It may look as if domestic politics no longer exists in the new America--the one in which there is no money for anything besides guns and prisons but we don't care because we are all bowling together against the Axis of Evil. But that's not true. As long as there is a fertilized egg somewhere in this great land of ours, there will be domestic politics. George Bush may not be able to bring about the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth for the religious right, who gave him one in four of his votes. He may even realize that a serious victory for religious conservatives--significantly restricting the legality of abortion, say--would hurt the Republican Party, because California has more people than Utah. But he is doing what he can to keep the fundamentalists happy.
It must be frustrating for him--just when we're all supposed to pretend to love our differently faithed neighbor even if we know he's bound for hell, Christians keep saying weird things. First there was Jerry Falwell's remark that God let terrorists blow up the World Trade Center because he was fed up with "the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians...[and] the ACLU"; Falwell apologized, only to express the same thought a bit more obliquely on November 11 at a Florida church: "If the church had been awake and performing that duty"--proselytizing the ungodly--"I can tell you that we wouldn't be in the mess we're in today." God, says Falwell, "even loves the Taliban"--it's just liberals he can't stand.
And then there's Attorney General John Ashcroft, who burqaed the semi-nude statue of the Spirit of Justice because he felt upstaged by her perky breast at press conferences, and who thinks calico cats are emissaries of the devil, when everyone knows it's black cats. Ashcroft is in trouble with Arab-Americans for offering this proof of the superiority of Christianity to Islam as quoted by conservative columnist Cal Thomas on his radio show on November 9 (and belatedly denied by a Justice Department spokeswoman): "Islam is a religion in which God requires you to send your son to die for him. Christianity is a faith in which God sends his son to die for you." Not to get too wound up in theology here, but if the Christian God sent his own son to die doesn't that make him, according to Ashcroft's definition, a Muslim?
Fortunately, the fertilized egg can be rolled onstage to distract us from such knotty questions. In keeping with the strategy of rebranding antichoice as prochild, the Bush Administration plans to use the CHIP program for poor children to provide healthcare to children "from conception to age nineteen," a neat way of defining zygotes as kids. The women in whom these fine young people are temporarily ensconced will remain uninsured--perhaps they can apply for federal funds by redefining themselves as ambulances or seeing-eye dogs. After all, somebody has to get those fetuses to the doctor's office. As for the 8 million uninsured postbirth children, not to mention the 27 million uninsured adults, who told them to leave the womb?
But wait, there's more. In a highly unusual move, the Justice Department has weighed in on the side of Ohio's "partial-birth abortion" ban, which has been on ice thanks to a federal court ruling that found it did not make enough allowance for a woman's health, as required by the 2000 Supreme Court decision in Carhart v. Nebraska. The Ohio law would permit the operation only to save her life or avoid "serious risk of the substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function." Gee, what about considerable risk of moderate and long-term impairment of a bodily function of only middling importance? Should the Ohio state legislature (seventy-five men, twenty-four women) decide how much damage a woman should suffer on behalf of a fetus? Shouldn't she have something to say about it?
To please fanatical antichoicer Representative Chris Smith of New Jersey, Bush is holding back $34 million from UN family planning programs. To return the favor, Congressional Republicans have revived the Child Custody Protection Act, which would bar anyone but a parent from taking a minor across state lines for an abortion. The parental-notification-and-consent laws of a pregnant teen's home state would follow her wherever she goes, like killer bees, or the Furies--and unlike any other law.
Bush is also stacking with social conservatives commissions that have nothing to do with abortion per se but raise issues of sex, gender and reproduction. The cloning commission, called the Council on Bioethics (fourteen men, four women), is headed by bioethicist Leon Kass, a former opponent of in vitro fertilization who's associated with the American Enterprise Institute. There's room around the table for antichoice columnist Charles Krauthammer; antichoice law professor Mary Ann Glendon, the Vatican's representative at the UN conference on women, in Beijing; and social theorist Francis Fukuyama, who wrote in a New York Times Op-Ed that the thirty-years-overdue introduction of the pill in Japan in 1999 spelled the downfall of the Japanese family, because now women will just run wild. But there are only four research scientists, and no advocates for patients with diseases that the cloning of stem cells might someday help cure. Similarly, the newly reconfigured AIDS commission is said to be stacked with religious conservatives and will be headed by former Representative Tom Coburn, whose claim to fame is his rejection of condoms, which sometimes fail, in favor of "monogamy," which never does.
Finally, there's the nomination of Charles Pickering for the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. Rated unqualified by the Magnolia Bar Association of Mississippi. Pickering, an ardent segregationist when it counted, opposed the ERA, has been a lifelong opponent of legal abortion and won't discuss his antichoice record in Senate hearings. The Fifth Circuit includes Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi, states where the right to abortion is already compromised by conservative legislatures; in l999 Texas tied with Michigan for most new antichoice laws enacted (seven). Traditionally the federal courts offer hope of redress for victims of state laws--in this case, some of the poorest women in the country. What are the chances that Pickering will champion their rights and their health?
My money's on the fertilized egg.
"When I write, I bid farewell to myself," Jimmy Santiago Baca said in 1992. "I leave most of what I know behind and wander through the landscape of language." This is a memorable quote from a poet whose voice, brutal yet tender, is unique in America. The landscape of language is what redeemed Baca in 1973 when, at 21, illiterate and jailed in a maximum-security prison on charges of selling drugs, he discovered the power of words. And then he let himself loose, reading anything and everything that touched his hands, writing frantically, even magically, a set of autobiographical poems that spoke of injustice and alienation. His characters were young males handcuffed by poverty, with "nothing to do, nowhere to go." Denise Levertov once talked of them as fully formed people with engaged imaginations, of the type that witness brutality and degradation yet retain "an innocent eye--a wild creature's eye--and deep and loving respect for the earth."
Baca made his name in the late 1970s when Immigrants in Our Own Land & Selected Early Poems was published. After that, he steadily developed an oeuvre, endorsed by small presses, about the tortured experience of Chicanos. The reader sensed a poet ready to denounce, and to do so angrily, but careful not to turn poetry into an organ of propaganda: "I Am with Those/Whose blood has spilled on the streets too often,/Surprising bypassers in hushed fear," he wrote in one poem. "I am dangerous. I am a fool to you all./Yes, but I stand as I am,/I am food for the future."
These poems came in the aftermath of the Chicano movement, as the country moved away from such activism. Change had been fought for by César Chávez and Dolores Huerta, and by the Crusade for Justice, but its fruits remained intangible. Baca's anger spoke to the unredeemed and nonaffiliated on the fringes and also to a mainstream audience aware of the social limitations that remained after the civil rights era. He refused to give up denunciation, exposing the tension between whites and Mexicans in the Southwest. But then came an age in which complacency was accentuated and activism was institutionalized. Poetry left the trenches to enter the classroom: It wasn't what you had done, but the expository strategies you had used, that mattered. The Chicano middle class saw this as an occasion to reject outspokenness and endorse consent. Even the term "Chicano" came under fire and was replaced by "Mexican-American."
Around this time, Baca's pathos was acquired by Hollywood. He began to write screenplays, one of which, about gang wars in California's prisons, became Bound by Honor (1993), an epic directed by Taylor Hackford, with Benjamin Bratt, Damián Chapa and Jesse Borrego. On occasion he would surface with a pugnacious reflection, and eventually he assembled these reflections into a volume with a symbolic title: Working in the Dark (1992). But silence impregnated his poetic journey, silence and detachment. That, at least, was the view of his readership. Was Baca the poet still active, or was he going mute?
Black Mesa Poems, published a decade after Immigrants in Our Own Land, showed a shift in Baca's concerns--from the roughness of crime and conflict to depictions of barrio and rustic life. There are some existential poems in that collection, but a significant number of them deal with community--in particular, with his second home in a New Mexico rancho. These poems are about the redemptive power of love, about birth and death, about motherhood--and about rivers and pinyon trees.
The move from the individual to the family, from confrontation to introspection, is apparently what has occupied Baca in all the years since Black Mesa Poems, and his resurfacing comes with a vengeance in the form of two interrelated books: a hefty series of lyrical poems, Healing Earthquakes, billed by the publisher as a love story; and a poignant memoir, A Place to Stand, that is at once brave and heartbreaking. One feels a gravitas in the poet's voice that was absent before. Impetuosity has apparently given way to fortitude. Baca seems more patient, attentive to the passing of seasons, in tune with the smiles of children and the wisdom of elders.
The style of Healing Earthquakes is at times flat, even repetitive, and the book's plot insinuates itself with the accumulation of insights. But overall the work is stunning, the product of a poet in control of his craft, one worth paying attention to. Divided into five solid, asymmetrical sections that range from adulthood to rebirth and back, the series is shaped as a quest--again, semiautobiographical--for balance in an eminently unbalanced universe. But this is no redraft of Pilgrim's Progress, from earth to hell and up to heaven. Instead, it is a downpour of passion, which leads the narrator astray as he lusts for women, tangible and chimerical, and explores myths and archetypes that come from Mesoamerican civilization. He reflects on his imperfections, runs into trouble with others and wonders: where to find dignity? Not in religion, it seems, but in morality. It is through others and through their vision that one might find a sense of self. (This reminds me of the late Pablo Neruda, ready to turn himself into a Boswell of the heart's disasters: burning with life, agitated by the confusion around, yet eager to make poetry into his metronome.)
The poems include an explanation of silence that readers should welcome. The series uses the emphatic "I" that is a sine qua non of minority letters and that is ubiquitous in Baca's poetry, a device employed as an affirmation of the self in spite of all odds. "Here I am," it announces. "You better pay attention to me, because I will not go away." But this older Baca has become philosophical with age, and his "I" is now more contemplative:
I used to party a lot, but now I study landscapes
and wonder a lot,
listen to people and wonder a lot,
take a sip of good wine and wonder more,
until my wondering has filled five or six years
and literary critics and fans
and fellow writers ask
why haven't you written anything in six years?
and I wonder about that--
I don't reveal to them
that I have boxes of unpublished poems
and that I rise at six-thirty each morning
and read books, jot down notes,
compose a poem,
throwing what I've written or wondered on notepads in a stack in a box
in a closet.
To my mind Baca's most concentrated, lucid effort is "Martín," a forty-five-page exploration about a young Chicano abandoned by his parents, whose travels from Santa Fe to Albuquerque and across states force him to confront his own limitations. After "Martín" appeared in 1987, Baca ran into trouble with Chicano critics for his portrait of Mexican adolescence--a portrait that didn't shy away from such negative attributes as alcoholism, violence and narcotic escapes. They accused him of pushing his people down by stressing the ugly and not the beautiful. His reaction, in an essay titled "Q-Vo," collected in Working in the Dark, was a welcome respite in an atmosphere of cheap ethnic pride. (The title is a phonetic redraw of ¿Qué hubo?, "Wassup?")
[In the critics' view] Chicanos never have betrayed each other, we never have fought each other, never sold out; nor have we ever experienced poverty or suffering, wept, made mistakes. I never responded to these absurdities. Such narrowness and stupidity is its own curse.... Because I am a Chicano, it doesn't mean that I am immune from the flaws and the suffering that make us all human.
The incident recalls a comment I once heard from an aspiring Chicano critic, whose teachers reiterated to him that to write a bad review of a fellow Chicano author is to be an Uncle Tom: un traidor. "Why add to the stereotypes?" he was told. Baca responded to such nearsightedness with courage. And it is that type of unremitting courage that colors A Place to Stand, his memoir, subtitled The Making of a Poet. It is, once again, a thunderous artifact. (Readers of "Martín" especially will find it a box of resonances.) It follows a straightforward, chronological pattern with an occasional detour into the realm of the fantastic, in which the author offers dreams and imaginary visions of the past. This fantastic element isn't atypical. For instance, in a chapbook of 1981 that included the poem "Walking Down to Town and Back," about rural New Mexico, a widow lights her adobe house on fire after she believes it has been taken over by snakes, and from the flames emerges the image of the Virgin Mary. The tale is delivered in a voice that once belonged to a child, and makes use of what Freud called "the uncanny": real incidents twisted by memory into supernatural anecdotes. "Miracle, miracle," the townspeople announce. Is it all in the widow's mind?
Figuratively speaking, Baca's memoir only partially takes place in his mind, as he ponders the loss of his father, mother and brother. A few passages push the narration to a more surreal level, but these are far between. Most of the memoir is not about miracles but about the summons of a life on the verge.
I was born [in 1952], and it was about this time that Father's drinking and his absences first became an issue.... The whites looked down on Mexicans. Mother's frustration began to show. La Casita, with its two tar-papered cardboard rooms, one bed where we all slept, woodstove, and cold water spigot, wasn't the white picket-fenced house in the tree-lined city suburb she'd dreamed of.
A Place to Stand begins here, with Baca's Indian father leaving the family and his Chicano mother having a romance with a man who persuades her to leave her children behind, mask her Mexican ancestry and begin a WASP family in California. Baca went to his grandparents first, then to an orphanage. He soon found himself destitute on the street, afraid of the deceitful manners of adults. By then he was already a school dropout. His race, obviously, reinforced his status as pariah--Mexican was synonymous with slime. Perennially harassed by the police, he was adrift, disoriented, a stranger in his own land; eventually, he was incarcerated on murder charges for a crime he did not commit.
Upon his release, Baca sought to find his center, to turn himself into an honorable man. But he stumbled, and in flight he sold drugs, rambling without direction through San Diego and Arizona. The narcos' and the FBI's tête-à-tête in a bullet-infested crash the scene is vividly described in the memoir. Arraigned again, he ended up in solitary confinement, and after defying the system that purportedly sought to reform him ("prison did not rehabilitate me. Love for people did"), he learned to read. From that moment on he read, and read, and read, and then turned ink to paper, at which point he surprised himself a poet--and he surprised others too: His gifts were pristine, unadulterated from the start.
I was often overwhelmed by the sorrow and commiseration conveyed in Baca's memoir. It is a luminous book, honest to a fault. Every so often the author indulges in epiphanies that sound like clichés: for instance, "I didn't know what I'd done to deserve my life, but I'd done the best I could with what I had." But those platitudes are what people less interested in literature and more in the rough-and-tumbleness of life are likely to respond to fully. A Place to Stand is about place in the largest, most flexible sense of the term: as home, but also as the soil of one's roots and as the literary pantheon in which one fits. In that sense the book belongs to the subgenre of prison tales for which the twentieth century was fertile ground. From The Autobiography of Malcolm X to Vaclav Havel's diaries, the central paradigm doesn't change: involuntary confinement as a ticket to enlightenment--and even messianic revelation. In the Americas, this subgenre is obviously substantial, filled with names like Graciliano Ramos and Reinaldo Arenas; north of the Rio Grande, figures like Piri Thomas, Miguel Piñero and Luis J. Rodríguez have also heard the sound of their voice behind bars. Baca too enters jail as a lost soul and leaves it empowered; in the early fragments of the book he is a vato loco, a crazy dude. But after the imprisonment he is an unapologetic, ideologically defined Chicano. "Most people might assume that cons spend their time thinking about what they're going to do when their time is up, fantasizing about the women they're going to fuck and scams they're going to run, or planning how they're going to go straight and everything will be different," Baca writes. "I did think about the future sometimes, but more and more it was the past my mind began to turn to, especially during those first days and nights in solitary." Those nights led Baca to a debacle with his own phantoms, and to the conviction that life has a purpose only when one devises one for it. The epilogue of A Place to Stand is especially moving: In it Baca's mother returns to her Mexican identity, but her second husband stops her short with five bullets in her face from a .45--a mesmerizing image of defeat, which Baca successfully turns around in his telling.
Maturity... For years I've been looking for an accurate definition of the word. What does it really mean? "Fullness or perfection of growth or development," announces, tentatively, the Oxford English Dictionary, but this is an unsatisfactory explication. The purpose of any artist who takes himself seriously is to make the best of his talents fit the condition in which he finds himself. Is maturity the capacity to change and still remain loyal to one's own vision? Earlier in this review I referred to Baca's work as an oeuvre, which isn't the same as work. Oeuvre implies mutation, the desire to change from one mode to another, the willingness to comprehend nature and society from contrasted stands. Baca's poetry is monochromatic, but the same might be said of any poet of stature: A set of motifs and anecdotes reappears under different facades. But every time, the reader reaches a depth unlike the previous one.
Baca's latest books are about anger, but he seems to be less angry than before. Time has allowed him to zoom in on his mission: to travel outward and inward as a Chicano in America, with all the complications that the identity entails; and to use language to bid farewell to his many selves. In Healing Earthquakes he describes his search as
leading me back across the wasteland of my life
to marvel at my own experience and those around me
whose own humbled lives graced me with assurance
that if I stayed on the path of love, of seeking the good in people,
of trying to be an honorable man,
that I too would one day have the love of family and friends
and be part of life as it spun like a star in the dark
radiating light on its journey--.
This search, it is clear now, is a towering legacy.
(A Houston version of the Irish folk song)
Oh, Kenny Boy, your friends are disappearing.
They don't know you, much less your kvetchy wife.
Yes, it's sad when pols that you've been shmeering
Now hope that you'll get twenty years to life.
They sang your song: They passed deregulation.
They passed your laws. They bent the regs your way.
But now they track your every obfuscation.
Old Kenny Boy, their Kenny Boy's now Mr. Lay.
"I remind myself that much of television is now comic strip," Ralph Ellison told TV Guide in 1988. It is not surprising that the author of Invisible Man would be uncomfortable with the cool medium. After all, Ellison's only completed novel repeatedly attacks the vulgarity of literal representation to the point where even the novel's hero is famously nameless. Ellison directs us away from appearances and keeps his hero running, from white cops, black nationalists, hypocritical Communists and corrupt academics, only to find himself nestled in the Dostoyevskian underground of the written word. Regardless of much of its politics, the literary Modernism of Mann, Eliot, Joyce, Faulkner and others provided Ellison with an unlikely harbor from racism; representing that literary process on television is a little like disobeying Kafka's instructions and drawing the insect of The Metamorphosis.
Yet in that same TV Guide interview, Ellison acknowledged that television "while very fleeting, has its permanent side, too, which allows you to go back." Poised somewhere between comic strip, permanence and VH1's Behind the Music, writer-producer-director Avon Kirkland has served up Ellison for middlebrow America in Ralph Ellison: An American Journey. At its worst, Kirkland's documentary stages melodramatic depictions of Ellison's triumphant novel, reducing its hallucinatory nuance to earnest television. At its best, the documentary stages melodramatic depictions of Ellison's disappointing life, and it is this haunting story that makes for a compelling made-for-TV biopic.
Since there is still no published biography of Ellison (there are two in the works, by Lawrence Jackson and Arnold Rampersad), Kirkland has the advantage of telling a story that has never been told in public before, at least not in any sustained, ostensibly objective way. Ellison may have told the story of hopping a freight train to enroll in Tuskegee as a scholarship student in an essay; but until you've seen his bandaged student ID and heard the narration of the story with a montage of trains, hobos and predators to the strains of Howlin' Wolf, it's not quite real in the way that TV makes events seem real. And unless you've dug through his archives at the Library of Congress, happened to be watching when, say, he was being interrogated by Bryant Gumbel on the Today show or had the opportunity to actually speak with him in person, Ellison's TV persona--with his halting, Oklahoman elegance and stammering, reticent speech--may seem at first a great contrast to the defiant iconoclast you would find in his writing. Instead, whether you see him recount how he modestly resisted Richard Wright's suggestion that he try his hand at fiction writing, humbly insist why he thought T.S. Eliot and Louis Armstrong were similar in their approaches, or listen to his own readings of his unfinished second novel--looking simultaneously bewildered and amused by the cadences of his own voice and the eccentricity of his own prose--he is the image of a man haunted. One photograph shows him hunched over the typewriter, with whiskey decanter ominously prominent, as the narrator gives us Ellison's account of his lack of productivity in the 1960s. Referring to the mounting attacks on his integrationist vision from the kind of black nationalist voices he had already dreamed up in the figure of Invisible Man's Ras the Destroyer, Ellison said simply, "It's hard to write with a clenched fist."
Audiences have thrilled to rise-and-fall stories from Oedipus to VH1's Behind the Music. But unlike the self-destruction of kitschy pop stars, Ellison's supernova is a genuine tragedy; the stakes presented are nothing less than high art and racial understanding, and it is these stakes that are so at odds with a medium that favors sensationalism over sensation, and sentimentality over sentiment. "Why do I write, torturing myself to put it down?" asks the narrator of Invisible Man. Ellison answers with another question: "Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?"
Ellison was particular about the way he did speak for us, and he made it clear that his own prose would be the only truly acceptable medium for this representation. The Modernist who retreated from the superficial expectations imposed by racism into the perfection of his own art would probably have been troubled to see key episodes in his novel--the grandfather's deathbed speech, the Battle Royal episode, the revelation at the Liberty Paints factory--transformed from literary phantasmagoria into searing teleplay, in which Ellison's ironies are turned into pieties and his jokes are transformed into obvious slogans. This is what television usually does, of course, but the very reason Ellison the documentary subject becomes a hero is that his achievement is in the less-than-telegenic activity of spending long hours in front of the typewriter.
But even if Kirkland's documentary reduces Ellison's novel to comic strip, the medium serves him well to provide the cultural context so crucial to Ellison's reading of America. The sights and sounds of Ellison's early life--complete with baby pictures, Tuskegee footage and Jimmy Rushing clips--are expertly captured, and anyone who wants to understand Ellison's world would have to confront this context. Kirkland also succeeds by producing useful soundbites from commentators, including Robert O'Meally, Morris Dickstein, Farah Griffin, R.W.B. Lewis and especially Cornel West--who delivers his riffs like a Baptist preacher with borscht-belt timing and a Marxist liturgy. A word that many of these commentators use repeatedly is "complexity," a favorite of Ellison's. Yet sometimes complexity can be sacrificed for storytelling, especially on television.
This disparity is certainly evident when Henry Wingate tells a famous story of Ellison's confrontation with a black nationalist at Grinnell College in 1967. According to Wingate's version, when Ellison was called an Uncle Tom, he "became unglued and began to cry, repeating, 'I'm not an Uncle Tom, I'm not an Uncle Tom.'" Wingate, a federal judge, should be taken at his word, but the late Willie Morris, in his memoir New York Days, allowed Ellison to retort, "What do you know about my life? It's easy for you. You're just a straw in the wind. Get on your motorcycle and go back to Chicago and throw some Molotov cocktails. That's all you'll ever know about." Kirkland's version, corroborated by Morris's son, paints Ellison as the kind of helpless victim his own work avoided depicting. Morris's version allows Ellison to fight back--perhaps a little less congenial to a PBS tearjerker.
Of course, even a tragic TV documentary needs an optimistic denouement, and Kirkland provides it with the 1999 publication of Juneteenth. Ellison's inability to produce a follow-up to Invisible Man was the bane of his existence, and perhaps the most frustrating literary waiting game in recent memory. We see Ellison lose more than 350 pages of the manuscript in a fire, retreat from public appearances at the horror of having to answer yet another question about the book, and become an alcoholic hermit, obsessively poring over manuscripts. What the documentary doesn't mention is the quite legitimate argument leveled by many scholars, including Louis Menand in the New York Times Book Review, that Juneteenth isn't really an Ellison novel at all but a dubiously edited and spuriously marketed attempt by Random House to collect on its advance. Instead, we are shown a mellifluous reading by Toni Morrison of a passage from the book, with Robert O'Meally asserting that the passage seemed, "for that day, the greatest thing that had ever been written." We also see GQ writer-at-large Terrence Rafferty acknowledging that while Juneteenth may not have achieved its vast ambitions, it is, "like America, forever a work in progress."
It is true that textual scholarship does not usually make for good television, but there might have been another way to end the show on a triumphant note without making inflated claims for a highly disputed book. What the documentary could have shown was the rise of overtly Ellisonian institutions like the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard, where founder and chair Henry Louis Gates has done considerable work in restoring Ellison's reputation while using Ellisonian criteria as a curricular model, and Jazz at Lincoln Center, where Ellison's vision of jazz has been a guiding principle for his confidant Albert Murray and his disciples Stanley Crouch and Wynton Marsalis.
Fifty years ago, Ellison's notions that Louis Armstrong was an icon of artistic independence; that white and black culture were interdependent; and that there was more than a unicausal explanation for the rise of black American culture were the product of an original, idiosyncratic and routinely attacked individual. In the past few years alone, Ellison's afterlife has been more prolific than the last forty years of his life: Philip Roth's The Human Stain successfully used the theme of passing that Ellison struggled with throughout the writing of his unfinished novel. Spike Lee's Bamboozled, filled with overt references to Invisible Man, was also a perverse riff on Ellison's integrationism, portraying whites and blacks as equally complicit in a common cultural phenomenon. And Ken Burns's Jazz demonstrated how Ellison's reading of Louis Armstrong as a transcendent genius who could "bend a military instrument into a beam of lyrical sound" could provide a significant basis for another PBS program. The frequencies of that station may not have been able to pick up on the full range of Ralph Ellison, but a rereading of his prophetic writings will continually remind us that, on the lower frequencies, he speaks for us more than ever.
I must say that Katha Pollitt's exquisite and moving memorial to Pierre Bourdieu ["Subject to Debate," Feb. 18] brought a little warmth to this soul, calloused and made cynical by the current state of things in the world. As a sociologist/social activist whose venue for change has been healthcare and medical education, I have seen Bourdieu as one of my guiding lights, both intellectually and morally. In keeping with Bourdieu's central thesis, contemporary American medicine clearly qualifies as a "stratified social system of hierarchy and domination that persists and reproduces intergenerationally without powerful resistance and without the conscious recognition of [its] members."
His moral stance, regardless of his own stature in the academy, served as a source of reaffirmation for me in my relationship with my students, whose personal and professional development was nurtured through providing care to the disadvantaged in the inner city of Chicago or making themselves vulnerable to the needs of the disfranchised in Africa, southeastern Europe or Central America.
Regarding Richard Posner, that silly ass, besides his megalomania (a contagious virus that seems to have reached epidemic proportions in the law school and economics department at the University of Chicago), he is the prime example of the philosophical conservative who is willing to pay the price of other people's suffering for his own principles.
EDWARD J. ECKENFELS
ENRON RON-RON-RON , O ENRON-RON
I'm still scratching my head after reading Alexander Cockburn's attack on my support for Enron's merger with the Portland General Electric Company (PGE) almost five years ago ["Beat the Devil," Jan. 7/14]. His baffling conclusion that "the role of that green seal of approval [in Enron's collapse] should not be forgotten" is a non sequitur of the highest order.
Natural Resources Defense Council was part of a coalition of environmental and consumer groups that negotiated an agreement with the merging companies on future investment in energy efficiency, renewable energy, watershed restoration and low-income energy services. Cockburn is indignant that I said I trusted Enron to execute the agreement. But Cockburn, who never called me before publishing his diatribe, evidently didn't check to find out what actually happened. Enron and PGE did indeed meet their merger obligations, and environmental and consumer interests were among the winners. Enron left in place a hometown management group with a commitment to improved performance on both environmental and equity issues. Its subsequent decision to leave the utility business, long before its collapse, had no adverse environmental consequences at PGE or elsewhere.
There is no connection between Enron's current calamity and the merger that NRDC and many others supported conditionally nearly five years ago. Only Cockburn's overactive imagination could suggest otherwise.
Natural Resources Defense Council
Lest your readers believe that all Oregon environmental groups were bought off by Enron, none of my clients agreed to the contract ("memorandum") with Enron. In fact, the Utility Reform Project, Lloyd Marbet and Larry Tuttle appealed the Oregon Public Utility Commission's 1997 merger approval to the courts, where we eventually lost in December 2000.
As of October 1, 2001, Enron was granted a $400 million (41 percent) annual rate increase by the Oregon commission. Enron also squirmed out of its merger commitment to pay its Oregon ratepayers $105 million for the use of assets paid for by those ratepayers, after having paid only $32 million.
Former PGE executives Ken Harrison and Joseph Hirko cashed in more than $110 million in Enron stock options before the collapse, while hundreds of PGE employees lost their life savings while locked into a 401(k) plan that consisted of 58 percent Enron stock, now essentially worthless. The Enron bankruptcy now threatens to dismember PGE (with transmission and hydro assets sold out from under state regulation), which would cause massive additional rate hikes.
Thank you, Alexander Cockburn, for beginning an important dialogue about the harm done when environmental groups run interference for corporations. The Enron debacle in Portland, Oregon, is just one piece of the story about how certain organizations and their funders promoted utility deregulation in the name of protecting the environment. Some even lent their names to defeat a grassroots initiative movement in California to stop the nuclear bailout associated with the deregulation legislation in the state.
Early in the debate over deregulation, a small group of us working on energy issues argued with the funders and environmental proponents of deregulation. We pleaded with them to put their resources and leadership behind a grassroots movement against electricity deregulation, consolidation in the electricity industry and a bailout for the nuclear utilities. Our arguments fell on deaf ears. The dissenting organizations formed a coalition against deregulation called the Ratepayers for Green Electricity. Over the next several years we fought deregulation, but always on a shoestring because the prevailing wisdom was to "cooperate and deregulate."
Since then, with the blessing and help of some public-interest advocates, deregulation bills have passed in more than twenty states. The crumbs the environmental supporters of deregulation got in exchange for their support are not lasting or significant enough to protect consumers or the environment. We predict more trouble ahead as these deregulation bills are phased in. Fortunately, so far no federal legislation has been enacted, although the proponents of deregulation are still pushing for it.
Furthermore, as we predicted, deregulation has been a disaster for consumers and the environment. Prices are higher, and the promised increase in competition has not come to pass. Rather than creating a green market for renewable energy, deregulation has resulted in thousands of megawatts of new, nonrenewable electricity plants being built or planned. Energy-efficiency programs have lost ground, and the entire thrust is to use more electricity, since under deregulation there is no incentive to save it.
But what is more important than the hollow victory of saying we told you so or naming names is understanding the lessons of the deregulation battle. Deregulation and privatization of public services is about making a profit (just watch the coming industry efforts to privatize water), not about helping consumers or protecting the environment. When environmental groups sign off on these deals in hopes of good will from profit-hungry corporations, they are deluding themselves and betraying the public. Environmental organizations and the foundations that support them should take a hard look at the "market-based" strategy and start putting their resources into creating a broad-based grassroots movement to protect people and the environment.
Energy & Environment Program
Just to inject one tiny sliver of reality into Ralph Cavanagh's bland tissue of self-exculpation, which will be read with hilarity in Oregon. Portland General Electric sought and received $340 million in rate hikes on PGE customers for federal income taxes over the past three years. It shipped the money to Enron HQ in Houston. Over that period, Enron paid only $17 million in taxes in 1998, nothing in 1999 or in 2000. In fact, the company got a big tax rebate.
OUR LEADERS NEED TO HEAR THIS
In "And Darkness Covered the Land" [Dec. 24] Robert I. Friedman has given voice to what very few other US journalists have the guts to say--that people don't blow themselves up in crowded restaurants because their Coke doesn't have enough ice. It takes desperation to commit suicide for one's cause. America's role in the Palestinian apartheid is appalling and intensely hypocritical. Thank you to Friedman for having the cojones to point it out. If only our government would listen before our military support of Israel leads to more blood spilt on our or any other country's soil.
Yet another nauseatingly inaccurate and biased dispatch from Israel. Just to correct the (intentional?) inaccuracies would take almost as many pages as this article runs. Just one example: No one disputes that Arabs feel perfectly safe in Jewish towns in Israel. However, no Jew would venture into an Arab village, as brutal death awaits those who do, like the two Jewish kids lost on a hike who were stoned to death. By the time Truth has put on her shoes, Lie has run twice around the globe. It is tragic that The Nation supports Lie before an international audience.
EVA S. BELAVSKY
Robert Friedman's article makes clear the real tragedy for both the Israeli and Palestinian people. All Americans should read it. Our leaders should read it at least twice.
What can we do to get a movement going in this country to demand that the United States and/or the United Nations impose and enforce a peace settlement? Sharon, as Friedman points out, has no desire for a peace that would give a viable country to the Palestinians. Conditions in the West Bank and Gaza can only breed more hatred and consequently more suicide bombers. An imposed peace settlement, which could be altered as cooler heads emerge on both sides, would save face for Israel and Palestine.
Why, if the world can impose peace and peacekeepers between the Greeks and the Turks in Cyprus; between Albanians and Serbs in Kosovo; between Albanians and Slavs in Macedonia; and among the Croats, Serbs and Muslims in Bosnia, why not between Israelis and Palestinians? I am old enough to remember when Gdansk was Danzig, and now the Germans and Poles manage to live in peace. I would rather have my tax money supporting peacekeepers than supplying military equipment to Israel. And certainly a more even-handed US relationship with Israel and Palestine would have immense ramifications for a real peace between the West and the Muslim world.
MILDRED P. KATZ
AN INADVERTENT DECAPITATION
In last week's issue, we inadvertently lopped off the head of artist Jonathan Twingley's name, rendering him Jonathan Wingley. (His illustrations appear on pages 11, 16 and 18.) Our apologies.
Like last year's freewheeling Senate debate on the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill, this week's debate on the House version of McCain-Feingold, the Shays-Meehan bill, provided an all-too-rare display of what an engaged Congress might look like.
Not only did the reform coalition break through the barricades erected by the House Republican coalition to win an unexpectedly wide 240-189 vote, it sparked a debate worthy of what is, after all, supposed to be a deliberative body.
For the most part these days, Congressional debates are defined by both their brevity and their vapid nature. Consider the embarrassingly abbreviated discourse over providing George W. Bush with the authority to respond to the September 11 terrorist attacks -- not exactly an inconsequential matter -- and it is easy to understand why so many Americans doubt whether this Congress is capable of a serious discussion.
Have US forces in Afghanistan engaged in war crimes?
That's a provocative question, the sort of query that few, if any, reporters at the Pentagon br...
George W. Bush's State of the Union address has laid bare his Administration's political strategy. It is to manipulate the grief, anger and patriotism inspired by September 11 to fit the contours of the right-wing Republican agenda of September 10. What that Day of Infamy means to George W. Bush & Co. is more tax cuts for the wealthy, more money for wasteful weapons schemes and the back of their proverbial hand to those who suffer the misfortune of not being rich in Bush's America.
Viewed under any other rubric, Bush's speech--received so rapturously by a well-stroked punditocracy--is entirely incoherent. Does war demand sacrifice? Let's give more tax breaks to the rich. Did stateless terrorists attack us wielding only box cutters? Let's build a nonfunctional $250 billion missile defense system. Does the bond market demand fiscal responsibility for sustained growth? Suppose we spend down the surplus, raid the Social Security trust fund and create deficits of a size unseen since the bad old days of Reagan/Bush. Do we need allies now more than ever in the fight against terrorism? Why not alienate all of them with a unilateral declaration of a global war against an imaginary "Axis of Evil"--nonsensically invoking Hitler and Tojo for good measure? Never mind that Iraq, according to the CIA, has not attempted a terrorist act against us in nearly a decade, or that Iran and Iraq hate each other, or that Iran has democratic elections (and the winner even gets to be president) and that North Korea has nothing to do with any of this. Just to be safe, perhaps we'd better give a pass to friendly terrorists like the Russians, currently engaged in the wholesale rape and pillage of Chechnya, and China, doing a quieter but more effective job in Tibet.
Bush's hyperbolic oration, inspired no doubt by the vanity and indiscipline of his speechwriters, recalls another President's politically inspired scare tactics. In late 1947 Clark Clifford and James Rowe instructed Harry Truman, "The worse matters get, up to a fairly certain point--real danger of imminent war--the more is there a sense of crisis. In times of crisis the American citizen tends to back up his President." The result was the famed war scare of 1948, in which that accidental President started trumpeting "the critical nature of the situation in Europe," the necessity for "speedy action," the "great urgency" of the problem of the Soviet threat. He did this even though, as State Department counselor Charles Bohlen explained in a confidential January 1948 memo, the government considered its position "vis-à-vis the Soviet better now than at any time since the end of the war."
As in 1948, we face a military threat that requires a vigorous, but proportional, response. And the government has no more critical responsibility than the defense of the "homeland." But once again the disjunction between those ends and the eternally expansive means proposed by Bush is so vast as to render transparent the political motivations behind it. Karl Rove nearly admitted as much when he recently advised a group of Republican activists to use the war in Afghanistan to win elections here at home. The Evil Empire has expired, but the Evil Axis is open for praxis.
As Slate reported, the response overseas to Bush's speech was almost uniformly disapproving, with editorialists condemning the "Hate of the Union" (The Guardian); the "distinctly disturbing" message (The Independent); a tone "more martial than ever" (Libération); containing "no hint here that he understands that he is talking of sovereign nations" (the Sydney Morning Herald).
Alas, foreigners don't vote. In fact, Americans don't vote until long after favor-seeking corporations like Enron have decided which candidates to fund in exchange for favors and after pundits have chewed up and spit out the issues and candidates sufficiently to determine who is a serious, responsible candidate and what might be prudently said about the issues on the campaign trail. For the latter reason, it is rather alarming to notice that conservative extremism has become so commonplace that even on allegedly nonpartisan broadcasts, it is treated as conventional wisdom.
Take the minor but emblematic example of CNBC's coverage of the Bush speech. The network's deal with the Wall Street Journal allows genuine reporters to provide viewers with a respite from the constant stream of analysts and CEOs showing up to hawk their portfolios and jack up stock prices. But as everyone but the network's executives seems to know, the Journal is really two newspapers: one with a crack news staff and one with a crackpot editorial staff.
During the Clinton Administration, no nutty rumor or oddball allegation about the President was deemed too goofy to publish by those editors. I have on my shelf six fat volumes containing some 3,000 pages of the Journal's editorial page fulminations regarding an Arkansas land deal called "Whitewater" in which both Clintons were found to be innocent of any criminal conduct by Republican-appointed special prosecutors. And yet following Bush's speech, the editors were invited by CNBC to comment on Bush and the Democratic respondent, Richard Gephardt, with no balance at all. To go as far left as the Journal editors are to the right, CNBC would have to convene a roundtable featuring Noam Chomsky, Alexander Cockburn, Vanessa Redgrave and Fidel Castro.
Were any CNBC viewers surprised to hear that Paul Gigot thought Bush gave "a muscular speech, a speech of old-fashioned muscular virtues--justice, honor, courage, responsibility"? Or Susan Lee's view that Bush had been "very polished...very laserlike...extremely intense," with "fantastic" rhetoric she found to be "incredibly manly and muscular"? How generous, too, of Gigot to note that Gephardt had given "a good speech...for one reason. It basically said: I agree with the president." Robert Bartley didn't think it mattered. "You know, Bush is going to win again the next time out." But didn't the sane portion of Bartley's newspaper publish its own poll showing that "a clear majority" of Americans would choose "delaying the already enacted tax cuts for the rich" to protect domestic programs? "That's a loaded question," says Bartley. Planted no doubt by an evil pollster with an axis to grind.
Right till the end of January, Dita Sari, an Indonesian in her late 20s, was preparing to fly from her home near Jakarta to Salt Lake City to bask in the admiration of assorted do-gooders and celebrities mustered by the public relations department of Reebok for its thirteenth annual Human Rights Awards, overseen by a board including Jimmy Carter and Kerry Kennedy Cuomo. Make no mistake, the folks--usually somewhere between four and six--getting these annual Reebok awards have all been fine organizers and activists, committed to working for minorities, the disfranchised, the disabled, the underdogs in our wicked world.
Dita Sari's plan was to proceed to the podium in the Capitol Theater in downtown Salt Lake City, on February 7, and then, when offered the human rights award, reject it.
Now, this annual Reebok ceremony isn't up there with the Nobels, or the genius grants from MacArthur. Despite Reebok's best efforts, it's definitely a second-tier event. Nonetheless, it has paid off for Reebok. Says Jeff Ballinger, an antisweatshop activist who's organized with shoe workers in Indonesia for the past thirteen years, "With this kind of ceremony, Reebok gets its name into respectable company. When they give a prize to someone like Julie Su, a lawyer for immigrant workers in California, people who wouldn't be seen dead in Nikes are impressed."
Dita Sari got picked by Reebok's judges because she defied her government on the issue of independent trade unions. In her own words: "In 1995, I was arrested and tortured by the police, after leading a strike of 5,000 workers of Indoshoes Inti Industry. They demanded an increase of their wages (they were paid only US $1 for working eight hours a day), and maternity leave as well. This company operated in West Java, and produced shoes of Reebok and Adidas."
She got out of prison in 1999. Since then she's been building a union in plants across Java. It was there that she got a good look at Reebok's contractors, the underbosses of all the apparel, footwear, computer and toy companies. These contractors run their plants in a notoriously harsh manner.
Reebok's flacks can brandish armloads of studies, codes, monitoring reports, guidelines and kindred matter, all attesting to the company's dedication to fair treatment of anyone making consumer items with the name Reebok printed on them. But nothing has really changed. "We've created a cottage industry of monitors and inspectors and drafters of codes," Ballinger says, "but all these workers ever wanted was to sit down in dignity and negotiate with their bosses, and this has never happened."
Due in large part to the efforts of the workers and Western allies like Ballinger's Press for Change, the daily wage in Indonesia actually went up more than 300 percent between 1990 and 1997, at which point the Asian economic crisis struck. Inflation wiped out all those gains. Workers' daily pay is now half what it was before the crisis hit.
These were the points Dita Sari was going to make when she got to Salt Lake City. Then she learned that Reebok intended to schedule her and other recipients for some public events before the actual award ceremony. Rather than let Reebok benefit in any way from her presence, Dita Sari pulled the plug and at last word is in Jakarta trying to raise relief money for workers left destitute by the worst flooding in decades. She's sent the speech she was planning to give at the awards:
I have taken this award into very deep consideration. We finally decide not to accept this....
In Indonesia, there are five Reebok companies. Eighty percent of the workers are women. All companies are sub-contracted, often by South Korean companies such as Dung Jo and Tong Yang. Since the workers can only get around $1.50 a day, they then have to live in a slum area, surrounded by poor and unhealthy conditions, especially for their children. At the same time, Reebok collected millions of dollars of profit every year, directly contributed by these workers. The low pay and exploitation of the workers of Indonesia, Mexico and Vietnam are the main reasons why we will not accept this award.
But isn't Reebok at least trying to do something decent? The way Dita Sari sees things, the attempt is phony. All the awards in the world--all the window dressing with Desmond Tutu, Carly Simon, Sting, Robert Redford--doesn't alter the basic fact that workers in the Third World are being paid the absolute minimum to make a very profitable product. The labor cost of a $70 pair of sneakers made in China, Vietnam or Indonesia is $1 or less.
Is there such a thing as a virtuous sneaker? Ballinger cites Bata, a Toronto-based company that runs its own factory in Jakarta. Its executives sat down with the union and worked out a contract with significant improvements on issues that employees care about greatly, like seniority. Though the margin has fallen recently, wage scales are better than minimum. Instances of bullying and intimidation are far fewer. Bata's shoes are sold in Indonesia for what an Indonesian can afford: $10 or less.
Ten years ago another courageous Indonesian, Teten Masduki, was asked by the Levi Strauss company to broker a clinic to be built near a contractor's factory. Teten, uncompromising labor advocate that he is, refused, even though the assignment would have made him a local hero. His reason: a clinic wouldn't give the workers what they need, a voice, the power to bargain.
Teten Masduki and Dita Sari see the world clearly, a lot more clearly than the celebrities and activists massed at such events as the one organized by Reebok in Salt Lake City, which is already awash with Olympian bunkum about human brotherhood. Dita Sari turned down $50,000 from Reebok. Teten Masduki turned down a tempting position with Levi Strauss. These days he's been responsible for chasing out a corrupt attorney general from his post as head of Indonesia's Corruption Watch. Do-gooders should study these fine examples and stiffen their spines.
It was the start of another Conservative Political Action Conference--the annual gathering of several thousand activists--and Republican Party chairman Marc Racicot, in unexciting fashion, was telling the right-wingers his party would push the Bush agenda "in civil tones." Civil tones, though, are not usually embraced at CPACs, where attendees often denounce liberals as socialist buffoons, the media as a hotbed of anti-conservative bias and less-right Republicans as sellouts intimidated by the powers of a diabolical left. A year ago conservatives scuttled Racicot's appointment as Attorney General, claiming he was not sufficiently antiabortion. Now, as he spoke, the Rev. Lou Sheldon, a leading social conservative, told me he heartily approved of Racicot: "He makes the establishment happy, and he's telling us the party platform [against abortion] is not going to change in 2004." Is that enough for the religious right? Don't its members want to hear more social conservatism from George W? Nah, Sheldon replied. "He doesn't have to stroke us and then have James Carville beat him up for that. We're not going anywhere." He then applauded enthusiastically for Racicot.
Throughout CPAC, it was clear that Bush is aces with a mostly satisfied, still-going-strong conservative movement and that the ideologues of the right don't have much space to wage battles separate from Bush's agenda. David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, noted that conservatives currently have two concerns regarding the Administration. First, will it use the national security crisis to impede civil liberties more than necessary? Second, will it become enamored of government as a solution to ills beyond the war on terrorism? But no one at CPAC wanted to point fingers over such matters.
Conservatives seemed content to let Bush be Bush. Few CPACers called for pushing the Administration to do more to end abortion, or to beat back affirmative action, or to replace the income tax. When advocates criticized Bush policies, they did so without assailing Bush. NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre soundly condemned the expansion of government power since September 11--"wand rape" at airports, "vast new powers" for the CIA, FBI e-mail intercepts--but he refused to blame Bush or Attorney General Ashcroft (both of whom have been slavish to the NRA on its core issue) for these liberty-threatening developments. Fiscal conservatives voiced anger over Bush's new budget for its overall increase of 9 percent (although it contains severe domestic cuts). "We do not need more money for Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, education," huffed Stephen Moore of the Cato Institute. "It's important we remain stalwarts of small government." But he did not attack the President or his aides. The war, Keene remarked, "takes the edge off the criticism of most conservatives. The first obligation of government is defense, and conservatives are happy to have a President who rises to the occasion. They are willing to put up with a lot to see that."
With a pro-gun, antiabortion, pro-tax cut, anti-Kyoto, pro-military guy riding high in the White House, CPACers appeared less crabby than in previous (Clinton-era) years. Still, there was the usual grousing that Democrats are better streetfighters than Republicans (I kid you not) and that the media are arrayed against conservatives. (Don't these people watch MSNBC, which now airs theocratic Republican Alan Keyes?) When a delegate asked Racicot about anti-Republican media bias, he griped that it's tough "to get a conservative message across," because that requires "a higher level of incisive analysis" and calls on people to engage in "a higher level of conduct." He added, "Children don't always like to hear what's passed on to them in terms of advice and counsel, and I think that's true with the conservative message."
Several speakers, including antifeminist Phyllis Schlafly, urged conservatives to mount a crusade against illegal aliens and to lobby for antiterrorism profiling focused on foreigners. (Right-wing strategist Grover Norquist, representing yay-for-cheap-labor and business-oriented conservatives, warned his comrades not to engage in activity that could alienate immigrant communities.) M. Stanton Evans, a founder of the modern conservative movement, suggested that the right could score points by decrying the "dismantling" of the national security system, which he attributed to political correctness. "CIA agents are sitting out in Langley," he explained, "sewing diversity quilts." (A CIA spokeswoman I contacted said its employees do not engage in the forced sewing of feel-good quilts. She noted that ten years ago a group of CIA employees who were quilting hobbyists fashioned a quilt on their own time.)
The tone was one of quiet triumphalism. Most speakers appeared in sync with Karl Rove's belief that voters will appreciate Bush's handling of the war and reward Republicans in this year's elections. Columnist Fred Barnes opined that it's silly to believe that Democrats can trump the war on terrorism with issues like the patients' bill of rights. Talking head Chris Matthews praised Bush and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld as "grown-ups" who exude "authenticity" and poked Democrats as the party of "whining." But GOP political consultant Marc Rotterman voiced a note of caution, foreseeing a Democratic effort to "Enron this Administration" by accusing Bush of neglecting domestic concerns, being in league with big business and raiding Social Security. "At the end of the day," he observed, "the economy always comes into play. If we're still at slow growth rates, it will impact Congressional races. I am not sure Bush's popularity translates to the House and Senate races."
Still, as pollster Kellyanne Conway maintained, at this point conservatives have little grounds for worrying or complaining. "George W. Bush has been more Reagan than Bush. His record now is impervious to conservative criticism." Does that pose difficulty for the die-hard conservatives who might want more--or perhaps less--from Bush? "Well," she said with a wink, "for some conservatives it is easier to be against something. But they're going to have to wait."
The fortunes of American unions have taken a turn for the worse. Thanks to terrorism and recession, union members are reeling from a series of economic and political setbacks. Nearly half a million of them now face unemployment in the hotel and airline industries, and at Boeing, Ford, major steel-makers and other manufacturing firms. Many public employees will be clobbered next, as state and local budget crises deepen around the country. Already, teachers in New Jersey and state workers in Minnesota have been forced into controversial strikes over rising healthcare costs--a trend that affects millions of Americans. The accompanying loss of job-based medical coverage by many people who still have jobs should be fueling a revived movement for national health insurance, but few unions bother to raise that banner anymore.
Promising new AFL-CIO initiatives on immigration--like its call for legalization of undocumented workers--have been undermined by post-September 11 paranoia about Middle Easterners and federal scrutiny of thousands of them. Union organizing is stalled on many fronts, and rank-and-file participation in protests against corporate globalization--on the rise in Seattle and Quebec City--has faltered amid the myriad political distractions of the "war on terrorism." While labor's nascent grassroots internationalism remains overshadowed by flag-waving displays of "national unity," trade unionists have yet to be rewarded for their patriotism, even with a modest boost in unemployment benefits. Instead, President Bush is seeking cuts in federal job-training grants for laid-off workers. He's already won House approval for fast-track negotiating authority on future trade deals that threaten even more US jobs--and expects a Senate victory on that issue soon. To insure that collective bargaining doesn't interfere with the functioning of various executive branch offices now engaged in "homeland security," the White House just stripped hundreds of federal employees of their right to union representation. As University of Illinois labor relations professor Michael LeRoy observed in the New York Times, "a time of national emergency makes it more difficult for unions to engineer public support."
Into this bleak landscape arrives State of the Union, Nelson Lichtenstein's intellectual history of labor's past 100 years. Readers might take comfort from the fact--well documented by the author--that labor has been down before and, as in the 1930s, bounced back. Nevertheless, Lichtenstein's book raises disturbing questions about when, where and how that's going to happen again in a period when "solidarity and unionism no longer resonate with so large a slice of the American citizenry."
The author's views on this subject are informed by both scholarship and activism. A professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Lichtenstein wrote The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit, a definitive biography of one-time United Auto Workers president Walter Reuther. In 1996 Lichtenstein helped launch Scholars, Artists, and Writers for Social Justice (SAWSJ), a campus-based labor support network. Through SAWSJ, Lichtenstein has aided teach-ins and protests about workers' rights and worked with AFL-CIO president John Sweeney to re-establish links between unions and intellectuals that might help labor become a more "vital force in a democratic polity."
Consistent with this mission, Lichtenstein hopes to revive interest in what liberal reformers in politics and academia once called "the labor question." State of the Union is thus a history of the ideas about labor that animated much of the action--all the great union-building attempts during the past century. "Trade unionism requires a compelling set of ideas and institutions, both self-made and governmental, to give labor's cause power and legitimacy," Lichtenstein argues. "It is a political project whose success enables the unions to transcend the ethnic and economic divisions always present in the working population."
He begins his survey in the Progressive Era, a period in which "democratization of the workplace, the solidarity of labor, and the social betterment of American workers once stood far closer to the center of the nation's political and moral consciousness." Politicians, jurists, academics and social activists--ranging from Woodrow Wilson to Louis Brandeis to Florence Kelley of the National Consumers League--all joined the debate about the threat to our "self-governing republic" posed by large-scale industrial capitalism. How could democracy survive when America's growing mass of factory workers were stripped of their civic rights, and often denied a living wage as well, whenever they entered the plant gates?
The Progressives' response was "industrial democracy"--extending constitutional rights of free speech and association to the workplace, enacting protective labor laws and securing other forms of the "social wage." Unfortunately, national-level progress toward these goals foundered after World War I on the rocks of lost strikes, political repression and Republican Party dominance in Washington. "Neither the labor movement nor the state, not to mention industrial management itself, generated the kind of relationships, in law, ideology, or practice, necessary to institutionalize mass unionism and sustain working-class living standards" during the 1920s, observes Lichtenstein.
The years of the Roosevelt Administration were a different story. State of the Union recounts how Depression-era unrest--plus the efforts of an unusual and uneasy alliance between industrial workers, labor radicals, dissident leaders of AFL affiliates, pro-union legislators and New Deal policy-makers--led to passage of the Wagner Act. It created a new legal framework for mediating labor-management disputes and boosted consumer purchasing power via the wage gains of collective bargaining.
As industrial unions experienced explosive growth before and during World War II, the previously unchecked political and economic power of the great corporations was finally tempered through the emergence of a more social democratic workers' movement, led by the Congress of Industrial Organizations. The CIO spoke up for the poor, the unskilled and the unemployed, as well as more affluent members of the working class. Even the conservative craft unions of the AFL ultimately grew as a result of the CIO's existence because many employers, if they had to deal with any union at all, preferred one with less ideological baggage.
Then as now, the nation's manufacturing work force was multiethnic, which meant that hundreds of thousands of recent immigrants used CIO unionism as a vehicle for collective empowerment on the job and in working-class communities. Successful organizers "cloaked themselves in the expansive, culturally pluralist patriotism that the New Deal sought to propagate," says Lichtenstein. "Unionism is the spirit of Americanism," proclaimed a labor newspaper directed at "immigrant workers long excluded from a full sense of citizenship." The exercise of citizenship rights in both electoral politics and National Labor Relations Board voting became, for many, a passport to "an 'American' standard of living."
State of the Union credits some on the left for noting, then and later, that New Deal labor legislation also had its limits and trade-offs. Wagner Act critics like lawyer-historian Staughton Lynd complain that it merely directed worker militancy into narrow, institutional channels--soon dominated by full-time union reps, attorneys for labor and management, not-so-neutral arbitrators and various government agencies. During World War II, attempts by labor officialdom to enforce a nationwide "no strike" pledge led to major rifts within several CIO unions and helped undermine the position of Communist Party members who tried to discourage wildcat walkouts.
The "union idea" that was so transcendent among liberals and radicals during the New Deal underwent considerable erosion in the 1950s. Many leading writers, professors and clergymen had signed petitions, walked picket lines, spoken at rallies, testified before Congressional committees and defended the cause of industrial organization in the 1930s. These ties began to fray after World War II and the onset of the cold war, when the CIO conducted a ruthless purge of its own left wing. This made it much harder for "outsiders" with suspect views to gain access to the increasingly parochial world of the (soon to be reunited) AFL and CIO. As Lichtenstein shows in his survey of their writings, the subsequent alienation of intellectuals like C. Wright Mills, Dwight Macdonald, Harvey Swados and others was rooted in the perception--largely accurate--that union bureaucracy and self-interest, corruption and complacency had replaced labor's earlier "visionary quest for solidarity and social transformation."
Lichtenstein questions whether unions were ever quite as fat, happy and structurally secure as some economists and historians claimed (after the fact) in books and articles on the postwar "labor-management accord." If such a deal had really existed during those years, State of the Union argues, it was "less a mutually satisfactory concordat" than "a limited and unstable truce, largely confined to a well-defined set of regions and industries...a product of defeat, not victory."
Measured by dues-payers alone, "Big Labor" was certainly bigger in the 1950s--at least compared with the small percentage of the work force represented by unions now (33 percent at midcentury versus 14 percent today). But union economic gains derived more from members-only collective bargaining than from social programs--like national health insurance--that would have benefited the entire working class.
Labor's failure to win more universal welfare-state coverage on the European or Canadian model led to its reliance--in both craft and industrial unions--on "firm-centered" fringe-benefit negotiations. The problem with the incremental advance of this "privatized welfare system" for the working-class elite was that it left a lot of other people (including some union members) out of the picture. Millions of Americans in mostly nonunion, lower-tier employment ended up with job-based pensions, group medical insurance, paid vacations, etc., that were limited or nonexistent.
The fundamental weakness of this edifice--even for workers in longtime bastions of union strength--was not fully exposed until the concession bargaining crisis of the late 1970s and '80s. As Lichtenstein describes in painful detail, employers launched a major offensive--first on the building trades, then on municipal labor and then on union members in basic industry. Pattern bargaining unraveled in a series of lost strikes and desperate giveback deals. This allowed management to introduce additional wage-and-benefit inequalities into the work force, including two-tier pay structures within the same firm, healthcare cost shifting, more individualized retirement coverage and greatly reduced job security due to widespread outsourcing and other forms of de-unionization.
By then, of course, African-Americans in the South, who suffered longest and most from economic inequality, had already risen up and made a "civil rights revolution." Their struggle was one that unions in the 1960s--at least the more liberal ones--nominally supported and in which veteran black labor activists played a seminal role. Yet the civil rights movement as a whole clearly passed labor by and further diminished its already reduced stature as the champion of the underdog and leading national voice for social justice. In a key chapter titled "Rights Consciousness in the Workplace," Lichtenstein explores how unions, their contracts and their negotiated grievance procedures have been further marginalized by the enduring legal and political legacy of the civil rights era. According to the author, this has created "the great contradiction that stands at the heart of American democracy today":
In the last forty years, a transformation in law, custom, and ideology has made a once radical demand for racial and gender equality into an elemental code of employer conduct.... But during that same era, the rights of workers, as workers, and especially as workers acting in an autonomous, collective fashion, have moved well into the shadows.... Little in American culture, politics, or business encourages the institutionalization of a collective employee voice.
Now, every US employer has to be an "equal opportunity" one or face an avalanche of negative publicity, public censure and costly litigation. Discrimination against workers--on grounds deemed unlawful by the 1964 Civil Rights Act and subsequent legislation--has become downright un-American, with the newest frontiers being the fight against unfair treatment of workers based on their physical disabilities or sexual preference. At the same time, as State of the Union and other studies have documented, collective workplace rights are neither celebrated nor well enforced [see Early, "How Stands the Union?" Jan. 22, 2001]. What Lichtenstein calls "rights consciousness" is the product of heroic social struggle and community sacrifice but, ironically, often reinforces a different American tradition: "rugged individualism," which finds modern expression in the oft-repeated threat to "call my lawyer" whenever disputes arise, on or off the job.
To make his point, Lichtenstein exaggerates the degree to which individual complaint-filers at the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (and equally backlogged state agencies) end up on a faster or more lucrative track than workers seeking redress at the National Labor Relations Board. There is no doubt, though, that high-profile discrimination litigation has paid off in ways that unfair-labor-practice cases rarely do. Among other examples, the book contrasts the unpunished mass firing of Hispanic phone workers trying to unionize at Sprint in San Francisco--a typical modern failure of the Wagner Act--with big class-action victories like the settlement securing $132 million for thousands of minority workers victimized by racist managers at Shoney's. The restaurant case involved much public "shaming and redemption" via management shakeups at the corporate level; Sprint merely shrugged off allegations of unionbusting until a federal court ruled in its favor.
Lichtenstein's solution is for labor today to find ways to "capitalize on the nation's well-established rights culture of the last 40 years," just as the CIO "made the quest for industrial democracy a powerful theme that legitimized its strikes and organizing campaigns in the 1930s." He looks to veterans of 1960s social movements--who entered the withering vineyard of American labor back when cold warriors like George Meany and Lane Kirkland still held sway--to build coalitions with nonlabor groups that can "make union organizational rights as unassailable as are basic civil rights."
In so doing, Lichtenstein recommends finding a middle way between a renewed emphasis on class that downplays identity politics--"itself a pejorative term for rights consciousness"--and an exclusive emphasis on the latter that may indeed thwart efforts to unite workers around common concerns. In the past, Lichtenstein notes, "the labor movement has surged forward not when it denied its heterogeneity" but instead found ways to affirm it, using ethnic and racial pluralism within unions to build power in more diverse workplaces and communities.
Given the enormous external obstacles to union growth, the author's other proposals--summarized in a final chapter titled "What Is to Be Done?"--seem a bit perfunctory. His "three strategic propositions for the union movement" do point in a better direction than the one in which the AFL-CIO and some of its leading affiliates are currently headed. State of the Union calls for more worker militancy, greater internal democracy and less dependence on the Democratic Party. These are all unassailable ideas--until one gets beyond the official lip service paid to them and down to the nitty-gritty of their implementation.
Too often in labor today--particularly in several high-profile, "progressive" unions led by onetime student activists--participatory democracy is missing. Membership mobilization has a top-down, carefully orchestrated character that subverts real rank-and-file initiative, decision-making and dynamism. The emerging culture of these organizations resembles Third World "guided democracies," in which party-appointed apparatchiks or technocrats provide surrogate leadership for the people who are actually supposed to be in charge. In politics, it's equally disheartening to see that labor's "independence" is not being demonstrated through the creation of more union-based alternatives to business-oriented groups within the Democratic Party or by challenging corporate domination of the two-party system. Instead, it's taking the form of very traditional and narrow special-interest endorsement deals with Republicans like New York Governor George Pataki.
This is not what Lichtenstein has in mind when he urges adoption of "a well-projected, clearly defined political posture in order to advance labor's legislative agenda and defend the very idea of workplace rights and collective action." His book applauds the authentic militants who battled contract concessions and the labor establishment prior to the 1995 palace coup that put John Sweeney and his associates in control of the AFL-CIO. While the author backs "the new agenda of the Sweeneyite leadership," with its primary focus on the right to organize, he argues that the fight for union democracy is equally "vital to restoring the social mission of labor and returning unions to their social-movement heritage."
How labor is viewed, aided, undermined or ignored by men and women of ideas (including the author) is, by itself, never going to determine its fate in any era. Workers themselves--acting through organizations they create or remake--are still the primary shapers of their own future, whether it's better or worse. Nevertheless, creative interaction between workers and intellectuals has helped spawn new forms of workplace and political organization in every nation--Poland, South Africa, Korea and Brazil--where social movement unionism has been most visible at some point in recent decades. In the United States, unions--and their new campus and community allies--face the daunting task of developing ideas and strategies that will "again insert working America into the heart of our national consciousness." If they succeed in restoring its relevance, the labor movement may yet have a broader impact on our society, and Lichtenstein's State of the Union will deserve credit for being a catalyst in that process.
There are no blue dresses to analyze in this one, or interns in berets to quiz. But make no mistake. The Enron scandal is the real thing--a window on the nexus of money and politics in Washington that is revealing our corrupted electoral, legislative and regulatory infrastructure.
Perhaps that's why the Bush White House is pushing the line that this is a business scandal, as opposed to a political one. But with mounting evidence that Enron executives were dictating Bush Administration appointments and policies affecting their company in particular and energy policy in general, Karl Rove is having a hard time getting his spin up to speed. Sure, there's a business component to the Enron affair. But, like most corporations these days, Enron was able to practice its brand of cutthroat cowboy capitalism only because of the ties it nurtured with the political class, which sets up the playing field on which businesses "compete." The Enron scandal reveals not just the lengths to which Wall Street and corporate America will go for obscene profits and personal enrichment at the expense of employees, shareholders and taxpayers but also the lengths to which politicians from Bush on down will go to help them.
Enron is about values, but not about the kinds of sexual peccadilloes condemned by Kenneth Starr and Ralph Reed--a notable beneficiary of Enron's largesse--or the traditional John Wayne-style flag-waving values of George W. Bush. As Michael Tomasky writes in the Washington Post, "'Values' can mean something else now, like integrity in business and government. It means that a president who ran on a promise of 'restoring dignity' to the White House ought to tell the truth about how long he's known the CEO who has been his biggest corporate backer. It means that the vice president should recognize as a simple ethical matter that the people...have a right to know which lobbyists he met with while formulating a major policy, just as Republicans demanded similar information from Clinton's health policy panel back in 1993."
If the political system works, if the opposition actually engages in opposition, if there is any justice--three huge ifs--the Enron scandal ought to shake Washington to the core and send tremors through the 2002 and 2004 elections. But that will happen only if Congress gets serious about performing its intended role in what is still supposed to be a system of checks and balances. The Senate must be aggressive not merely in issuing subpoenas to former Enron chief Ken Lay and his cronies but in pursuing the political players who associated with Lay. Representative John Conyers Jr., the Michigan Democrat who is the ranking member on the House Judiciary Committee, got to the heart of the matter when he announced that he will ask Rove to provide any information linking the Bush 2000 campaign with Enron. But Conyers will need a lot of help preventing the executive branch from weaving a cloak of invisibility around its inner operations (see Russ Baker on page 11).
Secrecy is a favored tool of the imperial presidency, and the Bush Administration's stonewalling on its Enron connections signals that it's declaring war on openness and is bent on quashing this scandal by any means. How about, for instance, distracting us with an endless war on an "axis of evil"?
Democrats must not be deterred by the Bush camp's attempts to erect a firewall of false patriotism as its defense against investigation. There are no longer any legal, moral or political grounds for not unleashing a multipronged, wide-ranging investigation into the Washington political culture that allowed an Enron--and how many more like it?--to operate unchecked. We already know a lot about who legally gave what to which politician, who lost pensions, who made out like bandits, how the scam worked, whose wheels were greased by soft money.
Now it's time for Congress to put the pieces together. Democrats in Congress should join reformer Republicans--yes, there are a few--to expose this scandal for what it is: a gamy display of excessive corporate power and a lack of economic democracy and government oversight. Congress needs to remember it's representing the people and deal with the tough issues raised by the cozy collusion between government and business (it should start with campaign finance reform in the House now and move on to putting labor and consumers on corporate boards, restoring defined benefits pensions, penalty-taxing excessive executive salaries, stopping stock price inflation and holding tricky auditors financially liable). The key vote on campaign finance is set for February 13. The outcome should tell us how serious the reform talk is.