Sinn Fein, generally known for its historical association with the Irish
Republican Army and the peace process, has made a breakthrough in the
twenty-six-county Irish Republic by garnering five seats in the Dublin
Parliament. For those unfamiliar with the Irish electoral system, an
equivalent achievement by Ralph Nader and the Green Party would have
meant doubling their national vote and taking twenty Congressional seats
in the 2000 election.
The recent victories for the left-wing Sinn Fein are a challenge to
globalization and sharply contrast with the right-wing populism recently
surfacing in other European elections. Sinn Fein campaigned against the
Treaty of Nice, which would have expanded the European Union and which
was rejected by Irish voters in a June 2001 referendum. The EU cannot be
expanded without voter approval, and the Irish political and business
establishment vows to set another referendum for later this year.
Fears of Irish immersion in an unaccountable European megastate underlay
Sinn Fein's opposition. At the same time, Sinn Fein campaigned strongly
against the growing wave of anti-immigrant nationalism in the Irish
Republic. This strategy of progressive rather than reactionary
nationalism was voiced best by Danny Morrison, once a Sinn Fein leader
and now an independent writer in Belfast, in an article on NATO: "The
world has to remain a rainbow coalition of independent and good people,
and if 'nationalism' means denying the bad people the authority to
aggrandize power, and in our name to bomb people and nations we do not
know or understand, who are of no threat, then 'nationalism' has to be
That would be a defeat for US officials who hope that a pro-business
Irish Republic would become "America's gateway" into Europe. The largest
single foreign presence in the south of Ireland is that of US
multinationals, mainly computer and pharmaceutical firms, using the
island as a platform for business in the EU. Sinn Fein's success,
coupled with the six seats already held by the environmentalist Irish
Green Party, means a strong bloc of progressive opposition to US-style
globalization inside the Dublin Parliament.
Sinn Fein also showed the possibility of progressive populist politics
at a time when traditional liberal politics has become centrist. The
party campaigned for restoring and expanding the public health service,
jobs and social programs for those left behind in the neoliberal "Celtic
Tiger" economy. None of these issues, however, overshadowed voter
attention to Sinn Fein's role in the Northern Ireland peace process and
its roots in armed struggle against British rule.
During the thirty-year conflict in the North, Sinn Fein advocates were
subject to official censorship, harassment and arrest in the South. The
intent of the Dublin government, while paying lip service to its
founding nationalist ideals, was to quarantine the Troubles on the
northern side of the border. In turn, during those decades, Sinn Fein's
opposition to partition led to a policy of abstention from the British
and Dublin parliaments, which they considered illegitimate.
All that changed--changed utterly, to borrow from Yeats--when the IRA
initiated a cease-fire in 1994 and peace talks led to electoral
opportunities for Sinn Fein in the North. The organization has become
the largest nationalist party in the Stormont Assembly and subsequently
dropped its abstentionist posture in the South, where it began community
organizing in urban slums and border counties, leading to this spring's
electoral breakthrough. Sinn Fein's presence in the Dublin Parliament
may implant a spine in the government led by Prime Minister Bertie
Ahern, in the form of diplomatic efforts for peace with justice in the
When polls this spring showed that Sinn Fein was gaining with voters in
the South, all the major parties ganged up to declare that they would
never include Sinn Fein in a coalition government until the IRA fully
disbanded. Ironically, this was opposite the stance taken by the same
parties toward the peace process in Northern Ireland, where they fully
endorsed the entry of Sinn Fein into electoral competition north of the
border. The message to southern voters, in sum, was that a vote for Sinn
Fein was a wasted vote for an isolated party with continuing terrorist
The voters, however, weren't buying that line. In the most intensely
watched constituency, in North Kerry, the Sinn Fein candidate was Martin
Ferris, who had spent ten years in prison for IRA gunrunning on a
trawler out of Boston. The Gardai (state police) arrested the candidate
in the run-up to the election, roughed him up, floated claims that he
knew something about a vigilante attack on drug dealers four months
earlier, then released him without pressing charges. Ferris, who endured
a forty-seven-day hunger strike in 1977, won the seat easily from
Labour's Dick Spring, a former Irish foreign minister who was a favorite
of the Clinton Democrats.
While other guerrilla movements of the left have withered or failed to
make the electoral transition, Sinn Fein keeps growing, despite the
chilling impact of the war on terrorism and the close British-US
alliance. Although its total vote in the Republic's proportional system
is at 7 percent, its leader, Gerry Adams, has equaled and at times even
topped the popularity of Prime Minister Ahern. And unlike any other
party, Sinn Fein now has seats in Parliament in London, the Assembly in
Stormont and the southern Irish Dail, or Parliament. The Bush
Administration has been unhappy with this Irish exceptionalism to the
generally conservative trend in the wake of the war on terrorism.
Sinn Fein's chief burden, being identified as the IRA's "political
wing," is also the source of its strength, at least as long as the IRA's
guns remain silent. Continued provocation by loyalists in the North,
like the relentless pipe-bomb attacks on Catholics this past year, might
still provoke the IRA to respond, though the chances are minimal. The
IRA cease-fire enables Sinn Fein to compete successfully for the
middle-class peace vote, especially north of the border, and to stake a
claim in the South as the movement that ended the war on a just note for
nationalists. Perhaps the greater burden in the South, shared by parties
of the left all over the world, is how to tap the middle-class vote in a
time of relative prosperity and voter comfort. For that challenge, Sinn
Fein will have to find a way to link its leadership charisma and peace
program to a revival of social and economic democracy.
Father Desmond Wilson, a respected independent priest from Republican
West Belfast, voiced this challenge that the new politics still faces
after hearing the election returns: "Will Ireland in its prosperity
become an example of how you can really get rid of poverty and bring
equality? Will Ireland succeed in convincing the world that militarism
should be stopped, that the world should be taken care of and its people
most of all, even if it means reducing the lifestyle of the potentially
very rich? Nobody needs to be very rich, but everybody needs to survive
with dignity." It appears that some people are listening.
As all reputable news outlets assure us, privatization benefits
everyone--which is lucky, since these same outlets report that
privatization is inevitable. We live out a happy fate, which rolls on
despite the occasional need to report, say, the resignation under fire
of Britain's transport secretary, Stephen Byers. Mr. Byers comes to mind because I happen to be writing to you on the very day he stepped down, following the bankruptcy of his privatized Railtrack service, and also the fifth fatal rail crash in six years of newly efficient service.
You may have noticed that when the route of progress bumps over such
inconveniences, all reputable reports concentrate on the disappointment
of the privatizers (who nevertheless must go on) and of consumers (who
certainly will be happier sometime soon). Nobody ever seems to report on
the experience of the privatized workers--nobody, that is, except for
Ken Loach. His new film, The Navigators, finds drama in the
resentments and resistances, adjustments and accommodations of a crew of
track repairmen in Yorkshire, who yesterday worked for British Rail and
today begin working for a new company, Midlands Infrastructure, which in
another two weeks will be called something else entirely. Not that the
name matters. Twelve more weeks down the line, and the men will all be
working for themselves--that is, for an employment agency, which will
hire them out to contractors who needn't bother with sick pay, vacation
time or a superstitious regard for safety rules.
The Navigators is now about to receive its US premiere as the
opening-night feature of the Human Rights Watch International Film
Festival. Now in its thirteenth year, the festival will be on view June
14-27 at New York's Walter Reade Theater, in Lincoln Center, where Ken
Loach is also scheduled to receive the Irene Diamond Lifetime
Achievement Award. An unaffectedly modest man, Loach will probably try
to blend in with the audience, as if hoping someone else will show up to
claim the prize. But as The Navigators shows, it's his by right.
Every performance in the film is effortlessly convincing; every scene
plays out with its own easy rhythm. There's time and space in The
Navigators for domestic trials (as when a man attempts to court his
estranged wife and winds up feeding a bouquet of roses through the mail
slot), casual slapstick and practical jokes--even for a spirited defense
of day labor. "There's plenty of work, at top dollar," declares one of
the crew, who seems happy now to be an entrepreneur of his own labor
power. And so, when doom strikes, it seems foreordained but not at all
Of the pictures I had a chance to sample in this year's festival--there
are thirty-three in all--The Navigators struck me as being both
the freshest and the most Old Masterly. This is hardly a definitive
statement; I wasn't able to preview such big bookends of the festival as
the new feature films by Costa-Gavras and Chris Eyre or the new
documentary by Fabrizio Lazzaretti and Alberto Vendemmiati, the team
that made Jung: War in the Land of the Mujaheddin. But here are a
Lourdes Portillo went to Ciudad Juárez, just across the border
from El Paso, to make Señorita Extraviada (Missing Young
Woman), a documentary on the kidnapping and murder of hundreds of
women over the past decade. You may be aware that workers from the
booming assembly factories in Juárez have been turning up dead in
the desert, after having been raped, mutilated and burned. What you may
not know is that the authorities to date have arrested exactly one
suspect, whom they blame for everything; that the killings continue,
despite the chosen culprit's imprisonment; that the police officers
investigating these cases maybe ought to handcuff themselves; and that
in the eighteen months Portillo spent in making this film, another fifty
young women disappeared. Although Portillo brings a skeptic's
sensibility to these events, I wish she'd been more skeptical still.
Some of the testimony that she accepts strains credulity, despite its
coming from victims. But, that said, she isn't preparing a legal brief.
She's creating a meditative investigation--or is it an investigative
meditation?--and doing it with real poetic power.
Of the many films in this year's festival that deal with conflict in the
Middle East, most seem to me to be sketches toward a movie, rather than
finished works. Valuable raw information emerges about Palestinian and
Israeli attitudes in Michal Aviad's Ramleh, Mai Masri's
Frontiers of Dreams and Fears, Jean Khalil Chamoun's In the
Shadows of the City, Avi Mograbi's August; but you have to
sift through self-indulgence, self-righteousness, clumsy fictionalizing
or diffident storytelling to get at the data. The exception, among the
films I was able to preview, is Rachel Leah Jones's 500 Dunam on the
Jones had the wit to seize on a revelatory topic for her picture and the
patience to develop it fully, telling the story of three villages in the
Galilee. The first was Ayn Hawd, an old Arab settlement that Israeli
forces emptied in 1948. The second village, built from the first, is Ein
Hod, an artists' colony established in 1953 on Dadaist principles. (I
wish I were kidding, but I'm not.) To this day, Ein Hod remains a
well-frequented site for the production and sale of bad Israeli art. And
to this day, nearby, many former residents of Ayn Hawd live in the
third, makeshift village, Ayn Hawd al-Jadida (New Ayn Hawd), a place
that officially does not exist, even though its inhabitants do the heavy
labor in Ein Hod, helping to keep their former homes picturesque.
Finally, let me mention two films from The Nation's orbit. The
Trials of Henry Kissinger is a brisk, well-argued documentary
directed by Eugene Jarecki and written by Alex Gibney, based largely on
Christopher Hitchens's book of similar title. Unlike Lourdes Portillo's
documentary, this one really is put together like a legal brief, and a
very effective one at that. Of course, as a Nation type, I've
always thought of Kissinger as a war criminal and am glad to see the
filmmakers make the case. I complain only that they may have been a
touch too adulatory to the writer who has guided them. However estimable
his work, Hitchens is not quite the lone, precedent-shattering crusader
that he appears here.
Then again, at the mere mention of the Hitchens name, Gen. Alexander
Haig trembles with rage and sputters, "He, he's a sewer-pipe sucker! He
sucks the sewer pipe!" This is an enviable endorsement, on which we
should all congratulate the author.
Congratulations also to John Friedman and Eric Nadler, whose documentary
Stealing the Fire will have its US premiere at the festival. An
investigation of the traffic in nuclear weapons, following a tortuous
trail from Germany to Pakistan to Iraq, Stealing the Fire is a
Since there's no point in watching human rights unless someone or
something gets liberated, let me now join in the celebration of freedom
that is Undercover Brother. Directed by Malcolm D. Lee from a
screenplay by John Ridley and Michael McCullers, Undercover
Brother is not the first pastiche, in MAD magazine style, of
the blaxploitation films of the 1970s. Keenen Ivory Wayans was there
first, with I'm Gonna Git You Sucka, just as Mike Myers and the
Austin Powers team were a little quicker to collage into the
present a pop-culture character from the recent past. Even so, you will
understand how right Undercover Brother gets everything when I
tell you that it runs just ninety minutes and stars a magnificently
Afro'd Eddie Griffin, who is so cool that he winks at the camera in
every damn scene.
The plot--do you really care about the plot? Griffin steps out in a
wardrobe of platform shoes, flared pants and shirts cut to show off the
discus-size Black Power medallion he wears around his neck. He drives a
Coup de Ville convertible, drinks large quantities of orange soda and is
aptly described by the film's kung-fu-kicking love interest (Aunjanue
Ellis) as "a Soul Train reject with a Robin Hood complex." Recruited by
a secret organization called B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D., Griffin learns that
the most weed-addled fantasies of Conspiracy Brother (David Chappelle)
are actually true. There really is a fantastically wealthy and powerful
white man--called The Man--who keeps black people down.
From this point on--I'm three minutes into the movie--the jokes
really get cheap. They're also consistently, wildly funny,
despite being based without exception on the stale scheme of "White
folks do this, but black folks do that." Sure they do. But then, as the
chief of B.R.O.T.H.E.R.H.O.O.D. explains, his goal is to "help black
people of all races," which clarifies everything.
The role of the white she-devil is capably played by Denise Richards.
My wife issues literary judgments on an irregular but reliable basis; so
when she took her half-read copy of Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya
Sisterhood and hurled it against the wall, I knew this was a book I
should not pick up. As a result, I can't tell you how much the new movie
of the same title might deviate from Rebecca Wells's gazillion-selling
novel. I went to see the picture only because it's written and directed
by Callie Khouri, who also wrote Thelma & Louise. I can
report as follows:
Divine Secrets is a sandwich made of two slabs of angel food cake
around a slice of raw liver. The sticky-sweet stuff is women's
friendship and the mother-daughter bond, tributes to which are layered
onto the movie at the beginning and end. The liver is the very long
middle section, in which Ashley Judd (the film's one saving grace) shows
how sexual frustration and the demands of childrearing can drive a woman
crazy. Apparently, this truth is unknown to Ashley's daughter, Sandra
Bullock, who must be told, at excruciating length, what everyone in the
audience has guessed in a flash.
Every scene in Divine Secrets is expository. Every performance
demands that the actress wave her arms energetically (perhaps to swat
away clouds of gnats in acknowledgment of the Louisiana setting). Every
character is affluent and white, except for a loyal black maid who says
things like "I knew it wuz trouble. Just yestiddy I heerd dat screech
owl." Every sequence ends like a dinner plate hitting the floor, and
every new sequence begins with a fresh plate being dropped.
Cans of 35-millimeter film are heavy, and projection booths tend to be
locked. I went home, found my wife's copy of the book and gave it a
Late in her life, Lorine Niedecker collected several dozen of her poems
in handmade books that she gave to three friends. One poem common to all
three books is "Who Was Mary Shelley?," a Gothic ballad in which the
author of Frankenstein dwells not in possibility but anonymity.
"What was her name/before she married?" Niedecker wonders. What was she thinking
when she "Created the monster nights/after Byron, Shelley/talked the
When Niedecker died in 1970 at the age of 67, her work was shrouded in
mystery as well. During the half-century she spent writing poems,
Niedecker published in the best little magazines and earned the praise
of Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams and Louis Zukofsky.
Nevertheless, opinion of her poetry remained dominated by hearsay and
caricature. The view of George Oppen, who had met Niedecker just once,
during her stay with Zukofsky in Manhattan in 1933, is typical.
Niedecker was "a tiny little person, very, very near sighted always,"
Oppen told a friend in 1963, adding that she "was too timid to face
almost any job. She took a job scrubbing floors in a hospital near the
run-down farm she inherited, and is still living in that crumbling farm
house and scrubbing floors. Someone in Scotland printed a tiny little
book of her poems, which are little barely audible poems, not without
loveliness." In a similar vein, the Jargon Society published Epitaphs
for Lorine in 1973, and several contributors memorialized Niedecker
with the diminutive "poetess."
The portrait of Niedecker as the Grandma Moses of American verse can't
be attributed entirely to the provincialism or paternalism of the
avant-garde poetry world. When Oppen wrote to his friend, Niedecker had
just two books in print (the second being a redaction of the first), and
both books contained, well, poems rarely longer than four lines. But
Niedecker didn't write just "little" poems, and access to the rest of
her oeuvre improved in 1985 with the publication of Cid Corman's
The Granite Pail: The Selected Poems of Lorine Niedecker and
Robert Bertholf's From This Condensery: The Complete Writing of
Lorine Niedecker. The problem was that Corman and Bertholf presented
contrasting Niedeckers. Corman's text contains less than half of
Niedecker's poetry, and it emphasizes her lyrics about nature and
domestic life on Black Hawk Island in south-central Wisconsin, her home
for all but a few years of her life. Bertholf's volume includes those
lyrics plus Niedecker's poems about history and politics, but it teems
with textual errors (misattributions, mistranscriptions), and so its
emphasis on the Niedecker who probed the world beyond Black Hawk Island
"Isn't it glorious? Let's trim green thought in one place and let it
grow wild in another," says a character in "The Evening's Automobiles,"
one of two short stories that Niedecker wrote in the 1950s. Jenny
Penberthy has let Niedecker's green thought run wild by restoring poems
that either went unpublished in books or periodicals during Niedecker's
lifetime or were trimmed from or mangled in posthumous editions.
Collected Works includes Niedecker's two published collections,
New Goose (1946) and North Central (1968); three complete
unpublished manuscripts, "New Goose" (a collection of twenty-nine poems
in the same style as the forty-one poems in New Goose), "For Paul
and Other Poems" and "Harpsichord & Salt Fish"; the gift-book poems;
uncollected poems, both published and unpublished; and published and
unpublished fiction and radio plays. Though one regrets the exclusion of
essays Niedecker wrote on Zukofsky and Corman, the range of forms and
ideas is still electrifying. Not since the appearance of the facsimile
version of The Waste Land in 1971, which clearly established how
T.S. Eliot's poem had been transformed by Ezra Pound's editing, has a
new edition of an American poet's work shattered the prevailing sense of
that writer's art. Niedecker may have lived in a marshy backwater, but
thanks to Penberthy's meticulously edited volume she can no longer be
treated as an unintellectual pastoral miniaturist. Isn't it glorious?
"The old words have reached the age of retirement. Let us pension them
off! We need a twentieth-century dictionary!" This is Eugene Jolas,
writing in the pages of transition in 1932. With contributors
like James Joyce and Gertrude Stein, Jolas's transition crackled
with Surrealist-tinged linguistic experiment. It was also one of several
little magazines that Niedecker read faithfully in the early 1930s. The
standard story of Niedecker's career is that she became a disciple of
Zukofsky after reading the Objectivist issue of Poetry he edited
in 1931. Collected Works opens with several dozen poems from the
early 1930s--all previously unpublished in book form--and they reveal
Niedecker's preoccupation with a surrealism at odds with Zukofsky's
focus on the affectless object. Typical is the beginning of "Synamism":
"Berceuse, mediphala/and the continent. German and therefore
unidentified./Cricket night, seismograph and stitch. All tongues backed/by a
difference." Absent from Niedecker's early poems are Surrealism's heroic
sadism and insane hallucinations. Instead, she prefers a surrealism of
language, a poetry that takes root in neologisms and portmanteau words
and swirls into an aural collage of illogical but syntactically sound
phrases. "Close the door and come to the crack quickly./To jesticulate
in the rainacular or novembrood//in the sunconscious...as though there
were fs/and no ings, freighter of geese without wings," she writes in
"Progression." By mixing the abstract and discursive, Niedecker sought
to create a poetry capable of evoking different levels of thought and
feeling. She sought the "rainacular," a nonsense not without sense
because it records its own kind of testimony--a fluid vernacular, lived
In the late 1930s, Niedecker recalibrated her explorations of language's
subliminal texture. She started to use idiomatic phrases, casting them
into the hey-diddle-diddle artifice of Mother Goose: "She had
tumult of the brain/and I had rats in the rain/and she and I and the
furlined man/were out for gain." Though not hermetic, Niedecker's "New Goose" poems still create an aura of deceptive lucidity, due in part to the
unwavering march of their trochaic rhythms. In poem after poem the
ephemeral suddenly turns serious, but one isn't exactly sure why.
"Scuttle up the workshop,/settle down the dew,/I'll tell you what my
name is/when we've made the world new." Niedecker had tapped the cryptic
sounds of Mother Goose, but she wasn't writing bedtime verses. In
the late 1930s, she was employed by the Federal Writer's Project,
working as a research editor on Wisconsin: A Guide to the Badger
State. In New Goose and its many corollary poems, Niedecker
extends the study of local speech and lore she had undertaken for the
What a woman!--hooks men like rugs,
clips as she hooks, prefers old wool, but all
childlike, lost, houseowning or pensioned men
her prey. She covets the gold in her husband's teeth.
She'd sell dirt, she'd sell your eyes
fried in deep grief.
Many of the New Goose poems are ballads that distill a specific
local incident to its pungent emotional essence. Together they tell the
history of an old, weird Wisconsin, a place of desire and Depression,
betrayals and bombs, politics and privations. What's remarkable about
New Goose is Niedecker's ability to blend a surreal aesthetic
with a documentary impulse without diluting local character or dulling
her sometimes caustic attitude toward it. Had Niedecker used a camera
instead of a typewriter to make her art, her photographs would have
resembled the early work of Walker Evans. Like Evans, Niedecker conveys
the abstract textures of everyday life without reducing everyday life to
an abstraction. "There's a better shine/on the pendulum/than is on my
hair/and many times//I've seen it there." New Goose is
Several years before New Goose appeared, in 1946, Niedecker began
a job as a proofreader for a local trade journal, Hoard's
Dairyman. Deteriorating eyesight forced her to quit Hoard's
in 1950. Seven years later, amid financial difficulties, she started a
job as a cleaner at the Fort Atkinson Hospital. (Niedecker's poor
eyesight and floor scrubbing are the two facts Oppen got right in his
letter to his friend.) Until she retired from the hospital in 1963, when
she married Al Millen, Niedecker had little time for writing poetry, or
at least for further refining the variety of forms and styles of "For
Paul and Other Poems," which she composed in the early 1950s. Addressed
to Zukofsky's son, "For Paul" includes persona poems, ballads, quasi
epigrams and blues songs. They are written in brisk free verse or
stanzas bristling with riddling rhymes and range in length from four to
204 lines. Niedecker developed a new style during her six years at the
hospital: a concentrated five-line stanza in which lines of one to six
syllables are organized more by sonic stresses than syntax. The role of
sound as the poem's organizing force is intensified by ellipsis, with
verbs and transitions being the most frequently omitted words.
The virtues of such compression are apparent in one of Niedecker's most
remarkable poems, "Lake Superior," which she wrote following a road trip
through Wisconsin, Canada and Minnesota that she and Millen made in
1966. "Rock creates the only human landscape," W.H. Auden told a friend
in 1948 while he was writing "In Praise of Limestone." Auden was
speaking figuratively, for in his poem he uses the limestone terrain of
the Italian island of Ischia as an allegory of the human body. Some of
the oldest rock in North America is exposed around Lake Superior. That
azoic rock is the core of Niedecker's poem, and her approach to it isn't
In every part of every living thing
is stuff that once was rock
In blood the minerals
of the rock
Niedecker sustains this taught, unpunctuated equilibrium through the
next six sections, as she considers the fate of several explorers who
have preceded her. Among them is the fur trader Pierre Esprit Radisson,
who in the mid-seventeenth century became the first European to traverse
the lake. "Radisson:/'a laborinth of pleasure'/this world of the Lake,"
Niedecker writes, "Long hair, long gun//Fingernails pulled out/by
Mohawks." Niedecker's estimation of the cost of wonder--for humans and
the landscape--is interrupted in the eighth section of the poem by an
eruption of sensuality.
Ruby of corundum
from changing limestone
kicked up in America's
you have been in my mind
between my toes
Instead of possessing the landscape's mineral wealth, Niedecker is
mesmerized and possessed by it. But that wealth is linguistic too, for
Niedecker's description vividly echoes her early Surrealist poems.
"Corundum" is a mineral that crystallizes into ruby and sapphire, but it
might very well be a corruption of "conundrum." "Sard" is a type of
quartz but could also be a fusion of "snarl" and "bard." It's as though
the rainacular had percolated through fissures in Superior's limestone.
"The North is one vast, massive, glorious corruption of rock and
language," Niedecker remarks in her notes from the 1966 trip, and in her
poem she portrays Superior as a Precambrian compost pile, a place where
words and things are pulverized and transformed, where North American
rocks acquire Greek names, where "Sault Sainte Marie" becomes "the Soo."
In the poem's penultimate section Niedecker synthesizes these issues.
The smooth black stone
I picked up in true source park
the leaf beside it
once was stone
Why should we hurry
These lines, and their uncharacteristic surfeit of verbs, would be
unsettling if they opened the poem, but coming at the end, after
Niedecker's geological meditations, they are soothing. Niedecker has
found a home, in both an eschatological and epistemological sense. The
stone may preordain her end, but it also is the product of a profound
creative pressure, which "Lake Superior" answers in kind. Niedecker
acknowledges the stony transformation that awaits her and her reciprocal
desire to compress and recompose that fact ever so briefly into the
sensuous, fleeting order of her poem.
"Lake Superior," like much of Niedecker's late poetry, expresses a
fundamental Modernist idea: All ages are somehow contemporaneous. "'The
ancient present. In me the years are flowing together,'" as the narrator
of "The Evening's Automobiles" explains. Niedecker, however, never
overlayed her lyrical historicism with an epic mythology. She drew a map
of the world but never pretended that it was anything other than her
own. Consequently, despite the riches of its localism, "Lake Superior"
is unlike, say, Williams's Paterson because it does not seek to
be a perfect, absolutely metaphorical America.
This is most clear in "Darwin," Niedecker's final poem. Her Darwin is
neither the avid reader of Shakespeare nor the eccentric who played the
trombone to his French beans. He has the intellectual bearing of the
Darwin in Auden's 1940 "New Year Letter," who "brought/Man's pride to
heel at last and showed/His kinship with the worm and toad." But unlike
Auden, Niedecker doesn't portray Darwin as a dark angel of intellectual
cataclysm. Instead, her Darwin suffers doubts and frustrations as he
struggles to reconcile his understanding of the animal appetite for
survival with the precarious pleasures of human intelligence. The
struggle consumes him even on his sickbed. Stricken by a fever in the
Andes, he writes to his wife, "'Dear Susan.../I am ravenous/for the
sound/of the pianoforte.'"
In fact, the person whom Darwin most resembles is the Niedecker of "Lake
Superior," the poet mesmerized by the geological remnants of lava,
glacier and sea. The naturalist's and poet's temperaments are blended
through the very form of "Darwin"--a collage of elliptical quotes from
Darwin's writings that gain the tincture of Niedecker's voice as they
are recast into stepped four-line stanzas. Just as when Niedecker
catalogues Superior's minerals in a melodious trance, Darwin's senses
open his mind to matters beyond his mastery.
I remember, he said
those tropical nights at sea--
we sat and talked
on the booms
Tierra del Fuego's
shining glaciers translucent
blue clear down
(almost) to the indigo sea
Darwin stands not against the world but within it, conscious of its
awesome mutability as well as of the need to understand that force on a
human scale so as not to be philosophically annihilated by it. (The
possibility of nuclear annihilation was on Niedecker's mind at the time
as well. In "Wintergreen Ridge," from 1968, she writes: "thin to nothing
lichens/grind with their acid//granite to sand/These may survive/the
grand blow-up/the bomb.") Like Niedecker, Darwin realizes the world is
something he knows but can't control or own. Yet he still possesses an
idea, and it encompasses more than the fact of his kinship with the worm
not built by brute force
but designed by laws
The details left
to the working of chance
"Let each man hope
what he can"
"Darwin" is a defense of the individual task of imagination and
understanding, and Collected Works allows one to appreciate how
passionately and carefully Niedecker took up that task. Like Darwin,
Niedecker felt at home even when she was away from home, her subtle and
sensuous words disclosing her belief that the actual earth is often
Let's say I'm a Jehovah's Witness, and I get a job in an understaffed
emergency room where, following the dictates of my conscience, I refuse
to assist with blood transfusions and try my best to persuade my fellow
workers to do the same. How long do you think I'd last on the job? And
after my inevitable firing, how seriously do you think a jury would take
my claim that my rights had been violated? Five minutes and not very,
right? A similar fate would surely await the surgeon who converts to
Christian Science and decides to pray over his patients instead of
operating on them, the Muslim loan officer who refuses to charge
interest, the Southern Baptist psychotherapist who tells his Jewish
patients they're bound for hell. The law rightly requires employers to
respect employees' sincerely held religious beliefs, but not if those
beliefs really do prevent an employee from performing the job for which
she's been hired.
Change the subject to reproductive rights, though, and the picture gets
decidedly strange. In 1999 Michelle Diaz, a born-again Christian nurse
who had recently been hired by the Riverside Neighborhood Health Center,
a public clinic in Southern California, decided that emergency
contraception, the so-called morning after pill that acts to prevent
pregnancy if taken within seventy-two hours of unprotected intercourse,
was actually a method of abortion. She refused to dispense it or give
referrals to other providers; the clinic offered her a position that did
not involve reproductive healthcare, but when she told temporary nurses
at the clinic that they too would be performing abortions by dispensing
EC, Diaz, who was still on probation as a new hire, lost her job. She
sued with the help of the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ),
the religious-right law firm headed by Jay Sekulow. At the end of May a
jury agreed that her rights had been violated and awarded her $47,000.
Excuse me? A nurse at a public health clinic has the right to refuse to
provide patients with legally mandated services, give out misleading
health information in order to proselytize her co-workers to refuse as
well, and keep her job? The low-income women who come to Riverside
desperately in need of EC and abortion referrals are flat out of luck if
they happen to turn up when the anti-choicers are on shift? Riverside is
the largest public health clinic in the county, serving 150-200 patients
a day, but it operates with a staff of four nurses--should those four
people decide what services the clinic can offer? What about the
patient's right to receive standard medical care? Or the clinic's
responsibility to deliver the services for which they receive government
Some states, California among them, have "conscience laws," permitting
anti-choice healthworkers to refuse to be involved in abortions. EC,
however, is just a high dose of regular birth control pills that
prevents ovulation and implantation. It is not abortion, because until a
fertilized egg implants in the womb, the woman is not pregnant. A long
list of medical authorities--the American Medical Association, the
American Medical Women's Association, the American College of
Obstetricians and Gynecologists and Harvard Medical School--agree that
EC is not an abortifacient, and a 1989 California court decision itself
distinguishes abortion from EC. There are lots of mysteries about the
Diaz case, ranging from why Diaz took a job she knew involved practices
she found immoral in the first place, to how the jury could possibly
have come up with a decision so contrary to law and public policy. Did
Diaz take the job with the express intention of disrupting services? Was
the jury anti-choice? Interestingly, the jury pool was partly drawn from
San Bernardino County, which last year unsuccessfully tried to bar its
public health clinics from dispensing EC.
Whatever the jury's thinking, the Diaz case represents the latest of
numerous attempts by the anti-choice movement to equate EC with abortion
and move it out of normal medical practice. Pharmacists for Life
International, a worldwide organization that claims to have some 1,500
members, calls it "chemical abortion" and urges pharmacists to refuse to
dispense it. The ACLJ is currently litigating on behalf of one who did.
Wal-Mart refuses to stock it at all. Anti-choicers in Britain made an
unsuccessful attempt to prevent EC from being dispensed over the counter
by placing it under an archaic law that prohibits "procuring a
miscarriage." Some anti-choicers have long argued that not just EC but
conventional birth-control methods--the pill, Norplant, Depo-Provera and
the IUD--are "abortifacients": In northern Kentucky anti-choice
extremists are campaigning to force one local health board to reject
Title X family-planning funds; according to the Lexington
Herald-Leader, the board's vote, scheduled for June 19, is too
close to call.
Although secular employers are expected to make reasonable
accommodations to religious employees--or even, if the Diaz verdict is
upheld, unreasonable ones--religious employers are not required to
return the favor. On the contrary, the Supreme Court, in The Church
of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints v. Amos, permits them to use
religious tests to hire and fire personnel as far from the sacred
mission as janitorial workers; if a Methodist church wants to refuse to
hire a Muslim security guard, it has the blessing of the Constitution to
do so. As often noted in this column, religious organizations can and do
fire employees who violate religious precepts on and even off the job. A
pro-choice nurse could not get a job at a Catholic hospital and declare
that her conscience required her to go against policy and hand out EC to
rape victims, or even tell them where to obtain it--even though medical
ethics oblige those who refuse to provide standard services for moral
reasons to give referrals, and even though Catholic hospitals typically
get about half of their revenue from the government.
According to the ACLJ, however, secular institutions should be sitting
ducks for any fanatic who can get hired even provisionally. The
Riverside clinic has asked the judge to set aside the Diaz verdict. If
that bid is unsuccessful, it will appeal. I'll let you know what
Unions are gradually making fuller use of the Internet's capacities to
improve communication with their own staffs or members. But increasingly
they are also using the web to recruit new members or to establish
"virtual communities" of union supporters in arenas not yet amenable to
the standard collective-bargaining model.
Alliance@IBM (www.allianceibm.org) is an example of an effective
Net-supported minority union, operating without a demonstrated pro-union
majority and without a collective-bargaining contract at a traditional
nonunion company. The alliance provides information and advice to
workers at IBM through the web. A similar effort at a partially
organized employer is WAGE ("Workers at GE," www.geworkersunited.org), which draws on contributions from fourteen cooperating
international unions. The Microsoft-inflected WashTech
(www.washtech.org) and the Australian IT Workers Alliance
(www.itworkers-alliance.org) are open-source unions that are closer to
craft unions or occupational associations. Both are responsive to the
distinctive professional needs of these workers, such as access to a
variety of job experiences and additional formal education, and the
portability of high-level benefits when changing jobs.
The National Writers Union (www.nwu.org), a UAW affiliate, is another
example of a union virtually created off the Net. It provides
information and advice--including extensive job postings--to members,
and it lobbies on their behalf, most spectacularly in the recent Supreme
Court decision it won on freelance worker copyright rights. But most of
its members work without a collectively bargained contract.
In Britain, UNISON (the largest union in the country) and the National
Union of Students have a website that tells student workers their rights
and gives them advice about how to deal with workplace problems
(www.troubleatwork.org.uk). It is a particularly engaging and practical
illustration of how concrete problems can be addressed through Net
Finally, for a more geographically defined labor community, take a look
at the website of the King County AFL-CIO (www.kclc.org), the Seattle
central labor council that uses the Net to coordinate its own business,
bring community and labor groups together for discussion and common
action, post messages and general information to the broader community,
and otherwise create a "virtual" union hall with much of the spirit and
dense activity that used to be common in actual union halls in major
The SAT has been on the ropes lately. The University of California
system has threatened to quit using the test for its freshman
admissions, arguing that the exam has done more harm than good. The
State of Texas, responding to a federal court order prohibiting its
affirmative action efforts, has already significantly curtailed the
importance of the SAT as a gatekeeper to its campuses. Even usually
stodgy corporate types have started to beat up on the SAT. Last year,
for example, a prominent group of corporate leaders joined the National
Urban League in calling upon college and university presidents to quit
placing so much stock in standardized admissions tests like the SAT,
which they said were "inadequate and unreliable" gatekeepers to college.
Then again, if the SAT is anything, it's a survivor. The SAT
enterprise--consisting of its owner and sponsor, the College Board, and
the test's maker and distributor, the Educational Testing Service--has
gamely reinvented itself over the years in myriad superficial ways,
hedging against the occasional dust-up of bad public relations. The SAT,
for example, has undergone name changes over the years in an effort to
reflect the democratization of higher education in America and
consequent changes in our collective notions about equal opportunity.
But through it all, the SAT's underlying social function--as a sorting
device for entry into or, more likely, maintenance of American
elitehood--has remained ingeniously intact, a firmly rooted icon of
American notions about meritocracy.
Indeed, the one intangible characteristic of the SAT and other
admissions tests that the College Board would never want to change is
the virtual equation, in the public's mind, of test scores and academic
talent. Like the tobacco companies, ETS and the College Board (both are
legally nonprofit organizations that in many respects resemble
profit-making enterprises) put a cautionary label on the product.
Regarding their SAT, the organizations are obliged by professional codes
of proper test practices to inform users of standardized admissions
tests that the exams can be "useful" predictors of later success in
college, medical school or graduate school, when used in conjunction
with other factors, such as grades.
But the true place of admissions testing in America isn't always so
appropriate. Most clear-eyed Americans know that results on the SAT,
Graduate Record Exam or the Medical College Admission Test are widely viewed as synonymous with academic talent in higher education. Whether it's true or not--and there's lots of evidence that it's not--is quite beside the point.
Given the inordinate weight that test scores play in the American
version of meritocracy, it's no surprise that federal courts have been
hearing lawsuits from white, middle-class law school applicants
complaining they were denied admission to law school even though their
LSAT scores were fifty points greater than a minority applicant who was
admitted; why neoconservative doomsayers warn that the academic quality
of America's great universities will plummet if the hordes of unwashed
(read: low test scores) are allowed entry; why articles are written
under titles like "Backdoor Affirmative Action," arguing that
de-emphasizing test scores in Texas and California is merely a covert
tactic of public universities to beef up minority enrollments in
response to court bans on affirmative action.
Indeed, Rebecca Zwick, a professor of education at the University of
California, Santa Barbara, and a former researcher at the Educational
Testing Service, wrote that "Backdoor Affirmative Action" article for
Education Week in 1999, implying that do-gooders who place less
emphasis on test scores in order to raise minority enrollments are
simply blaming the messenger. And so it should not be surprising that
the same author would provide an energetic defense of the SAT and
similar exams in her new book, Fair Game? The Use of Standardized
Admissions Tests in Higher Education.
Those, like Zwick, who are wedded to the belief that test scores are
synonymous with academic merit will like this concise book. They will
praise its 189 pages of text as, finally, a fair and balanced
demystification of the esoteric world of standardized testing. Zwick and
her publisher are positioning the book as the steady, guiding hand
occupying the sensible middle ground in an emotional debate that they
claim is dominated by journalists and other uninformed critics who don't
understand the complex subject of standardized testing. "All too
often...discussions of testing rely more on politics or emotion than on
fact," Zwick says in her preface. "This book was written with the aim of
equipping contestants in the inevitable public debates with some solid
information about testing."
If only it were true. Far from reflecting the balanced approach the
author claims, the book is thinly disguised advocacy for the status quo
and a defense of the hegemony of gatekeeping exams for college and
university admissions. It could be more accurately titled (without the
bothersome question mark) "Fair Game: Why America Needs the SAT."
As it stands, the research staff of the College Board and the
Educational Testing Service, Zwick's former employer, might as well have
written this book, as she trots out all the standard arguments those organizations have used for years to show why healthy doses of standardized testing are really good for American education. At almost every opportunity, Zwick quotes an ETS or College Board study in the most favorable light, couching it as the final word on a particular issue, while casting aspersion on
other studies and researchers (whose livelihoods don't depend on selling
tests) that might well draw different conclusions. Too often Zwick
provides readers who might be unfamiliar with the research about testing
with an overly simplistic and superficial treatment. At worst, she
leaves readers with grossly misleading impressions.
After providing a quick and dirty account of IQ testing at the turn of
the last century, a history that included the rabidly eugenic beliefs of
many of the early testmakers and advocates in Britain and the United
States ("as test critics like to point out," Zwick sneers), the author
introduces readers to one of the central ideologies of mental testing to
sort a society's young for opportunities for higher education. Sure,
mental testing has brought some embarrassing moments in history that we
moderns frown on nowadays, but the testing movement has had its good
guys too. Rather than being a tool to promote and protect the interests
of a society's most privileged citizens, the cold objectivity of
standardized testing remains an important goal for exercise of
According to this belief, standardized testing for admission to college
serves the interest of meritocracy, in which people are allowed to shine
by their wits, not their social connections. That same ideology, says
Zwick, drove former Harvard president James Bryant Conant, whom Zwick
describes as a "staunch supporter of equal opportunity," in his quest to
establish a single entrance exam, the SAT, for all colleges. Conant, of
course, would become the first chairman of the board of the newly formed
Educational Testing Service. But, as Nicholas Lemann writes in his 1999
book The Big Test: The Secret History of the American
Meritocracy, Conant wasn't nearly so interested in widening
opportunity to higher education as Zwick might think. Conant was keen on
expanding opportunity, but, as Lemann says, only for "members of a tiny
cohort of intellectually gifted men." Disillusioned only with the form
of elitism that had taken shape at Harvard and other Ivy League
colleges, which allotted opportunities based on wealth and parentage,
Conant was nevertheless a staunch elitist, an admirer of the
Jeffersonian ideal of a "natural aristocracy." In Conant's perfect
world, access to this new kind of elitehood would be apportioned not by
birthright but by performance on aptitude tests. Hence the SAT, Lemann
writes, "would finally make possible the creation of a natural
The longstanding belief that high-stakes mental tests are the great
equalizer of society is dubious at best, and at worst a clever piece of
propaganda that has well served the interests of American elites. In
fact, Alfred Binet himself--among the fathers of IQ testing, who would
invent the first version of the Stanford-Binet intelligence test, the
precursor to the modern SAT--observed the powerful relationship between
one's performance on his so-called intelligence test and a child's
social class, a phenomenon Binet described in his 1916 book The
Development of Intelligence in Children.
And it's the same old story with the SAT. Look at the college-bound high
school seniors of 2001 who took the SAT, and the odds are still firmly
stacked against young people of modest economic backgrounds' beating the
SAT odds. A test-taker whose parents did not complete high school can
expect to score fully 171 points below the SAT average, College Board
figures show. On the other hand, high schoolers whose moms and dads have
graduate degrees can expect to outperform the SAT average by 106 points.
What's more, the gaps in SAT performance between whites and blacks and
between whites and Mexican-Americans have only ballooned in the past ten
years. The gap between white and black test-takers widened five points
and eleven points on the SAT verbal and math sections, respectively,
between 1991 and 2001. SAT score gaps between whites and
Mexican-Americans surged a total of thirty-three points during that same
For critics of the national testing culture, such facts are troubling
indeed, suggestive of a large web of inequity that permeates society and
the educational opportunities distributed neatly along class and race
lines, from preschool through medical school. But for Zwick, the notion
of fairness when applied to standardized admissions tests boils down to
a relatively obscure but standard procedure in her field of
"psychometrics," which is in part the study of the statistical
properties of standardized tests.
Mere differences in average test scores between most minority groups and
whites or among social classes isn't all that interesting to Zwick. More
interesting, she maintains, is the comparative accuracy of test scores
in predicting university grades between whites and other racial groups.
In this light, she says, the SAT and most standardized admissions tests
are not biased against blacks, Latinos or Native Americans. In fact, she
says, drawing on 1985 data from a College Board study that looked at
forty-five colleges, those minority groups earned lower grades in
college than predicted by their SAT scores--a classic case of
"overprediction" that substantiates the College Board claim that the SAT
is more than fair to American minorities. By contrast, if the SAT is
unfair to any group, it's unfair to whites and Asian-Americans, because
they get slightly better college grades than the SAT would predict,
Then there's the odd circumstance when it comes to standardized
admissions tests and women. A number of large studies of women and
testing at the University of California, Berkeley, the University of
Michigan and other institutions have consistently shown that while women
(on average) don't perform as well on standardized tests as male
test-takers do, women do better than men in actual classroom work.
Indeed, Zwick acknowledges that standardized tests, unlike for most
minority groups, tend to "underpredict" the actual academic performance
But on this question, as with so many others in her book, Zwick's
presentation is thin, more textbookish than the thorough examination and
analysis her more demanding readers would expect. Zwick glosses over a
whole literature on how the choice of test format, such as
multiple-choice versus essay examinations, rewards some types of
cognitive approaches and punishes others. For example, there's evidence
to suggest that SAT-type tests dominated by multiple-choice formats
reward speed, risk-taking and other surface-level "gaming" strategies
that may be more characteristic of males than of females. Women and
girls may tend to approach problems somewhat more carefully, slowly and
thoroughly--cognitive traits that serve them well in the real world of
classrooms and work--but hinder their standardized test performance
compared with that of males.
Beyond Zwick's question of whether the SAT and other admissions tests
are biased against women or people of color is the perhaps more basic
question of whether these tests are worthwhile predictors of academic
performance for all students. Indeed, the ETS and the College Board sell
the SAT on the rather narrow promise that it helps colleges predict
freshman grades, period. On this issue, Zwick's presentation is not a
little pedantic, seeming to paint anyone who doesn't claim to be a
psychometrician as a statistical babe in the woods. Zwick quotes the
results of a College Board study published in 1994 finding that one's
SAT score by itself accounts for about 13 percent of the differences in
freshman grades; that one's high school grade average is a slightly
better predictor of college grades, accounting for about 15 percent of
the grade differences among freshmen; and that the SAT combined with
high school grades is a better predictor than the use of grades alone.
In other words, it's the standard College Board line that the SAT is
"useful" when used with other factors in predicting freshman grades. (It
should be noted that Zwick, consistent with virtually all College Board
and ETS presentations, reports her correlation statistics without
converting them into what's known as "R-squared" figures. In my view,
the latter statistics provide readers with a common-sense understanding
of the relative powers of high school grades and test scores in
predicting college grades. I have made those conversions for readers in
the statistics quoted above.)
Unfortunately, Zwick misrepresents the real point that test critics make
on the question of predictive validity of tests like the SAT. The
salient issue is whether the small extra gains in predicting freshman
grades that the SAT might afford individual colleges outweigh the social
and economic costs of the entire admissions testing enterprise, costs
borne by individual test-takers and society at large.
Even on the narrow question of the usefulness of the SAT to individual
colleges, Zwick does not adequately answer what's perhaps the single
most devastating critique of the SAT. For example, in the 1988 book
The Case Against the SAT, James Crouse and Dale Trusheim argued
compellingly that the SAT is, for all practical purposes, useless to
colleges. They showed, for example, that if a college wanted to maximize
the number of freshmen who would earn a grade-point average of at least
2.5, then the admissions office's use of high school rank alone as the
primary screening tool would result in 62.2 percent "correct"
admissions. Adding the SAT score would improve the rate of correct
decisions by only about 2 in 100. The researchers also showed,
remarkably, that if the admissions objective is broader, such as
optimizing the rate of bachelor's degree completion for those earning
grade averages of at least 2.5, the use of high school rank by itself
would yield a slightly better rate of prediction than if the SAT scores
were added to the mix, rendering the SAT counterproductive. "From a
practical viewpoint, most colleges could ignore their applicants' SAT
score reports when they make decisions without appreciably altering the
academic performance and the graduation rates of students they admit,"
Crouse and Trusheim concluded.
At least two relatively well-known cases of colleges at opposite ends of
the public-private spectrum, which have done exactly as Crouse and
Trusheim suggest, powerfully illustrate the point. Consider the
University of Texas system, which was compelled by a 1996 federal
appeals court order, the Hopwood decision, to dismantle its
affirmative-action admissions programs. The Texas legislature responded
to the threat of diminished diversity at its campuses with the "top 10
percent plan," requiring public universities to admit any student
graduating in the top 10 percent of her high school class, regardless of
Zwick, of course, is obliged in a book of this type to mention the Texas
experience. But she does so disparagingly and without providing her
readers with the most salient details on the policy's effects in terms
of racial diversity and the academic performance of students. Consider
the diversity question. While some progressives might have first
recoiled at the new policy as itself an attack on affirmative action,
that has not been the case. In fact, at the University of Texas at
Austin, the racial diversity of freshman classes has been restored to
pre-Hopwood levels, after taking an initial hit. Indeed, the
percentage of white students at Austin reached a historic low point in
2001, at 61 percent. What's more, the number of high schools sending
students to the state's flagship campus at Austin has significantly
broadened. The "new senders" to the university include more inner-city
schools in Dallas, Houston and San Antonio, as well as more rural
schools than in the past, according to research by UT history professor
David Montejano, among the plan's designers.
But the policy's impact on academic performance at the university might
be even more compelling, since that is the point upon which
neoconservative critics have been most vociferous in their condemnations
of such "backdoor" affirmative action plans that put less weight on test
scores. A December 1999 editorial in The New Republic typified
this road-to-ruin fiction: Alleging that the Texas plan and others like
it come "at the cost of dramatically lowering the academic
qualifications of entering freshmen," the TNR editorial warned,
these policies are "a recipe for the destruction of America's great
Zwick, too, neglects to mention the facts about academic performance of
the "top 10 percenters" at the University of Texas, who have proven the
dire warnings to be groundless. At every SAT score interval, from less
than 900 to scores of 1,500 and higher, in the year 2000, students
admitted without regard to their SAT score earned better grades than
their non-top 10 percent counterparts, according to the university's
latest research report on the policy.
Or, consider that the top 10 percenters average a GPA of 3.12 as
freshmen. Their SAT average was about 1,145, fully 200 points lower than
non-top 10 percent students, who earned slightly lower GPAs of 3.07. In
fact, the grade average of 3.12 for the automatically admitted students
with moderate SAT scores was equal to the grade average of non-top 10
percenters coming in with SATs of 1,500 and higher. The same pattern has
held across the board, and for all ethnic groups.
Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, is one case of a college that seemed
to anticipate the message of the Crouse and Trusheim research. Bates ran
its own numbers and found that the SAT was simply not a sufficiently
adequate predictor of academic success for many students and abandoned
the test as an entry requirement several years ago. Other highly
selective institutions have similar stories to tell, but Bates serves to
illustrate. In dropping the SAT mandate, the college now gives students
a choice of submitting SATs or not. But it permits no choice in
requiring that students submit a detailed portfolio of their actual work
and accomplishments while in high school for evaluation, an admissions
process completed not just by admissions staff but by the entire Bates
As with the Texas automatic admission plan, Zwick would have been
negligent not to mention the case of Bates, and she does so in her
second chapter; but it's an incomplete and skewed account. Zwick quotes
William Hiss, the former dean of admissions at Bates, in a 1993
interview in which he suggests that the Bates experience, while perhaps
appropriate for a smaller liberal arts college, probably couldn't be
duplicated at large public universities. That quote well serves Zwick's
thesis that the SAT is a bureaucratically convenient way to maintain
academic quality at public institutions like UT-Austin and the
University of California. "With the capability to conduct an intensive
review of applications and the freedom to consider students' ethnic and
racial backgrounds, these liberal arts colleges are more likely than
large university systems to succeed in fostering diversity while toeing
the line on academic quality," Zwick writes.
But Zwick neglects to mention that Hiss has since disavowed his caveats
about Bates's lessons for larger public universities. In fact, Hiss, now
a senior administrator at the college, becomes palpably irritated at
inequalities built into admissions systems that put too much stock in
mental testing. He told me in a late 1998 interview, "There are twenty
different ways you can dramatically open up the system, and if you
really want to, you'll figure out a way. And don't complain to me about
the cost, that we can't afford it."
Zwick punctuates her brief discussion of Bates and other institutions
that have dropped the SAT requirement by quoting from an October 30,
2000, article, also in The New Republic, that purportedly
revealed the "dirty little secret" on why Bates and other colleges have
abandoned the SAT. The piece cleverly observed that because SAT
submitters tend to have higher test scores than nonsubmitters, dropping
the SAT has the added statistical quirk of boosting SAT averages in
U.S. News & World Report's coveted college rankings. That
statistical anomaly was the smoking gun the TNR reporter needed
to "prove" the conspiracy.
But to anyone who has seriously researched the rationales colleges have
used in dropping the SAT, the TNR piece was a silly bit of
reporting. At Bates, as at the University of Texas, the SAT
"nonsubmitters" have performed as well or better academically than
students who submitted SATs, often with scores hundreds of points lower
than the SAT submitters. But readers of Fair Game? wouldn't know
One could go on citing many more cases in which Zwick misleads her
readers through lopsided reporting and superficial analysis, such as her
statements that the Graduate Record Exam is about as good a predictor of
graduate school success as the SAT is for college freshmen (it's not,
far from it), or her overly optimistic spin on the results of many
studies showing poor correlations between standardized test scores and
later career successes.
Finally, Zwick's presentation might have benefited from a less
textbookish style, with more enriching details and concrete examples.
Instead, she tries to position herself as a "just the facts" professor
who won't burden readers with extraneous contextual details or accounts
of the human side of the testing culture. But like the enormously
successful--at least in commercial terms--standardized tests themselves,
which promote the entrenched belief in American society that genuine
learning and expert knowledge are tantamount to success on Who Wants
to Be a Millionaire-type multiple-choice questions, books like Fair Game? might be the standardized account that some readers really want.
A DECADE after the end of the cold war, the peril of nuclear destruction
is mounting. The great powers have refused to give up nuclear arms,
other countries are producing them and terrorist groups are trying to
POORLY GUARDED warheads and nuclear material in the former Soviet Union
may fall into the hands of terrorists. The Bush Administration is
developing nuclear "bunker busters" and threatening to use them against
nonnuclear countries. The risk of nuclear war between India and Pakistan
DESPITE THE END of the cold war, the United States plans to keep large
numbers of nuclear weapons indefinitely. The latest US-Russian treaty,
which will cut deployed strategic warheads to 2,200, leaves both nations
facing "assured destruction" and lets them keep total arsenals (active
and inactive, strategic and tactical) of more than 10,000 warheads each.
THE DANGERS POSED by huge arsenals, threats of use, proliferation and
terrorism are linked: The nuclear powers' refusal to disarm fuels
proliferation, and proliferation makes nuclear materials more accessible
THE EVENTS of September 11 brought home to Americans what it means to
experience a catastrophic attack. Yet the horrifying losses that day
were only a fraction of what any nation would suffer if a single nuclear
weapon were used on a city.
THE DRIFT TOWARD catastrophe must be reversed. Safety from nuclear
destruction must be our goal. We can reach it only by reducing and then
eliminating nuclear arms under binding agreements.
WE THEREFORE CALL ON THE UNITED STATES AND RUSSIA TO FULFILL THEIR
COMMITMENTS UNDER THE NONPROLIFERATION TREATY TO MOVE TOGETHER WITH THE
OTHER NUCLEAR POWERS, STEP BY CAREFULLY INSPECTED AND VERIFIED STEP, TO
THE ABOLITION OF NUCLEAR WEAPONS. AS KEY STEPS TOWARD THIS GOAL, WE CALL
ON THE UNITED STATES TO:
§ RENOUNCE the first use of nuclear weapons.
§ Permanently END the development, testing and production of nuclear warheads.
§ SEEK AGREEMENT with Russia on the mutual and verified destruction of nuclear weapons withdrawn under treaties, and increase the resources available here and in the former Soviet Union to secure nuclear warheads and material and to implement destruction.
§ STRENGTHEN nonproliferation efforts by ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, finalizing a missile ban in North Korea, supporting UN inspections in Iraq, locating and reducing fissile material worldwide and negotiating a ban on its production.
§ TAKE nuclear weapons off hairtrigger alert in concert with the other nuclear powers (the UK, France, Russia, China, India, Pakistan and Israel) in order to reduce the risk of accidental or unauthorized use.
§ INITIATE talks on further nuclear cuts, beginning with US and Russian reductions to 1,000 warheads each.
TO SIGN THE STATEMENT, GO TO URGENTCALL.ORG OR SEND NAME,
ORGANIZATION/PROFESSION (FOR ID ONLY) AND CONTACT INFORMATION TO URGENT
CALL, C/O FOURTH FREEDOM FORUM, 11 DUPONT CIRCLE NW, 9TH FLOOR,
WASHINGTON, DC 20036. WE NEED TAX-DEDUCTIBLE DONATIONS, MADE TO URGENT
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THIS CALL WAS DRAFTED BY JONATHAN SCHELL, THE HAROLD WILLENS PEACE
FELLOW OF THE NATION INSTITUTE AND THE AUTHOR OF THE FATE OF THE
EARTH; RANDALL CAROLINE (RANDY) FORSBERG, DIRECTOR OF THE INSTITUTE
FOR DEFENSE AND DISARMAMENT STUDIES AND AUTHOR OF THE "CALL TO HALT THE
NUCLEAR ARMS RACE," THE MANIFESTO OF THE 1980s NUCLEAR WEAPONS FREEZE
CAMPAIGN; AND DAVID CORTRIGHT, PRESIDENT OF THE FOURTH FREEDOM FORUM AND
FORMER EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF SANE.
One mystery I've tried to disentangle:
Why Cheney's head is always at an angle.
He tries to come on straight, and yet I can't
Help notice that his head is at a slant.
When Cheney's questioned on the Sunday shows,
The Voice of Reason is his favorite pose.
He drones in monotones. He never smiles--
Explaining why some suspects don't need trials,
Or why right now it simply stands to reason
That criticizing Bush amounts to treason,
Or which important precept it would spoil
To know who wrote our policy on oil,
Or why as CEO he wouldn't know
What Halliburton's books were meant to show.
And as he speaks I've kept a careful check
On when his head's held crooked on his neck.
The code is broken, after years of trying:
He only cocks his head when he is lying.
NOT AN APOLOGIST FOR ISRAEL
His justifiable zeal to defend Palestinian rights leads Alexander
Cockburn to call me an apologist for "policies put into practice by
racists, ethnic cleansers and, in Sharon's case, an unquestioned war
criminal who should be in the dock for his conduct" ["Beat the Devil,"
June 3]. Since I share Cockburn's criticism of reflexive support for
every Israeli policy and I agree with much of what he says about false
claims of anti-Semitism, I wish he'd accompanied his identification of
my possible inconsistencies with accurate reporting of what I actually
wrote. Ascribing to me words I'd never say and views I reject is either
sloppy or dishonest.
My essay in Salon suggested the pro-Palestinian left should
address, where it exists, anti-Semitism, superficial argumentation and
difficulties of communication. I end with this: "The justice-based left
must seek analyses and solutions built on general principles, and reject
those that make new forms of oppression inevitable."
I also say this: I march to protest Israeli policy; Israel has committed
past massacres and West Bank atrocities; ending Palestinian oppression
is central; the occupation must end; expulsion of Palestinians would
amount to ethnic cleansing; the pro-Israel explanation of how
Palestinians became refugees in 1948 is unsupported; armed resistance
(though not against uninvolved civilians) is legitimate; a Palestinian
call for militant nonviolent resistance is welcome. And I say clearly
that opposing Israeli policy is not anti-Semitic.
Cockburn's absolutism is matched by his opposites. A letter to my local
newspaper, for which I write a column, claimed that my views would lead
to "the destruction of Israel and create a danger to Jews throughout the
world." That writer, too, sees only what he wants to see.
I continue to advocate justice-focused discussion. Please see
people.uis.edu/dfox1/politics/israel.html for more.
There was nothing sloppy or dishonest about what I wrote. The third
paragraph of Fox's letter is fine, and if my column pushed him to make
it clear, it served its purpose. I wish he'd written it in his
NOT AN ON-THE-RECORD SOURCE
Jason Leopold's "White Should Go--Now" [May 27] is built upon lies and
unethical reporting. Not only did Leopold unethically list me as an
on-the-record source, he attributed comments to me that were never
discussed and are absolutely not true.
In reference to energy contracts signed with major California customers
in 1998, the article incorrectly states, "Jestings said he told [Thomas]
White that EES [Enron Energy Services] would actually lose money this
way, but White said Enron would make up the difference by selling
electricity on the spot market...which Enron had bet would skyrocket in
2000." The article continues the lies by stating that "Jestings said he
continued to complain to White that the profits declared by the retail
unit were not real." These statements were never made to Leopold and are
absolutely false. I had significant responsibility for these 1998
contracts and believed that they would be profitable, and therefore I
would never have made such statements. Furthermore, if Enron believed
the spot market would skyrocket in 2000, it would never have signed
long-term, fixed-rate contracts with these California customers in 1998!
Leopold then states that "Jestings said he resigned from EES in 2000
because he did not agree with the way EES reported profits." Again, this
is not true. I resigned in early 1999 for personal reasons and not
because of the way EES reported profits. In fact, EES was not making
profits when I left.
It is clear that Leopold is trying to build a picture of cover-up and
manipulation by White using statements falsely attributed to me. This is
irresponsible reporting at its worst. In my short tenure at EES, I
developed great respect for White. He is an honest and ethical man and
deserves fair reporting.
During my hourlong conversations with Lee Jestings on not one but
three different occasions leading up to the publication of this story, I
reminded Jestings that I would be using his comments in print. Simply
put, Jestings was well aware that he was on the record. He cannot
retract his statements after the fact and then accuse me of being
unethical and a liar. I sought out Jestings, and when I found him he
chose to respond to my numerous questions about EES and Thomas White. I
did, however, mistakenly report that Jestings left EES in 2000.
Jestings says that EES did not show a profit when he left. However, EES
under White's leadership reported that the unit was profitable in 1999
after Jestings left the company. But Enron was forced in April to
restate those profits because they were illusory. Moreover, Jestings
said during the interview that he had taken issue with EES's use of
"mark to market" accounting, in which the unit was able to immediately
book gains based on contracts signed with large businesses. Jestings
never said during the interview that he believed these contracts would
eventually become profitable. But that's beside the point. Jestings said
EES's use of aggressive accounting tactics during White's tenure left
shareholders believing the company was performing better than it
Jestings says White was honest and ethical while he was vice chairman at
EES. My report indicates otherwise.
NOT SMALLER THAN A DAISY CUTTER
West Orange, NJ
There was a critical error in "Relearning to Love the Bomb" by Raffi
Khatchadourian [April 1]. Khatchadourian says that so-called mini-nukes
of about five-kiloton yield have smaller explosive effects than the US
conventional "daisy cutter" bombs. This is clearly wrong. A five-kiloton
explosion is equal to 5,000 tons of TNT, while the daisy cutter weighs
only 7.5 tons. Even allowing for the development of modern explosives
more powerful than TNT, the difference between the weapons, and their
relative destructive potential, is of several orders of magnitude. The
following excerpt from the Federation of American Scientists' Military
Analysis Network (www.fas.org/man/dod-101/sys/dumb/blu-82.htm) directly addresses that point.
"The BLU-82B/C-130 weapon system, nicknamed Commando Vault in Vietnam
and Daisy Cutter in Afghanistan, is a high altitude delivery of
15,000-pound conventional bomb, delivered from an MC-130 since it is far
too heavy for the bomb racks on any bomber or attack aircraft.
Originally designed to create an instant clearing in the jungle, it has
been used in Afghanistan as an anti-personnel weapon and as an
intimidation weapon because of its very large lethal radius (variously
reported as 300-900 feet) combined with flash and sound visible at long
distances. It is the largest conventional bomb in existence but is less
than one thousandth the power of the Hiroshima nuclear bomb."
No useful analysis of nuclear policy can be made by equating large
conventional bombs with even the smallest nuclear bombs in any way. An
analysis of policy and decision-making regarding the
conventional/nuclear threshold demands a clear understanding of how very
powerful and devastating nuclear weapons are. The author seems to be
blurring the lines of allowable nuclear-weapons use far more than the
Administration he criticizes.
New York City
Let me begin by pointing out that I said "five kilotons or less." Some
proponents of new nukes have pushed for weapons of lower tonnage. Others
argue that five kilotons is roughly optimal.
C. Paul Robinson, director of Sandia National Laboratories, demonstrates
the debate: "I'm not talking about sub-kiloton weapons...
as some have advocated, but devices in the low-kiloton range, in order
to contemplate the destruction of hard or hidden targets, while being
mindful of the need to minimize collateral damage." In April, Benjamin
Friedman, an analyst at the Center for Defense Information, wrote: "What
is revolutionary about current proposals is the idea of reducing the
yield of tactical nuclear weapons to levels approaching those of
conventional explosives, to around one-tenth of a kiloton, which would
theoretically bridge the gap between a conventional and a nuclear
The United States has developed "sub-kiloton" atomic weapons before. One
such weapon, the Davy Crockett, contained warheads weighing only
fifty-one pounds, with explosive yields near 0.01 kilotons (roughly 10
tons of TNT). We made 2,100 of those between 1956 and 1963.
When my article was written, it was unclear what size the Bush
Administration's defense team envisioned for its nuclear bunker buster.
To a degree it still isn't, although some now suggest it could be above
five kilotons. However, this doesn't change what's being contemplated: a
weapon that appears to avoid the kind of casualties that put current
nukes outside the boundary of political acceptability.
I regret if I seemed to suggest that a five-kiloton nuclear warhead
could be smaller in explosive power than the world's largest
conventional weapon. That is inaccurate. I attempted to illustrate that
on the continuum of weaponry, a gap that appeared inconceivably wide not
so long ago is now being pushed closer. As the recent Nuclear Posture
Review demonstrates, narrowing that distance is as much a matter of
ideas as a matter of tons.
NOT THE GREAT WHITE HOPE?
Katha Pollitt is right on about great white hope Dennis Kucinich
["Subject to Debate," May 27 and June 10]. The boys who disparage
abortion rights as a foolish, single-issue orthodoxy don't have a clue.
Here's a hint for you guys. "Abortion" is about equitable reproductive
health services for women, obviously including the ability to end a
pregnancy, but it's also about how we think of women, and how we treat
them. Are women valued as the sum of their reproductive parts, or as
We know where the fundamentalists stand: Protestant, Catholic, Hindu,
Islamic and Jewish fundamentalisms, as well as secular dictatorships,
are united on the need to control women's bodies. And now, thanks to
Pollitt, we know where Kucinich stands. He moves or he loses.
New York City
As co-directors of an organization of the economic left, we second
Katha Pollitt's admonition that Dennis Kucinich cannot claim the mantle
of an economic progressive while being virulently anti-choice.
Reproductive freedom is not just a matter of personal morality, it is a
fundamental element of economic justice. No woman can determine her own
economic destiny without the freedom to choose whether to bear a child.
Progressives looking for champions cannot be so desperate as to overlook
such a fundamental right. There are numerous other members of
Congress--of course, we'd like a lot more--who understand that
reproductive rights are part of the fight for economic justice.
RICHARD KIRSCH, KAREN SCHARFF
Citizen Action of New York
My weekly ritual of reading the Nation cover to cover on Monday
was stymied last week when my postman left my mailbox door open on a
soaker of a day. I got home eager for the week's insights only to find a
soggy Nation limp in the box. Eek! I ran upstairs and spastically looked
for options. My girlfriend with astonishment: "What the heck are you
doing?" when she saw me using the hair dryer to dry my coveted pages one
by one. Did you ever know how important your work is!
In Texas, where he managed George W. Bush's political rise, Karl Rove was often referred to as "Bush's brain."
In fact, Austin reporters used to note that crazy notions Rove expounded upon at the bar on Saturday night had a funny way of popping out of his candidate's mouth on Monday morning.
The Bush White House has gone to great pains since George W. assumed the presidency to downplay the influence that Rove has over the administration's political and policy agendas. But the Republican faithful know the real story, and they have made Rove a star of the Grand Old Party's national fund-raising circuit. Rove regularly appears at $500-a-head, closed-door "VIP receptions" around the country. Republican operatives say he rates a bit above Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Mississippi, and far above House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Illinois, on the list of most desired after-dinner speakers at gatherings of the faithful.
There are those who wrongly believe that the debate over civil liberties in this country breaks along ideological grounds. It's an easy mistake to make: Especially when Attorney General John Ashcroft, a certified -- and, arguably, certifiable -- conservative is treating the Constitution like it was a threat to America.
The important thing to remember is that Ashcroft's misguided war on individual rights has been supported at key turns by top Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-SD, and House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo. Both Democrats backed the draconian USA PATRIOT ACT last fall, as did the overwhelming majority of their fellow Congressional Democrats. And both Daschle and Gephardt have been troublingly mild in their criticism of Ashcroft's recent attempt to interpret that legislation in a manner guaranteed to undermine Constitutional protections.
To be sure, criticism of Ashcroft's excesses has not fit into the easy stereotypes that are often used to analyze Congress. US Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., who broke with Democrats to back Ashcroft's nomination for attorney general, cast the sole Senate vote against Ashcroft's anti-terrorism legislation. Georgia conservative Bob Barr and California liberal Maxine Waters, bitter foes during the Clinton impeachment fight of 1998, held a joint press conference to condemn the Bush administration's disregard for civil liberties.
Did you know that the mere act of asking what kind of warning members of
the Bush Administration may have received about a 9/11-like attack is
just clever hype by that sneaky liberal media conspiracy? So goes the
argument of the regular National Review seat on Communist News
Network liberal media program, Reliable Sources. Recently, host
(and Washington Post media reporter) Howard Kurtz decided to fill
the chair not with his favorite guest/source, NR editor Rich Lowry, or the much-invited NR
Online editor, Jonah Goldberg, but with the relatively obscure
NR managing editor, Jay Nordlinger. Nordlinger explained, "The
story is surprisingly slight," blown up by a liberal media fearing Bush
was getting "a free ride." Give the man points for consistency. The Bush
White House's exploitation of 9/11 to fatten Republican coffers via the
sale of the President's photo that fateful day--scurrying from safe
location to safe location--was also, in Nordlinger's view, "another
Nordlinger's complaint echoed the even stronger contention of another
Kurtz favorite, Andrew Sullivan. The world-famous
gaycatholictorygapmodel took the amazing position that potential
warnings about a terrorist threat that would kill thousands and land us
in Afghanistan was "not a story" at all. Sounding like a Karl Rove/Mary
Matalin love child, Sullivan contended, "The real story here is the
press and the Democrats' need for a story about the war to change the
climate of support for the President."
But Sullivan at least deserves our admiration for expertly spinning
Kurtz regarding The New York Times Magazine's decision to cut him
loose. Echoing Sullivan's PR campaign--and with a supportive quote from,
uh, Rich Lowry--Kurtz framed the story entirely as one of Times
executive editor Howell Raines avenging Sullivan's obsessive attacks on
the paper's liberal bias. OK, perhaps the standards for a Post
writer tweaking the Times top dog are not those of, say, Robert
Caro on Robert Moses, but where's the evidence that Raines was even
involved? The paper had plenty of reasons to lose Sullivan even if his
stupendously narcissistic website never existed. Sullivan's Times
work may have been better disciplined than his "TRB" columns in the
notsoliberal New Republic (before he was replaced by editor Peter
Beinart) and certainly than the nonsense he posts online, but it still
must have embarrassed the Newspaper of Record. As (now Times Book
Review columnist) Judith Shulevitz pointed out in a critique of his
"dangerously misleading" paean to testosterone, Sullivan was permitted
to "mix up his subjective reactions with laboratory work." Stanford
neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky told Shulevitz at the time, Sullivan "is
entitled to his fairly nonscientific opinion, but I'm astonished at the
New York Times." The Andrew Sullivan Principles of Pre-Emptive
Sexual Disclosure also embarrassed the magazine when he used its pages
to out as gay two Clinton Cabinet members and liberal Democrats like
Rosie O'Donnell. (I imagine he came to regret this invasion of privacy
when his own life became tabloid fare.) Meanwhile, Sullivan's
McCarthyite London Sunday Times column about September 11--in
which he waxed hysterical about the alleged danger of a pro-terrorist
"Fifth Column" located in the very city that suffered the attack--should
have been enough to put off any discerning editor forever. Yet the myth
of his martyrdom continues. Sullivan's website carries the vainglorious
moniker "unfit to print." For once, he's right.
* * *
Sorry, I know enough can be more than enough, but this quote of Sully's
is irresistible: "I ignored Geoffrey Nunberg's piece in The American
Prospect in April, debunking the notion of liberal media bias by
numbers, because it so flew in the face of what I knew that I figured
something had to be wrong." When a conservative pundit "knows" something
to be true, don't go hassling him with contrary evidence. It so happens
that linguist Geoffrey Nunberg did the necessary heavy lifting to
disprove perhaps the one contention in Bernard Goldberg's book
Bias the so-called liberal media felt compelled--perhaps out of
misplaced generosity--to accept: that the media tend to label
conservatives as such more frequently than alleged liberals. Tom
Goldstein bought into it in Columbia Journalism Review. So did
Jonathan Chait in TNR. Howard Kurtz and Jeff Greenfield let it go
unchallenged on Communist News Network. Meanwhile, Goldberg admits to
"knowing," Sullivan style, happily ignorant of any relevant data beyond
his own biases. He did no research, he says, because he did not want his
book "to be written from a social scientist point of view."
Unfortunately for Bernie, Nunberg discovered that alleged liberals are
actually labeled as such by mainstream journalists more frequently than
are conservatives. This is true for politicians, for actors, for
lawyers, for everyone--even institutions like think tanks and pressure
groups. The reasons for this are open to speculation, but Nunberg has
the numbers. A weblogger named Edward Boyd ran his own set of numbers
that came out differently, but Nunberg effectively disposed of Boyd's
(honest) errors in a follow-up article for TAP Online. In a truly
bizarre Village Voice column, Nat Hentoff recently sought to ally
himself with the pixilated Goldberg but felt a need to add the
qualifier, "The merits of Goldberg's book aside..." Actually, it's no
qualifier at all. Goldberg's worthless book has only one merit, which
was to inspire my own forthcoming book refuting it. (Hentoff
mischaracterizes that, too.) Meanwhile, the merits of Hentoff's column
aside, it's a great column.
* * *
Speaking of ex-leftists, what's up with Christopher Hitchens calling
Todd Gitlin and me "incurable liberals"? Since when is liberalism
treated as something akin to a disease in this, America's oldest
continuously published liberal magazine? Here's hoping my old friend
gets some treatment for his worsening case of incurable Horowitzism. (Or
is it Sullivanism? Hentoffism? Is there a Doctor of Philosophy in the
Meanwhile, I've got a new weblog with more of this kind of thing at
www.altercation.msnbc.com. Check it every day, or the terrorists
"Death Star," "Get Shorty," "Fat Boy"--the revelation of Enron's trading
schemes in California have turned the Enron scandals virulent again.
Just when the White House thought the disease was in remission and
relegated to the business pages, the California scams exposed more of a
still-metastasizing cancer of corporate corruption.
Internal Enron memos reveal that it and other companies preyed on
California's energy crisis, helping to manufacture shortages and using
sham trades to drive up prices. The somnambulant Federal Energy
Regulatory Commission (FERC)--headed by Pat Wood III, "Kenny Boy" Lay's
handpicked chairman--decided that its initial finding of no market
manipulation in California was inoperable and opened a broader
investigation. With stocks plummeting and lawsuits piling up, CEOs at
Dynegy and CMS Energy resigned, as did heads of trading at Reliant
Resources and CMS.
The Bush Administration was directly implicated as the White House's
Enron stonewall began to collapse. A reluctant Joseph Lieberman,
chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, finally got
sufficient spine to issue subpoenas, stimulating the White House to
release more documents about its contacts with Enron. These showed that
the White House had lied to House investigators when it reported only
six contacts between Enron officials and the White House energy task
force. The incomplete White House submissions now admit four times that
number, with more surely to come.
Lay and the Enron executives were pressing Vice President Cheney not
only to influence the President's energy policy but also to oppose price
controls on electricity in California, even as they were gaming the
market. Cheney and Bush responded to their leading contributor by
publicly scorning price controls, while White House aides encouraged the
energy industry to organize an ad campaign in California against
controls. Cheney surely felt comfortable with Enron's shady side: As we
recently learned, when he was CEO of Halliburton and its profits were
declining, his accountants--the ubiquitous Arthur Andersen--suddenly
started counting as revenue a portion of payments that were in dispute,
without informing investors of the change.
The Administration has painted Enron as a business, not a political,
scandal. Now it is apparent that the scandal is political and
economic, showing the problems of a system with too little
accountability and too much corporate influence both in the White House
and on Capitol Hill. And with the United States having to import more
than $1 billion a day in capital to cover trade deficits, the scandals
are already a drag on investment, growth and jobs.
Neither the Administration, Congress nor the business lobby has yet
awakened to the perils. Bush retains as Army Secretary former Enron
executive Tom White, who claims no knowledge that his subsidiary was
involved in the sham trading schemes (although his own bonuses were
undoubtedly based in part on the inflated revenues that resulted). Big
Five accounting firms lobbyist Harvey Pitt remains head of the SEC, even
after repeatedly traducing elementary ethics by meeting privately with
representatives of companies under investigation by his agency. Wood
remains the head of FERC, even as legislators call on him to recuse
himself from the California investigation. Bush and House Republicans
continue to resist sensible reforms. The business and accounting lobby,
in a victory of ideology over common sense, has mobilized against
anything with teeth.
Beltway conventional wisdom dismisses the political fallout of the Enron
scandals. But Americans are furious at executives who betray their
workers and mislead small investors while plundering their companies.
Thus far their anger hasn't fixed on Washington, but it may if no one is
held accountable. It's long past time for Senate Democrats to rouse
themselves, demand the heads of White and Pitt and launch a scorching
public investigation of the Administration's complicity with Enron in
California and elsewhere. Any real reform will require displacing Enron
conservatives, with their mantra of "self-regulation" and their corrupt
politics of money. With the revelations continuing and elections coming
up, progressives should be mobilizing independently to name names,
exposing those who shield the powerful. If voters learn who the culprits
are, Enron may end up reflecting the "genius" not of capitalism but of
democracy--the people's ability to clean out the stables when the stench
gets too foul.
In the past two months I have talked with many people who have a keen
interest in whether the Senate will decide to ban therapeutic cloning.
At a conference at a Philadelphia hospital, a large number of people,
their bodies racked with tremors from Parkinson's disease, gathered to
hear me speak about the ethics of stem cell research. A few weeks
earlier I had spoken to another group, many of whom were breathing with
the assistance of oxygen tanks because they have a genetic disease,
Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, that destroys their lungs and livers.
Earlier still I met with a group of parents whose children are paralyzed
as a result of spinal cord injuries.
At each meeting I told the audience there was a good chance that the
government would criminalize research that might find answers to their
ailments if it required using cloned human embryos, on the grounds that
research using such embryos is unethical. The audience members were
incredulous. And well they should have been. A bizarre alliance of
antiabortion religious zealots and technophobic neoconservatives along
with a smattering of scientifically befuddled antibiotech progressives
is pushing hard to insure that the Senate accords more moral concern to
cloned embryos in dishes than it does to kids who can't walk and
grandmothers who can't hold a fork or breathe.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise that George W. Bush and the House
of Representatives have already taken the position that any research
requiring the destruction of an embryo, cloned or otherwise, is wrong.
This view derives from the belief, held by many in the Republican camp,
that personhood begins at conception, that embryos are people and that
killing them to help other people is simply wrong. Although this view
about the moral status of embryos does not square with what is known
about them--science has shown that embryos require more than genes in
order to develop, that not all embryos have the capacity to become a
person and that not all conception begins a life--it at least has the
virtue of moral clarity.
But aside from those who see embryos as tiny people, such clarity of
moral vision is absent among cloning opponents. Consider the views of
Leon Kass, William Kristol, Charles Krauthammer and Francis Fukuyama.
Each says he opposes research involving the cloning of human embryos.
Each has been pushing furiously in the media and in policy circles to
make the case that nothing could be more morally heinous than harvesting
stem cells from such embryos. And each says that his repugnance at the
idea of cloning research has nothing to do with a religiously based view
of what an embryo is.
The core of the case against cloning for cures is that it involves the
creation, to quote the latest in a landslide of moral fulminations from
Krauthammer, "of a human embryo for the sole purpose of using it for its
parts...it will sanction the creation of an entire industry of embryo
manufacture whose explicit purpose is...dismemberment for research."
Sounds like a very grim business indeed--and some progressives, notably
Jeremy Rifkin and Norman Mailer, have sounded a similar alarm as they
have joined the anticloning crusade.
From the secular viewpoint, which Krauthammer and like-minded cloning
opponents claim to hold, there is no evidence for the position that
embryonic clones are persons or even potential persons. As a simple fact
of science, embryos that reside in dishes are going nowhere. The
potential to become anything requires a suitable environment. Talk of
"dismemberment," which implicitly confers moral status on embryos,
betrays the sort of faith-based thinking that Krauthammer says he wants
to eschew. Equally ill-informed is the notion that equivalent medical
benefits can be derived from research on adult stem cells; cloned
embryonic stem cells have unique properties that cannot be duplicated.
The idea that women could be transformed into commercial egg farms also
troubles Krauthammer, as well as some feminists and the Christian
Medical Association. The CMA estimates that to make embryonic stem-cell
cloning work, more than a billion eggs would have to be harvested. But
fortunately for those hoping for cures, the CMA is wrong: Needed now for
cloned embryonic stem-cell research are thousands of eggs, not billions.
While cloning people is a long shot, cloning embryos is not, and it
should be possible to get the research done either by paying women for
their eggs or asking those who suffer from a disease, or who know
someone they care about who has a disease, to donate them. Women are
already selling and donating eggs to others who are trying to have
babies. Women and men are also donating their kidneys, their bone marrow
and portions of their livers to help others, at far greater risk to
themselves than egg donation entails. And there is no reason that embryo
splitting, the technique used today in animals, could not provide the
requisite embryo and cloned stem-cell lines to treat all in need without
a big increase in voluntary egg donation from women.
In addition to conjuring up the frightening but unrealistic image of
women toiling in Dickensian embryo-cloning factories, those like
Krauthammer, who would leave so many senior citizens unable to move
their own bodies, offer two other moral thoughts. If we don't draw the
line at cloning for cures, there will soon enough be a clone moving into
your neighborhood; and besides, it is selfish and arrogant to seek to
alter our own genetic makeup to live longer.
The reality is that cloning has a terrible track record in making
embryos that can become fetuses, much less anything born alive. The most
recent review of cloning research shows an 85 percent failure rate in
getting cow embryos to develop into animals. And of those clones born
alive, a significant percentage, more than a third, have serious
life-threatening health problems. Cloned embryos have far less potential
than embryos created the old-fashioned way, or even frozen embryos, of
becoming anything except a ball of cells that can be tricked into
becoming other cells that can cure diseases. Where Krauthammer sees
cloned embryos as persons drawn and quartered for their organs, in
reality there exists merely a construct of a cell that has no potential
to become anything if it is kept safely in a dish and almost no
potential to develop even if it is put into a womb. Indeed, current work
on primate cloning has been so unproductive, which is to say none made
to date, that there is a growing sentiment in scientific circles that
human cloning for reproduction is impossible. The chance of anyone
cloning a full-fledged human is almost nil, but in any case there is no
reason that it cannot be stopped simply by banning the transfer of these
embryos into wombs.
But should we really be manipulating our genes to try to cure diseases
and live longer? Kass and Fukuyama, in various magazine pieces and
books, say no--that it is selfish and arrogant indulgence at its worst.
Humanity is not meant to play with its genes simply to live longer and
Now, it can be dangerous to try to change genes. One young man is dead
because of an experiment in gene therapy at my medical school. But the
idea that genes are the defining essence of who we are and therefore
cannot be touched or manipulated recalls the rantings of Gen. Jack D.
Ripper in Doctor Strangelove, who wanted to preserve the
integrity of his precious bodily fluids. There's nothing inherently
morally wrong with trying to engineer cells, genes and even cloned
embryos to repair diseases and terminal illnesses. Coming from those who
type on computers, wear glasses, inject themselves with insulin, have
had an organ transplant, who walk with crutches or artificial joints or
who have used in vitro fertilization or neonatal intensive care to
create their children, talk of the inviolate essence of human nature and
repugnance at the "manufactured" posthuman is at best disingenuous.
The debate over human cloning and stem cell research has not been one of
this nation's finest moral hours. Pseudoscience, ideology and plain
fearmongering have been much in evidence. If the discussions were merely
academic, this would be merely unfortunate. They are not. The flimsy
case against cloning for cures is being brought to the White House, the
Senate and the American people as if the opponents hold the moral high
ground. They don't. The sick and the dying do. The Senate must keep its
moral priorities firmly in mind as the vote on banning therapeutic
cloning draws close.
Sister, they say heed the hymn in your heart.
You've learned you've an odd rhythm in your heart.
You and I versus our brothers: pitched war.
The four of us in the swim of your heart.
I saw a bird chasing moths trace spirals
in the air, how you love him in your heart!
The wind blows an apple, an acorn down.
Let's revise: follow each whim in your heart.
In the west, weft ascends warp. In the east,
weft treads warp. Silk Route wisdom in your heart.
Knowledge an ocean shaped by desire,
who defines the idiom: in your heart
of hearts? How many hearts do we have? When
one breaks song soothes like a balm in the heart.
Who'll play dub to your syncopated lub?
Endeavor, love, 'gainst tedium in the heart.
The hated math teacher played, "Less is more,"
with my name. Whence the harem in your heart?