It all began with a missing sheet of homework. "Contractions," my son had written very clearly in his assignment log. "What's this?" I asked when he announced he'd finished everything else, noting that there was no book or worksheet to which the reference logically applied. "Don't know," replied my son.
I was off to the races, astride my high horse, afroth with my mission of dutiful motherhood, my son sniveling that he had No Idea what it meant.
"The teacher made you write it down, n'est-ce pas?"
"No buts--I am calling for reinforcements." So we called his best friend. No Idea. Aha, I thought, the two of them must be in league. We called his next best friend. No Idea. Three in league? Better try the girls, girls are sober, reliable, always bright as buttons. But girls were not home, out sick, at gymnastics, No Idea.
I called my mother: How will he ever get to college at this rate, I moaned. "Is this a joke or are you working out for the high blood pressure Olympics?" she asked quietly.
By 6 o'clock, I gave up, took two aspirin and went off to a school board meeting. Most unfortunate for my throbbing temples, gifted and talented programs were the topic of the evening, and the room was packed with parents, 100 percent of whom were banking on the hope that their children were in the ninety-ninth percentile. An expensive array of options was on the table, products and "packages," computer programs and reading lists. It was a veritable Tupperware party of the education industry, but what most people seemed to want most was A Separate Class.
One of the things I get to do in my profession is travel around to schools and talk about the benefits of equal access in all its forms. I find myself increasingly concerned that a kind of triage mentality has settled over schools, a vise of constraint that has led to a bottom-dollar hunt for top students. Triage is a theory that makes a certain sense in extremely dire settings where such a cruel cost-benefit analysis has the remote moral justification of salvage-under-fire. That educational opportunity should at all resemble such a configuration in this, the wealthiest and most technologically developed country on the planet, speaks of a deep and troubling class divide.
I cannot help thinking of this as I read headlines about libraries being shut, public universities shrinking, school music programs disappearing everywhere. I cannot help thinking about this as I sit in yet another roomful of parents desperately touting their children's special attributes, waving credentials about as though clawing their way up from the steerage deck of the Titanic.
The guest expert at this particular meeting defined "gifted" as the top 3 or 4 percent of the population, although that particular cutoff reflected a monetary limit, rather than any rational relation to the potential of a child "only" in the ninety-fifth percentile. In a different district there might be enough money to provide services for only the top 1 percent; in yet another, for the top tenth.
But I can't help believing that in a world of universally well-funded education, schools could provide for almost all their students much of the enrichment that is now reserved only for the most endowed. We seem to have forgotten that there are many successful models in which all levels are accommodated, in which neither gifted nor special education students are segregated but are given materials that both educate and engage; programs where individual differences in ability can be negotiated in small classes, by teachers who are well-educated and well-supported.
As I glanced around the room, I did the math that a lot of people seem to be ignoring: A Separate Class for the top 3 or 4 percent would mean that no more than one or two students in a given grade would have access to the truly wonderful materials being discussed--materials from which any child could profit. There will be a heap of hurt feelings if this plan comes to pass. But more important to the state of our union, it is wasteful of precious human resources. It is inconceivable to me why we Americans can't cough up enough money so that the "bottom" 95 percent are exposed to Shakespeare and calculus and music theory from as young an age as possible. If they can't all write a concerto by the time they're 7, at least a whole lot more of them will be able to enjoy one.
While I think programs and materials for the gifted are fine and good, I worry about meetings like this in which the dominant sentiment is that the only way to educate the gifted is to remove them from the company of mere mortal riff-raff. In a world where public schools are shuddering beneath hatcheted budget cuts, gifted programs have become a kind of status symbol, the equivalent of those new "designer" medical practices where doctors charge exorbitant fees to make themselves available to only a few patients for round-the-clock cell-phone access and midnight consultations.
The board meeting ended with a description of how a special class for the gifted had helped maximize the strengths of one particular child described as "brilliant but unmotivated"--a child of such genius that he was too preoccupied to get to school before the day was half over. His tardiness was so great that the teacher would actually go to his house in the morning and drag him to school herself. Hmm, I thought. What a wonderful world it would be if we put together the resources to push all children with such unyielding solicitude.
When I got home, I checked my e-mail to find a note from my son's teacher explaining that she had simply forgotten to give the children the worksheet on contractions. All the tension drained from me. Education has become such an awfully anxious rat race. I kissed my son--who in the meantime had come up with the inventive theory that contractions are the physical product of any given page of long division--on the tip of his nose. How lucky our worries. How perfect the children.
'CREEPS' ON PARADE
Wonderful to read David Corn on the return of all the creeps from contra ["Iran/Contra Rehab," March 11]. As a combat veteran, I always felt North's and Poindexter's convictions should have led to firing squads, not leadership positions and millionaire status. We can also add ol' Jimmie the Geek Watt to the list of convicted felons who walked courtesy of Reagan/
Bush court appointments. And why do some worry about Bill's sexcapades, when Bush and Cheney both got Layed?
An addition to Christopher Hitchens's point about the use of the word "niggers" in Robert Lowell's poem, "For the Union Dead" ["Minority Report," March 4]: It was, in fact, a reference to a message--originally intended as an insult to the family of Robert Gould Shaw--from a Confederate: "We buried him with his niggers!"
The Shaw family turned it into an exultation, saying: "What finer bodyguard could he have had?" Robert Shaw's sister Josephine married Charles Russell Lowell, an ancestor of the poet, so this bit of Civil War lore was part of his family history.
JAMES F. PENCE
CHALLENGING THE BEAST
Marc Cooper's report from Porto Alegre ["From Protest to Politics," March 11] was inspiring and included some hints about the state of the US portion of the anti-corporate globalization movement. As an activist from the marine division of the ILWU here in Seattle, I was upset to read, "The post-9/11 labor movement doesn't want its rank and file to see its leaders in street demonstrations that turn violent." Now, don't get me wrong--I'm not condoning violence as a tactic; however, there is more to the story. Our union not only shut down the docks on the West Coast during the WTO meeting here in Seattle, a group of 200 of our members and elected leaders walked through the marshals and bolstered the Direct Action folks. We were not led by any NGOs or top AFL-CIO leaders. We took the initiative and did the right thing. We are fortunate to belong to one of the few remaining US rank-and-file-run unions with a heritage of militancy and direct action. The vast majority of unions are top-down business unions whose leaders are deathly afraid of their members thinking or acting on their own.
By the way, no one from the ILWU made it to sunny Brazil. But three of us flew back to the "bellybutton of the belly of the beast," New York, for the WEF street protest. We participated in a peaceful, fun, vibrant street protest of 12,000 to 15,000. Yes, there were more NGO superstars in Porto Alegre, but I think history will show that it was more important to brave the weather and 4,000 NYC cops to challenge the beast.
JEFF ENGELS, IBU-ILWU
RESIST LOCALLY--AND NONVIOLENTLY
David Cortright's "The Power of Nonviolence" [Feb. 18], combined with The Nation's call to oppose globalism locally, points us toward more than nonviolent demonstrations and more than pressure on Congress.
Those sitting at forbidden lunch counters in the 1960s were not different from Seattle vandals just by being nonviolent. They were also clearly demonstrating what their message was: They wanted to be able to sit at those counters. We need boycotts of big-box stores with human chains around them, human walls against bulldozers, demonstrations at factories proposing to move overseas, campaigns in the street to take money out of big banks and put it in local ones, student walkouts of schools targeted for privatization, local sandwich sales in front of McDonald's. We need to think globally and practice nonviolent resistance locally.
David Cortright is correct in arguing that "a 95 percent commitment to nonviolence is not enough" in the movement against corporate globalization. As long as protests are planned around such events as the WTO meetings in Seattle, it is likely that protesters who refuse nonviolence will show up. By planning protests on dates of their own choosing, at the offices of governments, corporations and global trade organizations, nonviolent organizers would be better able to "run their own show" and maintain stricter nonviolence. High-profile meetings offer the perks of free, guaranteed press coverage and a convenient kind of roadshow for the global protest movement. But the baseball-bat-and-football-helmet crowd is less likely to crash a nonviolent protest if staying away doesn't mean giving up those same perks themselves. The sit-ins of the civil rights movement took place at lunch counters, not at Klan rallies.
DANIEL J. MORIARTY
Have we heard this myth of protester violence so many times that we believe it ourselves? True, Seattle was violent, but not on the part of the protesters. As for Genoa, credible reports point out that most of the "street battles" and property destruction were carried out by police infil-traitors. Instead of giving our critics ammunition by adopting the rhetoric of a hostile media, why don't we cease framing the debate by pitting "violent" protesters vs. "nonviolent" protesters and alert others to the true nature of our cause, which is, after all, global justice and peace.
ZINN: 'ELOQUENT'? 'MUSHMOUTHED'?
There was a deluge of mail in response to Howard Zinn's "The Others" [Feb. 11]. A sampling appears below.
Thank you for "The Others" by Howard Zinn. Finally someone has the integrity to raise a voice for the innocent people of Afghanistan amid the blind fury of the US media and the government. Please don't stop raising this issue again and again.
Howard Zinn has given us an eloquent and devastating rebuttal to those who think there is such a thing as an acceptable loss of civilian life in warfare. Any loss of life through violence is unacceptable. Until we can understand that the "others" are really ourselves, we will be the playthings of madness.
It's sad to see Howard Zinn stoop to peddling such softheaded, mushmouthed, sentimental claptrap. "Those who celebrated the grisly deaths...what if, instead of symbols, they could see, up close, the faces of those who lost their lives? I wonder if they would have second thoughts, second feelings." Please! As a corrective to his "can't we all just get along?" speculations, we should recall that the hijackers had no trouble looking into the faces of those they were about to murder without any second thoughts.
My sister was at work on the eighty-first floor of the first tower of the WTC. It took her more than one hour to come down, but thank God she made it. I have followed the developments since September 11 and am not surprised that the casualties in Afghanistan are underreported, as clearly the Afghans are insignificant. We have come to know that only American blood is blood, and it is water that runs in the veins of all others. What happened at the WTC is way past reprehensible. But an eye for an eye makes for only blind men. The government had a golden opportunity to prove to the world that it is different from the terrorists, but sadly, it hasn't, because it isn't.
Fujisawa, Kanagawa, Japan
It has disturbed me that critics of the war on terrorism have not pointed out that besides the possible 4,000 Afghan civilians dead after September 11, some 1.7 million Afghans have fled as refugees, with no home to go back to. If we could imagine an equivalent number of Americans displaced so that several hundred militants could be arrested, well, it would not be tolerated.
My Japanese students are surprised when I speak against the bombing, and impressed. Everyone who speaks the truth has an impact. Thank you, Mr. Zinn.
Howard Zinn accuses the September 11 hijackers and US politicians of perpetrating "terrorism" against "men, women and children." To make a moral equivalence between the two events is ridiculous. Distinctions matter. In the case of the World Trade Center, civilians were massacred deliberately during a time of peace by a nonuniformed group whose intention was to spread terror. In the other case, civilians were killed during an exercise of legitimate self-defense by a state, in response to an act of war, and were killed unintentionally despite good faith efforts by targeteers to avoid doing so.
If I, as a young historian, can see the difference between the two incidents, it is strange that Zinn, whose breadth of knowledge vastly exceeds my own, cannot.
Howard Zinn's putting a human face on the Afghan people killed and maimed by our bombing is of dire importance. I teach US history in a big urban university and have told my students that the greatest obscenity in the corporate media's coverage of this and other recent US wars is that only American lives matter. People trying to live in whatever impoverished, defenseless country we are currently bombing do not register on big media's cockeyed moral compass. Hence we never get to see or feel any of their anguish. I only wish Zinn's words could be circulated more broadly.
George W. Bush said in his State of the Union address, "Evil is real, and it must be opposed." Upon reading Howard Zinn's article, one has to stop and wonder just who the evil nation is. If US bombs had just wiped out your village and family, you would know who is evil, just like those who lost friends and loved ones on September 11 know who is evil. It's all a matter of perception, I guess.
Just how would Howard Zinn defend US citizens? Or would he? He may be of the school that feels, because of past morally indefensible interventions, that this country owes a sacrifice to "even out" the accounting in blood. September 11 was not a one-shot Oklahoma City-like catastrophe: It was an opening salvo. An armed response was mandatory; the workings of that action were, I imagine, informed by the grown-ups who advise the President. Had Zinn been in that cohort, what would he have advised?
Howard Zinn's article is a powerful reminder of the horrors that are perpetrated in the world. I, too, cried as I saw the portraits of the 9/11 victims. I, too, was crying not only for them, and not only for the victims of the wars the United States and other powers perpetrate but also for the millions who die every year because of economic terrorism. Detailed, in-depth TV and newspaper portraits of, say, the 12 million children who die from hunger every year might wake up our collective consciousness.
Zinn makes another important point that I stress with my quantitative reasoning classes: Statistical data can distance us from a deep empathy and understanding of the conditions of people's lives. Of course, the data are important because they reveal the institutional structure of those conditions. But, also, quantitatively confident and knowledgeable people can use those data to deepen their connections to humanity. Those 12 million children are dying faster than we can speak their names.
Andrew Sullivan cannot have an easy life. A Catholic gay man who is also HIV positive, his political views have led him to attach himself to a party, a movement and a church that believe him to be practicing an abomination. Influential Republican power-brokers blame America's sexual tolerance for the attacks of 9/11. The military he reveres is kicking gays out at a rate unseen since the presidency of Ronald Reagan--another Sullivan hero. And his church offers a warmer embrace for pedophile priests than for honest homosexuals.
Sullivan is best known as a kind of all-purpose controversy magnet. He posed for a Gap ad; he posted a lurid online advertisement for unprotected sex; and he briefly accepted $7,500 in paid website advertising from a pharmaceutical industry trade association whose products he regularly praises, before returning it. During his stormy editorship of The New Republic, he opened its pages to the lunatic ravings of Camille Paglia, the racist pseudoscience of Charles Murray and the libelous fantasies of Stephen Glass. Sullivan has, moreover, been the target of much gay ire over the conservative content of his writings in The New York Times Magazine, where its editors inexplicably allowed him--slyly but effectively--to out a whole host of allegedly gay Democratic politicians, including Clinton Cabinet members, along with liberal talk-show host Rosie O'Donnell.
Now Sullivan has launched a career in the brave new world of "blogging," or vanity websites. And while his site arouses a certain gruesome car-wreck fascination, it serves primarily as a reminder to writers of why we need editors. Andrewsullivan.com sets a standard for narcissistic egocentricity that makes Henry Kissinger look like St. Francis of Assisi. Readers are informed, for instance, that Andy's toilet recently overflowed; that he had a rollicking dinner chez Hitchens; that he might have seen Tina Brown across a hotel lobby, but he's not sure; and that, in separate, apparently unrelated incidents, he had a nightmare and ate a bad tuna-fish sandwich that upset his tummy, requiring many "stomach evacuations."
Beyond the confines of his bathroom, Sullivan's singular obsession appears to be the crushing of any hint of democratic debate about the war. His campaign began with a now notorious London Times missive warning his fellow patriots: "The decadent left in its enclaves on the coasts...may well mount...a fifth column." Called upon to defend this vile slander of inhabitants of the very city that suffered the attack, Sullivan named four writers who, he determined, "were more concerned with what they see as the evil of American power than the evil of terrorism, that their first response was to blame America." Among the myriad problems with this answer was the fact that at least one of the four--me, as it happens--supported the war and much of the patriotic reaction the attacks inspired.
No matter, the Sullivan Inquisition continues undeterred. Barely a day passes without his unmasking yet another "Anti-War Democrat"--in whose ranks he includes the pro-war Tom Daschle, the pro-war Hillary Clinton and the pro-war Janet Reno, among many others--basing his argument less on the words these politicians speak than on the thoughts he knows them to be holding in secret. In Clinton's case, he writes that when she said that Congress should be "asking the hard questions" and "having the debate Congress is required to have--where to go, what to do," her words may have been "unobjectionable" but her "intent is clear." Democrats simply prefer "weakness" to a "strong and unapologetic role in the role [sic]." Can there be a better illustration of the modus operandi of the ideological commissar--the McCarthyite mullah--than this kind of mindreading? (It's also a pretty solid argument for proofreaders.)
A British expat, Sullivan has set himself up as a one-man House Un-American Activities Committee. Take, for instance, Ted Rall's nasty, offensive cartoon ridiculing Marianne Pearl and 9/11 widows as money-grubbing attention grabbers. "If this is what is motivating some elements of the anti-war left," he roared, "they're even more depraved than I thought," as if mocking the victims of September 11 is a leftist cause célèbre; as if one silly cartoonist speaks for anyone but himself. Next came the commissar's decree: "No paper should ever run Rall again."
Sometimes Sullivan's hysterics are merely amusing. For instance, his TNR colleague Jonathan Chait counted fifty-one attacks on the moderately liberal Paul Krugman in slightly more than five weeks. Sullivan also, in Chait's words, "distort[ed] Krugman's views so wildly as to venture into pure fantasy." (This happens a lot.) The pundit's crime was to accept a $37,500 consulting payment from Enron years before he became a columnist and to disclose it when he first mentioned Enron favorably in Forbes and later negatively for the Times. William Kristol and Irwin Stelzer, by contrast, took their Enron cash and then proceeded, respectively, to edit and to write a highly favorable article about the company without any niceties of financial disclosure. Calculated on the basis of Sullivan attacks, the conservatives' transgressions were approximately one-twentieth as serious.
It is not as if responsible blogging is impossible. Mickey Kaus of Kausfiles.com and Josh Marshall of talkingpointsmemo.com manage to control (or at least occasionally mock) their own egos while offering valuable and quirky takes on the news, and without any news from their bathrooms. But the will to censorship that underlies Sullivan's rants is dangerous. Smart fellows like Ron Rosenbaum, Howard Kurtz and Michael Wolff have marveled at the ideological heterodoxy of the well-spoken "gaycatholictory" who likes to compare himself to George Orwell. This reputation is--to put it mildly--undeserved. In the space of a few days, Sullivan's site recommended articles by Ann Coulter, David Horowitz, Norman Podhoretz, William F. Buckley and Michael Ledeen. Not exactly Orwell Country, I fear. Sullivan recently announced to his acolytes that he plans to write less in order to play Benedick in a Washington production of Much Ado About Nothing in a pair of black leather pants. "That should pack them in," he adds. Give the man credit for audacity, if nothing else.
Homosexuals, no matter how exemplary in training and emotional stability, continue to be the object of suspicion when it comes to parenthood, particularly in the state of Florida where there is a
[FOR AN UPDATE ON THIS STORY SCROLL TO THE BOTTOM]
Is the Enron scandal over?
It doesn't dominate the Sunday talk shows. It doesn't overwhel...
With "Irish on the Inside: The Search for the Soul of Irish America" (Verso), Tom Hayden has penned a book on the Irish-American experience that has as much to do with Independence Day as St. Patrick's Day.
Hayden, the '60s student activist who came in from the cold to serve with distinction as a California legislator in the 1990s, offers a radical variation on the history of Ireland and the Irish-American experience that, in itself, makes for engaging reading. But in the book's broader discussion of a "colonization of the mind," which causes peoples to abandon their own true history to gain acceptance by the elites they once battled, the author unwittingly succeeds in unlocking a piece of the puzzle of why the America of today is far less radical than Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin intended it to be.
Trust Hayden, whose own radicalism has always been a rich mix of Irish republicanism and Midwest progressive populism, to write a book on Irish-American history that is actually an argument for a re-identification of "white" Americans with the liberation struggles of immigrants, people of color and other victims of class and race discrimination. Hayden does this by returning to his roots - in Ireland and in rural Wisconsin - where he unearths the seeds of his own radicalism.
After months of struggle, first by Mississippi activists, then by national civil rights groups and finally by a handful of determined Democratic members of the U.S. Senate, the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday blocked the nomination of Mississippi Federal Judge Charles Pickering to serve on the powerful 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. The defeat of the nomination came as a vindication for groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the Alliance for Justice and People for the American Way, which were viciously attacked by rightwing organizations, publications and senators when they first suggested that Pickering should be rejected because of his ties to Mississippi segregationists of the 1960s, his hostility as a federal judge to the application of civil rights laws, and concerns about his ethics.
The committee's rejection of the Pickering selection marks the first time that one of President Bush's judicial nominees has been rejected by Senate Democrats, who may soon be called upon to weigh the merits of a Bush nominee for the Supreme Court. To the delight of activists concerned by the caution of Congressional Democrats when it comes to challenging the president, the hearing that preceded the Pickering vote saw Democrats flex legislative muscles rarely used in recent months.
Referring to the Constitutional provision that empowers the Senate to offer advice and consent as regards presidential nominations, Judiciary Committee chair Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, declared, "It's advise and consent, it is not advise and rubber stamp."
It may well be easier to preach corporate responsibility than to practice it. At least for George W. Bush. Earlier this month, Bush released a "plan to impr...
Supporters of Mississippi Federal Judge Charles Pickering's nomination to serve on the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals -- which is expected to be blocked this week by the Senate Judiciary Committee -- claim that he is the victim of a "liberal lynching." The spin says Pickering is a supporter of racial reconciliation who is supported by southern blacks but opposed by northern liberals. The truth is that Pickering has drawn more oppositionÂ from his home state and region than any judicial nominee in recent history.
To hear supporters of Pickering tell it, the only barrier to the judge's confirmation to serve on the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals is a "smear campaign" conducted by a bunch on "damn yankees." In fact, the claim goes, southern blacks are backing Pickering's nomination because they know him to be a consistent supporter of "racial reconciliation."
Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, there is widespread opposition in Mississippi's African-American community and across the south to the nomination of a man who worked closely with segregationists throughout the 1960s and whose judicial tenure has been characterized by a deeply disturbing antipathy towards the Voting Rights Act and other civil rights protections. But in a Capitol where spin wins more frequently than not, the claim that liberal northerners are at odds with southern blacks when it comes to Pickering -- and the parallel claim that Pickering has been unfairly attacked by liberal activists who do not know his real record on race issues -- has become a central theme of right-wing commentators, Republican senators and Bush White House aides who still hope to salvage the nomination.
George W. Bush went out of his way to praise America's allies in his speech marking the six-month anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. In a clear effort to massage the sensibilities of nations worried about escalating US unilateralism, he spoke of "the power and vitality of our coalition" against Al Qaeda and singled out for praise nations from Denmark to Uzbekistan.
But the international concerns about US intentions persist, and with good reason. Before Bush made his speech stroking the Afghanistan allies, from the Pentagon leaked previously confidential portions of the Nuclear Posture Review, calling for more flexible nuclear weapons, arguing for a resumption of weapons testing and exploring "contingencies" that could require nuclear attack on Russia, China, North Korea, Libya, Syria, Iraq or Iran.
Arguments for the tactical use of nuclear weapons are not new. But the endorsement of that strategy at the highest levels of the Administration marks a dramatic departure, a direct threat of first-use nuclear strikes against nonnuclear states. The review envisions nuclear weapons not as unthinkable engines of holocaust--their very use a crime against humanity--but as the next logical battlefield step from bunker-busters and daisy-cutters. Yet there is no such thing as a logical use of a nuclear weapon. On page 7 Jonathan Schell writes that just as New York was dealing with a false nuclear bomb scare, the "government was moving to relegitimize the use of nuclear weapons in general and throwing down the nuclear gauntlet to the Middle East in particular--the very part of the world from which New York and Washington and other cities most fear attack."
This unprecedented waving of the nuclear stick against nonnuclear foes (unprecedented, anyway, since Richard Nixon threatened to drop the bomb on Hanoi and was dissuaded by Henry Kissinger, a moment captured on newly released tapes) is even more worrisome because despite Bush's reassuring language, his speech outlined the "second stage" of the war on terrorism. This phase envisions a significant shift from the international police action aimed primarily at Al Qaeda. Bush, who has already dispatched advisers to Georgia, Yemen and the Philippines, said the United States "encourages and expects governments everywhere to help remove the terrorist parasites that threaten their own countries and the peace of the world" and offered troops and assistance. The suggestion to coalition partners: Support future American action against Iraq, and we'll actively support you against whatever militants harbor, in Bush's words, "differences and grievances" with your government. He also raised the possibility of pre-emptive strikes against nations deemed to be developing weapons of mass destruction--now, presumably, with nuclear weapons.
Rather than legitimizing nuclear warfare, the United States should be leading a global campaign to shun nuclear weapons as genocidal and promoting effective international agreements to halt nuclear proliferation and the development of other weapons of mass destruction.
Bush's speech stakes out a massive expansion of American military options. Where the nuclear policy review and the war on terror come together is an expanding pursuit of American military and political supremacy as an end in itself.
Tom White, who pocketed millions running Enron Energy Services, one of Enron's more egregious frauds, remains Army Secretary even after lying to the Senate about his Enron holdings. White continues to say he didn't mislead investors about EES's profitability even as his former Enron employees describe how he goaded them to pretend the unit was making money when it was losing money.
Harvey Pitt, lawyer-lobbyist for the big five accounting firms, continues to serve his former clients as head of the Securities and Exchange Commission, where he defends self-regulation. George W. Bush rebuffed Treasury Secretary O'Neill's recommendation that executives and accountants be held personally responsible for misleading investors, relying instead on Pitt's SEC to oversee executives--even as his budget starves the agency of resources needed merely to retain its staff, much less police the Fortune 500.
Enron's Ken Lay and Andrew Fastow remain at large, neither yet having seen the inside of a grand jury room. The secret partners in the off-balance-sheet enterprises remain undisclosed. The Justice Department--in an investigation headed by Larry Thompson, whose former law firm represented both Enron and Arthur Andersen--appears to be joining Pitt's SEC in pushing Arthur Andersen to cop a plea and settle claims before discovery.
The Bush Administration is staffed with more than fifty high-level appointees with ties to Enron, as documented by Steve Pizzo in a study for American Family Voices. It dismisses all Enron inquiries with imperial disdain. The President stonewalls Government Accounting Office efforts to gain access to Dick Cheney's Energy Task Force records while he continues to peddle the Enron energy plan, which lards more subsidies on big oil companies. Republicans held unemployed workers hostage to win passage of the corporate tax giveaways that Ken Lay lobbied for personally. And Bush continues to argue for turning Social Security into 401(k)-type retirement accounts like the ones that evaporated on Enron employees.
Each day brings another revelation of Enron's remarkable penetration of the Bush Administration, but the White House refuses to reveal the contacts its appointees had with Enron officials and executives. One result is that too little attention has been paid to the delay in imposing price controls when energy companies, led by Enron, were gouging California and other Western states in last year's ersatz "energy crisis." Bush brags that his Administration did nothing to help Enron, but holding off on price controls bought enough time for Lay and other executives to unload substantial amounts of stock.
The Administration's attempt to dismiss Enron as a business scandal, the case of a rogue company run by desperado executives, is laughable on its face. After all, Enron's "Kenny Boy" Lay was Bush's most generous financial patron. Enron's business plan, such as it was, depended on political favors. Enron's freedom from regulation was the result of political fixes. And now the fate of Enron's policies and principals depends in large part on political calculations.
Yet the Bush dodge seems to be working. The press has done its job, but Democrats have failed to find their voices or their spines. If Enron had been a Clinton patron and Gore was in the White House, Congressional Republicans would have forced a special counsel and resignations of compromised officials weeks ago.
Concerned citizens--and Democrats with a pulse--should take off the gloves. White and Pitt should be forced to resign. The criminal investigation should be taken out of the hands of compromised Republican appointees and placed under an independent prosecutor. Enron's energy, tax and privatization plans should be exposed and defeated. And fundamental reforms to protect investors, defend retirement accounts, shut down tax havens, and hold corporate executives, accountants and lawyers personally and criminally accountable are long overdue. For that to happen, voters will have to teach a lesson to the Enron conservatives of both parties who continue to betray their trust.
The church bells were pealing for Princess Margaret Rose (as she was known when she was a pretty and vivacious child) as I arrived on a bright, cold Sunday morning. Breaking with the habit of a lifetime, I decided to attend divine service at one of the more upscale Anglican churches, and see if I could test the temperature of the nation. The pews were almost empty as the choir struck up the opening hymn, and the prayers for the departed one--which augmented the Church of England's mandatory weekly prayer for the Royal Family--were muttered only by a few of the sparse and elderly congregation.
GAY RIGHTS IN ALABAMA
Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, who defied a 1994 federal court ruling prohibiting him from displaying the Ten Commandments in a state courtroom by placing a 5,280-pound granite replica of the tablets in the state's Supreme Court rotunda, is back in the news. Relying mainly on Blackstone's eighteenth-century text, Moore denied a lesbian mother custody of her child. Calling homosexuality an "inherent evil," he said the state "carries the power of the sword...to prohibit conduct with physical penalties, such as confinement and even execution. It must use that power to prevent the subversion of children toward this lifestyle, to not encourage a criminal lifestyle." Moore's attorney (judges are forbidden to comment on rulings) took issue with the persisting impression that the judge was calling for the execution of homosexuals. (Clip from John Earl)
Anthony Arnove, Noam Chomsky's editor at South End Press, tells us that the MIT linguistics professor and activist attended the February 13 trial of Fatih Tas of Aram Publishing House, the Istanbul-based publisher of Chomsky's American Interventionism. Charges of printing "propaganda against the indivisible unity of [the] country, nation, and State" were dismissed when the hearing opened and Chomsky asked to be tried alongside Tas. "If [Chomsky] hadn't been here, we wouldn't have expected such a verdict," said Tas. The Security Court has now opened an investigation charging Chomsky with "fomenting separatism" in a talk he gave in Diyarbakir.... Another of Arnove's writers at odds with the law, Arundhati Roy (The God of Small Things), has served a one-day sentence and paid a $42 fine after being found guilty of contempt for criticizing a ruling by India's Supreme Court. The court said it had imposed a lenient sentence because Roy "is a woman." Unchastened, Roy said she neither apologizes nor accepts the court's judgment.
A MIND ON DRUGS IS A TERRIBLE THING
Ben Shouse writes: Remember those Super Bowl ads that asked, "Where do terrorists get their money? If you buy drugs, some of it might come from you"? That $10 million taxpayer-funded ad campaign, brought to you by the Office of National Drug Control Policy, is winding down--so The Nation's Office of Logical Extensions has a suggestion. Since oil is the main revenue stream for the Saudis who fund Al Qaeda, the tagline for the next round of ads could be: "Where do terrorists get their money? If you drive an SUV, some of it might come from you."
...AND THE POOR GET AUDITED
It's no secret that the number of well-off people who are audited by the IRS has declined dramatically in recent years. Back in 1988 1 in 9 people who made more than $100,000 a year had their tax returns perused by a hard-eyed IRS agent, often in person ( 1 in 63 audits were face to face in 1982 compared with 1 in 625 in 2001). Last year 1 in 208 people making over $100,000 was audited. Audits of the working poor, in contrast, were up 48.6 percent in 2001. One in 315 poor taxpayers was audited--accounting for 55 percent of all audits in 2001. The IRS claimed that the extra snooping was necessary because of overpayments of earned-income tax credits, but a story in the New York Times (March 1) suggests that its figures were greatly inflated.
NEWS OF THE WEAK IN REVIEW
ABC was so eager to sacrifice Nightline for David Letterman, it ended up trashing the show. CBS was so eager to keep Letterman it ended up agreeing to cut local news rather than delay his start time. Bottom line: News always loses.
The INS was so busy rounding up aliens on suspicion of terrorism that only in early March did it send out flight-school student visas to Mohamed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi, who had graduated long ago--after learning enough to crash two planes into the World Trade Center.
Let's start with the Morlocks. In the new film version of The Time Machine, the subterranean carnivores are not merely apelike, as in the H.G. Wells novel. They're Planet of the Apes-like, with mighty deltoids and flowing locks; and that's only the beginning of their nightmarish iconography. These Morlocks cancerous lizards. With their tucked-up, skeletal noses and dead-white complexions, they also bear a striking resemblance to Lon Chaney in The Phantom of the Opera. I have seldom seen such redundant hideousness designed into movie monsters. If kitchen sinks made you squeamish, the Morlocks would have them installed.
The above-ground, vegetarian Eloi also carry a surplus of associations onto the screen, as many as DreamWorks pictures can drape over their tattooed frames. When time traveler Alexander Hartdegen (Guy Pearce) wakes up among the Eloi more than 800,000 years in the future, he finds them to be a bronze-skinned, cowrie-decorated tribe, not unlike the islanders in the Murnau-Flaherty Tabu. Their choral music seems to have been passed down through the millennia from Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Their dwellings, made of wooden ribs and built high above a river gorge, look like a South Seas cultural project by Renzo Piano. Apparently, these noble savages read Architectural Record; and to prove it, they have exquisite taste in home furnishings. H.G. Wells described the Eloi as squatting in temples that were falling into ruin, as if they were the degenerate inheritors of a Greco-Roman golden age; but our current Eloi live amid the homespun textiles and décor of a pricey Caribbean resort. I almost expected them to lay out for Hartdegen little bottles of shampoo and conditioner from The Body Shop, bearing labels that say "Trade, Not Aid."
By now, it should be plain that a certain clarity of conception--a dialectical rigor, you might say--has been deemed useless by the makers of this new Time Machine. Writer John Logan and director Simon Wells have not even maintained the separation of nocturnal and diurnal habits; though the Morlocks are said to be creatures of the night, they in fact carry out a raid in full daylight. This disrespect for the source novel doesn't make The Time Machine a bad movie--I'll get to those failings in a minute--but it does point up how attitudes have changed between 1895 and today.
As is well-known to anyone with a decent respect for Fabianism, H.G. Wells used The Time Machine to project into the future his ideas about nineteenth-century class struggle. His Eloi were the feeble descendants of aristocrats, lovely to look at but frivolous and idle. The Morlocks were the offspring of workers, condemned to dwell and labor brutishly underground. The twist in Wells's story was that the workers, by virtue of their know-how, had come to dominate the aristocrats. The twist in Wells's psychology was that this socialist, born into the very-lower middle class and self-educated out of penury, gave his sympathy to the Eloi and wrote of the Morlocks as subhuman.
Of course, this was just the beginning of The Time Machine's meanings. As the story spread from H.G. Wells to the movies, the 1927 Metropolis gave us not only the struggle between aristocrats-in-the-clouds and proles-in-the-mines but also two other head-on collisions: between modern science and Gothic magic, between the sluttish New Woman and the peasant-village Madonna. The movie resolved these many contradictions through a final handshake between Capital and Labor--a gesture so unsatisfactory that it hinted at stronger convictions left unexpressed. They would emerge soon enough. When screenwriter Thea von Harbou got around to defining her politics, she proved that H.G. Wells's fable could also appeal to a National Socialist.
Speeding back toward the present, we discover more and more uses for Wells's invention. Passing quickly over its appearance in the 1960 movie by George Pal--in retrospect, a notably faithful adaptation of The Time Machine--we find the device turning into a tool of manhood. In the 1967 Star Trek episode "City on the Edge of Forever," written by Harlan Ellison, time travel provided an occasion for the heroic renunciation of love, as tragically enacted by the last fictional character capable of this choice: Capt. James T. Kirk. In Nicholas Meyers's 1979 Time After Time the machine became the vehicle for a slasher picture--a rather charming, romantic one--in which a timid H.G. Wells bested the manly Jack the Ripper.
Then came the juvenile time travelers. Terry Gilliam gave us a schoolboy's vision of universal corruption in Time Bandits (1981). Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale encouraged their adult audience to revert to school-days nostalgia (and Oedipal longings) in the 1985 Back to the Future. And after that, as if to confirm Nietzsche's worst fears about the shape of time, we began to get the recapitulations. Just recently, we saw another Metropolis (this one splendidly animated, by Taro Rin) and another kind of unhinged-in-time slasher movie, Christopher Nolan's Memento, which by a strange coincidence starred Guy Pearce, the pilot of the latest Time Machine.
As I think of Pearce, the wooziness of the current film is plain to see in his performance. When he first appears, he behaves like the funny professor in a Disney preteen movie, wiping the blackboard with his jacket sleeve, blinking over the top of his little eyeglasses and letting his marvelously sculpted jaw hang slack. But then, very quickly, the filmmakers turn him into a tragic, obsessed figure, who clenches that jaw and can't be bothered to shave. The reason: His fiancée dies right before his eyes (and ours), not once but twice.
Again, I note the redundancy, which is particularly important here because it is the filmmakers' own invention, and their reason for sending Hartdegen into the future. H.G. Wells saw no such need to explain his protagonist's interest in time travel; curiosity was motive enough. But he assumed his readers would want to know how time travel might be possible, and so he devoted his whole first chapter to speculation about the fourth dimension. In 2002, Simon Wells and John Logan see no need to explain time travel (and certainly wouldn't frontload their movie with math). But they assume their audience will want to know why anyone would go to the trouble of inventing a machine, and so they kill off a character. To make sure that we get it, they even kill her again.
They treat us as if we were H.G. Wells's Eloi: mild, incurious and stupid.
And here's where the new Time Machine has its own dialectical twist. In the Logan-Wells version, the Morlocks are both bestial and dangerously cerebral. (I know that doesn't make sense, but trust me. There's a very smart über-Morlock who looks just like the old rock star Edgar Winter.) That's the Aryan side of things. The viewers, meanwhile, are expected to sympathize with the Eloi, who are nice and multicultural but passive. "This is the world," they explain helplessly, and a bit self-righteously, when Hartdegen learns they're lunch for the Morlocks. "How can you do nothing?" he demands, even more self-righteously. They need someone with a bit of über-Morlock in him to revive the notion of free will. Hartdegen, the Last White Man, will teach the tourist-resort staff to resist. He will blow things up.
And now, having defined Fabianism for the year 2002, I will mention the good bits in The Time Machine. The device itself looks wonderful when it's whirring at full speed, encased in a globe of light. Sometimes, sunk within a quickly changing landscape, it even resembles a glowing eyeball. Production designer Oliver Scholl has been equally clever with the Eloi's housing--especially at night, when the cliffside shells turn into lanterns. There are also a few bright spots in the storytelling. For a minor example, I can cite a shop window that's across the street from Hartdegen's time machine. As fashions change over the years, the mannequins do a funny stop-motion dance. For a major example, I offer Orlando Jones's performance as a holographic, computerized librarian.
You may have seen Jones's long-faced drollery in such less-than-terrific movies as Evolution and The Replacements. Here, he's made to represent nothing less than the sum of all knowledge--and instead of bowing under the weight, he rises with it, giving a performance that seems to come entirely from the balls of his feet. Despite having to play a machine, he's the only human character in the movie. So long as Jones was on the screen, I felt there was a good reason for H.G. Wells to have brought out his invention in 1895--and for the Lumière brothers to have bothered, in that same year, to project their own ghosts of time past onto a cafe wall.
Screening Schedule: A time machine of another sort is now at work around the country, in a retrospective of the films of Joris Ivens. From a starting point in the European and political avant-garde of the 1920s, Ivens's cinema moved on to document (evoke, eulogize, sing) many of the most profound social and political moments of the twentieth century--and then concluded in 1988 with the astonishing A Tale of the Wind, which turned his own life story into a poem, a landscape, a philosophy. All this is now available to you in the present, March 20-28, at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center, and in the near future at cinematheques and museums in Washington, Boston, Ithaca, Cleveland, Chicago, Berkeley, Toronto and Vancouver. Watch for it: The Films of Joris Ivens: Cinema Without Borders.
On December 14, the German writer W.G. Sebald died, age 57, in a car accident in England, where he had lived for thirty-five years. He had published four remarkable books: fluid, melancholy novel-essays composed in beautifully rich and formal language, and studded with odd black-and-white photos rescued
from the oblivion that was his overwhelming theme. In each book, including Austerlitz, brought out just before Sebald's death in an English translation he supervised, a solitary traveler undertakes research into devastation (of trees and animal species, of human practices and populations) and conducts interviews among the bereaved, making himself into a kind of tribune of universal loss. About the traveler we know little but that he shares the main features of the author's life and suffers from precarious mental health, especially a "paralyzing horror...when confronted with the traces of destruction."
I had read Sebald with uneasy admiration, and learning of his death I felt jolted, brought up short. It wasn't only that he was in the middle of a great career; there was something in specific I still expected from him, and not until I happened to see a movie version of Hamlet could I formulate my question.
Act I, Scene 2. Queen Gertrude is remonstrating with her gloomy son: "All that lives must die," she reminds him, "Passing through nature to eternity." Hamlet: "Ay, madam, it is common." Gertrude: "If it be, why seems it so particular with thee?"
But we know why grief is so particular with Hamlet: His father has just died. Likewise, in Austerlitz, we discover just why the life of Jacques Austerlitz has been "clouded by an unrelieved despair." As Austerlitz reveals in one of several huge monologues, he was raised in Wales by a grim Calvinist couple and without any knowledge of his origins. Only as an adolescent was he told of his real name, and not until middle age, when he sits in a London train station slated for demolition, does he recall, in a sudden blow of anamnesis, that he had passed through this station once before, as a child of 4. It turns out that Jacques Austerlitz is the son of Prague Jews, saved from their fate by one of the Kindertransporten that spirited a few Jewish children to safety at the beginning of the Second World War.
Austerlitz's recovered memory, as always in Sebald, serves only to take the measure of his loss. In this way Sebald is the counter-Proust, despite his preoccupation with memory and the serpentine elegance of his precisely measured long sentences. Memories stand in relationship to forgetting as photographs to unrecorded time and Holocaust survivors to the 6 million dead: They are a small, exceptional minority. They refer, in Sebald, more to the absence of others than to their own thin presence. Page 183 of Austerlitz reproduces a photo of a towheaded little boy dressed in operatic costume as a queen's page, a picture Austerlitz's childhood nanny shows him when, searching for traces of his parents, he tracks her down more than fifty years later in post-Communist Prague. She tells him that it is himself looking out from the photograph:
As far back as I can remember, said Austerlitz, I have always felt as if I had no place in reality, as if I were not there at all, and I never had this impression more strongly than on that evening...when the eyes of the Rose Queen's page looked through me.
Of course, the reader doesn't know whether the boy pictured was really, like Austerlitz, the son of a Jewish opera singer. Fact and fiction go into Sebald's characters--even their documentary aspects--in unknown proportions, and to an interviewer he said: "Behind Austerlitz hide two or three, perhaps three-and-a-half, real persons." Sebald added the unreliability of fiction to the frailty of memory and made it seem a double wonder that anything at all should be plucked from oblivion and spared.
It is this way of representing what has been destroyed that is most moving in his work. That is the task of each of his four books, and it accounts in large part for their having been invariably called sublime. Typically a term of a vague commendation, it must nevertheless have come to mind in Sebald's case because of its precise, Kantian sense: the insufficiency of our faculties to what they contemplate. The sublime is what we know to be more than we can know, and thus the past--available only in fragments--is a perfect instance of sublimeness.
So, too, is the Holocaust, an event, in this sense, as sublime as it was obscene. The Nazis created in their camps and ghettos (to one of which, Theresienstadt, Austerlitz's mother was confined before presumably being shipped east to be murdered) "an infinite enormity of pain," as Primo Levi wrote, only a tiny portion of which can be apprehended by "our providentially myopic senses." Sebald's approach to the genocide is more direct in Austerlitz than before, but still exemplary in its indirectness: He depicts only the furthest, charred edge of the phenomenon, letting the sufferings of one comparatively very fortunate European Jew evoke, in the half-imaginary person of Austerlitz, the far greater and unrepresentable sufferings of the massively more numerous unlucky ones. And sometimes it is even as if Sebald matches the degree of indirection to the degree of horror, as when he writes of the notorious Nuremberg rally at fourth hand, the narrator recounting what Austerlitz said about what his nanny said about what his father, Maximilian, an eyewitness, had said. (But it's interesting to note that Sebald's third name was Maximilian and that friends knew him as Max.)
Sebald's art is exemplary in another way. The writers he explicitly identified with were Conrad and Nabokov, emigrants like himself, but his books' deepest affinities are with his native tradition of German Romanticism--its convention of the solitary wanderer, its love of fragments, its sense of the nobility of spiritual sickness, its hymns to night. Yet the same Novalis who wondered, as Sebald might have done, what life could offer "to outweigh the chain of death," also felt a keen nostalgia for "the beautiful and glorious time, when Europe was a Christian land, inhabited by one Christianity." Romanticism was a more political and longer-lasting affair in Germany than elsewhere, and its frequent enthusiasm for an "organic" nation-state and disdain for cosmopolitan reason supplied Nazi ideology with much of its spurious dignity, not least in its anti-Semitic elements. Sebald's is a romanticism, then, in which death and grief and wandering retain their strange prestige, but for which European Jews and other displaced people have become questing heroes chasing a lost past. Such a romanticism alludes relentlessly to the murderousness that romanticism once helped to underwrite, and so Sebald manages at once to preserve and to subvert a great literary tradition, to renovate it through disgrace.
It's impossible not to admire a feat like that. But to notice Sebald's romanticism is also to realize what is troubling in his work. Part of the method of romanticism is to find symbols of the self--its moods and truths--in the features of nature. Yet the landscape Sebald has before him belongs not to nature, but to history. It is easy enough to understand why Austerlitz himself would identify with the calamities of history: He has lost his past to them. And Sebald has taken the audacious and even ludicrous step of naming his character after a great Napoleonic battle. When Austerlitz hears a fervent account of the battle of Austerlitz, he naturally feels that his name has made him intimate with the sorrows of Russian and Austrian soldiers drowned in retreat. But why did Sebald make the damaged survivors of his books into his own army, and how is it that he heard in various historical crimes and disasters, above all the Holocaust, an echo of his own name? The grief his books describe is there in the world to be found, but why was it so particular with Sebald?
All we can say is that there seems to have been in him some unspecified pain that sought and found affiliation with the felled trees and vanished industries of The Rings of Saturn, with the dead hunter in Vertigo and with the scarred remnant of European Jewry in The Emigrants and now Austerlitz. At times he made fun of his insistent grief, as when he wrote of drinking a Cherry Coke "at a draught like a cup of hemlock." But more often this grief was simply his principle of selection, his lens. Because he didn't take its subjective character enough into account, permitting himself only the scantiest and most covert autobiography, his work sometimes had the effect--no doubt unintentional--of muffling the atrocities to which he was so curiously attracted. "Our history," he wrote, "is but a long account of calamities." The Holocaust and other historical crimes would belong very naturally to such a history, and might even seem its consummation. Yet history consists no more exclusively of calamity than any population consists of the suicides and other solitaries who are Sebald's characters. There might have been more truth to his work had it been less noble and self-effacing, and explained in some way not only how he came to speak on behalf of the lost, but how it was that they seemed to speak for him. It might also be that in books to come Sebald would have done just that. As it is, he died too soon, forced to illustrate the hidden motto of his work: that time destroys everything but mystery, which it conserves.
When it comes to the events of September 11, everyone is an expert and no one is. Everyone, because the attacks and their consequences had the rare character of a universal event. Few in the world have been left untouched by them, from New York City schoolchildren to Kabul shopkeepers. No one, because, as Strobe Talbott and Nayan Chanda put it in their introduction to The Age of Terror, "this was something new under the sun."
Or was it? Did we lose our innocence on September 11? Were the attacks a turning point in human history, like the smashing of the atom or the fall of the Berlin wall? Will we never be the same again?
These are the kinds of large questions that have been kicking around since September 11, and it's easy to understand, given the suddenness of the attacks, the scale of the horror and the intensity of the response, why they have been posed. My own view, reinforced by a look at five collections of essays written after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, is that it is too soon to tell. Some of the initial analysis is already looking dated or much too optimistic about the changed landscape. And in any event, it's important to be careful about the "we" packed into these questions, and alert to signs that September 11 is being used more often to reinforce entrenched views across the political spectrum than to challenge settled assumptions.
In time, books about what happened on September 11 and its aftermath will no doubt constitute a virtual cottage industry, perhaps occupying their own section at the local Borders or Barnes & Noble. For now, though, the first out of the box are compilations of essays and articles. It must be said at the outset that any book conceived and written in the span of a few months is at best an album of snapshots of a moment, and that while each of the books reflects a particular political orientation and sensibility, none of them constitute a sustained argument or a monolithic point of view.
Two of the books emerge from institutions of the establishment center: How Did This Happen?, edited by James F. Hoge and Gideon Rose, the editor and managing editor of Foreign Affairs, published by the Council on Foreign Relations; and The Age of Terror, edited by former Deputy Secretary of State Talbott (director of the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, soon-to-be president of the Brookings Institution) and Chanda, the center's publications director.
Despite the fact that no military or national security authority anticipated the stunningly simple way unspeakable damage was wrought on September 11, these two books want to reassure us with "experts." How Did This Happen? promises readers it will answer that question "in all its critical aspects" by bringing together "experts whose insights make the events of that terrible day more understandable, even as we steel ourselves for the conflicts ahead." The Age of Terror promises that an "agenda-setting team of experts" will begin to tell us "what happened here and why," and "examine the considerations and objectives of policy decisions in post-September 11 America."
In other words, Sisters Mary Yale and Harvard Explain It All to You. Except that most of these experts turn out to be men: Only three women are among the twenty-six writers in the Hoge/Rose book, a group that includes a former national security adviser, NATO commander and Secretary of Defense; and only one is among the eight academics in The Age of Terror. (The paucity of female "experts" in these pages, while appalling, is hardly limited to the books in question; a recent report by the White House Project kept track of appearances on the leading Sunday television news and public affairs interview programs and determined that after September 11 the percentage of female guests--only 11 percent to begin with--dropped by 39 percent. That's almost as much of a gender shutout as in prewar Afghanistan under the Taliban.)
The first few essays in the Hoge/Rose book try to explain Islam, marshaling scholars and writers like Fouad Ajami and Karen Armstrong. Walter Laqueur provides a look at "The Changing Face of Terror," and then there are a few pieces each on the impact on US intelligence, security, and diplomatic, military and economic policy. The Talbott/
Chanda book follows a similar template, touching fewer bases.
The three other early collections to emerge since September 11 bear a surface similarity to the Hoge/Rose and Talbott/
Chanda books. They, too, have portentous subtitles ("Conversations in a Time of Terror," "Beyond the Curtain of Smoke," "Solutions for a Saner World"). All the books bear a cover photograph of the crumbling World Trade Center towers (except Another World Is Possible, which has a silhouette of the pre-September 11 lower Manhattan skyline; The Age of Terror also features a Coca-Cola truck amid the Ground Zero debris, perhaps befitting the work of a center on globalization). And they all attempt to survey various aspects of the post-
September 11 world. But there the resemblance ends.
If the editors and authors of The Age of Terror and How Did This Happen? seek to explain September 11, in effect, to themselves--to those who take as a given a world led by a benign United States, in other words--those who compiled and contributed to the other three books are accustomed to their marginalization as critics of the prevailing world order. They might well be living in a parallel universe.
In ascending order of marginalization, After 9/11: Solutions for a Saner World emerges from the San Francisco-based Independent Media Institute. Among its contributors are many who have written for this magazine, including its editor, and such stars of the progressive punditocracy as Barbara Ehrenreich, Jim Hightower and Arianna Huffington. It's in many ways the most comfortable to me of these books, more critical of the existing world order than the "expert" editions but more engaged with it than the other two volumes. But it left less of an impression on me, as well. While there is some overlap between it and September 11 and the U.S. War: Beyond the Curtain of Smoke (for example, Barbara Kingsolver, Arundhati Roy and Michael Klare appear in both), the latter volume, published by City Lights Books and Freedom Voices, delivers us an angrier, more sectarian left--the kind of book that contains an oil pipeline map and ends with a poem telling us that the planes that crashed on September 11 were made by "the same billionaire wing-makers whose jets burned the sky over Baghdad, Panama City, Grenada, the Mekong." September 11 and the U.S. War, like After 9/11, consists almost entirely of brief, Op-Ed-length articles that have appeared elsewhere. Unlike After 9/11 (which is dedicated to "the everyday heroes who rose to the challenge of 9/11"), there is barely room in this volume for a nod to the human toll--in the United States, anyway--of the violence inflicted on that day. The editors and authors get straight to business in stating their "dissent from the bellicose actions" taken by the United States, exposing, as they talk about Eduardo Galeano, author of the lead essay, the "fundamental falsehoods of US militarism and its mirrored evils abroad."
The third of the books by the marginalized, Another World Is Possible, was produced by six activists in their 20s affiliated with the Active Element Foundation. If After 9/11 is Tracy Chapman, and September 11 and the U.S. War is Pete Seeger, Another World Is Possible is Rage Against the Machine. The contributors are trying, in the words of Kofi Taha's brief foreword, to "find a language that evokes love, compassion and critical thought in the face of tragedy," and to recognize "this pivotal moment in human history that will either positively propel us forward or plunge us in ever-deepening despair."
One of the positive things about Another World Is Possible is the way the editors disagree with one another--two of them even question whether its subtitle, "Conversations in a Time of Terror," is too "American-centric." Walidah Imarisha, an artist, poet and "rabble-rouser," doesn't like it because "it's been a time of terror for folks of color, in and out of this country, for centuries." Shaffy Moeel, a former reporter for youth radio, thinks Americans should understand that terror is what is faced by 25 million Africans with HIV who can't afford treatment drugs and by Iraqi children deprived of food and medicine. And the authors here don't always take themselves as seriously as some others on the left: It's refreshing to read that Beka Economopoulos, another of the editors and a trainer for the Ruckus Society, avoided the "sectarian and process-heavy" meetings called by the left in the days after September 11.
Another thing that makes this book more compelling than its counterparts is the contribution of Jeremy Glick, a graduate student at Rutgers and one of the editors. On the one hand, much of his writing seems as "sectarian and process-heavy" as any in the collection's pages (and there is plenty of that). On the other, Glick's father was killed in Tower One on September 11, and he writes movingly of what happened to him in the weeks afterward when he experienced a "complete collapse of the public/private."
Another World Is Possible is also more original and graphically lively than any of the other books, containing interviews, photographs and even a running e-mail exchange among the editors, begun on September 11 when several of them weren't sure whether the Jeremy Glick among the casualties was their friend and contemporary or his father.
One way to measure the appeal of these books--or any, really--is whether they manage to surprise us, or tell us something we didn't know. In After 9/11, I was surprised to find peace activist Riane Eisler, president of the Center for Partnership Studies, telling interviewer Helen Knode that she supports a "military response against terrorist bases in nations that fund and support terrorism," because "if you've got a psychopath lunging at you with a knife, that's not the time to talk about peace and love." I was informed, if somewhat amused, by Dr. Michael Bader's examination of the post-September 11 "terror sex" phenomenon--that "some of us get turned on by disasters...because disasters make us unconsciously feel safe to be sexual." (That made me wish they were still making new Seinfelds--oh, the possibilities!)
In Another World Is Possible, I was taken with the editors' ability to unearth quotes from Martin Luther King Jr. that have been largely forgotten in the process of his near-canonization, like these lines from his 1967 Riverside Church sermon: "I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered."
In How Did This Happen?, I learned from Greg Easterbrook's piece on airline security that it would be sensible to equip planes with transponders that can't be turned on and off by pilots in a hijacking, except automatically upon takeoff and landing. From Stephen Flynn's sobering article, "The Unguarded Homeland," I got a sense of the vulnerability of the harbors of Long Beach, California, and Port Everglades, Florida, and of what a huge disruption it would be to the residents of those states if the oil tankers docked there were attacked in the manner employed against the USS Cole in Yemen. From Walter Laqueur I learned that suicide bombing is not the exclusive province of Islamic terrorists--Sri Lankan Tamils have a higher per capita rate of them, but they are neither Muslim nor religiously motivated. And William Wechsler, a former adviser to the Secretary of the Treasury, writing about efforts to cut off Al Qaeda's financial support, sheds fascinating light on Osama bin Laden's rise. He didn't attain prestige by "leading an army into battle" or "valor in combat"--the source of his power is his fundraising prowess. So for terrorists, it seems, as for politicians, success increasingly comes through the ability to raise large amounts of money.
In The Age of Terror, I appreciated the fresh and provocative perspective of Maxine Singer, president of the Carnegie Institution, writing on the "challenge to science" posed by September 11: that "millions of people in poor nations [who] watch their children die of diseases we have not seen in generations" may not see "the introduction of dangerous biological and chemical agents into our relatively clean environments" as so horrible. Perhaps, Singer writes, "the willingness of terrorists to die for a cause we find unfathomable may be influenced by the fact that life spans in their societies are in any case short."
Nothing in September 11 and the U.S. War surprised me.
A number of the essays in these books, particularly in the two "expert" volumes, seem much too optimistic or have already been superseded by events. In How Did This Happen?, economist Martin Baily calmly assesses the economic impact of the World Trade Center attacks, including the effect on the recession, unemployment and the globalization debate, concluding blandly that "economic fears will be overcome." A few pages later, Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, writes that it will be difficult for Democrats to shift to the left or Republicans to the right, and that "screaming talk show hosts" who blame "their favorite targets" for the World Trade Center attacks will find no one listening. Has he watched The O'Reilly Factor lately? Wolfe observes with approval that "Bush's support has broadened as his proposals have become more inclusive." I would have liked a dose here of New York Times columnist Paul Krugman's relentless, dead-on exposure of the way the Bush Administration has used the cloak of war to disguise an ideological agenda of tax cuts for the rich and privatized Social Security.
In The Age of Terror, Yale history professor Abbas Amanat writes of hopeful signs in the calls for "open society, coexistence and rule of law" in Iran. These are hopeful, indeed, and call for a sensitive and nuanced response by the United States. But it is harder to keep such hopes alive when the burgeoning forces of democratization in Iran are greeted with a US policy--set forth by President Bush in the State of the Union address after Amanat's essay went to press--pronouncing that nation one of three countries in an "axis of evil" that the United States must vanquish now that it is finishing up in Afghanistan.
Paul Kennedy, another Yale history professor and author of The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, applauds the post-September 11 disappearance of US unilateralism. It was certainly possible to think, in the days and weeks following the attacks, as Washington set about lining up the support of other nations for its campaign against terrorism, that we had come to the end of a dismal period in which, only a week before, the United States had walked out of the UN World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, having already thumbed its nose at treaties on global warming and the International Criminal Court. But that optimism doesn't seem warranted now, in the mood of US triumphalism surrounding the perceived success of the go-it-alone approach.
Finally, a few of the contributions are, simply put, a bit bizarre. In The Age of Terror, Charles Hill, a former aide to Secretaries of State Kissinger, Haig and Shultz, writes, as if to shake his head at misguided priorities, "In the aftermath of the September 11 mass murders, many Americans admirably rushed to recommit themselves to civil liberties and respect for the rights of individuals who share the appearance, ethnicity or faith of the terrorist enemies of the U.S." On this planet? In the country I'm living in, the Attorney General rushed to apprehend thousands of immigrants without charges or access to public counsel, sent FBI agents to question 5,000 more and impugned the patriotism of those who dared to challenge his policies. The President rushed to set up military tribunals, akin to those we have condemned when used by Peru or Turkey, to try suspected terrorists. Hill goes on: "Over the past few decades, Americans have begun to fall prey to an inverse version of the conspiracy-theory mentality: that virtually every problem in the world can be attributed to some fault of ours." Not that I've noticed. Maybe he's been spending too much time reading September 11 and the U.S. War.
Harold Hongju Koh, former Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, is virtually alone in both of the mainstream volumes in raising the alarm about the serious challenges to civil liberties and human rights brought on by the US response to September 11. Aside from Michael Mandelbaum's essay in How Did This Happen?, only Koh seems concerned about the US tendency to overlook the human rights abuses of "friendly" states, from our allies in the cold war to those in the campaign against terrorism. And only he condemns the rapid resort to "crisis restrictions" on civil liberties and the "oppressive orthodoxy" of "patriotic correctness"--a nice turn of phrase that I hope catches on--that swept the country in the weeks and months following the attacks.
Yet even Koh, in his eagerness to demonstrate that it's possible to combat terrorism and protect civil liberties, overstates the experience of "our fellow democracies like Britain and Israel...in balancing a crisis atmosphere, a forceful response, and strenuous efforts to increase homeland security, with a sustained commitment to domestic civil liberties." For a different view, the latest issue of Index on Censorship, the London-based human rights magazine, reports the testimony of the British rights organization Liberty before Parliament's Home Affairs Committee that twenty-five years of antiterrorism laws in Britain have led to "appalling human rights abuses and miscarriages of justice, and the unnecessary detention of thousands of innocent, mostly Irish, people."
Civil liberties are under greater strain in the United States than at any time in recent memory; the Taliban are nearly routed in Afghanistan. That much is clear at this writing. Beyond that, it's almost impossible to predict the longer-term impact of the World Trade Center attacks. In fact, what's remarkable to me about some cataclysmic political events of the past few years, which totally absorbed public and media attention for months on end and which were widely assumed to have altered the political equation in fundamental ways, even calling into question the legitimacy of all three branches of government (I'm thinking here about the impeachment and trial of President Clinton and the crisis over the 2000 presidential election, finally resolved by a highly suspect ruling of the Supreme Court) is not how much they changed American life and politics but how quickly they faded from consciousness, and how little enduring impact they seem to have had. September 11, we are endlessly told, transformed George W. Bush into a leader and erased any lingering doubts about his legitimacy. But in fact, for most Americans, whatever they thought of his competence or policies, doubts about his right to be there had virtually evaporated by the time of the inauguration, and only weeks into Bush's presidency it was quite easy to forget the extraordinary means by which he had reached it.
President Clinton was supposed to be fatally wounded, first by Kenneth Starr's disclosure of what he did with Monica Lewinsky--few public figures aside from Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee have had to endure such a detailed public account of their sexual activities--and then by having to stand in the dock for it. There is no doubt that Clinton's energies and attention were diverted by the trials visited upon him by the independent prosecutor and the Republican-controlled House and Senate. But life went on, and it's hard to see any enduring damage to the political system. Monica Lewinsky is a minor celebrity, popping up on HBO and Larry King Live, and Hillary Clinton chums it up in the Senate with dozens of colleagues who voted to oust her husband from office.
A historian might say it is too soon to assess the impact of either the impeachment or the election, and some may think it trivializes the crimes of September 11 to discuss them in the same breath with the perfidies of Kenneth Starr and Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris. Perhaps it does, and I recognize that the events of September 11 sent waves far beyond the shores of US politics and culture. But it is possible to think that the political and diplomatic consequences of September 11--not the personal trauma of thousands of lives forever disrupted by murder, or the psychic scars borne by millions from the violence witnessed and spawned that day--may be far less significant than the conventional wisdom now allows, or at least that it is too soon to tell.
I must also confess skepticism, after reading so many thousands of words written about September 11, from across the political spectrum, that anyone's view of the world has been very much changed. What strikes me most forcefully is how virtually everyone with an opinion or an orientation has cut 9/11 to fit his or her preconceived agenda. The crude and outrageous assertion by Jerry Falwell that gays and abortion-rights activists are to blame for the attacks on the World Trade Center was roundly denounced from all quarters, but there are plenty of other people using the events of September 11 to ride their favorite hobbyhorse.
In The Age of Terror, for instance, Niall Ferguson, an Oxford professor of political and financial history, starts out usefully enough, challenging the military historian John Keegan's assertion that he could not find parallels for September 11. (Ferguson cites the Japanese kamikaze pilots, German use of anthrax in the First World War and the rash of 1970s hijackings.) But by the end of his essay he is urging a "proper role for imperial America" in "imposing democracy on all the world's 'rogue states.'" At the other end of the spectrum, Wendell Berry, writing in September 11 and the U.S. War, hopes that the attacks ended "technological and economic euphoria."
But since, as I suggested at the outset, everyone is entitled to be an expert on this subject, I would like to ride two of my own hobbyhorses for a moment.
The first is about the "we" that the editors and most of the contributors to the two mainstream volumes claim to speak for and to. The brief introductory essay by Hoge and Rose in How Did This Happen?, for example, laments the loss of the "open, secure life Americans took for granted"--a frequently voiced sentiment in recent months that seems unobjectionable at first. But did all Americans take such a life for granted before September 11? Did young African-American men feel secure on the streets of New York City after Amadou Diallo? Or single mothers in East New York who put their children to bed in the bathtub to keep them safe from drive-by shootings at the peak of the crack epidemic?
That's not terrorism, one might respond. Fair enough. Did doctors and nurses working in abortion clinics feel the benefits of an open and secure life after Dr. Barnett Slepian was gunned down? Did such shootings, and a wave of arson and bombing and anthrax threats, have the desired effect of suppressing a woman's right to choose in many parts of the United States? You bet they did. Some communities have always lived with the threat of terror. One thing September 11 did was democratize the fear.
The second hobbyhorse is closely connected, and it has to do with the media's--well, ultimately, the democracy's--failure to do its job in equipping citizens to exercise any meaningful stewardship over the country's role around the world. The disconnection of US foreign policy from democratic discourse is profound. On this point, After 9/11 is strongest, providing a forum for Danny Schechter's argument that "the structure and orientation of our media system and its abandonment of international news...has fueled two cultures, virtually segregated from one another. A small elite operates globally with a 'need to know,' and most people are in effect told they do not."
Is there any chance this picture will change? That Americans will insist on being better informed about the world and the US role in it, and on a foreign policy that respects international law and institutions and the need to act in concert with other democratic nations? That the spirit of community and "everyday heroism" that moved New York and the nation in the weeks after September 11 has sparked a deeper and more enduring sense of civic responsibility and a more inclusive sense of community? That politics-as-usual will be set aside in order to address enduring inequities, here and around the world?
Too soon to tell.
Kanan Makiya, the Arab world's most ardent and vocal supporter of America's projected intervention in Iraq, the hammer of liberal Arab intelligentsia, the arch anti-Orientalist, has just published a new book. The Rock: A Tale of Seventh-Century Jerusalem is a beautifully crafted fictionalized account of
the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem, related by Ishaq, the architect of the Dome under which the Rock of Foundation now lies. To call it a novel, however, is misleading. It's more a performance, and a highly political one too. The Rock is a chapter in Makiya's complex political program.
Kanan Makiya is America's favorite dissident. For a start, he's the Iraqi intellectual whose descriptions of life under Saddam Hussein provided the first Bush Administration with peripheral justification for the first war in the Persian Gulf. But he's gone further and taken up America's battered cause against the legions of fashionable intellectuals--Arab and other--who blame the United States for the ills of the Middle East, the ongoing conflict in Israel-Palestine and the general misfortunes of the Third World.
Makiya's Republic of Fear, first published under the pseudonym Samir al-Khalil in 1989, described a dystopia the likes of which were hardly imagined by such fearmongers as Huxley and Orwell. The hells of Brave New World and 1984 were founded on the wholesale indoctrination of a people, and the insidious bureaucratized destruction of individuality. Iraq under Saddam Hussein, as described by Makiya, made claims to no such subtlety or totalitarian sophistication. There, the system's survival rested quite simply on its subjects' physical pain, and fear of it. Violence, first used as a carefully prescribed political medicine, became the instrument of state control.
Iraq in the 1960s and '70s saw the frenetic invention of domestic pariahs--Kurds and Shiite radicals, but also those political undesirables who threatened to undermine the all-conquering Baathist revolution. (The Baath Party was founded in the 1940s in Damascus along populist, socialist and nationalist principles, based in large part on the belief that Arabs had a special mission to end Western colonization. It swept to power in Iraq in 1968.) Their violent destruction legitimized a movement that, much like Slobodan Milosevic's ultranationalism, could only unify negatively--against an other. The society Baathist politics created, founded on violence, bred a populace "to whom strength of character is invariably associated with the ability to both sustain and inflict pain," wrote Makiya. Violence directed outward quickly proved itself to be the most effective sedative for a restless population. It took little time to turn it inward to the same effect: It bred fear and made power. In Makiya's descriptions of the punishments of first-time thieves (brandings on the forehead, amputation of limbs), the horrific tortures and endless disappearances of suspected dissenters, the ethnic cleansing of the Kurds, even the executions of military deserters, lies an anatomy of political evil.
Edward Said and other luminaries of the exiled Arab intellectual community virtually accused Makiya of being an American agent, of showing hatred toward his fellow Iraqis and of providing ammunition for Islamiphobes and Arab-haters across the West. The faintest justification for such a condemnation does exist. In Republic of Fear, Makiya avoids detailing all the reasons for the Iraqi hatred and massacre of the Assyrians in the 1930s, explaining it away as a political machination intended to unify a divided people by inventing a common enemy. He fails to mention that the Assyrians had played an important role in the British persecution of this divided Iraqi people in the previous decade, creating huge resentment at what was perceived as treachery. But his own betrayal of the Arab cause as represented by his critics goes only so far--omission in the footnotes.
Principally, Makiya causes concern to his fellow Arab exiles because he has turned their most powerful conceptual tool on its head, and against them. The notion that the West has unconsciously condescended to the Muslim world since first encountering it in the early modern period, and willfully exploited it ever since, has formed the basis of every indictment of US (and British) policy toward the Middle East: It is superior, self-interested imperialism. Ten days after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, Said wrote in the London Independent: "Is it too much to connect the stark political and military polarisation [building up in the Gulf] with the cultural abyss that exists between the Arabs and the West?" Makiya's response to American intervention in the area was wholehearted support. He claimed that the Arab world was failing itself; he let himself imagine a scenario that turned Said into the condescending Orientalist: Makiya dared imagine that the Arabs themselves might have fought Iraq, in defense of Muslim values and an Arab people, in this case the Kuwaitis. Arab intellectuals, he claimed, were conniving in the cataclysm befalling the Arab world by blaming the West rather than attacking the virus within.
Of course, both Said and Makiya provide vital weapons against the troubles of the Middle East, and Said is just as Saddamophobic as Makiya. Said's tireless attacks on Western neo-imperialism in the region are hugely important correctives to what is undoubtedly a tendency in the powerful West, eager for low oil prices. And Makiya's emphasis on Arab responsibility represents perhaps the bravest and most immediate proposal for change in the Middle East. Said and Makiya may talk at opposite ends of the spectrum, but the solutions they envisage to the problems of their areas of interest both focus on the crucial role of US involvement: Said argues that Palestinians have everything to gain from curtailed US intervention in support of Israel, while Makiya contends that Iraqis can only gain from full-fledged US involvement.
Although Makiya is best known for his politics, specifically vis-à-vis Iraq, in his political program there is another striking difference from most Arab intellectuals known in the West: his engagement with Islam. Islam is, of course, a core coefficient of the Arab worldview and subsequently of its politics. In what many perceive as the Arab world's struggle with and into modernity, it is also the hardest element to include, in large part because most Arab efforts to upgrade their political and societal structures have imitated a specifically Protestant West, where, in addition, church and state are divided. But very few secular Arab thinkers venture to write about Islam or consider it as a component of their political thinking. Doing so involves pitching headlong into the vipers' nest that is doctrinal competition in Islamic theology today--it is much easier to avoid it.
Makiya's first response to September 11 was to analyze the Islam that justified it. In his first major piece of journalism after the attacks, he wrote in the Observer of bin Laden's theology: "This is not Islam any more than the Ku Klux Klan is Christianity." He picked up this theme again in a detailed piece for the New York Review of Books in January, where he provided an intricate exegesis of the form of Islam propounded by the terrorists, as laid out in a document found by the FBI after the event. His concluding paragraph for that piece read:
The uses and distortions of Muslim sources in the hijackers' document deserve careful consideration. If arbitrary constructions of seventh-century texts and events have inflamed the imagination of such men, we should ask whether the ideas in the document will become part of the tradition that they misrepresent.... To contend with such an ideology [that of the hijackers] effectively it is not enough to go back to the original core of the tradition.... Bold and imaginative thinking must come from within the Muslim tradition in order to present social and political ideas that Muslims will find workable and persuasive. The tragic events of the past months have shown all the more clearly how urgently such ideas are needed.
The Rock was written before the horrors of September 11, but it must be read with all the above in mind. Makiya's first crusade was directed against the horrors of Baathism in Iraq--a secular, nationalist totalitarianism with universalist pan-Arab overtones. That crusade has now been extended to include what at first glance appears to be Baathism's nemesis but that lays an identical claim to absolute truth, justice and good: political Islamism.
In Republic of Fear, Makiya made the point that Baathism had failed to yoke the social to the political: It had failed to include the basic yearnings and ideals of its populace within its political program. Religion, such a vital component of Iraq's social fabric, had only been excluded. Khomeini's Iran, on the other hand, turned religion into politics at the immense cost of its political openness.
There is a middle ground. The Arab world has yet to produce a political system that is capable of incorporating its ethical and moral heritage (Islamic) within a social context that allows for freedom, individuality and those other values typical of "modern" (Western) society but so highly prized by a majority of the Arab world. To do so, the notions of both modernity and Islam must be addressed. Makiya looked at the practical politics of the Middle East and its foremost "modern" thinkers in Republic of Fear and Cruelty and Silence. In The Rock, he tackles Islam.
This, Makiya's first novel, tells the story of Ka'b al-Ahbar, a Jewish Yemeni convert to Islam, who accompanies Umar ibn al-Khattab, second of the Rashidun (or Rightly Guided) Caliphs of Islam, in his conquest of Jerusalem. Tired of the desolation of life in Yemen, Ka'b sets off to make his fortune in the booming renaissance of northern Arabia, where a Prophet has blessed the people of Mecca and Medina. By his knowledge of the stories of Genesis and the cosmology of Abraham, he is quickly included into the elite Muslim fold, in which he converts, before setting off for the Holy City with the Arabian army. There, after battling with Sophronius the Christian Patriarch, he and Umar discover the Rock under a mountain of refuse on the Temple Mount. Here, on the site of Solomon's Temple, Ka'b finds home. If he kneels in the right place, he can pray facing both Mecca and the holy stone on which the father of mankind descended in his fall from Eden: the Precious Stone, the Rock of Atonement, the Rock of Sacrifice, the Rock of the Ages, the Rock of Judgment. He founds a family. His son recounts the story.
While it does spin a tale--and well--the novel is really a skeleton upon which to drape a patchwork cloak of stories. Ka'b hails from a family of rabbis, and his role in the book, just as it was in history (such a Ka'b appears periodically in the annals of early Islam), is as a sourcebook of traditions.
The first Muslims of Arabia, Caliph Umar included, for all their beautiful epic poetry, were not a cultured people. They inherited through the Koran an immense and complicated cosmology that, for all its strength and beauty, left much unexplained. As a Jewish convert to Islam who met the Prophet, deeply versed in the Abrahamic tradition that all monotheists share, Ka'b acted as the exegete of meaning for a people with profound conviction and colossal, newfound power but almost no epistemological context. In history, as in the novel, Ka'b was the one who could advise on the traditions; he was the jurist of myth.
The Rock is a historical novel with a difference. While it traces the lives and developments of people who did exist and events that did happen, its real sources and ultimate focus are the traditions of monotheism. These center on the rock that now sits under the Dome on the Haram al-Sharif, or Temple Mount, in divided Jerusalem. In chronological order, these traditions describe the rock as that upon which Adam landed when he was banished from Paradise, the rock upon which Abraham was called to sacrifice his firstborn, the site of Solomon's Temple, where Jesus preached and from which Mohammed ascended on his tour of the seven heavens. These and countless other stories--all sourced in one or the other of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim texts--are delicately brought to life by Ka'b to help the first Muslims make Jerusalem theirs, physically and spiritually.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the first effect of the novel, achieved by going so deep into the competing and complementary myths about the place, is to remind its reader of the great arbitrariness that designated this rock to be the focal point of worship for half the world. It is, after all, just a rock. That some have seen it as a kind of warp-zone to heaven, others as being suspended between the two worlds of God and Man, and yet more as the launch pad of History (and Apocalypse) is testament to man's unflinching search for meaning, of which Makiya seems proud.
The second act of Makiya's performance, achieved via the endless interplay of the stories related by Ka'b, suggests an interpretation of how meaning works. Just as some literary critics argue that books owe more to those that precede them than to the historical context in which they were written, so Makiya insinuates that religious truth is dependent on and develops out of the canon of truth that precedes it. In his long appendix on the sources he has used, Makiya writes: "It is not always easy for readers to discern from the narrative whether a given story, or a particular detail within a story, or even a passage of scripture is Jewish, Muslim or Christian in origin. This was the way things were in Ka'b's time and place, if not in ours."
In providing an anatomy of the context out of which Muslim truth was articulated, Makiya has provided the foundations for an inquiry into the nature of religious ideas, particularly as they relate to Muslim society. That inquiry will stand on two pillars. The first is the profound acceptance of the fact that truth is always relative, that it must be looked at contextually and that it perpetuates itself. For when these things are forgotten, the letter will always overcome the spirit of religion. And the second is a hyper-self-conscious sense of symbolism that takes itself for what it is: an expression of meaning, not a truth in itself.
The Rock is a compendium of the monotheistic myths, the ultimate guide to the city of Jerusalem and a narrative history of the Muslim conquest as factually correct (or ambiguous) as any we might expect. But it is also a profoundly sensitive proposal for the basis of a new Islamic theology.
For the past few decades a virulent debate has been raging across the Muslim world, pitching Islam against modernity. It has been brought to a head by the events of September 11. In that context, Kanan Makiya's novel is as important a piece of political writing as any of his work to date.