The current uproar
over the posture of the Bush Administration on global warming and,
most recently, on power-plant emissions vividly illustrates the
political hypocrisy and opportunism imbuing debates on environmental
issues. Take first global warming. The charge that the current phase
of global warming can be attributed to greenhouse gases generated by
humans and their livestock is an article of faith among liberals as
sturdy as is missile defense among the conservative crowd. The
Democrats have seized on the issue of global warming as indicative of
President Bush's willful refusal to confront a global crisis that
properly agitates all of America's major allies. Almost daily, the
major green groups reap rich political capital (and donations) on the
Yet the so-called anthropogenic origin of global
warming remains entirely nonproven. Back in the spring of this year,
even the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which now has a
huge stake in arguing the "caused by humans" thesis, admitted in its
summary that there could be a one-in-three chance its multitude of
experts are wrong. A subsequent report, issued under the auspices of
the National Academy of Sciences, is ambivalent to the point of
absurdity. An initial paragraph boldly asserting the caused-by-humans
line is confounded a few pages later by far more cautious paragraphs
admitting that the thesis is speculative and that major uncertainty
rules on the role played in climate equations by water vapor and
It's nothing new to say the earth is getting
warmer. I myself think it is, and has been for a long, long time. On
my shelf is an excellent volume put out in 1941 by the Department of
Agriculture called Climate and Man, which contains a chapter
acknowledging "global warming" (that same phrase) and hailing it as a
benign trend that will return the earth to the normalcy in climate it
enjoyed several hundred thousand years ago.
than a glance at the computer models favored by the caused-by-humans
crowd will show that the role of carbon dioxide is grotesquely
exaggerated. Indeed, the models are incapable of handling the role of
the prime greenhouse gas, water vapor (clouds, etc), which accounts
for twenty-five to thirty times as much heat absorption as carbon
Similarly, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate
Change admits to a "very low" level of scientific understanding on an
"aerosol indirect effect" that the panel acknowledges is cooling the
climate system at a hefty rate (aerosols are particles so fine they
float in air).
In a particularly elegant paper published in
May in Chemical Innovation, journal of the American Chemical
Society, Professor Robert Essenhigh of Ohio State reminds us that for
the past 850,000 years, global temperature and carbon dioxide have
been moving up and down in lockstep. Since 849,700 of these years
were ones preceding any possible human effect on carbon dioxide, this
raises the question of whether global warming caused swings in carbon
dioxide or vice versa. Essenhigh argues convincingly that the former
is the case. As global temperatures warm, a huge reservoir of carbon
dioxide absorbed in the oceans is released into the atmosphere.
Clearly, this is a much more potent input than the relatively puny
human contribution to global carbon dioxide. Thus natural warming is
driving the raised level of carbon dioxide, and not the other way
But science can barely squeeze in the door with a
serious debate about what is prompting global warming. Instead, the
Europeans, the greens and the Democrats eagerly seize on the issue as
a club with which to beat President Bush and kindred targets of
Now take the latest brouhaha over emissions
from coal-fired plants. The industry wants what is coyly called
"flexibility" in emissions standards. EPA chief Christine Whitman is
talking about "voluntary incentives" and market-based pollution
credits as the proper way to go. Aware of the political pitfalls, the
Bush Administration has recently been saying that it is not quite
ready to issue new rules.
Now, there's no uncertainty about
the effects of the stuff that comes out of a power-plant chimney.
These heavy metals and fine particles kill people or make them sick.
There are also cleaning devices, some of them expensive, that can
remove these toxic substances. Ever since the 1970s the energy
industry has fought mandatory imposition of such cleaners. If Bush
and Whitman enforce this flexibility they will be condemning people
to death, as have previous foot-dragging administrations, Democratic
as well as Republican.
Both political parties have danced
to the industry's tunes. It was with the propagandizing of Stephen
Breyer (now on the Supreme Court, then a top aide to Senator Ted
Kennedy) that the trend toward pollution credits began. And after the
glorious regulatory laxity of the Reagan/Bush years, the industry was
not seriously discommoded in Clinton Time. Ask the inhabitants of
West Virginia and Tennessee whether they think the coal industry lost
clout in those years.
The sad truth of the matter is that
many "big picture" environmental theses, such as human-caused global
warming, afford marvelously inviting ways of avoiding specific and
mostly difficult political decisions. You can bellow for "global
responsibility" without seriously offending powerful corporate
interests, some of which, for reasons material, cynical or both, now
have a big stake (the nuclear industry, for example) in promoting the
caused-by-humans thesis. Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill loves it,
and so does the aluminum industry, in which he has been a prime
player. On the other side we can soon expect to hear that powerful
Democrat, Senator Robert Byrd, arguing that the coal industry is in
the vanguard of the war on global warming, because the more you shade
the earth, perhaps the more rain you cause. So burn dirty coal and
protect the earth by cooling it.
The logic of the
caused-by-humans models installs the coal industry as the savior of
"global warming"--you want to live by a computer model that does
In his essay for the catalogue that accompanies
"Picasso Érotique," beautifully installed in the Montreal
Museum of Fine Arts until September 16, Jean-Jacques Lebel reproduces
an extraordinary drawing that is not included in the exhibition
itself. On the right is a vagina, sparsely surrounded by pubic hairs.
It dwarfs the homuncular male figure, moving open-eyed and
stubble-cheeked into the dark night of death, emblematized by a sweep
of black wash. The date of execution is inscribed in large and
ornamental numerals--25.7.72. It was perhaps the last of the goaty
old master's drawings of a woman's sexe--he was to die, aged
91, the following April. The figure, of course, is Picasso himself.
In his middle 70s, after he was abandoned by his young and beautiful
mistress, Françoise Gilot, he represented himself as some
figure of contempt--an old man, a monkey, a clown, a grotesquely fat
caricature of an infantile male personage, often an
artist--juxtaposed with an inward-dwelling woman, a model, usually
nude, indifferent to his presence. The male will often be shown
draped and ornamented with the paraphernalia of worldly
recognition--armor, for example, or robes too large by far for his
shrunken physique. The woman needs no external mark of power. Her
youth and nakedness, which at times is accentuated by a circlet of
flowers worn in her hair, is emblem enough. In this small, scary
masterpiece, Picasso is taking leave at once of life and of sex.
Eros c'est la vie was the punning pronunciation of Rrose
Sélavy--the pseudonym that his fellow eroticist, Marcel
Duchamp, took for himself when he assumed his periodic female
identity. The same disproportion of this farewell drawing is embodied
in Duchamp's monumental Large Glass, in which the Bride sits
aloof and alone in an upper chamber while her various Bachelors are
segregated in a limbo of desire below.
vagina is a universal symbol. What Picasso has scrawled in the 1972
drawing could have been incised in plaster outside a doorway in India
or brushed in red pigment on a wall in Rome at any moment of its
history--or scribbled with ballpoint in lavatory booths or drawn with
a pencil stub wherever lonesome men languish. On the other hand, it
belongs to its meaning to be furtive and hidden. The female nude is
omnipresent in Western art, but the representation of a woman with
her genital orifice displayed is exceedingly rare. There are two
celebrated exceptions. The first is the somewhat presumptuously
titled The Origin of the World, by Gustave Courbet, painted in
1866--roughly the moment when the term pornography entered the
language. It shows a reclining woman, her legs spread apart, her
garment lifted to the level of her breasts and her luxuriant pubic
thatch exposed to the viewer. The woman's head, lower legs and arms
are cropped by the edges of the canvas, which was evidently kept
covered by a green veil after the painting was done. It was
commissioned by a Turkish diplomat, Khalil Bey, and was later
acquired by the celebrated French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, who
was, incidentally, Picasso's consultant on most medical questions.
Lacan too kept it hidden--like the portrait of La Belle
Noiseuse in Balzac's Chef d'oeuvre inconnu. It was
concealed behind a painting by Lacan's brother-in-law, the Surrealist
André Masson, and shown only to favored visitors. Courbet's
painting became the property of the French state after Lacan died,
and I first saw it at--naturally--the Brooklyn Museum. It was shown
in the 1988 "Courbet Reconsidered" exhibition in the days predating
Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, when it aroused neither outcry nor outrage
but only a certain curiosity. Later it went on view at the
Musée d'Orsay, surrounded with enough art history almost to
neutralize it. I once discussed it in a lecture at Yale but was
hesitant to show a slide--though I was told afterward that
avant-garde feminists have adopted it as a symbol of female power. In
certain African societies it is considered lethal to behold a woman's
genitals, which are kept safely out of view by means of the myth of
The other example is Duchamp's
mysterious Étant donnés... in the Philadelphia
Museum of Art, where, peering through a peephole, one finds oneself
looking at the shaven cleft, between her spread legs, of a woman
lying on her back. Duchamp designed the installation in such a way
that the hole through which we see her will not allow the viewer to
see her head or even if she has a head. It was Duchamp's last work,
done in secrecy during the last twenty years of his life, when the
received opinion was that he had given up art for chess. There is a
wall in "Picasso Érotique" with small apertures through which
one can see backlit transparencies both of the Courbet and the
Duchamp as Picasso's predecessors in the representation of a woman's
open sexe. It is a distinguished but not a particularly
extensive artistic genealogy, considering the wide distribution of
this particular organ, and the extraordinary interest it generates in
most of our lives. A visitor from outer space could acquire a wide
knowledge from the history of art of what human females look like
undressed, but have not a clue as to the vagina's existence or visual
There are two main aesthetic reasons for its
absence from art. The first is enunciated by Freud: The genitals
themselves, the sight of which is always exciting, are hardly ever
regarded as beautiful. When a New York gallerist was shown some
examples from a work by the French Surrealist Henri Maccheroni,
titled 2000 photographies du sexe d'une femme, she said she
realized why, by contrast with breasts and buttocks, this particular
attribute played no part in the stereotype of feminine beauty. The
second reason is this: The difference between male and female nudes
is that the male's genitals are visible unless they are covered but
the female's are invisible unless uncovered, which requires that the
woman assume an awkward posture in which they are displayed. There
are two circumstances in which this routinely takes place. The first
is the gynecological examination. The second is where they are
flashed by sex workers for the enticement and arousal of clients. In
a superb review of a book on a brothel in a recent issue of this
magazine, Leah Platt quoted the author's interview of a working woman
on her job, performed behind a window before a paying male: "make eye
contact, pout, wink, swivel your hips a little, put a stiletto-clad
foot up on the window sill to reveal an eye-full of your two most
marketable orifices, fondle your tits, smack your ass, stroke
whatever pubic hair you haven't shaven off...until the customer
comes, then move on to the next window." The segregation of the Bride
from the Bachelors in Duchamp's Large Glass could be an
allegory of this transaction.
In her legendary early film Fuses, the great performance artist Carolee Schneemann
undertook to discover whether showing how sexual love looked
corresponded to the pleasure of experiencing it, and this involved
her in finding a way of exhibiting herself that was neither
gynecological nor pornographic. I have never seen Fuses, but
in her forthcoming book, Imaging Her Erotics, Schneemann
describes how the film landed her in hot water with audiences from
the art world, from which she had supposed she could count on a
measure of support. Since there are a certain number of opened
vaginas in "Picasso Érotique," the exhibition's
organizers--Jean-Jacques Lebel and Jean Clair, director of the
Musée national Picasso in Paris--prudently decided against
seeking a New York venue for their show, thinking, with the
European's affecting ignorance of North American geography, that New
Yorkers need but slip across the border to see it. So unless you're
prepared to take an hour's flight on Air Canada--or do the thing
properly by postponing your trip to Barcelona until the show is
installed in the Museu Picasso, near where it all began--you'll have
to make do with consulting the catalogue and writing a letter of
indignation to Giuliani's Panel on Decency.
the entrance to "Picasso Érotique," the exhibition's designer
has re-created an imagined bordello bedroom as one might have existed
in the red-light district of Barcelona in the era of Picasso's youth.
Projected on its wall is a clip from what I take to be a vintage
film, in which a generously proportioned woman, sitting on the edge
of the bed, lifts her breasts in the time-honored way, and then
stands, with her wrapper open, to give us a view of her nakedness.
The action is pretty fast. We get a shot of a man administering
cunnilingus while a frustrated customer peers through a keyhole until
he evidently can't hold himself in any longer and falls to the floor,
clutching his front, like one of Duchamp's bachelors. It certainly
beats an acousta-guide in setting the somewhat merry tone the early
drawings and watercolors carry out. The pictures are really scraps,
pages from a sketchbook, graphic souvenirs of the artist's erotic
encounters in the kinds of bedrooms we have just seen, with the kinds
of women we have just been shown. A lot of the pictures are on the
border between cartoons and life drawings. There is a certain amount
of cunnilingus, some lively sketches of an ecstatic woman in high
sockings fingering herself, some scenes of women sitting around
half-dressed, a few quite tender scenes of lesbian caress and a
fairly ambitious painting of the artist himself, looking as innocent
as a choirboy and wearing a striped jersey, being treated to
fellatio. It is on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but I'll
lay odds that though it was painted in 1903, in the middle of
Picasso's extravagantly admired Blue Period, you won't see it proudly
displayed there when the Montreal show is over.
interest of these mostly ephemeral works lies as much in what they
tell us about the male sexual imagination as about what Picasso saw.
Men visited the brothels of the so-called barrio chino--the
Chinese Quarter of old Barcelona--as they visit brothels everywhere:
in part to see, in part to enact, what life otherwise only allows
them to imagine. That is why the displayed vagina belongs so
centrally to pornography--the much-debated male gaze is not readily
gratified, due to its object's hiddenness. There are relatively few
depictions in the early parts of the show of the way men and women in
love express that condition sexually.
But there is a great
deal of that in Picasso's art, beginning with when he fell profoundly
in love with Fernande Olivier in 1904, and began to see life en
couleur de rose: The so-called Rose Period is not merely a change
of palette. Pictures titled Le Baiser (The Kiss) or
L'Étreinte (Embrace) outnumber by a significant factor
those showing special couplings of the kind advertised in
Pompei--though there is a gouache from 1917 that could easily have
been copied from the kinds of souvenir postcards that are probably
still hawked outside the excavations. Its chief pictorial function is
to display the man's enormous penis in a state of futile erection,
since the couple has assumed a position too athletic for actual
intercourse to take place: She is standing on her head, with one foot
braced against his chin. In the main, except when he is being
satirical, Picasso has no use for the caricaturely gross penis. He
shows himself as normally proportioned in an awkward, scowling 1902
Self Portrait With Nude.
The kisses are intensely
felt and at the same time comically shown: In a painting dated
January 12, 1931, the couple dart their triangular tongues into each
other's mouths; the woman's nose is draped affectionately over the
man's, her eyes closed and his rolled upward. In Figures at the
Seashore, it is impossible to determine to which of the two
kissers the breasts belong, as if the difference between two
individuals has been transcended, and they are one being, with
tangled legs and arms. One cannot but think, in these wonderful
middle-period works, of Aristophanes' vivid thesis in The
Symposium, that each of us was once part of a single being, now
split into two, each part seeking to be reunited with the other. So
many of the Baisers and Étreintes are ingenious,
imperfect reassemblages of bodily parts into helpless erotic wholes,
destined to fall apart despite the great passion that brought them
together. The overall mood is one of tenderness and comedy.
So I was not surprised to learn from the museum's
publicist that there have been very few complaints about the show in
Montreal, though attendance so far has greatly exceeded expectations.
But there has been a spontaneous show of affection on the part of
those who visit the show together. Basically the show is about love.
She told me that she had been alerted by one of the guards that
couples often begin to hold hands while looking at the work, to
whisper in each other's ear, to embrace lightly, even to kiss. I
found that a very touching discovery, and really something of a
vindication for mounting such a show. It is evidence that there is
more to experiencing art than allowing one's eyes to be flooded with
form. This is the power of erotic representation: We respond with
affection. But sex has another strand as well, a raucousness and
comedy that the ancients appreciated when they rocked with laughter
at the sight of satyrs capering across the stage with leather
phalluses. For all his tenderness, Picasso was a fierce satirist,
aware that we can look pretty ridiculous in the grip of sexual
passion. There is a delicious suite of etchings done in 1968, showing
the painter Raphael making endless love to his mistress, La
Fornarina, never so overcome by passion that he has to put down his
brushes and palette and use both arms. In all of these images,
Picasso shows the couple's genitals fitted together like bolt and
bolt-hole, but each wears the calm smile of Hindu deities in cosmic
fornication, as if butter would not melt in their mouths. Most of
these etchings contain observers as well as the lovers themselves.
The Pope, for example, often drops into a picture to observe the
action--and in some of them Michelangelo gets an eyeful while hiding
under the bed.
Raphael, painter of sweet madonnas and
charming infants, was not above doing a bit of pornography himself
now and then. His notorious 1516 frescoes of the history of Venus,
commissioned for Cardinal Bibbiena's bathroom in the Vatican, were
whitewashed over in the nineteenth century as inconsistent with what
was felt to be spiritually fitting for the artist of the Acts of
the Apostles. The nineteenth century was a bad time for the
erotica of the masters. Ruskin had no hesitation in ordering the
destruction of Turner's horny drawings on the grounds that he was
obviously insane when he drew them. But the depiction of sex was one
of the main reasons that drawing was invented. Even the misogynous
Degas executed a series of monoprints in the Maison Tellier, one of
Paris's best-known brothels of the 1880s. They show the prostitutes
lounging about, waiting for clients or engaged in lesbian sex with
one another. Picasso owned some of these quite compassionate images,
and as he approached the age of 90, he devoted a rowdy suite of
etchings to the somewhat implausible episode of Degas observing the
whores. There are a good many exceedingly open, exceedingly juicy
vaginas in these pictures, I would say lovingly drawn, in which it is
indeterminate whether the women are mocking or tempting the voyeur.
In one, Picasso shows lines of sight from Degas's eyes to the hairy
juncture of vaginal lips spread open for his uncertain
There are no open vaginas in Picasso's own
celebrated brothel scene, the famous Demoiselles d'Avignon,
one of the canonical works of Modernism and by all accounts his
masterpiece. It could in one way almost be a Cubist paraphrase of one
of Degas's monoprints, in which the women are gathered to greet the
visitor, who will hopefully select one of them for whatever he is
into. Here are five women in all--three classical figures to the
viewer's left, two masked women to the right, one of them, her back
to us, squatting. The masks could be African, could be Oceanic, but
hardly belong to any European tradition other than that of the
ethnographic museum, where Picasso first saw them. Whatever they are
up to, the women hardly look as if they are out to tempt us. If we
did not know from scholarship that it was a brothel scene, it is hard
to know how we would read the work. It is easy to sympathize with
Alfred Barr, who acquired the painting for the Museum of Modern Art,
when he described this as a purely formal figure composition, which
as it develops becomes more and more dehumanized and abstract. Leo
Steinberg quotes this in a great essay, together with a 1912
interpretation by the poet André Salmon, of Picasso's own
inner circle: The women "'are naked problems, white numbers on a
blackboard.' Can we be looking at the same canvas?" Steinberg asks
with incredulity. I shall always be grateful for this "Can we be
looking at the same canvas?" It definitively erased from my aesthetic
whatever inclination I had toward formalism in art. On the other
hand, I am not ready to be included in the "us" to whom Steinberg
says this picture looks like a tidal wave of female aggression. I
cannot get female aggression to fit with the overall feeling toward
women conveyed in this wonderful exhibition in Montreal, not even in
the period when Picasso was painting Salome dancing for the price of
John the Baptist's head. The Demoiselles d'Avignon is not in
the show, and that's a good thing. Nobody really understands it;
nobody is even able to say whether it is a success or a failure. It
may not be white numbers on a blackboard, but it falls outside the
range of the human--all too human--to which eroticism, as behavior
and imagination, belongs.
In a recent interview with the Washington Post, Pacifica Radio
executive director Bessie Wash said that the Pacifica management's
goal "is to increase listenership." In the name of that worthy
ambition, however, Wash has continued to further alienate many
longtime supporters and staff and to weaken the core programming that
should be the foundation on which that listenership is built. In the
latest development, Pacifica is no longer originating and
distributing its most popular (and much-honored) news program,
Democracy Now!, following disputes with host Amy Goodman. (The
program is being produced elsewhere and aired on some stations, while
Pacifica sends out reruns of earlier shows.) Meanwhile, in order to
fight lawsuits brought by former employees and listeners, and the
accompanying bad publicity, Pacifica is using scarce listener-donated
dollars to hire a white-shoe law firm and a high-priced PR outfit.
And dissidents are pushing an economic boycott that will reduce those
dollars even further.
At the rate things are going, there will soon be no Pacifica worth
fighting over (apart from its valuable real estate on the dial). It
is time for both sides to pull back from the brink. We continue to
believe that Democracy Now! and Goodman exemplify Pacifica's
fifty-year tradition of tough, radical reporting and that they
represent an asset of immense worth. We also believe that the only
way out of the current downward spiral at Pacifica is for dissidents
as well as management to focus on positive steps to move the
enterprise forward. For the dissidents, it means an end to the
boycott, which is incompatible with a devotion to the spirit of
community radio, and a willingness to be open to change. For the
Pacifica management and board, set to hold a key meeting on September
12, it means a commitment to respecting its employees and a
restructuring of the organization to grant more legal power to the
staff and listeners, who have made Pacifica what it is today.
As we've said before, Pacifica is one of the bastions of the precept,
enshrined in the Federal Communications Act, that the airwaves are a
public trust. It deserves the care and concern of all who believe in
William Kristol claims that Senator Jesse Helms's departure at the
end of his term represents "the end of an era." We can only hope.
Helms has championed an odious brand of conservatism that combines
segregationist and antigay sentiments, contempt for the United
Nations and a know-nothing attitude toward culture. His office once
told Loudon Wainwright III, composer of "Jesse Don't Like It," that
"if it weren't for people like you left-wing, communist, radical,
weirdo types, Senator Helms would not have won." Not by much, though.
And now it's increasingly Jesse's voters who are the radical weirdos.
We regret the loss of two valued contributors. Richard Cloward, for
forty-seven years a professor at the Columbia University School of
Social Work, was author of such influential books as Delinquency
and Opportunity (with Lloyd E. Ohlin), Regulating the Poor
and Why Americans Don't Vote (with Frances Fox Piven).
Displaying a rare ability to weld theory and practice into a seamless
continuum, he was founder of Mobilization for Youth, a paradigm of
federal antipoverty programs in the 1960s. He helped found the
National Welfare Rights Organization, which mobilized poor people in
behalf of welfare reform, and was founder and executive director of
Human SERVE, a project to expand voter registration among the poor,
which inspired the 1993 Motor Voter Act and established the principle
of using government to facilitate rather than block people exercising
their suffrage. Cloward was dedicated to transmuting cool scholarship
into street heat. The following from Joel Rogers, professor of law
and political science at the University of Wisconsin, provides a good
summing up: "His biggest strength was simply his tenacity and quiet
rage against the machine. In all his long years, he never lost the
capacity to be astonished, and outraged, by cruelty and unnecessary
barriers to freedom. At some level, he just couldn't believe them.
And then he'd go back to the hard work of removing them." (John
Nichols's assessment of Richard Cloward appears on our website:
www.thenation.com. A tribute to him will be held on September 20 in
New York City. For further information see page 28.)
Nora Sayre was a witty, vivacious writer with a steel backbone who
set herself to being a chronicler of her--and the left's--times. In
her books Sixties Going on Seventies, Previous Convictions:
A Journey Through the 1950s and On the Wing, a memoir of
literary London in the 1950s, she made the political personal,
mingling a Boswell's relish for anecdote with a shrewd sense of the
zeitgeist. Her Running Time: Films of the Cold War is one of
the best analyses of the impact of McCarthyism on Hollywood.
When The Red Queen boasts in Through the Looking-Glass that in her country, "it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place," she could have been talking about today's labor movement. To turn their long slide into a winning streak, unions need to add millions of new members each year. The terrain seems only to get more treacherous, with a White House in thrall to business assaulting labor at every turn, a worldwide economic slowdown, increasing layoffs and plant closings, growing economic inequality.
But hold the sympathy cards. As various reports in this special Labor Day issue attest, unions have been organizing more boldly and effectively in recent years, making inroads into new constituencies, like immigrants, and opening up the once-scorned service sector. Election 2000 aside, more adept political organizing has boosted the union-household share of the electorate from 19 percent in 1992 to 26 percent in 2000. Unions have forged promising new alliances with students, religious communities, anti-WTO activists and environmentalists. There have been tactical stumbles--and most unions have yet to shake old bureaucratic habits--but the stepped-up investment in organizing by the AFL-CIO and its aggressive affiliates has begun to show the way forward.
The challenge now is for all unions to wield their resources and power more strategically, to engage their members as organizers and campaigners, and to articulate a social vision that will inspire hard daily slogging but also elevate eyes to long-range goals beyond paycheck issues, important as those are. Such a vision can impart unity and strength to the progressive movement. Teamsters can't be expected to hug a sea turtle daily, but their embrace of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was destructive, as was the United Auto Workers' endorsement of the weaker fuel-efficiency standards in the Bush Administration's energy plan.
The "blue green" coalition is currently facing another important test in George W. Bush's demand for fast-track trade promotion authority. Big business will spend $20 million lobbying for fast track, which would grease the way for the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas through Congress. The crucial fight is in the House, where the Administration will dangle all sorts of phony "side agreements" before Democrats and moderate Republicans. Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch is on the road, fanning out into home districts of key representatives. Labor is ready to jump into the fray, guns blazing. Recent ruptures notwithstanding, progressives have formed a united front to block fast track twice before, under Clinton, and they can do it again.
But labor's political success will be short-lived unless it is driven by an energized rank and file and animated by a morally compelling mission that resonates with workers at home and abroad. Labor will thrive to the extent that it acts not as a "special interest" but as a new civil rights movement--rallying union and nonunion workers alike around their rights to dignity and democracy in the workplace, to economic justice and a living wage, and to the voice and power that union representation can bring. The rest of us can't stand on the sidelines. Despite its frustrations, the labor movement remains the backbone of progressive politics in this country.
Most Americans are probably
unaware that "the Dark Ages were not all bad and the Enlightenment
not all good." Or that "homosexuality [is] a sin worthy of death." Or
that one of the greatest threats to the country is "the Feminization
of American Life." Or that we should still be debating the question:
"Who Was Right in the War Between the States: the Union or the
If you are active with the Christian
fundamentalist organization American Vision, however, this is
mainstream thinking--or, more precisely, the thinking you hope to
force down the throat of the mainstream. The Georgia-based group's
president, Gary DeMar, preaches about "the necessity of storming the
gates of hell" and cleansing public institutions of "secularism,
atheism, humanism, and just plain anti-Christian sentiment." He may
soon be dispatching a prominent foot soldier to do just that. J.
Robert Brame III, American Vision's board secretary, reportedly tops
President Bush's list of likely appointees to the National Labor
Relations Board, the five-member agency that determines the fate of
workers seeking union recognition and helps define how federal law
protects women, gays and lesbians, and others seeking representation
in the workplace.
Brame, a management lawyer, previously
served on the board from 1997 to 2000. Technically appointed by Bill
Clinton, he was actually a choice forced upon the former President by
Senate Republicans who refused to act on Clinton's appointments
unless he gave Brame the job. During those three years, Brame was the
most frequent dissenter from the board's pro-labor decisions. He
opposed moves to make it easier for temporary workers, graduate
students and medical interns and residents to unionize. He was a
lonely advocate of steps to limit the ability of unions to use dues
money to pay for organizing. Brame even complained about NLRB rulings
that "facilitate union organizing in the modern work
Brame's record, his association with American
Vision and the very real prospect that he could end up chairing a
Bush-appointed NLRB majority by the end of the year have energized
opponents. Taking the lead is the gay and lesbian labor group Pride
at Work, which aims, says interim executive director Marta Ames, "to
make enough noise so that Bush decides it's not worth it to appoint
someone who is associated with the viewpoint that LGBT people are
'monsters' who should be stoned."
"Gays and lesbians,
women, people of color and young people are harassed on the job all
the time, and that harassment becomes vicious when we're trying to
organize into unions," says Sarah Luthens, a Seattle union organizer
active with the Out Front Labor Coalition. "To think that someone
like Brame would be in a position to decide whether that harassment
represents a violation of labor laws that are already too weak is
I came upon her weeping,
gray face gone pewter.
She held still for me
and the wet sponge
pressed gently down,
and closed her eyes.
Beneath her skin the muscle rippled
as a pond does
under water's pressure.
past the screen that windows the view,
field's edge, an island of trees.
I put it on, to know
what the horse sees
caged in the blue mesh,
in a realm of monocular vision.
I fasten it
beneath the throat
while she chews the grain,
lips roving in the bucket.
beyond the cage. Cold's oncoming
as the wind cries,
whatever antennae I had
lost in the generations.
Ah, the films of summer. When they get it right,
they win our hearts. A sublime treat with which to beat the heat,
Ghost World deserves every bit of the praise that has been
rolling its way. Terry Zwigoff (Crumb, LouieBluie) has
conquered the jinx that so often afflicts filmmakers trying to make
the transition from documentary to fiction. That he gets it
right is due in no small part to his co-scenarist Daniel Clowes,
whose cult comic Ghost World provides the raw material that
here mutates so aptly into a loopy coming-of-age story packed with
genius one-liners, the detritus of popular culture and a never-ending
lineup of oddball characters. What is truly remarkable, though, is
that these two 40-something guys have captured the world of teenage
girls with sublime accuracy.
Best friends Enid (Thora
Birch, who was so good in American Beauty) and Rebecca
(Scarlett Johansson, first discovered in Manny & Lo) have
it all: Thrift-shop outfits--assembled with a jaundiced eye for
fashion--accompany rooms packed with carefully edited stuff and
attitude to match. Claiming their inalienable rights as teenagers,
the two exercise an unmitigated scorn for all adults in the immediate
vicinity and a consummate ability to reconfigure anyone via sassy
vitriol. Ghost World opens on Enid and Rebecca's high school
graduation and chronicles their summer of discontent, by the end of
which their friendship will be in tatters and their future prospects
will be, well, reduced.
The summer after high school is
quintessentially the time when the bravura hits the fan. Think
Dazed and Confused for girls, and then imagine a completely
different film: an anti-Clueless wrought by a sensibility
seemingly shaped by reading The Catcher in the Rye at an
impressionable age and carrying it forward to twenty-first-century
suburbia. (That the suburb is Los Angeles as envisioned by a pair of
San Francisco/Berkeley artistes guarantees that it's meant to be a
nightmare.) Almost without exception, Ghost World hits its
target with a bull's-eye. It renders, nearly pitch-perfect, the tone
of teenage girls' friendship--the overidentification and competition,
the combined desire for and horror of boys/men, the simultaneous
reinvention and rejection of femininity and the torment of succumbing
to minimum-wage conformity while desperately trying to figure a way
Enid is part Goth, part Holden Caulfield. She's first
seen rocking out to a classic Indian Bollywood film and disdaining
the dude music of her contemporaries and its pretentious
practitioners. She narrativizes everyone in her path. Haunting cheap
retro-1950s diners, Enid sketches the down-on-their-luck customers
and constructs story lines for them with Rebecca, her inseparable but
prettier pal, who may be less verbal but is equally disaffected (and
woefully underwritten). They turn one pathetic couple into Satanists
and make a lowlife crackpot into their private antihero. When a
personals ad in the weekly paper (a plea from a "bookish fellow" to
the woman he was too shy to speak to on an airplane) offers them an
opportunity for a prank, it sets the film's plot in motion. Enid and
Rebecca impersonate the target, then trail their victim to the
Wowsville diner for his no-show date.
They're still kids,
of course, for all their daring. That they're being cruel doesn't
occur to them until mid-assignation. For Rebecca, the game is then
over and it's time to move on to the next best thing: getting jobs so
they can afford their dream apartment. She finds employment at a
Starbucks-esque cafe with its own retinue of oddballs, while Enid's
sole attempt at gainful employment is a hilarious disaster sure to
thrill anyone who's ever darkened a multiplex. She works--for one
day--at a movie theater refreshment stand, where she's ordered to
push larger sizes than requested and warned to stop dissing the
movies to the customers. Enid's insolent enactment of these rules is
hilarious and naturally leads to her departure from the, uh,
profession. And leads her instead to Seymour.
Seymour? As embodied by Steve Buscemi in a career-elevating
performance, Seymour is the sad-sack guy framed with the fake blind
date. Post-prank, though, Enid gets curious and starts tailing him.
Seymour may have his own adult dead-end job (professional life
doesn't fare well in this film, where people have jobs, not careers),
but he has an avocation, a passionate hobby unsullied by filthy
lucre: his 78 rpm record collection of pure blues music. All it takes
is listening to his 1931 Skip James recording of "Devil Got My Woman"
to hook Enid. Seymour fills her ideal of an uncompromised life, as
she transforms his commitment to blues from pathetic geek
characteristic to banner of permanent rebellion.
stupid people have healthy relationships," confides Enid. "That's the
spirit," agrees Seymour. No good will come of this, to be sure, but
like a satisfying journey, the road toward the messy tragedies at
story's end is strewn with pleasures. Not least among them is the
character of Roberta (Illeana Douglas, in her best role since To
Die For), the truly horrifying teacher of the "summer art class
for retards" that Enid has to take to complete her high school
requirements. Roberta introduces herself to the students by showing a
fiercely feminist avant-garde video, then praises anything--however
awful--backed by a feminist screed and disapproves of Enid's
cartoons, which were actually supplied by R. Crumb's daughter Sophie
from her own sketchbooks. Enid lampoons Roberta until, when
encouraged even a little, she tries to court her favor in some of the
film's most poignant moments. (Dare I disclose her portrait of...Don
By the time Enid finally "gets on the bus,"
Ghost World has plumbed its characters' depths with a deep-sea
diver's precision and exploded the hypocritical balloon of social
mobility and material success that is fast replacing ideals and
principles in the age of Bush. Never underestimate a teenage girl's
ability to destroy everything in her path, even if that means
screwing up her own life in the process. If teenagers are a society's
truest barometer, then Ghost World offers a rather worrisome
Along the way, though, Ghost World tips
its hand more than a bit, despite Affonso Beato's seductive
camerawork, which has a way of making it all go down like a
storybook. If middle-aged men hadn't made this film, for example,
would Enid really be so sympathetic to a loser like Seymour? Who, by
the way, has the same 78 rpm obsession as director Zwigoff. Which,
excuse me, we're supposed to believe this hip outsider girl-child is
so easily hooked on? And would feminism be a bad joke? Would LA
suburbs be the seat of all evil, at a time when San Francisco was
dot-comming and dot-bombing its way into the history books? And
what's up with the wheelchair jokes?
World gets points for avoiding the calculated, prefab cynicism
characteristic of overpraised films like American Beauty, on
the one hand, and Happiness, on the other. We care about these
characters and, despite themselves, they care for one another, too.
Irony meets empathy here and both are better for it. Conservative
compassion be damned.
Note: For another version of
girl power in unexpected quarters, check out Legally Blonde.
Sure, it's improbable, what with being a Hollywood product showcasing
Reese Witherspoon's star power and all, but it's got wit and even
bite. The scenes of female bonding across class in the beauty parlor
would be enough to make it worthwhile even if it weren't the best
empowerment movie for teenage girls to come along in
Also worth catching are two fantastic films currently
on screens around the country. Scott McGehee and David Siegal's
The Deep End is a sun-drenched noir that lets Tilda Swinton
prove herself as an action hero--and a likely heroine for PFLAG in
her efforts to clear her gay teenage son's name and get him that
scholarship to Wesleyan. And Lumumba is a historically astute
and politically pointed history of what really happened in the Congo
in its most tumultuous moment--as dramatized by erstwhile documentarian
Raoul Peck, who experienced the African transition to independence
firsthand and recently served as Haiti's minister of
"Stop all printing of my play. I shall never write
another one again." So wrote the frustrated young Dr. Chekhov to his
publisher the morning after his new play, The Seagull, was
booed off the stage by an audience in St. Petersburg, outraged by its
incomprehensibility and Symbolist decadence.
disastrous opening night, on October 17, 1896, at the Alexandrinsky
Theater, is a legend in theater history. So is the fate of The
Seagull itself. The play, which Chekhov doubted would ever be
performed again, went on to crown the inaugural season of the Moscow
Art Theater two years later in a stunning turnaround, introducing a
confident young director/actor named Stanislavsky and a passionate
young actress named Olga Knipper (who later became the playwright's
wife). It was followed by three other masterpieces from the same
author for that theater company (Uncle Vanya, The Three
Sisters and The Cherry Orchard), creating a quartet of
"new forms" and paving the way for the twentieth-century revolution
called modern drama.
And now, 106 years after this
controversial masterpiece was written, The Seagull is again
taking center stage, as the theatrical event of the new decade in an
arresting production at the Public Theater's Shakespeare in Central
Park during August, proving theater can indeed still be the center of
This Seagull reunites acclaimed director
Mike Nichols with illustrious screen star Meryl Streep (they did
Silkwood, Heartburn and Postcards From the Edge
together), who is appearing on the stage after an absence of
twenty years. (Her last performance was in Alice in Concert,
also at the Public, in 1981, and it was she who approached him with
the idea to do The Seagull together.) Nichols, who has lured
stars to the stage with Chekhov before (his Uncle Vanya in
1973 at Circle in the Square featured George C. Scott, Julie Christie
and Nicol Williamson), has assembled a luminous cast that is
attracting queues outside the Delacorte Theater that rival those at
Madison Square Garden. John Goodman, Marcia Gay Harden, Philip
Seymour Hoffman, Kevin Kline, Debra Monk, Larry Pine, Natalie
Portman, Stephen Spinella and Christopher Walken (yes, all of them,
live!) join Streep in the park's final production of the summer
season, and it is the synergy of this array of artists, this magical
play (in Tom Stoppard's clear, respectful version of the text) and
the stunning mise en scène of Central Park (as well as
the scarcity of tickets) that has produced a Seagull to be
remembered, perhaps for decades.
The Seagull tells
the story of a group of writers and actors gathered on the lakeside
estate of the famous actress Irina Arkadina (played by Streep), who
is summering there with her lover, the author Trigorin (Kline), and a
coterie of stock Chekhovian types (a doctor, a schoolteacher,
assorted country neighbors and so on). Arkadina's son, Konstantin
(Hoffman), an aspiring young playwright, has written a new play with
which he hopes to win the approval of his mother and her famous
lover. It is performed by Nina (Portman), a stage-struck young
actress and the object of Konstantin's desperate affections. The
story follows the deepening involvement of these characters over that
star-crossed summer wherein everyone falls in (unrequited) love; then
it jumps two years ahead, where things end badly. It's a play about
love and art and creativity and nature and death--and the alchemy of
all these elements. "I started it forte and ended it pianissimo,
contrary to all the rules of dramatic art," Chekhov wrote, as he
attempted to describe his experiment in writing a comedy that ends as
It's also the first Chekhov play to be
performed in Shakespeare in the Park's forty-season history, and an
irresistible choice, given the natural setting. Still, it's a brave
one, for The Seagull, while sacred around the world in
artistic circles, theater conservatories and academia, remains the
Macbeth of the Chekhovian canon, the one that directors and
producers (especially American) tend to avoid, for fear of its
mystery and impenetrability. Indeed, if you look at the history of
Chekhov in America and the list of publicly acclaimed, "landmark"
productions in recent decades--most notably Lee Strasberg's Three
Sisters (Actors Studio, 1964), Andrei Serban's Cherry
Orchard (Lincoln Center, 1977), Peter Brook's (imported)
Cherry Orchard (Brooklyn Academy of Music, 1988) and the wave
of popular Uncle Vanyas in the 1990s both on stage and screen
(most notably Louis Malle's Vanya on 42nd Street, based on
Andre Gregory's direction of the play)--The Seagull is not on
But Nichols, whose strongest suits are comedy and
celebrity, has made a wise and timely choice in staging a play
about the theater that is calling such attention to the
theater. And of course the jewel in his crown is Streep, whose
sweeping entrance down the staircase of her estate onto the Delacorte
stage evokes an ecstatic ovation. Whether in mauve or white or
emerald or scarlet, Streep illuminates the night, as she plays the
flamboyant actress who struggles to preserve her passion for the
theater against the hostility of her suicidal son, the stultification
of the Russian countryside, the threat of aging and the danger of
losing her glamour and her lover (to the younger actress). It's a
complex, demanding, potentially unsympathetic role, and Streep
follows in the footsteps of many great actresses on the
English-speaking stage--including Dame Edith Evans, Peggy Ashcroft,
Vanessa Redgrave, Irene Worth, Susan Fleetwood, Penelope Wilton, Judi
Dench, Felicity Kendall, Rosemary Harris and Blythe Danner--who have
faced its daunting challenges with aplomb. Streep, comedian par
excellence, endows the role with a daredevil panache and and flair
for physicalizing comedy. (Those of us who remember her Dunyasha in
The Cherry Orchard twenty-four years ago at Lincoln Center,
when she fell into a flat-out faint, are astonished once again when
here, in Act II, she erupts into a full-petticoated cartwheel.)
Swanning around the garden, throwing tantrums over a horse and
carriage, nursing her son's wounds tenderly and then insulting him
cruelly, weeping over her finances or tousling with her lover on the
Oriental rug, she ranges across the spectrum of human emotions,
flaunting her character's flaws and capturing our sympathies in the
end. It is a charismatic and commanding performance.
is well matched by her fellow cast members: Marcia Gay Harden's
deliciously dark Masha (dragging around the stage "in mourning for
her life" over unrequited love for Konstantin); John Goodman's
jelly-bellied Shamraev (the estate's manager and would-be baritone),
with his booming "Bravo, Silva!"; Christopher Walken's sprightly
Sorin (a hilarious and heartbreaking portrayal of Arkadina's aging
brother)--all are finely etched, acrobatic performances, in the
spirit of Chekhov's vaudevillian intent.
There are also
the gentle, bittersweet portrayals of Stephen Spinella's sensitive
schoolteacher Medvedenko; Larry Pine's wise, knowing Dr. Dorn; and
Debra Monk's tender Paulina, whose pathetic hope to reclaim lost love
and youth, like her bouquet of flowers, is torn to shreds.
In the roles of the doomed young lovers and aspiring
artists, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Natalie Portman give unadorned,
affecting performances, courageous in their vulnerability. Hoffman,
known for his flamboyant character roles in film (including Almost
Famous and The Talented Mr. Ripley) and his recent tour de
force on Broadway in Sam Shepard's True West, shows great
versatility here with his sensitive, understated portrayal of the
tortured young writer. And Portman's delicate youth and soaring
spirit make her fall all the more heartbreaking in the play's final,
immortal scene, played by both with simplicity and
The illusive role of the writer Trigorin, the
lover who leaves Arkadina for Nina and then abandons Nina and their
child, is, like Arkadina, a dangerously unsympathetic one (it was
originated by Stanislavsky himself, and Chekhov never felt he got it
right). Kevin Kline, distinguished classical leading man (remember
his Hamlet and Ivanov), has given this subtle role an elegant,
seductive, ironic and highly appealing rendering.
The Seagull is considered a realistic play (radically
experimental, at the time it was written), it is in truth an
impressionistic one, and directors are understandably lured by its
suggestive symbolism. Hence, there have been numerous vivid imagistic
productions over the years, including, most recently, Romanian-born
Andrei Serban's Seagull in Japan (1980), with a vast lake on
stage, into which Treplev falls after he shoots himself; Petr Lebl's
white-on-white Art Deco one in Prague (1994); and Michael Greif's
production at the Williamstown Theatre Festival (1994), where the
back wall of the stage rises at the end of Act IV, revealing
Konstantin's blood-drenched body draped over the piano. In the case
of Nichols's Seagull, the director has trust enough in the
author, the text, the splendid cast and the spectacular natural
setting to allow the play to play itself. Indeed, Central Park
provides everything that Chekhov asked for: a vast outdoor park, a
lake (Turtle Pond) and the silhouette of grand estates (Belvedere
Castle) on the other shore. Bob Crowley (scenic and costume designer)
has provided an elegant, vine-covered mansion stage left, whose
brilliant windows (lit by Jennifer Tipton) blaze against the dark
sky, promising a cozy, safe interior against the dangerous lures of
nature and creativity. Marcia Gay Harden and Stephen Spinella wander
in from behind the birches, Natalie Portman rides in on horseback,
Kevin Kline sits silently on the shore and fishes. "Ah, the spells
this lake casts," sighs Larry Pine. (Who needs Hollywood?!)
Above all, Mike Nichols has understood why Chekhov called
this play a comedy. Chekhov, the vaudevillian, the writer of sketches
and short stories, had the soul of a comedic writer in the body of a
dying man. Diagnosed at 29, he died of consumption at the age of 44
(he wrote The Seagull at 35). As a doctor, Chekhov saw life
ironically, in tragicomic terms--"I write about life as it is," he
said. Nichols (once a comedic actor himself), with four award-winning
decades in the theater (directing Simon, Albee, Beckett and Stoppard,
among many others), has his own deep understanding of how comedy and
drama cohabit on the stage. Accordingly, he has inspired comedic
performances that follow the story's descent into sorrow with
simplicity and truth.
"I would like life to flash by in
moments, brilliantly," Chekhov once wrote to his publisher. In the
end, the deep truths of his four great plays are unfathomable, and
productions over the past century have not always been greeted with
praise by the public and the critics. And yet, the glory and eternity
of Chekhov lies in fleeting but indelible moments created on the
stage. For me, there's the memory of Irene Worth running round the
empty house in the last act of Serban's Cherry Orchard, as she
leaves her home forever. Or of Brian Dennehy in Brook's production,
as he pounds his chest and shouts, "It's mine, the cherry orchard is
mine!" Or Ian McKellen's Uncle Vanya clutching his bouquet of roses
at the Royal National Theatre (1993). Or Vanessa and Corin Redgrave
(brother and sister playing the same) in the RNT's current production
of The Cherry Orchard, frolicking on the nursery floor. And
now, add the moment of Meryl Streep's joyful, triumphant cartwheel
under the stars in Central Park, in celebration of life and art and
talent--and return to the theater.
The brother of the Sultan of Brunei
Set out to see how much a guy could buy,
And fifteen billion's what he finally spent
Before the sultan voiced some discontent.
The guilt of many shoppers was assuaged.
The most committed shopaholic gauged,
"I'd really have to spend a lot more dough
To be a spendthrift like the sultan's bro."
At 5 o'clock in the
morning, the radio alarm begins to blare the news. The United States
is threatening to pull out of the World Conference Against Racism if
the conversation includes tensions between Israel and the
Palestinians. What a nightmare, I think as I sit up in bed. How can
the most powerful and diverse country on earth refuse to go to the
first global discussion of race? No one expected easy accord about
what's racial and what's not, but to refuse to attend the discussion
Perhaps I am unduly depressed because I am in a
small motel somewhere in...South Dakota, is it? Or maybe San Diego? I
made the terrible mistake of watching Planet of the Apes the
night before, in this dim room whose walls are flocked in orange fuzz
with silver trim. It is the end of a long week of speaking to
organizations that have called me in because someone has done
something like hang a big noose over a black person's work space, and
they would like me--me!--to get everyone speaking
The last five days have involved flying into
Pittsburgh or Salt Lake City or Tampa in order to take a shuttle to
terminal Z, where militia members in camouflage or square dance teams
in pouffy skirts or troupes of young missionaries take flights to and
from small towns all over America in very small planes. I have been
lining up behind them, boarding ancient Cessna prop planes seating
ten--give or take carry-on weapons caches, guitars, extra Bibles and
box of diversity pamphlets--and bounce low to the ground all the way
to Saginaw or Elko or Huntsville or Dayton.
I get out of
bed and look for coffee on the room service menu. There is no room
service menu. There is no room service.
The gentleman who
comes to greet me on behalf of the Better Business Through
Multicultural Harmony Committee is from Bahrain and hails me like a
long-lost sister. I can assure you from personal experience how
dramatically America's demographics are changing; the smaller and
more off the beaten track the American town, the more likely the
confused little minority community will include representatives
recently arrived from Bangladesh or Sudan or Cambodia or
The gentleman from Bahrain settles me into a
large, all-American car and whisks me off into the cornfields and
more cornfields. An hour later we hit a strip mall, turn left, a mile
and a half of soybeans--et voilà! East-West Central
Southern Industries (name changed to protect the innocent). The
conference room at whose door he deposits me has coffee! muffins! and
is really pretty pleasant, even given my yuppie
The problem I have been asked to tackle is a
new but essentially old-fashioned one. Someone with too much free
time has created a list of all the employees, put it online and
created the kind of cyberspatial graffiti that one hoped one never
had to think about after tenth grade, when notebooks were passed
around with a name on each page, and cruel anonymous comments were
scrawled beneath. This particular list ranks everyone by sexiness,
intelligence, dress and, perhaps most destructively, smell. The
comments are racialized, sexually crude, almost pathologically
immature but as hard to dismiss as a punch in the stomach. It is a
bully's shopping list of strategies to humiliate, and it has created
the intended havoc, spilling into the small town beyond. "Affirmative
action bitch. Wears Payless shoes," is a typically bitter little
It takes me all morning just to sort out who has
injured whom. Virtually everyone in the company has hurled enough
epithets to make everyone else on the planet hate them forever. I
decide to speak to just a few people, those in the best position to
try to make some systemic improvements.
The gentleman from
Bahrain volunteers to organize a dinner. He makes a few phone calls
on my behalf, and soon we are off to a Vietnamese restaurant in the
mall, where we meet with an odd assortment of community organizers
and spokesmen. The cast of characters includes a local black minister
who (like a weird inverted image of George W. Bush's saying that the
Nation of Islam was one of the world's great religions) is worried
that his new Islamic Moroccan neighbors are followers of Louis
Farrakhan. There's a white police officer who is sincerely trying to
smooth the waters while dropping phrases like "outside agitators" and
"stingy as a Jew." There's a Nigerian man with five sons who is
worried about his children being called "gang members" every time
they walk to school together. There's a Native-American man who shows
up to protest that no one remembered to invite him.
the head of a local evangelical group trying to raise money to buy
Sudanese slaves in order to set them free. There's a representative
of a human rights agency who says that buying slaves is not a
political solution but rather encourages traders to raise the price.
"It's part of a larger global sex market," he says. "And it operates
right here in America--you don't have to travel to Eastern Europe or
Africa. Would you consider going to some big-time pimps, buying a few
sex slaves, setting them free on a street corner and really think
you'd accomplished much of anything in the way of eliminating the
There is a genial Republican Party leader who
wants me to meet a Mozambican woman who has been studying at the
local university and who is miserably homesick. "We haven't done our
job if she wants to go back to a country like that," he says, and
introduces me as "an example of what can be achieved in the US." She
is a charming person, with a degree from the Sorbonne. "Mozambique is
my home," she sighs wearily. "Americans know nothing of
And there's a recently arrived Palestinian
refugee and a Jewish teacher whose family migrated to this town
seventy years ago. They are neighbors, and express overlapping
concerns about events in the Middle East. "We might not get along at
all if we were there. But here we are friends. Here," they add, "it
is everybody else." As we gaze around the room, it does seem as if
these two are the only ones on fully cordial terms.
they conclude after a moment's reflection, "at least they all showed
IF I HAD A HAMMER...
I agree with Katrina vanden Heuvel on the
necessity of building a better infrastructure to combat the
right-wing corporate giant ["Building to Win," July 9]. The right has
the money and the media. The progressives have the brains and the
moral highroad. Let's keep to the latter while concentrating on how
best to position the former. Newt Gingrich used computer technology
to fire his misguided agenda. Progressives need to capture the
Internet as the means to train, inform, meet and proselytize (The
website Common Dreams is a good start). Technology can go far beyond
a simple reprinting of well-written articles. I suggest that the web
be our printing press as well as our town meeting hall to take back
our party, the Democratic Party, and to then move the rest of the
country back from the fringe of fascism.
New York City
infrastructure is essential. But until we regain command over the
buzzwords, conservatives hold the advantage. After a relentless
barrage of invective by conservatives and sixties radicals, "liberal"
became a term of opprobrium. "Marketplace" must be shown to be a
myth; "privatize," a synonym for corrupt favoritism; "missile defense
initiative," a form of corporate welfare; "interests" returned to its
original meaning, corporate oligopoly; "tax reduction," a transfer of
wealth from those who have little to those who have much;
"globalization," a search for the most repressive dictatorships that
deliver the lowest wages and costs. Government and labor must be what
they were in the past, the only counterweights to supranational
Katrina vanden Heuvel
perpetuates a common misunderstanding when she states, "The 1997
Supreme Court decision against the New Party...has chained us
constitutionally to the existing duopoly." Not so. Nothing in the
Constitution "chains" us to the two-party system. Only federal law
does. A statute passed by Congress forces states to gerrymander their
territories into single-member districts. This law entrenches duopoly
politics, because a one-winner election turns third parties into
spoilers and encourages voters to hold their noses and vote for one
of only two candidates. Thus, states are prevented from using
proportional representation (PR), which the Constitution would allow.
By using larger, multimember districts and preference or party-list
voting, PR would give third and fourth parties a chance. A bill in
Congress, HR 1189, the Voters' Choice Act, would eliminate the
single-seat requirement, allowing states to experiment with PR. The
duopoly can be broken without having to face the Supreme Court or
amend the Constitution. It's a legislative issue, like other election
reforms, and progressives should be leading the way.
New York City
I'm sorry if my
shorthand summary of our present predicament was confusing. It is
quite true, of course, that the Constitution does not mandate a
two-party system. Indeed, it says nothing at all about parties. Our
duopoly is a creation of statutory law and administration rule, and
in principle we could change it by the same means. The age-old
problem, however, is that the very duopoly the law protects also runs
our government and has never shown the slightest interest in
increasing competition. So those who wish to reform the system are
forced to use citizen initiative or the courts.
Supreme Court's decision in Timmons v. Twin Cities Area New
Party did was in effect to preclude the second line of attack.
Steered by the same Gang of Five that later gave us Bush v.
Gore, it held that the current major parties werefree to
construct electoral rules for the exclusive purpose of limiting
competition to themselves. Just how profound a departure from past
law this was is important to see. Before Timmons the Court
often recognized the endurance of our two-party system and even the
possible virtues of the duopoly over other electoral systems. But
what it had never done was misread the Constitution to favor
party duopoly, and it had always treated any effort by the two major
parties to reproduce themselves indefinitely as the duopoly--by
erecting artificial barriers to new party entry and effective
competition--with something approaching contempt. The Court said in
Timmons that existing parties had a legitimate interest in
doing just that. Moreover, it declared itself prepared to uphold this
interest regardless of a showing, as was made and accepted in the
case, that doing so hurt our electoral system's representativeness
with no gain in any other electoral value--accountability or
stability, for instance--traditionally recognized by the Court. After
Timmons, I see no constitutional argument that might
successfully be made against the rules upholding our duopoly. That's
what I meant by saying the decision "chained us constitutionally."
KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL
I know a place
where the Navy can shift its bombing operations that will make
everybody happy--Martha's Vineyard [Angelo Falcón, "Liberating
Vieques," July 9]! Like Vieques, the Vineyard is a charming island
with easy access to sea and land. With more than three times
Vieques's paltry fifty-one square miles, it should afford the Navy a
much wider range of out-of-the-way targets. And since the peak season
runs only about three months, there'll be ample opportunity to
squeeze in the 180 days a year of bombing the Navy says it needs to
maintain readiness. Since the Navy claims these operations have no
significant impact on public health, safety, economy, ecology or
quality of life, I don't foresee a problem.
YOU CAN TAKE THIS VOTE & SHOVE
As one of those
blue-collar white folks examined in Andrew Levison's review of why
most supported Bush in the last election, I'd like to point out that
most of us didn't support anybody--refusing to take what time off we
have to vote for one elitist son of a politician over another. Just
whose version of NAFTA were we supposed to endorse? As best as I can
tell, a lot of scholarship went into explaining the obvious ["Who
Lost the Working Class?" May 14].
Working white folk have
been abandoned for decades by the Democrats and corporate labor, a
feeling native workers "of color" are beginning to experience. Racial
divisions were exploited by conservatives for profit and liberals for
posture. And while we knocked heads over jobs and wages, the libs and
cons retired to their clubs under the awning of loyal
Levison continues the obvious fallacy that
unions represent the majority of workers and their interests. After
they purged action-oriented activists a couple of generations ago,
their flaccid advocacies have served only to diminish their own
numbers, bolstered today only by a willingness to adopt scabs once
workers have lost their jobs. The new predominant service industries
require servility over skill. Americans suck as servants. Immigrant
labor, so unsurly and so adored by progressives, met no opposition
from the liberal side until it impacted jobs of college graduates in
the high-tech industries. Republicans don't have the working-class
vote any more than the Democrats have our interest at heart. It don't
take four years in the Ivy League for most of us to recognize the two
empty husks in the American shell game.
I recognized the
values Andrew Levison enumerates as "working class," and his
description of the 1950s, from my own experience as the daughter of
an East Texas railroad engineer and labor organizer. We used to iron
my father's striped work overalls, so he left the house each day
starched and clean and returned greasy. But in the 1950s he started
wearing a suit to work and would change into his overalls at the rail
yard. Even as a child, I sensed the shame that had replaced his
"Who Lost the Working Class?" fails to mention
two singular men who also toiled in Andrew Levison's vineyard. Where
is Will Gavin (whose prophetic 1975 sleeper, Street Corner
Conservative, argued that the "Right" kind of Republican could
take all the marbles in places like the People's Republic of Queens)?
And what about the late Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Tom
Fox (who in 1976 coined the phrase "Reagan Democrats")? I gave Fox my
own Rx for the GOP: Let Jerry Ford spend more time with Joe Garagiola
(and less with Henry Kissinger) and he wins. But they didn't. So he
NOEL E. PARMENTEL JR.
NOT BY SEX ED
Santa Cruz, Calif.
disputes myths of abstinence-only education only to uphold the myth
that better sex education would eliminate the difference between high
US and low European teen pregnancy rates ["Sex, Lies and Politics,"
May 7]. In fact, the biggest reason for the difference is poverty. In
more affluent communities where US teenagers have poverty rates as
low as those of European youth (around 5 percent), US teen pregnancy
rates are as low as Europe's; in America's impoverished inner cities
and rural areas, teen pregnancy rates are 20 times higher. Black and
Hispanic adolescents suffer poverty levels triple those of white
youths, and the Centers for Disease Control's latest report shows
that black and Hispanic adolescents have pregnancy rates three times
higher than whites'.
Comprehensive evaluations of American
teen pregnancy prevention do not show that sex and abstinence
education reduce pregnancy rates but that poverty exerts powerful
effects. The best evidence indicates that sex education and
contraception provision help to deter pregnancy only when accompanied
by social and economic reforms that provide expanded opportunities
for poorer populations. By drastically overstating the effectiveness
of programmatic interventions, sex education advocates interfere with
the crucial need to redress America's grotesque socioeconomic
inequalities and youth poverty levels.
COLD WAR CITATION REVISIONISM
New York City
In my July 16 essay, "Cold War Ghosts," I should have cited either
Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes's Venona or Allen
Weinstein's Perjury rather than The Haunted Wood (by
Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev) for the argument that since the
person code-named ALES returned from the Yalta Conference via Moscow,
and Alger Hiss did the same on a plane carrying three others, none of
them spy material, ALES was probably Hiss.
It should surprise no one that the European revolutionaries are not inspired by the American dream. Nobody, after all, expected the fighters for national liberation in the post-Napoleonic era to cherish the memory of Metternich, and the United States is now a much mightier pillar of the new Holy Alliance for the preservation of the status quo. It intervenes, directly or by proxy, wherever the social order is threatened, from Taiwan to Greece to Guatemala. Whenever they are under attack, profit and privilege can rely on the forces of "freedom." In Vietnam the American bombers spell out for the local population the bloody message "Better dead than red." The Green Berets are ready to jump in order to rescue the ruling oligarchies of the banana and other republics of Latin America (though the profits of US companies are now better insured by training local troops for the struggle against "subversion"). Like a black knight in nuclear armor the United States Navy patrols the seas, proclaiming that no more social revolutions will be allowed, that China's in 1949 was the last to be tolerated, while the Cuban affair was simply a misunderstanding. The Vietnamese resistance aroused enthusiasm far from Hanoi and Saigon because it challenged American presumption and proved that human courage still counted even in the world of nuclear balance. The Tet offensive in 1968 drove Western students to action because it revealed that the enemy was not invincible. Che Guevara, alive or dead, was hailed as a symbol of solidarity, of the international nature of the anti-imperialist struggle.
The salesmen of the American dream, and they are legion in Europe, prefer to bypass this role of international gendarme, or to justify it in terms of domestic achievement. They point to the democratic niceties, to the civil liberties the United States can still afford. They stress even more the economic achievement, the technological lead, the intellectual investment that vast accumulation has rendered possible, the level of research and management, the high productivity--in short, the superior wealth of the nation; and they turn to the young revolutionaries with the rhetorical question: Can you dismiss the American model in spite of all this? The answer is not in spite of it but because of it. The most frightening prospect, the American nightmare, is that with so much wealth man should not be able to build a different kind of society. In fact, the Europeans are merely echoing the indictment of America's New Left which, instead of being dazzled by the moon, points to the dark side of American society; its inequality and racism, its collective poverty and private plenty, its derelict health services, its belated discovery of pollution and urban chaos--and to the system responsible for it all.
To its admirers, the United States has discovered the secret of perpetual motion for capitalism. Advertising, as a new dynamic method of sales promotion, is a way of getting rid of industrial surpluses superior to that of coffee burning in agriculture. Above all, with military expenditures absorbing, even in official figures, about one-tenth of the national product, the state has a powerful lever to direct the rhythm of output. Advanced capitalism differs from its predecessor. The vagaries of the cycle are less pronounced, unemployment is relatively smaller, growth comparatively more regular. This is not the place to discuss whether this post-Keynesian equilibrium, resting on a militarization of the economy unprecedented in peacetime, is stable and lasting. The painful discovery of America's rulers is that even while the going is good, the system runs into new contradictions. American expansion meets resistance at home, as well as abroad. The outsiders rebel. The hitherto passive blacks refuse to continue being pariahs in the alleged land of plenty. The growing movement of protest among students and the radical part of the intelligentsia is a symptom of something deeper--the clash between the direction to which the expansion of productive forces is geared and the social needs of our age.
The "consumer society" is a misnomer suggesting that at least, as regards consumption, the average citizen is the uncrowned King. Though his material conditions have in many ways improved beyond recognition, modern man is still an alienated producer and a highly conditioned buyer of goods, a dissatisfied purchaser of leisure and pleasure with very little control over his environment. A producer society, guided by industrial and commercial profit, would be a much more accurate description. That problems such as pollution and urban decay are tackled only when they become unbearable is in the logic of things. Modern capitalism has changed enough in method and manner to face up to the unprofitable when it is under pressure. But it has preserved its essence. Profit remains its ultimate driving force, and it is intrinsically unable to confront the collective or individual problems of our society from any other angle. Consciously or unconsciously, this is what the protest is really about.
The similarity of some of its manifestations on both sides of the Atlantic is quite natural. The Englishman, the Frenchman or the German traveling in the United States is less struck by contrasts than by resemblances. He has the strange impression of making a journey through his own country's more or less distant future. For the most political among them, however impressed they may be by the technological progress, it is a journey to night's end. They know that this is their inevitable prospect unless Europe can forge a different kind of society. The bitter controversies between "Europeans" and "anti-Europeans" are really irrelevant in this context. The conflict that has begun cuts across continental as well as national frontiers. The European protesters who look ahead are joining hands with America's New Left. In Western Europe the real division is between those who seek socialism and those who opt for the American model. "Et tout le reste est littérature." It was no accident if during the French May crisis the United States authorities trembled for the fate of Gaullism. They sensed, quite rightly, that the forces then launching the assault against Gaullism are the same that are waging the struggle against Europe's American future.
The conflict is now intercontinental, and so is the solidarity. Revolutionary "grouplets" across Western Europe used to look exclusively to the Third World, to the Vietnamese or the Latin American guerrillas fighting against imperialism from without. They are now also looking to America's young radicals, who are beginning to carry on the same struggle from within. By the same token, they have discovered their own independent and intermediate role.
In mood at least, there are some parallels between the present period and the middle of the 19th century in Europe. Then, too, solidarity was the order of the day, and during the so-called "Spring of the People," fighters for national liberation journeyed from country to country battling "for your freedom and ours." Now, whatever policemen may think, direct intervention is still rare. The community of purpose and struggle is nevertheless growing. Europe's young students and workers salute their fellows across the Atlantic with the new message: "Against your present and our future."
West wind, east wind.... There is nothing new in the violent reaction of Europe's radicals against American interventionism nor in their hostile rejection of the American model. The real novelty is that the Soviet Union has practically vanished as a counter-attraction. During the French crisis there were many references to the Bolshevik October, but none, apart from contemptuous dissociation, to the bureaucratic rule of Stalin's heirs. This antagonism or indifference to the Soviet model--revisionist for some, Stalinist for others, irrelevant for most--characteristic of the May movement, was one of the reasons why orthodox Communists viewed it from the start with deep mistrust. Yet even the orthodox in the West are by now highly discreet about citing the Soviet Union as an example. They are particularly reticent about dwelling on the prospects of the Soviet bloc since the invasion of Czechoslovakia.
Spring in 1968 flourished in unison in Paris and Prague, but hopes faded separately. The French crisis was over, at least temporarily, by the time the Russian tanks rolled into Prague on August 21, and their invasion marked the beginning of the end of the unique experiment of Czech students and workers. The epilogue in Prague came after the French act, and thus could not affect it. But it has affected the European horizon. The Czech tragedy throws a new light on the problem of the dismantlement of Stalinism in Eastern Europe. It makes it necessary to reassess the hope of a Socialist revival within the Soviet bloc and, by the same token, the chances that inspiration in Europe may once again come from the East.
From your very first encounters at the modernized Warsaw airport you know that you have entered the kingdom of private enterprise. The operator at the money exchange hands me $30 worth of zlotys, though I gave her $40; when I protest, she adds the difference without a fuss. A cabbie offers to take me downtown for 200,000 zlotys, explaining that the cheats in the taxi stand outside will charge more because their meters start at 50,000. When I reply that the radio taxi coming to collect me will cost less than a third of his "reduced" fare, his knowing smile and shrug say, So not all new arrivals are suckers. But you have to try to get on in this world.
Returning to Poland after a year, I wanted to see how the patient was faring after nearly three years of "shock therapy" introduced by Leszek Balcerowicz, the former finance minister, and sponsored by the International Monetary Fund. My first impression was that things are the same, only more so. The image of Western prosperity is striking. The heart of Warsaw is packed with cars. They may not be more numerous but they are bigger, Western Europe's compacts replacing the tiny Fiats made in Poland. "Marketing is an art" says the slogan at the railway station advertising a magazine called "Businessman". Across the street, outside the Marriott hotel, the bellboys wear pith helmets; inside, the gambling casino is open twenty-four hours a day. The latter is mainly for foreigners, but along the city's two most elegant avenues, New World and Krakow Suburb, the smart shops displaying expensive cars, elegant amber jewelry and other luxury goods cater to the natives; and these stores have customers. The upper crust is visibly rising.
On my last visit I wanted to know how fast this buying spree could produce a capitalist class, so I looked at the new rich [see "Poland's New Men of Property," November 11, 1991]. This time I wanted to know how the rest of the country lives, including the much-faster-spreading new poor. To see them, you don't really have to leave the capital, yet I advise those who still echo the hymns to the "Polish miracle" of Harvard free-marketeer Jeffrey Sachs and his ilk to make a short train journey from the Marriott to the city of Lodz.
Down and Out in Lodz
With foreign capital and the huge czarist-era market for its textiles, Lodz grew like a mushroom in the second half of the nineteenth century to become Poland's second-largest city; its population is 850,000. Its factories are spread haphazardly across the metropolitan area. My wife and I walk along one such proletarian fortress--building after building behind a brick wall--stretching, it seems, for miles. At the end, along Weaving Street, is a grim block of flats for the workers; opposite, next to a lake, is a white gem of a palace, yesterday the home of the manufacturer, today a textile museum. With such a socially eloquent landscape the inhabitants may not require a long refresher course to grasp the nature of capitalism.
Poland's textile capital, however, is not what it used to be. Deprived of the Soviet market and attacked on the home front by cheap imports, Lodz is in crisis. Although restructuring, so far, has led to the closing of departments rather than whole enterprises, unemployment, by official count, has already reached 18 percent of the labor force. The contrast with Warsaw hits the eye. Even in the upper parts of the main thoroughfare, Piotrowska Street, the shops do not have the chic of the capital's. At the other end of this very long road poverty sweats through the walls. The nearby flea market, with peddlers from Vilnius or Kiev, is miserable not only by Western but also by Polish standards. Anka Rozanska, a sociologist prominent in the local League of Women, knows a great deal about this wounded city. Usually, she works with single mothers or distributes contraceptive devices received from France. She has much to say about the growing shadow of the Catholic Church (of which more later), but to hear about unemployment she takes us to the horse's mouth.
The Committee for the Defense of the Jobless, at the end of a labyrinthine courtyard, has two bare rooms and a dozen people inside. Although men are more numerous, it's chaired by a woman, Lucyna Kosterkiewicz. She speaks in bursts, with passion: "Without family or friends we couldn't survive.... Dispersed we're nothing, lower than dirt." Another woman, who used to work in a glass factory, was unable to pay for coal to heat her house. So she ran up a large electric bill and now the Electricity Board is threatening to cut off her power. Couldn't she go to a special welfare office for a subsidy? I asked. She did, she said. It was like going to confession, only they wanted to know about her "riches." A man proclaims: This is no capitalism with a human face. It's a more bloodthirsty variety. There's a black market for labor; employers hire for less than twenty-eight days so they won't have to pay for social benefits. Another man claims that for the jobless it might as well be the guillotine at age 40. Women say economic demise comes even earlier for them, since to get a job "you must be young, childless and have a big bosom." Lucyna raises the tone: "We forget the taste of butter, the smell of ham.... I wrote to [President Lech] Walesa and heard not a word.... Ours is a voice in the desert."
We move from the committee to the employment office, where the jobless must report to get their unemployment benefits (35 percent of the average national wage for a year, eighteen months in depressed areas, and then you go on welfare). Today is men's day, and we see a line of them wearily standing on the staircase and continuing out into the courtyard; it's like an old newsreel from the Depression. The last time I was here was eleven years ago, during a Solidarity-sponsored "hunger march." Anka, who was among the marchers, says in parting, "Today, if we staged a march, the slogan would be less metaphorical."
`A Nation of Shopkeepers'?
Lodz, with its many factories, is not the gloomiest area. The situation is much more desperate in smaller towns like Mielec or Swidnik, linked to one industry and often connected with arms making. Yet to focus the light only on these sore spots would distort the picture. The plentiful supply of goods--the fact that, if you have money, you can buy anything in Poland, ironically including kosher food, without standing in line--is described as a great conquest even by those who find it difficult to make ends meet.
The unquenched thirst for consumer goods is a notable feature throughout Eastern Europe.The heart of Warsaw is a vast bazaar. Next to the Palace of Culture, a skyscraper in Stalinist gothic, there are now two tentlike stuctures, one housing a supermarket, the other, small shops. The vast terrain is surrounded by a wooden fence decorated with painted trees. Inside is Eastern Europe's souk, a warren of booths, stalls and kiosks offering cheap manufactured wares from all over the globe. The novelty is the spread of decent restaurants, not just McDonald's, as well as the emergence of sex shops. Otherwise, despite the development of a normal commercial network, one can still see in Warsaw, say, lavatory fixtures being peddled at a street corner straight off a truck or meat sold in the open from a table on Wiejska Street, next to the houses of Parliament.
This commercial revolution was designed, successfully, to break the state's control over trade. But what about the next stage on the agenda--capital investment? Statistics published while I was in Warsaw provide some economic and social background necessary to tackle this question.
For now at least, the economic downturn has bottomed out. Since April, production has even been rising slightly, and for the year as a whole it should equal the volume of 1991. Foreign trade shows a surplus. But this is as far as the good news goes. Even if the fragile recovery continues, unemployment is expected to climb from the present 13.6 percent of the work force to 18 percent by the end of next year. And the long-term decline in production has been halted at a very low level: Industrial output is one-third lower than in 1989, and real wages have dropped by 30 percent. Even if slightly exaggerated, because of the mysteries of the private sector, the figures are dramatic. How has the post-Communist regime survived three years of such belt-tightening?
It went through the big economic transformation of 1990 driven by the euphoria of victory and squandering the good will of Solidarity. Last year the discontent grew. This past summer Poland experienced a wave of strikes: thirty ÃÂ´eight in July and thirty-five in August, most notably in the copper mines and in the car factory taken over by Fiat. The stoppages, I gather, were not as unsuccessful and unpopular as depicted in the Polish media (the Western press--guess why?--is no longer keen on Polish strikes).
This interpretation was confirmed by many sources, including Ewa Spychalska, the new leader of the ex-Communist union confederation, the O.P.Z.Z. (with a membership now more than twice that of Solidarity!). Tall and fortyish, Spychalska started professional life as a teacher and switched to become a building technician when she became the main breadwinner in the family. She did belong to Solidarity, like so many millions, but was also a Communist Party member and has no intention of "apologizing for it for the rest of my life." She argues that, while the workers did not get all they had asked for, the summer strikes strengthened unity of action among the rank and file and forced the government to seek a dialogue with all unions, not just with Solidarity. The government, while unyielding during the strikes, may have been prompted by the discontent to look for a deal with the unions through an enterprise pact. Which brings us back to the transfer of ownership and the search for new forms of capital accumulation.
Power and Property
Even before 1989 the bulk of land belonged to smallholders. Now 80 percent of retail trade and about three-quarters of the building industry is also in private hands. In manufacturing, however, the proportions are still the other way around. The Ministry of Property Transformations is putting the last touches on Poland's version of "universal privatization." The plan should involve 600 of the country's most attractive state enterprises. Ownership of these will be divided among twenty or so National Investment Funds to be run by management teams, quite a few of them foreign. Adult Poles will be allowed to buy a voucher for shares in these funds at a fixed price equivalent to a tenth of their monthly wage. The purpose of the operation is to create capitalist interests, to get foreigners involved, to give some people a real stake in private industry and to give the bulk of the population the illusion that they were not completely robbed.
For other companies the government is introducing a "pact on the state enterprise in the process of transformation." This is expected to give labor unions some say in the way their plants are privatized and, during the transition period, to limit the handicaps public enterprises suffer (unlike private companies, they must now pay a "dividend" to the state and a special tax on certain wage increases). The project, still to be voted on by Parliament, is sponsored by Jacek Kuron, the veteran dissident who is now Minister of Labor and Social Affairs. Kuron has given up his old socialist ideals, but not his way of life. The plain-speaking minister dressed in blue jeans is still the country's most popular politician. He admits that to combine a "social contract" with "primitive accumulation" is not easy. He believes he can win over the unions, including the O.P.Z.Z., but he also believes they have little influence.
Let there be no illusion. This is not Solidarity returning to its egalitarian origins or its ideas of self-management. Indeed, Kuron is backed by the most monetarist ministers in the government who, like himself, opted for the Balcerowicz shock-therapy plan yet fear that privatization will run into trouble if it is seen by the workers as daylight robbery.
It's `Them' Again
The transfer of property has obvious political as well as economic purposes. The parties throughout Eastern Europe speak, in a sense, for classes in the process of formation, and this is why they often speak with strange voices. The Parliament's lower house, or Sejm, with its twenty parties (of which none captured more than 14 percent of the vote in last year's elections), provides a good example of such a dissonant chorus. But one of its most prominent members, the historian Bronislaw Geremek, gave me another explanation of the political confusion. The main conflict in Eastern Europe, he argued, is between the reformers who want to lead their societies toward the Western model and the opponents of change. The snag is that the Western consensus politics is based on the existence of a large middle class, absent in Poland. Some, therefore, wish to reshape society by authoritarian means. He maintains that big changes, notably in property relations, can only be carried out with popular consent.
Geremek's interpretation was the only possible one to justify the coexistence in one government of his party, the vaguely secular and leftish Democratic Union, with the jingoist and clerical Christian National Party. The "reformist" link between the coalition partners is the acceptance of the Balcerowicz line and of the pattern prescribed by international finance. The price paid for the shock therapy, however, is a heavy one: the divorce of the former Solidarity leadership from a people who barely three years ago had swept it triumphantly into power.
The fatal flaw of the "communist" regimes throughout the area was their alienation, the fact that the population thought in terms of "us" and "them." In Poland today most ordinary people talk once again about "them"--the crafty ones, the profiteers--lumping together Lech Walesa, the government and the parliamentarians into this category. This is no rehabilitation of the old regime. It is a condemnation of the new one.
The current governmental coalition was brought together last July, partly by the fear of a McCarthyite purge prepared by a crazy interior minister. The present Prime Minister, Hanna Suchocka, was picked because she was sufficiently unknown not to offend prominent rivals and sufficiently Catholic to have the blessing of the church. Most deputies fear an election and thus don't want to challenge Suchocka, but her government could collapse in a conflict with President Walesa. Yet more worrying than the prospects for the government is the almost immediate loss of legitimacy of the new system.
In Warsaw, as in other eastern capitals, those loosely called democrats warn that, if their road to capitalism fails, the alternative is more likely to be semifascist than socialist. They forget to add that their policy feeds dangerous forms of populism. Discontent in Poland strengthens not only the converted ex-Communists, who are still too discredited to become the main alternative, but also parties like the jingoist Confederation of Polish Independence, which nonetheless appears proletarian compared with the Democratic Union, born of Solidarity. More valid is the claim that the so-called democrats, while no longer leftist in economic matters, are better than their rivals on such issues as nationalism and the rule of law. Even this, however, must be qualified because of a Polish peculiarity--the political power of the church.
The Black Web
"The antiabortion law will be passed," Basia Labuda tells me upon emerging from a parliamentary commission meeting. The bill she refers to will forbid abortion even in the case of rape and will sentence doctors and women involved to two years in jail. Basia, whom I have known as a leftie, has long been converted to capitalism. But she has remained a radical fighter for women's rights against the clerical invasion and was recently attacked by Jozef Cardinal Glemp himself. She says the law will pass partly because of the conduct of her colleagues (she, too, belongs to the Democratic Union): They will bravely vanish on the day of the vote or abstain; even those who will vote against do not have the courage to stand up to the church publicly.
From Basia and many women activists I hear the same story of a Catholic Church spreading its web over society. The church emerged under the new regime in an exceptionally strong position, which it is now trying to institutionalize. It first obtained a decree that religious instruction should be given during school hours, then insisted that it should count as a subject. Now it demands that a church teacher be put on every school council. The abortion ban will be particularly harmful in a country where sex education and birth control lag behind the West (many women are still using the rhythm method, known here as "Vatican roulette"). Once the bill is passed, the clergy is expected to switch to a frontal attack on contraception. Will divorce be next? The church is trying to impose its "values" everywhere, including radio and television.
Occasionally, it goes too far. For example, it claimed a university building in Warsaw seized by the Czar after the insurrection of 1863. The Constitutional Tribunal had to remind the church it can only reclaim property seized after World War II. Indeed, some optimists stress that the tide is turning, that the church is losing popularity. The clergy refuses categorically a referendum on abortion, knowing it would be defeated. There are other developments antagonizing the people: the greed with which the church seizes clinics or grabs land destined for children's playgrounds; the ostentatious wealth of the prelates in poor parishes. The church's struggle is ultimately a losing one against the modern age; if it continues making mistakes, it will soon lose the moral authority it gained in opposing the Communist regime. Poland will cease to be peculiar. Should one look hopefully to such a normal future or worry about the dark ages in between?
Blues in the Night
It is our last night in the capital. We have come back from a visit with Zbyszek Bujak, the underground leader of Solidarity in the days of military rule. He has now joined the Union of Labor, a budding social democratic party whose main spokesman is the economist Ryszard Bugaj and that can rely on the prestige of another veteran in the struggle against the old regime, the historian Karol Modzelewski. Bujak, who started as a workers' leader at the Ursus tractor factory, could help them on the shop floor. It is not easy, he argues; people are tired and, disappointed by collective action, are only out for themselves.
We go to the Palace of Culture. Yes, it now boasts a gaming house called Queen's Casino, with lackeys in tails--"penguins," my wife calls them. It is incongruously situated between socialist realist statues carved in the wall, representing a mighty workman and an intellectual carrying Marx's works. What a sad mixture of symbolic associations: the palace itself, Stalin's gift, standing for revolution betrayed and exported; Marx's aspirations distorted in Zhdanovite fashion and then, poison breeding poison, the greatest workers' movement in the postwar period producing a gambling den.
Am I too harsh? As I was walking earlier in the week along the memory trail to Umschlagplatz, from where thousands and thousands of Jews were sent to their death in Treblinka, I was probably already saying goodbye to the town of my early childhood, to the country I returned to in 1980, full of vague hopes that the workers of Gdansk had opened entirely new vistas. It was a historic beginning, even if it did not fulfill all its promises.
It didn't take me three years to find this out. Yet something did snap as I was having lunch in the Sejm with a man for whom I had great sympathy, a student gone to live with the workers--these students were called "colonizers"--somebody who played a key role in setting up the independent labor unions, in organizing the strikes, in the underground political struggle, and who even today is unspoiled by money. Asked, maybe too bluntly, how the capital of Solidarity was squandered so quickly, he replies, "It wasn't. It was invested--invested in the future of our country." Christ almighty! Unbribed and untwisted, but already talking in the wooden tongue of an apparatchik! Is that the fate of all successful revolutions?
But it was not a revolution. In 1980-81 the openings were many. In 1989, deciding there was no alternative, the leadership of Solidarity reduced them to the Thatcherite road to capitalism. This resulted in the Polish paradoxes: In a semirural country, peasants eagerly awaiting capitalism are going to be swallowed by it; the leadership of Solidarity, brought to power by the workers, chiefly by the proletariat from the big plants, accepts as its task the destruction of that movement. Not a pretty sight.
No wonder that Modzelewski, maybe the brightest among these leaders and one of the few who, while changing, remained true to himself, pondered publicly whether the many years he had spent in jail were worthwhile. No outsider can answer such a question. One may, however, suggest that his struggle was not in vain and that the great battles fought by the Polish workers will not vanish without a trace. One of these days the Palace of Culture will be part of the Warsaw landscape as the Sacré Coeur is in Paris; old cleavages will be replaced by new ones and socialism will cease to be a dirty word. This, judging by the ugly face of capitalism in Eastern Europe, may happen sooner than we think. I was repeating this to myself, not just for consolation, as I was leaving Poland, for a long time, with a bitter taste in my mouth.
It is about two feet long, cylindrical and far denser than steel. When fired from a U.S. Army M1 Abrams tank, it is capable of drilling a hole through the strongest of tank armors. The makers of this tank-killing ammunition say it is the best in the world. But there is one problem with the Pentagon's super bullet: It is made of radioactive waste.
The first time the Army used this "depleted uranium" (D.U.) ammunition on a battlefield was during the Gulf War, in 1991. Yet despite Pentagon assurances that only a small number of U.S. troops were exposed to dangerous levels of D.U., a two-month investigation by The Nation has discovered that hundreds and perhaps thousands of U.S. veterans were unknowingly exposed to potentially hazardous levels of depleted uranium, or uranium-238, in the Persian Gulf. Some soldiers inhaled it when they pulled wounded comrades from tanks hit by D.U. "friendly fire" or when they clambered into destroyed Iraqi vehicles. Others picked up expended rounds as war trophies. Thousands of other Americans were near accidental explosions of D.U. munitions.
The Army never told combat engineer Dwayne Mowrer or his fellow soldiers in the First Infantry Division much about D.U. But the G.I.s learned how effective the radioactive rounds were as the "Big Red One" made its way up the carnage-ridden four-lane Kuwaiti road known as the "highway of death." Mowrer and his company saw the unique signature of a D.U. hit on nearly half the disabled Iraqi vehicles encountered. "It leaves a nice round hole, almost like someone had welded it out," Mowrer recalled.
What Mowrer and others didn't know was that D.U. is highly toxic and, according to the Encyclopedia of Occupational Health and Safety, can cause lung cancer, bone cancer and kidney disease. All they heard were rumors.
"Once in a while you'd hear some guy say 'Hey, I heard those things were radioactive,'" Mowrer said. "Of course, everybody else says, 'Yeah, right!' We really thought we were in the new enlightened Army. We thought all that Agent Orange stuff and human radiation experiments were a thing of the past."
So Mowrer and his comrades didn't worry when a forty-ton HEMTT transport vehicle packed with D.U. rounds accidentally exploded near their camp. "We heard this tremendous boom and saw this black cloud blowing our way," he said. "The cloud went right over us, blew right over our camp."
Before they left the gulf, Mowrer and other soldiers in the 651st Combat Support Attachment began experiencing strange flulike symptoms. He figured the symptoms would fade once he was back in the United States. They didn't. Mowrer's personal doctor and physicians at the local Veterans Administration could find nothing wrong with him. Meanwhile, his health worsened: fatigue, memory loss, bloody noses and diarrhea. Then the single parent of two began experiencing problems with motor skills, bloody stools, bleeding gums, rashes and strange bumps on his eyelids, nose and tongue. Mowrer thinks his problems can be traced to his exposure to D.U.
The Pentagon says problems like Mowrer's could not have been caused by D.U., a weapon that many Americans have heard mentioned, if at all, only in the movie Courage Under Fire, which was based on a real-life D.U. friendly-fire incident. The Defense Department insists that D.U. radiation is relatively harmless--only about 60 percent as radioactive as regular uranium. When properly encased, D.U. gives off so little radiation, the Pentagon says, that a soldier would have to sit surrounded by it for twenty hours to get the equivalent radiation of one chest X-ray. (According to scientists, a D.U. antitank round outside its metal casing can emit as much radiation in one hour as fifty chest X-rays.) Plus, the military brass argues that D.U. rounds so effectively destroyed Iraqi tanks that the weapons saved many more U.S. lives than radiation from them could possibly endanger.
But the Pentagon has a credibility gap. For years, it has denied that U.S. soldiers in the Persian Gulf were exposed to chemical weapons. In September Pentagon officials admitted that troops were exposed when they destroyed Iraqi stores of chemical weapons, as Congress held hearings on "Gulf War Syndrome." The Pentagon also argued, in its own defense, that exposure to chemical weapons could not fully explain the diverse range of illnesses that have plagued thousands of soldiers who served in the Persian Gulf. Exposure to D.U.--our own weaponry, in other words--could well be among the missing links.
Scientists point out that D.U. becomes much more dangerous when it burns. When fired, it combusts on impact. As much as 70 percent of the material is released as a radioactive and highly toxic dust that can be inhaled or ingested and then trapped in the lungs or kidneys. "This is when it becomes most dangerous," says Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. "It becomes a powder in the air that can irradiate you." Some scientists speculate that veterans' health problems stem from exposure to chemical agents combined with D.U., burning oil-field vapors and a new nerve-gas vaccine given to U.S. troops. "We know that depleted uranium is toxic and can cause diseases," said Dr. Howard Urnovitz, a microbiologist who has testified before the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses. "We also know these soldiers were exposed to large amounts of nerve-gas agents. What we don't know is how the combination of these toxic and radioactive materials affect the immune system."
Exactly how many U.S. soldiers were exposed to dangerous levels of D.U. during the Gulf War remains in dispute. Friendly-fire incidents left at least twenty-two veterans with D.U. shrapnel embedded in their bodies. The Veterans Administration is also monitoring the health of eleven more soldiers who were in tanks hit by D.U. but who were not hit by shrapnel, and twenty-five soldiers who helped prepare D.U.-contaminated tanks for shipment back to the United States without being told of the risk. The tanks were later buried in a radioactive waste disposal site run by the Energy Department.
The Nation investigation has also discovered that the average infantry soldier is still receiving no training on how to protect against exposure to D.U., although such training was called for by an Army report on depleted uranium completed in June 1995. On the training lapses, the Pentagon does acknowledge past mistakes. Today the Army is providing new training in D.U. safety procedures for more soldiers, particularly members of armor, ordnance or medical teams that handle D.U. on a routine basis. "I feel confident that if an individual soldier has a need to know, they will be provided that training from the basic level on," Army Col. H.E. Wolfe told The Nation. But Wolfe confirmed that even now, not all infantry will get D.U. training.
Although the full hazards of these weapons are still not known, the law allows the President to waive restrictions on the sale of D.U. to foreign armies. Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show that the Pentagon has already sold the radioactive ammunition to Thailand, Taiwan, Bahrain, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Greece, Korea, Turkey, Kuwait and other countries which the Pentagon will not disclose for national security reasons. The proliferation of D.U. ammunition around the world boosts the chances that U.S. soldiers will eventually be on the receiving end of the devastating weapon.
A broad coalition of veterans organizations, environmental groups and scientists hope that won't happen. On September 12, they met in NewYork to kick off a campaign calling for an international ban on D.U. weapons. Even the conservative-minded Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion recently passed resolutions calling on the Defense Department to reconsider its use of the controversial weapon.
"Clearly the Department of Defense hasn't thought through the use of D.U. on the battlefield and what kind of exposures they are subjecting our troops to," charged Matt Puglisi, the assistant director of veterans affairs and rehabilitation for the American Legion. "It is a very effective weapon, which is why the D.O.D. really doesn't want to see it re-examined. We only spent a couple of days [in winning the Gulf War]. But what if we had a fight that took years and years? We could have tens of thousands of vets with D.U. shrapnel in them."
The Gulf War Test
The U.S. Army began introducing D.U. ammo into its stockpiles in 1978, when the United States and the Soviet Union were engaged in intense competition over which side would develop the most effective tank. Washington feared that the Soviets with their T-72 had jumped ahead in the development of armor that was nearly impenetrable by traditional weapons. It was thought that D.U. rounds could counter the improved Soviet armor. But not until Iraq's Soviet-supplied army invaded oil-rich Kuwait and President Bush sent an expeditionary force of 500,000 to dislodge it was there a chance to battle-test the D.U. rounds.
American M1 Abrams tanks and Bradley armored personnel carriers fired D.U. rounds; the A-10 Warthog aircraft, which provided close support for combat troops, fired twin 30-millimeter guns with small-caliber D.U. bullets. All told, in the 100 hours of the February ground war, U.S. tanks fired at least 14,000 large-caliber D.U. rounds, and U.S. planes some 940,000 smaller-caliber rounds. D.U. rounds left about 1,400 Iraqi tanks smoldering in the desert. Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf recalled one commander saying his unit "went through a whole field of burning Iraqi tanks."
The D.U. weapons succeeded beyond the Pentagon's wildest dreams. But they received little public attention compared with the fanfare over other high-tech weapons: smart bombs, stealth fighters and Patriot missiles (which looked good, even if they didn't, as it turned out, work). D.U., perhaps the most effective new weapon of them all, was mentioned only in passing. "People have a fear of radioactivity and radioactive materials," explained Dan Fahey, a former Navy officer who served in the gulf. "The Army seems to think that if they are going to keep using D.U., the less they tell people about it the better."
As the U.S.-led coalition forces swept to victory, many celebrating G.I.s scrambled onto--or into--disabled Iraqi vehicles. "When you get a lot of soldiers out on a battlefield, they are going to be curious," observed Chris Kornkven, a staff sergeant with the 304th Combat Support Company. "The Gulf War was the first time we saw Soviet tanks. Many of us started climbing around these destroyed vehicles." Indeed, a study by the Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm Association found that out of 10,051 Gulf War veterans who have reported mysterious illnesses, 82 percent had entered captured enemy vehicles.
Other soldiers might have been exposed to harmful levels of D.U. as they rescued comrades from vehicles hit by friendly fire. A Gulf War photo book, Triumph in the Desert, contains one dramatic picture of soldiers pulling wounded Americans from the burning hull of an Abrams tank that had been hit by a D.U. round. Black smoke from the depleted-uranium explosion billows around the rescuers. Still other G.I.s picked up fragments of large-caliber D.U. rounds or unexploded small rounds and wore them as jewelry, hung around the soldiers' necks. "We didn't know any better," said Kornkven. "We didn't find out until long after we were home that there even was such a thing as D.U."
But the Americans facing perhaps the greatest risk from D.U. were those who had been hit by D.U. shrapnel, especially those still carrying radioactive fragments in their bodies. Robert Sanders, who drove a tank, was one apparent casualty. On the third day of the ground war, his tank was hit by a D.U. round fired from another U.S. tank. "I had stinging pain in my shoulder and a stinging pain in my face from shrapnel," Sanders said.
Military doctors removed the shrapnel. Several years later, however, Sanders heard that D.U. was radioactive and toxic, so he obtained his medical records. He found an interdepartmental fax saying doctors had removed bits of an "unknown metal" from his shoulder and that it was "probably D.U." Four years after he was wounded, Sanders took a urine test for depleted uranium, which revealed high levels of it in his system. The Pentagon had never made an effort to tell him of his likely exposure.
Even the end of the ground war on February 28, 1991, did not end the threat of exposure to U.S. soldiers. Government documents reveal that in one accident alone, at a camp at Doha, about twelve miles from Kuwait City, as many as 660 rounds weighing 7,062 pounds burned, releasing dark clouds of D.U. particles. Many of the 3,000 U.S. troops stationed at the base participated in cleanup operations without protective gear and without knowledge of the potential dangers.
At war's end, U.S. forces left behind about 300 tons of expended D.U. ammunition in Kuwait and Iraq, a veritable radioactive waste dump that could haunt inhabitants of the region for years. In August 1995, Iraq presented a study to the United Nations demonstrating sharp increases in leukemia and other cancers as well as other unexplained diseases around the Basra region in the country's south. Iraqi scientists attributed some of the cancers to depleted uranium.
Some U.S. officials and scientists have questioned the Iraqi claims. But former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who has made two recent trips to Iraq, observes that "the health ministry and doctors particularly in Basra and the south are terribly concerned about a range of problems that were not experienced before: fetuses with tumors, high rates of leukemia." And a secret British Atomic Energy Authority report leaked to the London Independent in November 1991 warned that there was enough depleted uranium left behind in the Persian Gulf to account for "500,000 potential deaths" through increased cancer rates, although it noted that such a figure was an unlikely, worst-case scenario. That figure was based on an estimate that only forty tons of D.U. was left behind.
Another study, by Siegwart Gunther, president of the Austrian chapter of Yellow Cross International, reported that D.U. projectiles "were gathered by children and used as toys." The study noted that a little girl who collected twelve of the projectiles died of leukemia. Gunther collected some D.U. rounds in southern Iraq and took them to Germany for analysis. However, when Gunther entered Germany, the D.U. rounds were seized. The authorities claimed that just one projectile emitted more radiation in five hours than is allowed per year under German regulations.
Cleaning up the radioactive mess in the Persian Gulf would cost "billions," even if it were feasible, said Leonard Dietz, an atomic scientist who wrote a report on depleted uranium for the Energy Department. But the Pentagon maintained in a report that "no international law, treaty, regulation, or custom requires the U.S. to remediate Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm battlefields."
Those who suggest otherwise have found that they must fight the military industry as well as the Pentagon. In January 1993 Eric Hoskins, a public health specialist who surveyed Iraq as a member of a Harvard team, wrote an Op-Ed in The New York Times warning that D.U. may be causing health problems in Iraqi children. A few weeks later a harsh letter to the editor accused Hoskins of "making readers of limited scientific literacy the lawful prey of his hyperbole," which reaches the "bizarre conclusion that the environmental aftermath of the Persian Gulf war is not Iraq's fault, but ours!" The author, Russell Seitz, was identified as an associate with the "Olin Institute for Strategic Studies, Harvard University."
Though the letter appeared to be the work of a neutral scientist, the Olin Institute at Harvard was established by the John M. Olin Foundation, which grew out of the manufacturing fortune created by the Olin Corporation, currently the nation's only maker of D.U. antitank rounds. Seitz did not answer a request from The Nation seeking comment.
Despite the Pentagon's love affair with D.U., there is an alternative--tank ammunition made from tungsten. Matt Kagan, a former munitions analyst for Jane's Defence Weekly, said the latest developments in tungsten technology have made it "almost as effective as D.U." That assessment is shared by Bill Arkin, a columnist for The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists who has consulted on D.U. for Greenpeace and Human Rights Watch. "It comes down to this," Arkin said. "Is there a logical alternative that provides the same military capability and doesn't leave us with this legacy? The answer is yes, tungsten."
But tungsten is more expensive and must be imported, while the United States has more than 500,000 tons of depleted uranium, waste left behind by the production of nuclear weapons and by nuclear generators. Scientists have long looked for a way to re-use what otherwise must be stored at great expense in remote sites.
"It's just a cost issue," argued Arkin. "But nobody ever thought through what would happen when we shoot a lot of this stuff around the battlefield. It's not a question of whether a thousand soldiers were exposed or fifty soldiers were exposed. We were probably lucky in the Gulf War. What happens when we're fighting a war that makes the Gulf War look like small potatoes?"