Arundhati Roy, author of The God of Small Things, whose essay deploring India's decision to test atomic weapons appeared in The Nation ("The
End of Imagination," September 28, 1998), is, as she told a reporter,
"deeper in the soup." Active in an anti-dam campaign in India, this
past spring she led a demo protesting the Indian Supreme Court's
decision to allow construction of a dam on the Narmada River that
will displace 200,000 people and harm the region's fragile ecosystem.
Some lawyers at the scene trumped up complaints about Roy threatening
them, and the Supreme Court charged her and two other leaders of the
protest movement with criminal contempt. That charge was dismissed,
but at the hearing Roy submitted a blistering affidavit calling the
court's action an attempt "to silence criticism and muzzle dissent."
The judges ordered her to withdraw the affidavit. She refused and
will go on trial for contempt at the end of October, acting as her
own lawyer and facing imprisonment. In our view, her affidavit has it
exactly right, and the Supreme Court is even deeper in the, um, soup.
Let the Indian Embassy in Washington know your view.
While the Bush Administration continues
to build an international coalition it hopes will allow it to strike
back effectively at those responsible for the September 11 attacks,
three issues that helped set the stage for those atrocious crimes
must be dealt with.
The first is the troublesome question of Israel and Palestine. Last year the two came within a hair's breadth of a land-for-peace deal. It failed, and Ariel Sharon's first instinct after the September 11 attacks was to cancel further
meetings with the Palestinians--exactly the wrong instinct, and one
now haltingly reversed by pressure from Shimon Peres and the White
House. But until that deal is signed--and the two peoples accept the
resulting settlement, however imperfect--there can be no peace or
security for any of us. Such a deal may finally require a long-term
multinational peacekeeping force placed between the two, but its
cost, however great, is less than we will all bear if we do not find
resolution to this central issue.
Second is the matter of governance. One hardly needs intimate familiarity with the human rights records of governments from Morocco in the West to Pakistan in
the East to realize that many of America's allies and enemies alike fail the most minimal tests of democracy and human decency--and that they must change. This is not to advocate invasion, CIA subversion or Iraq-style embargoes but rather to support concerted multilateral action that expands pressures for political and social reform and that works with forces within those countries toward that end. Nothing will come quickly or without risk, but to leave intact the power arrangements of the Middle East--as we did in the wake of the
Gulf War--invites the worst possible outcome. Terrorists are bred most easily among terrorized and humiliated peoples.
Finally there is the issue of economic development
and aid. There are a billion Muslims, most of them desperately poor,
and most living in a swath of the globe stretching from the Strait of
Gibraltar east to the Indonesian archipelago. In the days following
September 11, Congress authorized $40 billion in emergency funds
without debate, then $15 billion for US airlines, and George W. Bush
has now proposed spending up to $75 billion more. Given such numbers,
and with the economies of America, Europe and Japan producing more
than $20 trillion a year, why pretend that we can do no more than
promote failed "structural adjustment" programs?
readies for war, America would do well to remember that 3 billion
human beings live on less than $2 a day, and at least 10 million die
of easily preventable disease and malnutrition each year. Then there
is the global impact of the terrorist attacks and US-led preparations
for retaliation. James Wolfensohn, president of the World Bank,
predicts a "largely unseen" human toll, estimating that "between
20,000 and 40,000 more children will die worldwide and some 10
million people will be condemned to live below the poverty line of $1
a day." Wolfensohn attributes these effects to severe drops in
commodity prices and a burgeoning global recession; a World Bank
study predicts 2001 growth of less than 1 percent in the
Even if Osama bin Laden is dead
next year, given such realities, no new airport security measures or
Special Forces deployments or missile defense shields will protect us
from those who arise to take his place. Instead, we must re-engage
with the world, attacking not the enemies we cannot see but the
enemies we can. We need what has been called a "new era of global
Keynesianism"--a commitment to relieving the globe's most fundamental
problems of food and health and joblessness. That, plus a stiff dose
of political fairness and human rights, offers the best antidote to
"We need to make it very clear," said one veteran activist at a recent meeting of a nascent New York City antiwar coalition, "that we want to punish the criminals." She meant, of course, any living accomplices in the September 11 World Trade Center massacre. That night, activists were unable to come to any kind of agreement on the need to bring the murderers to justice, and their confusion and division mirrored that of antiwar demonstrators around the nation. During the last weekend in September, antiwar protests in the nation's capital underscored the movement's difficulty in articulating a message that might make sense to a broader public. That difficulty was amplified by the happy fact that, as one demonstrator put it, "it's hard to protest a war that's not happening." While things may yet get brutal, George Bush is not presently proposing to take any military action against innocent Afghan civilians, and the Administration is now seriously considering schemes that, when suggested by peace activists a week ago, sounded absurdly whimsical--like "bombing" Afghanistan with food.
Originally, more than 10,000 foot soldiers of the global economic justice movement, from the controversial hooded Anti-Capitalist Convergence (or "Black Bloc") to the AFL-CIO, had planned to show up to protest September 30's IMF/World Bank meeting. That meeting was canceled. Most protest groups canceled their actions too, and not only because there were no meetings to oppose. At a moment of sorrow and panic, demonstrators risked being ignored--or worse, reviled as unpatriotic or insensitive to the memories of the dead. In a statement explaining their withdrawal from the protests, United Students Against Sweatshops declared September in the capital "neither the time nor the place to gather in opposition."
Not everyone felt that way. The Anti-Capitalist Convergence decided to hold an antiwar demonstration Saturday morning, using, according to David Graeber of New York City's Direct Action Network, who works closely with the ACC, "less controversial tactics. None of these," he laughed, pointing to a brick in the middle of the sidewalk. The Black Bloc anarchists, known for illegal actions, refrained from any destruction of property, and the weekend ended with only eleven arrests. The ACC march drew about 1,000 (organizers claimed 2,000-3,000). Some--being anarchists--rejected any action that the state might take, even against terrorism, and rejected any international tribunal as a tool of the state.
The second, and best-publicized, march was organized by an antiwar front group assembled by the International Action Center (IAC), in turn a front for (if you're still following) the Workers World Party, which is justly reviled for supporting Slobodan Milosevic, among other gruesome dictators. Still, a few thousand people, from high school students to graying peaceniks, eventually joined by the ACC, showed up. IAC organizers subjected these demonstrators to three hours of speeches, none of which mentioned bringing the killers to justice, before the all-too-brief march from Freedom Plaza to the Capitol began. Bland sloganeering and predictable references to eclectic causes (Free Mumia!) had the effect of reducing the peril of World War III to the trivial status of another pet left crusade. There was no doubt about the sincerity of the demonstrators, who carried signs like Another Alaskan for Peace, but the IAC's involvement gave the event--which drew maybe 7,000 at its peak, though organizers claimed 20,000--the flavor of a kind of generic McProtest.
The third march, held on Sunday and organized by the Washington Peace Center and other groups, was smaller than the IAC event but achieved an appropriately serious tone. Some of Saturday's demonstrators (from the well-behaved Black Bloc to the Bread and Puppet Theater) turned up, along with many locals--a crowd of some 3,000. Speakers, many of them clergy, quoted venerable sources: the Bible, the Koran, the Talmud, Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi. Signs often bore scriptural messages, and one playfully queried George Bush, WWJD? Speakers read letters from family members of September 11 victims who did not want war in the name of their loved ones. Others stressed the need for reflection and the challenges of turning our grief into a cry for global peace. The event also suggested some practical alternatives to war, emphasizing justice and law over military force. Alan Mattlage, an organizer of the Washington Peace Center event and a member of the Maryland Green Party, echoed many of his fellow protesters in saying that the World Trade Center attacks should be treated not "as an act of war but as a criminal matter. [Those accused] should be tried before an international tribunal."
All three antiwar marches attracted activists who had planned to protest the IMF. Students showed up in large numbers (a nationwide network of more than 150 student antiwar groups, some calling themselves Students for a Peaceful Justice, has been holding campus vigils, protests and teach-ins). Labor organizations, by contrast, from the AFL-CIO to Jobs with Justice, were conspicuously absent. That makes some sense, given that many of their constituents may support military responses to the September 11 attacks. One of countless reasons to hope for peace is that a prolonged war--and antiwar activism--could test the warm solidarity developed in recent years between labor and other progressives, especially students. On the other hand, it's encouraging to see how quickly the global economic justice movement has embraced peace and security issues--and that peace organizations seem ready to tackle the economic roots of violence and to connect US militarism to global economic inequality.
Activists were united on a few points: There will be no peace without economic justice, and US civilians will not be safe until our government stops waging--and funding--war on other innocents. Some offered hope that our nation's suffering could open our eyes to the rest of the world's pain. At an interfaith service on peace and justice at St. Aloysius Church Saturday night, Njoki Njoroge Njehu of the 50 Years Is Enough Network advised Americans to "hold that vulnerability, to understand how people around the world live with US violence. And let us finally understand the obscenity of the phrase 'collateral damage.' Will it ever have the same casual reference again?"
Just once more, and
then we'll really have to get on with more pressing business. I could
subscribe myself at any time to any of the following statements:
§ An Arab child born in Nablus should have no fewer
rights in his or her homeland than a Jewish child born in
§ The United States of America has been the
patron of predatory regimes on five continents.
United States of America exports violence by means of arms sales and
You can probably fill in a few extras for
yourself. However, none of the above statements means the same thing
if prefaced with the words: "As Osama bin Laden and his devout
followers have recently reminded us..." They wouldn't mean the same
thing politically, that is to say, and they wouldn't mean the same
thing morally. It's disgraceful that so many people on the periphery
of this magazine should need what Noam Chomsky would otherwise term
instruction in the elementary.
Here are two brief thought
experiments that I hope and trust will put this degrading argument to
rest. Both of them, as it happens, involve the date September
I have long kept September 11 as a day of mourning,
because it was on that date in 1973 that Salvador Allende was
murdered and Chilean democracy assassinated along with him. We know
all the details now, from the way the giant corporations subsidized
subversion to the way that US politicians commissioned "hit jobs" and
sabotage. It took the Chilean opposition many years of patient
struggle to regain their country and their democracy, and the small
help I was able to offer them is one of the few things in my life of
which I can be proud. There was one spirited attempt to kill Augusto
Pinochet himself during this period, with which I had some sneaking
sympathy, but on the whole the weaponry of terror (death squads, car
bombs, the training of special killers) was in the department of
horror employed by Chilean and US officials working for, or with, the
dictatorship. And now Chilean dignity has been restored, and Pinochet
himself is a discredited and indicted figure, spared the rigor of law
only for humanitarian reasons. We may even live to see justice done
to some of his backers in Washington, though the holding of breath
would be inadvisable.
I don't know any Chilean participant
in this great historic struggle who would not rather have
died--you'll have to excuse the expression--than commit an outrage
against humanity that was even remotely comparable to the atrocities
in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. And I think I'll leave it
at that, since those who don't see my point by now are never going to
There are others who mourn September 11 because it
was on that day in 1683 that the hitherto unstoppable armies of Islam
were defeated by a Polish general outside the gates of Vienna. The
date marks the closest that proselytizing Islam ever came to making
itself a superpower by military conquest. From then on, the Muslim
civilization, which once had so much to teach the Christian West,
went into a protracted eclipse. I cannot of course be certain, but I
think it is highly probable that this is the date that certain
antimodernist forces want us to remember as painfully as they do. And
if I am right, then it's not even facile or superficial to connect
the recent aggression against American civil society with any current
"human rights issue."
Why not pay attention to what the
cassettes and incantations of Al Qaeda actually demand: a holy war in
which there are no civilians on the other side, only infidels, and a
society of total aridity in which any concept of culture or the
future has been eradicated?
One ought to be clear about
this: The Ottomans who besieged Vienna were not of that primeval
mentality. But the Wahabbi fanatics of the present century are.
Glance again at the trite statements I made at the beginning of this
column. Could Osama bin Laden actually utter any of them? Certainly
not. He doesn't only oppose the entire Jewish presence in Palestine;
he opposes the Jewish presence in America. He is the
spoiled-brat son of one of our preferred despotisms and the proud
beneficiary of the export of violence. Why, then, do so many fools
consider him as the interpreter of their "concerns," let alone seek
to appoint their ignorant selves as the medium for his?
Thanks to all those who demand that I tell them what is to
be done. As the situation develops, they may even ask themselves this
question as if it really demanded a serious answer. We certainly owe
a duty to Afghanistan's people, whose lives were rendered impossible
by the Taliban long before we felt any pain. We might even remember
that the only part of Iraq where people are neither starving nor
repressed is in the Kurdish area, now under international protection
as a result of public pressure on Bush Senior's vaunted "coalition."
(See especially David Hirst's two engrossing reports from northern
Iraq in the London Guardian of August 1 and 2: Hirst himself
is probably the most consistently anti-imperialist journalist in the
region.) But wait! That might mean that one could actually
do something. Surely we are too guilt-stained for
Thanks also to all those who thought it was original
to attack me for writing from an "armchair." (Why is it always an
armchair?) As it happens, I work in a swivel chair, in an apartment
on the top floor of one of Washington's tallest buildings. In the
fall of 1993 the State Department's Office of Counterterrorism
urgently advised me to change this address because of "credible"
threats received after my wife and daughter and I had sheltered
Salman Rushdie as a guest, and had arranged for him to be received at
the cowering Clinton White House. I thought, then as now, that the
government was doing no more than covering its own behind by giving
half-alarmist and half-reassuring advice. In other words, I have a
quarrel with theocratic fascism even when the Administration does
not, and I hope at least some of my friendly correspondents are
prepared to say the same.
all the programs I've seen on Afghanistan, not one was more chilling
than Beneath the Veil, an hourlong documentary that has
appeared frequently on CNN. Its narrator, Saira Shah, a British woman
of Afghan descent, spent five days in the country to see what life
there was really like. Shah managed to penetrate places few
Westerners get to see, including a secret classroom for girls and a
village that suffered Taliban atrocities. She also visited a Kabul
soccer stadium that, she said, had served as a public execution
ground. To back up her point, the documentary featured a clip of a
man putting a rifle to the head of a woman clad in a burqa and
blowing her brains out. In an interview with the Taliban foreign
minister, Shah asked what he thought the international donors who
gave money for the stadium would say if they knew it was being used
for executions rather than for sports. Well, the minister said, if
they didn't like it, they should give money to build a separate arena
Shah's report captures just how horrendous
life in Afghanistan has become. The Taliban's police-state tactics,
together with its harboring of terrorists, has fed a groundswell of
support for its ouster. That, in turn, has focused new attention on
the Taliban's main opponents, the United Front, or, as it's more
familiarly known, the Northern Alliance. Eager to report on it, US
journalists have swarmed into the sliver of territory the alliance
controls in northeastern Afghanistan, where they're cordially taken
on tours by rebel commanders.
"We're with the troops of the
Northern Alliance," MSNBC's TomAspell reported on September 27. The
alliance, he said, was eager to act as a guide for American forces
entering Afghanistan. CNN's Chris Burns, gesturing toward a mountain
ridge, said, "Thirty miles beyond that, is where Kabul is. And they
say if they had help from the Americans, they could take that city."
Meanwhile, a procession of alliance spokesmen have appeared on TV to
plead for US assistance.
The print media have been no less
accommodating. "Front-line Taliban Foes Eager to Help U.S.," the
New York Times declared on its front page. Reporter David
Rohde described how a Northern Alliance general "swaggered across the
top floor" of a demolished airfield control tower and pointed
southward. "'On the other side of those mountains,' he said, his
voice filled with yearning, 'is Kabul.'" While the alliance did not
pose an immediate military threat to the city, Rohde noted, it did
have "encyclopedic knowledge of the Taliban and its bombing targets,
units and tactics." The Washington Post has run a series of
glowing reports about the alliance and its grit, savvy and
"discipline." That discipline, correspondent Peter Baker noted in one
dispatch, has survived the September 9 assassination of Ahmed Shah
Massoud, the guerrilla leader who "by sheer force of personality had
managed to hold together this eclectic group of
In death, Massoud has been lionized by the US
press--literally. "The legendary 'Lion of the Panjshir,'" the Los
Angeles Times called him. "A Lion's Death," the New Yorker
declared in a headline atop a one-page eulogy by Jon Lee Anderson. In
1992, Anderson reported, Massoud's "moderately conservative group"
defeated the brutish regime backed by the Soviets, and he served as
defense minister and vice president until 1996, when the Taliban
gained control of most of the country.
Anderson nor the rest of the press has reported is that during their
time in power, Massoud and his fellow warlords ruthlessly fought one
another, reducing much of Kabul to rubble and killing tens of
thousands of people, most of them civilians. According to a
meticulously documented report by Human Rights Watch (Afghanistan:
Crisis of Impunity, available at www.hrw.org), the front "amassed
a deplorable record of attacks on civilians" between 1992 and 1996.
It was the lawlessness and brutality that prevailed under these
warlords that paved the way for the Taliban. Since then, Human Rights
Watch reports, both the Taliban and the United Front "have repeatedly
committed serious violations of international humanitarian law,
including killings of detainees, aerial bombardment and shelling,
direct attacks on civilians, rape, torture, persecution on the basis
of religion, and the use of antipersonnel landmines."
one of the few departures from the pack, Patricia Gossman noted in a
Washington Post Op-Ed that Afghans have been fleeing Kabul
"not only out of fear of US airstrikes but out of panic that the
[Northern Alliance] might take power there again." Gossman, a writer
whose research has been funded by the US Institute of Peace, wrote
that when she was in Kabul last year, "I was told time and again that
the only thing people there feared more than the Taliban was that the
warlords of the Northern Alliance might return to
Michael Sullivan, in a fine piece for NPR, pointed
out that the Northern Alliance is made up of Afghanistan's ethnic
Tajik and Uzbek minorities, "with only token representation from the
country's ethnic Pashtun majority, who've dominated Afghanistan's
political landscape for most of the country's history." Without
involving the Pashtuns, a Pakistani security analyst told him, having
a stable government in Afghanistan "would be simply impossible." (The
Taliban is made up mostly of Pashtuns.)
What accounts for
the media blackout on the United Front's true colors? As Ken
Silverstein observed in an astute piece for Salon, the front's
many abuses "can't be a surprise" to reporters. Since September 11,
he notes, several thousand people, "presumably many of them
journalists," have requested the Human Rights Watch report on
Afghanistan, but "most reporters and pundits seem to be patriotically
turning a blind eye to our new partner's shortcomings."
The press may at last be opening its eyes. Time, in
its October 8 edition, offered a balanced piece on the United Front,
referring to its "fractious makeup" and "disappointingly thin"
intelligence. And David Rohde, in another front-page piece in the
Times on the Northern Alliance, used the w-word--warlords--and
described their recruitment of fighters as young as
According to the Times, the Bush Administration
has decided to provide covert aid to several groups opposed to the
Taliban, the United Front included. In light of the urgent need to
root out war criminals like Osama bin Laden, it can be argued that
Washington needs every bit of help it can get. But at the very least,
the American public needs to know whom we are embracing. After all,
it was just a few years ago that the CIA--eager to confront the
Soviets--backed the mujahedeen, including many of the same Taliban
fighters we are now seeking to overthrow.
Battling the war
profiteers of World War I, Robert La Follette reminded America that
"wealth has never yet sacrificed itself on the altar of patriotism."
The progressive senator from Wisconsin was complaining about arms
merchants reaping excessive profits from the sale of weaponry in
1917. But La Follette's words echo with particular clarity in the
aftermath of terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the
Pentagon because of the rise of another form of war profiteering. In
an attempt to gain the upper hand in a fight they had been losing,
Bush Administration and Congressional supporters of fast track--or,
as supporters have renamed it, "Trade Promotion Authority"--were
telling Congress Daily within hours of the September 11
attacks that terrorist threats increased the need to grant Bush
authority to negotiate a NAFTA-style free-trade area from Tierra del
Fuego to the Tundra.
With each passing day, these policy
profiteers have pumped up the volume. Iowa Senator Charles Grassley,
the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, announced,
"Passing trade promotion authority for the President would send a
strong signal to the rest of the world that the United States is
ready, willing and able to lead." The Wall Street Journal
editorial page chirped about how "not everything has changed for the
worse since September 11. One garden at the skunk party has been the
emergence of new bipartisan momentum to expand free trade,
specifically something called 'Trade Promotion Authority.'" US Trade
Representative Robert Zoellick was everywhere preaching his
"Countering Terror With Trade" mantra, a campaign so aggressive it
left even Republicans scratching their heads. "I am not sure a trade
bill has anything to do with terrorism," said Ohio Republican
Congressman Bob Ney.
But Zoellick wasn't listening to
Republicans who warned that an aggressive push for fast track could
be the straw that breaks the back of the post-September 11
bipartisanship. Less than two weeks after the attacks, Zoellick
delivered a speech at the Institute for International Economics that
seemed to question the patriotism of fast-track foes. Members of
Congress "who know trade is the right thing to do are refusing to act
for rather narrow-interest reasons," the Bush aide declared, adding,
"Trade is about more than economic efficiency. It promotes the values
at the heart of this protracted struggle."
That was too
much for New York Congressman Charles Rangel, the ranking Democrat on
the House Ways and Means Committee. Rangel issued a scathing rebuke
to Zoellick's policy profiteering. "As a combat war veteran and as a
person whose city has been attacked and suffered devastating losses
as a result, I am offended by the strategy of the current United
States Trade Representative to use the tragedy in New York and at the
Pentagon to fuel political momentum behind a partisan fast-track
proposal," Rangel said, adding, "To have the USTR attack the
patriotism of Americans for their failure to support an unwritten,
undisclosed bill demands a public apology."
Zoellick's point man in the House, Bill Thomas, the California
Republican who chairs the Ways and Means Committee, claimed he had
consulted key Democrats about a move to push a bipartisan fast-track
compromise through the House, Rangel shot back that the Democrats in
question "have expressed to me in no uncertain terms that they do not
subscribe to this attempt to wrap the flag around any fast-track bill
in the wake of the September 11 attacks." Undaunted, Thomas said he'd
try to bring a bill to a floor vote by the second week of
Long before September 11, the debate over fast
track was destined to be intense. Bush, aided by major corporations,
had promised to pull out all the stops. But labor, environment and
human rights groups thwarted them by reminding Congress that since
the enactment of NAFTA in 1994, more than 355,000 US jobs (even by
the government's conservative estimate) have been lost. Small farms
have failed at a significantly increased rate, and environmental and
worker safety protections have been undermined at home and abroad.
"If the Administration had the votes for fast track, before September
11 or after, we would have had a vote. They still don't have the
votes, but they're trying everything to come up with them," says
Patrick Woodall, research director for Public Citizen's Global Trade
Zoellick and Thomas are hardly the only policy
profiteers. The threat of war and recession has inspired plenty of
moves to wrap unappealing agendas in the bunting of patriotism.
School-prayer and flag-protection amendments are being elbowed onto
the antiterrorist agenda, while Attorney General John Ashcroft pushed
hard to win approval of dusted-off proposals to curtail immigrants'
rights, expand electronic surveillance and allow use of intelligence
gathered by foreign governments in US courts [see Bruce Shapiro, "All
in the Name of Security," page 20]. Playing the patriotism card in
support of Ashcroft, GOP Senate leader Trent Lott warned the
Democrats that in the event of another attack, "people are going to
wonder where have you been in giving the additional tools that are
needed to, you know, find these terrorists and avoid plots that may
be in place."
Bush aides have proposed cutting corporate
income taxes, while House Republicans are flying the capital-gains
tax-cut flag. Although the attacks proved that there are far more
pressing security needs than developing a National Missile Defense
system, Star Wars backers are still attempting to get funding for
their boondoggle. And backers of the Administration's energy proposal
now want an "expedited energy bill" designed to clear the way for
drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Washington is witnessing shameless policy profiteering, state
legislatures have seen surreal grabs for political advantage. A
Republican state representative in Wisconsin announced that after so
many deaths, it was time to renew America's commitment to life--by
passing his antiabortion bill. In states that bar capital punishment,
proposals were made to allow executions as antiterrorist
measures--failing to recognize the absurdity of threatening suicide
attackers with death.
Every war has its profiteers. But it
looks like this one is going to require an army of La Follettes to
prevent this war's policy profiteers from warping the discourse--not
to mention plundering the Treasury--in the name of a "patriotism"
defined solely by self-interest.
Are there any people
on earth more wretched than the women of Afghanistan? As if poverty,
hunger, disease, drought, ruined cities and a huge refugee crisis
weren't bad enough, under Taliban rule they can't work, they can't go
to school, they have virtually no healthcare, they can't leave their
houses without a male escort, they are beaten in the streets if they
lift the mandatory burqa even to relieve a coughing fit. The
Taliban's crazier requirements have some of the obsessive
particularity of the Nazis' statutes against the Jews: no high heels
(that lust-inducing click-click!), no white socks (white is the color
of the flag), windows must be painted over so that no male passerby
can see the dreaded female form lurking in the house. (This
particular stricture, combined with the burqa, has led to an outbreak
of osteomalacia, a bone disease caused by malnutrition and lack of
Until September 11, this situation received only
modest attention in the West--much less than the destruction of the
giant Buddha statues of Bamiyan. The "left" is often accused of
"moral relativism" and a "postmodern" unwillingness to judge, but the
notion that the plight of Afghan women is a matter of culture and
tradition, and not for Westerners to judge, was widespread across the
Now, finally, the world is paying
attention to the Taliban, whose days may indeed be numbered now that
their foreign supporters--Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates,
Pakistan--are backing off. The connections between religious
fanaticism and the suppression of women are plain to see (and not
just applicable to Islam--show me a major religion in which the
inferiority of women, and God's wish to place them and their
dangerous polluting sexuality under male control, is not a central
original theme). So is the connection of both with terrorism, war and
atrocity. It's no accident that so many of the young men who are foot
soldiers of Islamic fundamentalism are reared in womanless religious
schools, or that Osama bin Laden's recruiting video features bikinied
Western women as symbols of the enemy.
fundamentalism requires the suppression of women, offering desperate,
futureless men the psychological and practical satisfaction of
instant superiority to half the human race, the emancipation of women
could be the key to overcoming it. Where women have education,
healthcare and personal rights, where they have social and political
and economic power--where they can choose what to wear, whom to
marry, how to live--there's a powerful constituency for secularism,
democracy and human rights: What educated mother engaged in public
life would want her daughter to be an illiterate baby machine
confined to the four walls of her husband's house with no one to talk
to but his other wives?
Women's rights are crucial for
everything the West supposedly cares about: infant mortality (one in
four Afghan children dies before age 5), political democracy,
personal freedom, equality under the law--not to mention its own
security. But where are the women in the discussion of Afghanistan,
the Middle East, the rest of the Muslim world? We don't hear much
about how policy decisions will affect women, or what they want. Men
have the guns and the governments. Who asks the women of Saudi
Arabia, our ally, how they feel about the Taliban-like restrictions
on their freedom? In the case of Afghanistan, the Northern
Alliance presents itself now to the West as women's friend. A story
in the New York Times marveled at the very limited permission
given to women in NA-held territory to study and work and wear a less
restrictive covering than the burqa. Brushed aside was the fact that
many warlords of the Northern Alliance are themselves religious
fighters who not only restricted women considerably when they held
power from 1992 to '96 but plunged the country into civil war,
compiling a record of ethnically motivated mass murder, rape and
other atrocities and leaving the population so exhausted that the
Taliban's promise of law and order came as a relief. It's all
documented on the Human Rights Watch website
Now more than ever, the Revolutionary
Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), which opposes both
the Taliban and the Northern Alliance as violent, lawless,
misogynistic and antidemocratic, deserves attention and support.
"What Afghanistan needs is not more war," Tahmeena Faryel, a RAWA
representative currently visiting the United States, told me, but
massive amounts of humanitarian aid and the disarming of both the
Taliban and the Northern Alliance, followed by democratic elections.
"We don't need another religious government," she said. "We've had
that!" The women of RAWA are a different model of heroism than a
warlord with a Kalashnikov: In Afghanistan, they risk their lives by
running secret schools for girls, delivering medical aid, documenting
and filming Taliban atrocities. In Pakistan, they demonstrate against
fundamentalism in the "Talibanized" cities of Peshawar and Quetta.
Much as the victims of the WTC attack need our support, so too do
Afghans who are trying to bring reason and peace to their miserable
country. To make a donation to RAWA, see www.rawa.org.
* * *
I got more negative comment on my
last column, in which I described a discussion with my daughter about
whether to fly an American flag in the wake of the WTC attack, than
on anything I've ever written. Many people pitied my commonsensical,
public-spirited child for being raised by an antisocial naysayer like
me. And if The Weekly Standard has its way--it's urging
readers to send young "Miss Pollitt" flags c/o The Nation--she
will soon have enough flags to redecorate her entire bedroom in red,
white and blue, without having to forgo a single Green Day CD to buy
one for herself. (See this issue's Letters column for some of the
mail on the flag question.)
Fortunately, for those who want
to hang something a bit more global out their window, there are
alternatives. The peace flag (www.peaceflags.org) reshapes Old
Glory's stars into the peace sign; the Earth flag (www.earthflag.net)
displays the Apollo photo of the Earth on a blue background.
Telluride, Toronto and After
For folks involved in film, seasonal clocks can be set by the annual confluence of international film festivals (Telluride, Toronto, New York, Edinburgh, Venice) that shape reputations and kick-start the movies that show up on screens throughout the fall and winter. Usually, festivals are measured by which premieres and stars they snag, which prizes are awarded. This year, however, only one factor comes into play: whether festivals and films ran before or after September 11.
Telluride took place in the bucolic setting of the Colorado mountains in the prelapsarian weeks prior to September 11. In addition to hot-off-the-press premieres, the Telluride festival is known for its tributes and archival revivals. Each year features a guest director who brings some special expertise to spice up the mix. (Full disclosure: I was the 1996 guest director.) This time it was Salman Rushdie, who unspooled Indian classics and chatted about science fiction films to the thrill of the crowd. (A few days later in Toronto, opening my copy of the Globe and Mail, I was surprised to find Rushdie's name on the front page. An item on September 11 reported that the FAA had alerted Air Canada that it could not board him as a passenger, bound for Toronto that week, due to "extreme security measures" that required air traffic to operate under a "heightened state of alert.")
Yes, Telluride was before all that. Still, it's a festival that often has a political spin buried in its offerings. (Its very first festival, after all, honored Leni Riefenstahl.) The roster of films this year included everything from Jean-Pierre Jeunet's French blockbuster Amelie to a documentary on Walt Disney. No Man's Land, by first-time Bosnian director Danis Tonovic, was a popular hit, offering an antiwar message that combined M*A*S*H-style humor with the despair of Waiting for Godot.
Telluride's succès de scandale was Dear Fidel, a quirky German documentary on the life and love of Marita Lorenz, a German-American woman whose love affair with Fidel Castro during the first year of the Cuban Revolution led to a subsequent assignment from the CIA to murder him. Conspiracy alert: She was also a member of a convoy that drove from DC to Dallas on--guess which day. And, yup, Lee Harvey Oswald (she calls him "Ozzie") was one of the gang. The documentary, by investigative journalist Wilfried Huismann and producers Detlef Ziegert and Yvonne Ruocco, is packed with these astonishing stories and more, plus all-important witness corroborations. The confused editing might boggle the mind, but Dear Fidel's central subject never fails to fascinate. Showing up in person for the premiere, Lorenz basked in the crowd's attention and told even more stories: For example, her daughter (by Venezuelan ex-dictator Gen. Marcos Pérez Jiménez) is now married to the son of Orlando Letelier! Check out the website (www.dear-fidel.com) and prepare to be astonished.
The pure cinema part of the Telluride schedule featured an award and retrospective tribute to Catherine Breillat, the French director whose brilliant examinations of female sexuality freed from societal constraints have made her one of the most original filmmakers of our time. That her cinema is itself freed from societal constraints, and thus free to explore sex explicitly on screen and ignore taboos regarding both age and agency, is not incidental. Romance, the 1998 film in which she used actors alongside porn stars, pierced the facade of feminine wiles and instead constructed a character who was willing to go to any lengths for satisfaction.
Breillat's new film, Fat Girl (À Ma Soeur!), went on to both the Toronto and New York festivals after Telluride, and opens in New York City on October 10, with a national release thereafter. A deliberately troubling film about adolescent female sexuality, Fat Girl can easily be interpreted as a long-overdue riposte to the French coming-of-age movies centered on summertime first loves, such as Eric Rohmer's beloved Pauline at the Beach. Breillat explores the hypocrisy of a society that weighs down the sexual act with sentimental and moralistic baggage through one summer affair between a beautiful teenager, Elena (Roxane Mesquida), and Fernando, the Italian law student (Libero de Rienzo) who woos her after a chance meeting in a beachside cafe.
For a clear-eyed view, Breillat has written into the narrative a plump and grumpy younger sister, whose role is to accompany the Lolita-ish teenager throughout the flirtatious escapade. Protected by age and weight, Anaïs (Anaïs Reboux) dissects the terrible contract by which a teenage girl is allowed to possess beauty and "lose" virginity. In a hilarious cameo, Laura Betti, Pasolini's star and muse, appears as Fernando's social-climbing, bejeweled mother.
Naturally, since this is a Breillat film, sex and death are never far apart. There's unpredictable violence lurking at the movie's end, just when the audience relaxes, thinking it knows what's up. From its tranquil beginning to its shocking finish, Fat Girl shows Breillat to be a world-class artist working at the top of her form--even when the lessons of gender, sexuality and social custom may be hard to swallow. Without her, they wouldn't be available to us at all.
Telluride is not known for favoring women directors, but this year was different. Alongside Breillat was a new talent from Argentina, Lucrecia Martel. Her first feature film, La Ciénaga, churned up attention at virtually every festival and, like Fat Girl, was programmed at Toronto and New York. (It will also have a wider theatrical release, at New York's Film Forum in October and elsewhere throughout the fall.) La Ciénaga is an astonishing debut that mixes a Gabriel García Márquez sort of setting with a thoroughly cinematic imagination. Summer is a time of disintegration in Martel's universe, constructed from her memories of growing up in Salta, a province in the northwest of Argentina near the Bolivian border that's haunted by its own fears and illusions. In La Ciénaga, a middle-class family comes unglued over the course of several days in which petty disasters add up to major calamities. What distinguishes the film is Martel's wholesale reinvention of Latin American film language, so long bound by the rules of realism and/or melodrama. With La Ciénaga, cinema gets a shakeup, and the result is intoxicating.
La Ciénaga does what cinema at its best can do: It reveals a universe we've never even imagined and then gets us to look differently at both the society and medium we'd underestimated. Here, that means seeing water balloons thrown by young men at young women in the glorious frenzy of a fiesta. Or the modern-day stigmata self-inflicted by a boozy mother who, drunk, drops her glass on the patio and falls right into its jagged remains. Or the aura surrounding a maid, adored by the children she cares for and depended upon by their parents, who is nevertheless accused of stealing whenever anything cannot be found. Martel lays open a system of contradictions--individual, familial, racial, class--that show up like fissures in the bedrock of Argentine society. It's the audacious vision of a true artist who has paid close attention to the society around her.
When I arrived in Toronto, I was half-afraid I'd already seen the two best films in the festival. I needn't have worried. The lineup was terrific. Fat Girl and La Ciénaga were still standouts, but they had good company in the 300-plus films from Albania to Zanzibar and most places in between, including Hollywood. David Lynch's Mulholland Drive proved to be a terrific return to form for him, all dark intrigues and homicidal corruption. Alfredo Cuarón's Y Tu Mamá También? spiced a road movie with riffs on adolescent masculinity and the Mexican elite. From Hong Kong, Stanley Kwan sent Lan Yu, a gay melodrama looking at the tumultuous relationship between a businessman and a student hustler. Chilean Patricio Guzmán brought El Caso Pinochet, an examination of the legal and political work of trying the ex-dictator. Toronto is known as an exceedingly democratic festival, with something for everyone--its programmers even sign their catalogue entries so you know whom to blame--and the scope pays off for moviegoers who choose wisely.
Midway into the festival, it began to look possible to divine a new trend in American independent cinema. A series of accomplished films deployed a new narrative structure, tracing a large cast of characters across a series of ever-interlocking dramas. Jill Sprecher's Thirteen Conversations About One Thing and Rose Troche's The Safety of Objects (based on a collection of stories by A.M. Homes) both carry their audiences through multilayered journeys of loss, anxiety and redemption with commanding complexity. In Thirteen Conversations, tricks of fate direct a series of characters whose interconnections are slowly exposed through a complex structure that moves across time and locations. In The Safety of Objects, Troche's script stitches disparate stories together into a treatise on lives touched by tragedy and redeemed by connections that bind them through a similarly complex structure of events. A film by another American woman director, Nicole Holofcener's Lovely and Amazing, offered a brighter and leaner version, with a family story of interconnecting events that culminate in cinema's funniest McDonald's scene. Unlike earlier films that played with narrative--Happiness, American Beauty--these women do not rely on irony. Instead, they're perfecting a new approach to storytelling for complicated times.
Not surprisingly, films at Toronto played differently before and after September 11, a date that fell directly mid-festival. It was astonishing how quickly the hippest buzz dissolved once the events of the world intruded and, conversely, how much excess meaning accrued to those films with the "luck" to consider life-and-death issues, now utterly amplified. Indeed, after the 11th, Toronto was not the same event. The first half wound down as the press corps, in high spirits, emerged from a screening of Mira Nair's deliriously joyous film, Monsoon Wedding (which had been named the Venice festival's grand prize winner the day before), to enter a lobby filled with weeping colleagues staring at a giant monitor above the concession stand carrying the now-familiar scenes of unimaginable destruction. In the aftermath, all parties were canceled, industry presence was diminished and lines of Torontonians wound around the block, eager for the diversion and transport that movies deliver so well.
Suddenly it seemed that the festival was spilling over with films about loss, sudden death, fatal accident and families rent by grief. There were so many I tired of counting (The Safety of Objects, by the way, is one). Three are such exceptional films that they would have been singled out at any time; now they resonate, trembling like a tuning fork with the nervous hum of recent weeks. From Italy, there's The Son's Room; from Taiwan, What Time Is It There?; from France, L'Emploi du Temps (Time Out).
Laurent Cantet's Time Out is an unemployment thriller, detailing the desperate denial and increasingly psychotic behavior of a middle-management family man who loses his job, and with it his identity, sense of safety and all bearings. He never tells anyone what has happened. He cuts off all contact with his old colleagues and concocts one strategy after another--from pyramid investment schemes to outright smuggling--in order to maintain his face-saving fiction. As the screws of his deception tighten, a Hitchcockian shadow of slowly and excruciatingly built tension begins to shadow the film's events. Surely this will end violently? But Cantet is a latter-day Marxist whose last film, Human Resources, looked at a father-son struggle based on a factory floor. Here, he seems to tell us, nothing can compare with the violence experienced by any human caught up in mindless white-collar management, whether working or laid off. In that sense, the lie told by Cantet's protagonist--claiming that he's got a new job with a Swiss NGO doing business in Africa--is merely one more irony in his doomed flight from capitalism.
Tsai Ming-liang appeared in these pages earlier this year when his film The River had a delayed US release. Now he's back, with a wonderfully mature film, What Time Is It There? A comedy of sorts, it considers, among other things, how a son and mother cope with Dad's sudden death. The mother weeps and tries valiantly to communicate with her husband on the other side, utilizing variously a cockroach, a carp and a Buddhist priest. The irreligious son, played as always by Lee Kang-sheng--star of all of Tsai's films since his 1992 hit Rebels of the Neon God-- is shaken, too. He works as a street vendor. When an attractive customer insists on buying the watch on his wrist instead of the one he's selling--arguing that the dual-time dial is essential for her trip to Paris the next day--she sets the film's structure in motion. As her geographic absence begins to stand in for his father's passing, the son performs his mourning by changing every clock in Taipei to Paris time, seven hours ahead.
It's a hilarious conceit, which Tsai carries through with smart cinematic wit. One scene explicitly evokes Harold Lloyd's silent-film antics. In another, our hero purchases a video--Truffaut's 400 Blows--and watches the scene of Jean-Pierre Léaud stealing a bottle of milk and gulping it down. Constant cross-cutting to the watch-bearer, now a lonely Parisian, reveals her chance encounter with the now-aged Léaud himself in a Paris graveyard. The themes of love and loss, nurturance and abandonment, couldn't be clearer; for added resonance, consider that actor Lee is often compared to James Dean, who so famously drank milk from the bottle in Rebel Without a Cause.
Nanni Moretti has made a career's worth of film grounded in humor, but here he has turned serious. The Son's Room, which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes this spring, is a portrait of a family, first in happiness and then in grief, its moods bifurcated by the accidental death of an adored son. Conveniently, Moretti's script supplies the father (played by the director's favorite star, himself) with a profession uniquely suited to its needs and ours: He's a psychoanalyst. Prior to his personal tragedy, the doctor is able to handle his patients with ease, even though each one seems to have a problem that echoes his own issue in some way. But after the terrible twist of fate--how cruel film scripts, and life, can be-- he is less and less able. The marriage, too, enters difficult territory. All seems to be lost. And then a letter arrives out of the blue from an unknown girl, and everyone gets a second chance.
The experience of watching The Son's Room two days after the WTC tragedy has forever marked my sense of it. In return, it makes me confident of this film's ability to crack open the heart and heal its wounds again. Totally different from one another, each of these three films takes up loss (of child, parent, job) and looks for a remedy. All three appeared in the New York Film Festival as well and will, one hopes, open across the country quickly. We need them. The movie theater needn't be the place, as the late Pauline Kael once wrote, to "send our minds away." It can be the place where we find them again. And with our minds, our hearts.
August 20 issue we endorsed Mark Green, a lifelong liberal who has
been running as a liberal centrist, for mayor of New York City. Two
weeks before a runoff election against Fernando Ferrer, a lifelong
centrist who has been running on behalf of what he calls "the other
New York," Green accepted Mayor Giuliani's proposition that he be
allowed to stay in office an additional three months. If Green's
ill-advised cave-in were all we knew about him, we'd drop him like a
cold potato, the mayor's idea being unwieldy, unwise and
possibly--even if the state legislature went along--illegal. But
given Green's long and valuable service as a public interest
activist, his anti-Giuliani credentials, his anti-police brutality,
pro-public safety stances, we regard this as one bad decision in a
career replete with the right ones, and our endorsement stands. --The
As political insiders in New York City got back
to talking politics after September 11, people asked one another: How
did the World Trade Center attack change the mayoral election? No one
had any idea, but everyone agreed that, somehow or another, things
just had to be different.
It turned out that they were and
they weren't. On the no-change front, it appears that the greatest
calamity in the city's history proved no match for old-fashioned
ethnic politics. Bronx borough president Fernando Ferrer finished
first in the Democratic primary, riding the wave of an unprecedented
Latino turnout (Latinos represented 23 percent of the Democratic
electorate and voted for him against four white opponents by a
three-to-one margin). The vast majority of white observers, I among
them, assumed that after the attack Ferrer's campaign mantra about
"two New Yorks" would wind up buried under the lower Manhattan
rubble. The problem was, as we were dismissing Ferrer, we forgot to
ask his voters. That those voters sent the message they did,
especially at a time when rhetoric about unity and coming together as
one had become the only permissible lingua franca of municipal
political life, should remind us--and, one hopes, the next mayor,
whoever he may be--that as urgent as the need to rebuild may be, the
legions of homeless families and children without adequate healthcare
are still out there.
One thing that did change, and
disturbingly so, was the ground occupied by Mark Green, the city's
Public Advocate. Green finished second, with 31 percent to Ferrer's
35, largely because Ferrer's leftish campaign--ironic for someone
who, in a previous mayoral run four years ago, ran as a veritable
Democratic Leadership Councillor--struck a chord with the solid third
of the city that has consistently opposed incumbent Rudy Giuliani,
while Green's more moderated race--ironic for someone who has been a
lifelong liberal crusader and Giuliani's most consistent high-profile
critic--tried so hard to please so many different constituencies that
it ignited none.
Now, as the two head for an October 11
runoff, the distinction between them is even more stark. When
Giuliani proposed an extortionate "deal" to Green, Ferrer and
Republican primary winner Mike Bloomberg under which the mayor would
be permitted to stay on for three extra months (extortionate because
his implicit threat was that if they didn't accept, he'd seek ways to
run for a third term), Green capitulated, and Ferrer had the gumption
to say no. In truth, both decisions were political calculations.
Green needs the backing in the runoff of white voters who are looking
very sympathetically at Giuliani these days, and he needs to keep
Giuliani, who detests him and who could depress white turnout with a
few well-chosen words, off his back; Ferrer needs to stoke his Latino
and black (and anti-Giuliani) base. But the fundamental fact is that
one candidate defended an uninterrupted democratic process and one
did not. Green is still, by history and inclination, the more progressive
of the two, but many of his voters are sure to note that when he had
a chance to show some courage against the bullying incumbent, he took
Green's runoff dilemma, and his middling
performance in the primary, reflect a larger historical trend that
has percolated in New York City politics for nearly a decade
now--namely, that many white New York City liberals have become, in
the past two mayoral elections, Giuliani voters. While Ferrer's
natural base of politicized, anti-Giuliani blacks and Latinos has
grown in the past eight years, Green's natural base of progressive
whites has shrunk. White voters who would never think of voting for a
Republican at the national or state level voted for Giuliani by the
thousands in 1993 and 1997 (Giuliani beat Ruth Messinger on her own
Upper West Side in 1997). Ferrer was able to ignore these Giuliani
liberals, more as a matter of strategy than principle, although he
was clever enough that, to the naïve, it often came out sounding
like the latter. Green could not and cannot, and so he regularly
tempered his rhetoric with assurances to this bloc that he "got it"
on crime. Thus the major distinction between these two basically
liberal candidates reduces to skin color, and the fact that one feels
free to embody the grievances of the underclass while the
other--whose record on police abuse issues is, if anything, more
substantive than Ferrer's--must bear in mind the anxieties of the
The challenge to both is to harvest the votes of
their respective blocs without resorting to the sort of winks, nudges
and euphemisms that can inflame the racial tensions here that always
lie about an inch and a half below the surface. And the challenge to
the winner will be to bring the blocs together to fight Bloomberg,
who has unlimited millions and will, in all likelihood, have
Giuliani's endorsement. Bloomberg is a bad candidate and still a long
shot, but given what New York has been through these past few weeks,
this election is now taking place inside a funhouse mirror room, or a
Magritte painting (images are indeed treason)--Mark Green, the
white-backlash candidate?! Ed Koch endorsing Ferrer, whom he
pilloried as racially devisive two week before?!--and anything can
(An old Nat "King" Cole song, as sung by Rudy "King"
Indispensable, that's what I am.
icon now, like Uncle Sam.
I'm the rock this town is built
Après moi, no one could carry on.
Could possibly be
(bah, bah, bah)
the mayor for life.
No one worries now about my wife.
see, I've simply got to stay.
I'll be mayor forever and a
And I'll still be indispensable then.
WE SHINE FOR ALL
Your magazine remains a
beacon of hope for all of us, even those who revile you for your
progressive values--because we all lose when mindless, precipitate
actions are taken that end up costing more lives and wasting more
resources. You are a refreshing alternative voice to the jingoism
overtaking this nation. Thank you for remaining true to the cause of
LEE--FULBRIGHT OF HER TIME
Thank you for the interview with Representative
Lee ["Barbara Lee's Stand," Oct. 8]. I was reminded of Senator
William Fulbright's comment (in an interview not long before his
death in 1995) responding to the question of how he would vote on the
Tonkin Gulf Resolution given the benefit of hindsight. Fulbright was
chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1965. The
resolution, passed with about the same degree of consideration given
the House Use of Force resolution, gave President Johnson a similar
blank check to escalate the Vietnam War. Fulbright said if he had
another chance he would do his best to stop the 1965 resolution.
Barbara Lee is in good company.
GREG STARKEBAUM (Vietnam
MAD PROF--'VOICE OF REASON'
Patricia Williams--finally a voice of reason rather than mere reaction ["Diary
of a Mad Law Professor," Oct. 1]. No sane person would condone the
terrible acts in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. But what's
missing from our reaction is self-reflection and self-criticism.
America has drawn increasingly inward with George W. Bush and his
isolationist policies. The walking out of US delegates at the Durban
Conference on Racism is the most recent sad proof that America does
not want to hear or deal with what it does not like. This nation's
skewed foreign policy puts us all in peril. The American people and
our leaders must become more knowledgeable about the rest of the
world and how US actions and polices are perceived. Professor
Williams is absolutely correct. This is no time for ignoring the
causes of the deep hatred for the United States among many people and
cultures around the world.
FLY YOUR FLAGS
It is rare for me to
disagree with Katha Pollitt, but in "Put Out No Flags" she spoke too
quickly ["Subject to Debate," Oct. 8]. She should listen to her
daughter. The flag cannot be allowed to stand for "jingoism and
vengeance and war." We must take it back. It must again stand for the
best we can dream.
As a child during
World War II, I knew that our flag represented freedom. Most homes,
including ours, proudly flew the flag. Our nation fought a war, paid
a high price and helped win a fight that saved future generations
from a terrible fate. Now, to protect our grandchildren from a life
of terror, we must again take up a just cause and fight for
freedom--freedom that even allows for the expression of unrealistic
and offensive thoughts.
JOHN C. BOOTH
Pollitt says that what is needed is solidarity. Right now, that is
what the Stars and Stripes does for this country. It shows that we
citizens of this Republic are united against the perpetrators of
these barbarous acts. The fact that right-wingers used the flag to
support that monstrosity known as the Vietnam War doesn't mean those
on the left must cede this psychic territory of the Stars and Stripes
to the Ann Coulters and Jerry Falwells of the world. To use the flag
when engaged in activities that it stands for--freedom of speech,
freedom to peaceably assemble, freedom to petition the government for
the redress of grievances--what a radical idea! What a nonviolent
rebuff to those who have injured us!
White Salmon, Wash.
with Katha Pollitt's opinion of what our flag stands for. I also
agree with her daughter, who wants to fly it in a show of solidarity
with the victims and survivors and rescue workers, families and loved
ones who have been touched by this horrendous act against humanity.
The country needs to become united with the rest of the world,
Muslims, Arabs, Jews, Christians, Buddhists, everyone.
have agonized over how to show my solidarity without appearing to be
pro-war. So I have hung Buddhist prayer flags against my house and my
boyfriend's house next to his US flag. We feel that this represents
what we feel--support for our country's losses and a wish for
worldwide peace, US restraint and acceptance of everyone, regardless
of race or religion. The prayer flags carry our prayers (for peace)
with the wind, around the globe.
Virginia Beach, Va.
you, Katha Pollitt. Now I know I'm not alone. I refuse to fly our
flag as long as we kill people and don't negotiate. I received an
e-mail saying that we should all wear a purple ribbon for those who
have died in this terrible tragedy, as we did the yellow ribbon
during Desert Storm. I feel that this is much more
flag-waving for the same reason as Katha Pollitt, but I've been
jonesin' for a flag I could believe in. I'd like to see a flag with a
globe on it, as she mentions, so I could wave it proudly to say, I
belong to the Earth and I take a stand for protecting it.
MICHELLE Y. R'MY
It's a painful time for those of
us who have lived through the bad choices our government made in the
twentieth century. As one who has survived all those choices (I was
born in 1909), I fly the Earth flag--a blue banner with the beautiful
photo of our planet taken from outer space, used for the first Earth
Day. Our small organization has distributed these flags to schools
and municipalities for many years to help people realize that, in the
words of the Earth Charter (which all governments must
subscribe to if our planet is to survive), we must "bring forth a
sustainable global society founded on respect for nature, universal
human rights, economic justice and a culture of
Save Our World
I went to the AAA
flag store here last week and passed the forty or so people standing
in line to buy American flags and asked loudly, "Where are the flags
with the picture of planet Earth on them?" I took one home, and it
now flies proudly next to my American flag--which I fly with some
ambivalence but also with a determination to redefine this symbol of
jingoism for myself.
I have not joined the
patriotic fervor by displaying a US flag even though I deeply mourn
the loss of innocent lives, not just American lives but lives from at
least eighty other countries ruthlessly sacrificed in a perverted
interpretation of Islam. The first impulse I had was to fly the flag
with a picture of the Earth to show solidarity with our brothers and
sisters throughout the world. But since I don't own such a flag, I
have tied a black ribbon to my car antenna in memory of those who
died and as a symbol of the period of darkness that must now be
overcome if we as a global people wish to survive. Patriotism serves
only to further separate us from the sufferings of our brothers and
sisters throughout the world in a time when we need more than ever a
sense of unity and global community.
addresses the flag conundrum quite well. There is an alternative
symbol--the peace symbol--which could show empathy with the victims
and their families as well as expressing the desire for alternative
a global flag. See www.oneworldflag.org.
Thanks to Katha Pollitt for her
ideas for alternatives to the American battle flag. Here in
Asheville, we've made posters of the peace dove. They're hanging in
the windows of homes and businesses, a symbolic alternative to the
Stars and Stripes and the march to war.
Santa Monica, Calif.
We need American peace flags and not blank checks! Check us out to see what we're about: www.peaceflags.org
(click on info).
BILL RUSSELL, JOHN LANDRUM
Santa Cruz, Calif.
important to know our enemies. Listening to newscasters and
politicians would lead one to believe that our enemies are Osama bin
Laden, Saddam Hussein, the Taliban, Afghanistan or some fuzzily
defined worldwide network of brown-skinned lunatics with names like
Mohammed and Ahmed who take flying lessons in
Listening to the Rev. Jerry Falwell would lead one
to believe that our enemies are gays, Jews, abortion providers,
feminists, the ACLU and (though he neglected to mention them this
time) Teletubbies. Watching the actions of large numbers of Americans
would lead one to believe that our enemies are the 6 million Muslims
living in the United States, the mosques they pray at, the businesses
they run and the schools their children attend.
All are mistaken.
I hope Americans will look beyond these easy
targets and scapegoats and recognize their true enemies as ignorance,
intolerance and fanaticism. I fear we have already fallen prey to all
three. We have seen a man in Seattle drive his truck through a mosque
and begin shooting in the name of patriotism. And we may soon see our
military kill innocent people in the pursuit of one man and his
followers, also in the name of patriotism. As we indulge these acts,
I can only hope that we will not be surprised when their eventual and
inevitable responses follow, once again in the name of
We need to make the choice between a patriotism
we can buy at Wal-Mart for $3 and a greater cause than
patriotism--humanity. We must identify and make war on our own
tendencies toward fanaticism and intolerance. Otherwise, we ourselves
become the enemy, and the terrorists win.
UNCLE SAM WANTS THEM?
Given all the pro-war and American Empire rhetoric, I guess people like William
Kristol, David Brooks, Jonah Goldberg, Bill O'Reilly, Zell Miller,
Ann Coulter and the entire staff of National Review, among
others, will be stepping down from their jobs to go sign up at the
nearest armed services recruiting office. It will be a shame not to
hear their articulate opinions on everything from Monica Lewinsky to
the Taliban, but I believe it is a sacrifice America will have to
make. Such patriotic pundits, banging their war drums, surely will
lead America to victory.
Why don't we trade Henry Kissinger for Osama bin
Laden? Then we each can hold war crimes tribunals and let justice
prevail. It's a curious contrast: The Taliban won't surrender bin
Laden without presentation of evidence, whereas the United States
won't surrender Kissinger even with mountains of
OUR GLASS HOUSE
On September 11 America experienced a true faith-based initiative. Then, hearing the
remarks of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, who purport to be
Christians, made it clear that we have fundamentalists in our own
society no better than those we say we must fight. Our forefathers
tried to protect us from intolerance by making our government
secular, with the imperative to protect all beliefs. We have just
experienced the result of deep intolerance and become the victims of
religious fanatics. It is heartbreaking to begin this new century
with "holy wars," and we must not let our leaders put us on those
terms. We must stop those right here in our own country who preach
intolerance. As much as we condemn Muslim extremists, it is difficult
to cast stones when you live in a glass house.
DOROTHY I. MUNDY
A 'HYPENATED PERSPECTIVE'
New York City
Can I be at
war with myself? Watching the World Trade Center collapse, then
living through the aftermath, I ask that absurd question. I'm
American with a Muslim name but nondescript appearance. No one takes
me for Middle Eastern--I was born in West Virginia, and I'm only a
quarter Arab. But thanks to the peculiarities of history, and naming,
I have an Arab-American identity.
The attack on the World
Trade Center puts me in an awful place. Like everyone else, I am
horrified and angered. I could have been there, munching a bagel on
the observation deck. I can't imagine how someone could have planned
such an attack, and my shock is turning into anger and mourning. At
the same time, I feel excluded from the national unity. Why? As an
Arab-American, I'm subject to reprisals. I'm nervous, wondering if I
will somehow share the blame. Slurs, threats and even violence have
been leveled against anyone associated with Islam, and I wonder what
will happen to me. I'm looking for work--will I be denied a job? What
if a wider war breaks out? Will I lose my liberty?
friends have said I should go to Egypt. They meant well, but their
comments betrayed a misunderstanding that verges on racism. Hard as
it is for the safely white to comprehend, there is only one place for
me and other hyphenated Americans: the United States. America
produced me. My grandparents hail from four different countries.
Where else could they have created a family? If I'm out of place here
thanks to my name, I'm certainly out of place in the Middle East,
where I stick out as an American. What is left for me? Do we have to
pick sides in the end? And what can I do if neither side will have
me, if both treat me as the enemy?
Some of my fellow
citizens are striking out at American Muslims. Some are even calling
for a firestorm to be rained upon Islamic nations. Don't they see
that the terrorists had the same inspiration? The Afghans were caught
between the Soviet Union and the United States for decades. Their
country has been reduced to rubble. They have no hope. Violence
occurs in cycles, and, if we respond senselessly, striking innocent
people in our search for criminals, we'll create more radicals, more
suicide bombers who embody the despair of poverty and war. The
monopoly on violence is broken, and I shudder to think what comes
My situation brings a special clarity, one that
opposes choosing sides. What do I see from my hyphenated perspective?
The absurdity of labels, indeed, of the whole idea that race,
religion or flags divide humanity. I have a Muslim name, but my
grandfather was Serbian. How would that fly in the Balkans? Is the
world becoming a vast Balkan state?
I've wondered if I will
have to choose a side. If I do, here is my choice: pacifism and
dialogue. I choose love, I choose humanity. I may symbolize Islam to
some and America to others, but I transcend these distinctions. I am
proof that love conquers hate. My grandparents conquered tradition to
found my family, and I stand tall as an American born from a unique
and tolerant soil. What race produced me? The human race. I plead for
understanding and compassion. Chase the criminals, but let us then
begin to fight. Let us fight not for oil, money or revenge but for a
world where hatred and weapons belong to a distant, barbaric
'NEITHER IN THE EAST OR THE WEST'
I am an Arab-American. I am also a New Yorker born
in America of a Moroccan Muslim father. On September 11 I stood
terrified at my office window above Madison Square Garden, as I
watched in horror and disbelief the devastating destruction of the
World Trade Center--one of the quintessential landmarks of this city
I love. In the distance, down the soundless stretch of Seventh Avenue
hung the ghostly cloud of what moments before had been the mirror for
the Statue of Liberty, the thriving workplace of thousands of people
hailing from all over the planet, each living their portion of the
American dream. Read the names on the Wall of Prayers outside St.
Vincent's Hospital; they will tell you how the blow dealt to New York
truly hit the world, for the names are not only Mark, Jennifer and
Kevin, but Imran, Mohammed and Kumar. The terrorists who committed
this heinous act, if they were Muslim, are no more "my people" than
Timothy McVeigh was "the people" of Christians.
liberal Muslim, I must speak out with the clearest and loudest of
voices and not let fanatics and extremists define me and my
community. For we are in the vast majority--Muslims and Arabs who
condemn the killing of another human being, who believe that Allah is
compassionate and good and forgiving. Who know that the Koran forbids
suicide, who see life as a gift that must not be squandered. My
father taught me his favorite sura from the Koran, where God
is described as a "Light within Light, emanating from a source found
neither in the East nor in the West." The terrorists who carried with
them death and destruction shared neither my vision of Allah, nor my
vision of the world. They were men devoured by hate and stood only
I don't know if we will ever have a real
sense of how much was lost on September 11. I don't think I can ever
stop hearing the bells from the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine
that tolled for the dead all day that Tuesday. I heard them as I
walked out of Central Park coughing from the soot and ash, my feet
blistered from the long trek to Harlem, away from the horror. I
feared so much was dying, I feared not just for my college friends,
graduate school buddies and neighbors who worked in those towers but
for my visions of peace and of a better world. I feared for my dream
of an end to the conflict in the Middle East--most likely that vision
had gone up in a cloud of smoke. What of my hopes of cultural
understanding, of erasing of stereotypes, of validating identity and
difference? That, too, had come tumbling down. The terrorists had
sounded the death knell for my vision of a better day to come.
But I will not let them do that. In memory of all those
who died, I will speak up loudly and not let terrorists write the
epitaph of our future. I will not let a handful of hatemongers, who
twisted the minds of desperate souls, convince more people that there
is no way out of despair but through destruction. The differences
that divide the Arab-Muslim world and the West are not a chasm that
nobody can bridge, and I will not let extremists on either side tell
me otherwise. I refuse to let hate draw the blueprints for our
ANISSA MARIAM BOUZIANE
At a time when the economy needs vast and purposeful help from the federal government, America faces a peculiar handicap: Neither political party really believes in liberal economic intervention or knows how to do it. Democrats are still not over their infatuation with Hooverite fiscal austerity--embracing budget surpluses, bemoaning deficit spending. Other than serving their wealthy friends, Republicans work at dismantling government's ability to steer and stimulate the private economy. Both parties are enthralled by the most conservative advisers, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin (now at Citigroup), who counsel caution. Democratic Senate majority leader Tom Daschle expressed doubts about any stimulus program, fearful that next year's budget might go into deficit.
This reluctance to act boldly will have to change very quickly. The economy was already in contraction before September 11. It needs hundreds of billions in new federal spending--yes, deficit spending--to counteract the great shrinkage under way in consumption and business investment. No one knows the severity of what's unfolding, but false optimism will make things much worse. Acting too fast and spending too much have economic risks, but none compare to what can unfold if Washington is too timid.
Back to basics. As John Maynard Keynes and American originals like Marriner Eccles, FDR's Fed chairman, taught, when the economic engine starts to seize up, government is the only force capable of jump-starting it--pulling idle capital into real investment while bolstering the incomes and confidence households need to buy things. It does this by borrowing the money from private sources--running large federal deficits financed by Treasury bonds--and spending the money in ways that generate waves of collateral economic activity. Deficit spending is not an unfortunate side effect. It is the necessary cure. America is especially vulnerable now to a deepening contraction because Washington is flush while companies as well as households, particularly those in the bottom half, are mired in debt. An aggressive government stimulus program is essential to regenerate the wherewithal--and the motivation--for business and families to renew their spending. If we are truly at war, the government must also do this in ways that renew social trust and a sense of equity. Patriotism cannot endure if the reigning ethos continues to be "winner takes all."
The $15 billion bailout for the airlines is a disgraceful start. Washington couldn't avoid aiding these terribly mismanaged companies, but it demanded nothing in return for the taxpayers or the workers being laid off by the tens of thousands. When Congress bailed out Chrysler twenty years ago, Lee Iacocca volunteered to work for $1 a year, labor got a seat on the board and the government took warrants in exchange for its cash infusion, later redeemed in full. This time hapless Democratic Party leaders refuse even to demand that the CEOs stop ripping up union contracts. The insurance industry is next in line for a handout, and there will be others. If more bailouts follow the same pattern, America's newfound unity will swiftly curdle into bitter resentments.
The agenda must be of sufficient scale to make a difference--and pump out money quickly. Top-end tax cuts, the Republican answer to all questions, are particularly inappropriate; companies and capitalists aren't likely to invest when consumers are cutting back. Particularly laughable is the reflexive Republican call for a capital gains tax cut, as if investors need an incentive to sell stocks.
The government's $40 billion emergency appropriation for reconstruction and the military is only a hesitant start. Washington should immediately ship $40 billion or $60 billion (or more) in revenue sharing to state governments that are being forced by balanced budget requirements to cut spending or raise taxes. And rather than cut domestic spending to pay for the huge bundle just approved for the Pentagon, Congress should fully fund domestic programs--particularly those in education, nutrition, housing and health. Congress should also act immediately to aid those workers being laid off through no fault of their own. A sensible program would extend unemployment insurance to thirty-six weeks and raise the average benefit to $300 a week. Special provisions are needed for short-term, contract and part-time workers, who would otherwise not be eligible for assistance. The Economic Policy Institute estimates that a decent unemployment insurance program might cost $30 billion a year.
On a grander scale, America has huge unfilled public investment needs that can easily cost more than $1 trillion over the next five years. The money can buy things people and society want and need:
§ Education. School boards have a backlog of thousands of desperately needed school construction and repair proposals. A $40 billion school fund could generate construction jobs and contracts across the country in a matter of weeks.
§ Health. One essential defense against terrorist attack with biological or chemical weapons is to rebuild our decayed public health infrastructure--laboratories, public hospitals and clinics, and properly staffed public health departments with modern computer and communications systems.
§ Transportation. To counter highway congestion and the nightmare of air travel, the country needs to develop alternatives like high-speed trains. This takes planning and time, but many projects are ready to go. For example, MAGLEV Inc., a Pittsburgh consortium, has been seeking federal funds to demonstrate a high-speed train that could get to Philadelphia in ninety minutes.
In addition, Congress can swiftly get money into the hands of those most likely to spend it. The next tax rebate can be targeted to low-wage workers who got nothing from the Bush tax cut; it would pump about $10 billion into the economy. The government could require all contractors to boost pay to a living-wage level. Aggressive new wage standards should be part of the government's quid pro quo for corporate bailouts. Indebted families need "stretched out" payment terms so they can keep spending.
After decades of conservative government, the list of needs and possibilities is long. Alert citizens must understand that it's time for Washington to act boldly, on a scale commensurate with the challenge. They must awaken Washington politicians from the stupor that suffocates imagination.
I've been surprised, here in Petrolia, listening to some people say they're afraid. Afraid of what? I ask. Remember, even in the days when the imminent possibility of nuclear holocaust was dinned into schoolkids, ducking and covering, California's North Coast was held in high esteem as a possible sanctuary. It's a reason many nutsos like the Rev. Jim Jones headed up to Mendocino and Humboldt counties in the years when Mutual Assured Destruction seemed just around the corner.
In this case, after that crime against humanity known as the September 11 attacks, the fearful folk amid the daily scrum round our post office and local store were concerned about further terrorist attacks, dire onslaughts on the Bill of Rights, war or a blend of all three.
We may yet see just such a dread combo, but to be honest about it, I've been somewhat heartened, far beyond what I would have dared hope in the immediate aftermath of the awful destruction. Take the pleas for tolerance and the visit of President W. Bush to mosques. Better than FDR, who didn't take long to herd the Japanese-Americans into internment camps.
Of course, President WB has been dishing out some ferocious verbiage about dire retribution and an endless war against terror, but what do you expect? You can't kill 6,000 or so, destroy the World Trade towers and expect soft talk. And of course there's been plenty of waving of the Big Stick, with B-52s taking off and aircraft carriers churning across the oceans of the world, but again, what do you expect?
In times of national emergency there are always those who see opportunity. The Justice Department has been trying to expand wiretapping and e-surveillance for years. The Pentagon and State Department have long chafed at the few puny restraints on their ability to arm and fund tyrants and train their torturers. So far as the Office of Homeland Security is concerned, we needn't expect Governor Tom Ridge, who presided over the savaging of constitutional protections during the demonstrations in Philadelphia at the GOP convention in July 2000, to be sensitive to constitutional issues. But even here let me offer a grain of encouragement.
The reaction in Congress to Attorney General John Ashcroft's wish list has been considerably better than that single voice of courage a few days earlier, when Representative Barbara Lee stood alone against the stampede of all her colleagues to give the President full war-making powers. At this juncture I never would have expected to cheer Representative Bob Barr of Georgia, as he thundered his indignation at Ashcroft for presuming to use this emergency as the pretext for every DoJ attempt over the past years to savage further the Bill of Rights.
War fever? Maybe, but I can't say I feel that crackle in the air. Plenty of flags, naturally, but they seem to symbolize national togetherness more than dire national purpose. When I drove into Eureka, the nearest town to Petrolia, the shopkeepers and customers were mostly making cheery jokes about the presidential command to keep the economy afloat by shopping. On the way home I listened to Dan Schorr lamenting the lost language of national sacrifice, but over Churchillian "blood, toil, tears and sweat," I'll take "shop till you drop" any day.
In times like these the role of the press is to beef up national morale, instill confidence in the leader, pound the drum. Here, too, things aren't nearly so bad as they might have been. Two weeks after the attacks I got an e-mail from Bill Blum, who's written masterful records of the crimes wrought in America's name by the CIA and other agencies down the years.
"I think," Blum wrote, "that if this article can appear in USA Today, then some good may come out of the tragedy yet. And it's one of many I've read, in the a and elsewhere, the past two weeks that mention truths about the US role in the world that are normally filed by the media under 'leftist propaganda garbage.' The Post quoted Castro at length about American imperialism, without putting him down. To us leftist propagandists, it's all old stuff, but to the American mass mind, it's 'huh?'"
Then Blum attached an article by Sandy Tolan, published on September 20, 2001, in USA Today, titled "Despair Feeds Hatred, Extremism." Tolan wrote, "The men in the four doomed airliners were filled with hatred and a twisted interpretation of Islam. But this explanation alone is not sufficient. It does not account for the flammable mix of rage and despair that has been building up in the Middle East since the Gulf War's end." Tolan vividly described the "humiliation and anger of a population living under decades of occupation: Israeli bulldozers knocking over families' ancient stone homes and uprooting their olive groves; military checkpoints, sometimes eight or 10 within 15 miles, turning 20-minute commutes into 3-hour odysseys; the sealing off of Jerusalem and the third-holiest shrine in Islam to Muslims across the West Bank; the confiscation of Jerusalem identification cards, and hence citizenship, from Palestinian students who'd been abroad for too long; the thirst of villagers facing severe water shortages while Israeli settlers across the fence grew green lawns and lounged by swimming pools; U.S. M-16s used to shoot at stone-throwing boys."
Easy, concluded Tolan, to dwell only on the madness of Wahabbite Islam, but "much harder is to understand that our own failure to witness and address the suffering of others--the children of Iraq, for example--has helped create fertile recruiting ground for groups seeking vengeance with the blood of innocents." This, mind you, in one of the largest-circulation papers in the country.
How truly terrible it would be if Americans utterly declined to think about their history, even if only to reject the notion of its relevance. That would imply a sense of absolute moral and historical self-assurance equivalent to that of bin Laden. In no way do I sense this to be the case today, and that's the most heartening omen of all.
Footnote: The Nation's editorial directors decree no inter-columnist disputes. It's obvious that I differ utterly with Christopher Hitchens's "Against Rationalization," printed last week. For specific reflections on Hitchens's recent Nation pieces, please visit the CounterPunch website, www.counterpunch.org.