"My only regret with Osama bin Laden is that he did not manage to
kill every member of the Wall Street Journal editorial
"In this recurring nightmare of a presidency, we have a national
debate about [George W. Bush's stolen presidency].... Otherwise there
would be debates only about whether to impeach or assassinate."
"We need to execute people like Ann Coulter in order to physically
intimidate conservatives, by making them realize that they can be killed
too. Otherwise they will turn out to be outright traitors."
First things first: Mr. Ashcroft, if you're there, I do not mean any of
the statements above to be taken literally. I do not mean them at all.
None of them. OK? What I do mean is to point out the incredible
hypocrisy of those on the right, the center and the "liberal media" who
defend the lunatic ravings of Ann Coulter, whether because she is
"kidding" or because "the left does the same thing." (For those who have
been lucky enough to have missed the Coultergeist of the past few
months, the author of the summer's number-one bestselling nonfiction
book in America has--in language identical to that above--expressed her
regret that Timothy McVeigh did not blow up the New York Times building,
mused aloud whether Bill Clinton should have been impeached or murdered,
and called for the execution of John Walker Lindh in order to intimidate
It's degrading to have to write about Coulter again. As a pundit, she is
about on a par with Charles Manson, better suited to a lifelong stay in
the Connecticut Home for the Criminally Insane than for the host's seat
on Crossfire. Her books are filled with lies, slander and phony
footnotes that are themselves lies and slanders. Her very existence as a
public figure is an insult to our collective intelligence. I should
really be writing about the campaign by neocon chickenhawks to
intimidate Howell Raines and the New York Times on Iraq. But
fortunately, John Judis and Nick Confessore have taken responsibility
for that, leaving me to the less ominous but more baffling phenomenon of
the bestselling Barbie-doll terrorist-apologist, who continues to be
celebrated by the very media she terms "retarded" and guilty of "mass
murder" while calling for their mass extinction by the likes of her
ideological comrade Timothy McVeigh.
Make no mistake. Coulter may routinely call for the murder of liberals,
of Arabs, of journalists, of the President, among many others. She may
compare adorable Katie Couric to Eva Braun and Joseph Goebbels and joke
about blowing up the Times building. But instead of ignoring, laughing
at or, perhaps most usefully, sedating her, we find Coulter's blond
locks and bony ass celebrated by talk-show bookers and gossip
columnists--even a genuine book reviewer--from coast to proverbial
Do I exaggerate? While promoting her hysterical screed against
"liberals"--a category so large she occasionally includes, I kid you
not, Andrew Sullivan--this malevolent Twiggy with Tourette's was booked
on Today, Crossfire (as guest and guest host),
Hardball, The Big Story With John Gibson and countless
other cable and radio programs. She was lovingly profiled in
Newsday, the New York Observer and the New York
Times Sunday Style section. She was the Boston Globe's
honored guest at the White House correspondents dinner. Her incitements
to murder and terrorism have been cheered and defended in the Wall
Street Journal and National Review Online. (The latter did
so, moreover, despite her having termed its editors "girly boys" and
behaving, in the words of the website's editor, Jonah Goldberg, "with a
total lack of professionalism, friendship, and loyalty.") And her
publisher, Crown, says it has no plans to correct her lies in future
editions. Why should they care? Is anyone holding them accountable?
The slanderous nonsense she puts between hard covers, moreover, is
selling not only to the caveman crowd, it's also receiving praise in
such respectable outlets as the liberal LA Times Book Review and
being quoted as constitutional gospel by alleged intellectual George
Will on ABC's This Week. This despite the fact that Coulter's
accusations have been as effectively discredited as Hitler's diaries.
(The last time I checked, the folks at Tapped, the American
Prospect's weblog, had compiled so many of these falsities it took
them nearly 3,000 words to enumerate them. Coulter has also been ripped
to shreds by dailyhowler.com, spinsanity.com, mediawhoresonline.com,
Scoobie Davis Online and by Joe Conason in Salon. The most
comprehensive compilation can supposedly be found at
slannder.homestead.com. I cannot bring myself to actually wade into it.)
So what's the deal? Is looking like an anorexic Farrah Fawcett and
wearing skirts so short they lack the dignity and reserve of Monica
Lewinsky's thong enough to insure the embrace of the national
entertainment state no matter what you say, just so long as your
murderous bile is directed at "liberals"? Would it have worked for
Saddam if he wore a size 6? I really don't know. Naïve optimist
that I am, when I first picked up Coulter's book in galleys in the late
spring, I felt pretty certain we were done with her. I mean, how even to
engage someone who terms Christie Todd Whitman a "birdbrain" (page 51)
and a "dimwit" (page 53); Jim Jeffords a "half-wit" (page 50); and
Gloria Steinem a "deeply ridiculous figure" (page 37) who "had to sleep"
with a rich liberal to fund Ms. magazine (page 38)--all of which
makes her "a termagant" (page 39)? Coulter's done far worse since, of
course, and yet, like one of those Mothralike creatures that feed on
bullets and squashed Japanese villagers, the monster continues to grow,
debasing everyone and everything in its wake. Coulter jokes about
McVeigh blowing up the Times, and the Wall Street
Journal--which was blown up by terrorists on September
11--rushes to her defense. Their man, Daniel Pearl, was murdered by
terrorists in Pakistan. Have they no shame? At long last, have they no
sense of decency left?
Concerned that a much-needed international perspective is missing
from the debate in this country over the course of American foreign
policy and US relations with the world, The Nation asked a number
of distinguished foreign writers and thinkers to share their reflections
with us. It is our hope that, as in the early 1980s, when a "letter" in
these pages from the late E.P. Thompson expressing rising European
concern about the Reagan Administration's nuclear weapons buildup was
instrumental in building common bonds beween antinuclear movements
across the Atlantic, this series will forge bonds between Americans
concerned about how Washington is exercising power today and the rest of
the world. We begin with a letter to an American friend written by the
South African writer Breyten Breytenbach, whose opposition to apartheid
resulted in his spending seven years in prison.
This is an extraordinarily difficult letter to write, and it may even be
a perilous exercise. Dangerous because your present Administration and
its specialized agencies by all accounts know no restraint in hitting
out at any perceived enemy of America, and nobody or nothing can protect
one from their vindictiveness. Not even American courts are any longer a
bulwark against arbitrary exactions. Take the people being kept in that
concentration camp in Guantánamo: They are literally
extraterritorial, by force made anonymous and stateless so that no law,
domestic or international, is habilitated to protect them. It may be an
extreme example brought about by abnormal circumstances--but the
criteria of human rights kick in, surely, precisely when the conditions
are extreme and the situation is abnormal. The predominant yardstick of
your government is not human rights but national interests. (Your
President keeps repeating the mantra.) In what way is this order of
priorities any different from those of the defunct Soviet Union or other
The war against terror is an all-purpose fig leaf for violating or
ignoring local laws and international agreements and treaties. So,
talking to America is like dealing with a very aggressive beast: One
must do so softly, not make any brusque moves or run off at the mouth if
you wish to survive. In dancing with the enemy one follows his steps
even if counting under one's breath. But do be careful not to dance too
close to containers intended for transporting war prisoners in
Afghanistan: One risks finding one's face blackened by a premature
Why is it difficult? Because the United States is a complex entity
despite the gung-ho slogans and simplistic posturing in moments of
national hysteria. Your political system is resilient and well tested;
it has always harbored counterforces; it allows quite effectively for
alternation: for a swing-back of the pendulum whenever policies have
strayed too far from middle-class interests--with the result that you
have a large middle ground of acceptable political practices. Why,
through the role of elected representatives, the people who vote even
have a rudimentary democratic control over public affairs! Except maybe
in Florida. Better still--your history has shown how powerful a moral
catharsis expressed through popular resistance to injustice can
sometimes be; I have in mind the grassroots opposition to the Vietnam
War. And all along there was no dearth of strong voices speaking firm
convictions and enunciating sure ethical standards.
Where are they now? What happened to the influential intellectuals and
the trustworthy journalists explaining the ineluctable consequences of
your present policies? Where are the clergy calling for humility and
some compassion for the rest of the world? Are there no ordinary folk
pointing out that the President and his cronies are naked, cynical,
morally reprehensible and very, very dangerous not only for the world
but also for American interests--and by now probably out of control? Are
these voices stifled? Has the public arena of freely debated expressions
of concern been sapped of all influence? Are people indifferent to the
havoc wreaked all over the world by America's diktat policies,
destroying the underpinnings of decent international coexistence? Or are
they perhaps secretly and shamefully gleeful, as closet supporters of
this Showdown at OK Corral approach? They (and you and I) are most
likely hunkered down, waiting for the storm of imbecility to pass. How
deadened we have become!
In reality the workings of your governing system are opaque and covert,
while hiding in the chattering spotlight of an ostensible transparency,
even though the ultimate objective is clear. Who really makes the policy
decisions? Sure, the respective functions are well identified: The
elected representatives bluster and raise money, the lobbyists buy and
sell favors, the media spin and purr patriotically, the intellectuals
wring their soft hands, the minorities duck and dive and hang out
flags... But who and what are the forces shaping America's role in the
The goal, I submit, is obvious: subjugating the world (which is
barbarian, dangerous, envious and ungrateful) to US power for the sake
of America's interests. That is, to the benefit of America's rich. It's
as simple as that. Oh, there was a moment of high camp when it was
suggested that the aim was to make the world safe for democracy! That
particular fig leaf went up in cigar smoke and now all the other excuses
are just so much bullshit, even the charlatan pretense of being a nation
under siege. This last one, I further submit, was a sustained Orson
Wellesian campaign to stampede the nation in order to better facilitate
what was in effect a right-wing coup carried out by cracker
fundamentalists, desk warriors proposing to "terminate" the states that
they don't like, warmed up Dr. Strangeloves and oil-greedy conservative
I do not want to equate your glorious nation with the deplorable image
of a President who, at best, appears to be a bar-room braggart smirking
and winking to his mates as he holds forth his hand-me-down platitudes
and insights and naïve solutions. Because I know you have many
faces and I realize how rich you are in diversity. Would I be writing
this way if I had in mind a black or Hispanic or Asian-American, members
of those vastly silent components of your society? It would be a tragic
mistake for us out here to imagine that Bush represents the hearts and
the minds of the majority of your countrymen. Many of your black and
other compatriots must be just as anguished as we are.
Still, Jack, certain things need to be said and repeated. I realize it
is difficult for you to know what's happening in the world, since your
entertainment media have by now totally blurred the distinctions between
information and propaganda, and banal psychological and commercial
manipulation must be the least effective way of disseminating
understanding. You need to know that your country has made the world a
much more dangerous place for the rest of us. International treaties to
limit the destruction of our shared natural environment, to stop the
manufacture of maiming personnel mines, to outlaw torture, to bring war
criminals to international justice, to do something about the murderous
and growing gulf between rich and poor, to guarantee natural food for
the humble of the earth, to allow for local economic solutions to
specific conditions of injustice, for that matter to permit local
products to have access to American markets, to mobilize the world
against hunger, have all been gutted by the USA.Your government is
blackmailing every single miserable and corrupt mother's son in power in
the world to do things your way. It has forced itself on the rest of us
in its support and abetment of corrupt and tyrannical regimes. It has
lost all ethical credibility in its one-sided and unequivocal support of
the Israeli government campaign that must ultimately lead to the
ethnocide of the Palestinians. And in this it has
promoted--sponsored?--the bringing about of a deleterious international
climate, since state terrorism can now be carried out with arrogance,
disdain and impunity. As far as the Arab nations are concerned, America,
giving unquestioned legitimacy to despotic regimes, refusing any
recognition of home-grown alternative democratic forces, favored the
emergence of a bearded opposition who in time must become radicalized
and fanaticized to the point where they can be exterminated as vermin.
And the oilfields will be safe.
I'm too harsh. I'm cutting corners. I'm pontificating. But my friend, if
you were to look around the world you would see that America is largely
perceived as a rogue state.
Can there be a turn-back? Have things gone too far, beyond a point of
possible return? Can it be that some of the core and founding
assumptions (it is said) of your culture are ultimately dangerous to the
survival of the world? I'm referring to your propensity for patriotism
(to me it's an attitude, not a value), to the fervent belief in a
capitalist free-market system with the concomitant conviction that
progress is infinite, that one can eternally remake and invent the self,
that it is more important to be self-made than to collectively husband
the planet's diminishing resources, that the instant gratification of
the desire for goods is the substance of the right to happiness, that
the world and life and all its manifestations can be apprehended and
described in terms of good and evil, finally that you can flare for a
while in samsara, the world of illusions (and desperately make it last
with artificial means and California hocus-pocus before taking all your
prostheses to heaven).
If this is so, what then? With whom? You see, the most detestable effect
is that so many of us have to drink this poison, to look at you as a
threat, to live with the knowledge of cultural and economic and military
danger in our veins, and to be obliged to either submit or resist.
I don't want to pass the buck. Don't imagine it is necessarily any
better elsewhere. We, in this elsewhere, have to look for our own
solutions. Europe is pusillanimous, carefully though hypocritically
hostile and closed to foreigners, particularly those from the South; the
EU is by now little more than a convenience for its citizens and
politically and culturally much less than the contents of any of its
And Africa? As a part-time South African (the other parts are French and
Spanish and Senegalese and New Yorker), I've always wondered whether
Thabo Mbeki would be America's thin globalizing wedge (at the time of
Clinton and Gore it certainly seemed so) or whether he was ultimately
going to be the leader who can strategically lead Africa against
America. But the question is hypothetical. Thabo Mbeki is no alternative
to the world economic system squeezing the poor for the sustainable
enrichment of the rich; as in countries like Indonesia and your own (see
the role of the oil companies), he too has opted for crony capitalism.
Africa's leading establishments are rotten to the core. Mbeki is no
different. His elocution is more suave and his prancing more Western,
What do we do, then? As we move into the chronicle of a war foretold
(against Iraq), it is going to be difficult to stay cool. Certainly, we
must continue fighting globalization as it exists now, reject the
article of faith that postulates a limitless and lawless progress and
expansion of greed, subvert the acceptance of might is right, spike the
murderous folly of One God. And do so cautiously and patiently, counting
our steps. It is going to be a long dance.
Let us find and respect one another.
Amid the elegies for the dead and the ceremonies of remembrance,
seditious questions intrude: Is there really a war on terror; and if one
is indeed being waged, what are its objectives?
The Taliban are out of power. Poppies bloom once more in Afghan
pastures. The military budget is up. The bluster war on Iraq blares from
every headline. On the home front the war on the Bill of Rights is set
at full throttle, though getting less popular with each day, as judges
thunder their indignation at the unconstitutional diktats of Attorney
General John Ashcroft, a man low in public esteem.
On this latter point we can turn to Merle Haggard, the bard of
blue-collar America, the man who saluted the American flag more than a
generation ago in such songs as "The Fightin' Side of Me" and "Okie From
Muskogee." Haggard addressed a concert crowd in Kansas City a few days
ago in the following terms: "I think we should give John Ashcroft a big
hand...[pause]...right in the mouth!" Haggard went on to say, "The way things are going I'll probably be thrown in jail tomorrow for saying that, so I hope
ya'll will bail me out."
It will take generations to roll back the constitutional damage done in
the wake of the attacks. Emergency laws lie around for decades like
rattlesnakes in summer grass. As Joanne Mariner of Human Rights Watch
points out to me, one of the main legal precedents that the government
is using to justify detaining "enemy combatants" without trial or access
to a lawyer is an old strikebreaking decision. The government's August
27 legal brief in the Padilla "enemy combatant" case relies heavily on
Moyer v. Peabody, a Supreme Court decision that dates back to
The case involved Charles Moyer, president of the Western Federation of
Miners, a feisty Colorado trade union that fought for such radical
reforms as safe working conditions, an end to child labor and payment in
money rather than in company scrip. As part of a concerted effort to
crush the union, the governor of Colorado declared a state of
insurrection, called out the state militia and detained Moyer for two
and a half months without probable cause or due process of law.
In an opinion that deferred obsequiously to executive power (using the
"captain of the ship" metaphor), the Supreme Court upheld Moyer's
detention. It reasoned that since the militia could even have fired upon
the strikers (or, in the Court's words, the "mob in insurrection"), how
could Moyer complain about a mere detention? The government now cites
the case in its Padilla brief to argue that whatever a state governor
can do, the President can do better.
Right under our eyes a whole new covert-ops arm of government is being
coaxed into being by the appalling Rumsfeld, who has supplanted Powell
as Secretary of State, issuing public statements contradicting offical
US policy on Israel's occupation of and settlements in the West Bank and
Gaza. Rumsfeld has asked Congress to authorize a new under secretary of
defense overseeing all defense intelligence matters, also requesting
that the department be given greater latitude to carry out covert ops.
Wrap that in with erosion or outright dumping of the Posse Comitatus Act
(1878), which forbids any US military role in domestic law enforcement,
and the silhouette of military government shows up ever more clearly in
the crystal ball.
The terrorists in those planes a year ago nourished specific grievances,
all available for study in the speeches and messages of Osama bin Laden.
They wanted US troops out of Saudi Arabia. They saw the United States as
Israel's prime backer and financier in the oppression of Palestinians.
They railed against the sanctions grinding down upon the civilian
population of Iraq.
A year later the troops are still in Saudi Arabia, US backing for Sharon
is more ecstatic than ever and scenarios for a blitzkrieg against Saddam
Hussein mostly start with a saturation bombing campaign that will plunge
civilians in Iraq back into the worst miseries of the early 1990s.
Terror against states springs from the mulch of political frustration.
We live in a world where about half the population of the planet, 2.8
billion people, live on less than $2 a day. The richest 25 million
people in the United States receive more income than the 2 billion
poorest people on the planet. Across the past year world economic
conditions have mostly got worse, nowhere with more explosive potential
than in Latin America, where Peru, Argentina and Venezuela all heave in
Can anything stop the war cries against Iraq from being self-fulfilling?
Another real slump on Wall Street would certainly postpone it, just as a
hike in energy prices here if war does commence will give the economy a
kidney blow when it least needs it.
How could an attack on Iraq be construed as a blow against terror? The
Administration abandoned early on, probably to its subsequent regret,
the claim that Iraq was complicit in the attacks of September 11. Aside
from the Taliban's Afghanistan, the prime nation that could be blamed
was Saudi Arabia, point of origin for so many of the Al Qaeda terrorists
on the planes.
Would an attack on Iraq be a reprisal? If it degraded Saudi Arabia's
role as prime swing producer of oil, if it indicated utter contempt for
Arab opinion, then yes. But no one should doubt that if the Bush
Administration does indeed topple Saddam Hussein and occupy Baghdad,
this will truly be a plunge into the unknown, one that would fan the
embers of Islamic radicalism, which actually peaked at the end of the
1980s, and amid whose decline the attacks of September 11 were far more
a coda than an overture.
Would Iran sit quiet while US troops roosted in Baghdad? And would not
the overthrow of Saddam be prelude to the downfall of the monarchy in
Jordan, with collapse of the House of Saud following thereafter?
Islamic fanatics flew those planes a year ago, and here we are with a
terrifying alliance of Judeo-Christian fanatics, conjoined in their
dream of the recovery of the Holy Land. War on Terror? It's back to the
thirteenth century, picking up where Prince Edward left off with the
In July the Washington Post, under the headline "Panel Finds No
'Smoking Gun' in Probe of 9/11 Intelligence Failures," reported that the
House and Senate intelligence committees jointly investigating the
September 11 attack had "uncovered no single piece of information that,
if properly analyzed, could have prevented the disaster, according to
members of the panel." With an implied that's-that, the committees then
went on to examine broader matters concerning systemic weaknesses within
the intelligence agencies. That was good news for the cloak-and-dagger
set and the Clinton and Bush administrations. Systemic problems tend to
be treated as no one's fault. The committees were signaling that there
would be no accountability for mistakes made by the spies before
In the past year, numerous media accounts have revealed screw-ups,
miscalculations and oversights. The FBI didn't pursue leads on potential
terrorists enrolled at US aviation schools. The CIA had learned that a
suspected terrorist--who would end up on the flight that hit the
Pentagon--was in the United States after attending an Al Qaeda summit,
and it failed to notify the FBI. The CIA didn't act on intelligence
going back to the mid-1990s suggesting that Al Qaeda was interested in a
9/11-type attack. Time magazine noted recently that George W.
Bush's national security team did not respond quickly to a proposal to
"roll back" Al Qaeda.
Hints were ignored and the intelligence system failed, an indication
that reform is vital. To reform effectively, it is necessary to zero in
on specific mistakes as well as big-picture flaws. Yet the
committees--distracted by personnel disputes and a leak
investigation--have not indicated that this sort of comprehensive probe
is under way (the Senate Judiciary Committee did examine the FBI's
handling of its botched investigation into Zacarias Moussaoui, an
alleged 9/11 conspirator, and identified numerous incidents of
While the meandering September 11 inquiry is far from done, in recent
months both committees released little-noticed reports (accompanying the
intelligence budget they approved) showing that the systemic stuff is
pretty awful. The Senate committee observed, "it is very difficult to
determine how much money the Intelligence Community has budgeted for
counterterrorism, counternarcotics and counterproliferation." It
complained that the CIA, the National Security Agency and other
intelligence bureaucracies are not "able to produce auditable financial
statements"; that thousands of intelligence slots in the military go
unfilled each year, including scores of analysis openings at the US
Central Command, which is responsible for the fight against Al Qaeda;
that the intelligence agencies' terrorist databases are a mess; that FBI
training for counterterrorism agents is inadequate. The committee also
groused that the "community" has repeatedly ignored Congressional
requests for information.
The House intelligence committee offered a grimmer assessment. It
maintained that extra funding is being put "into an organizational
framework that gives little indication of being prepared to produce
intelligence capabilities that can address the national security demands
of the future." The committee noted that "significant gaps in the
Community's analytical capabilities are widening, and present
opportunity for further surprise in national security areas." It
implored Bush to act on the findings of a commission led by Brent
Scowcroft, Bush Senior's National Security Adviser, which last year
recommended placing the Pentagon's three largest intelligence-collection
agencies, including the NSA, under control of the director of central
intelligence. With that plea the committee was urging the reversal of a
decades-long trend in which military imperatives--rather than political,
economic or diplomatic concerns--drive the collection and analysis of
intelligence. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, though, has thwarted
such a shift.
And a House intelligence subcommittee put out a brief September 11
report in July that cited fundamental flaws within the intelligence
bureaucracy. "CIA's problems," it said, "require more than just
expressed commitment from senior CIA managers...the subcommittee will be
looking for deeds rather than words." Did that mean that the
subcommittee, ten months after September 11, was still not persuaded
that the CIA was acting vigorously to correct the institutional defects
that led to the surprise of that day?
Those reports, produced by committees traditionally cozy with the
"community," hardly inspire confidence in the spies. They could cause
one to wonder whether the committees are throwing money (the several
billion dollars added post-9/11 to the classified $30 billion-plus
intelligence budget) at a wasteful and disorganized bureaucracy. And the
problems are probably worse than described. For years, the intelligence
community has been plagued with fragmentation and insufficient
coordination and dominated by military concerns as the bureaucratic
rigor mortis that inhibits unorthodox thinking (as in how to better
understand the world, rather than how to be like Bond) has deepened. Mel
Goodman, a senior CIA analyst for twenty-four years, maintains that the
"analytical culture" at the CIA has "collapsed" over time, leaving the
agency without the ability to conduct effective long-term research and
analysis. And Gregory Treverton, a senior analyst at the RAND
Corporation and former vice chairman of the National Intelligence
Council, notes that within the CIA "an emphasis to be fast and quick
drives out the ability to think longer and harder" about subjects not in
the day's headlines. He sensibly favors transforming the analytical side
of the CIA into a much more open shop that publicly interacts with think
tanks, academics and nongovernmental organizations. "We need to put
together unconventional sets of people to get a deeper understanding,
one with a more historical foundation," Treverton says. "But how that
gets done is the question."
Indeed. How do you get any bureaucracy--particularly a clandestine
one--to behave creatively and responsibly? Inertia and infighting have
often derailed well-intentioned intelligence reform (see Rumsfeld).
Whatever its chances, fundamental reform--including demilitarizing
intelligence, reshaping the bureaucracy and transforming internal
values--is unlikely in the absence of a thorough, as-public-as-possible
investigation into the errors of September 11, large and small.
Taking on the intelligence community (and forcing a transformation)
appears to be too much for the committees, which have been slow to hold
public hearings. They have politely issued complaints, but they mostly
have eschewed fingerpointing for handwringing. In a slap at the
committees in July, the House approved legislation to establish an
independent commission to examine September 11 intelligence issues. In
the Senate, Joe Lieberman and John McCain have been pushing an
independent review that would also dissect transportation security and
diplomatic and military matters. The less than impressive performance of
the intelligence committees "has made people in both houses look at the
independent commission bill again," says one Democratic Congressional
aide. The Administration opposes such a panel.
In February CIA chief George Tenet testified that the agency had done no
wrong regarding 9/11, and that the attack was not due to a "failure of
attention, and discipline, and focus, and consistent effort." The
committees ought to question his grip on reality. Yet they don't seem
eager to disprove Tenet or to probe or challenge the covert bureaucracy.
They show no signs of exploring all the intelligence and policy errors
related to September 11. And so, they are unlikely to fix them.
In the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks, Americans
experienced a mixture of fear and warmth, a quickening of the national
spirit. The extraordinary heroism of the firefighters, police and others
in coping with death and destruction rebuked the mood of "infectious
greed" generated by this era of market dominance. Civil servants and
soldiers, even government itself, were accorded new respect in the face
of real dangers and collective need. These developments contained a
hopeful thread for reconstructing our frayed democracy.
Adding to the sense of possibility were the expressions of sympathy and
solidarity from around the world. We Americans, so often the object of
envy or criticism, found ourselves the recipients of a great outpouring
of concern, with countries all over the globe condemning the callous,
fanatical terrorism that could turn an airplane full of ordinary people
into a weapon of horrific destruction.
But the moment was brief and did not last. One year later, we mark not
only the terrible loss of life suffered that day but the tragic failure
of American leadership since then.
Abroad, the Bush team's initial military victory in breaking up Al Qaeda
cells and routing their Taliban protectors in Afghanistan has been
tarnished by a stream of postwar revelations of needless civilian deaths
from US bombs and of mistreatment of Al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners.
Meanwhile, the United States is failing the challenge of rebuilding
Afghanistan, leaving its people facing the same chaos, violence and
extortion that prevailed under the warlords whose depredations helped
usher in the Taliban regime.
America's early success in mobilizing an alliance against Al Qaeda has
been squandered. Rather than pursuing a limited military action in
Afghanistan designed to strike a swift blow against the terrorist
leadership responsible for the attacks and then joining in a sustained,
worldwide policing action to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure, the
Bush Administration has exploited the tragedy as a license for an
endless war against endless enemies. It has used September 11 to
consecrate an American empire claiming the right to impose its writ
When the President targeted his spurious "axis of evil" and announced a
new doctrine of "pre-emptive attack," he alarmed allies everywhere. As
Jonathan Schell writes in this issue, Bush has claimed "a radically new
conception of America's role in the world," asserting that it has "the
right to overthrow regimes by military force at its sole discretion."
And now, under this unexamined doctrine, the President and his national
security team relentlessly tout inevitable war with Iraq, dismissing the
opposition of many US generals and much of the Republican foreign policy
Whether it is on the issue of invading Iraq or the desirability of an
International Criminal Court or what must be done to bring about peace
in the Middle East or the need to take seriously the dangers of global
warming, the Administration disdains the opinions of even our oldest
allies, making US leadership a source of resentment rather than hope.
Such actions, South African Breyten Breytenbach writes, have led to the
feeling that America is a cowboy state that "has made the world a much
more dangerous place for the rest of us." No US government has been this
isolated since the 1920s.
While pursuing its grandiose Pax Americana, the Administration has
failed to use this opportunity to honestly examine flaws in America's
past policies toward the rest of the world, and at the same time it has
pursued new policies that lose sight of moral means and goals. It
dismisses any attempt to probe the roots of terrorist attacks. Merely
asking, "Why do they hate us?" is deemed "objectively" pro-terrorist.
Terrorism is defined as metaphysical evil, divorced from its context.
Human rights as a foreign policy objective are jettisoned, and
friendships are sealed--no questions asked--with repressive regimes that
seem to be on "our" side. Russia, Indonesia, China, Pakistan and Egypt
have been allowed to hijack the rhetoric of antiterrorism to justify
repression of citizens opposing their current regimes. The lack of a
coherent US role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has allowed
extremists to drown out the voices of peace.
Bush's new international doctrines met with little dissent in the media
or from Congressional Democrats, with the exception of brave legislators
like Dennis Kucinich, Barbara Lee, Russ Feingold and John Kerry. Most
Americans were seduced into passive consent, either prompted by fear of
further attacks or cowed by an Administration that branded criticism as
subversive. The media catered to the hyperpatriotic mood, praising
Bush's every move and rarely, until recently, offering any critique of
his Administration's actions.
At home, the President issued no call for sacrifice. For the first time
in our history, we were summoned to a global war for which the wealthy
were asked to pay less in taxes, even as the federal budget plummeted
into the red. The Administration larded the military with money,
demanding billions for cold war weaponry and missile defense. It
defaulted on the core national security imperative of reducing our
dependence on imported oil, choosing instead to prop up feudal empires
and dictatorships (insuring that we will be widely hated as a cause of
misery and oppression in the Middle East and the rest of the world).
After resisting for months, the President cobbled up a massive "homeland
security" reorganization that omits any reform--and avoids any
investigation--of the intelligence agencies and their failures leading
up to September 11.
John Ashcroft, Bush's Attorney General, has become the worst threat to
civil rights and liberties since J. Edgar Hoover and Joe McCarthy
peddled fear and division in the early years of the cold war. As David
Cole writes, "With the exception of the right to bear arms, one would be
hard pressed to name a single constitutional liberty that the Bush
Administration has not overridden in the name of protecting our
freedom." Ashcroft has asserted unprecedented license for the executive
while insisting its acts be shrouded in secrecy. It is a measure of the
Attorney General's extremism that his summary detention policies have
been lambasted by the federal courts. In its first public opinion ever,
the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, a conservative body
that has never in its existence denied the Justice Department a warrant,
decried Ashcroft's abuse of authority to undermine constitutional
And now, the Administration and the Republican Party--worried about the
flagging economy, stock market collapse and corporate crime
wave--attempt to exploit September 11 and the war on terrorism for
partisan advantage. The President has used his post-9/11 popularity to
raise unprecedented sums for Republican candidates. His political guru,
Karl Rove, urges Republicans to "focus on the war" and advertise their
loyalty to the President.
The anniversary of September 11 should be a time of renewed, and
genuine, patriotism as well as of grieving. But it should also be an
occasion to reflect on where we've traveled in the past year and what
changes in course need to be made. Americans who disagree with the
direction in which this Administration is leading the country should
start building an effective challenge to its policies, with an eye first
on the fall elections--a challenge founded on the bedrock principles of
justice, human rights and internationalism. Some things have changed,
but those principles have not. Another world was possible before
September 11. It still is.
The debate over how to redevelop the World Trade Center site has
revolved around several key concerns: the commercial interests of the
real estate industry, the public's desire to embolden Manhattan's
skyline with exciting architecture and the historic obligation to
memorialize thousands of lost lives. As we continue to address and
balance these concerns, let's also seize the chance to reclaim Ground
Zero in the spirit of the twenty-first century, showcasing one of
today's most inspiring and politically meaningful industrial movements:
the revolution in clean energy.
Imagine for a moment that the structures surrounding the memorial will
be sheathed in an invisible skin of electricity-producing solar cells.
During the day, while electricity demand is peaking, the buildings will
silently, automatically produce energy. No power plants or transmission
lines necessary. No greenhouse emissions. No need for oil, coal, natural
gas or nuclear energy. No risk of blackouts. No spiking electricity
prices. Computer and phone networks, elevators, clocks, air conditioners
and ATMs will all run simply, cleanly, like a crop of corn or a grove of
trees, on sunlight. (The complex will be connected to the grid, drawing
electricity when necessary--at night or on cloudy days--and pumping
power back in when it creates a surplus.)
These high-tech buildings will supply all the services and comforts of a
traditional commercial or residential complex but require less than half
the electricity because of their green design features: superinsulated
walls and windows; highly efficient appliances and lighting, heating and
cooling systems; and a motion-sensing laser system that will
automatically switch off lights and equipment when not in use. Whereas
the original World Trade Center complex guzzled nearly 100 megawatts of
electricity a day on peak days, with associated emissions, the new
complex will be a net-zero-emission development. Moreover, this mini-El
Dorado of energy independence and its surrounding neighborhood will be
designed to have minimal need for cars and trucks. Once there, visitors
will be in the greatest walking neighborhood in the world. The three
airports, Kennedy, La Guardia and Newark, will be connected by train to
the downtown terminal, making it an easy commute. An expanded network of
ferries connecting lower Manhattan with Brooklyn, Queens, New Jersey and
uptown will provide a fast and pleasurable way to get around. The heart
of lower Manhattan will be knitted together by a clean, quiet street
grid restored for use by pedestrians alone.
"From both a technological and cost standpoint, this scenario is
entirely possible," says Ashok Gupta, an energy economist at the Natural
Resources Defense Council. Solar systems, fuel cells and
energy-efficiency measures have already been implemented in the design
of several skyscrapers in Manhattan, including the Condé Nast
building at Times Square and the residential tower at Battery Park
currently under construction. As clean-energy technologies become
rapidly more sophisticated and affordable, a large-scale application at
Ground Zero would galvanize their acceptance in the marketplace. As for
transportation, fuel-cell-powered buses and taxis may be too expensive
today, but already they're technologically feasible. The Lower Manhattan
Development Corporation (LMDC) and the Port Authority have approved
additional rail connections for commuters beneath the new complex; they
are also considering plans to depress the West Side Highway for a more
pedestrian-friendly environment, and to add new ferry lines at Battery
Park and on the East River.
The opportunities are real, but they can't be realized without leaders.
Yet neither Governor George Pataki, site developer Larry Silverstein nor
Mayor Michael Bloomberg has expressed much interest so far. "Mr.
Silverstein isn't really thinking about this," says his spokesperson.
"It's just too early to get bogged down in these kinds of details."
Pataki's office expressed a similar lack of initiative, saying the
issues are important but not yet a priority. Alex Garvin, vice president
of planning for the LMDC, was more assertive in his commitment: "We plan
to establish standards for sustainability and green technology that
architects will be not only encouraged but required to meet. But we
can't get started on this now; it's too early to determine the details."
Prominent green architects disagree. Robert Fox, senior principal of Fox
and Fowle, the architecture firm that designed the Condé Nast
building, says planners should adopt the Leadership in Energy and
Environmental Design rating system, the gold standard for sustainable
building practices. "Now is the time to address this, at the beginning
of the planning process," stresses Fox. "Sustainability measures must be
incorporated into every aspect of the design, from the infrastructure of
the water, sewage and electricity systems to the external PV-integrated
It's a safe bet that the public will support much if not all of the
larger zero-energy vision. In addition to the LMDC, two
coalitions--Civic Alliance, representing more than 100 institutions, and
New York New Visions, representing dozens of local architecture
firms--have endorsed principles for downtown redevelopment that promote
sustainable design and clean energy. Furthermore, there's impressive
evidence that supports the use of clean-energy systems: Richard Perez, a
scientist at SUNY Albany who's been tracking sunlight in New York City
for more than ten years, has found that the average amount of sun that
hits the city annually is only 12 percent less than that in cloudless
Right now the Pataki administration is considering a proposal to limit
power-plant emissions of carbon dioxide 30-40 percent below 1990 levels
by 2010. Building a zero-energy complex and a state-of-the-art
transportation system would advance these goals and address the mounting
crisis of global warming, while making a clear statement about America's
commitment to energy independence. Since September 11 many energy
experts have called for a massive, government-funded research project, a
"Manhattan Project of alternative energy" to alleviate our dependence on
foreign oil. The opportunity for such an initiative now lies at the foot
of Manhattan. Nothing would be more appropriate for a memorial to a
traumatic past than one that points us in the direction of a sustainable
Every year Greensboro, North Carolina, holds a Fourth of July parade in
which local organizations form the units. This year members of the
Greensboro Peace Coalition decided--"after some hesitation," admits
chairman Ed Whitfield--to join the line of march. They bought an ad in
the local paper, printed leaflets and developed their own variation on
this year's theme of "American Heroes": large posters of Americans,
including Mark Twain, Albert Einstein and the Rev. Martin Luther King
Jr., who have spoken out against the folly of war.
Though members had been participating in vigils since last October, when
the bombing of Afghanistan began, many expressed qualms about marching
into the thick of their hometown's annual patriotic celebration. But
fifty activists showed up on the Fourth and got the surprise of their
political lives. Along the mile-and-a-half parade route through downtown
Greensboro, they were greeted mostly with applause, and, at the end of
their march, they were honored by parade organizers for "Best
Interpretation of the Theme."
Says Whitfield, "There is a real lesson in this. If you scratch the
surface of the poll numbers about Bush and Ashcroft's overwhelming
support, you get down to a lot of people with a lot of questions. Some
of them are afraid that they are alone in what they are thinking. What
it takes to get them excited and to get them involved is for them to see
someone standing up so that they will know they are not alone."
The post-September 11 experiences of the Greensboro Peace Coalition,
Berea College's Patriots for Peace, the Arkansas Coalition for Peace and
Justice, and dozens of other grassroots groups serve as a reminder that
while dissenters have not always spoken in a single voice, they have had
in common not just their unease with the bipartisan Washington consensus
but the often inspiring experience that there are many Americans who
share their discomfort. Take Jennifer Ellis of Peace Action Maine, who
recalls how overwhelmed Down East activists felt after September 11.
"But then we started to get calls from people saying, 'I don't know what
your organization is, but it has the word "peace" in the title. What can
I do?'" Some callers were already holding vigils, and her group started
sending out weekly e-mails listing them. "We linked people up with local
efforts to fight discrimination against Muslims, and we told people how
to write members of Congress about civil liberties issues," she says.
"Before long, all these people, in all these towns across Maine, were
As with anti-World War I activists who looked to Wisconsin Senator Bob
La Follette, critics of McCarthyism who celebrated Maine's Margaret
Chase Smith's statement of conscience or foes of the Vietnam War who
were inspired by the anti-Gulf of Tonkin resolution votes of Oregon's
Wayne Morse and Alaska's Ernest Gruening, post-September 11 dissenters
found solace in the fact that at least a few members of Congress shared
their qualms. Three days after the attacks on the World Trade Center and
the Pentagon, Representative Barbara Lee, a California Democrat, cast
the only vote against the resolution authorizing the use of force to
respond. Lee's vote earned her death threats and pundit predictions that
she was finished politically, but she won her March Democratic primary
race with 85 percent of the vote. And the "Barbara Lee Speaks for Me"
movement that started in her Oakland-based district has spread; in July
several thousand people packed a Santa Cruz, California, movie theater
to celebrate "Barbara Lee Day." Said Santa Cruz Mayor Christopher Krohn:
"She's become a national moral leader in awakening the movement for
justice, peace and a thorough re-examination of US foreign policy."
Responded Lee: "It must not be unpatriotic to question a course of
action. It must not be unpatriotic to raise doubts. I suggest to you it
is just the opposite."
Senator Russ Feingold, the Wisconsin Democrat who cast the only Senate
vote against the USA Patriot Act's assault on civil liberties, still
marvels at the standing ovations he receives when his vote is mentioned.
"I thought this would be a difficult vote," says Feingold, who recently
earned the best home-state approval ratings of his career. "What I
didn't realize was that a lot of people are concerned about free speech
and repression of liberties, even in a time of war. I didn't realize
until I cast my vote that there was so much concern about whether it was
appropriate, whether it was allowed, to dissent after September 11. I
think that for a lot of people, my vote told them it was still
appropriate to dissent."
Some members who have challenged the Bush Administration have suffered
politically--notably Georgia Representative Cynthia McKinney, who lost
an August Democratic primary. But most are secure in their seats, and
one is even being boomed as a potential Democratic presidential
contender. Representative Dennis Kucinich's February speech condemning
the bombing of Afghan civilians and the repression of American civil
liberties drew an overwhelmingly positive response that Kucinich, an
Ohio Democrat, says is evidence of broad uncertainty about militarism
abroad and economic and constitutional costs at home.
Democratic Representative Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin led several House
members in writing a letter in December questioning White House policies
that emphasize bullets and badgering as opposed to diplomacy and
development; and John Conyers of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the
House Judiciary Committee, has kept the heat on the Justice Department
regarding civil liberties--often with the support of Judiciary Committee
chair James Sensenbrenner, a conservative Republican. Still, says
Kucinich, "our constituents are perhaps more prepared than Congress for
the debate that should be going on."
Bill Keys, a school board member in Madison, Wisconsin, shares that
view. Keys's October 2001 refusal to require the recitation of the
Pledge of Allegiance in city schools earned three days of broadcast
rebukes from radio personality Rush Limbaugh, physical threats and a
movement to recall him from office. The recall drive fizzled before
winter and, this spring, Keys was elected president of the board. "The
strange thing is that once I became identified as this awful radical,
people started coming up to me and saying, 'Don't you let them shut you
up,'" recalls Keys. "If the last year taught us anything, it's this:
Yes, of course, if you step out of the mainstream you will get called
names and threatened. But you will also discover that a lot of Americans
still recognize that dissenters are the real defenders of freedom."
The terrorism war begins to sag.
The perpetrator we were meant to bag
Remains at large, and wartime fervor fades.
Then Bush and all his hawkish White House aides
Drop sanctions as the way to tame Iraq
And say, "Without delay, we must attack."
If that war sags, there's still a backup plan.
It's war without delay against Iran.
And when the zest for that war, too, has faded?
That's easy: North Korea gets invaded.
But then it's hard to think of what to do.
Destroy Bahrain? Bomb France? Invade Peru?
Hundreds of readers, aged 16 to 94, replied to our request for
letters detailing how September 11 changed (or didn't) "your views of
your government, your country, your world, your life." Many responses
are personal: A husband and wife separate; family members no longer
speak to one another; a woman searches for, and finds, her biological
father--all impelled by the fallout of that day. New Yorkers--and
others--report sleeping less soundly; a Brooklyn man leaps from bed in
the night at the sound of crashing booms, rushes to the window... and
finds it's a thunderstorm. A woman recovering from a Caesarean section
watches the towers fall from her hospital room and wonders what sort of
world her son, born the day before, will grow up in. A reader whose 9/11
birthday has become a deathday vows to light a candle this birthday "in
hope for our world that one day 9/11 will become a day that...changed us
for the better." Below is a selection.
Largely because of my age--75--September 11 didn't change my life one
iota. Except for this: My reaction to the fascist foragings of John
Ashcroft and the dude who sponsored him, "Shrub," has been to rejoin the
ACLU after an absence of twenty-seven years.
How has my life changed since September 11? My life goes on much the
same--except that I'm not living in America anymore. In America, people
are not disappeared. In America, cherished constitutional rights are not
abolished with the stroke of a pen. In America, disagreeing with the
government doesn't make you a terrorist. In America, ordinary citizens
don't have to wonder whether their e-mail is being read and phone
conversations taped by government agents. In America, there is no
Ministry of Truth (for telling lies) or Ministry of Love (for making
war). America doesn't wage unending war. America doesn't casually
threaten first-strike use of nuclear weapons. I see the nation I love,
in its fear and rage, stinging itself to death like a scorpion.
New Haven, Conn.
Our government's militaristic response to the crimes of 9/11 and the
failure of the Democratic Party to challenge Bush's flawed and
self-serving war on terrorism pushed me, after thirty-four years as an
active antiwar Democrat, into working for the Green Party in our
November 2001 municipal elections. Today, I am a Green Party candidate
for the US House of Representatives.
Unlike the "Arthur Andersen Democrats" and the "Enron Republicans"
against whom I'm running, I am a patriot who is not afraid to challenge
the so-called Patriot Act, which guts the Bill of Rights, or the "war"
on terrorism, which has killed hundreds of innocent civilians, created
more terrorists, earned more profits for military contractors and made
the world safer for oil companies but more dangerous for the rest of us.
Vote Green in November.
September 11 changed my life because of the government's immediate
response and continuing abuse of it as an excuse to erode civil
liberties. So what have I done? I subscribed to The Nation for
the first time ever (I'm 25), and so far have given away three gift
subscriptions. I began giving money monthly to environmental and
pro-choice organizations, as well as regular donations to the ACLU.
Motivated by John Ashcroft's total disregard for the Constitution, I
will be going to law school in the fall of 2003 to join the ranks of
those who work on the side of justice that strengthens and protects
I was in the Pentagon on September 11. Our office was on the opposite
side of the building, and as we filed out none of us guessed how
horrible it was until we saw, from the parking lot, the columns of
smoke. That first evening, amid the shock and sense of loss, I thought,
"This is what blowback really means." No one can excuse Al Qaeda's
murderous hatred, but I now realize that this terror network was made
possible by the arms and money we provided the Afghan mujahedeen during
our demented anti-Soviet crusade. Those Americans who supported these
thugs and psychopaths should be ashamed. Whenever I see that antidrug ad
that claims that buying pot helps terrorists, I am reminded that our own
cold war "patriots" helped to slaughter 3,000 people, and tried to kill
me at my desk.
Prior to 9/11 I spent my 83 years maturing in a cocoon spun by
America's fuzzy, heroic image. While well aware of its flaws, I had been
sustained by an aura of essential good will as we fought fascism,
rebuilt Europe, forgave former enemies. My cocoon erupted on 9/11, and I
emerged irate but deeply troubled by the vision of an America that would
justify such an attack. I realized our Marshall Plan spirit had morphed
into a superpower mentality, where political problems are solved by
bombs rather than sweet reason: Witness Vietnam, Baghdad, Panama City,
Belgrade, Afghanistan. With knee-jerk enthusiasm we've obliterated
infrastructures and dealt out "collateral damage" to poor nations. No
wonder we've become a target for organized hate. Can we curb our
arrogance and revive our image as people of good will before we
LLOYD EDWARD SLATER
I am of the generation that reached maturity in the 1960s and '70s. A
time of struggle and pain, yes, but also of hope. We marched, fought,
demanded a new world paradigm. Comes Reagan and my righteous generation
finds greed. What then happened to that promise? Sweet upward mobility;
the dawn of our renunciation. The 2000 election fiasco. A leader takes
power by judicial coup and not a whimper from the streets, and I cannot
comprehend. I am lost.
September 11. Our hand is forced. The time for intelligence, discussion,
debate, understanding, reflection has come, yes?
No. Wrong again. Now we love our fear. Good versus Evil this is, and we
joyfully surrender our liberties, our humanity and embrace a permanent
state of war with an omnipotent, omnipresent enemy. Our new paradigm:
sadism. I am not prepared for such a savage reversal of fortune. I am
After the savage attacks on September 11, I felt scared, angry,
confused. Days later, I found my way to an interfaith service at All
Saints Church in Pasadena. I was deeply moved by the scriptural
readings, prayers and songs offered by Christians, Jews, Muslims,
Buddhists and others. Out of that healing event, we created Interfaith
Communities United for Justice and Peace (www.icujp.org), which has been
the center of my personal efforts to contribute to greater understanding
and lasting reconciliation between people of all nationalities and
beliefs. At a study group arranged by ICUJP, I sat next to an
African-American Muslim teacher. He turned to me and said he didn't have
a Torah. I responded that I didn't have a Koran. At the next meeting, we
exchanged our holy scriptures. It brought us closer together, and we
have become friends.
STEPHEN F. ROHDE
After the initial shock/grief came the stunned recognition of the
despair and deep hatred felt against the United States, then finally the
gut-wrenching knowledge that the vast majority of US citizens love being
hated. They shower approval on the Administration and Congress for every
piece of legislation that increases US killing power, entrenches inroads
on constitutional freedoms and inflicts economic and physical handicaps
and health hazards on all the populations of the planet.
The Pentagon/Administration response to the "act" was so fast, the
erosion of civil liberties so quickly and deftly accomplished, flags
blanketed the continent so speedily and providentially--I can't help but
think that the act of terrorism was not only expected but that
contingency plans had been prepared months, perhaps years in advance--a
Stalinist-type master plan. These duplicitous plans have been welcomed
and incorporated into everyday living with hardly a ripple to indicate a
residue of thoughtfulness or alternative possibilities.
Yes, I am changed. I am ashamed of my country and bitterly acknowledge
that there is no prospect of new directions.
September 11 changed my life by directing my 94-year-old,
still-functioning wits and remaining energies from the sheltered
smugness of an assisted-living home out again into the real world with a
determined campaign to compel G.W. Bush to answer this key question: Why
were no jets commanded to divert those three lethal hijacked planes
after each had appeared off-course on radar and all failed to obey the
orders of air controllers? Why, Mr. Bush?
JANE SHERMAN LEHAC
Liars! From the very top on down, my government does not know the
meaning of the word "truth." In light of the billions of dollars we
spend on electronic communication monitoring installations at Menwith
Hill, Britain, and at several sites in the continental United States, we
taxpayers have been deceived. Our NSA claims to have worldwide
monitoring capabilities over all electronic communications.
It is inconceivable that with all the electronic communications before
9/11, some intelligence was not deciphered and passed on to the
appropriate officials. When, where, by whom was the necessary
intelligence intercepted, interpreted, analyzed, collated and forwarded
to the responsible agencies and parties? Polygraphs everyone?
JAMES B. BURKHOLDER
Colonel, US Army, retired
September 11 has reinforced all my negatives: suspicion of government
motives; frustration at the perpetuation of failed policies; horror at
the immense war budget; fear of nuclear proliferation; opposition to
oppressive and domineering globalization; anger at support given to
repressive regimes while raving and ranting at Cuba; despair that an
equitable Middle East solution cannot override oil interests; and
finally, that we are doing absolutely nothing to address the grievances
of "terrorists" while eroding our own democracy and allowing degradation
of the environment.
September 11 is an American hegemonical construct, a good guys vs.
evil vision that is as much a part of American cultural imperialism as
McDonald's or the latest Hollywood movie. Sycophantic French politicians
and intellectuals (like Bernard Henri-Levy) quickly proclaimed that "we
are all Americans." The result has been a frustrating diversion from the
real issues. To limit the discussion to terrorism--who has the world's
biggest arsenal of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons? Who refuses
to sign any treaty outlawing them, or landmines for that matter?
Who--and for good reason--refuses to reject genocide or pre-emptive
nuclear strikes? The biggest threat to world peace today is not
minuscule terrorist groups but the US government. As an American who has
lived in France for the past twenty years, for me September 11
epitomizes the self-centered worldview of too many of my countrymen.
I have not felt so alienated from this country since Nixon was elected
to a second term after Watergate and all his misdeeds in Southeast Asia.
I was so devastated by the instantaneous deaths of so many people, and
then so appalled by the nationalistic frenzy, the lust for revenge and
the level of pure propaganda in the mainstream media. So much emotional
manipulation, so little cogent analysis. Having Bush in the White House
made it all much harder for me, given his general ignorance of foreign
affairs and his entourage of cold warriors. I have never appreciated the
alternative press, especially The Nation, so much.
North Bend, Ore.
I'm a Democrat and former Green Beret with a BA in political science
and get my news primarily from ABC, NPR and BBC radio. After Al Qaeda
spectacularly murdered a couple thousand Americans, we "brought death"
to Afghanistan in retaliation, belying "Clinton's weakening" of our
forces. That twice as many Afghan citizens died collaterally, many
Americans died from friendly fire and Al Qaeda apparently returned to
Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, might bear investigation. No?
On the home front, our Attorney General has, modestly, hidden Justice,
and God knows what else, but the anthrax murders remain unsolved. Our
National Security Adviser's patent culpability for the attack's success
is unremarked upon. Republicans' malfeasance, ideological incoherence
and compassionless corporatism, ever more glaring, go unchallenged. Do
most Americans still want a national health plan? Yes?
Nothing has changed, nor will it unless Democrats fix Dumbya and try a
testicular implant (metaphorically speaking, of course!).
Long Beach, Calif.
September 11 is a lot about the enemy from without. But the enemy from
without will never, try though it may, extinguish the American
experiment. We Americans, on the other hand, are armed and capable of
such a result. As I fear us more than them, September 11 has little
changed my life.
I am of Indian origin and before September 11 learned to avoid racism
by presenting myself in a relentlessly middle-class fashion. And if the
precise diction, discreet deodorant and the late-model four-door sedan
proved insufficient, then out came the race card. "Is my race a
problem?" I would ask with a faint British intonation. I felt a sense of
entitlement in challenging the closet racial profiler to deny his own
But 9/11 changed all that. My identity as a comfortably assimilated
immigrant who moves easily among various cultures, languages and
geographical regions has been shown to be a fragile myth. To the
security guards at the malls, airports and theme parks around the
country, I look like the sister of the nineteen hijackers. My
cosmopolitanism, my ability to read ancient Tamil love poetry, my
advanced degrees become irrelevant in the face of such appalling
"We'll never be the same," broadcasters kept pronouncing while
replaying jets slamming towers. That sounded so false, from people
worried about their makeup surviving marathon airtime. (Do I seem cold?)
My firstborn son died from an auto accident on August 11, 2001. I don't
expect to be the same. A month later, I felt families' desperate waits,
dwindling hopes. Not the urge for revenge; I lacked that option. Leaders
who scare me more than bin Laden jumped to exploit the revenge rush,
while the "commentariat" lock-stepped in boosting an amorphous war,
blowing off civil liberties. My faith in journalism tanked. I'm a
freelance reporter. An apparent economic fallout from 9/11 was the
folding of a little alternative magazine I wrote for. I still feel
powerless, but better since visiting a conference to interview
peacebuilders from several continents. Their spirits moved me.
Accustomed to danger, children dying, they hadn't given up.
Flat Gap, Ky.
Everything changed with the Supreme Court's appointment of George W.
Bush, not with the events of September 11. Like a bicycle ride along a
peaceful country road when a pack of dogs run out from nowhere and bite
your ankle, any sense of security is now an open wound. Even the dogs on
your own front porch become suspect and you lose your trust.
CATHERINE S. WELLS
Omaha Indian Reservation, Macy, Neb.
On September 11, Ariel Sharon said all Americans are Israelis,
learning that terror can strike anywhere, anywhen. With equal
conviction, Yasir Arafat might have said all Americans are Palestinians,
compelled to retaliation and pre-emption. Although these metaphors are
apt, neither is accurate.
Rather, it may be said with supreme justification that all Americans are
Native American Indians, living under occupation by a hostile government
ever ready to liquidate our life, liberty, property--our pursuit of
happiness--in conducting an endless, self-righteous campaign.
Presaging the Department of Homeland Security, the Bureau of Indian
Affairs has extraordinary powers, employing DOJ, FBI, CIA and military
enforcement and investigations. Intelligence responsibilities are
debated, ignoring our experiences: Feds rarely uncover evidence; they
create it, solving mysteries and preventing disasters only by
expropriating the work of others. Their goals are to destroy, not
protect; to master, not serve. Heed us, America. Our plight is
yours--our history, your future.
J. WILLIAM MORELAND
Chief Judge, Omaha Tribal Court
I'm a 73-year-old retired American academic who witnessed the events
of September 11 on CNN here in Poland. Initial reactions: outrage, angry
"patriotism" and a powerful helplessness. As reason replaced reaction,
those feelings diminished.
The attack? Inevitable. Built on US ignorance and arrogance and
exclusion. Why do they hate us? Years of ruinous intervention and
destabilization of Third World countries, especially those seeking
self-determination in leftist political movements. September 11
unleashed religious and political fundamentalist zeal, a manic frenzy of
"security" threatening constitutional safeguards.
Polish officials assured me of protection. As an Arab-American, would I
suffer abuse at home? Life-change? Yes. 9/11 sharpened my sense of
responsibility for others. Sadly, the hatred that generated the attacks
has not provoked objective intellectual examination of cause, has
only brought a violent reactionary backlash effect. The
conscience of America remains where it was: anesthetized by greed,
racism, nationalism and impotent leadership.
JAMES E. HASHIM
I drive tractor-trailers, tankers. I could do great harm to thousands
of people without learning or buying a thing, with a good chance of
getting away and doing it again. The fitful inspections of a few trucks
after 9/11 are long gone. Since neither means nor opportunity need
restrain anyone's hand for long, I was naïve enough to hope that
9/11 might launch some citizen debate on applying the golden rule to the
rest of the planet. Our collective reaction to 9/11 has taught me that
self-interest and intelligence are not as intertwined as I had hoped.
September 11 haiku:
among the rubble
the chickens come home to roost
waking us up now
I am a songwriter and visual artist, and I thought I would go home
that evening to document the day in words and images, but I found I
couldn't. I just watched the smoke rising, from my window in Brooklyn. I
found that there were experiences too deep for words or songs. That
night I wrote in my journal:
I have no songs to sing, until I can sing all songs
I try to speak, but I have no voice until I can have all voices
I would call on God but I think that God will only answer
to all of his names, spoken as one.
There were oblique benefits. There was commercial-free network TV for
four days after 9/11. The twin towers had been the worst hazard of all
on the Atlantic flyway, and during three decades of autumn and spring
migration on a few mornings, fallouts of thousands of shorebirds and
passerines lay on the asphalt below them.
The worst did not occur. If planes had been flown into the Indian Point
and Three Mile Island reactors, probably failing to penetrate the
containment chambers but destroying the surrounding cooling systems,
there could have been millions dead and dying after meltdown.
And there was unintended bathos. In the hours following, Gen. Norman
Schwarzkopf suggested that it might have been the Montana Militia.
What surprises and disappoints me is how little has changed since the
terrorist attacks. I thought the horrific death and destruction on our
own soil so clearly demonstrated hatred and resentment toward us that we
would work ceaselessly to implement an evenhanded approach to Israel and
Palestine. I thought our leaders would ask us to make some sacrifices,
and we'd give up our SUVs and other aspects of our everyday life built
on oil gluttony and being beholden to Saudi Arabia. I thought a
successful attack with box-cutters would highlight the stupidity of
"missile defense" and we'd begin to change how we spent our defense
dollars. I thought we'd finally acknowledge we need transportation
diversity and begin creating a healthy passenger rail system with less
dependence on air travel. I thought we'd become less unilateral and work
harder to build alliances and honor treaties. I was so wrong.
Stony Brook, NY
September 11 has not changed my life. It has accentuated and
invigorated my desire to return home, to Jaffa, Palestine, as soon as
possible. I am a graduate student at a US university, and I have not
felt as strong a desire to return to my culture, national history and
values as in the aftermath of what has become an American right to a
moment in time called "9/11."
I came to this country with as little animosity as possible for a Third
World colonized citizen, hoping to refute all I had learned as a child.
I am about to leave with repugnance, wrath and hopelessness toward an
arrogant, brutally hypocritical, mass-destructive autocracy, the United
States of America, governed not only by its political head but by its
willfully ignorant people.
Daytona Beach, Fla.
Having come to America from the Philippines, a country colonized by
Spain and the United States and then brutalized by the dictatorship of
Ferdinand Marcos, I learned early the meaning and the beauty of freedom.
The longer I lived here, the better I appreciated how precious freedom
has been in all its manifestations.
Then came September 11. In a matter of minutes, I learned that the thing
I have held as so sacred in my life could also be fragile. Why, why? How
could there be so much hate when America is the one country that has
welcomed people of all colors, races and religious creeds to share in
its blessings of freedom?
September 11 taught me more than ever that America is worth fighting and
dying for; that out of the ashes, we shall emerge stronger and more
united, and that my adopted country will continue to be a shining beacon
for the rest of the world.
REMIGIO G. LACSAMANA
I lost my brother to murder in 1984. Some people reacted with dismay
that my opposition to the death penalty didn't change. Did they think
this principle was based on some bizarrely naïve idea that people
never commit terrible crimes? Or was it that the closer to home a
perpetrator strikes, the harsher the appropriate punishment? A family
conflict erupted after the murder: Was it legitimate to try to
understand how these two young men had arrived at the point of
committing this crime, to examine the social web of race and class in
which they and my brother intersected, or was such an examination
tantamount to offering an excuse for what they'd done?
Change the details, and precisely these same tensions have characterized
the public debate following September 11. I hope we Americans can work
through them patiently and thoughtfully, as my family and I have had to
Gays Mills, Wisc.
The events of 9/11 have strongly reaffirmed my commitment to my
intentional community, Dancing Waters Permaculture Co-op, created to
remove land from the debt cycle through collective ownership. Using
consensus decision-making, our collective is a nonviolent attempt to
demonstrate an alternative to the capitalist, consumerist ideology that
the terrorists symbolically targeted when they attacked the World Trade
The worst thing was going out into my yard while the towers were
burning. My cats were there, our garden was a jungle and the Vermont day
was so beautiful it hurt. My heart was pounding. I wondered if these
simple things that brought me such joy would even exist for another
month, another week, another hour.
Unfortunately, with the White House occupied by people who make Dr.
Strangelove and General Ripper look normal, I still wonder how long we
will have our freedom or our lives. I can't say I am optimistic, but
miracles can and do happen. Love must happen on earth, or none of us
Garfield Heights, Ohio
Having been involved with the movement to shut down the WHISC/SOA for
several years, I sat in a bus stop in Cleveland after my school was
evacuated on September 11 with the terrible feeling that these attacks
were some sort of repercussion of US foreign policy.
As the antiwar movement began to take shape, I became involved as soon
as possible. I feel that a change in US foreign policy of militarization
and neoliberal economics isn't just needed, it is imperative to the
survival of this country, and possibly the world.
I participated in the antiwar demonstrations on September 29, and many
more since then. September 11 changed my life in the sense that I now
feel that being a single-issue or armchair activist isn't enough, that I
must be involved in what I believe and educated and involved in other
The first news I received of the attacks came from my government
teacher. The tragedies of that day shocked me more than any event in my
seventeen years. Something else that happened was almost as surprising
to me. Alongside pictures of toppled buildings came pictures of people
in other countries holding vigil for America. That people all over the
world cared that much about America surprised me. I knew that we have
friends and allies, but it never seemed they were that close to us. We
don't seem to feel as much solidarity with others. Instead of doing our
part in the world, we do things such as not participating in the Kyoto
Protocol and the International Criminal Court. It seems we only act when
our interests are threatened. America is shown great friendship by other
countries--we need to learn how to give friendship back.
Mt. Pleasant, SC
September 11 made me, an 18-year-old living in the suburbs, much more
cynical, and that's difficult to do. When our leaders had an
unprecedented opportunity to lead, all I got was a bunch of talk (unless
a behemoth military budget counts as "leadership"). And when I expected
citizens to be shaken from their 1990s isolationist,
stock-market-is-booming delirium, all I got was the irony of an SUV with
huge American flags posted all over it. I really don't intend to sound
rude or coldhearted; I was just as shocked, saddened and outraged when I
saw the CNN footage. But unity and resolve are not jingoism. And a just
response is not unilateralism and carpet-bombing. If the so-called Bush
Doctrine is all the "change" I can expect from our leaders (and the
willful submission of others, Democrats), then I wish I was ignorant
enough not to care. The biggest tragedy of 9/11, aside from the
appalling loss of human life, is one of missed opportunity on the part
of the government and the failure of its citizens to call them on
I cannot identify with the notion that "nothing will ever be the same
again." That's a young person's view. For those of us pushing 60, the
world turned on its head when Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King were
killed. With them died the strong possibility of social change. By the
time Reagan took office, many of us had stopped caring. I know I did.
Oddly, September 11 has made me care again. Not the attacks, which were
an outrage, but the federal government's response--the so-called war on
terrorism, with its shameful trampling of civil liberties, its reckless
threats to engage in war against Iraq and its self-righteous moralizing
about "goodness" here and "evil" there. I feel an urgent need to work
for peace and nonviolence once again.
My quest to tell the truth led me in midlife to my dream career. I
became a reporter for my hometown newspaper. There wasn't a lot of hard
news, but the opinion page allowed me to explore broader issues and
excite discussion in my community. That all ended on September 11, when
exciting discussion became unpatriotic. Censorship and my ensuing
protest cost me my job. Mainstream media, I learned, is often the
purveyor of silence.
But I have become the resister of silence. I print copies of
antiviolence fliers from my home computer to plaster on windshields, and
I have discovered independent media. The little girl who was afraid of
the sound of her own voice spoke to a crowd on the steps of the State
Capitol at a peace rally on April 20. The small-town reporter spoke the
truth, and her voice was heard around the world.
Orwell said, "During times of universal deceit, telling the truth
becomes a revolutionary act." On September 11 this middle-class,
middle-aged middle American became a revolutionist.
The horrifying events of September 11 and the mushrooming horrors
unleashed (war, racism, loss of civil liberties) have changed me.
Disgusted by the vapid rhetoric of patriotism, I realized how profoundly
I prize this continent and its progressive heroes and how repulsed I am
by nationalism everywhere. I ache for a transformed world but am more
uncertain how we will get there. We cannot be cast forever as sacrifices
in someone else's nightmare: Bush's "limited nuclear war," religious
fundamentalisms' apocalyptic wet dreams, capitalism's age-old werewolf
As a lesbian, feminist, Marxist-humanist, I know that Bush, bin Laden,
Sharon and Hamas would certainly agree to hate and silence me. So part
of my struggle is to live: fiercely cherishing lovers, friends,
allies and the beauties of this vital planet.
September 11 and its aftermath have made me afraid for this country.
The attacks were tragic evidence that an America once loved and admired
around the world is now an object of hatred. Instead of asking why, the
Bush Administration and a complaisant Congress used the event as an
excuse to kill more innocent people in Afghanistan, justify a bloated
military budget, harass immigrants, jail suspects without charges,
institute domestic spying and erode civil liberties in the name of
"security." I worry about the callous brutality shown when our leaders
debate over when and how to launch a war on Iraq, but show no concern
for the thousands of Iraqi people who are certain to be killed in such a
war. In short, I am afraid that in waging George Bush's open-ended "war
on terrorism" America will become the most dangerous terrorist of
Chapel Hill, NC
As I watched the towers fall on TV from my home in Prescott, Arizona,
on September 11, I shed tears not only for the horror and tragedy of the
attacks, but also in anticipation of the reaction of our government at
home and abroad. Later I headed two hours north to my favorite
cathedral, the Grand Canyon, for some solitude, silence and perspective.
I quit my job and now find myself back in my native North Carolina,
about to embark on a PhD program in political science.
People hear what I'm doing and say, Good luck changing the system. I
say, Well, thank you. Because if at any age I ever lose my idealism and
vision for global social, economic and environmental justice, I pray
someone will put me on a bus to the canyon for a little perspective.
JENNIFER E. WEAVER
I have been stunned by how a coup d'état can take place in
America. The combination of irregular presidential election, traumatic
terrorist attack, administrative control by radical conservatives and
the intimidation and cowardliness of the opposition have achieved
incredible changes. Our country now has an endless war policy,
unilateral withdrawal from international agreements, illegal detentions,
threats to constitutional rights and theft of the people's resources for
military ends. The well-oiled evince a voracious appetite for world
domination and homeland insecurity. I feel like an alien in my beloved
land, now a place of nightmares.
Can we wake up and reclaim our freedom? I work toward a community of
communities across this land who dream a new vision and turn fear,
suspicion and greed into generosity and justice for all.
After the horror let go of my throat I thought, that's it, thirty-five
years of work for peace and equality down the tubes. Our leaders will
now have license to bomb anywhere, anytime, void the Bill of Rights and
shoo away dissent with the flag. They won, we lost.
But wait. History doesn't change course in a day. The world a year after
the attacks looks a lot like the world before 9/11. Liberty imperiled as
always, hard cheese for poor people and poor societies, our leaders
choosing which tyrants to support and which to overthrow, the rich in
power. But the loony system they rule is weaker, not stronger, than a
year ago--is bumping into its own homemade contradictions. If anything,
the terrorists deepened its confusion. I'm ready to rise up once more
For the 43 members of Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Local 100, working at the Windows on the World restaurant, who lost their lives in the attack on the World Trade Center
Alabanza. Praise the cook with a shaven head
and a tattoo on his shoulder that said Oye,
a blue-eyed Puerto Rican with people from Fajardo,
the harbor of pirates centuries ago.
Praise the lighthouse in Fajardo, candle
glimmering white to worship the dark saint of the sea.
Alabanza. Praise the cook's yellow Pirates cap
worn in the name of Roberto Clemente, his plane
that flamed into the ocean loaded with cans for Nicaragua,
for all the mouths chewing the ash of earthquakes.
Alabanza. Praise the kitchen radio, dial clicked
even before the dial on the oven, so that music and Spanish
rose before bread. Praise the bread. Alabanza.
Praise Manhattan from a hundred and seven flights up,
like Atlantis glimpsed through the windows of an ancient aquarium.
Praise the great windows where immigrants from the kitchen
could squint and almost see their world, hear the chant of nations:
Ecuador, México, Republica Dominicana,
Haiti, Yemen, Ghana, Bangladesh.
Alabanza. Praise the kitchen in the morning,
where the gas burned blue on every stove
and exhaust fans fired their diminutive propellers,
hands cracked eggs with quick thumbs
or sliced open cartons to build an altar of cans.
Alabanza. Praise the busboy's music, the chime-chime
of his dishes and silverware in the tub.
Alabanza. Praise the dish-dog, the dishwasher
who worked that morning because another dishwasher
could not stop coughing, or because he needed overtime
to pile the sacks of rice and beans for a family
floating away on some Caribbean island plagued by frogs.
Alabanza. Praise the waitress who heard the radio in the kitchen
and sang to herself about a man gone. Alabanza.
After the thunder wilder than thunder,
after the shudder deep in the glass of the great windows,
after the radio stopped singing like a tree full of terrified frogs,
after night burst the dam of day and flooded the kitchen,
for a time the stoves glowed in darkness like the lighthouse in Fajardo,
like a cook's soul. Soul I say, even if the dead cannot tell us
about the bristles of God's beard because God has no face,
soul I say, to name the smoke-beings flung in constellations
across the night sky of this city and cities to come.
Alabanza I say, even if God has no face.
Alabanza. When the war began, from Manhattan and Kabul
two constellations of smoke rose and drifted to each other,
mingling in icy air, and one said with an Afghan tongue:
Teach me to dance. We have no music here.
And the other said with a Spanish tongue:
I will teach you. Music is all we have.
Martín Espada's poem will appear in the Spring issue (#82) of
Hanging Loose magazine and in Alabanza: New and Selected
Poems 1982-2002 (Norton), forthcoming in April.
Editor's Note: One year after the attacks, Eric Foner assessed the impact of 9/11 on the way America tells the story of itself and readjusts its relationship with the world.
All history, the saying goes, is contemporary history. People
instinctively turn to the past to help understand the present. Events
draw our attention to previously neglected historical subjects. The
second wave of feminism gave birth to a flourishing subfield of women's
history. The Reagan Revolution spawned a cottage industry in the history
of US conservatism.
Many years will pass before we can fully assess how our thinking about
history has changed as a result of September 11. While historians ponder
this question, conservative ideologues have produced a spate of
polemical statements on how we should teach American history in light of
recent events. In a speech less than a month after the tragedy, Lynne
Cheney insisted that calls for more intensive study of the rest of the
world amounted to blaming America's "failure to understand Islam" for
the attack. A letter distributed by the American Council of Trustees and
Alumni, which she once chaired, chastised professors who fail to teach
the "truth" that civilization itself "is best exemplified in the West
and indeed in America."
In What's So Great About America, Dinesh D'Souza contends that
freedom and religious toleration are uniquely "Western" beliefs. The
publisher's ad for the book identifies those who hold alternative views
as "people who provide a rationale for terrorism." With funding from
conservative foundations and powerful political connections, such
commentators hope to reshape the teaching of American history.
Historians cannot predict the future, but the past they portray must be
one out of which the present can plausibly have grown. The
self-absorbed, super-celebratory history now being promoted will not
enable students to make sense of either their own society or our
increasingly interconnected world.
Historians cannot choose the ways history becomes part of our own
experience. September 11 has rudely placed certain issues at the
forefront of our consciousness. Let me mention three and their
implications for how we think about the American past: the upsurge of
patriotism, significant infringements on civil liberties and a sudden
awareness of considerable distrust abroad of American actions and
The generation of historians that came of age during the Vietnam War
witnessed firsthand how patriotic language and symbols, especially the
American flag, can be invoked in the service of manifestly unjust
causes. Partly as a result, they have tended to neglect the power of
these symbols as genuine expressions of a sense of common national
community. Patriotism, if studied at all, has been understood as an
"invention," rather than a habit of the heart.
Historians have had greater success lately at dividing up the American
past into discrete experiences delineated along lines of race,
ethnicity, gender and class than at exploring the common threads of
American nationality. But the immediate response to September 11 cut
across these boundaries. No one knows if the renewed sense of common
purpose and shared national identity that surfaced so vividly after
September 11 will prove temporary. But they require historians to devote
new attention to the roots of the symbols, values and experiences
Americans share as well as those that divide them.
All patriotic upsurges run the risk of degenerating into a coercive
drawing of boundaries between "loyal" Americans and those stigmatized as
aliens and traitors. This magazine has chronicled the numerous and
disturbing infringements on civil liberties that have followed September
11. Such legal protections as habeas corpus, trial by impartial jury,
the right to legal representation and equality before the law regardless
of race or national origin have been seriously curtailed.
Civil liberties have been severely abridged during previous moments of
crisis, from the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 to Japanese-American
internment in World War II. Historians generally view these past
episodes as shameful anomalies. But we are now living through another
such episode, and there is a remarkable absence of public outcry.
We need an American history that sees protections for civil liberties
not as a timeless feature of our "civilization" but as a recent and
fragile achievement resulting from many decades of historical struggle.
We should take a new look at obscure Supreme Court cases--Fong Yue
Ting (1893), the Insular Cases of the early twentieth century,
Korematsu during World War II--in which the Justices allowed the
government virtual carte blanche in dealing with aliens and in
suspending the rights of specific groups of citizens on grounds of
military necessity. Dissenting in Fong Yue Ting, which authorized
the deportation of Chinese immigrants without due process, Justice David
Brewer observed that, like today, the power was directed against a
people many Americans found "obnoxious." But, he warned, "who shall say
it will not be exercised tomorrow against other classes and other
September 11 will also undoubtedly lead historians to examine more
closely the history of the country's relationship with the larger world.
Public opinion polls revealed that few Americans have any knowledge of
other peoples' grievances against the United States. A study of our
history in its international context might help to explain why there is
widespread fear outside our borders that the war on terrorism is
motivated in part by the desire to impose a Pax Americana in a grossly
Back in the 1930s, historian Herbert Bolton warned that by treating the
American past in isolation, historians were helping to raise up a
"nation of chauvinists"--a danger worth remembering when considering the
drumbeat of calls for a celebratory and insular history divorced from
its global context. Of course, international paradigms can be every bit
as obfuscating as histories that are purely national. We must be careful
not to reproduce traditional American exceptionalism on a global scale.
September 11, for example, has inspired a spate of commentary influenced
by Samuel Huntington's mid-1990s book The Clash of Civilizations.
Huntington's paradigm reduces politics and culture to a single
characteristic--race, religion or geography--that remains forever
static, divorced from historical development or change through
interaction with other societies. It makes it impossible to discuss
divisions within these purported civilizations. The idea that the West
is the sole home of reason, liberty and tolerance ignores how recently
such values triumphed in the United States and also ignores the debates
over creationism, abortion rights and other issues that suggest that
commitment to them is hardly unanimous. The definition of "Western
civilization" is highly selective--it includes the Enlightenment but not
the Inquisition, liberalism but not the Holocaust, Charles Darwin but
not the Salem witch trials.
Nor can September 11 be explained by reference to timeless
characteristics or innate pathologies of "Islamic civilization." From
the Ku Klux Klan during Reconstruction to Oklahoma City in our own time,
our society has produced its own home-grown terrorists. Terrorism
springs from specific historical causes, not the innate qualities of one
or another civilization.
The study of history should transcend boundaries rather than reinforce
or reproduce them. In the wake of September 11, it is all the more
imperative that the history we teach be a candid appraisal of our own
society's strengths and weaknesses, not simply an exercise in
self-celebration--a conversation with the entire world, not a complacent
dialogue with ourselves.
On April 14, my review of Maya Angelou's A Song Flung Up to Heaven
appeared in the Los Angeles Times Book Review. I finally
assessed the book thusly:
In writing that is bad to God-awful, Song is a tell-all that
tells nothing in empty phrases and sweeping generalities. Dead metaphors
("sobbing embrace," "my heart fell in my chest") and clumsy similes
("like the sound of buffaloes running into each other at rutting time")
are indulged. Twice-told crises (being molested, her son's auto
accident) are milked for residual drama. Extravagant statements come
without explication, and schmooze substitutes for action....There is too
much coulda shoulda woulda. Unfortunately, the Maya Angelou of A Song
Flung Up to Heaven seems small and inauthentic, without ideas,
wisdom or vision. Something is being flung up to heaven all right, but
it isn't a song.
The review caused an immediate furor in the African-American community.
Subsequently, I was banned from participating in a reading and book
signing at Eso Won Books, the leading African-American bookstore in Los
Angeles, because of it. Two editors of the Book Review reported
that the publication had received a flood of letters, to date
unpublished. After months of taking phone calls and letters requesting a
response from me on the issues raised, I offer the following:
Critically reviewing the creative efforts of present-day
African-American writers, no matter their origin, is a minefield of a
task complicated by the social residuals of slavery and the shifting
currents in American publishing. Into this twenty-first century,
African-Americans are still denied full and open participation in the
larger culture absent the confusions and machinations of race. Thus, by
nature and necessity, our fiction, creative nonfiction and poetry
continue to be repositories for the complaints and resentments harbored
against the nation we love, as well as paeans to the courage, fortitude
and sacrifice of peers and forebears.
For those who need reminding, books by Negroes and other writers of
color were still largely found in the sociology and anthropology
sections of libraries and bookstores until the civil rights movement
(roughly 1953-69) was well under way. (The glory rush of pride, wonder
and dismay I felt whenever I stood before those sections has never been
forgotten. Too, in the children's section, boys' books were separated
from girls'.) In grade school, circa 1954, the year "under God" was
inserted into the Pledge of Allegiance, works by Negroes were treated as
contraband if brought into class or onto the school ground, and were
confiscated by white teachers or administrators and the child
responsible given demerits or suspended.
Outside of home and church, creative writing by colored people did not
seem to exist except for those authors who occasionally appeared in
glossy coffee-table magazines or who were assigned classroom reading
during Negro History Week (becoming Black History Month in 1976). They
could be counted on two hands: Arna Bontemps, Paul Laurence Dunbar,
Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson, Claude McKay,
Phillis Wheatley, Richard Wright and, later, James Baldwin and Lorraine
Hansberry. Of those then living, Baldwin, Ellison, Hughes and Wright
were invariably the designated cultural spokesmen for our race.
Buying their books was problematic, if not impossible. Books by "the
children of Ethiopia" were not widely distributed in Southern
California, no matter how famous the authors. To acquire them meant
leaving the ghetto to visit public libraries or (after weeks of hearing
the "hush-hush") borrowing from friends or relations, on one's solemn
oath to return the precious tome. Few Los Angeles bookstores featured
black literature, even in the sociology section, and by the end of the
1960s fewer than five such bookstores were said to be black-owned, the
longest-lived the Ligon's Aquarian Book Shop, casualty of the April 1992
If there were more independent publishers in the mid-twentieth century,
few braved the economic uncertainty of carrying more than one or two
Afro-American authors, whose readership was circumscribed by the going
sociopolitical nasties. Black-owned presses, sans white patronage, by
and large had extremely short lives, never having exceeded a handful at
any given point (Black Classic Press, Broadside Press, Lotus Press,
Third World Press). Books by blacks had even less of a shelf life when
reviews--good or bad--failed to appear in the leading literary
publications of the day. Good reviews were the ideal, but bad reviews
(most, invariably written by whites) were welcomed if they generated
enough controversy to sell copies. The few black reviewers were usually
one of the ranking spokesmen (Baldwin, Wright, Ellison), occasionally
granted salvage or sponsorship of emerging kindred. Too, there was an
ideological divide between those considered to be writing for white
readers and those who wrote for blacks. The former received the greater
attention. Reviews appearing in the few black-owned publications
(Charlotta Spears Bass's California Eagle, W.E.B. Du Bois's
The Crisis or Robert S. Abbott's The Chicago Defender)
could not guarantee the author the crossover or white leisure-class
readership that generated lucrative book sales.
The truths of our daily lives defined the truths for our literature: We
were constantly discriminated against, monitored and censored. In
defense and support of Negro writers, book clubs, discussion groups and
writers' organizations emerged--in Los Angeles, Vassie May Wright's Our
Authors Study Clubs, the Black Writers' Guild (absorbed by the Writer's
Guild of America, west, to become the Committee of Black Writers) and
later, the International Black Writers' Association and the World Stage
in Leimert Park--but the majority of "folks" were reached via a
sophisticated version of America's mob-world network. Word of mouth via
the grapevine (a k a "the drum") was the primary news-and-reviews
resource, if gossip, rumor and speculation were its discounts. It was
and remains swifter than radio and television, as effective as the
Underground Railroad and--best of all--is uncensored by the white
In 1963 Arna Bontemps published his American Negro Poetry
anthology, which reintroduced poets Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Hayden,
Dudley Randall and those better known for their prose (H. Julian Bond,
Sterling Brown, Clarence Major, Jean Toomer, Margaret Walker, etc.). As
the political climate among America's Vietnam War-era youth became
increasingly radical, a new group seized the black literary podium, as
the more racially conscious scions of education, miseducation and
self-education converged in The Muntu Group (a k a The Black Arts
Movement). Many were included in Bontemps's ANP--Nikki Giovanni,
Ted Joans, LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), Larry Neal, Don L. Lee (Haki R.
Madhubuti) et al. Although he was originally from the LA community of
Watts, Bontemps's focus was on the Harlem Renaissance and the Midwest,
with exceptions from Texas and the old South, plus Bob Kaufman (the
black Rimbaud of San Francisco's Beats). Outside Bontemps's radar others
were rising--Ed Bullins, Lonne Elder III, Charles Gordone, Etheridge
Knight, Paule Marshall, Ishmael Reed, A.B. Spellman and Al Young. By the
end of the 1960s, popular fiction writers, too, were reaching audiences,
black and white--Donald Goines, Alex Haley, Chester Himes, Iceberg Slim,
John A. Williams, Frank Yerby--as a constellation of once-silenced
voices exploded into print, and onto screen and stage.
From the ashes of the August 1965 riots that scarred LA County, Budd
Schulberg's Watts Writers Workshop (Quincy Troupe, Kamau Daoud, Odie
Hawkins, et al.) reinforced the militant expressions of racial pride and
the spirited entitlement to unfettered speech defining those who
rejected self-censorship in hopes of attracting a white
readership--Jayne Cortez, Sonia Sanchez and, later, Ntozake Shange. But
the price that most paid for this newfound freedom was scorching reviews
by white book critics, and having their work ignored for literary grants
and prizes. Knowing they were not exempt from the currents and trends
affecting all writers, many had long observed the games characteristic
of the literary life--cronyism, favoritism, patronage--and were becoming
equally adept at play. Impatient with the harsh and racist criticism
that truncated their literary careers, they answered via the grapevine,
making a demand for same-race interviewers and reviewers. Supported by
the leading black celebrities of the day and underwritten by a
riot-singed loosening of cultural constraints, African-American
reviewer-journalists began appearing in the print media.
What had begun with Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka,
Kansas (1954) and the push for the desegregation of schools resulted
in the boom of black studies programs (Afro-American, African-American,
now Africana) in American colleges and universities throughout the
1970s--and other study programs tangential to the broadening of the
American cultural terrain. But by the 1980s, textbooks adopted for many
of these programs bore copyrights between 1968 and 1973, roughly
corresponding to the presidency of Richard Nixon (1969-74)--texts that
overlooked a third wave busily establishing themselves in and outside
the mainstream--Ai, Toni Cade Bambara, Xam Cartier, Cornelius Eady,
Charles Johnson, David Bradley, Toi Derricotte, C.S. Giscombe, Yusef
Komunyakaa, June Jordan, Toni Morrison, Michelle Cliff, Michael S.
Harper, Audre Lorde, E. Ethelbert Miller, Alice Walker (who resuscitated
Zora Neale Hurston's works), John Edgar Wideman and August Wilson.
Since the 1970s America has produced the largest educated population in
its history, racism aside, Americans of color benefiting, despite the
givens. New writers have emerged from workshops and MFA and PhD programs
via whatever means necessary--affirmative action, grants, student loans
and scholarships--with "political correctness" and multiculturalism the
more obvious of mitigating factors. The publish-or-perish mandate of
academic life, in tandem with increases in the black middle class and
underclass, accelerated the outcry for cultural redress, as
African-American readers demanded literature that reflected their lives
and values. An explosion into print of new kinds of writing to satisfy
this boom market has followed, meaning an inevitable diversity of black
authors across genres. The pioneering Samuel R. "Chip" Delany and
Octavia Butler in science or speculative fiction, and Walter Mosley
(harking back to Himes) in the mystery/crime/suspense genre, have
created a tsunami of younger African-American writers eager to replicate
their successes (Nelson George, Gar Anthony Haywood, Nalo Hopkinson,
Barbara Neely, Gary Phillips, Sheree R. Thomas). J. California Cooper,
Terry McMillan and Gloria Naylor have inspired a new breed of women
novelists. Then there's the popular black romance or "trash" novel trade
(Pinnacle Arabesque, Holloway House and Signet).
Simultaneously, a fourth generation has emerged: Jeffery Renard Allen,
Paul Beatty, Eric Jerome Dickey, Trey Ellis, Ruth Forman, Lisa Jones,
Thylias Moss, Kevin Powell, Sapphire, Patricia Smith, Sister Souljah,
Lisa Teasley, Jervey Tervalon, Colson Whitehead. Not to be ignored are
the birth and entrenchment of a black academe--Houston A. Baker Jr.,
Percival Everett, Gloria Foster, Dr. Maulana Karenga, Nellie McKay,
Jewell Parker Rhodes, Richard Yarborough--and the emergence of black
social critics--Stanley Crouch, Henry Louis Gates, Earl Ofari
Hutchinson, Cornel West. A burgeoning black avant-garde claims
influences from the Absurdists to the Sublime and the Surrealists--Will
Alexander, Ricardo Cortez Cruz, Renee Gladman, Nathaniel Mackey,
Harryette Mullen and Giovanni Singleton.
A rap/hip-hop generation of writers influenced by Gil Scott-Heron and
The Last Poets includes young whites as well as the Nuyoricans (elders
Miguel Alguin, Papoleto Melendez and Nancy Mercado) and the slam
poets--including the acculturated who write and perform under a dominant
African-American influence, many yet to become substantial in
print--although that necessity may be dictated by the Internet, should
magazines continue to go online, or develop online versions, and should
e-zines continue to proliferate.
As this century begins, the vast depth and breadth of African-American
writing over the past fifty years make these categories seem arbitrary.
Another hundred authors could easily be added, plus an overlapping and
equally illustrious list of American writers of African heritage from
other parts of the Black Diaspora.
The number of writers identifying as African-Americans now outstrips the
available review media and bookstore shelves, placing emphasis and
stress on what does exist. Numerous small magazines now welcome work by
or on them (Another Chicago Magazine, Crab Orchard Review,
Massachusetts Review, Other Voices, Paterson Literary
Review). The editors of African-American Review,
Callaloo and Obsidian, three long-lived culture-specific
journals, have done their best to document our progress faithfully, as
have the newer Black Issues, QBR: The Black Book Review
and Ishmael Reed's Konch. However, they have yet to approach the
career-making editorial power of The Atlantic Monthly, The New
York Review of Books, The New York Times Book Review, The
New Yorker and the like, which do not exclusively feature
African-Americans (those once dwarfed by the recently discontinued
Oprah's Book Club). Kalamu Ya Salaam's e-drum, an online
resource, encompasses and targets the entire African Diaspora, unlike
the nation's review media, which have failed to expand in response to
this explosion of talent. The staggering number of black writers across
disciplines suggests future potential for genre-specific magazines
(e-zines) and bookstores, online and off.
A search of the Internet yields more than 300 black book clubs and
discussion groups of fluctuating longevity nationwide (Book Divas,
Chat-n-Chew, Eye of Ra, Seven Sisters Sipping Tea, Twelve Black Women
& One Brother), some business-oriented, like Troy Johnson's AALBC
(African-American Literature Book Club), the Black Writer's Alliance and
Black Expressions--each with its own roster of frequently read authors.
The readers are hungry, and the potential market for mainstream reviews
of African-American literature is equally vast.
Therefore, it is incumbent upon any book reviewer to grasp these diverse
happenstances composing what was once simply summarized as "The Black
Experience." It is the duty of the reviewer to accurately portray,
critically summarize and convey them to potential readers regardless of
the varied heritages involved--in the assumed common language. The
ironic complexity of this task, no matter how savvy the reviewer, is
best illustrated when the quality of the work produced by black writers
is measured against that of whites using the criteria of excellence
governing standard English and its variants--Ebonics aside. Ideally, the
social context within which the work under review is created should be
factored in, but should that be done to the exclusion of the quality of
the writing? A number of reviewers, including many of the writers listed
above, are answering that question for themselves: Hilton Als, Jabari
Asim, Samiya Bashir, Daphne A. Brooks, Grace Edwards-Yearwood, Lynell
George, Erin Aubry Kaplan, Ron Kavanaugh, Julius Lester, Quraysh Ali
Lansana, Arnold Rampersad, Angeli Rasbury, Lorenzo Thomas and Greg
Tate--to name a very few.
On this shaky cultural terrain, arbitrarily divided into high and low,
or commercial and literary, the average critic-reviewer is bound to
stand on shifting ground. If that critic is also a literary or scholarly
writer, he or she is likely to be acutely sensitive to the dangers of
penning a negative review. A fledgling writer trounced or a veteran
prematurely interred might emerge as a MacArthur grant recipient,
Nobelist or Pulitzer Prize winner. Worse, that same writer might end up
on the literary grants peer panel, become director of a coveted reading
series or chair a funding committee or English department to which their
writer-critic has submitted an application, request, proposal or
résumé. Therefore, there may be, for some writers, a
certain amount of fear attached to the task. In the black world it is
more like having the author's cousins and uncles gang up on you. Too,
the sense of community and the desire to compensate for the damages of
racism, however perceived, may or may not affect how one
African-American reviews another. While failing to say anything about an
author's book that cannot be excerpted for the press kit or book jacket
may possibly have severe literary consequences for the critic-reviewer
in general, for black reviewers, the consequences may be dire. Their
creative efforts may be likewise reviewed for suspect reasons. They may
be denied appearances on certain TV book shows. They may be denied
invitations to significant events celebrating African-American pride and
progress. They may be banned from certain black-owned bookstores.
It is under these kinds of pressures, with an awareness of these
contexts, armed with all the information above, that I write, whenever I
place my own creative work on hold to assume the role of book reviewer.
I am acutely aware of the anger any reviewer may incite when criticizing
the work of a popular author, and that the density and history of the
African-American community may intensify that anger. Few readers enjoy
having their favorite author-hero or heroine excoriated. However, the
job of the reviewer is to bring the best analysis of the book, and
perhaps the author, to the readership--whoever makes up that readership,
black, white or otherwise.
All literary criticism, at root, is biased--the favorable and
unfavorable alike--because reviewers must bring to the act their
individual worldview and aesthetic sensibility. And it is up to each to
decide if the social values of a text as a political record is more
important than its literary values--which is often the choice when books
by African-Americans are under review. But fostering an illusion of
excellence where none exists, regardless of the race, gender or class of
the writer, or the subject matter of the text, is to do a democratic
readership the ultimate disservice. Saying amen to the going cultural
directives, minus a true analysis, is as morally suspect as any bigoted
criticism--whether done out of guilt, fear or the desire to compensate
the author for the social ills that shaped his or her existence.
In our post-9/11 America, where unwarranted suspicions and the fear of
terrorism threaten to overwhelm long-coveted individual freedoms, a book
review seems rather insignificant--until the twin specters of censorship
and oppression are raised. What has made our nation great, despite its
tortuous history steeped in slavery, are those who have persisted in
honoring those freedoms, starting with the Constitution and its
amendments. It is this striving toward making those freedoms available
to every citizen, regardless of race, creed, color, gender or origin,
that makes the rest of the insanity tolerable. It is what allows me to
voice my opinion, be it praise song or dissent, no matter who
In Empire Falls, Richard Russo's neo-Dickensian novel of a dying
mill-town in central Maine, the high school art teacher is portrayed as
something of a soul-killer. Indifferent if not hostile to signs of true
creativity in her students, she encourages them to admire, for bad
aesthetic reasons, what the author regards as bad art. Her favorite painter, for example, specializes in old
rowboats and the rocky Maine shoreline, and on his local-access show,
Painting for Relaxation, he executes a painting in exactly one
hour, start to finish. Entirely aware of her teacher's impaired taste,
the best student in the class still cannot but admire the TV painter's
way of attacking the canvas: It is as though his arm, wrist, hand,
fingers and brush are an extension of his eye, or perhaps his will. It
comes as something of a surprise that teacher and student have this
admiration in common with Joan Mitchell (1926-92), one of the great if
underappreciated Abstract Expressionist painters of the New York School,
whose luminous achievement is honored with a celebratory exhibition at
New York's Whitney Museum of American Art through September 29. Every
morning, according to Kenneth Tyler, in whose graphics workshop in Mount
Kisco Mitchell frequently worked on prints when she was in this country,
she would watch a public television show whose host was a landscape
painter with a Southern drawl; in each episode a painting would be
created, from primed canvas to the emergence of a mountain scene or a
seascape. Tyler says that Mitchell adored that show, and she'd be in a
good mood when she came down to the studio from the apartment, just
after a shower.
Mitchell must have found especially appealing the swift, sure, dancelike
way the TV painter dashed his brush across the canvas, just as so-called
action painters were supposed to do, but left, at the same time, a
recognizable image behind. Despite her abstractionist credentials, she
saw herself as a landscape artist--what's so interesting about a square,
circle and triangle? And just as the TV painter was able to create an
outdoor scene within the windowless space of a television studio, she
evoked trees, bridges or beaches in a downtown Manhattan studio that
looked out on a brick wall. "I carry my landscapes around with me," she
told Irving Sandler when he interviewed her for "Mitchell Paints a
Picture," one of a famous series that appeared on and off in
ArtNews in the 1950s. She seems to have been remarkably tolerant
for someone as strongly opinionated as she typically was. "There is no
one way to paint," she said to Sandler. "There is no single answer." She
characterized herself as something of a conservative.
The picture that Mitchell painted for Sandler's 1957 article referred to
a remembered moment in East Hampton some years earlier, when a
legendarily undisciplined poodle she owned went swimming. She called the
picture George Went Swimming at Barnes Hole, but It Got Too Cold,
and it typifies her extraordinary work of the middle 1950s, when she
seemed to paint only masterpieces. The implied narrative of the title
refers to the course the painting took, rather than an actual change of
temperature on that memorable day. The yellows, which emblematized the
warm light of a summer afternoon, gave way, for reasons internal to the
painting, to areas of white and hence, wittily, to winter. It is hardly
the kind of landscape a TV painter would have ended his hour with. There
is a thick tangle of heavy, largely horizontal brush strokes about a
third of the way up the canvas--black-blues, ochres, paler greens and a
surprising passage of cadmium red. A patch of grays and pale blues in
the upper right corner feels like winter sky, while a spread of strongly
swept blues and purples at the bottom of the canvas must be a
reminiscence of water. The feeling of cold is mostly achieved through
white and whitish spaces, climbing like broken ice from bottom to top,
punctuated by slashes and lashes of fluid pigment that the clever
student in Empire Falls High School would recognize as the artist's
attack. The painting manages to meld ferocity and tranquillity into a
single stunning image that is Mitchell at the height of her powers.
The first painting of Mitchell's that I recall seeing had an immense
impact on me. Since I followed the Abstract Expressionist scene, I may
have seen her work earlier without, so to speak, encountering it. What I
knew absolutely was that this was a great painting, that I would wish to
have painted it more than any other, and that it was entirely beyond me.
By contrast with this artist, everyone I knew of was comparatively
tentative and fearful, as the young student in Empire Falls felt
her work to be. It was somewhat chastening, in those sexist days, to
realize that it had been painted by a woman. Possibly it could only have
been painted by a woman; but in any case a stereotype had been
shattered. The painting was called Hemlock, and it hung by itself
in the first room of the Martha Jackson Gallery, on East 66th Street. It
seemed to me that Abstract Expression had found a new direction and that
its methods could now be used almost like poetry, to capture and
communicate real experience. In the interview with Sandler, Mitchell
said, "The painting has to work, but it has to say something more than
that the painting works." It had been enough, in those days, that a
painting should work. There was little beyond that one could say. But
with Hemlock, as with so many of the pieces Mitchell did around
the same time, it went beyond what Duchamp dismissed as that "retinal
shudder": She brought the world as she lived it into her art, and as
advanced as her work of the 1950s was, experiencing it was like
experiencing nature in an intense, revelatory moment. No one else I knew
of had managed that.
Hemlock is a tree composed as an ascending set of horizontal
sweeps of green and black against a white winter sky. The bands seem
hung like branches on a trunk, explicit in certain passages, whited out
but implied in others, and it feels constructed, like a complex Chinese
character that could have been an ideogram for hemlock, built stroke by
parallel stroke up the left side of the canvas. But it is not static.
Some of the branches seem to be whipped into movement, on the canvas's
right side, as if they were feeling their way into emptiness at the edge
of a cliff, like a heroic oak tree once painted by the Norwegian artist
Dahl, which his nation adopted as the symbol of its toughness in an
adverse world. Whipped loops of black paint animate the air, and
cascades of drips rain down. The whole image has the quality of a great
drawing, except, of course, that the white is not the background of
white paper but is itself painted in such a way as to interanimate the
thrashing branches and the vividness of the void. Only de Kooning could
have come close to Hemlock. Kline was never able to solve the
problem of adding color to his black-and-white canvases without diluting
Mitchell was as much one with the art world of her time as the tree in
Hemlock is with the paint it is made of. Had that world perdured,
she would have been one of the most celebrated artists of our time. The
fact that she has instead been neglected lies, I think, not in the
circumstances of her gender--as Jane Livingston, the curator, to whom we
must all be grateful for this wonderful show, alleges in her catalogue
essay--but in the fact that she painted for the rest of her life as if
she were drawing sustenance from an art world that had in truth
vanished. She was like a fragment of a planet that had broken off and
followed an independent orbit, after the planet itself had crumbled to
The direction of art changed radically and irrevocably a very few years
after my encounter with Hemlock. In 1961, Allan Kaprow, chief
author if not the inventor of "Happenings," installed Yard in the
courtyard of Martha Jackson's new gallery on East 69th Street. It
consisted in a disordered heap of used automobile tires. Kaprow, who
wrote his master's thesis (studying with the art critic Meyer Schapiro
at Columbia) on Mondrian, worked with John Cage at the New School for
Social Research in the years Mitchell was establishing her name
(1956-58). He shortly gave up painting for assemblage and made chance
and indeterminacy the principles of his work. Kaprow's epochal
Eighteen Happenings in Six Parts took place at the Reuben Gallery
in 1959. Hemlock and Yard reflect different moments of the
pervasive influence of Zen on New York art in the 1950s. Hemlock
belongs to the impulse of haiku and Zen watercolors. The pile of tires
belongs to what I was later to call the transfiguration of the
commonplace. Its impact on me, though I hardly recognized its meaning in
1961, was largely philosophical. It consisted in the question that now
seems to me to have defined the 1960s, namely, Why was a pile of
worthless rubber tires a work of art and not simply a pile of worthless
rubber tires? Clement Greenberg was to call this novelty art. Mitchell,
open as she may have been about painting, dismissed what was happening
as "pop, slop, and plop." It was not a transient phenomenon but a
revolution in the production of art that remains with us forty years
Mitchell began to work in Paris intermittently in the 1950s, but she
carried her inner landscapes with her as well, for a while at least, as
her unmistakable style. In a sense, she was a New York School painter
working in the fifteenth arrondissement; and though she gave her
pictures French titles in the 1960s, one does not feel that they had as
yet any French references. Grandes Carrières is a densely
crowded thicket of pigment in the middle of a horizontal canvas, which
could have an autumnal reference, with red and brown branches, and could
even be read as a wildly brushed still life poised before a window,
though the title means "large quarries." Abstract Expressionism was a
world movement, but it assumed different identities from nation to
nation: French Abstract Expressionism was unmistakably School of Paris
through its irrepressible tastefulness, and Japanese Abstract
Expressionism had a reckless scariness that New York was not ready for.
The beautiful Untitled (1963), with its airy lightness, its
lyrical scaffold of olive-green strokes and touches, continues to have a
New York feeling. But with Blue Tree, and particularly
Calvi, both done in 1964, Mitchell begins to respond to European,
one even feels to Mediterranean, motifs. Calvi is a green, thick
island of paint, almost scrubbed into or onto an otherwise nearly empty
expanse sparsely enlivened by running calligraphic strokes. And then,
perhaps in My Landscape II, 1967, and especially in Low
Water, 1969, some deep change, inner or outer, has taken place, and
she becomes a different painter from what she'd been, one about whom I
have mixed feelings. She has become somehow more European.
In 1988--I had by then begun to write this column--I traveled down to
the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington to see a retrospective show of
Joan Mitchell's work. I had been caught up in the way the art world had
gone in the early 1960s, and had more or less lost touch with Mitchell's
work. But since it was something like having been in love to have been
affected once by her paintings, I wanted to know what the artist had
been doing over the intervening years. She was 62 years old, and she'd
had a long, tempestuous relationship with the French-Canadian artist
Jean-Paul Riopelle, whose memorial show (he died this year) at the
Montreal Museum of Fine Arts ends the same day as Mitchell's. She had
come into money and purchased a property in Vetheuil, on the banks of
the Seine north of Paris, where Monet had painted before he moved to
Giverny in 1881, after the death of his wife, Camille. In fact, Mitchell
lived at 12 rue Claude Monet, and I wondered to what degree she had
internalized the spirit of the site, or had, in her own way, taken on
something of Monet's aura. A Dutch museum director recently complained
to me that Mitchell had tried too hard to be like Monet. He compared her
unfavorably with Ellsworth Kelly, who had gone to Paris and encountered
Matisse, and then turned what he admired into something altogether
American. But the relationship between Monet and Abstract Expressionism
is more complex than that. Through Abstract Expressionism, Monet
belonged to the spirit of American art.
Many of the great pieces from the 1950s were on view at the Corcoran,
including Hemlock, which seems by general consensus to be her
chef-d'oeuvre. But in the main, I was disappointed in the show,
and I felt confirmed in my somewhat sour negativity by the fact that
Livingston, who installed it, felt much the same way. "I was disturbed,"
she writes, "by what I thought was an uneven show. It was far too big,
with too much emphasis on recent work. I learned that the artist herself
had a hand in its selection, and as is not unusual in such
circumstances, she simply could not edit out the works that had most
recently come out of the studio." I had a somewhat different
explanation. I thought the exhibition showed what happens when an
artist, whose greatness owed so much to the discoveries of the movement
she belonged with, outlives the movement. Individual achievement depends
upon the criticism and applause of those who share one's language and
values as an artist. It was an immense privilege to belong to a movement
like Abstract Expressionism. Everyone who was part of it was greater
through that fact than he or she would have been alone.
In any case, I did not write about the show. The happy ending to this is
that Livingston has now used her great curatorial intuitions to put
together the kind of show the artist herself would have been incapable
of. It is chronological, but somehow orchestrated, and marked by a kind
of phrasing, so that one is able to live Mitchell's life through her
paintings. The issue of reference is less important than the recognition
that the work is referential. No one can tell from the painting where
George went swimming nearly half a century ago on Long Island, or which
particular hemlock, now grown venerable and great, captured the artist's
memory until it was delivered magnificently into art. But there is, in
addition to reference, the mood and feeling that make the transformation
of it into art memorable and urgent. More is happening in Calvi
than fixing something visually compelling. One is not surprised to read
that when she painted it, Mitchell was going through a serious emotional
crisis. When the Japanese Abstract Expressionist Jiro Yoshihara did a
memorial painting for Martha Jackson, who died in 1969, he was asked why
it consisted of a simple white-on-black circle. He gave a Zen answer:
"Since I did not have time, this was the best way I could do at the
moment." That is how I feel about Calvi.
The show is so intense that when one turns a corner and comes upon
Clearing, 1973, it really feels like a clearing. It is restful
and calm, despite or perhaps because of the wavy black uneven oblongs in
two of its three panels, but mainly because of its beautiful lavender
rings, which to me felt like dreamy echoes of Yoshihara's image. There
is something Japanese about it, with its loose arabesques and drips
coming down like the rain in a print by Hiroshige. No one would know
that La Vie en Rose was painted in 1979 to mark the end of
Mitchell's long relationship with Jean-Paul Riopelle. Mitchell, in a
film I saw recently, put it this way: He ran off "with the dogsitter."
The work expresses sadness, even grief, but also relief and a kind of
resignation. Her polyptychs are extraordinarily personal, despite their
scale and ambition, and often they are salutes to her peers. Wet
Orange feels like a belle époque interior, and pays
tribute to the oranges and blues Bonnard and Vuillard made their own.
No Birds makes a wry reference to Van Gogh's late painting of
crows in a golden two-panel cornfield, except--no birds. Instead the sky
is clouded with blackish sweeps of dark menace, and one does not have to
be told that the artist was going through terrible pain. I leave La
Grande Vallée for you to put in your own words.
There has not been this much wonderful painting on view all at once for
a very long time, and fascinating as art has been since the time when
painting was the great bearer of its history, one cannot but be
nostalgic walking these galleries, tracing this life through woods,
clearings, fields, vales, masses of flowers, wet skies. What luck for
Birmingham, Alabama, that the show will travel to its art museum from
June 27 until August 31, 2003; for Fort Worth, Texas, where it will be
on view at the Modern Art Museum, September 21, 2003-January 7, 2004;
and Washington, DC, at The Phillips Collection, where it belongs by
aesthetic affinity, from February 14-May 16, 2004.
The August 26 speech by Vice President Dick Cheney at the Veterans of
Foreign Wars convention in Nashville has made at least two things clear:
first, that the Bush Administration is fully committed to launching a
war against Iraq with the aim of removing Saddam Hussein, regardless of
UN efforts to insert weapons inspectors; and second, that the
Administration will brook no dissent on this matter from Congress or
senior figures in the Republican Party. "At bottom," Cheney declared,
those who favor caution and delay in removing Saddam are advocating a
dangerous path "that could have devastating consequences for many
countries, including our own."
The intolerance of dissent expressed by Cheney is symptomatic of the
assumption of imperial warmaking powers by George W. Bush and his
coterie of close advisers. Bush himself acknowledged this trend in his
response to a number of senior Republican leaders--including noted
conservatives like former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and
former Secretary of State James Baker as well as US special Mideast
envoy, retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni--who have expressed qualms
about his plans. "I am aware that some very intelligent people are
expressing their opinions about Saddam Hussein and Iraq," he told
reporters at his Texas ranch on August 16. "I listen very carefully to
what they have to say. But America needs to know, I'll be making up my
mind based upon the latest intelligence and how best to protect our own
country plus our friends and allies."
There have, of course, been occasions when a sitting President has
assumed warmaking powers with little regard for the views of Congress or
the general public. US forces were already involved in Vietnam when
Lyndon Johnson engineered the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution of 1964, and
George Bush Senior acquiesced in a two-day Senate debate on US
intervention in the Persian Gulf only after 550,000 US troops had been
deployed on the perimeter of Kuwait. Even so, George W. Bush has
surpassed his predecessors in the assumption of imperial powers--most
conspicuously, perhaps, in his tendency to conflate America's war
against terrorism with his own existential destiny. "I will not forget
this wound to our country," he told the nation shortly after September
11. "I will not yield; I will not rest; I will not relent in waging this
struggle for freedom and security for the American people." In assuming
this pivotal role, moreover, Bush has made it clear that he will allow
no bounds on his exercise of national power.
From this, it's a short step to other manifestations of imperial
decision-making, such as the August 26 opinion by White House lawyers
that Bush does not require Congressional approval for an attack on Iraq.
Supposedly, the 1991 resolution secured by the elder Bush for Operation
Desert Storm is sufficient. "We don't want to be in the legal position
of asking Congress to authorize the use of force when the President
already has that full authority," a senior White House official told the
The assumption of imperial powers is also reflected in the President's
tendency to mislead the public: He has repeatedly declared that he has
not yet decided whether to use force in removing Saddam and that he is
prepared to entertain nonmilitary options, but this flies in the face of
growing evidence of a substantial buildup of US forces in the areas
surrounding Iraq and the reports of frantic efforts by the Defense
Department to produce a winning strategy for the assault on Baghdad
(doubters are encouraged to compare the January and June 2002 satellite
photos of the new US military air base in Qatar posted at
And then there's the President's obvious disdain for the views of our
long-term allies, who argue for putting UN inspectors into Iraq before
anything else. This by no means exhaustive catalogue should trouble all
Americans who believe in the democratic process and the preservation of
constitutional limitations on the power of the executive. American
freedom and democracy cannot coexist with an imperial presidency.