard), creating a quartet of
"new forms" and paving the way for the twentieth-century revolution
called modern drama.
And now, 106 years after this
controversial masterpiece was written, The Seagull is again
taking center stage, as the theatrical event of the new decade in an
arresting production at the Public Theater's Shakespeare in Central
Park during August, proving theater can indeed still be the center of
This Seagull reunites acclaimed director
Mike Nichols with illustrious screen star Meryl Streep (they did
Silkwood, Heartburn and Postcards From the Edge
together), who is appearing on the stage after an absence of
twenty years. (Her last performance was in Alice in Concert,
also at the Public, in 1981, and it was she who approached him with
the idea to do The Seagull together.) Nichols, who has lured
stars to the stage with Chekhov before (his Uncle Vanya in
1973 at Circle in the Square featured George C. Scott, Julie Christie
and Nicol Williamson), has assembled a luminous cast that is
attracting queues outside the Delacorte Theater that rival those at
Madison Square Garden. John Goodman, Marcia Gay Harden, Philip
Seymour Hoffman, Kevin Kline, Debra Monk, Larry Pine, Natalie
Portman, Stephen Spinella and Christopher Walken (yes, all of them,
live!) join Streep in the park's final production of the summer
season, and it is the synergy of this array of artists, this magical
play (in Tom Stoppard's clear, respectful version of the text) and
the stunning mise en scène of Central Park (as well as
the scarcity of tickets) that has produced a Seagull to be
remembered, perhaps for decades.
The Seagull tells
the story of a group of writers and actors gathered on the lakeside
estate of the famous actress Irina Arkadina (played by Streep), who
is summering there with her lover, the author Trigorin (Kline), and a
coterie of stock Chekhovian types (a doctor, a schoolteacher,
assorted country neighbors and so on). Arkadina's son, Konstantin
(Hoffman), an aspiring young playwright, has written a new play with
which he hopes to win the approval of his mother and her famous
lover. It is performed by Nina (Portman), a stage-struck young
actress and the object of Konstantin's desperate affections. The
story follows the deepening involvement of these characters over that
star-crossed summer wherein everyone falls in (unrequited) love; then
it jumps two years ahead, where things end badly. It's a play about
love and art and creativity and nature and death--and the alchemy of
all these elements. "I started it forte and ended it pianissimo,
contrary to all the rules of dramatic art," Chekhov wrote, as he
attempted to describe his experiment in writing a comedy that ends as
It's also the first Chekhov play to be
performed in Shakespeare in the Park's forty-season history, and an
irresistible choice, given the natural setting. Still, it's a brave
one, for The Seagull, while sacred around the world in
artistic circles, theater conservatories and academia, remains the
Macbeth of the Chekhovian canon, the one that directors and
producers (especially American) tend to avoid, for fear of its
mystery and impenetrability. Indeed, if you look at the history of
Chekhov in America and the list of publicly acclaimed, "landmark"
productions in recent decades--most notably Lee Strasberg's Three
Sisters (Actors Studio, 1964), Andrei Serban's Cherry
Orchard (Lincoln Center, 1977), Peter Brook's (imported)
Cherry Orchard (Brooklyn Academy of Music, 1988) and the wave
of popular Uncle Vanyas in the 1990s both on stage and screen
(most notably Louis Malle's Vanya on 42nd Street, based on
Andre Gregory's direction of the play)--The Seagull is not on
But Nichols, whose strongest suits are comedy and
celebrity, has made a wise and timely choice in staging a play
about the theater that is calling such attention to the
theater. And of course the jewel in his crown is Streep, whose
sweeping entrance down the staircase of her estate onto the Delacorte
stage evokes an ecstatic ovation. Whether in mauve or white or
emerald or scarlet, Streep illuminates the night, as she plays the
flamboyant actress who struggles to preserve her passion for the
theater against the hostility of her suicidal son, the stultification
of the Russian countryside, the threat of aging and the danger of
losing her glamour and her lover (to the younger actress). It's a
complex, demanding, potentially unsympathetic role, and Streep
follows in the footsteps of many great actresses on the
English-speaking stage--including Dame Edith Evans, Peggy Ashcroft,
Vanessa Redgrave, Irene Worth, Susan Fleetwood, Penelope Wilton, Judi
Dench, Felicity Kendall, Rosemary Harris and Blythe Danner--who have
faced its daunting challenges with aplomb. Streep, comedian par
excellence, endows the role with a daredevil panache and and flair
for physicalizing comedy. (Those of us who remember her Dunyasha in
The Cherry Orchard twenty-four years ago at Lincoln Center,
when she fell into a flat-out faint, are astonished once again when
here, in Act II, she erupts into a full-petticoated cartwheel.)
Swanning around the garden, throwing tantrums over a horse and
carriage, nursing her son's wounds tenderly and then insulting him
cruelly, weeping over her finances or tousling with her lover on the
Oriental rug, she ranges across the spectrum of human emotions,
flaunting her character's flaws and capturing our sympathies in the
end. It is a charismatic and commanding performance.
is well matched by her fellow cast members: Marcia Gay Harden's
deliciously dark Masha (dragging around the stage "in mourning for
her life" over unrequited love for Konstantin); John Goodman's
jelly-bellied Shamraev (the estate's manager and would-be baritone),
with his booming "Bravo, Silva!"; Christopher Walken's sprightly
Sorin (a hilarious and heartbreaking portrayal of Arkadina's aging
brother)--all are finely etched, acrobatic performances, in the
spirit of Chekhov's vaudevillian intent.
There are also
the gentle, bittersweet portrayals of Stephen Spinella's sensitive
schoolteacher Medvedenko; Larry Pine's wise, knowing Dr. Dorn; and
Debra Monk's tender Paulina, whose pathetic hope to reclaim lost love
and youth, like her bouquet of flowers, is torn to shreds.
In the roles of the doomed young lovers and aspiring
artists, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Natalie Portman give unadorned,
affecting performances, courageous in their vulnerability. Hoffman,
known for his flamboyant character roles in film (including Almost
Famous and The Talented Mr. Ripley) and his recent tour de
force on Broadway in Sam Shepard's True West, shows great
versatility here with his sensitive, understated portrayal of the
tortured young writer. And Portman's delicate youth and soaring
spirit make her fall all the more heartbreaking in the play's final,
immortal scene, played by both with simplicity and
The illusive role of the writer Trigorin, the
lover who leaves Arkadina for Nina and then abandons Nina and their
child, is, like Arkadina, a dangerously unsympathetic one (it was
originated by Stanislavsky himself, and Chekhov never felt he got it
right). Kevin Kline, distinguished classical leading man (remember
his Hamlet and Ivanov), has given this subtle role an elegant,
seductive, ironic and highly appealing rendering.
The Seagull is considered a realistic play (radically
experimental, at the time it was written), it is in truth an
impressionistic one, and directors are understandably lured by its
suggestive symbolism. Hence, there have been numerous vivid imagistic
productions over the years, including, most recently, Romanian-born
Andrei Serban's Seagull in Japan (1980), with a vast lake on
stage, into which Treplev falls after he shoots himself; Petr Lebl's
white-on-white Art Deco one in Prague (1994); and Michael Greif's
production at the Williamstown Theatre Festival (1994), where the
back wall of the stage rises at the end of Act IV, revealing
Konstantin's blood-drenched body draped over the piano. In the case
of Nichols's Seagull, the director has trust enough in the
author, the text, the splendid cast and the spectacular natural
setting to allow the play to play itself. Indeed, Central Park
provides everything that Chekhov asked for: a vast outdoor park, a
lake (Turtle Pond) and the silhouette of grand estates (Belvedere
Castle) on the other shore. Bob Crowley (scenic and costume designer)
has provided an elegant, vine-covered mansion stage left, whose
brilliant windows (lit by Jennifer Tipton) blaze against the dark
sky, promising a cozy, safe interior against the dangerous lures of
nature and creativity. Marcia Gay Harden and Stephen Spinella wander
in from behind the birches, Natalie Portman rides in on horseback,
Kevin Kline sits silently on the shore and fishes. "Ah, the spells
this lake casts," sighs Larry Pine. (Who needs Hollywood?!)
Above all, Mike Nichols has understood why Chekhov called
this play a comedy. Chekhov, the vaudevillian, the writer of sketches
and short stories, had the soul of a comedic writer in the body of a
dying man. Diagnosed at 29, he died of consumption at the age of 44
(he wrote The Seagull at 35). As a doctor, Chekhov saw life
ironically, in tragicomic terms--"I write about life as it is," he
said. Nichols (once a comedic actor himself), with four award-winning
decades in the theater (directing Simon, Albee, Beckett and Stoppard,
among many others), has his own deep understanding of how comedy and
drama cohabit on the stage. Accordingly, he has inspired comedic
performances that follow the story's descent into sorrow with
simplicity and truth.
"I would like life to flash by in
moments, brilliantly," Chekhov once wrote to his publisher. In the
end, the deep truths of his four great plays are unfathomable, and
productions over the past century have not always been greeted with
praise by the public and the critics. And yet, the glory and eternity
of Chekhov lies in fleeting but indelible moments created on the
stage. For me, there's the memory of Irene Worth running round the
empty house in the last act of Serban's Cherry Orchard, as she
leaves her home forever. Or of Brian Dennehy in Brook's production,
as he pounds his chest and shouts, "It's mine, the cherry orchard is
mine!" Or Ian McKellen's Uncle Vanya clutching his bouquet of roses
at the Royal National Theatre (1993). Or Vanessa and Corin Redgrave
(brother and sister playing the same) in the RNT's current production
of The Cherry Orchard, frolicking on the nursery floor. And
now, add the moment of Meryl Streep's joyful, triumphant cartwheel
under the stars in Central Park, in celebration of life and art and
talent--and return to the theater.
The brother of the Sultan of Brunei
Set out to see how much a guy could buy,
And fifteen billion's what he finally spent
Before the sultan voiced some discontent.
The guilt of many shoppers was assuaged.
The most committed shopaholic gauged,
"I'd really have to spend a lot more dough
To be a spendthrift like the sultan's bro."
At 5 o'clock in the
morning, the radio alarm begins to blare the news. The United States
is threatening to pull out of the World Conference Against Racism if
the conversation includes tensions between Israel and the
Palestinians. What a nightmare, I think as I sit up in bed. How can
the most powerful and diverse country on earth refuse to go to the
first global discussion of race? No one expected easy accord about
what's racial and what's not, but to refuse to attend the discussion
Perhaps I am unduly depressed because I am in a
small motel somewhere in...South Dakota, is it? Or maybe San Diego? I
made the terrible mistake of watching Planet of the Apes the
night before, in this dim room whose walls are flocked in orange fuzz
with silver trim. It is the end of a long week of speaking to
organizations that have called me in because someone has done
something like hang a big noose over a black person's work space, and
they would like me--me!--to get everyone speaking
The last five days have involved flying into
Pittsburgh or Salt Lake City or Tampa in order to take a shuttle to
terminal Z, where militia members in camouflage or square dance teams
in pouffy skirts or troupes of young missionaries take flights to and
from small towns all over America in very small planes. I have been
lining up behind them, boarding ancient Cessna prop planes seating
ten--give or take carry-on weapons caches, guitars, extra Bibles and
box of diversity pamphlets--and bounce low to the ground all the way
to Saginaw or Elko or Huntsville or Dayton.
I get out of
bed and look for coffee on the room service menu. There is no room
service menu. There is no room service.
The gentleman who
comes to greet me on behalf of the Better Business Through
Multicultural Harmony Committee is from Bahrain and hails me like a
long-lost sister. I can assure you from personal experience how
dramatically America's demographics are changing; the smaller and
more off the beaten track the American town, the more likely the
confused little minority community will include representatives
recently arrived from Bangladesh or Sudan or Cambodia or
The gentleman from Bahrain settles me into a
large, all-American car and whisks me off into the cornfields and
more cornfields. An hour later we hit a strip mall, turn left, a mile
and a half of soybeans--et voilà! East-West Central
Southern Industries (name changed to protect the innocent). The
conference room at whose door he deposits me has coffee! muffins! and
is really pretty pleasant, even given my yuppie
The problem I have been asked to tackle is a
new but essentially old-fashioned one. Someone with too much free
time has created a list of all the employees, put it online and
created the kind of cyberspatial graffiti that one hoped one never
had to think about after tenth grade, when notebooks were passed
around with a name on each page, and cruel anonymous comments were
scrawled beneath. This particular list ranks everyone by sexiness,
intelligence, dress and, perhaps most destructively, smell. The
comments are racialized, sexually crude, almost pathologically
immature but as hard to dismiss as a punch in the stomach. It is a
bully's shopping list of strategies to humiliate, and it has created
the intended havoc, spilling into the small town beyond. "Affirmative
action bitch. Wears Payless shoes," is a typically bitter little
It takes me all morning just to sort out who has
injured whom. Virtually everyone in the company has hurled enough
epithets to make everyone else on the planet hate them forever. I
decide to speak to just a few people, those in the best position to
try to make some systemic improvements.
The gentleman from
Bahrain volunteers to organize a dinner. He makes a few phone calls
on my behalf, and soon we are off to a Vietnamese restaurant in the
mall, where we meet with an odd assortment of community organizers
and spokesmen. The cast of characters includes a local black minister
who (like a weird inverted image of George W. Bush's saying that the
Nation of Islam was one of the world's great religions) is worried
that his new Islamic Moroccan neighbors are followers of Louis
Farrakhan. There's a white police officer who is sincerely trying to
smooth the waters while dropping phrases like "outside agitators" and
"stingy as a Jew." There's a Nigerian man with five sons who is
worried about his children being called "gang members" every time
they walk to school together. There's a Native-American man who shows
up to protest that no one remembered to invite him.
the head of a local evangelical group trying to raise money to buy
Sudanese slaves in order to set them free. There's a representative
of a human rights agency who says that buying slaves is not a
political solution but rather encourages traders to raise the price.
"It's part of a larger global sex market," he says. "And it operates
right here in America--you don't have to travel to Eastern Europe or
Africa. Would you consider going to some big-time pimps, buying a few
sex slaves, setting them free on a street corner and really think
you'd accomplished much of anything in the way of eliminating the
There is a genial Republican Party leader who
wants me to meet a Mozambican woman who has been studying at the
local university and who is miserably homesick. "We haven't done our
job if she wants to go back to a country like that," he says, and
introduces me as "an example of what can be achieved in the US." She
is a charming person, with a degree from the Sorbonne. "Mozambique is
my home," she sighs wearily. "Americans know nothing of
And there's a recently arrived Palestinian
refugee and a Jewish teacher whose family migrated to this town
seventy years ago. They are neighbors, and express overlapping
concerns about events in the Middle East. "We might not get along at
all if we were there. But here we are friends. Here," they add, "it
is everybody else." As we gaze around the room, it does seem as if
these two are the only ones on fully cordial terms.
they conclude after a moment's reflection, "at least they all showed
IF I HAD A HAMMER...
I agree with Katrina vanden Heuvel on the
necessity of building a better infrastructure to combat the
right-wing corporate giant ["Building to Win," July 9]. The right has
the money and the media. The progressives have the brains and the
moral highroad. Let's keep to the latter while concentrating on how
best to position the former. Newt Gingrich used computer technology
to fire his misguided agenda. Progressives need to capture the
Internet as the means to train, inform, meet and proselytize (The
website Common Dreams is a good start). Technology can go far beyond
a simple reprinting of well-written articles. I suggest that the web
be our printing press as well as our town meeting hall to take back
our party, the Democratic Party, and to then move the rest of the
country back from the fringe of fascism.
New York City
infrastructure is essential. But until we regain command over the
buzzwords, conservatives hold the advantage. After a relentless
barrage of invective by conservatives and sixties radicals, "liberal"
became a term of opprobrium. "Marketplace" must be shown to be a
myth; "privatize," a synonym for corrupt favoritism; "missile defense
initiative," a form of corporate welfare; "interests" returned to its
original meaning, corporate oligopoly; "tax reduction," a transfer of
wealth from those who have little to those who have much;
"globalization," a search for the most repressive dictatorships that
deliver the lowest wages and costs. Government and labor must be what
they were in the past, the only counterweights to supranational
Katrina vanden Heuvel
perpetuates a common misunderstanding when she states, "The 1997
Supreme Court decision against the New Party...has chained us
constitutionally to the existing duopoly." Not so. Nothing in the
Constitution "chains" us to the two-party system. Only federal law
does. A statute passed by Congress forces states to gerrymander their
territories into single-member districts. This law entrenches duopoly
politics, because a one-winner election turns third parties into
spoilers and encourages voters to hold their noses and vote for one
of only two candidates. Thus, states are prevented from using
proportional representation (PR), which the Constitution would allow.
By using larger, multimember districts and preference or party-list
voting, PR would give third and fourth parties a chance. A bill in
Congress, HR 1189, the Voters' Choice Act, would eliminate the
single-seat requirement, allowing states to experiment with PR. The
duopoly can be broken without having to face the Supreme Court or
amend the Constitution. It's a legislative issue, like other election
reforms, and progressives should be leading the way.
New York City
I'm sorry if my
shorthand summary of our present predicament was confusing. It is
quite true, of course, that the Constitution does not mandate a
two-party system. Indeed, it says nothing at all about parties. Our
duopoly is a creation of statutory law and administration rule, and
in principle we could change it by the same means. The age-old
problem, however, is that the very duopoly the law protects also runs
our government and has never shown the slightest interest in
increasing competition. So those who wish to reform the system are
forced to use citizen initiative or the courts.
Supreme Court's decision in Timmons v. Twin Cities Area New
Party did was in effect to preclude the second line of attack.
Steered by the same Gang of Five that later gave us Bush v.
Gore, it held that the current major parties werefree to
construct electoral rules for the exclusive purpose of limiting
competition to themselves. Just how profound a departure from past
law this was is important to see. Before Timmons the Court
often recognized the endurance of our two-party system and even the
possible virtues of the duopoly over other electoral systems. But
what it had never done was misread the Constitution to favor
party duopoly, and it had always treated any effort by the two major
parties to reproduce themselves indefinitely as the duopoly--by
erecting artificial barriers to new party entry and effective
competition--with something approaching contempt. The Court said in
Timmons that existing parties had a legitimate interest in
doing just that. Moreover, it declared itself prepared to uphold this
interest regardless of a showing, as was made and accepted in the
case, that doing so hurt our electoral system's representativeness
with no gain in any other electoral value--accountability or
stability, for instance--traditionally recognized by the Court. After
Timmons, I see no constitutional argument that might
successfully be made against the rules upholding our duopoly. That's
what I meant by saying the decision "chained us constitutionally."
KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL
I know a place
where the Navy can shift its bombing operations that will make
everybody happy--Martha's Vineyard [Angelo Falcón, "Liberating
Vieques," July 9]! Like Vieques, the Vineyard is a charming island
with easy access to sea and land. With more than three times
Vieques's paltry fifty-one square miles, it should afford the Navy a
much wider range of out-of-the-way targets. And since the peak season
runs only about three months, there'll be ample opportunity to
squeeze in the 180 days a year of bombing the Navy says it needs to
maintain readiness. Since the Navy claims these operations have no
significant impact on public health, safety, economy, ecology or
quality of life, I don't foresee a problem.
YOU CAN TAKE THIS VOTE & SHOVE
As one of those
blue-collar white folks examined in Andrew Levison's review of why
most supported Bush in the last election, I'd like to point out that
most of us didn't support anybody--refusing to take what time off we
have to vote for one elitist son of a politician over another. Just
whose version of NAFTA were we supposed to endorse? As best as I can
tell, a lot of scholarship went into explaining the obvious ["Who
Lost the Working Class?" May 14].
Working white folk have
been abandoned for decades by the Democrats and corporate labor, a
feeling native workers "of color" are beginning to experience. Racial
divisions were exploited by conservatives for profit and liberals for
posture. And while we knocked heads over jobs and wages, the libs and
cons retired to their clubs under the awning of loyal
Levison continues the obvious fallacy that
unions represent the majority of workers and their interests. After
they purged action-oriented activists a couple of generations ago,
their flaccid advocacies have served only to diminish their own
numbers, bolstered today only by a willingness to adopt scabs once
workers have lost their jobs. The new predominant service industries
require servility over skill. Americans suck as servants. Immigrant
labor, so unsurly and so adored by progressives, met no opposition
from the liberal side until it impacted jobs of college graduates in
the high-tech industries. Republicans don't have the working-class
vote any more than the Democrats have our interest at heart. It don't
take four years in the Ivy League for most of us to recognize the two
empty husks in the American shell game.
I recognized the
values Andrew Levison enumerates as "working class," and his
description of the 1950s, from my own experience as the daughter of
an East Texas railroad engineer and labor organizer. We used to iron
my father's striped work overalls, so he left the house each day
starched and clean and returned greasy. But in the 1950s he started
wearing a suit to work and would change into his overalls at the rail
yard. Even as a child, I sensed the shame that had replaced his
"Who Lost the Working Class?" fails to mention
two singular men who also toiled in Andrew Levison's vineyard. Where
is Will Gavin (whose prophetic 1975 sleeper, Street Corner
Conservative, argued that the "Right" kind of Republican could
take all the marbles in places like the People's Republic of Queens)?
And what about the late Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Tom
Fox (who in 1976 coined the phrase "Reagan Democrats")? I gave Fox my
own Rx for the GOP: Let Jerry Ford spend more time with Joe Garagiola
(and less with Henry Kissinger) and he wins. But they didn't. So he
NOEL E. PARMENTEL JR.
NOT BY SEX ED
Santa Cruz, Calif.
disputes myths of abstinence-only education only to uphold the myth
that better sex education would eliminate the difference between high
US and low European teen pregnancy rates ["Sex, Lies and Politics,"
May 7]. In fact, the biggest reason for the difference is poverty. In
more affluent communities where US teenagers have poverty rates as
low as those of European youth (around 5 percent), US teen pregnancy
rates are as low as Europe's; in America's impoverished inner cities
and rural areas, teen pregnancy rates are 20 times higher. Black and
Hispanic adolescents suffer poverty levels triple those of white
youths, and the Centers for Disease Control's latest report shows
that black and Hispanic adolescents have pregnancy rates three times
higher than whites'.
Comprehensive evaluations of American
teen pregnancy prevention do not show that sex and abstinence
education reduce pregnancy rates but that poverty exerts powerful
effects. The best evidence indicates that sex education and
contraception provision help to deter pregnancy only when accompanied
by social and economic reforms that provide expanded opportunities
for poorer populations. By drastically overstating the effectiveness
of programmatic interventions, sex education advocates interfere with
the crucial need to redress America's grotesque socioeconomic
inequalities and youth poverty levels.
COLD WAR CITATION REVISIONISM
New York City
In my July 16 essay, "Cold War Ghosts," I should have cited either
Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes's Venona or Allen
Weinstein's Perjury rather than The Haunted Wood (by
Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev) for the argument that since the
person code-named ALES returned from the Yalta Conference via Moscow,
and Alger Hiss did the same on a plane carrying three others, none of
them spy material, ALES was probably Hiss.
It should surprise no one that the European revolutionaries are not inspired by the American dream. Nobody, after all, expected the fighters for national liberation in the post-Napoleonic era to cherish the memory of Metternich, and the United States is now a much mightier pillar of the new Holy Alliance for the preservation of the status quo. It intervenes, directly or by proxy, wherever the social order is threatened, from Taiwan to Greece to Guatemala. Whenever they are under attack, profit and privilege can rely on the forces of "freedom." In Vietnam the American bombers spell out for the local population the bloody message "Better dead than red." The Green Berets are ready to jump in order to rescue the ruling oligarchies of the banana and other republics of Latin America (though the profits of US companies are now better insured by training local troops for the struggle against "subversion"). Like a black knight in nuclear armor the United States Navy patrols the seas, proclaiming that no more social revolutions will be allowed, that China's in 1949 was the last to be tolerated, while the Cuban affair was simply a misunderstanding. The Vietnamese resistance aroused enthusiasm far from Hanoi and Saigon because it challenged American presumption and proved that human courage still counted even in the world of nuclear balance. The Tet offensive in 1968 drove Western students to action because it revealed that the enemy was not invincible. Che Guevara, alive or dead, was hailed as a symbol of solidarity, of the international nature of the anti-imperialist struggle.
The salesmen of the American dream, and they are legion in Europe, prefer to bypass this role of international gendarme, or to justify it in terms of domestic achievement. They point to the democratic niceties, to the civil liberties the United States can still afford. They stress even more the economic achievement, the technological lead, the intellectual investment that vast accumulation has rendered possible, the level of research and management, the high productivity--in short, the superior wealth of the nation; and they turn to the young revolutionaries with the rhetorical question: Can you dismiss the American model in spite of all this? The answer is not in spite of it but because of it. The most frightening prospect, the American nightmare, is that with so much wealth man should not be able to build a different kind of society. In fact, the Europeans are merely echoing the indictment of America's New Left which, instead of being dazzled by the moon, points to the dark side of American society; its inequality and racism, its collective poverty and private plenty, its derelict health services, its belated discovery of pollution and urban chaos--and to the system responsible for it all.
To its admirers, the United States has discovered the secret of perpetual motion for capitalism. Advertising, as a new dynamic method of sales promotion, is a way of getting rid of industrial surpluses superior to that of coffee burning in agriculture. Above all, with military expenditures absorbing, even in official figures, about one-tenth of the national product, the state has a powerful lever to direct the rhythm of output. Advanced capitalism differs from its predecessor. The vagaries of the cycle are less pronounced, unemployment is relatively smaller, growth comparatively more regular. This is not the place to discuss whether this post-Keynesian equilibrium, resting on a militarization of the economy unprecedented in peacetime, is stable and lasting. The painful discovery of America's rulers is that even while the going is good, the system runs into new contradictions. American expansion meets resistance at home, as well as abroad. The outsiders rebel. The hitherto passive blacks refuse to continue being pariahs in the alleged land of plenty. The growing movement of protest among students and the radical part of the intelligentsia is a symptom of something deeper--the clash between the direction to which the expansion of productive forces is geared and the social needs of our age.
The "consumer society" is a misnomer suggesting that at least, as regards consumption, the average citizen is the uncrowned King. Though his material conditions have in many ways improved beyond recognition, modern man is still an alienated producer and a highly conditioned buyer of goods, a dissatisfied purchaser of leisure and pleasure with very little control over his environment. A producer society, guided by industrial and commercial profit, would be a much more accurate description. That problems such as pollution and urban decay are tackled only when they become unbearable is in the logic of things. Modern capitalism has changed enough in method and manner to face up to the unprofitable when it is under pressure. But it has preserved its essence. Profit remains its ultimate driving force, and it is intrinsically unable to confront the collective or individual problems of our society from any other angle. Consciously or unconsciously, this is what the protest is really about.
The similarity of some of its manifestations on both sides of the Atlantic is quite natural. The Englishman, the Frenchman or the German traveling in the United States is less struck by contrasts than by resemblances. He has the strange impression of making a journey through his own country's more or less distant future. For the most political among them, however impressed they may be by the technological progress, it is a journey to night's end. They know that this is their inevitable prospect unless Europe can forge a different kind of society. The bitter controversies between "Europeans" and "anti-Europeans" are really irrelevant in this context. The conflict that has begun cuts across continental as well as national frontiers. The European protesters who look ahead are joining hands with America's New Left. In Western Europe the real division is between those who seek socialism and those who opt for the American model. "Et tout le reste est littérature." It was no accident if during the French May crisis the United States authorities trembled for the fate of Gaullism. They sensed, quite rightly, that the forces then launching the assault against Gaullism are the same that are waging the struggle against Europe's American future.
The conflict is now intercontinental, and so is the solidarity. Revolutionary "grouplets" across Western Europe used to look exclusively to the Third World, to the Vietnamese or the Latin American guerrillas fighting against imperialism from without. They are now also looking to America's young radicals, who are beginning to carry on the same struggle from within. By the same token, they have discovered their own independent and intermediate role.
In mood at least, there are some parallels between the present period and the middle of the 19th century in Europe. Then, too, solidarity was the order of the day, and during the so-called "Spring of the People," fighters for national liberation journeyed from country to country battling "for your freedom and ours." Now, whatever policemen may think, direct intervention is still rare. The community of purpose and struggle is nevertheless growing. Europe's young students and workers salute their fellows across the Atlantic with the new message: "Against your present and our future."
West wind, east wind.... There is nothing new in the violent reaction of Europe's radicals against American interventionism nor in their hostile rejection of the American model. The real novelty is that the Soviet Union has practically vanished as a counter-attraction. During the French crisis there were many references to the Bolshevik October, but none, apart from contemptuous dissociation, to the bureaucratic rule of Stalin's heirs. This antagonism or indifference to the Soviet model--revisionist for some, Stalinist for others, irrelevant for most--characteristic of the May movement, was one of the reasons why orthodox Communists viewed it from the start with deep mistrust. Yet even the orthodox in the West are by now highly discreet about citing the Soviet Union as an example. They are particularly reticent about dwelling on the prospects of the Soviet bloc since the invasion of Czechoslovakia.
Spring in 1968 flourished in unison in Paris and Prague, but hopes faded separately. The French crisis was over, at least temporarily, by the time the Russian tanks rolled into Prague on August 21, and their invasion marked the beginning of the end of the unique experiment of Czech students and workers. The epilogue in Prague came after the French act, and thus could not affect it. But it has affected the European horizon. The Czech tragedy throws a new light on the problem of the dismantlement of Stalinism in Eastern Europe. It makes it necessary to reassess the hope of a Socialist revival within the Soviet bloc and, by the same token, the chances that inspiration in Europe may once again come from the East.
From your very first encounters at the modernized Warsaw airport you know that you have entered the kingdom of private enterprise. The operator at the money exchange hands me $30 worth of zlotys, though I gave her $40; when I protest, she adds the difference without a fuss. A cabbie offers to take me downtown for 200,000 zlotys, explaining that the cheats in the taxi stand outside will charge more because their meters start at 50,000. When I reply that the radio taxi coming to collect me will cost less than a third of his "reduced" fare, his knowing smile and shrug say, So not all new arrivals are suckers. But you have to try to get on in this world.
Returning to Poland after a year, I wanted to see how the patient was faring after nearly three years of "shock therapy" introduced by Leszek Balcerowicz, the former finance minister, and sponsored by the International Monetary Fund. My first impression was that things are the same, only more so. The image of Western prosperity is striking. The heart of Warsaw is packed with cars. They may not be more numerous but they are bigger, Western Europe's compacts replacing the tiny Fiats made in Poland. "Marketing is an art" says the slogan at the railway station advertising a magazine called "Businessman". Across the street, outside the Marriott hotel, the bellboys wear pith helmets; inside, the gambling casino is open twenty-four hours a day. The latter is mainly for foreigners, but along the city's two most elegant avenues, New World and Krakow Suburb, the smart shops displaying expensive cars, elegant amber jewelry and other luxury goods cater to the natives; and these stores have customers. The upper crust is visibly rising.
On my last visit I wanted to know how fast this buying spree could produce a capitalist class, so I looked at the new rich [see "Poland's New Men of Property," November 11, 1991]. This time I wanted to know how the rest of the country lives, including the much-faster-spreading new poor. To see them, you don't really have to leave the capital, yet I advise those who still echo the hymns to the "Polish miracle" of Harvard free-marketeer Jeffrey Sachs and his ilk to make a short train journey from the Marriott to the city of Lodz.
Down and Out in Lodz
With foreign capital and the huge czarist-era market for its textiles, Lodz grew like a mushroom in the second half of the nineteenth century to become Poland's second-largest city; its population is 850,000. Its factories are spread haphazardly across the metropolitan area. My wife and I walk along one such proletarian fortress--building after building behind a brick wall--stretching, it seems, for miles. At the end, along Weaving Street, is a grim block of flats for the workers; opposite, next to a lake, is a white gem of a palace, yesterday the home of the manufacturer, today a textile museum. With such a socially eloquent landscape the inhabitants may not require a long refresher course to grasp the nature of capitalism.
Poland's textile capital, however, is not what it used to be. Deprived of the Soviet market and attacked on the home front by cheap imports, Lodz is in crisis. Although restructuring, so far, has led to the closing of departments rather than whole enterprises, unemployment, by official count, has already reached 18 percent of the labor force. The contrast with Warsaw hits the eye. Even in the upper parts of the main thoroughfare, Piotrowska Street, the shops do not have the chic of the capital's. At the other end of this very long road poverty sweats through the walls. The nearby flea market, with peddlers from Vilnius or Kiev, is miserable not only by Western but also by Polish standards. Anka Rozanska, a sociologist prominent in the local League of Women, knows a great deal about this wounded city. Usually, she works with single mothers or distributes contraceptive devices received from France. She has much to say about the growing shadow of the Catholic Church (of which more later), but to hear about unemployment she takes us to the horse's mouth.
The Committee for the Defense of the Jobless, at the end of a labyrinthine courtyard, has two bare rooms and a dozen people inside. Although men are more numerous, it's chaired by a woman, Lucyna Kosterkiewicz. She speaks in bursts, with passion: "Without family or friends we couldn't survive.... Dispersed we're nothing, lower than dirt." Another woman, who used to work in a glass factory, was unable to pay for coal to heat her house. So she ran up a large electric bill and now the Electricity Board is threatening to cut off her power. Couldn't she go to a special welfare office for a subsidy? I asked. She did, she said. It was like going to confession, only they wanted to know about her "riches." A man proclaims: This is no capitalism with a human face. It's a more bloodthirsty variety. There's a black market for labor; employers hire for less than twenty-eight days so they won't have to pay for social benefits. Another man claims that for the jobless it might as well be the guillotine at age 40. Women say economic demise comes even earlier for them, since to get a job "you must be young, childless and have a big bosom." Lucyna raises the tone: "We forget the taste of butter, the smell of ham.... I wrote to [President Lech] Walesa and heard not a word.... Ours is a voice in the desert."
We move from the committee to the employment office, where the jobless must report to get their unemployment benefits (35 percent of the average national wage for a year, eighteen months in depressed areas, and then you go on welfare). Today is men's day, and we see a line of them wearily standing on the staircase and continuing out into the courtyard; it's like an old newsreel from the Depression. The last time I was here was eleven years ago, during a Solidarity-sponsored "hunger march." Anka, who was among the marchers, says in parting, "Today, if we staged a march, the slogan would be less metaphorical."
`A Nation of Shopkeepers'?
Lodz, with its many factories, is not the gloomiest area. The situation is much more desperate in smaller towns like Mielec or Swidnik, linked to one industry and often connected with arms making. Yet to focus the light only on these sore spots would distort the picture. The plentiful supply of goods--the fact that, if you have money, you can buy anything in Poland, ironically including kosher food, without standing in line--is described as a great conquest even by those who find it difficult to make ends meet.
The unquenched thirst for consumer goods is a notable feature throughout Eastern Europe.The heart of Warsaw is a vast bazaar. Next to the Palace of Culture, a skyscraper in Stalinist gothic, there are now two tentlike stuctures, one housing a supermarket, the other, small shops. The vast terrain is surrounded by a wooden fence decorated with painted trees. Inside is Eastern Europe's souk, a warren of booths, stalls and kiosks offering cheap manufactured wares from all over the globe. The novelty is the spread of decent restaurants, not just McDonald's, as well as the emergence of sex shops. Otherwise, despite the development of a normal commercial network, one can still see in Warsaw, say, lavatory fixtures being peddled at a street corner straight off a truck or meat sold in the open from a table on Wiejska Street, next to the houses of Parliament.
This commercial revolution was designed, successfully, to break the state's control over trade. But what about the next stage on the agenda--capital investment? Statistics published while I was in Warsaw provide some economic and social background necessary to tackle this question.
For now at least, the economic downturn has bottomed out. Since April, production has even been rising slightly, and for the year as a whole it should equal the volume of 1991. Foreign trade shows a surplus. But this is as far as the good news goes. Even if the fragile recovery continues, unemployment is expected to climb from the present 13.6 percent of the work force to 18 percent by the end of next year. And the long-term decline in production has been halted at a very low level: Industrial output is one-third lower than in 1989, and real wages have dropped by 30 percent. Even if slightly exaggerated, because of the mysteries of the private sector, the figures are dramatic. How has the post-Communist regime survived three years of such belt-tightening?
It went through the big economic transformation of 1990 driven by the euphoria of victory and squandering the good will of Solidarity. Last year the discontent grew. This past summer Poland experienced a wave of strikes: thirty ÃÂ´eight in July and thirty-five in August, most notably in the copper mines and in the car factory taken over by Fiat. The stoppages, I gather, were not as unsuccessful and unpopular as depicted in the Polish media (the Western press--guess why?--is no longer keen on Polish strikes).
This interpretation was confirmed by many sources, including Ewa Spychalska, the new leader of the ex-Communist union confederation, the O.P.Z.Z. (with a membership now more than twice that of Solidarity!). Tall and fortyish, Spychalska started professional life as a teacher and switched to become a building technician when she became the main breadwinner in the family. She did belong to Solidarity, like so many millions, but was also a Communist Party member and has no intention of "apologizing for it for the rest of my life." She argues that, while the workers did not get all they had asked for, the summer strikes strengthened unity of action among the rank and file and forced the government to seek a dialogue with all unions, not just with Solidarity. The government, while unyielding during the strikes, may have been prompted by the discontent to look for a deal with the unions through an enterprise pact. Which brings us back to the transfer of ownership and the search for new forms of capital accumulation.
Power and Property
Even before 1989 the bulk of land belonged to smallholders. Now 80 percent of retail trade and about three-quarters of the building industry is also in private hands. In manufacturing, however, the proportions are still the other way around. The Ministry of Property Transformations is putting the last touches on Poland's version of "universal privatization." The plan should involve 600 of the country's most attractive state enterprises. Ownership of these will be divided among twenty or so National Investment Funds to be run by management teams, quite a few of them foreign. Adult Poles will be allowed to buy a voucher for shares in these funds at a fixed price equivalent to a tenth of their monthly wage. The purpose of the operation is to create capitalist interests, to get foreigners involved, to give some people a real stake in private industry and to give the bulk of the population the illusion that they were not completely robbed.
For other companies the government is introducing a "pact on the state enterprise in the process of transformation." This is expected to give labor unions some say in the way their plants are privatized and, during the transition period, to limit the handicaps public enterprises suffer (unlike private companies, they must now pay a "dividend" to the state and a special tax on certain wage increases). The project, still to be voted on by Parliament, is sponsored by Jacek Kuron, the veteran dissident who is now Minister of Labor and Social Affairs. Kuron has given up his old socialist ideals, but not his way of life. The plain-speaking minister dressed in blue jeans is still the country's most popular politician. He admits that to combine a "social contract" with "primitive accumulation" is not easy. He believes he can win over the unions, including the O.P.Z.Z., but he also believes they have little influence.
Let there be no illusion. This is not Solidarity returning to its egalitarian origins or its ideas of self-management. Indeed, Kuron is backed by the most monetarist ministers in the government who, like himself, opted for the Balcerowicz shock-therapy plan yet fear that privatization will run into trouble if it is seen by the workers as daylight robbery.
It's `Them' Again
The transfer of property has obvious political as well as economic purposes. The parties throughout Eastern Europe speak, in a sense, for classes in the process of formation, and this is why they often speak with strange voices. The Parliament's lower house, or Sejm, with its twenty parties (of which none captured more than 14 percent of the vote in last year's elections), provides a good example of such a dissonant chorus. But one of its most prominent members, the historian Bronislaw Geremek, gave me another explanation of the political confusion. The main conflict in Eastern Europe, he argued, is between the reformers who want to lead their societies toward the Western model and the opponents of change. The snag is that the Western consensus politics is based on the existence of a large middle class, absent in Poland. Some, therefore, wish to reshape society by authoritarian means. He maintains that big changes, notably in property relations, can only be carried out with popular consent.
Geremek's interpretation was the only possible one to justify the coexistence in one government of his party, the vaguely secular and leftish Democratic Union, with the jingoist and clerical Christian National Party. The "reformist" link between the coalition partners is the acceptance of the Balcerowicz line and of the pattern prescribed by international finance. The price paid for the shock therapy, however, is a heavy one: the divorce of the former Solidarity leadership from a people who barely three years ago had swept it triumphantly into power.
The fatal flaw of the "communist" regimes throughout the area was their alienation, the fact that the population thought in terms of "us" and "them." In Poland today most ordinary people talk once again about "them"--the crafty ones, the profiteers--lumping together Lech Walesa, the government and the parliamentarians into this category. This is no rehabilitation of the old regime. It is a condemnation of the new one.
The current governmental coalition was brought together last July, partly by the fear of a McCarthyite purge prepared by a crazy interior minister. The present Prime Minister, Hanna Suchocka, was picked because she was sufficiently unknown not to offend prominent rivals and sufficiently Catholic to have the blessing of the church. Most deputies fear an election and thus don't want to challenge Suchocka, but her government could collapse in a conflict with President Walesa. Yet more worrying than the prospects for the government is the almost immediate loss of legitimacy of the new system.
In Warsaw, as in other eastern capitals, those loosely called democrats warn that, if their road to capitalism fails, the alternative is more likely to be semifascist than socialist. They forget to add that their policy feeds dangerous forms of populism. Discontent in Poland strengthens not only the converted ex-Communists, who are still too discredited to become the main alternative, but also parties like the jingoist Confederation of Polish Independence, which nonetheless appears proletarian compared with the Democratic Union, born of Solidarity. More valid is the claim that the so-called democrats, while no longer leftist in economic matters, are better than their rivals on such issues as nationalism and the rule of law. Even this, however, must be qualified because of a Polish peculiarity--the political power of the church.
The Black Web
"The antiabortion law will be passed," Basia Labuda tells me upon emerging from a parliamentary commission meeting. The bill she refers to will forbid abortion even in the case of rape and will sentence doctors and women involved to two years in jail. Basia, whom I have known as a leftie, has long been converted to capitalism. But she has remained a radical fighter for women's rights against the clerical invasion and was recently attacked by Jozef Cardinal Glemp himself. She says the law will pass partly because of the conduct of her colleagues (she, too, belongs to the Democratic Union): They will bravely vanish on the day of the vote or abstain; even those who will vote against do not have the courage to stand up to the church publicly.
From Basia and many women activists I hear the same story of a Catholic Church spreading its web over society. The church emerged under the new regime in an exceptionally strong position, which it is now trying to institutionalize. It first obtained a decree that religious instruction should be given during school hours, then insisted that it should count as a subject. Now it demands that a church teacher be put on every school council. The abortion ban will be particularly harmful in a country where sex education and birth control lag behind the West (many women are still using the rhythm method, known here as "Vatican roulette"). Once the bill is passed, the clergy is expected to switch to a frontal attack on contraception. Will divorce be next? The church is trying to impose its "values" everywhere, including radio and television.
Occasionally, it goes too far. For example, it claimed a university building in Warsaw seized by the Czar after the insurrection of 1863. The Constitutional Tribunal had to remind the church it can only reclaim property seized after World War II. Indeed, some optimists stress that the tide is turning, that the church is losing popularity. The clergy refuses categorically a referendum on abortion, knowing it would be defeated. There are other developments antagonizing the people: the greed with which the church seizes clinics or grabs land destined for children's playgrounds; the ostentatious wealth of the prelates in poor parishes. The church's struggle is ultimately a losing one against the modern age; if it continues making mistakes, it will soon lose the moral authority it gained in opposing the Communist regime. Poland will cease to be peculiar. Should one look hopefully to such a normal future or worry about the dark ages in between?
Blues in the Night
It is our last night in the capital. We have come back from a visit with Zbyszek Bujak, the underground leader of Solidarity in the days of military rule. He has now joined the Union of Labor, a budding social democratic party whose main spokesman is the economist Ryszard Bugaj and that can rely on the prestige of another veteran in the struggle against the old regime, the historian Karol Modzelewski. Bujak, who started as a workers' leader at the Ursus tractor factory, could help them on the shop floor. It is not easy, he argues; people are tired and, disappointed by collective action, are only out for themselves.
We go to the Palace of Culture. Yes, it now boasts a gaming house called Queen's Casino, with lackeys in tails--"penguins," my wife calls them. It is incongruously situated between socialist realist statues carved in the wall, representing a mighty workman and an intellectual carrying Marx's works. What a sad mixture of symbolic associations: the palace itself, Stalin's gift, standing for revolution betrayed and exported; Marx's aspirations distorted in Zhdanovite fashion and then, poison breeding poison, the greatest workers' movement in the postwar period producing a gambling den.
Am I too harsh? As I was walking earlier in the week along the memory trail to Umschlagplatz, from where thousands and thousands of Jews were sent to their death in Treblinka, I was probably already saying goodbye to the town of my early childhood, to the country I returned to in 1980, full of vague hopes that the workers of Gdansk had opened entirely new vistas. It was a historic beginning, even if it did not fulfill all its promises.
It didn't take me three years to find this out. Yet something did snap as I was having lunch in the Sejm with a man for whom I had great sympathy, a student gone to live with the workers--these students were called "colonizers"--somebody who played a key role in setting up the independent labor unions, in organizing the strikes, in the underground political struggle, and who even today is unspoiled by money. Asked, maybe too bluntly, how the capital of Solidarity was squandered so quickly, he replies, "It wasn't. It was invested--invested in the future of our country." Christ almighty! Unbribed and untwisted, but already talking in the wooden tongue of an apparatchik! Is that the fate of all successful revolutions?
But it was not a revolution. In 1980-81 the openings were many. In 1989, deciding there was no alternative, the leadership of Solidarity reduced them to the Thatcherite road to capitalism. This resulted in the Polish paradoxes: In a semirural country, peasants eagerly awaiting capitalism are going to be swallowed by it; the leadership of Solidarity, brought to power by the workers, chiefly by the proletariat from the big plants, accepts as its task the destruction of that movement. Not a pretty sight.
No wonder that Modzelewski, maybe the brightest among these leaders and one of the few who, while changing, remained true to himself, pondered publicly whether the many years he had spent in jail were worthwhile. No outsider can answer such a question. One may, however, suggest that his struggle was not in vain and that the great battles fought by the Polish workers will not vanish without a trace. One of these days the Palace of Culture will be part of the Warsaw landscape as the Sacré Coeur is in Paris; old cleavages will be replaced by new ones and socialism will cease to be a dirty word. This, judging by the ugly face of capitalism in Eastern Europe, may happen sooner than we think. I was repeating this to myself, not just for consolation, as I was leaving Poland, for a long time, with a bitter taste in my mouth.
It is about two feet long, cylindrical and far denser than steel. When fired from a U.S. Army M1 Abrams tank, it is capable of drilling a hole through the strongest of tank armors. The makers of this tank-killing ammunition say it is the best in the world. But there is one problem with the Pentagon's super bullet: It is made of radioactive waste.
The first time the Army used this "depleted uranium" (D.U.) ammunition on a battlefield was during the Gulf War, in 1991. Yet despite Pentagon assurances that only a small number of U.S. troops were exposed to dangerous levels of D.U., a two-month investigation by The Nation has discovered that hundreds and perhaps thousands of U.S. veterans were unknowingly exposed to potentially hazardous levels of depleted uranium, or uranium-238, in the Persian Gulf. Some soldiers inhaled it when they pulled wounded comrades from tanks hit by D.U. "friendly fire" or when they clambered into destroyed Iraqi vehicles. Others picked up expended rounds as war trophies. Thousands of other Americans were near accidental explosions of D.U. munitions.
The Army never told combat engineer Dwayne Mowrer or his fellow soldiers in the First Infantry Division much about D.U. But the G.I.s learned how effective the radioactive rounds were as the "Big Red One" made its way up the carnage-ridden four-lane Kuwaiti road known as the "highway of death." Mowrer and his company saw the unique signature of a D.U. hit on nearly half the disabled Iraqi vehicles encountered. "It leaves a nice round hole, almost like someone had welded it out," Mowrer recalled.
What Mowrer and others didn't know was that D.U. is highly toxic and, according to the Encyclopedia of Occupational Health and Safety, can cause lung cancer, bone cancer and kidney disease. All they heard were rumors.
"Once in a while you'd hear some guy say 'Hey, I heard those things were radioactive,'" Mowrer said. "Of course, everybody else says, 'Yeah, right!' We really thought we were in the new enlightened Army. We thought all that Agent Orange stuff and human radiation experiments were a thing of the past."
So Mowrer and his comrades didn't worry when a forty-ton HEMTT transport vehicle packed with D.U. rounds accidentally exploded near their camp. "We heard this tremendous boom and saw this black cloud blowing our way," he said. "The cloud went right over us, blew right over our camp."
Before they left the gulf, Mowrer and other soldiers in the 651st Combat Support Attachment began experiencing strange flulike symptoms. He figured the symptoms would fade once he was back in the United States. They didn't. Mowrer's personal doctor and physicians at the local Veterans Administration could find nothing wrong with him. Meanwhile, his health worsened: fatigue, memory loss, bloody noses and diarrhea. Then the single parent of two began experiencing problems with motor skills, bloody stools, bleeding gums, rashes and strange bumps on his eyelids, nose and tongue. Mowrer thinks his problems can be traced to his exposure to D.U.
The Pentagon says problems like Mowrer's could not have been caused by D.U., a weapon that many Americans have heard mentioned, if at all, only in the movie Courage Under Fire, which was based on a real-life D.U. friendly-fire incident. The Defense Department insists that D.U. radiation is relatively harmless--only about 60 percent as radioactive as regular uranium. When properly encased, D.U. gives off so little radiation, the Pentagon says, that a soldier would have to sit surrounded by it for twenty hours to get the equivalent radiation of one chest X-ray. (According to scientists, a D.U. antitank round outside its metal casing can emit as much radiation in one hour as fifty chest X-rays.) Plus, the military brass argues that D.U. rounds so effectively destroyed Iraqi tanks that the weapons saved many more U.S. lives than radiation from them could possibly endanger.
But the Pentagon has a credibility gap. For years, it has denied that U.S. soldiers in the Persian Gulf were exposed to chemical weapons. In September Pentagon officials admitted that troops were exposed when they destroyed Iraqi stores of chemical weapons, as Congress held hearings on "Gulf War Syndrome." The Pentagon also argued, in its own defense, that exposure to chemical weapons could not fully explain the diverse range of illnesses that have plagued thousands of soldiers who served in the Persian Gulf. Exposure to D.U.--our own weaponry, in other words--could well be among the missing links.
Scientists point out that D.U. becomes much more dangerous when it burns. When fired, it combusts on impact. As much as 70 percent of the material is released as a radioactive and highly toxic dust that can be inhaled or ingested and then trapped in the lungs or kidneys. "This is when it becomes most dangerous," says Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. "It becomes a powder in the air that can irradiate you." Some scientists speculate that veterans' health problems stem from exposure to chemical agents combined with D.U., burning oil-field vapors and a new nerve-gas vaccine given to U.S. troops. "We know that depleted uranium is toxic and can cause diseases," said Dr. Howard Urnovitz, a microbiologist who has testified before the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses. "We also know these soldiers were exposed to large amounts of nerve-gas agents. What we don't know is how the combination of these toxic and radioactive materials affect the immune system."
Exactly how many U.S. soldiers were exposed to dangerous levels of D.U. during the Gulf War remains in dispute. Friendly-fire incidents left at least twenty-two veterans with D.U. shrapnel embedded in their bodies. The Veterans Administration is also monitoring the health of eleven more soldiers who were in tanks hit by D.U. but who were not hit by shrapnel, and twenty-five soldiers who helped prepare D.U.-contaminated tanks for shipment back to the United States without being told of the risk. The tanks were later buried in a radioactive waste disposal site run by the Energy Department.
The Nation investigation has also discovered that the average infantry soldier is still receiving no training on how to protect against exposure to D.U., although such training was called for by an Army report on depleted uranium completed in June 1995. On the training lapses, the Pentagon does acknowledge past mistakes. Today the Army is providing new training in D.U. safety procedures for more soldiers, particularly members of armor, ordnance or medical teams that handle D.U. on a routine basis. "I feel confident that if an individual soldier has a need to know, they will be provided that training from the basic level on," Army Col. H.E. Wolfe told The Nation. But Wolfe confirmed that even now, not all infantry will get D.U. training.
Although the full hazards of these weapons are still not known, the law allows the President to waive restrictions on the sale of D.U. to foreign armies. Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show that the Pentagon has already sold the radioactive ammunition to Thailand, Taiwan, Bahrain, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Greece, Korea, Turkey, Kuwait and other countries which the Pentagon will not disclose for national security reasons. The proliferation of D.U. ammunition around the world boosts the chances that U.S. soldiers will eventually be on the receiving end of the devastating weapon.
A broad coalition of veterans organizations, environmental groups and scientists hope that won't happen. On September 12, they met in NewYork to kick off a campaign calling for an international ban on D.U. weapons. Even the conservative-minded Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion recently passed resolutions calling on the Defense Department to reconsider its use of the controversial weapon.
"Clearly the Department of Defense hasn't thought through the use of D.U. on the battlefield and what kind of exposures they are subjecting our troops to," charged Matt Puglisi, the assistant director of veterans affairs and rehabilitation for the American Legion. "It is a very effective weapon, which is why the D.O.D. really doesn't want to see it re-examined. We only spent a couple of days [in winning the Gulf War]. But what if we had a fight that took years and years? We could have tens of thousands of vets with D.U. shrapnel in them."
The Gulf War Test
The U.S. Army began introducing D.U. ammo into its stockpiles in 1978, when the United States and the Soviet Union were engaged in intense competition over which side would develop the most effective tank. Washington feared that the Soviets with their T-72 had jumped ahead in the development of armor that was nearly impenetrable by traditional weapons. It was thought that D.U. rounds could counter the improved Soviet armor. But not until Iraq's Soviet-supplied army invaded oil-rich Kuwait and President Bush sent an expeditionary force of 500,000 to dislodge it was there a chance to battle-test the D.U. rounds.
American M1 Abrams tanks and Bradley armored personnel carriers fired D.U. rounds; the A-10 Warthog aircraft, which provided close support for combat troops, fired twin 30-millimeter guns with small-caliber D.U. bullets. All told, in the 100 hours of the February ground war, U.S. tanks fired at least 14,000 large-caliber D.U. rounds, and U.S. planes some 940,000 smaller-caliber rounds. D.U. rounds left about 1,400 Iraqi tanks smoldering in the desert. Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf recalled one commander saying his unit "went through a whole field of burning Iraqi tanks."
The D.U. weapons succeeded beyond the Pentagon's wildest dreams. But they received little public attention compared with the fanfare over other high-tech weapons: smart bombs, stealth fighters and Patriot missiles (which looked good, even if they didn't, as it turned out, work). D.U., perhaps the most effective new weapon of them all, was mentioned only in passing. "People have a fear of radioactivity and radioactive materials," explained Dan Fahey, a former Navy officer who served in the gulf. "The Army seems to think that if they are going to keep using D.U., the less they tell people about it the better."
As the U.S.-led coalition forces swept to victory, many celebrating G.I.s scrambled onto--or into--disabled Iraqi vehicles. "When you get a lot of soldiers out on a battlefield, they are going to be curious," observed Chris Kornkven, a staff sergeant with the 304th Combat Support Company. "The Gulf War was the first time we saw Soviet tanks. Many of us started climbing around these destroyed vehicles." Indeed, a study by the Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm Association found that out of 10,051 Gulf War veterans who have reported mysterious illnesses, 82 percent had entered captured enemy vehicles.
Other soldiers might have been exposed to harmful levels of D.U. as they rescued comrades from vehicles hit by friendly fire. A Gulf War photo book, Triumph in the Desert, contains one dramatic picture of soldiers pulling wounded Americans from the burning hull of an Abrams tank that had been hit by a D.U. round. Black smoke from the depleted-uranium explosion billows around the rescuers. Still other G.I.s picked up fragments of large-caliber D.U. rounds or unexploded small rounds and wore them as jewelry, hung around the soldiers' necks. "We didn't know any better," said Kornkven. "We didn't find out until long after we were home that there even was such a thing as D.U."
But the Americans facing perhaps the greatest risk from D.U. were those who had been hit by D.U. shrapnel, especially those still carrying radioactive fragments in their bodies. Robert Sanders, who drove a tank, was one apparent casualty. On the third day of the ground war, his tank was hit by a D.U. round fired from another U.S. tank. "I had stinging pain in my shoulder and a stinging pain in my face from shrapnel," Sanders said.
Military doctors removed the shrapnel. Several years later, however, Sanders heard that D.U. was radioactive and toxic, so he obtained his medical records. He found an interdepartmental fax saying doctors had removed bits of an "unknown metal" from his shoulder and that it was "probably D.U." Four years after he was wounded, Sanders took a urine test for depleted uranium, which revealed high levels of it in his system. The Pentagon had never made an effort to tell him of his likely exposure.
Even the end of the ground war on February 28, 1991, did not end the threat of exposure to U.S. soldiers. Government documents reveal that in one accident alone, at a camp at Doha, about twelve miles from Kuwait City, as many as 660 rounds weighing 7,062 pounds burned, releasing dark clouds of D.U. particles. Many of the 3,000 U.S. troops stationed at the base participated in cleanup operations without protective gear and without knowledge of the potential dangers.
At war's end, U.S. forces left behind about 300 tons of expended D.U. ammunition in Kuwait and Iraq, a veritable radioactive waste dump that could haunt inhabitants of the region for years. In August 1995, Iraq presented a study to the United Nations demonstrating sharp increases in leukemia and other cancers as well as other unexplained diseases around the Basra region in the country's south. Iraqi scientists attributed some of the cancers to depleted uranium.
Some U.S. officials and scientists have questioned the Iraqi claims. But former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who has made two recent trips to Iraq, observes that "the health ministry and doctors particularly in Basra and the south are terribly concerned about a range of problems that were not experienced before: fetuses with tumors, high rates of leukemia." And a secret British Atomic Energy Authority report leaked to the London Independent in November 1991 warned that there was enough depleted uranium left behind in the Persian Gulf to account for "500,000 potential deaths" through increased cancer rates, although it noted that such a figure was an unlikely, worst-case scenario. That figure was based on an estimate that only forty tons of D.U. was left behind.
Another study, by Siegwart Gunther, president of the Austrian chapter of Yellow Cross International, reported that D.U. projectiles "were gathered by children and used as toys." The study noted that a little girl who collected twelve of the projectiles died of leukemia. Gunther collected some D.U. rounds in southern Iraq and took them to Germany for analysis. However, when Gunther entered Germany, the D.U. rounds were seized. The authorities claimed that just one projectile emitted more radiation in five hours than is allowed per year under German regulations.
Cleaning up the radioactive mess in the Persian Gulf would cost "billions," even if it were feasible, said Leonard Dietz, an atomic scientist who wrote a report on depleted uranium for the Energy Department. But the Pentagon maintained in a report that "no international law, treaty, regulation, or custom requires the U.S. to remediate Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm battlefields."
Those who suggest otherwise have found that they must fight the military industry as well as the Pentagon. In January 1993 Eric Hoskins, a public health specialist who surveyed Iraq as a member of a Harvard team, wrote an Op-Ed in The New York Times warning that D.U. may be causing health problems in Iraqi children. A few weeks later a harsh letter to the editor accused Hoskins of "making readers of limited scientific literacy the lawful prey of his hyperbole," which reaches the "bizarre conclusion that the environmental aftermath of the Persian Gulf war is not Iraq's fault, but ours!" The author, Russell Seitz, was identified as an associate with the "Olin Institute for Strategic Studies, Harvard University."
Though the letter appeared to be the work of a neutral scientist, the Olin Institute at Harvard was established by the John M. Olin Foundation, which grew out of the manufacturing fortune created by the Olin Corporation, currently the nation's only maker of D.U. antitank rounds. Seitz did not answer a request from The Nation seeking comment.
Despite the Pentagon's love affair with D.U., there is an alternative--tank ammunition made from tungsten. Matt Kagan, a former munitions analyst for Jane's Defence Weekly, said the latest developments in tungsten technology have made it "almost as effective as D.U." That assessment is shared by Bill Arkin, a columnist for The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists who has consulted on D.U. for Greenpeace and Human Rights Watch. "It comes down to this," Arkin said. "Is there a logical alternative that provides the same military capability and doesn't leave us with this legacy? The answer is yes, tungsten."
But tungsten is more expensive and must be imported, while the United States has more than 500,000 tons of depleted uranium, waste left behind by the production of nuclear weapons and by nuclear generators. Scientists have long looked for a way to re-use what otherwise must be stored at great expense in remote sites.
"It's just a cost issue," argued Arkin. "But nobody ever thought through what would happen when we shoot a lot of this stuff around the battlefield. It's not a question of whether a thousand soldiers were exposed or fifty soldiers were exposed. We were probably lucky in the Gulf War. What happens when we're fighting a war that makes the Gulf War look like small potatoes?"
Read oral histories, see photos and examine archival material on Eddie Faye Gates's site
Read the final report issued recently by the Oklahoma Commission To Study the Oklahoma Race Riot of 1921.
Click here to view a collection of photographs taken during the Tulsa race riot in 1921.
In July, during the first US Senate hearing to examine the impact of the global gag rule on family planning services abroad, the Foreign Relations Committee heard the story of Min Min Lama, a teen
What the inventive genius of mankind has bestowed upon us in the last hundred years could have made human life care free and happy if the development of the organizing power of man had been able to keep step with his technical advances. As it is, the hardly bought achievements of the machine age in the hands of our generation are as dangerous as a razor in the hands of a 3-year-old child. The possession of wonderful means of production has not brought freedom--only care and hunger.
Worst of all is the technical development which produces the means for the destruction of human life, and the dearly created products of labor. We older people lived through that shudderingly in the World War. But even more terrible than this destruction seems to me the unworthy servitude into which the individual is swept by war. Is it not terrible to be forced by the community to deeds which every individual feels to be most despicable crimes? Only a few have had the moral greatness to resist; they are in my eyes the true heroes of the World War.
There is one ray of hope. It seems to me that today the responsible leaders of the several peoples have, in the main, the honest will to abolish war. The opposition to this unquestionably necessary advance lies in the unhappy traditions of the people which are passed on like an inherited disease from generation to generation because of our faulty educational machines. Of course the main supports of this tradition are military training and the larger industries. Without disarmament there can be no lasting peace. On the contrary, the continuation of military armaments in their present extent will with certainty lead to new catastrophes.
Hence the Disarmament Conference in Geneva in February, 1932, will be decisive for the fate of the present generation and the one to come. If one thinks back to the pitiful results achieved by the international conferences thus far held, it must be clear that all thoughtful and responsible human beings must exercise all their powers again and again to inform public opinion of the vital importance of the conference of 1932. Only if the statesmen have, to urge them forward, the will to peace of a decisive majority in their respective countries, can they arrive at their important goal. For the creation of this public opinion in favor of disarmament every person living shares the responsibility, through every deed and every word.
The failure of the conference would be assured if the delegates were to arrive in Geneva with fixed instructions and aims, the achievement of which would at once become a matter of national prestige. This seems to be universally recognized, for the meetings of the statesmen of any two states, of which we have seen a number of late, have been utilized for discussions of the problem of disarmament in order to clear the ground for the conference. This procedure seems to me a very happy one, for two persons, or two groups, ordinarily conduct themselves most sensibly, most honorably, and with the greatest freedom from passion if no third person listens in, whom the others believe they must consider or conciliate in their speeches. We can only hope for a favorable outcome in this most vital conference if the meeting is prepared for exhaustively in this way by advance discussions in order that surprises shall be made impossible, and if, through honest good will, an atmosphere of mutual confidence and trust can be effectively created in advance.
Success in such great affairs is not a matter of cleverness, or even shrewdness, but instead a matter of honorable conduct and mutual confidence. You cannot substitute intellect for moral conduct in this matter--I should like to say, thank God that you cannot!
It is not the task of the individual who lives in this critical time merely to await results and to criticize. He must serve this great cause as well as he can. For the fate of all humanity will be that fate which it honestly earns and deserves.
Describing Alison Lurie's fiction as a decades-long debate with James Merrill explains a lot about her and, by extension, American culture in general. This memoir, her second work of nonfiction, tells how they met in the mid-1950s, Lurie the bored, intelligent faculty wife of a dullish junior English professor
at Amherst, Merrill a visiting teacher of poetry writing. Lurie says that he paid to have her first book privately printed, a memoir of their friend V.R. Lang, which led to the publication of Lurie's first novel Love and Friendship. She acknowledges that her novel includes a character combining traits drawn from Merrill and from his companion David Jackson, though this character appears only in epistolary form, the gay author of witty letters about his visiting gig in a college town resembling Amherst--at least, as a satirist would see it.
Familiar Spirits doesn't recount the remainder of Lurie's career as a fiction writer, but I'll support my opening comment above by pointing out that her third novel, an exposé of the world of mediums and spiritualist mysticism, is dedicated to Merrill and Jackson. (Her second novel was a witty satire of life in Los Angeles in the early 1960s.) In Real People, her fourth, the writer heroine, during a residency at an artists' colony based on Yaddo, forgoes the company of a refined writer boyfriend for an affair with a crude but sexy sculptor, who advances his suit by suggesting that her previous attachment is a closeted homosexual. The Lurie-Merrill dialectic continues, under several guises, in later books, including a story collection titled Women and Ghosts. The book under review, as it pursues Lurie's serialized romance with Merrill, vacillates between praise and condemnation, the literary equivalent of a lover's quarrel, with the emphasis on "quarrel." You can't help asking why, if she came to dislike Merrill and what he stood for, she didn't simply stop seeing him. Instead, she seems to have resolutely kept after him--for example, buying a house in Key West the year after he began wintering there, a vantage point from which she could continue in her preferred role as disapproving spectator of aberrant behavior.
The son of the Charles Merrill who made one fortune by founding a brokerage house and another hefty one backing chain stores like Safeway, James Merrill violated one of the ironclad commandments for American artists: Thou shalt not be rich. Though Lurie doesn't seem to know about Safeway, she talks a lot about wealth and its impact on Merrill's life and work. It's clear that "Jimmy," as she calls him, liked this new woman friend; and, meanwhile, several benefits connected to his privileged situation trickled down to her--his literate conversation, inclusion in his cosmopolitan social life and funds disbursed for her debut book publication. Still, she resents his freedom from the typical cares of a middle-income household where, for example, the children's education has to be paid for. Here, even the childless can sympathize. In the authorial big leagues, are the touchdowns truly deserved when they aren't scored on a level playing field?
This is the moment for me to state that, without ever quite developing a warm friendship, I was closely associated with James Merrill for a decade and a half, so that my own observations overlap with some of Alison Lurie's. She was his friend nearly twenty years before I met him and for the last part of his life as well, a time when he and I were no longer speaking to each other. Even so, she doesn't seem to be aware that, during their long friendship, he held her somewhat at arm's length. Many of her assumptions about Merrill and Jackson are mistaken, from what I know--beginning with the notion that Jackson himself had a sizable private income. That is apparently what he told her; but (as the late David Kalstone explained to me many years ago) the funds came from Merrill, who settled a fortune on Jackson when they first became a couple. Doing so was probably a kind of test. Merrill was a romantic, but, like most rich people, he tended to mistrust the unmoneyed, and there were solid reasons for his caution. Lurie's unflattering book, which he would have loathed, is a case in point. Once provided for, Jackson (again, according to Kalstone) didn't bolt; but he was the first to step outside the relationship for extracurricular sex. Merrill didn't object to the new format; in fact, he quickly followed suit. We can take a Victorian attitude about their relational contract, but we should also admit that, on that hand, the couple was no different from many others, gay or straight, in artistic circles; think of Elizabeth Bowen and Alan Cameron or W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman.
Lurie can't be unaware of instances like these, and so you wonder why the term "promiscuity" is laid on so indiscriminately throughout the memoir. Boys in the band who read it will understand right away why Merrill might have considered it inadvisable to allow a roman à clef novelist (and now memoirist) like Lurie access to the whole, awful truth. Faced with her museum-quality obtuseness, they'll want to dig in the bottom drawer and pull out an old T-shirt with the motto, "It's a gay thing: You wouldn't understand."
While Lurie envies the carefree life her two friends led, she never pauses to reflect on the damage coming of age as a gay man in that period inflicted. Gay sex was a felony and, except among the enlightened, a sin or an illness. Most public venues were closed to artists who portrayed homosexuality as merely a routine variation of the human possible. Merrill fell back on classic, Wildean defenses: He satirized, and he adopted fictive masks. Although many readers were tickled by his comic irony, its pervasiveness in his work meant that he was relegated to the second rank, all the more since the poems were riddled with unpopular characteristics such as an interest in Europe and works of literature, art and music produced before last year. A frequent critical response to his poetry was that it was "elegant," "brittle," "mannered," all of these semi-polite synonyms for "queer." If you accept Philip Rahv's division of American writers into two groups, redskins (e.g., Whitman and Hemingway) and palefaces (e.g., Poe and Henry James), then you won't hesitate to put Merrill into the second. But maybe those categories are an oversimplification?
It's still too soon to make a balanced estimate of his lyric poetry, but I might as well cast my vote along with Lurie's negative one and say that his own monumental "epic" The Changing Light at Sandover is a failure. A failure with good lines and bits, but still... The central thesis of the Lurie memoir is that undertaking this project was an artistic error for Merrill and a personal calamity for David Jackson. After the opening chapters' praising portrait of Merrill, Lurie becomes hostile, as any reader of hers might have predicted, when she reacts to the publication of a work based on Merrill's literary love affair with the Ouija board. You're always supposed to allow authors their donnée, but it's hard not to lose interest immediately when you consider the premise of the work: That the best and brightest of the great dead, plus several archangels and a deity called "God B," settled on a middle-aged gay couple in Connecticut as the chosen conduit for an apocalyptic message they wanted channeled to humankind. The poem's weirder characters and episodes include a series of "mathematical formulae" that "look" like bats, one of them eventually turning into the spiritualist equivalent of a peacock. Named "Mirabell" by his new friends, this being is joined by "Uni," a unicorn lacking his kind's signature horn. At the trilogy's conclusion these two are joined at the hip to form a Pegasus-like creature that can fly and incidentally embody the upward surge of authentic inspiration.
These are typical events along the yellow brick road, and I sympathize with Lurie's distaste for a project removed that far from the consensus universe. Meanwhile, she strongly identifies with Jackson and believes that his own literary gifts (he had published a few works of short fiction) were siphoned off into Merrill's otherworldly epic. She guesses that it was really his hand that moved the pointer to compose the messages they received, and I think the guess is on target. Because the poem is really the product of joint authorship, she's upset that Jackson hasn't received due recognition for his part in it. But, now, wait: If she doesn't like the work, why does she want Jackson to get credit as one of its authors? Besides that, the fact is that Merrill revised almost all the Ouija messages they received to make from them a more coherent work. If the results are still bad, do we assign most of the responsibility to him or to Jackson?
At least most of the raw material they recorded has to be credited to his account, i.e., the misconstrued "science" and faux-mystic verbiage, along with the apology in favor of enlightened despots like Akhenaton and even dictator-murderers like Stalin and Hitler. That, plus the anti-Semitism, race condescension and sexist attitudes that crop up in it. When you add the bald PR campaign for gay male artistic superiority (from Plato to Virgil to Whitman to Proust) harped on by some of the spirit voices, it gets pretty ludicrous. Western Civ was a gay plot? Back to the drawing board, Dante, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Vermeer, Bach, Goethe, George Eliot, Kafka, Frank Lloyd Wright, Balanchine. Some of the latter are automatically relegated to second rank because poetry and music are accounted as intrinsically superior to visual art, architecture or dance, which depend more on the material world. Do you laugh or weep when critics widely respected hail this Emerald City cum Fascist re-education center as a masterpiece?
Lurie believes that Jackson's sense of failure when he compared a negligible personal achievement to Merrill's critical acclaim explains his sharp decline, a decline accelerated by all those hours expended in sawing away at the Board. The first assertion is plausible, the second, less so. But you can't discuss either Jackson's or Merrill's travails without factoring in alcohol, drugs, a relentless social and professional schedule, and the general problem of aging (particularly acute for gay men). Jackson was also a chain smoker and eventually developed emphysema, which, because of neural oxygen-deprivation, dulled his mental capacities. He is still alive today, though not lucid. With characteristic tact, Lurie describes him as a "ghost," a label supporting her thesis, but at the expense of an invalid she describes as one of her closest friends.
Daily immersion in the spirit world probably did take its toll; but I'd suggest that an even greater strain was a social habit current among Merrill's set: communicating by indirect means, hinting, double-entendre. I recall him quoting his mother, who warned him "never to let down the mask." His words and actions, most of the time, had double meanings, and that was true in spades for the poems. The Ouija epic should be understood not merely as an alphabet soup sent down to mortals from dreamlands somewhere over the rainbow but also as a commentary on his own milieu and on the situation of contemporary letters. Lurie seems to have grasped this, decoding the bio of the Ouija-world "patron" that Merrill and Jackson channeled for her as an allegorical (and none too flattering) thumbnail sketch of herself. Veiled critiques are hard to take; if you challenge them you risk being called paranoid. Lurie could always get up from the table and go back home, of course; but Jackson was already home, and it can't have been comfortable to communicate via masks year after year.
Still, even if Jackson lost vitality through exposure to the kryptonite of Merrill's personality and social manner, he could have decided to split at any moment. Since he didn't, he retains responsibility. Maybe he just needed a push? If we accept Lurie's implied assertion--that she herself has managed to escape the toils of artificiality to become a free and passionate human being--why didn't she urge Jackson to do the same? From a safe height she watched someone she says she cared about begin to drown, and she said nothing, or nothing directly. Her memoir tells us she dislikes Merrill's rarefied Olympian realm of divine beings and spirits, yet her snow-capped vantage point also turns out to be quite a cold mountain itself. In her long lover's quarrel with James Merrill, she is more a "paleface" than she allows, more caught up in his techniques of communication than she acknowledges. I'm guessing that she wants her memoir to comment by inference on the current literary situation just as much as on the life that Merrill and Jackson shared in their day. As such, the book can be read as a protest, no doubt well intentioned, against Merrill's posthumous influence; and who would deny that his habit of communicating through subtexts and literary "masks" is widespread? If Lurie's book is in fact meant as a protest, though, her quarrel with him, as with so many failed romances, is best described as another instance of irreconcilable similarities.
While violence generated by the radical "black bloc" dominated initial headlines during the G-8 summit in Genoa, it is now Italy's men in blue who find themselves at the center of criminal investigations and political debate. Using physical evidence and eyewitness testimony, critics charge that the Italian police engaged in systematic beatings and human rights abuses, leading some to compare the conduct of the Italian police to the Chilean security forces under Pinochet. At an August 3 press conference, lead investigator Francesco Meloni said, "The reports of violence, and the identical testimony of scores of persons who passed through jails in diverse hours and days during the G-8, suggest a systematic method of torture and genuine violations of human rights."
Most pointedly, Italian magistrates, journalists and politicians are demanding to know how a July 21 midnight police raid on the headquarters of the Genoa Social Forum, organizers of the antiglobalization protests, was authorized, and who is responsible for the wide range of abuses alleged to have taken place. A police review, a parliamentary inquest and at least four judicial investigations are looking into accusations. In all, ninety-three people were arrested, and all but one released without charges. Photos taken of protesters show broken teeth, bruises and head wounds. Police are also said to have confiscated videotapes and computer hard drives that the Genoa Social Forum had been using to document misconduct.
Police justified the raid on the grounds that the Genoa Social Forum was aiding and abetting the violence of the "all blacks." Only two Molotov cocktails were actually found, however, along with a handful of sticks, iron bars and pocketknives, which strained credulity as a "cache of weapons." Many observers believe the raid was in fact a calculated reprisal against leftist organizers, blamed by police for giving cover to the violent protesters, despite the fact that the Genoa Social Forum had called for nonviolent modes of resistance. "It was probably a sort of vendetta--of a Chilean type," said Riccardo Barenghi, editor of Il Manifesto, which has been following the story closely.
Initially the new, right-wing Italian government of Silvio Berlusconi, for whom the G-8 summit was supposed to be a kind of debut, blocked calls for a parliamentary investigation. Berlusconi later changed course. The first casualties of the probes came August 2, when three top police officials were removed from office by Interior Minister Claudio Scajola, who himself had just survived calls for removal from Italy's center-left opposition. Opposition leaders want the scope of the investigations to include political responsibility for the violence. Most important, they want a close examination of the role of Berlusconi's deputy prime minister, the neo-Fascist Gianfranco Fini, who was in Genoa during the G-8 and maintained close contact with the police and security forces. For at least some of this time, Fini was actually ensconced at police headquarters. Was he involved, investigators want to know, in the decision to raid the Genoa Social Forum or in encouraging police to take a hard line?
Barenghi said he believes that the ascent of Fini's National Alliance Party, with its roots in Italy's Fascist past, helped shape the climate in which the police operated. "Certainly the most violent among the police felt themselves authorized to beat people from the fact that today in Italy we have a government of the right, which has within itself the heirs of Fascism," he said in an interview. A related issue is exactly who made up the "black bloc." Spokespersons for the Genoa Social Forum charge that some black-clad protesters were drawn from the far right and infiltrated the antiglobalization movement to discredit it. Italian newspapers have published documents revealing that police had knowledge of such plans. One high-profile observer, Italian activist-priest Fr. Vitaliano Della Sala, has said he believes that some far-right elements had tacit police support.
What impact such charges may have on Berlusconi's government, if they are confirmed, is unclear. The story has dominated Italian newspapers and television broadcasts. Three Italian bishops issued a statement saying they had not seen such violence in Italy since World War II, and that the beatings suggested that police were "punishing the expression of ideas someone doesn't like." Polls by the respected firm Datamedia show, however, that most Italians are less outraged by the police, even if accusations of misconduct are true, than by the protesters, whom they blame for an estimated $40 million in property damage. Many Italians are terrified of a resurgence of the violent radicalism of the 1970s and the Red Brigades. Berlusconi has said he is "100 percent with the police," and in a sense he may be reading the national mood about right.
We welcome to The Nation's editorial board Tom Hayden and Lani Guinier. From his days as a seminal figure of the 1960s--an author of the Port Huron Statement, president of SDS, one of the Chicago 7 convicted (later acquitted) for inciting a riot at the 1968 Democratic Convention--Hayden has been an effective progressive voice. From 1982 to 2000 he served in the California legislature as a conscience on the left and a productive legislator. Term-limited out of the State Senate, he ran for LA City Council in the recent election, losing by 369 votes. A contributor to this magazine and author of ten books, Hayden edited the forthcoming The Zapatista Reader for Nation Books. Lani Guinier had an unwanted fifteen minutes of fame in 1993 when Bill Clinton withdrew her nomination as Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights after she was vilified for her scholarly writings on voting. In 1998 she became the first black woman to be named a tenured professor at Harvard Law School. She is the author, most recently, of Lifting Every Voice: Turning a Civil Rights Setback Into a New Vision of Social Justice (Simon & Schuster).
FOLLOW-UP: Richard Pollak writes: There was much justified rejoicing in the environmental community in early August after the Bush EPA sided with its Clinton predecessors and ordered General Electric to dredge thousands of pounds of lethal PCBs from the Hudson River north of Albany, New York. The decision is undeniably a setback for GE, which had spent millions fighting the proposal with dubious scientific reports and a monthslong propaganda blitz in the media (see Richard Pollak, "Is GE Mightier Than the Hudson?" May 28). But dredging is at best many months, if not years, away, and any notion that it is a done deal is premature. Several other federal agencies and New York State are still assessing the draft order, which would set in motion the largest such environmental cleanup in the nation's history, at a cost to GE of some half-billion dollars. Already there's talk of scaling back the project if dredging technologies prove too disruptive to towns along the river. These are, for the most part, hard-core Republican communities with a deep distrust of the government; many residents welcomed GE's antidredging public relations campaign and now promise to put up a strong local fight against the EPA solution. This despite the fact that many of their neighbors, and wildlife, continue to suffer from a variety of disorders caused by the polychlorinated biphenyls that GE dumped into the river over three decades.
For progressives, the mayoral race in New York City could be the most significant electoral test since the 2000 presidential election, one with broad national implications. That's because of the candidacy of Mark Green. He far surpasses his rivals in the upcoming Democratic primary in his ability to articulate a progressive vision for New York City in the twenty-first century. He is something unusual in this city's politics--a classy, smart, articulate public servant, seasoned and tested. Quite simply, he's the best-qualified person for the job. His election would carry a political bonus: As chief executive of a major city he would be a role model for like-minded candidates in other cities and inspire young idealists on the left to enter politics. The national visibility that comes with the New York mayoralty will make him an effective voice for a rejuvenated urban progressivism. We're itching to see him debate his likely GOP opponent, media billionaire Michael Bloomberg, in a clear-cut test of message versus money.
Green has displayed a steadfast commitment to political activism and consumer advocacy since the 1970s, when he was one of the most effective of Nader's Raiders. This background reflects a principled skepticism about corporate power that is rare among politicians and that animated his creative activism as New York's Commissioner of Consumer Affairs and more recently as Public Advocate. Electing him mayor would give New Yorkers an ombudsman at the top.
Green has been a contributor to this magazine for more than twenty years, but we do not endorse him for parochial reasons. Rather, we see his contributions to The Nation as testament of his allegiance to progressive values. His special talent as a writer is a plus because it has given him the ability to articulate and dramatize complex issues in ways that engage a broad audience.
The only other candidate running as a progressive in the upcoming primary is Bronx borough president Fernando Ferrer, who has focused on championing the "other New York," the poor and the minorities cynically written off by the Giuliani administration. But his record raises questions about his governing skills at the citywide level and the depth of his commitment. In 1996, positioning himself to run against two solidly left candidates, he presented himself as a centrist, DLC-style Democrat.
In contrast, Mark Green has been a tireless and effective voice for the poor and the working class. As Public Advocate, he fought the secretive Giuliani regime and he can be depended on to let the sunshine in at City Hall. Unlike Giuliani, racial justice is a critical priority for him; in a polyglot city it's a measure of the kind of public official he's been and the kind of campaign he's run that he alone scores consistently well in polls among blacks, Jews, Latinos and white Catholics. He has vigorously opposed racial profiling and has been a sharp critic of police brutality, notably in the Amadou Diallo case. He has also shown an intelligent support for good policing, rising out of his awareness of the primacy of public safety and the right to be secure in one's person as a basic human right. As he sums up, "I'm a proud progressive Democrat on issues like social justice, choice, gay rights."
Although we have our differences with Green, he embodies the best chance in many years to prove that a world-class liberal can govern a world-class city.
No one would have expected ultraconservative San Diego to be the cradle of a revolution against privatization. Nixon's "lucky city," it was one of the few places in California actually carried by George W. Bush. But as a result of the electricity deregulation plan passed by the state legislature in 1996, San Diego County became the first area in California to be completely deregulated--that is, subject to the "market" for both wholesale and retail rates.
The results were immediate, unexpected and, for many, devastating. Within thirty days, monthly electricity bills, both residential and business, doubled. In sixty days, they tripled. A commodity that produced steady profits when selling for 4 cents a kilowatt-hour zoomed to $4 a kilowatt-hour. Dozens of small businesses folded. Those on fixed incomes panicked. Fear, then outrage, engulfed the community. A true populist revolt erupted. Urban workers, suburban professionals and small-business people burned their utility bills at protest rallies. School boards and city councils voted not to pay their bills.
The state legislature responded to the San Diego revolution with a temporary cap on retail rates, but local progressive forces (led by the Coalition for Affordable Public Power) developed a long-range solution--the formation of a municipal utility district (MUD) to provide local control of the increasingly dysfunctional electricity market. Although some 2,000 communities across America today control their own electricity supply, and the City of Los Angeles generates and distributes electricity for its 3.8 million citizens, such a proposal could scarcely have been imagined in San Diego before the crisis. In fact, no new municipal utility has been formed in California for over half a century. Yet almost instantly San Diego was ready for such a "radical step." Three million people in the county "got it" all at once: This wasn't a free market at work but a manipulated market that threatened their future. This was not primarily a "supply and demand" crisis, nor one caused by wacko environmentalists, but one brought about by greedy marketers and wholesalers who withheld supply and took plants offline to drive up prices. Deregulation had put the whole economy at risk.
My conservative Republican neighbor, US Congressman Duncan Hunter, summed up San Diego's discovery: "It's as if the hospital administrator, five minutes before your scheduled life-or-death operation, suddenly tripled the cost of the oxygen. It's not scarcity, it's not cost of production, it's control of a vital necessity at the moment you need it." Hunter had seen his individualistic, entrepreneurial, small-business constituents brought to their knees by the price gouging. And virtually every other public official in the county--in both parties, at every level of government--came together to support my calls in Congress for a municipal utility district, a return to regulated rates and refunds of a year's criminal overcharges. Even the San Diego Union-Tribune, the staunchly conservative, pro-free market flagship newspaper of the Copley Press, consistently editorialized against the wholesale power industry, in support of price controls and more federal regulation. It too supported public power and criticized the Bush Administration on numerous occasions for its failure to respond to California's crisis.
Various cities in San Diego County have tentatively explored setting up their own municipal utilities. But there is general consensus that a countywide district would be most viable. And, under the real threat of a grassroots petition movement to put a MUD on the ballot, the five conservative Republicans on the County Board of Supervisors have pledged to secure state legislation to authorize the district. Once a formal MUD structure is in place, a variety of options are available, from community co-op power purchasing to full ownership of generation and distribution capacity. I have advocated MUD ownership of enough power (say, 1,000 megawatts out of the 3,000 we use daily) to give the community leverage over the market. We would not need--and thus would not face future political opposition to--a complete takeover of transmission and distribution lines. And the MUD would provide leadership for conservation and renewable energy development. We are now actively planning the San Diego Community Power Project, designed to be completely environmentally friendly and to offer electricity at the previous regulated rates. The public once would have winced at the $400 million price tag--but that's what we paid in overcharges in just two months last summer.
Many obstacles remain to securing local control. But the remarkable political consensus has held, and I believe that San Diego will soon be generating its own power. The national movement toward electricity deregulation has abruptly slowed in the wake of California's disaster. If San Diego can emerge from the crisis with a new vision for our energy future, the nation will have gained a truly progressive alternative.
Though no doubt Irvine Welsh would sneer at the very idea, on the evidence of Glue he is working-class Scotland's greatest living ethnographer. As he follows the fortunes and misfortunes of four characters over thirty years, he does for the inhabitants of Edinburgh's housing schemes what Damon Runyon did for the Prohibition-era criminal classes of New York: He recreates a closed society that functions according to its own rules, oblivious and largely impervious to those of the law-abiding, job-holding, standard-English-speaking, education-valuing middle classes.
The rules are no metaphor: Characters refer to them repeatedly, and toward the end of the book Welsh conveniently spells them out for us. Of his ten, here are the first six:
1. never hit a woman
2. always back up your mates
3. never scab
4. never cross a picket line
5. never grass friend nor foe
6. tell them nowt (them being polis, dole, social, journalists, council, census [takers], etc.)
If middle-class values ever penetrated Welsh's world (which they barely did), they don't count anymore. By 1980, every schoolboy knows that there are no real jobs left: Carl's father has worked the lathe at Ferranti's all his life, but there's no factory left for his son to follow him into, leaving Carl a deejay without a day job.
Juice Terry has had one job in his short career--going round the schemes selling juice (that's soda, or tonic, or maybe cola to you) off a van to the local kids. Twenty years later it still defines Terry to himself. "The juice lorries, that wis ma game. Tae gie me ma proper title ah wis an Aerated Waters Salesman. Goat peyed oaf back in 1981," he explains to an understandably baffled American visitor. Scorning the employment office's attempt to shunt him into minimum-wage burger-flipping, the only alternative he comes up with is the occasional housebreaking project, which doesn't really count as work, though it certainly takes effort.
Billy, the nearest thing to a traditional success story of the four, is a professional boxer who eventually leverages his local celebrity into ownership of a profitable bar. Wee Gally, the last of the quartet, takes a few unexpected detours through the criminal justice system and never quite makes it to regular paid employment.
They all keep busy, though, as do most of their friends--a bit of drug dealing here, a stint at window-washing there, a paying gig for Carl at a local club, the dole underpinning them all. In what's become in effect a nonprofit society, the Protestant ethic is as irrelevant as Terry's nostalgia for the good old days selling Irn Bru and Vimto.
With some shining exceptions, Welsh's characters are pretty smart, but not one of them finishes high school. There's only one answer to the accusation/question, "Are ye steying oan?"--"Waste ay fuckin time." That's not in the rules; aspiring to education is probably the most blatant evidence of class treachery, and the pathetic Gally keeps his ambition to finish school and really work on his foreign-language skills firmly to himself. Everybody knows that school's real function is to prepare you for the tedium of employment: Hauled in for being late, the boys are informed that "a school which tolerates lateness is by definition a failed school. It is a failed school because it has failed to prepare its pupils for a life of work." Carl points out that "thir isnae really any jobs now. Like where muh dad works, at Ferranti's, they jist peyed oaf a loat ay men." But teacher knows best: "There's plenty of work for those that are prepared to work. Always has been, always will be."
Showing off your education is even worse. When Billy's brother, Rab Birrell, starts taking a night school course on media and cultural studies, he immediately becomes an object of mingled suspicion and contempt. "Never gie a schemie an education," thinks Terry. "There was Birrell on some poxy course at Stevenson for ten minutes and he thinks eh's fuckin Chomsky." And a fellow boozer concurs: "The typical cynical schemie intellectual, too much of a critic to ever achieve anything in life.... Birrell, who actually believed that talking his pompous shite about politics to half-pished or jellied cunts in west-side pubs was going to raise their consciousness and inspire them to take political action and combine to change society."
At the same time, the lads are incensed when outsiders assume they're ignorant, stupid or bigoted. Carl gets denounced as a neo-Nazi after a photographer catches him in what looks like a Hitler salute: "He asked if we were fascists and a couple of us did the John Cleese thing as a piss-take. I was stupid. Stupid no tae realise that they can be as 'ironic' as they like, but schemies are never allowed to be the same. Even if it's what we grew up on, only we just called it taking the piss."
Welsh traces his characters' lives, decade by decade, from childhood to adulthood, 1970 to the very near future, pairing the two losers Terry and Gally with the two winners Billy and Carl. The episodic structure suits his talent for the vignette and the set piece; when he attempts a full-length story with a single protagonist, as in Glue's predecessor Filth, he falls flat, and the belated attempts at creating any sort of plot make for the weakest parts of this book. The longitudinal design is really what gives Glue its depth and a lot of its political and social resonance, making it more than just another slice of low life, Runyon without Runyon's cheeriness. How did these innocent wee bairns, mostly well behaved in school, helping their mothers in the house and carrying home the messages, turn into violent, drugged and/or drunken, at best intermittently functional, borderline or actually criminal, adults?
Welsh gives us a lot of clues, but his prime suspects are remarkably traditional ones: broken homes, absent or emasculated fathers. Gally's dad is arrested the day Gally starts primary school, and spends most of the book in prison; Terry's dad has long since vanished and his mother has remarried--to a German, of all things. Even in the more intact families, the collapse of reliable employment has destroyed the routines that used to keep life going. Billy's brother and girlfriend are dole-moles, hunched around the TV set all day. Even more depressingly, Billy's laid-off father takes up gourmet cooking and surfing the Internet, to his sons' profound embarrassment. By contrast, a life filled with football riots, picking up lassies, dealing drugs and enduring marathon-length pub crawls seems healthy, active, enterprising and downright sociable.
The section set in 1980, when Carl, Gally and Billy are 15--meaning that they're about to hit the magic moment when they can legally leave school and illegally pass for drinking age--has the most to say about the mechanisms that turn wee laddies into big layabouts. Edinburgh's other famous writer in exile, Robert Louis Stevenson, said of his native city that "the delicate die early," and there's a survival-of-the-fittest quality to these opening chapters. Welsh traces a potent form of reverse peer pressure: The 15-year-olds do anything they can to emulate their marginally older mates like Terry--the local heroes who have already left school, been arrested, had sex (or claimed to), done drugs and of course passed out in the course of at least one night's partying. Wee Gally's big moment comes when he gets invited along on the planned football riot: "Wir oaf! My herts gaun fuckin boom-boom-boom, bit ah'm tryin no tae show it." These rites of passage are clearly defined as such: The notion that at least some of them are supposed to be fun seems not to have occurred to anyone. Performance anxiety is a recurrent theme, but Welsh takes it far beyond the bedroom (or more often the living-room settee), out into the football stands, the pub, the club and the police station.
In what's become a service economy with an adequate level of state child support, the women, unsurprisingly, cope better at work and at home than their unreliable boyfriends or husbands. Welsh is curiously vague about just what the women do when they're off on their own (the ones who have kids spend a lot of time in the park), but there's one thing his characters, male and female, are all sure of: When it comes to sex, the old double standard is out the window and everyone is the happier for it. The lads go to Munich for the Oktoberfest (and sex); the lassies head to Ibiza for sex (and sex). While you can't exactly call the relationships enlightened (these are not Sensitive Guys), the women take care of themselves, enjoy themselves and give as good as they get. Rule number one is broken exactly once, with disastrous consequences; football fans who head-butt other teams' supporters at a moment's notice wouldn't dream of laying a hand on a woman, and the women know it. ("'Nivir hit a lassie,' Wullie nodded. 'Definitely,' Duncan agreed sternly, as Maria looked at him with a you-just-try-it-pal expression.")
Welsh's American reviewers seem determined to flaunt their linguistic inadequacies. Salon assures us that "reading anything by Irvine Welsh is sort of like reading Chaucer if you are not fluent in Middle English"; not to be outdone, a New York Times reviewer complains about the opaque Edinburgh ghetto dialect, resigning himself to the fact that Glue "is full of the vernacular oddness that is Welsh's hallmark." Well, your dialect sounds pretty funny to us too, ya wee septic. As Welsh's compatriot, playwright John McRay, puts it, "It's not ma accent, it's your ears." The dialogue that apparently baffles these readers is lovingly transcribed in a quasi-phonetic style that would delight the heart of Henry Higgins, but actual Scots words and phrases are--to this reader--surprisingly thin on the page. For whatever reason, there's little sign of the vivid vernacular I remember from my own childhood. The Edinburgh poet Robert Garioch, writing into the 1970s, filled his verses with common words like scunner, clarty, thrawn, peelie-wallie--all terms that would have been in use at least by the parents of Welsh's main characters. A few echt expressions turn up in Glue--"torn-faced," "pooroot," "glaikit"--but you don't really need a glossary to follow the action. The endless cultural references are another matter, ranging from the Beano to Irn Bru to every Scottish football team worth mentioning and a fair number of their actual players (including--disclosure--my own cousin Alan Gordon, who played for Hearts back in the 1970s). Foreigners be warned: You won't get a lot of the jokes.
Edinburgh is always the point of reference, the center of the universe. (In Australia, Carl is underimpressed by Bondi Beach, which looks a lot like his native Porty--"mair sand but.") But it's an Edinburgh with a lot of bits missing. Terry says he hardly ever gets past Haymarket; prosperous Barnton and the Grange are familiar only as housebreaking opportunities. You'd never know Edinburgh featured tourist attractions like Princes Street Gardens, Holyrood Palace or St. Giles's Cathedral; in fact, you get the distinct impression that Welsh's characters have never encountered these well-advertised landmarks. What they do know in excruciating detail are the miles of low-income slum-clearance housing projects, invisible from the part of Edinburgh that the visitors get to see. The publisher might have given thought to including a map of Edinburgh and Leith, color-coded to show the fine social gradations between Stenhouse and Drylaw, Niddrie and Sighthill, Broomhouse and Granton, Leith and Leith. ("Thir's Leith n thir's Leith mate," the cab driver explains to the American visitor, whose failure to appreciate this key distinction brings predictable disaster.) But it's surely impossible to convey to any outsider the depth of scorn Welsh packs into "Tranent."
Like his characters, as soon as Welsh leaves Edinburgh he's out of his depth. His Germans are stage Germans: On their visit to Munich, as Terry embarks on a fight with the police, Carl is warned by his host, "You should tell your friend that in this country there is little to be gained in antagonising the police." (Carl sensibly keeps his response to himself--"It's the same in oor country, but that disnae stoap us.") Americans are stage Americans; Australians...well, luckily they don't get to say much. When his people migrate (to another class or another continent), you can feel Welsh losing touch with them. Sometimes this is on purpose. Ex-prizefighter Billy Birrell has abandoned most of his old mates by the end of the book, a move marked in a scene of intolerable pathos--to a Scot, at least: When Terry shows up in the new pub, expecting a cheery welcome and drinks on the house, Billy turns him away. But sometimes it feels more like a failure of nerve: When Carl fetches up in Australia, he seems to have lost all purpose, in his own life and in the story, and within a few pages, sure enough, Welsh has him on an emergency flight to Edinburgh, back to his father's deathbed and people who speak his language.
The remaining lads, still true to form, turn up to visit Carl's dying father. Terry's checking out the nurses; Billy's being suitably sympathetic to the family while trying not to get in another fight with Terry; Carl listens to his father's last words:
Mind the ten rules, he wheezed at his son, squeezing his hand. Carl Ewart looked at the broken parody of his father, sprawled under the sheets in his bed. Aye, they really worked for you, he thought.
But all the same he finds himself replying, "Of course I will, Dad." For once Welsh isn't taking the piss: In spite of the depredations of Thatcher and Blair, the end of work, the death of Elvis, the arrival of Ecstasy, AIDS, techno and cell phones, in Edinburgh the basics never change.