Rick Santorum is a bigot. And, like others bigots before him, he seeks to promote his views be claiming the American people face "threats" that do not exist.
Santorum, the Pennsylvanian who chairs the Senate Republican Caucus, is blatant about his bigotry. Unlike former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Mississippi, who got in trouble for praising Strom Thurmond's Dixiecrat presidential campaign of 1948, Santorum was talking about the here and now when he objected to efforts to strike down sodomy laws because he opposes lifting criminal sanctions against gay and lesbian relationships. To this senator's view, gays and lesbians who engage in consensual, monogomous and loving relationships "undermine the basic tenets of our society and the family."
Just as Santorum is blatant about his bigotry, he is equally blatant in his fearmongering, arguing that, "(If) the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery. You have the right to anything. Does that undermine the fabric of our society? I would argue yes, it does."
Is Bush taking lessons from Julius Caesar? Apparently so. When Caesar's short but bloody conquest of the Celtic tribes led to the founding of the Roman province of Gaul (modern France) in 52 B.C. he divided the country into three parts. Well-connected sources tell us that Bush plans to divide Iraq into three parts as well: Premium, regular and unleaded.
"America has entered one of its periods of historical madness," argues author John Le CarrÃ©, who suggests that the current drive by conservatives in Congress and their media allies to search out and destroy dissent is "worse than McCarthyism." That may sound extreme to some, but it certainly must ring true for Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines, whose mild criticism of President Bush in the days before the war with Iraq began has made the group target No. 1 for the Elite Republican Guardians of patriotic propriety.
After Maines, a native of Lubbock, told a crowd at a London Dixie Chicks show that "we're ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas," South Carolina legislators passed a bill declaring those words to be "unpatriotic," disc jockeys organized rallies at which tractors were used to destroy Dixie Chicks CDs, and radio stations across the south barred songs by the groups. Though officials of Clear Channel, the media conglomerate that controls more than 1,200 radio stations across the US denied that they had issued a network-wide ban order, Clear Channel's country and pop music stations were among the first to declare themselves "Chicks Free." And the chattering class of conservative talk-radio and talk-TV piled on with calls for boycotts of the group's upcoming concert tour.
With the experience of the Dixie Chicks providing a cautionary tale--and with high-profile actors who have expressed antiwar views, such as Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon and Janeane Garofalo, being branded "casting couch Bolsheviks" and worse--there was a clear signal coming from the entertainment industry in general, and the music industry in particular, about what happens when artists speak out. While outspoken groups and individual performers such as the Beastie Boys, System of the Down, REM, Lenny Kravitz, Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder and Zack de la Rocha dared to speak out musically, radio playlists have tended increasingly to feature Bush Administration-friendly songs like Darryl Worley's "Have You Forgetten" and "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)" by Toby Keith--who criticizes Maines as a "big mouth." Madonna remade what had been described as an antiwar video for her new single, "American Life," because she said, "I do not want to risk offending anyone who might misinterpret the meaning of this video." And, against the pressure to make music conform to the conservative agenda of the Bush Administration, there has been a whole lot of silence from most of the music industry's biggest names.
Skip the stories about pro-consul Jay Garner, Bechtel's war profiteering and the Bush Administration's professed commitment to building democracy in Iraq. For a clear-eyed view of democracy-building according to Bush, see today's edition of Aaron McGruder's celebrated comic-strip Boondocks.
Chief protagonist and avid news junky Huey Freeman sits in front of his TV, listening to the latest news report:
"To guarantee free and fair elections in Iraq as soon as possible, President Bush announced he would be sending Katherine Harris to Baghdad next week."
With America's leading evangelist in the White House, is it any wonder that Christian preacher Franklin Graham and his relief agency, Samaritan's Purse, are "poised and ready" to bring their missionary zeal to the Iraqi people?
Franklin Graham, Billy's son, has, like his father, earned the title of "pastor to presidents." He has also earned widespread criticism from Muslims for calling Islam a "very evil and wicked religion" bent on "world domination." Such statements have made many people, not only Muslims, question the decision to give him a role in the Middle East. Nevertheless, Graham and his relief agency are about to head into Iraq, eagerly awaiting, in the words of Maureen Dowd, "to inveigle Iraqi infidels with a blend of kitchen pantry and Elmer Gantry."
And, in the meantime, Donald Rumsfeld invited Graham to deliver this past week's Good Friday prayer service to a packed audience at the Pentagon--over the objections of the lay leader of the Pentagon's Muslim community, who charitably called Graham a "divisive' figure, and a number of Muslim Pentagon employees. (Washington Post," At Pentagon, Graham Lets Controversy Sit Silently.")
There are many things that one can rightly call Los Angeles Times columnist and Nation contributing editor Robert Scheer. But "anti-American" is just not one of them. A lifelong "moderate radical," Scheer has spent decades arguing sensibly and passionately against extremism on all sides. He's also one of America's most accomplished journalists and interviewers--having interviewed every US president from Nixon to Clinton, and one of the few voices on a major op-ed page that regularly dares to speak truth to power. Animated by moral outrage, Scheer's commentary is also infused with a keen sense of what it means to be a truly patriotic citizen.
So when Bill O'Reilly uses his TV program and website to attack Scheer as a "traitor," and as "blatantly anti-American," he's distorting the truth. The taunts are a cheap way of trying to tarnish Scheer's reputation without having to rebut the merits of his arguments. Unfortunately, with his platform, when O'Reilly encourages his viewers to contact the Los Angeles Times and demand Scheer's dismissal, which he did a few weeks ago, a bunch of people do just that.
Though I'd suspect that many of these folks were misled by O'Reilly's propaganda, it's nonetheless, of course, their right to complain. And it's our obligation to respond in turn. So please be in touch with the LA Times. Click here for contact info. Let them know that you think Scheer is one of the best things about the paper, that you appreciate their balanced op-ed page, and that you think that the Scheer column which set O'Reilly off was an important expression of patriotism.
In 1917, at the height of World War I, Wisconsin Sen. Robert M. La Follette caused quite a stir when he suggested that one of the best ways to support the US troops fighting in Europe was to expose and challenge American corporations that engage in all forms of war profiteering. Even as attention is focused abroad on battles still raging, La Follette said, it is important to remain ever mindful "that there are enemies of democracy in the homeland."
"These," the Senator continued, "are the powers of special privilege that take advantage of the opportunity which war affords to more firmly entrench themselves in their control of government and industry. These interests are amassing enormous fortunes out of the world's misery."
More than 85 years later, America finds itself embedded in a very different conflict, yet La Follette's words still ring true. No matter what Americans think about the Bush Administration's preemptive invasion of Iraq, there should be broad agreement on the need to ensure that corporations do not turn the war and its aftermath into a bonanza for their bottom lines and a boondoggle for US taxpayers. In other words: Now that the statues of Saddam Hussein have been toppled, it is time to topple the war profiteers. But where to begin?
When asked by Larry King about Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's charges that the media had exaggerated the lawlessness and looting in Baghdad in the early days of the US occupation, Dan Rather, not given to picking fights with the White House, couldn't lay off this one. See the excerpt below and click here for the full transcript from April 14.
KING: Secretary Rumsfeld has said that the media has given an exaggerated picture of the looting and the lawlessness. What have you found?
RATHER: Well, I don't have any argument with the Defense Secretary. But I will say that I'm here. I try to be an honest reporter, be an honest broker of information. And I--it's my judgment that if Secretary Rumsfeld had been here, he might have worded that at least in a somewhat different way. There's no question the looting has been rampant and widespread. It was for several days here. We were told that it began to taper off some today. And in fact, I think it did, but primarily because most things of value have been stripped out of most places where they could be.
Please convey to Mr. Robbins my appreciation for his position on Bush
and the invasion of Iraq. He and Susan Sarandon are putting their necks
on the line, and showing great courage. This is a lonely time for those
who oppose Bush's policies. I myself, a Vietnam vet (1966-69), have had
my patriotism questioned; when they find out my past, they shut up--but
why should that make a difference? Woody Allen made a movie about the
McCarthy era, and I recall watching it in a rather condescending frame
of mind, thinking "what was the matter with those people in the 1950s?
How could they be so persecutorial?" Well, those times are back. We all
have to fight this now. Robbins and Sarandon, by being famous, give
strength to others.
It is truly deplorable that such institutions as the Baseball Hall of
Fame are run by people who have no more tact than to use this sacred
institution as an instrument of their own political views to force their
opinions on the baseball-loving public. I guess we can only hope that
future Hall of Famers will also share Mr. Petroskey's political views
for fear that they will also be subjected to such actions. And thank
you, Mr. Robbins, for dispelling the notion that it is "un-American" to
disagree with the war. Indeed, there is nothing more American than the
airing of dissent of popular views in a public that seems wholly
unresponsive to public debate. I guess we can only hope that our local
cinemas don't subscribe to the same brand of "patriotism" that Mr.
Petroskey seems to favor. I for one like being able to choose the movies
I watch regardless of the political backgrounds of the creators.
Shelter Island, New York
Thank you for bringing attention to the Tim Robbins vs. the Baseball
Hall of Fame flap. I worked at the museum for nearly a decade, just
prior to Mr. Petroskey's arrival. I'm more surprised by the brazen
political nature of Mr. Petroskey's letter than I am by their decision
to cancel the event. This is a very conservative institution, run by a
conservative family within a conservative community. I think that just a
few short years ago Mr. Robbins would have had to do a bit more reading
between the lines. Democrats in Congress, celebrities and average
citizens are being intimidated. Conservatives are bolstered by the
arrogance and attitudes of Mr. Bush and his regime, and all debate and
dissent is trampled under the guise of patriotism and the need to
"support our troops." Attending my daughter's volleyball game at a local
high school the other day, I was shocked to see a poster on display in
the lobby which reads, "America, Love it or Leave it." It's deja vu all
former director of exhibits and design, National Baseball
Hall of Fame and Museum
As a current member of the Army Individual Ready Reserve who was
activated for the first Gulf War, I find Mr. Petroskey's comments and
actions to be utterly ridiculous.
I am sick and tired of neoconservative couch potatoes using members of
the military as weapons to further their own agenda. We have not only
the right, but the responsibility to question our leaders. This is a
democracy (actually it's a republic). This is not Saddam Era Iraq, where
the leader's word is law.
At the conclusion of this war, we will probably put on trial and execute
members of Saddam's former regime that unquestioningly "stood behind
their president and the troops." They will not be allowed to use that
trite phrase as an excuse for the atrocities they have committed.
Petroskey should stick to a subject that hopefully he knows something
During the first Gulf War my friends supported me in two ways. My prowar
friends joined military family-support groups and my antiwar friends hit
the streets. Both were trying to help me in their own way and both
greeted me warmly upon my return.
When we fight and die, we do it for democracy and freedom. The men and
women who serve should not be discouraged by Mr. Robbins's comments.
They should, however be scared by Mr. Petroskey's actions. It is clear
that he seeks to do through the private sector what the goverment could
not. He seeks to prevent Mr. Robbins from exercising his constitutional
right to free speech. He hides his criminal acts, by dying them red,
white and blue.
It is Mr. Petroskey and those like him who threaten to undercut our
armed forces. And, at the risk of being labeled unpatriotic, I find that
I cannot stand behind the President's savage and unwarranted cuts in
veteran's benefits. As a former officer in the Texas Air National Guard,
he should be ashamed.
Port Angeles, Washington
I was astounded at the childish action taken against Tim Robbins
(cancellation of the screening of Bull Durham on the occasion of its
fifteenth anniversary), a fine actor and articulate critic of the Bush
war on Iraq, by Dale Petroskey, president of the National Baseball Hall
of Fame. What on earth possesses so many of our self-proclaimed
"defenders of democracy and freedom" to become small-minded, insulting
and abusive when those freedoms are actually exercised? For the record,
I appreciate everything that Mr. Robbins said--except for that part
about the '69 Mets. To me it's the '88 Oakland A's that rank up there
with apple pie and the flag.
TIMOTHY L. HOCKETT
Bowling Green, Ohio
As an American citizen and a baseball fan, I find it insulting that the
president of the Baseball Hall of Fame, Dale Petroskey, would issue a de
facto gag order to Tim Robbins for expressing his political views. I
find it intriguing that a man who worked as an assistant press secretary
in the Administration of Ronald Reagan would intimate that actors have
no business in the political arena. While I consider myself a patriot,
if patriotism means the irrelevance of the First Amendment, then count
It is refreshing to see organizations standing up and holding "actors"
responsible for what they are saying from their highly visible platform.
Tim Robbins doesn't represent baseball fans or the majority of the
American people. While he challenges President Bush (and others) for not
serving in the military, he neglects to say he isn't a veteran either. I
am...and I very much support our Commander in Chief, President Bush. If
the decision had been made during the Clinton Administration to control
the problems in the Middle East, then President Bush wouldn't have to
clean up the mess.
Hopefully, Tim Robbins will get the point that he represents only about
20 percent of the American people. The very same people who are voicing
their opinions because of the stand our current and former Presidents
should have made to protect our freedom.
Freedom will continue to ring, but with no thanks to Tim Robbins.
LARRY J. TRICKEL
SGM (Ret), US Army
My deepest respect for Mr. Robbins for his letter to the head of the
Baseball Hall of Fame (or rather "Shame"). News from the USA sounds more
and more like historical pieces from Germany in the 1930s. Unbelievable!
New Orleans, Louisiana
I just want to thank Tim Robbins for utilizing his position in the
public eye to say what needs to be said. I can only hope the Baseball
Hall of Fame feels a shred of embarrassment for its behavior. I am from
a family of die-hard Chicago Cub fans and we are all outraged by Mr.
Petroskey's blatant misuse of a national institution--baseball!
I found this conflict between Tim Robbins and Dale Petroskey
interesting. The scary thing seems to be that the propaganda of the
mainstream media, including here in Australia, seems to be obvious as
just that to some and not at all obvious to others. Petroskey's may be a
political statement to protect himself, but I wonder if he has simply
bought all the patriotic huff and puff that seems to be muddying truth,
logic and common sense. The same thing happens here in Australia,
especially this expression of belief in free speech on the one hand but
the denial of it in practice.
Thank you for a good read in The Nation. Without you and other
independent media, we would be overwhelmed with spin and lies (which are
probably the same thing).
Regarding your calling for condemnation of the Baseball Hall of Fame
over its decision to cancel an appearance by Tim Robbins, isn't YOUR
condemnation merely the pot calling the kettle black?
Tim Robbins has every right to his opinions, but the right of free
speech doesn't mean that others are obligated to listen. The Baseball
Hall of Fame and its owners also have the right of free association,
which they exercised by disinviting someone they considered a boor.
The left has often called for boycotts of organizations, individuals,
and groups which it finds offensive...as is its right. Again, how
hypocritical (crybaby-ish, even) to complain when the Left is boycotted.
I support, and will defend, the right of the Tim Robbins, Martin Sheens,
Jeanen Garafolos, Susan Sarandons, et al, among us to have their point
of view and to express it without fear of GOVERNMENTAL oppression or
physical violence. However, I also support the right of anyone who
decides to never watch another movie or otherwise provide financial
support for those actors whose views and attitudes they find offensive.
How can one feel otherwise if one truly believes in freedom of thought?
Alan Dershowitz once remarked that we should create a Bill of Rights
Club, where members had to agree to support exercises of rights even
though they might find the particular exercise repugnant. Based upon the
articles I find on The Nation website, I don't think that many on the
left would be eligible for membership.
KUCINICH ON CHOICE
In Katha Pollitt's April 21 "Subject to Debate," she mentioned that my
vote on the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act will be watched. Considering
that I've given this issue much thought over the past couple of years, I
hope she will be watching as I oppose the bill when it reaches the
House. When the Supreme Court struck down a similar "partial-birth"
abortion ban in Stenberg v. Carhart, it affirmed what was said in Roe v.
Wade: A woman's health must be preserved. I believe in upholding the
right to choose and will oppose legislation, like the Partial Birth
Abortion Ban Act, that restricts the rights guaranteed in Roe.
DENNIS J. KUCINICH
Member of Congress
10th Congressional District, Ohio
CLUCK CLUCK CLUCK
I wish Calvin Trillin had used the more familiar "chicken hawk" rather
than "sissy hawk" in his April 14 poem on Richard Perle. "Chicken hawk"
fits the meter and lacks the whiff of latent homophobia that is
surprising coming from the author of the moving and memorable
PAUL SCOTT STANFIELD
New York City
I thank Paul Stanfield for his thoughtful suggestion, but I had
consciously decided against "chicken hawk." It actually means a hawk
that preys on chickens rather than a chicken that acts like a hawk, and
its second meaning (in the American Heritage dictionary, 4th edition) is
"a man who seeks out boys or young men as his sexual partners." Also,
I'm not ready to give up on "sissy" as meaning (to quote the same
dictionary) "a person regarded as timid or cowardly." The other
definition is "a boy or man regarded as effeminate," but I don't see
that it's doing anybody any favors to equate effeminacy with
homosexuality. It seems to me that someone who urges others on to fight
wars he is unwilling to fight himself--which is what the members of the
Sissy Hawk Brigade did during the Vietnam War--is properly called a
sissy, even if, as in the case of Dick Cheney, he played high school
SEND BOOMERS TO OKEFENOKEE
Although I agree with the conclusions reached by Jonathan Schell in
"American Tragedy" [April 7], I suggest a different interpretation
of what brought us to this point. It is all too easy to see this as a
usurpation of power and lay it at the feet of the Republicans and the
"American military machine," but I believe the root cause came more in
the form of an incremental abdication by the generation that seemed to
hold so much promise in the sixties, my generation, the baby boomers.
They have become the most powerful generation that has ever existed, and
like so many before them, as they gained economically they became
obsessed with the preservation of their wealth and the self-indulgent
lifestyle it provided. Ideals were swapped for SUVs, social concerns for
stock portfolios and Botox injections--fueled by cheap energy and damn
It was all too easy to allow Clinton, Lieberman and the rest to
consciously (and publicly) move the Democratic Party to the right,
disguising Old Republicanism as New Democrats, all too easy to sit back
and salve their consciences by relabeling their greed. So now we all pay
the price. A good look in the mirror is in order. To quote a rather wise
possum, "We have met the enemy and he is us."
THAT LIBERAL MEDIA
Melrose Park, Pa.
Eric Alterman ["What Liberal Media?" Feb. 24] and others at The Nation
strongly reinforce the idea that the media--owned more and more by
corporations and conglomerates--vigorously promote a conservative
philosophy. Considerable evidence exists for this idea. But the theory
works only with the aid of selective perception--i.e., use every
confirmation to strengthen your belief and screen out every instance
that contradicts it. In reality, every week, every day, the media
provide cogent criticism of our government and our corporations.
The following public figures who opposed war on Iraq without UN approval
have appeared on major talk shows or have written op-eds in major
dailies: Ted Kennedy, Howard Dean (a full hour on Meet the Press),
Dennis Kucinich, Dale Bumpers, Anthony Zinni, Wesley Clark, Norman
Schwarzkopf, Scott Ritter, President Carter, Brent Scowcroft, Zbigniew
Brzezinski, George Mitchell, President Clinton, Madeleine Albright,
Sandy Berger, Jessica Matthews (of the Carnegie Endowment), Kofi Annan,
the director of Win Without War; liberal military analyst William Arkin,
Mike Farrell, Martin Sheen, Sam Hamill (representing 11,000 poets), W.S.
Merwin, liberal panelist Carl Jeffers, genocide author Samantha Power,
columnist Trudy Rubin, Maureen Dowd, Gwynne Dyer and Al-Hayat journalist
In addition, the media have heavily covered the antiwar demonstrations
here and around the world. A New York Times editorial of March 9 was so
full a criticism of Bush's policies that Terry Gross had Philip Taubman
on Fresh Air elucidate it. Chris Matthews has vehemently opposed the war
and has many liberal guests on Hardball, including Katrina vanden Heuvel
and William Arkin. Matthews was relentless in his focus on the risks and
imponderables of the Iraq war. On Hardball, Eric Margolis, of the
Council on Foreign Relations, commented that the total cost of the war
may be $400 billion, not $200 billion, that Iraq will probably
degenerate into another Lebanon or Yugoslavia, and "why not alleviate
the suffering of the Palestinians" instead?
After the war began, negative criticism of Bush's policies continued.
Joe Conason, Maureen Dowd, Trudy Rubin, Leonard Pitts Jr., Ellen
Goodman, Joseph Galloway and many others analyzed the defects of US
A major brouhaha occurred when Generals McCaffrey, Schwarzkopf and
Wallace criticized the US war plan. The major media publicized this
debate; mulish Donald Rumsfeld blamed the media for the problem. We have
also seen on TV pictures of Iraqi civilians injured by US shrapnel and
starving, dehydrated civilians fighting for food and water. The
corporate media reported US bombings that killed many civilians. News of
an impending humanitarian catastrophe as a result of the war has been
widely disseminated by print and TV media. The media also disclosed a
poll showing that optimism about the war among Americans declined March
21-22 from 52 percent to 38 percent, a change that sent the White House
scrambling for psychological explanations. The US media are certainly not
liberal overall, but the left's disgruntled belief that they are
incorrigibly conservative is just as certainly mistaken.
MARK I. SACHAROFF
New York City
n Mark Sacharoff can find my response in the pages of What Liberal
Media? The Truth About Bias and the News (Basic). I invite him and the
rest of our readers to peruse the opening chapter free at
POOR NEW YORK
Thanks to Jack Newfield for his wonderful article, "How the Other Half
Still Lives" [March 17]. The largesse the World War II "great
generation" created through a combination of widely distributed
government deficit spending and a vibrant capitalist marketplace has
disappeared. The Democratic coalition that produced it was smashed by
the Reagan Administration with the tactic of shouting "handout" at any
form of public assistance or funding, unless it was for the military or
local pork. Instead of seeing poverty as a structural problem, we have
lapsed into the nineteenth-century habit of labeling the poor "lazy,"
the cause of their own destitution. In the meantime, Wal-Mart has
replaced GM as America's largest company, with a precipitous drop in
wages and opportunity. And to all this, the baby boomers, my generation,
have shown their most identifiable quality: indifference. Let's hope
that more of us can come to see poverty through the realistic and
sympathetic eyes of Jack Newfield.
MARC A. CIRIGLIANO
New York City
No one can be content with the level of poverty in New York City or in
our country. But an accurate picture of "how the other half lives"
should not be drawn merely from anecdotal material, even if gathered by
a reporter as practiced as Jack Newfield. The fact is that under New
York's governor, there is good news for low-income workers. For example,
according to Census data, for children living with single mothers, the
reduction in poverty in New York since 1995 was almost three times the
reduction of the economic expansion of the 1980s.
The same source reveals that in New York, work rates for single parents
rose 38 percent in the period following welfare reform--four times the
increase of the economic expansion of the 1980s. In 1994 New York
invested $77 million in the earned-income tax credit. Now, thanks to the
steadfast support of George Pataki, we invest $550 million, a 543
percent increase. The combined federal and state EITC can add up to
$5,000 to the annual income of poor working families. Newfield's silence
on the EITC is puzzling, as is his silence on the significant increase
since 1995 in health insurance coverage for low-income New Yorkers and
the tripling of childcare subsidies.
The facts indicate that Governor Pataki has been "locating the frontier
of the possible" in his strategy for shrinking poverty--a strategy that
provides solid dollars-and-cents help for low-income working families.
The Nation ought to tell the full story.
BRIAN J. WING
Commissioner, New York State Office of Temporary and Disability
REVENGE OF THE DITTO-HEADS
Michael Massing, in "The Doha Follies" [April 21], repeated reporter
Michael Wolff's claim that Rush Limbaugh played a tape of Wolff and gave
out his e-mail address on the air, resulting in the jamming of his inbox
with thousands of e-mails. Limbaugh protests that he did not broadcast
the address on air. While that may be true, Wolff insists he saw his URL
posted on the Limbaugh website and that of the e-mails he read,
"hundreds referred to getting the address from Rush."
In "USA Oui! Bush Non!" [Feb. 10] Jacques Rupnik was inaccurately
described as a former adviser to Jacques Chirac.
With this issue Adam Shatz, becomes literary
editor. Adam, whom readers already know as a contributor to these pages,
has worked at the New York Times Book Review, Lingua Franca (where he
edited the books section) and The New Yorker. His articles on politics
and culture have also appeared in the Village Voice, The American
Prospect, The New York Review of Books and the New York Times. Welcome,
Adam. Art Winslow leaves to devote more time to his own writing, both
fiction and nonfiction. Art and this magazine go back a long way--1983,
to be precise. He's worked here as assistant copy editor, copy chief,
associate literary editor, executive editor, literary editor. Art made a
distinctive and lasting contribution to The Nation in all of these
capacities. We're glad to say that he'll continue the association as a
contributing editor. Hail, Art...
The film begins with a federal marshal intoning "This is a very
difficult time for our country" and ends with the singing of the
national anthem, performed before Rudy Giuliani himself. Between these
moments comes a journey of emotional healing, undertaken by an average
American Joe (or Dave, actually) who
can rightly describe himself as "a pretty nice guy." Too nice, perhaps.
Although this quiet hero lives underneath an Army recruitment billboard,
Dave has grown used to letting others push him around. He can--he
must--learn to stand up for himself. So must we all.
I affirm that the preceding paragraph is entirely descriptive and
contains no interpretation, except for that "So must we all" part, which
is hard to avoid. Such is the message delivered to a troubled America by
Anger Management, the movie in which Adam Sandler shows the way toward
national renewal by getting angry, and also really feeling his lust for
Jack Nicholson. I recommend it to everyone.
Now, I know there are skeptics among you. Some dismiss all Hollywood
movies as commercial products, incapable by nature of rising to the
level of art. (When art lovers want to watch moving images these days,
they turn to Matthew Barney's Cremaster cycle. Barney has taken to
embedding DVDs of his films into limited-edition sculptures, which then
sell for the price of a nice vacation home.) Others admit that Hollywood
movies may occasionally become artlike; but since the medium is
collaborative and famously prone to compromise, there are people who
doubt that an Adam Sandler comedy can mean anything, except in the
haphazard, semiconscious way that calls for ideological decoding. That
Anger Management might develop a coherent argument, point by point--that
it might think--is itself unthinkable.
So let's put Anger Management to the test. Granted, it is twice over a
genre picture: a buddy movie (meant to combine the audiences of two
stars) and an Adam Sandler vehicle (which operates by its own
now-familiar rules). If this were fast food, it would come with fries.
But then, maybe we're the ones who shouldn't be too fast.
The story casts Sandler as a 35-year-old corporate drone who abruptly
finds himself enmeshed in a legal proceeding fit for Josef K. Presumed
guilty from the start--and of what, exactly?--he is remanded to the
custody of one Dr. Buddy Rydell (Nicholson), a therapist who specializes
in treating the criminally enraged. This sentence seems not so much
unjust as inexplicable, since it's handed down to a man whose bland,
blinking face is an apology made flesh, whose tenor voice barely has the
strength to force itself through his nose. I might carelessly laugh at
the judge's decision and pass on; but I prefer to factor its incongruity
into the first proposition the movie sets forth, a proposition that
again recalls Kafka: It is absurd to treat a punishment as a cure, or a
cure as punishment.
The movie arrives at the next stage in its argument approximately one
reel later, when Nicholson moves in with Sandler, the better to perform
"full contact" therapy (or punishment). This is the moment when
Nicholson strips away his tweedy, professorial disguise to don a black
beret and shades, so that he may revert to his image as a cinematic lord
of misrule. The proposition here, I suppose, is that the person given
power over you to punish or cure might turn out to be a fraud or madman.
Sandler reasonably fears this possibility, which the audience, too, is
led to entertain, given the predatory looks that Nicholson keeps
stealing at his charge--predatory in a lounge-lizard way, I mean. No
sooner has Nicholson settled into the apartment than he's bedding down
naked with Sandler, demanding to see his penis, forcing him to sing
about being gay and taking him cruising for transvestite hookers. Third
proposition: The fraud or madman given power over you wants immediate
access to your body. Or maybe he won't be satisfied until you want
access to his.
By the way, did I mention that Sandler fears sudden, unprovoked assaults
below the waist, perpetrated by other men? That's why he's always
scanning the perimeter for danger, in a shlemiel's version of post-
September 11 anxiety; and that's why it's interesting that this
alertness to criminal threats (at a very difficult time for our country)
should temporarily be resolved into a psychological problem, through the
force of Nicholson's assaults.
Let's say there's a rupture of personal boundaries. (As description,
this is a fair minimum.) Such interpenetration is evidently needed
before Sandler can question himself seriously, so that he may wonder,
for the first time, whether he does need help. Self-questioning is also
needed to make criminal guilt go away. Once Sandler begins to yield,
Nicholson willingly announces his patient's innocence, in a speech that
may be insincere but makes an impressive racket. Through a form of
sexual submission, Sandler has changed himself from a potential
terrorist (a ticking bomb, as they say) into a loyal American, which in
this context means being a nut-case pure and simple.
But as I said, "pure and simple" is only temporary. Like a bright
teenager who's just picked up some Freudian jargon, the movie goes
through a phase of explaining everything psychologically and then,
fortunately, moves on. I think it would have been unsatisfyingly simple
just to say that wars are made by homophobes who obsess over basket
size; and the screenwriter of Anger Management, David Dorfman,
apparently agrees with me, since he complicates the argument during a
third act that sometimes plays shakily but is always worth thinking
about. To complete its train of reasoning, Anger Management reintroduces
the motif of crime, forces Sandler to act in a civic arena and demands
that his problems be solved not through private candor but by public
Without giving away too many of the jokes, I can say that this
conclusion involves a significant relaxation of official vigilance
against surprise attacks, accompanied by an assertion of the ties of
community; and by a stroke of cinematic integrity, both these actions
are conveyed through a well-known convention of the Adam Sandler movie,
the celebrity cameo appearance. As the famous faces pass by, you're left
with the impression that everyone in New York City, Dave excepted, had
already known Dr. Buddy Rydell. Now Dave, too, is at home in the big
group, which functions (to Kafka's astonishment) as a kind of benevolent
Q.E.D. I need add nothing more than that I laughed out loud about thirty
times, or approximately once every three minutes, with background smiles
and chuckles left unclocked. Peter Segal directed, efficiently for the
most part, with an obvious determination to put Sandler and Nicholson
together in the frame as often as possible (not a foregone conclusion,
in today's buddy pictures). The fine supporting cast is headed by the
ever-welcome Marisa Tomei as Dave's long-suffering girlfriend.
Did I mention he has a girlfriend? Did I say he's accused of being a
chronic woman-beater? It occurs to me that my point-by-point reading of
Anger Management is coherent but incomplete. So go--fill in the blanks.
Christopher Guest's comedies are pretty much free of celebrity cameos,
but they, too, seem like community affairs, since they're made with an
ever-widening circle of friends. A core group that includes Eugene Levy,
Catherine O'Hara, Bob Balaban, Fred Willard, Parker Posey and Larry
Miller worked with Guest in Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show, two
mock documentaries about low-grade forms of show business. Now these
performers, joined by about a dozen other lunatics, are helping Guest
make not-quite-loving fun of yet another orphan genre of the
entertainment business: folk music.
As an object of satire, this would seem to be as unnecessary as it gets.
Searching for some reason for the existence of A Mighty Wind--a title to
bring out the sixth-grader in all of us--you might imagine that Guest
wants to laugh at those paunchy, graying people who still look back,
with earnest nostalgia, on their acoustic-strum youth.
I'm talking to you, hypocrite Nation reader--my lookalike! My brother!
But then, what Guest has always liked best in his characters is their
unstoppable, otherworldly belief in themselves, or rather in an image
that no setback or indignity can shatter. With grinning amazement at
such optimism, Guest now presents the ultimate show of the self-deluded:
a reunion concert in New York City featuring three folk-music acts of
the 1960s. They are The New Main Street Singers (a sweater-wearing
"neuftet" featuring John Michael Higgins, Jane Lynch and Parker Posey);
the love-bird duo of Mitch & Mickey (Eugene Levy and Catherine
O'Hara); and the less-than-stellar Folksmen (Guest, Michael McKean and
Harry Shearer--the same guys who were Spinal Tap, now playing identical
roles relative to one another but performing ditties about the Spanish
Civil War, or a train wreck in a coal mine).
All three acts are delectable, as are the showbiz oddities who gather
around them; but the most engaging of all are Mitch & Mickey. In a
departure from the previous movies, which featured balanced ensembles,
Guest has made this duo the focus of A Mighty Wind. The disadvantage is
unevenness; sometimes the film sags, when it turns to characters who
aren't fully developed. The benefits are two performances of
contrasting, demented intensity from O'Hara and Levy. As Mickey, O'Hara
seems to vibrate slightly from keeping in check her rage against Mitch.
After decades of separation, he remains to her the most powerful figure
in the world. To the audience, he's a guy who shuffles through the movie
in a daze, popping his eyes at the phantoms that hover before his face
and swallowing his words like spoonsful of codeine-laced cough syrup,
never quite understanding what Mickey's so upset about.
You should know that the climactic concert, sung and played by the
actors themselves, was recorded as a live performance. A wonderful
decision. It gives you all the fun of participating, without the
embarrassment of actually being there.
In a nation that nominally eschews class distinctions as unbefitting our
supposed classlessness, whose elected officials decry any protest over
government largesse to the rich as "class warfare," real Americans--most
of whom are suckers, it turns out--spend untold amounts of time, cash
and effort obsessing on a
tiny number of elite colleges that really, really don't want the vast
majority of them as members.
Never mind, though. For an increasing number of baby boomer parents,
it's never too early to stick kids on the Harvard-
or-bust fast track. It starts with Mozart and Shakespeare in the crib,
and then it's off to the $8,000-a-year and up nursery school that admits
toddlers on the basis of IQ tests (performance on which is heavily
influenced by the educational attainment of the child's parents). The
proper nursery school inexorably leads to the high-powered kindergarten
and prep school and eventually to thousands of dollars more in fees for
college consultants and standardized testing tutors.
Before a child can say "meritocracy," he or she is embarking on an
overseas adventure to New Guinea that will lead, by design, to that
killer college application essay that wows admissions counselors from
Harvard, Yale or Princeton for its originality and sense of social and
democratic purpose, a tonier version of the Miss America contestant's
"I'm for world peace" speech.
If all the time and effort devoted to this enterprise were about a
child's or young person's love of learning, creativity and personal
development, I for one would be considerably less cynical. But the elite
college admissions game--under the near-tyrannical guidance of US News
& World Report's annual ranking of the nation's "best" colleges--is
all too often about the pursuit of prestige at almost any cost, a game
that perpetuates the big lie that one can't find a decent education at
anything less than a Brand Name school.
I was excited to read Jacques Steinberg's new book about elite college
admissions, The Gatekeepers, anticipating a breath of fresh air on the
subject from the New York Times education reporter. As he introduces
himself and his book, we learn that this son of a Massachusetts
anesthesiologist sees himself as a sort of accidental alumnus of the Ivy
League, who pleads ignorance as to how he got admitted to Dartmouth in
the early 1980s. But he obviously owes a lot to his very assertive mom,
a former nurse, who on the family's exploratory visit to the Dartmouth
campus grabbed her son by the collar after an admissions officer's spiel
and strode to the front of the room to magisterially inform the
official, "We're the Steinbergs." The rest, as they say, is history.
Steinberg strikes me as a lucky man indeed. After joining the Times and
becoming a national education correspondent, he attended the 1999
conference of the National Association of College Admission Counseling
in Orlando, Florida. While there, he was approached by William Hiss, an
administrator at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. Hiss wondered whether
Steinberg would like exclusive access to the selective college's
admissions process, noteworthy in that it does not require applicants to
submit SAT or ACT scores. Although Steinberg and his editor, Ethan
Bronner, were intrigued by the idea, they declined Hiss's offer in favor
of a less "anomalous" college--i.e., one that continued to rely on
gatekeeping tests like the SAT.
After being turned down by several colleges for the kind of exclusive,
total-access deal the Times wanted, Steinberg found what would seem a
perfect match. At Wesleyan, located in Middletown, Connecticut, midway
between Hartford and New Haven, college officials agreed to provide the
reporter unfettered access to its admissions process from fall 1999 to
spring 2000, culminating in the Times's series of articles upon which
The Gatekeepers is based. Wesleyan agreed not to meddle in Steinberg's
stories, gave him access to individual students and their families and
allowed him to observe any and all meetings in its admissions
deliberations--in other words, a reporter's dream assignment. (It
couldn't have hurt Steinberg's cause that his boss, Bronner, graduated
from Wesleyan in 1976, as one discovers in the book's acknowledgments.)
It's all very cozy and well connected in these pages, with lucky people
and impressive degrees from prestigious institutions to spare. When we
meet Steinberg's featured "gatekeeper," a Wesleyan admissions officer
named Ralph Figueroa, a Los Angeles native who ends up in Middletown
after a stint working admissions at Occidental College in LA, I'm
thinking, cool choice. This ought to be interesting, a Mexican-American
man with a working-class background (the rebel in me hopes), now an
insider shaking things up at one elite private college in comfy New
Instead, we learn that the 34-year-old Figueroa's dad was a lawyer and
graduate of Loyola Law School; that his mom earned a master's degree in
education, and became a mover and shaker in an organization called
Expanded Horizons, a nationally recognized program (held in high regard
by Ronald Reagan and his Education Secretary, Terrel Bell) that helped
Mexican-American kids prepare for college. The family frequently took
their children on trips to colleges like Pomona, Occidental and Caltech.
The grooming and preparation paid off for the Figueroa clan. Ralph
graduated from Stanford--he turned down Harvard, Yale and Princeton--and
went on to UCLA Law. His several siblings also attended elite schools,
including UCLA Law and Stanford Law, and one sister, like himself, would
find a niche in admissions at Caltech.
As if adopting the same mesmerizing tricks as the colleges themselves,
holding out the impossible dream of an elite college education to the
masses in order to up their application counts (which improves
selectivity rankings), Steinberg and his publisher pitch this book as
"required reading for every parent of a high school age child and for
every student" who is applying to college. But it's easy to imagine
ordinary parents and their kids--the overwhelming majority of whom
attend ordinary public high schools that aren't even remotely on the map
of "feeder" schools highly regarded by elite colleges--being completely
intimidated by this book. I could scarcely find one person in these
pages, whether an admissions officer or student, whose parents weren't
at least modestly well educated or who didn't have some connection to
either a brand-name college or elite prep school. Most of the admissions
officers at Wesleyan were either Wesleyan grads or had connections to
other elite schools (a fairly common trait, from what I can tell, among
the admissions staffs at elite private colleges). In fact, I was able to
find just one student in Steinberg's world whose parents had not
attended college, a most admirable young New Yorker named Aggie. But
even she managed to find her way out of a downtrodden public school in
New York City to the Oldfields School, a venerable girls' prep school in
But let's be real. Readers of this book will more likely be the
well-educated parents and high-flying students who do attend schools
that are "on the map," and for whom prestigious colleges and personal
connections to those schools are all part of the entitlement package;
people for whom "state university" is a dirty word. And though Steinberg
is skillful at telling the stories of Ralph and a handful of young
people who apply to Wesleyan and other highly ranked colleges, I can
easily imagine sophisticated readers sighing a collective, "So what?"
There's very little in Steinberg's highly detailed narrative that such
readers won't already have surmised about the competitive admissions
When highly selective colleges talk about their admissions process to
prospective students, they like to convey the notion that there are no
formulas, no tricks, no standard combination of grades or test scores
that will insure one's admission. It's standard advice that Steinberg,
who calls the process "messy," would undoubtedly agree with. True, there
may be no magic formulas, but colleges like Wesleyan do pass their
judgments about individuals under some mighty formulaic parameters.
Readers probably won't be surprised to learn that Wesleyan admissions
officials watch their ranking in US News & World Report like nuclear
plant operators monitoring reactor heat levels. In fact, Steinberg
describes one seasoned admissions officer, Greg Pyke, whose task is to
keep running tabs on median SAT levels and other indicators of the
admitted class important to US News, in order to insure that the college
improves upon its previous year ranking.
The most revealing aspects of the process can be gleaned between the
lines of Steinberg's account. For example, many students and parents who
buy into this game have long known that test scores play a very
important, if not decisive, role in it. Recent surveys by the National
Association of College Admission Counseling confirm this. According to
NACAC's December 2001 survey, fully 86 percent of admissions officials
rated test scores as of either considerable or moderate importance, just
slightly below the importance the gatekeepers attach to grades in
college prep courses (89 percent).
As competition for admission has intensified and acceptance rates have
declined at elite private colleges in recent years, the weight attached
to gatekeeping tests has also increased, according to a recent report by
the Association for Institutional Research. Meanwhile, private colleges
have soured on high school grades, arguably a more egalitarian indicator
of merit and once the most important criterion in admissions, this
despite the well-known correlation between SAT scores and the
educational and income levels of one's parents.
Steinberg, like the admissions officers who are his subjects, is rarely
as explicit about these matters as the data presented in those surveys.
But parents and kids who know the game won't bat an eye at how heavily
colleges rely on gatekeeping tests, their claims to the contrary
notwithstanding. For example, Wesleyan admissions officers seem to think
that a 50- or 100-point difference in SAT scores among two candidates
means something significant about their future academic performance in
college, a patently false use of test scores. Steinberg, ever
nonjudgmental, allows such assumptions to pass virtually unchallenged,
although they have been powerfully refuted in numerous studies. Bates,
the SAT-optional college that first approached Steinberg, discovered no
differences between the academic performance of Bates students who
declined to submit SAT scores when applying, and that of SAT-submitters,
whose test scores were, on average, 160 points higher.
Deeply ingrained beliefs in the power of cognitive screens like the SAT
and about the importance of good grades in AP courses were not the only
things at the top of Wesleyan's gatekeeping criteria. There were two
additional ones, earmarked by a manila folder. "If an applicant was the
child of an alumna or alumnus, a dark orange square was added,"
Steinberg writes. "If an applicant had identified him- or herself as a
member of a minority group, a yellow circle was added. These details
were considered too important for a reader to overlook, and the coding
system was designed to ensure that they were given due attention."
Within these strictures Wesleyan's gatekeepers exercised a small degree
of wiggle room, and Steinberg does his best work describing the
difficult process of selecting a class of some 700 students from about
7,000 applications. Grateful, perhaps, for the access Wesleyan gave him,
he writes admiringly of the gatekeepers' studious commitment to be fair
and objective. But parents with high-school-age children are likely to
be appalled at the inconsistencies, and even arbitrary nature, of some
of the judgments made by Figueroa and his colleagues. The SAT, for
instance, which is often described by admissions officials, the College
Board and the Educational Testing Service as a "common yardstick," looks
more like a magic stick out of Alice in Wonderland, meaning whatever
Wesleyan's gatekeepers want it to mean, depending on whether the
applicant is a member of a minority group, an athlete or a member of the
Wesleyan "family." Isn't meritocracy grand?
Meanwhile, Andrew Fairbanks, a former Wesleyan admissions official, has
given us a very different account of elite college admissions, in a book
written with Christopher Avery and Richard Zeckhauser, both professors
at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. While Steinberg uses
character and nar-
rative to reveal the inner workings of one college's admissions process,
the authors of The Early Admissions Game: Joining the Elite seek to
expose this often-deceitful and manipulated game in order to make it
more fair to all comers. Indeed, they say they hope to arm more students
and parents with information on how the game is played, and therefore
help to reduce the unfair advantages the present system affords
well-connected and affluent students. Although the book is focused on a
detailed investigation of early admissions programs, its reach is far
broader, if only because early admissions has become such a key element
of competitive college-recruitment efforts in recent years. As one
student who was recently admitted to Harvard told the authors, "That's
just how you apply to Harvard."
Although the writing lacks the journalistic polish of Steinberg's
account, and although the organization is at times disjointed, readers
seeking solid information about elite college admissions will find The
Early Admissions Game refreshingly frank. Other readers concerned about
restoring some equity to the process will also appreciate the book's
generosity of spirit and suggestions for reform.
The authors present a devastating portrait of elite college
admissions--and early admissions in particular--as an elaborate and
complicated "game" in the most literal meaning of that word, played by
colleges seeking competitive advantages over rivals, students seeking to
maximize their opportunities for entry into prestigious colleges and
school counselors striving to maintain the reputations of their "feeder"
schools in terms of their efficiency in placing students at highly
ranked colleges. As in all competitive games, the various players often
have little incentive to be forthcoming about their tactics and every
incentive to conceal strategic information from public view. Not
surprisingly, the authors suggest, the winners of the game tend to be
privileged students who have access to highly skilled counselors with
information pipelines to elite college admissions offices.
At the center of the book is a social scientific investigation that
makes powerful analytical use of admissions data at elite colleges
spanning several years and including some 500,000 college applications,
which reveals a fascinating statistical portrait of early admissions.
(Early admissions programs include both "early decision" ones, which
permit just one early application and bind students to that college if
they are admitted, and "early action" programs, which allow multiple
applications and do not bind students to colleges that accept them
early.) In public, most institutions are quick to reassure students and
parents that there's no advantage to applying early as opposed to
waiting to throw one's hat into the "regular" admissions pool. But the
advantages afforded early applications are considerable.
Consider Princeton. One need only note the increasingly small number of
openings remaining from the regular admissions pool to see why many
students who don't walk on water might find it in their best interest to
apply early. Of the 2,000 students admitted in one recent year at
Princeton, for instance, only 500 had applied during the regular
admissions cycle. The rest were either early applicants or "hooked"
applicants (underrepresented minorities, athletes or children of
At Princeton, which runs an early decision program, the authors estimate
that while its acceptance rate from the regular applicant pool was
slightly below 20 percent, the college's acceptance rate for early
applicants ballooned to well over 50 percent. The same pattern held for
virtually all the highly selective colleges in the authors' study. At
Columbia, for example, more than seven in ten students who applied early
were admitted, compared with about three in ten students applying during
the regular period.
When colleges concede such glaring differences in their admissions
rates, they explain that early applicants tend to be more attractive
candidates in terms of test scores, grades and other factors. The
authors easily destroy this canard by comparing early and regular
admission rates for students with similar credentials. Applying early to
elite colleges, they demonstrate, produces the equivalent of a 100-point
SAT boost for early action applicants and a 190-point boost for early
decision applicants. For the time-strapped student oddsmaker, the game
presents some interesting choices. Spend $1,000 on an SAT prep course,
or apply early? "Which is easier?" the authors ask. "To submit an early
application? Or to master the trombone to the level of all-state
orchestra or become a semifinalist in the Westinghouse Science
So what's in it for the colleges? Why give early decision applicants the
equivalent of nearly 200 points on the SAT? Part of the answer, it
seems, is that they have an Enron problem. The unfortunate fact of elite
college admissions in the era of US News & World Report is that the
magazine's annual ranking of the nation's best colleges now rules this
marketplace with an iron fist. The magazine operates under the fiction
that college quality is tantamount to median SAT scores, acceptance
rates and other more arcane measures such as "yield" rates, defined as
the percentage of the admitted students who decide to enroll--which
might be more accurately dubbed the "prestige index." In any case,
colleges have discovered how early admission programs easily permit them
to manipulate numbers in order to elevate, however marginally, their US
News rankings. For example, an early decision applicant will almost
certainly enroll, thus instantly boosting the college's yield rate.
Who takes most advantage of early admissions and its generous payoffs?
Primarily children from affluent families, students for whom a college's
financial aid offer isn't a deal breaker. Because early decision
programs in particular lock needy students into a single college, they
are unable to compare or negotiate financial aid packages among schools.
The authors contend that colleges also exploit the monopoly power
granted through early decision programs in order to hold down their
financial aid budgets. Furthermore, students with access to good
information about early admission programs, including their improved
chances of admission, also gain. And, again, such students tend to be
affluent. Reliable information, the authors found, is a function of
whether students attend public high schools where many students do not
go to college or elite private schools and highly regarded public
schools where most students do attend college.
Among the most compelling passages in The Early Admissions Game is its
description of the elaborate, back-channel "slotting" operations by
which highly skilled and well-connected high school counselors work hand
in hand with elite college admissions officers to place students. To
outsiders, such collaboration might be scandalous, but for some students
recently accepted to places like Harvard and Yale whom the authors
interviewed, it's rather ho-hum. Listen to Mira (Harvard '98): "My
counselor has a good relationship with the Harvard admissions office. He
handpicks people for admission and tells Harvard who to admit." Or Dan
(Yale '98): "If I wanted to attend Yale, [the counselor] would get me
No book could paint such a damning portrait without offering suggestions
for reform of a system that produces such inequitable results. The
authors discuss various options, including the frequently suggested
proposal that colleges agree to a ban on early admission programs.
That's not likely to fly, the authors argue, because any given college
would have great incentive to violate the ban by picking off its
competitors' most promising applicants. "If we gave it up," Harvard
admissions dean William Fitzsimmons suggested, "other institutions
inside and outside the Ivy League would carve up our class and our
faculty would carve us up."
As an alternative to the current system, the authors propose to set up
an independent, Internet-operated clearinghouse, through which students
could state their first preference for college without a binding
commitment. The clearinghouse would share the information among all
participating colleges in order to preclude any deception. Colleges,
which currently spend a great deal of money on statistical models trying
to predict which students will ultimately enroll, could rely instead on
the students' stated preferences. Such a simple, relatively inexpensive
solution would also diminish the importance of the sorts of back-channel
slotting operations that now give privileged applicants such an
advantage in the early admissions game.
Meanwhile, however, there's little reason to hope the game will become
more equitable anytime soon. Elite colleges appear eager to install
early admissions programs as fixtures for building and managing their
entering classes. As of December, for example, the University of
Pennsylvania had already filled nearly half its freshman class with
early admits. At Yale and Columbia, more than 40 percent of entering
classes was already spoken for. Millions more high school students from
increasingly well-educated families will continue to place their hopes
and dreams on a tiny fraction of colleges that admit an increasingly
smaller percentage of those
who apply. At Harvard, for example, the acceptance rate of 11 percent in
the year 2000 was nearly half what it was in 1990. By midyear, testing
companies had reported surges in registrations for taking entrance
exams, with ACT Inc. boasting its biggest gain in thirty-five years.
All this in a nation where nearly 40 percent of adults believe they
currently are, or will be, among the richest 1 percent of Americans. Who
knows, maybe we'll all get lucky.
Matthew Barney's Cremaster cycle consists of five thematically
interrelated films, much as Wagner's Ring cycle is made up of four
distinct but narratively interlinked operas. But Barney has also
designed a number of sculptural objects for the work's elaborate mise en
scène, and it is these that make up the bulk of the exhibition to
which the Guggenheim Museum in New York has been given over nearly in
its entirety until June 11. Moreover, the museum is internally related
to the work, not only because a substantial sequence in one of the films
uses its interior space as a setting but because a symbolic
correspondence is supposed to exist between the five films and the five
ascending curves of the museum's helical architecture. The objects
displayed on each of the museum's ramps were in effect props in the
corresponding film. Not only do these objects derive their meaning from
the films, but the order in which they are experienced, as one ascends
from ramp to ramp, reflects the overall narrative of the work.
Wagner designed the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth as the canonical theater
for presenting his oeuvre, and it is widely appreciated that seeing the
Ring cycle performed in Bayreuth is a unique and indispensable part of
experiencing it. The Guggenheim was of course designed by Frank Lloyd
Wright, but Barney has exploited and modified its architecture for the
key episode of the work as a whole. So unlike the Festspielhaus, which
is not part of the Ring's narrative, the Guggenheim really is part of
Cremaster's. This has given Barney's many European enthusiasts a special
reason to make a pilgrimage to New York, even if they may already have
seen the exhibition in Cologne or Paris, for only here will they have
been able to experience the Guggenheim as a work of installation art
that belongs to the Cremaster endeavor. This makes it, by general
consent, far and away the most impressive of the three venues. The
question for Barney's admirers, expressed by one of my Northern European
correspondents, is whether Matthew Barney is the Picasso of our time, or
I think it enough that he should be the Matthew Barney of the present
age, using artistic resources that would have been unavailable to his
predecessors, as well as a conception of visual art that is entirely
of our time. Cremaster is a contemporary Gesamtkunstwerk that uses
performance art, music, film, dance, installation, sculpture and
photography. Barney himself is the work's author and dramaturge, as well
as an actor in possession of the exceptional athletic powers his
successive roles demand. And his art embodies preoccupations that are
distinctive to our era. In Cremaster, these have
largely to do with issues of what one might call the metaphysics of
gender, and the use of the term "cremaster" implies as much. The term
has existed in English since the seventeenth century, almost exclusively
as part of the descriptive anatomy of the male reproductive system: It
refers in its primary sense to the muscle of the spermatic cord by which
the testes are suspended in the scrotum. But Barney has given it a
somewhat allegorical spin, in much the way, I suppose, that Descartes
did with the pineal gland, which, because it is situated between the
hemispheres of the brain, impressed him as being the seat of the soul.
No one to this day quite understands the pineal gland's function, but
the cremaster is associated with the descent of the testes into the
scrotum in the seventh month after conception, at which point the gender
of the fetus is definitively male.
There is a point in embryonic development when matters are less
clear-cut. Two genital swellings known as labioscrota separate, in the
female, to become the labia majora, and in the male unite to form the
scrotum. But in the labioscrotal phase of our development, we are male
and female at once, so to speak, and this condition of gender
indeterminacy speaks with particular eloquence to a generation that,
especially under the influence of feminist theory, postulates a
condition beyond the male-female disjunction. After sexual
differentiation is established, the chief function of the cremaster is
to raise the testes when the scrotum is chilled.
Why Barney should have singled out this particular muscle, rather than
the spermatic cord or, for that matter, the testes themselves, is
doubtless connected with the poetics of ascent and descent, which figure
as metaphorical actions in the four Cremaster films in which Barney
himself performs. He does not appear in Cremaster 1, in which two
Goodyear blimps may be taken as symbolic embodiments of the genital
swellings of the labioscrotal moment of our sexual development. In
Cremaster 3, the character played by Barney climbs up and down an
elevator shaft in the Chrysler Building; in Cremaster 5, he climbs
around the proscenium arch in the Opera House in Budapest; and in
Cremaster 4, the character burrows through an underground channel
fraught with symbolic meaning.
The spiraling interior architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim
lends itself to ascent and descent, and becomes a second site for the
character's upward itinerary in Cremaster 3. Because of its role in the
Cremaster cycle, the building overcomes the commonplace distinction
between exhibiting space and exhibited content. But neither it nor the
profusion of objects and images that make up the show as a whole can be
grasped as art without reference to the films that are Cremaster's core.
The Guggenheim accordingly holds daily screenings of its various parts
in its Peter Lewis Auditorium, and on each Friday, those with the
required stamina can see the work in its entirety. It is a remarkable
experience, and a remarkable if not altogether successful work. I have
to say that I lost patience with Cremaster 3, the last installment of
the cycle to have been made, and three grueling hours long. But I am
haunted by certain of its sequences, even if I remain unclear what the
point is of the ordeal that it, and the cycle as a whole, depict.
The films in the cycle, as a useful handout claims, "represent a
condition of pure potentiality," by which I imagine is meant the
labioscrotal phase of genital development, before we are definitively
male or female. In fact, Cremaster I glorifies femininity. It has two
protagonists--a female performer and then a chorus of females who dance,
so to speak, as one. The action is dreamlike, and it reminded me, as do
many of the Cremaster sequences, of the Surrealist films of Maya Deren.
The female heroine is situated under a table, laden with grapes, in the
cabin of the blimp, seemingly guarded by women of an almost forbidding
beauty, wearing smart military uniforms. She succeeds, after some
effort, in making an opening in the cloth above her head, through which
she pulls down clusters of the perhaps forbidden fruit. The performer's
name is Marti Domination, a real personage, I discovered through the
Internet, where she is identified as belonging to The House of
Domination. And though Marti Domination looks thoroughly feminine, in a
white intimate garment, high heels and an extravagant coiffure, the web
page leaves the matter of her actual gender somewhat ambiguous. My sense
is that Marti Domination portrays a woman, whatever the reality, and
that the aura of sexual indeterminacy accounts in part for her having
been cast in the role.
The action of Cremaster 1 is split in two: As Marti Domination arranges
the grapes in logographic patterns on the floor, the chorus executes
isomorphic Busby Berkeley-like patterns in a football stadium on the
ground below: The gridiron is covered in blue Astroturf. Their movements
are cadenced to swelling cascades of deliberately gorgeous music, as in
a musical from the 1930s. There is an exalting moment when one of the
chorines--Marti Domination herself--runs across the field with two
balloons, shaped like the Goodyear blimps. Not much else happens. The
action goes back and forth between grapes and girls, cabin and football
field, and then comes to an end. The entire review flirts outrageously
with kitsch, which gives it, one might say, its authenticity.
If Cremaster 1 is an ode to a certain idealized femininity--to beauty,
music, dancing, fantastic gowns and pumps by Manolo Blahnik--Cremaster 2
is a stylized ballad to violent masculinity. The hero is Gary Gilmore,
portrayed by Barney wearing a full beard. Again, the action is
dreamlike. The robbery and murder in the gas station (the Goodyear logo
can be glimpsed through its window as the attendant, shot through the
back of the head, bleeds to death on the floor) mainly unfurl in
silence. The execution of Gilmore, wearing convict stripes, is
symbolically enacted as a rodeo act--he dies subduing a bucking
bull--and his afterlife is fantasized as a Texas two-step, danced by a
cowboy and cowgirl. These images are poetic and powerful, as is the
mysterious flashback scene near the end of the film, in which Gilmore's
grandmother, as an Edwardian belle with an impossibly narrow waist,
speaks in a vast exhibition hall of that era with Harry Houdini. In a
brilliant piece of casting, Houdini is played by Norman Mailer, the
author, not in-cidentally, of The Executioner's Song. Mailer-Houdini
delivers a speech--a rare occurrence in the cycle--poetically describing
his escape from the submerged box in which he has been chained. He tells
how he becomes one with the lock, how "a real transformation takes
place." Escape through transformation is somehow the motif of the entire
work, though the nature of our captive condition naturally remains
Cremaster 2 is, in my view, the most fully realized of the five segments
of the cycle. But I have to say that I found Cremaster 3 a mess. Calvin
Tomkins wrote in The New Yorker that "a film like this may be one that
only a Dick Cheney could walk out on without a frisson of self-doubt,"
but that walking out should have occurred to him at all speaks volumes
about the film's shortcomings. Nothing but a cold sense of duty was able
to keep me in my seat. The film exemplifies the flaw of hubris it is
intended to portray, but one cannot really believe that it is any the
less a flaw if it was made intentionally boring and preposterous. It is
not my responsibility to moralize, but my conjecture is that Barney has
attained the kind of artistic eminence that makes those who work with
him reluctant to be critical. If this should be true, then it is a good
thing that Cremaster 4 and 5 were made before hubris on this scale
kicked in. Cremaster 3 is not redeemed by its unquestioned high points,
any more than 4 and 5 are seriously compromised by their ennuis. It is a
piece of bad art by a good and unquestionably important artist.
Disregarding Cremaster 3's mythological prelude, the action of what one
might consider its first act is split, somewhat like that of Cremaster
1, between two planes. On the upper plane--the suspended elevator cabin,
the Cloud Club bar and indeed the glorious roof of the Chrysler
Building--the performance is enacted by a single character, identified
as the Entered Apprentice, played by Barney himself. On the lower
plane--the Chrysler Building's elevator lobby--the performance is by
a chorus of five 1967 Chrysler Crown Imperials, engaged in demolishing
what I surmise is
a vintage black Chrysler. The demolition derby goes on interminably as,
with screeching tires, the five Imperials crash into their victim, go
into reverse, and crash again, and again, and again, finally dragging or
pushing the shattered heap from their midst. The prolonged mayhem
alternates with the action on the higher plane, where the Entered
Apprentice muddles through the process of mixing mortar, using the
elegant Art Deco interior of one of the Chrysler Building's elevators as
There is something wanton and willful about the way in which both
enactments take place. I somehow feel that Barney, who seems to lack a
real sense of humor, intended all this as some kind of comedy. As the
Entered Apprentice, he is dressed in vintage 1930s working clothes,
including a fedora, and wearing a small mustache. Perhaps he is supposed
to be suggesting the ineptitude of the Chaplin character in Modern
Times. The slapstick routine with the bartender in the Cloud Club, who
improvises a stepstool to fetch a glass, only to bring a whole cupboard
of glassware crashing on top of him as he falls to the floor, is roughly
as funny as the automobile massacre in the lobby below. The entire
sequence is malevolently inane.
The Guggenheim Museum is introduced as a symbolic setting in Cremaster
3, where the Entered Apprentice makes his graded way upward through a
sequence of degrees based on the rites of the Masonic Order. There is a
genuine piece of wit in associating the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
with the legendary Temple of Solomon, which is an important mythic site
on which Masonic rites and beliefs are based. My grandfather and father
were dedicated Masons, so Masonic appurtenances--the compass and square,
the trowel and the apron, not to mention references to initiations and
sworn secrecies--inflected the atmosphere of my childhood. Masonry
really was their religion, but I could never bring myself to follow
them, since even as a youth my temperament was too positivistic to
believe in occult teaching of any sort. I nevertheless picked up a
certain amount of Masonic lore, which helped somewhat to clarify what
takes place at successive stages of the Guggenheim's involuted ramp, as
imaginatively transformed by Barney.
"Entered Apprentice" is a term in Masonic nomenclature, referring to the
lowest degree in the Order. The highest standard degree is that of
Master Mason. Masonic myth traces the origins of the fra-ternity to the
Phoenician masons who worked on Solomon's Temple, as the Hebrews lacked
the knowledge necessary to realize the king's architectural vision. The
Master Mason was named Hiram Abiff, who possessed not merely the
practical knowledge of shaping matter into usable forms but
the greatest Masonic secret of all, the "ineffable name" of God. I know
by hearsay of a ritual
enactment in which various Hebrew ruffians try to wrest the knowledge,
and hence the power, from Hiram Abiff, who was finally killed--or
sacrificed--only to be resurrected by King Solomon himself, using the
Barney has cast the sculptor Richard Serra to play the part of the
Master Mason, or Architect, whom the Entered Apprentice finally murders.
The main action of the Guggenheim interlude, however, requires the
Entering Apprentice to pass a series of tests, which must be done in the
time it takes for melted Vaseline to spiral its way to the museum's
lobby. The molten Vaseline is flung against the para-pet by the
Architect, which reenacts one of Serra's most famous sculptures, and indeed
one of the
signature works of the late 1960s. In 1969, Serra flung molten lead into
the angle where wall and floor met in Leo Castelli's warehouse, using
the architecture as a kind of ready-made mold. In a photograph of the
time, Serra looks like a warrior hero, using the ladle as a weapon, and
there is little question but that his act was perceived at the time as
inaugurating a new moment in the history of sculpture. It is difficult
not to see the demotion of lead to Vaseline as an emblematic degradation
of that heroic moment to the present moment of postmodern art. The fact
that the Entered Apprentice is himself killed in Cremaster 3 is
nevertheless a declaration that an artist of our day will achieve the
status attained by Serra: Every member of the Masonic Order impersonates
Hiram Abiff when initiated as a Master Mason. I have, meanwhile, nothing
to say about the significance that Vaseline evidently has in Matthew
Barney's vocabulary of symbols. Its cultural meaning is that of a
lubricant, which can perhaps be connected to the two phallic columns
erected by Hiram Abiff in the courtyard of the Temple. Someone once told
me that in the night table next to his bed, all that was found after
Auden's death was a large, economy-size jar of Vaseline and two pairs of
I must leave readers to their own resources in dealing with Cremaster 4
and 5. I think they are both quite magical. Barney is at his best in the
role of The Candidate--a dandified tap-dancer, half man and half sheep,
with red spit curls--in Cremaster 4, which takes place on the Isle of
Man. The "Three Faeries"--personages of genuine sexual ambiguity who
serve as benign intercessors--are among Barney's most compelling
inventions. In both these films, I thought of The Magic
Flute--especially so in Cremaster 5, in which Ursula Andress plays the
role of "the Queen of Chain," in the sequence that takes place in the
Hungarian State Opera House in Budapest. As everyone knows, the
narrative of Mozart's masterpiece is also based on Masonic ritual. One
cannot, meanwhile, praise too highly the musical scores for the whole
cycle, composed by Jonathan Bepler.
Since objects and images relating to the different parts of the
Cremaster cycle are arrayed on successive stages of the Guggenheim, the
intention is that we shall imagine a mapping through which the
exhibition replicates the cycle in another modality--in space, so to
speak, in contrast with time. But the experience is totally different,
and unless one has internalized the films and something of the ideas
that animate them, what one encounters as one ascends or descends the
ramp is more or less just art-stuff. It does not on its own make an
enchanting show. But the cycle has moments of great enchantment. It is
an uncertain achievement, but one with which everyone interested in
contemporary art must deal.