Articles | The Nation

News and Features

With the news media playing such a pivotal--and questionable--role during the current crisis, we have asked Michael Massing, a contributing editor at the Columbia Journalism Review, to comment on the coverage in the coming weeks.
      --The Editors

A few minutes into ABC's World News Tonight on September 21--the night after George W. Bush's speech to Congress--Peter Jennings somberly noted that it was "time for all Americans to begin learning more about Afghanistan." I immediately perked up. Since the calamitous events of September 11, the networks had focused heavily on the human and physical toll of the attacks and on the nation's fitful efforts to come to terms with them. And they performed admirably in those initial days, consoling and comforting the public even as they were informing it. But as the days passed, and as the government prepared to strike at Osama bin Laden and his Afghan hosts, the need for some sharp political analysis became urgent, and here, on cue, was Jennings, promising a mini-tutorial.

Leaning forward, I looked expectantly at my TV screen--only to find it filled with the pale, bespectacled face of Tony Cordesman. Cordesman, of course, was a ubiquitous talking head during the Gulf War, and now he was back, holding forth in the same nasal monotone. He dutifully recited some basic facts about Afghanistan--the small size of the Taliban army, the limited number of tanks and aircraft at its disposal, the scarcity of bombing targets on the ground. "The job is extraordinarily difficult if not impossible if you set deadlines and demand instant success," Cordesman burbled. Then he was gone, and the program was back to its ongoing coverage of victims, heroes and terrorists. We learned nothing about the level of support for the Taliban, about the strength of the opposition, about America's long history of involvement in the region.

The segment was typical. As the nation prepares to go to war, the coverage on TV--the primary source of news for most Americans--has been appallingly superficial. Constantly clicking my remote in search of insight, I was stunned at the narrowness of the views offered, at the Soviet-style reliance on official and semiofficial sources. On Meet the Press, for instance, Tim Russert's guests were Colin Powell and (as he proudly announced) the "four leaders of the United States Congress"--Dennis Hastert, Richard Gephardt, Trent Lott and Tom Daschle. "How did the events of September 11 change you?" the normally feisty Russert tremulously asked each. Seeking wisdom on the question of Why They Hate Us, Barbara Walters turned to former Bush communications director, now senior White House counselor, Karen Hughes. "They hate the fact that we elect our leaders," Hughes vacuously replied. On NBC, Brian Williams leaned heavily on failed-drug-czar-turned-TV-consultant Barry McCaffrey ("Americans are natural fighters," McCaffrey fatuously informed us), while on The Capital Gang Mark Shields asked former Middle East diplomat Edward Walker, "Can the antiterrorism coalition really count this time on Saudi Arabia?"

To a degree, such deference reflects TV's customary rallying around the flag in times of national crisis. Such a stance is understandable; in light of the enormity of the attack, even atheists are singing "God Bless America." But the jingoistic displays on TV over the past two weeks--the repeated references to "we" and "us," the ostentatious sprouting of lapel flags, Dan Rather's startling declaration that "George Bush is the President, he makes the decisions and, you know, as just one American, he wants me to line up, just tell me where"--have violated every canon of good journalism. They have also snuffed out any whiff of debate and dissent; the discussion taking place within the Bush Administration is no doubt more vigorous than that presented on TV.

But there's more than simple patriotism at work here. The thinness of the coverage and the shallowness of the analysis seem a direct outgrowth of the networks' steady disengagement from the world in recent years. Since the end of the cold war, overseas bureaus have been closed, foreign correspondents recalled and the time allocated to international news sharply pared. Having thus plucked out their eyes, the networks--suddenly faced with a global crisis--are lunging about in the dark, trying desperately to find their footing.

No outlet has seemed more blinkered than CNN. The network that once emulated the BBC has instead become another MSNBC, and while it can still count on Christiane Amanpour to parachute into the world's hot zones, and on the game efforts of such on-the-ground assets as Nic Robertson in Kabul, the network has seemed thoroughly flummoxed by the complex political forces set in motion by the events of September 11. Consider, for instance, that famous brief clip showing a clutch of Palestinians celebrating the attack on the World Trade Center. Within days, word began circulating on the Internet that the footage had actually been shot during the Gulf War. The furor became so great that CNN eventually had to issue a statement describing where it got the tape (from a Reuters cameraman in East Jerusalem who insisted that he had not encouraged the celebration, as some claimed).

The real scandal, though, is that CNN repeatedly showed the clip without commentary, without attempting to place it in the broader context of reactions from the Islamic world. What were people in Gaza and the West Bank actually saying? Where were the interviews with clerics in Cairo, editorial writers in Amman, shopkeepers in Jakarta and schoolteachers in Kuala Lumpur? It was certainly not hard to obtain such views--witness Ian Fisher's sparkling dispatch from Gaza in the New York Times ("In the Gaza Strip, Anger at the U.S. Still Smolders") and Peter Waldman and Hugh Pope's excellent front-page roundup in the Wall Street Journal: "Some Muslims Fear War on Terrorism Is Really a War on Them; West Undercuts Islam, They Say, by Backing Israel, Autocratic Mideast Rule."

Not all was bland on CNN. Jeff Greenfield, for one, made some genuine efforts to probe the Islamic world's complex love-hate relationship with the United States. On September 20, for instance, he had a spirited discussion with Afghanistan hands Barnett Rubin of New York University and Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland, along with Farid Esack, a Muslim scholar at Auburn Theological Seminary. Far more representative,though, was "What Do We Know About Islam?" an exceedingly brief Sunday segment in which a Christian minister and a Muslim cleric offered very vague observations about relations between Christianity and Islam. It was followed by an interview with a Muslim-American who assured us that "Islam means peace." Shot in Boston and New York, the segment drove home how CNN has lost that precious journalistic ability to work the streets of the world and discover what's really taking place there. Given CNN's critical part in keeping the world informed, one can only hope that it will soon regain its bearings.

PEACEFUL JUSTICE In every region of the country, a movement for a "justice, not vengeance" response to the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon is growing rapidly. Among the first to act were students at Connecticut's Wesleyan University. "People were still crying, but they were also asking, 'What can we do to break the cycle of violence?'" says Sarah Norr, a junior. Wesleyan students who had been mobilizing against sweatshops and World Bank policies joined Arab-American students to create a movement for "peaceful justice." They e-mailed campuses nationwide, created a website (www.peacefuljustice.cjb.net) and tapped into Students Transforming and Resisting Corporations (STARC), Student Peace Action Network (SPAN) and 180/Movement for Democracy and Education networks to organize a "National Student Day of Action" around four principles: unequivocal condemnation of the terrorist attacks, a call for US officials to seek justice rather than revenge in order to avoid loss of more innocent lives and to work toward a lasting peace, resistance to scapegoating of Muslims and Arab-Americans and defense of civil liberties. "Wesleyan really got the ball rolling," says STARC co-founder Terra Lawson-Remer. The September 20 Day of Action saw teach-ins and rallies on 140 campuses. Now, Wesleyan students are working with STARC to take the movement off campus. "The polls say 85 percent of Americans want a war, but when we ask local businesses to put up our signs, we're finding a longing for dialogue," says Norr. "When we say, 'We're all against terrorism; now let's talk about the best way to respond to it,' people don't reject the opportunity, they embrace it."

NO MORE VICTIMS It is tough to talk peace when your phone lines have been disrupted after a terrorist attack, but the War Resisters League did. Despite phone and Internet troubles at its New York office, the seventy-eight-year-old organization issued a statement within hours of the attack and helped organize a vigil for peace in New York's Union Square. The American Friends Service Committee, while dispatching volunteers to help victims of the World Trade Center attack, launched a "No More Victims" campaign urging Bush to "look for diplomatic means to bring to justice the people who are responsible for this crime against humanity." Peace Action, while continuing its activism against Bush's National Missile Defense plan, made the case for treating the attackers as criminals rather than embarking on military actions. Said Peace Action's Kevin Martin, "A great nation does not punish the innocent to assuage its anguish." New groups such as the Seattle 911 Peace Coalition, as well as old peace and social justice organizations, mobilized to arrange teach-ins and rallies in cities from Boston to San Diego.... After the Mobilization for Global Justice called off planned protests against the IMF and World Bank, coalition partners began organizing marches and rallies in the Washington, DC, area to criticize Bush's handling of the crisis.... An interfaith statement signed by more than 1,500 Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist leaders was delivered to Congress and posted on the websites of the National Council of Churches (www.ncccusa.org) and Sojourners (www.sojo.net). The statement reads, in part, "Those culpable must not escape accountability. But we must not, out of anger and vengeance, indiscriminately retaliate in ways that bring on even more loss of innocent life."

VOICES OF EXPERIENCE Arab-Americans facing threats of violence and discrimination after the attacks found defenders among Japanese-Americans who recalled the abuses they suffered during World War II. "We're seeing a chilling echo of what happened sixty years ago," warned actor George Takei, one of 120,000 Japanese-Americans interned by the US government. Takei damned attackers of Arab-Americans, saying, "The fanatics are no better than the terrorists." The Japanese American Citizens League made common cause with the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in urging federal action to protect Arab-Americans, Muslims and immigrants. Democratic Representative Mike Honda of California, another former internee, is trying to convince the professional sports leagues to broadcast a statement condemning bigotry toward Arab-Americans. Warning against the "abandonment of our most cherished ideals when blinded by rage," Honda said any US response to the attacks must "make sure that we do not repeat the injustices visited upon one ethnic group in 1941."

FREEDOM OF INFORMATION? Members of Congress have been warned by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to keep mum about what they learn in briefings, the Voice of America was censored and Pentagon aides are restricting the flow of information about US military responses to the September 11 attacks. "I'm having flashbacks to Richard Nixon," says Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. Recalling battles over media access during the Vietnam War, Dalglish says, "Everything tells me this new fight will be the most covert war we have ever seen. If it drags on, as I think it will, we are very likely to see new Pentagon Papers situations where the government tries to prevent citizens from learning what is going on. That's dangerous in a democracy. People need to know whether a war is being pursued justly, or whether it is just cruel annihilation." Dalglish is pushing watchdog groups to reactivate a coalition that pressed for openness during the Gulf War.

"It looked just like a movie." Need I say which? Independence Day, for sure. The Towering Inferno, for those who remember it. Or Titanic, the ship gone up instead of down, with no Kate Winslet to offer succor. Escape From New York. Or Batman, with the Joker set loose and no Batman to protect Gotham. Hollywood has perfected the art of the fictional disaster to such an extraordinary degree that life itself, even at its most real and most heinous, can end up looking like an imitation. Until, that is, the moment of impact is over and the happy ending goes missing, no credits roll across the screen and, worst of all, no dead spring back to life.

When real-life disasters hit, American movies tend to leave the hard work of analysis and healing to television docudramas, cable presentations and independent documentaries. Unfit for the big screen, headlines become fodder for the small one; important subjects are scorned as "movie of the week" fare. Calamities like the AIDS epidemic, for example, were covered by independent videos and films years ahead of the movie industry.

When Hollywood does move from fictional violence to the real stuff of national crisis, it usually relies on two formulas to animate its scripts: biopics of fallen heroes and the epic battlefields of war. For peacetime dramatizations of national heroes, Oliver Stone and Spike Lee fill the bill. JFK and Malcolm X explored old wounds and prompted national soul-searching. Both directors have delved into the muck of social conflict in search of new answers (Born on the Fourth of July, Bamboozled), but they are the exception in an industry more reliant on recasting its own past hits and genres.

At its best and worst--Apocalypse Now and Pearl Harbor--Hollywood loves a good battle. Even when the United States has been militarily inactive, the impulse for war has been kept alive onscreen by repeating past victories (over the Nazis and Japanese in WWII) and defeats (in Vietnam). During the cold war, spy missions captured the imagination--hence the rise of Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan and the reinvention of James Bond. And when the end of the cold war created a short-term shortage of enemies, the deficit was filled by the introduction of drug lords and smugglers. With the narcotraficante cast as the new antagonist, movies were good to go, and a whole new chapter was about to begin, with Traffic as its likely opener. Now that, like the rest of life, will change.

The press has already reported that studios are hurriedly shelving or postponing the release of films on which they've already spent millions for fictional disaster sequences. Instantly notorious is the new Arnold Schwarzenegger film, Collateral Damage, which won't be in theaters any time soon. Nor will Big Trouble, an ill-timed comedy based on the Dave Barry novel of the same name about a man whose life is transformed by a (ha-ha) bomb in a suitcase. Men in Black II has switched its climactic showdown from the World Trade Center to the Chrysler building. And the Spider-Man trailer has been pulled because of its sensational shot of Spiderman spinning a web between the Twin Towers. Pity LA's midlevel execs, busy screening dailies and purging scripts, recutting trailers and shuffling opening dates. Out of respect for the American people's great loss, yes. But equally out of fear of their own impending box-office calamity.

Keep in mind that the narrowly averted Screen Actors Guild and Writers Guild strikes of this spring have already resulted in a huge stockpile of films that were rushed into production and now await release. What are those films and their stories? And how will they play, if released into this scared new world? It's too early to know whether they'll be able to soothe the soul, just end up irrelevant or, worse yet, be offensive.

But one thing is sure. The aftermath in which we now find ourselves demands new scripts entirely, something that an entertainment industry more attuned to disaster simulation than disaster relief may have a hard time providing. Certainly it will try. You can be sure that at this very moment Hollywood is working hard to determine the mood of the public. Short-term, reports tell us that folks are returning to the movie theaters and concert halls. People want to feel community, to find solace, to employ denial for a moment's peace.I would guess that romantic comedies, easygoing family dramas and any films that go down smooth will do well in the short term. Here are some thoughts and suggestions on what could happen next.

First up, diversion: We'll be reminded of just why Busby Berkeley was so successful in the Depression era, designing ostentatious musicals to take people's minds off their troubles. Expect escapism for shot nerves.

Second, revision: Hollywood will know how to fit the new stories into its existing formulas without blinking an eye. The heroism of the men who may have wrested control from the hijackers over the skies of Pennsylvania is a natural for the big screen. And surely the harrowing stories of people who made it out of the towers, and the tragic tales of those who didn't, will be the stuff of scripts for years to come. This is no cynical complaint, either; they deserve to be films. But it may take a while for an audience to be able to sit through any replay of the events of September 11, 2001.

Third, reinvention: Film history offers a host of examples of what gifted filmmakers living in times of national catastrophe can produce. Postwar Europe, devastated by the ruins of cities, populations and economies, gave birth to one of the most influential film movements of the past century, Neorealism. It was a totally new cinematic approach that brought the grit of documentary into the passionate narratives of fiction. After it, the movies were never the same. Latin American cinema followed Italy's example: The first Cuban directors studied in Rome with the Neorealist masters, Brazil and Argentina took note and a new vision of cinema was shaped.

Today our filmmakers once again have to help audiences imagine the previously unimaginable. And, again, there's new technology to supply the immediacy and freshness that the new aesthetics, as well as audiences with a desperate need to make sense of an unprecedented set of experiences, will demand. There are some useful precedents. In Britain Michael Winterbottom captured the humanity in the new global conflicts with Welcome to Sarajevo. In 1974 Canadian filmmaker Michel Brault made the searing Les Ordres to tell the world the story of 400 Montrealers rounded up under the War Measures Act. And Jean Renoir's Grand Illusion is a necessary revival, for its message of recognizing both the humanity of your enemy and the insanity of war.

Fourth, a worst-case scenario, the cinema of paranoia: Just imagine The Manchurian Candidate as the model for a new genre. I fear a widespread retooling of film noir, spliced together with the old Commie-threat scripts, into a new terror noir in which every stranger is a dangerous enemy, where community has broken down, civil liberties lie in tatters and no haven beckons in a world run amok. Something like I Was a Teenage Terrorist. Touch of Evil, recast for the East-West borderline.

Film noir flourished during the cold war, so it's ready-made to rise again. Its subtextual message of masculinity in crisis will play well too, to those generals enraged by impotence in the instant of the Pentagon hit. Paranoia can be fun as a plot device. As national policy, however, it is extraordinarily dangerous, leading to the worst sort of demagogy and extremism. Let's hope screenwriters resist the urge, and studios the desire, to take us on that kind of cinematic ride.

Finally, let's hope independent filmmakers of honor and conscience can find the financial backing in these dark times to give us documentary and dramatic visions of coexistence, humanity and peace. We need films that can project hope and internationalism onto the screen, and fast. As a film critic, I know well the power of images. Now, more than ever, we need the right ones.

I was somehow unprepared by television for what I saw when I arrived at Ground Zero.

Antonio de Herrera, the royal chronicler of Philip II, writing about the conquest of the New World in Historia General, included these lines:

The nations of New Spain preserved the memory of their antiquities. In Yucatán and Honduras there were certain books in which the Indians recorded the events of their times, together with their knowledge of plants, animals and other natural things. In the Province of Mexico, they had libraries of histories and calendars, which they painted in pictures. Whatever had a concrete form was painted in its own image, while if it lacked a form, they represented it by other characters. Thus they set down what they wished.

The image of a lost library, of graphs, codices and, subsequently, alphabetical transcriptions of oral tales, is suitable in the quest to imagine, even partially, the wealth of knowledge and spirituality that the Spaniards sought to dismantle. For what is a library if not a depository of memory? The past was important for the Nahua and Maya people, among other pre-Hispanics. They fathomed the need to record their inner thoughts, to make "history," to reflect on the nature and impact of human existence. That they "set down what they wished" is accounted for in the myriad inventories of colonization left to posterity.

As a teleological arrow, History, of course, is an invention of the nineteenth century. The lost library was a myth in the early stages of the conquest, heavily inflected by a somewhat twisted sense of nostalgia. In Mesoamerica--understood as the stretch of land that includes a large portion of Mexico today as well as Central America, with a population influenced by Olmec culture--the accounts of that loss were colored by a Zeitgeist that was unstoppable and merciless. In particular, the destruction of both the magisterial metropolis Tenochtitlán, by Hernán Cortés, and the Aztec empire were delivered with a sense of inevitability.

The events come to us mainly through Cortés's own correspondence with Charles V and also through Bernal Díaz del Castillo's True History of the Conquest of Mexico. The natives might be portrayed at best as generous and allowable. But the reader is biased toward the mighty Iberian army--only 600 men, who, even if faulty, are seen as fateful in their determinism. It wasn't until Europe began to pay attention to the vanquished that an elaborate cognizance of the epic period emerged. But it took time and a decision to go beyond an easy racial favoritism. To historians like William Hickling Prescott, the choice of heroes in the epic was unquestionable. In his The Conquest of Mexico, it is not Moctezuma, the Mexican leader, but Cortés, the brave, white, adventurous knight, who was the appropriate figure to describe in a view that fit the embrace of the "civilized" by a barbarous, idolatrous empire.

Then came Salvador de Madariaga's Hernán Cortéz. In a tone sensitive to the age of anti-imperialism that swept Europe in the early twentieth century, his biography is decidedly humane, aware of Cortés's self-righteous acts of immolation. The Iberians are still at center-stage, though, and remained thus until after World War II, when other historians, such as Maurice Collis, pondered the deprivation of life and the degradations of memory in a more evenhanded fashion.

How did the Indians preserve their own interpretation of the conquest? Is it possible to unravel the way in which the pre-Columbian mind approached the universe? What were its ethos and pathos? Which obsessions was it overwhelmed with? How did it use language to explore its own condition? These questions were initially asked, albeit obliquely, by Alexander von Humboldt around 1813. Interest awakened in Italy, France, Germany and the United States, inspiring a solid tradition of archeologists, ethnographers and philologists, such as Léon de Rosny, Eduard Seler and Franz Boas, to explore the pre-Columbian condition.

In Mexico per se, influential work to open up the pre-Hispanic mind was done by Manuel Gamio, Pablo González Casanova, Angel María Garibay K. and Fernando Horcasitas Pimentel. This tradition, seeking to give voice to a voiceless people, has at present its most distinguished practitioner in Miguel León-Portilla. Since 1956, when his doctoral dissertation was published as La filosofía náhuatl estudiada en sus fuentes (in English in 1963: Aztec Thought and Culture: A Study of the Ancient Nahuatl Mind), onward to the ever-popular Broken Spears, and up until the Cantares Mexicanos, edited with the help of Librado Silva Galeana and Francisco Morales Baranda, he has produced more than three dozen books that help us decipher the labyrinthine inner and outer paths of Mesoamerica.

The apex of his contribution--and a testament to its depth and entanglement--is In the Language of Kings, the most authoritative and inspiring anthology of pre-Columbian cultures to appear in any language other than Spanish. In browsing through its pages, I had a disconnected thought: León-Portilla resembles GershomScholem, a scholar of Kabbalah and a friend of Walter Benjamin, whose books provided an unexpected door to the hermetic theories of the divine at the heart of Judaism. Like Scholem, León-Portilla has shown that other viewpoints have persisted, beneath the surface of our Eurocentrism, from the time of contact. He too has unearthed documents that were within our reach but that needed a lucid, patient mind to be explained in full. He has made use of a silent, comparatively marginal field of study that, in his hand, acquires unparalleled importance.

The difference between the two is clear: Scholem was a paradoxical figure. How else to explain the lifelong effort of so enlightened a scholar to make every effort to uncover a heritage whose secrets have survived in a sealed form? In contrast, León-Portilla's quest is unambiguous: to delineate, coherently and forcefully, the map to a psyche eclipsed by the accidents of history, not by its own metabolism. Furthermore, the delineation is performed not in Nahuatl, a variety of Mayan, or in Spanish, but in English, the lingua franca of academic debate today and irrefutably the only language that holds the key to ending the eclipse.

To that end he is helped by the educator and writer Earl Shorris, whose work in the former field has won presidential recognition and whose writings include an elegy for the American Indian and a polyphonic history of the Latino population in the United States. This time around his job is to shape the material in lucid, inspiring English. Shorris, in turn, is aided by his wife, Sylvia, whose knowledge of Spanish and Ladino--also known as Judesmo and Spanioli, which is close to medieval Spanish--proved an essential resource in the translation process. (Others responsible for this anthology are Jorge Klor de Alva and Ascensión H. de León-Portilla, and countless interpreters, archivists, folklorists and village memorialists both north and south of the Rio Grande.)

I met León-Portilla some fifteen years ago at a Jewish wedding in Cuernavaca, Morelos, and we had a brief conversation about his quest. He struck me as a subtle person whose great erudition is not paraded ostentatiously. Subtle, too, is how I would describe the perspicacious message of this anthology, delivered patiently, in installments, the way León-Portilla himself has been accomplishing his objective over the years: Pre-Columbian civilization, the book proclaims, is neither dead nor gone, and it ought not to be seen as a museum curio, a set of frozen items on display for curious, uncommitted eyes to observe.

In a section titled "The New Geography of Mesoamerica," León-Portilla and Shorris suggest that after the Spanish invasion, the spread of Nahuatl and other pre-Columbian cultures occurred through mass immigration, across a vast expanse of land. A connection is made here to the Chicano movement, especially with figures like Los Angeles Times journalist Ruben Salazar, whose columns in 1970 on what it means to be a Chicano incorporated aspects of "Indian" pasts. (One of my few minor complaints is that this connection with Mexican-Americans might have been developed further: Other Latino authors, and a handful of Chicano activists in the 1960s--Rudolfo "Corky" González, author of the poem "Yo soy Joaquín/I Am Joaquín," comes to mind--also tackled the issue. And then there is Carlos Castañeda, the UCLA-trained anthropologist whose oeuvre, from The Teachings of Don Juan onward, is in desperate need of re-evaluation and rescue from New Age hands.)

In the Language of Kings makes some unpredictable connections between the past and prominent political leaders that spring from, or have found a source in, the pre-Columbian Weltanschauung. The impact is sometimes startling. Perhaps most significant is the emulation of the indigenous revolutionary hero Emiliano Zapata. A couple of manifestos of April 27, 1918, are included here. In one, Zapata states that "our great war will not come to an end" until the dictator Venustiano Carranza is defeated and until "Christians [i.e., hacienda owners and caciques], those who have made fun of us, who hate us," allow the Mexican people to reconnect with their ancient roots. The anthology also highlights the endorsement of Zapata by Subcomandante Marcos and other insurgents in Chiapas, as well as the fear that these guerrilla fighters create in the aboriginal population.

A prayer to Kajaval (Lord) by the Chamulas, who are fearful of the Zapatistas for past sins, is excerpted; it shows the religious syncretism that permeates the Indian population:

Have Mercy, Kajaval,
Have Mercy, Jesus.
Make yourself present among us, Kajaval,
Make yourself present in our incense,
Jesus with us, your daughters,
With us, your sons...
What sins have we, Kajaval?
What guilt have we, Jesus?

Anthologies are cut-and-paste artifacts. To survive, they depend on the voices of a handful of luminaries, whose light enables other minor voices to speak out as well-- and even their empty, forgettable spots, as Henry James suggested was true of structure in novels, help establish a sense of continuity. Six-sevenths of this volume's contents are devoted to Nahuatl and Mayan literatures; the remaining seventh covers Mixtec, Otomi, Purepecha and other Mesoamerican languages. I read parts of it with disinterest and others, whose echoes resonate in my mind, excitedly. The section on Nahuatl letters I found especially inspiring: It contains metaphysical poetry, sacred narratives, huehuetlahtolli (discourses of the elders), proverbs, historical narratives, diaries and Christian proselytizing literature. Some of the proverbs, mostly taken from the Florentine Codex by Bernardino de Sahagún, I recall from my school years in Mexico. They brought back to mind the cryptic forms of wisdom Indian friends of mine used in daily language: Among the Nahuatl people, for instance, "a page is sent" is an aphorism used to refer to a person who is asked to deliver a message and fails to return with a response; and the maxim "a word is his meal" describes a person who is wounded easily and immediately starts quarreling with others.

Here and elsewhere one gets the impression that León-Portilla is enamored with the knotty paths of language--paths that ought to be appreciated not only for their literal meanings but also for their conjectural value. More than anything else, he gives us the language of dignity by going beyond the politics of compassion; there is never an attempt to generate pity in us. Pityarises from a slight contempt, and contempt involves a sense of superiority that is thankfully absent here--our technological superiority is only that, after all. This anthology also rejects the naïve suggestion that pre-Columbian civilization was somehow "purer" than ours, as well. The collection's overall effect is breathtaking precisely because it doesn't force judgments about its object of scrutiny. It tells us that the material it contains was conceived in a milieu radically different from ours, and that our awareness of time and space, of life and afterlife, makes us foreigners to it. What León-Portilla provides us with is the set of tools necessary to appreciate--and yes, to understand--this complement reality.

In his general introduction, León-Portilla gives us a quick sketch of the Mesoamerican ethos. The reader is told, for instance, that in the pre-Hispanic pantheon gods came in pairs, such as Tlaloc, the god of rain, and Chalchiuhtlicue, the goddess of the terrestrial waters. Tonalli (or destiny) depended on what the gods chose to concede to a person at the moment of birth. And to live attuned to the rhythms of nature was thought to be of primary importance. The skein of ideas León-Portilla lays out--the way pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica "read" itself, in rich detail, free of the false sense of "primitiveness" forced upon it by Western civilization--allows us to follow the traces of aboriginal thought in Mexico's postcontact intelligentsia. From Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora to José Vasconcelos to Andrés Henestrosa, an embrace of the Indian legacy, from lukewarm to operatic to emphatic, has been unavoidable: The aboriginal face is in the mirror at all times, even after repeated attempts to blur it; it is as ineradicable as its European counterpart, an essential component of the mestizo self.

Many but not all of Nahuatl poets of the past are anonymous, in part because the pre-Columbian civilization wasn't permeated by a sense of individualism. Still, there are recognizable names, like Axayacatl, Nezahualpilli and Cacamatzin. The most talented of them, the one capable of extreme varieties of feeling and thought, is Nezahualcoyotl, king of Tezcoco. This poet alone justifies In the Language of Kings. A product of a mix of Chichimeca and Toltec cultures of the early fifteenth century, he is a proto-existentialist who might remind the modern reader of Kierkegaard--yet at the same time he remains a power-drunk warrior and tortured political leader.

The education of Nezahualcoyotl was that of a prince; he witnessed the assassination of his father at a tender age. His poetry is ingrained with a philosophical inquisitiveness that makes it surprisingly modern. Not that he was a likable person--among other things, he is known to have arranged the death of his loyal follower Cuacuauhtzin in order to marry that friend's wife. But he was also a promoter of the arts and a strategist whose energy was devoted to the construction of a gathering place for artists and intellectuals, as well as an aqueduct that brought spring water to Tenochtitlán. Consider his poem "I Shall Never Disappear":

I Shall Never Disappear
I am intoxicated,
I weep, I grieve,
I think, I speak,
within myself I discover this:
I shall never die,
never disappear.
Let me go to the place
where there is no death,
where death is overcome:
I shall never disappear.

Or "Song of the Flight":

Live peacefully,
pass life calmly!
I am bent over,
I live with my head bowed
beside the people.
For this I am weeping,
I am wretched!
I have remained alone
beside the people on earth.
How has Your heart decided,
Giver of Life?
Dismiss Your displeasure!
Extend Your compassion,
I am at Your side, You are God.
Perhaps You would bring death to me?

Is it true that we are happy,
that we live on the earth?

The time of Nezahualcoyotl was bloody yet unapocalyptic. After all, he lived before the arrival of Cortés, seen by the Indians as a reincarnation of their god Quetzalcoatl. It is that encounter that changed forever the world of its participants. (Barbara Tuchman has a lucid, unforgettable chapter on it in The March of Folly.) León-Portilla, in the section on historical narrative, includes the visión de los vencidos, a Nahuatl representation of the conquest of Tenochtitlán, that begs to be read against Cortés's correspondence and the chronicle of Bernal Díaz. It is in this section that the reader is fully and unreservedly exposed to the other side of the coin: the arrival of the Iberian knights from the viewpoint of the natives. Descriptions of how Moctezuma sent witches, wizards and sorcerers to face the Spaniards abound, along with a scene in which Moctezuma is found crying, a chronicle of the Tlaxcalan conspirators who helped Cortés, the epidemic of smallpox ("an illness of pustules of which many local people died") that broke out after the Iberians left Tenochtitlán, the use of a catapult at the top of an altar to hurl stones at the population and the surrender of Moctezuma.

Where the focus is on the Maya, León-Portilla and Shorris include the Popol Vuh (an astonishing sixteenth-century work written in Latin script, which records the secrets of Mayan civilization) and Chilam Balam of Chumayel (in which a Mayan priest delivers astrological reckonings). They also collect the drama of war, sacrifice and loyalty known as Rabinal Achi; this work was part of oral tradition "found" in Guatemala by a French priest and first staged to Westerners in 1856. There is also discussion of myths, legends, songs and incantations. Though the translations feel fluid, I was less enchanted with this portion of In the Language of Kings, though perhaps this is because my Mexican upbringing in the capital and my friendships were influenced by Nahuatl folklore, not Maya.

León-Portilla includes a version of the conquest recorded in Chilam Balam of Mani, a Chontal version of the death of the king Cuahtemoc, some songs of Dzitbalche discovered in Merida in 1942 that were drafted in Yucatec Maya, as well as a bunch of kennings (the poetic form called difrasismos by Leon-Portilla). Selections by various contemporary Mayan poets also appear, and one worthy of attention in particular, for his commanding voice, is Humberto Ak'abal. He is a representative of Indians not only linked to the past but to the word processor too. A handful of the authors featured in In the Language of Kings were students of León-Portilla in a seminar on Nahuatl culture. Their inclusion signals a literary revival that is, as much as anything, a manifestation of the way Mexico as a nation is repositioning itself in this millennium. Here is Ak'abal's poem "Learning":

In these "spurts"
the urge to write comes upon me,
not because I know something, but
because doing and undoing
is how I learn this craft,
and in the end
something stays with me.

The knolls,
the hills,
the canyons,
the old villages
have bewitching secrets
and I wish to extract these
to transfer them
to sheets of paper.

I must treat this beautiful craft
like an avocation although it pains me,

because I cannot give it as much time as I would like.
(I must work at something else in order
to survive.)
My verses are as wet as rain,
or the tears of the evening dew,
and it could not be otherwise,
because they have been taken from the mountain.

On occasion the entries in the anthology seem incomplete, even fractured. The reader, dumbfounded by the sheer abundance of substance, might get lost. But volumes such as these are preambles to further explorations. The ambitious, chimerical aspect of In the Language of Kings makes me think of it as León-Portilla's Book of Creation. It is also a summa of his oeuvre: Through the hundreds of entries we are allowed, magically, a rendezvous with the past and an appreciation of the future. The reader sees the Indians eat, love, fertilize the earth, go to war and dream. That Cortés makes merely a cameo appearance and Moctezuma fares only slightly better is a plus, for the actual protagonists of this odyssey are the aboriginal people as a whole. Indeed, the book's publication--its heft and scope--is a historic occasion that allows for a glimpse of the sunken wealth of pre-Hispanic civilization. It is an invitation to reconsider as a whole the scholarly tradition since Humboldt, and to re-evaluate the modes of history that permeate our worldview. More important, perhaps, it is a declaration that the object of such study, the civilization in focus, should not be looked at as a fait accompli; that the pre-Columbian past lives in the postcolonial future. The lost library was never lost, yet bears revisitations such as this.

Nine times the Space that measures Day
      and Night
To mortal men, he with his horrid crew
Lay vanquisht, rolling in the fiery Gulf
Confounded though immortal: But his doom
Reserv'd him to more wrath...
         --John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book I

As a million impoverished Afghans flee toward the borders of Iran and Pakistan, as the reconfiguring of civil and human rights is debated in Congress, as the CIA considers reinstating the kinds of training camps in which Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein learned so much before they Fell From Grace, as rumor and disinformation swirl through our media and the Internet, and as the world readies itself for war against murkily located and confusingly defined enemies, I find no words for this great sadness. I offer instead cautionary notes from my clippings of the Gulf War ten years ago, during the presidency of George Bush the Elder.

January 8, 1991: The New York Times reports that the Defense Department, "in obtaining permission to give experimental drugs to American troops in the Persian Gulf, is about to violate the Nuremberg Code, one of the primary moral documents to emerge from World War II.... Since Nuremberg, no government has officially attempted to justify research on competent adults without their informed consent--that is, not until our government said exceptions would be permitted so that specific unapproved drugs and vaccines could be administered to the troops without their consent.... Under the new regulation, whatever experimental drug or vaccine military commanders and the FDA think is in the soldiers' best interest becomes obligatory 'treatment.'"

January 17, 1991: The airstrikes have numbered more than 1,000 in fourteen hours. No word about Iraqi casualties. On TV there are reports of massive anti-American demonstrations throughout the Middle East. A Washington expert on the Near East says that provided we look like the winner, he doesn't think the "Arab street" will matter. He says that these countries aren't democracies, so their leaders don't have to listen to popular opinion, though if it becomes drawn out, then the "Arab street" will be "more of a factor." This is followed by an interview with the publisher of something called Petroleum Intelligence Weekly, who explains the war from "an oil policy point of view."

On another channel, a newscaster describes the bombing of Baghdad as a "star-spangled reign of terror." A foreign policy expert hails Desert Storm as ushering in a new period in which "there will be no more wars," and in which it will be clear that "America's sword is the mightiest."

January 18, 1991: At least 2,000 sorties every day. In today's New York Times [p. A9], there is an interview with Colin Powell: "Q.: 'Do we have any estimate how many Iraqi soldiers might have been killed in the bombings?' Powell: 'No, I'm not able to answer that at this time. It is a comprehensive campaign with, as I've said many times, air, land and sea components. And we have thought it out. It will unfold over a period of time. But I can't answer your question directly...'" On TV, President Bush says war is "never cheap or easy." In response to concern about the protests in "the Arab world," Bush says that there is no single Arab world, and that most of the Arab world is behind the United States.

January 20, 1991: The Gulf War costs between $150 million and $1.6 billion a day, depending on the intensity of fighting. Dick Cheney is going to ask Congress for $20 billion more for next year's budget, in addition to the $295 billion already in next year's defense budget.

January 21, 1991: A press conference at the Defense Department. I guess the questions don't matter when the answers are: "You're into a delicate area." "I'd like to be more forthcoming." "I can't tell you." "I will absolutely not talk about submarines." "We can't say with certainty." "The answer to that is militarily insignificant." "I can't quantify that for you." "I would like to answer that for you, I truly would, but it would be inappropriate." "I can't confirm that." "All I can do is give you the official position." "It would lead one to believe..."

February 3, 1991: The New York Times reports that "after more than two weeks of war in the Persian Gulf involving the heaviest sustained bombing in history, the Pentagon is avoiding any estimate of Iraqi deaths so far.... The overall death toll could be as low as a few thousand or more than 10,000.... [According to Loren Thompson, deputy director of the national security program at Georgetown University] 'General Schwarzkopf's main concern is that when you get into the body-count business, you end up perverting the bomb damage assess.... You have a talisman, a single measure of success that really isn't related to whether you are winning the war.' At the same time, he said, when damage is listed in terms of tanks destroyed or airfields cratered, as the Pentagon has done, 'you avoid talking about lives lost, and that serves both an esthetic and a practical purpose.'"

March 15, 1991: The Washington Post reports 70 percent of the bombs dropped on Iraq and occupied Kuwait missed their target.

March 22, 1991: The Pentagon lists 148 American deaths (thirty-five of those from "friendly fire"), but omits any mention of Iraqi deaths. The Wall Street Journal reports that General Schwarzkopf has "privately given" President Bush estimates that "at least" 100,000 Iraqis lost their lives in six weeks of fighting.

In the hushed wake of all the luminous, precious lives snuffed out in the World Trade Center, I believe a so-called body count neither adds to nor subtracts from the greatness of our grief--nor will it always even be the only moral measure if our end is justice. On the other hand, ignoring altogether great human cost in deference to the "aesthetic" of efficient war--that is a great wrong, not easily forgiven, and one whose price could keep us spiraling in infinite bouts of vengeance and revenge with those who wonder, like Milton's Stygian Counsel: "Will he, so wise, let loose at once his ire,/Belike through impotence, or unaware,/ To give his Enemies their wish, and end/ Them in his anger, whom his anger saves/ To punish endless...."

To imagine that this national emergency is good for us is a dangerous mistake.

Haunted by the Cold War

We regret that space considerations permit us to print only a few of the many letters we received on Martin Duberman's "A Fellow Traveling," his review of Ronald Radosh's Commies, and Victor Navasky's "Cold War Ghosts," an essay on the new McCarthyism, both in the July 16 issue. Among those we're unable to print (but which may be read on our website) are letters from victims of McCarthyism, letters on the merits (demerits, actually) of the Hiss and Rosenberg convictions, scholarly letters filling in missing pieces of cold war history (including one from a Navy veteran who served in the Office of Strategic Services) and a letter finding a "cold war ghost" in the actions of "those who rule the National Pacifica Radio Board." Radosh invites readers to his website to read his answer to Duberman's review. We accept, and we invite readers to our special website letters page to read more on this topic. --The Editors

Brookeville, Md.

I would like to thank Martin Duberman for trying to be evenhanded and fair in his discussion of my memoir, Commies: A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left and the Leftover Left. I suspect that many Nation readers will be angry that he did not deliver the hatchet job expected by so many of them. Nevertheless, I have many points of difference with both him and Victor Navasky, whose piece appeared in the same issue. Rather than take up the limited space allotted in the letters column, which would not allow for a substantive answer, I refer interested readers to my archive at frontpagemag.com, where they will find my answers to both Duberman and Navasky.



I thank Victor Navasky and Martin Duberman for their sane and cogent analyses of the new anti-Communism. As a veteran of union organizing during the Great Depression and of military service in World War II, I long ago concluded that Communism and anti-Communism are equally absurd. They are absurd in being essentially theological, in the outdated mode of the Crusades or of Cromwell's Puritanism. Both Communism and anti-Communism derive tests of faith syllogistically from shaky first principles. Thereupon their opposing heresy-hunters are off and running. Heretics are judged to violate vague notions called loyalty and security. Our nation's Founding Fathers omitted these notions and defined treason narrowly and precisely. Later the notion of loyalty tests died with rejection of the Alien and Sedition Acts; died again with revulsion against the Palmer Raids; and died a third time with the deserved unpopularity of Joe McCarthy. (Espionage is another matter. Insofar as there really are national secrets, they must be protected, but only with strict observance of due process.) I began to recognize Stalin's paranoia and cruelty with Trotsky's murder and the "treason" trials. Nevertheless, I must raise a query about Sidney Hook's dictum that "the first priority" of our time has been "the defense and survival of the West." Did not the Red Army, despite Stalin's crimes, help to meet that priority?


Emeryville, Calif.

Martin Duberman and Victor Navasky leave out one important point. During the cold war many anti-Communist liberals and leftists, with some very few honorable exceptions, spent more time inveighing against "domestic totalitarianism" on the left than they did agitating for peace and social justice. For all of their well-meaning ideals, those anti-Communist liberals did no more to advance progressive causes than did the right-wingers who were using anti-Communism to impede those causes.Meanwhile, rank-and-file Communists, as well as other leftists, without regard to who did or did not do what and with which and to whom, were among the most dedicated, passionate and successful people working for peace and social justice. And they and their political descendants remain so today.


Chevy Chase, Md.

The Soviet Union is no more, nor, effectively, is the CPUSA; yet the indefatigable experts on the Red Menace keep clambering over old battlefields and, with the help of such imperfect tools as the Venona Project, constructing new ones.

Victor Navasky and Martin Duberman adumbrate admirably the pathological nature of this quest, the dishonest methods employed by its practitioners, the absurdity of regarding Communism solely as a security threat and the American CP as just a tool of Soviet foreign policy. But both writers are guilty of some serious inaccuracies. Thus, while Irving Howe objected to Ronald Radosh's portrayal of the Sandinista regime as composed of "ultrarevolutionary Marxist-Leninists," it is absurd to suggest, as Duberman does, that Howe would warn Radosh not to criticize the Sandinista regime while they were "under attack by the American empire." I happen to know something about it, as I was close to Howe and wrote a few pieces for Dissent after visiting Nicaragua and interviewing some of its leading players.

In general, terms like "Marxist-Leninist" and "Stalinist" are often used incautiously vis-à-vis Central American revolutionary parties. There were certainly Marxist-Leninists among the Sandinistas, but the Sandinistas were a motley lot, and "anti-imperialism" or "anti-Yankeeism"was more relevant to their collective ideological makeup than the verities of Marx and Lenin: It could hardly be otherwise. Nor is it true that the Sandinistas simply followed the "Castro model." Rather, they tried to combine it with those of Eastern Europe's "people's democracies" and, curiously, with more authentic stress on democratic principles. Even the Polish elections of 1989, which brought Solidarity to power, stipulated that 65 percent of all seats in the new Parliament would be held by Communists and their allies.

As for the American CP, however small the number of members Moscow tried to recruit--successfully or not--few of them were starry-eyed idealists fighting for social justice, organizing unions (as long as they could control them) and joining Pete Seeger in singing "We Shall Not Be Moved." Almost all desperately believed that the Russian CP was always right and that frequent changes in the party line were explainable by the Russian comrades' superior wisdom. (Doubts and hesitations would be suppressed--though luckily not altogether banished.)

Hence the outrageous justifications of Stalin's heinous crimes, hence the inquisitorial means used against suddenly out-of-favor figures, and the groveling mea culpas by those who had, poor souls, defended the new enemies when they were still revered leaders.

During my many years as a Sovietologist, I got to know not a few ex-Communists, some of whom (Joe Starobin, for instance) became good friends. It was precisely their original commitment to a noble cause that made many realize that they had been serving false gods. Still, for a long time they had belonged to a party that was, in the words of French CP head Maurice Thorez, "unlike any other political party," a description that fits the American CP as well as the French. Exposing one set of simplifications is no reason for espousing another.


Washington Township, N.J.

Victor Navasky's "Cold War Ghosts" was as cogent and historically focused as anything I have read on this topic in a very long while. The old left, social idealists like me whose beliefs were contoured by the Depression and World War II, made mistakes, but we were never ideological "shills," as a Nation essayist recently called us. We believed in fundamental human rights for all Americans and, yes, in peace, and we put our youthful energies and our hearts into trying to move our country toward those goals. Espionage was never part of it. We bore harsh criticism for our efforts and some of us suffered severe punishment. It was not that we were wrong but that we underestimated the enormous power of the right wing, which distorted and misrepresented who we were to the American people. By raising the specter of espionage, they were able to successfully market their own antihumanist agenda and have been doing it ever since.

Misjudging the right was a mistake as destructive as the misplaced trust we put in our own demagogues, but at least our efforts were honest. That is not true, I believe, of most of this era's facile-tongued critics with their skewed hindsight, dishonest representations and scrambled historiography.



Victor Navasky is right that historians obsessed with Communist Party espionage have been unable to offer a convincing answer to the question, What was the essence of the Communist Party USA? The Comintern, Profintern (Red International of Labor Unions) and CPUSA archives in Moscow are vast, and are perhaps even more riddled with difficult problems of evidence and verification than most historical archives. It still seems to me, as someone who has done extensive research in those archives, that to focus selectively on some documents implicating certain CP leaders in espionage seems wildly misdirected and disproportionate. Even at the level of leadership cadre, the emphasis on espionage does not hold up very well. After all, even CP leader William Z. Foster (whom Harvey Klehr himself identified in his book Communist Cadre as the single most influential leader in the party throughout its history because of his degree of involvement with its everyday governance) has not been identified as connected with the espionage apparatus, nor has he been implicated in the Venona dispatches. Significantly, Foster, despite his shortcomings as a party spokesman, was primarily involved in labor organizing, the party's self-declared most important mission. Productive research into the party's goals and mission must begin by rejecting the functionalist and unilluminating "spies or dupes" dichotomies of the McCarthy era.


Pine Plains, N.Y.

The Haunted Wood was formed under conditions that should be known: The co-authors are not really co-authors. There was the researcher, Alexander Vassiliev, who spent two years in the KGB archives gathering the material, and the editor, Allen Weinstein, who put the book together. Vassiliev had virtually no say on what went into the book. It wasn't supposed to be that way. Vassiliev, an ex-KGB colonel, seems to have been overwhelmed by Weinstein's reputation, his rhetoric and by the prospect that Weinstein kept dangling in front of him of making big bucks from the book. Also, he was in England, and Weinstein was in the United States, dealing with editors and publishers.

The uneven collaboration unfortunately weakens the book in more ways than one. The heavy anti-Hiss slant is pure Weinstein; the substitution of Hiss's name wherever Vassiliev wrote "Ales" was not Vassiliev's idea. Victor Navasky (and everyone else) should know that Vassiliev told me that in the KGB files "I never I saw a document where Hiss would be called Ales or Ales may be called Hiss. I made a point of that to Allen. It might be important for you." Ah, yes. Just slightly.

Left out of the final copy is the list of code names that Vassiliev found in the archives. It is, according to Vassiliev, a list of names and code names of US sources and Soviet operatives who worked in the United States. Besides names that have been noted in various other books, such as Silvermaster, Bentley and Golos, the following appear: Alger Hiss, given the code name Leonard, noted as a former official of the State Department; Harry Dexter White, "Lawyer," noted as dead; Whittaker Chambers, code-named Karl. A measure of the limits of Vassiliev's understanding of US political history (and this underscores how Weinstein took control of the book) is that, according to Vassiliev, this list "was composed in connection with Bentley's defection," and of course Bentley defected in 1945, Hiss resigned from the State Department in 1947 and White died in 1948.

Also on the list, according to Vassiliev, is Noel Field, code-named Ernst, an idealist of whom much has been written, most of it wrong. Field was an authority on disarmament, an idealistic "Quaker communist" who, offered the German desk at the State Department in 1936, turned it down to work for the League of Nations in Geneva (not exactly the smartest thing to do if you are a Russian spy). By the late 1940s Field was in Europe working for world peace and by 1949 had been picked up by the Russians and thrown into a Budapest prison, accused of being an American spy.

But back to The Haunted Wood. Accompanying a photo there's a caption that reads, "Three high-ranking Soviet agents in policy-making position in the wartime Roosevelt Administration--Laughlin Currie, Alger Hiss and Harry Dexter White--all provided Moscow with crucial documents...." Vassiliev says he never saw a document, or reference to a document, supplied by Hiss in the files.


Nantucket, Mass.

Am I the only one who thinks that "Ales" might be almost anyone except Alger Hiss? Without any special knowledge of the field, it seems unlikely that any competent espionage organization would assign a code name so easy to decipher. (Not to mention Alger's willingness to identify himself this way.) Have the readers of the Venona files found other cases of similarly transparent anagrams? If not, maybe they should wonder why an exception was made in this one case, or if in fact "Ales" continues successfully to conceal the true identity of the real spy: Bill Buckley, perhaps, or Fala.


Edinburg, Tex.

I make no claim to be either a historian or an intellectual. But after reading Victor Navasky's "Cold War Ghosts," I wondered, Why would Hiss's name be mentioned at all in the Venona communications if he were innocent? To excuse that use of his name by saying the spies were not supposed to use real names is begging the question.


Birmingham, Mich.

Another "cold war ghost" occurred to me while reading Victor Navasky's article: To this day, civilian federal government agencies spend millions each year on security clearances that invade the privacy of career federal employees who have absolutely no access whatsoever to national security information. These costly and intrusive investigations are based on an Eisenhower executive order that created a cottage industry for the FBI and the OPM, who conduct the background checks.



New York City

Thanks to all who sent their thanks. Here I'll only say to Thomas Warren that my point was not that "spies were not supposed to use real names" but rather that under the informal rules of Venona, real spies were never referred to by their real names, only their code names. Thus the cryptic Venona reference to "Hiss" by his real name gives rise to the inference--to be weighed along with other evidence pro and con--that he was not a spy.

And to Abe Brumberg, whom I admire, I'll say only that while I may indeed be guilty of "serious inaccuracies," I can't find them in his letter. I didn't suggest that hard-core Stalinists and Moscow-recruited spies sang along with Pete Seeger (although they may well have), but rather that 99.9 percent of the CPUSA were not spies, and many of them did row the boat ashore (Hallelujah!) with Peter. I don't doubt that some of them were apologists for the party line.

Victor Navasky


New York City

To John M. Pickering: In insisting that "Communism and anti-Communism are equally absurd," you're equating Communism with Stalinism and ignoring communism with a small c. Those who did and do believe in lower-case communism are part of a complex lineage--an intertwined, shifting mix of Fourierist, anarchist, Marxist and socialist traditions--whose first principles, far from being "shaky," as you blithely state, are solidly rooted in the belief that (to employ one common formulation) the "highest social priority should go to the needs of the least fortunate." Nothing theological about that: It's about the distribution of opportunity and wealth right here on earth.

To Abe Brumberg: I knew Irving Howe only slightly, but through the years I read (and agreed with) his extended, sophisticated critique of Stalinism--which makes me suspect that you're right in saying it would have been out of character for him to warn Ronald Radosh (as Radosh claims) against attacking the Sandinista regime while it was "under attack by the American empire"; but I can't prove it one way or the other.I also accept your corrective that the Sandinistas combined a "Castro model" with that of the Eastern European "people's democracies," though I'd still question how much "democracy" that represented.

We agree that only a small number of those who joined the American CP became spies for Moscow, but I don't share your certainty that among them only a "few...were starry-eyed idealists fighting for social justice." How can you know that for sure? Where is the evidence to back your claim that "almost all...believed that the Russian CP was always right"? I doubt we'll ever have the documentation needed to prove or disprove such statements, given how many CP members are dead and how inordinately difficult it is to measure and quantify human motivation. In saying this, I acknowledge that my own opinion is also impressionistic--based, that is, on a selective list of readings and interviews that I could never prove are "representative."

And finally, to Ron Radosh: Yes, I've caught some hell from fellow leftists for being "too soft" on you in my review. That didn't bother me overly much until I went, as you directed, to your far lengthier response online. It contains so many startling misstatements about what I believe that I have to wonder, after all, whether I didn't give you too much credit for veracity. I never thought I'd have to set this particular record straight, but here goes: I've never believed, let alone "still" believe, that the Soviet Union was on the "right side of history." Nor do I believe, as you suggest, that "only apologists for Stalinism are true black people." Really, Radosh, that is a bit much!--even for someone who can claim that the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua "was comparatively moderate and merely authoritarian" when compared with the Sandinistas! To prepare me for your kind of "history," I'd better start reading more novels.


The Bush Administration is blocking efforts to rein in offshore banking.

Citigroup proclaims that its "private bankers act as financial architects,
designing and coordinating insightful solutions for individual client needs,
with an emphasis on personalized, confidential service." That is so colorless.
It might better boast, "We set up shell companies, secret trusts and bank
accounts, and we dispatch anonymous wire transfers so you can launder drug
money, hide stolen assets, embezzle, defraud, cheat on your taxes, avoid court
judgments, pay and receive bribes, and loot your country." It could solicit
testimonials from former clients, including sons of late Nigerian dictator Sani
Abacha; Asif Ali Zardari, husband of Benazir Bhutto, former prime minister of
Pakistan; El Hadj Omar Bongo, the corrupt president of Gabon; deposed
Paraguayan dictator Alfredo Stroessner; and Raul Salinas, jailed brother of the
ex-president of Mexico. All stole and laundered millions using Citibank
(Citigroup's previous incarnation) private accounts.

One lesser-known client, Carlos Hank Rhon of Mexico, has been the object of
a suit by the Federal Reserve to ban him from the US banking business. Hank
belongs to a powerful Mexican clan whose holdings include banks, investment
firms, transportation companies and real estate. Hank bought an interest in
Laredo National Bank in Texas in 1990. Six years later, when he wanted to merge
Laredo with Brownsville's Mercantile Bank, the Fed found that Citibank had
helped him use offshore shell companies in the British Virgin Islands to gain
control of his bank by hiding secret partners and engaging in self-dealing, in
violation of US law. One of the offshore companies was managed by shell
companies that were subsidiaries of Cititrust, owned by Citibank.

The Fed says that in 1993, Hank's father, Carlos Hank González, met
with his Citibank private banker, Amy Elliott, and said he wanted to buy a $20
million share of the bank with payment from Citibank accounts of his offshore
companies, done in a way that hid his involvement. Citibank granted him $20
million in loans and sent the money to his son Hank Rhon's personal account at
Citibank New York and to an investment account in Citibank London in the name
of another offshore company.

Citigroup spokesman Richard Howe said, "We always cooperate fully with
authorities in investigations, but we do not discuss the details of any
individual's account."

At press time, there were reports that Hank had negotiated a settlement
with the Fed, which the parties declined to confirm.

Minutes after the second plane crashed into the World Trade Center, my friend watched in horror as a man shot at two women in head scarves near Canal Street in downtown Manhattan.

While to some the United States might seem to be united in its thirst for vengeance, there's a burgeoning antiwar movement that belies the war rhetoric.

After President Bush's "win this war" speech to Congress Thursday night, Senate majority leader Tom Daschle and Senate minority leader Trent Lott strode to a podium where Lott declared, "Tonight,

Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;
And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.
        --As You Like It, II. i. 12

On the ground in downtown Manhattan, I see the best of our collective selves. Firemen and rescue workers risking their lives to save others; anonymous individuals pitching in to help strangers. Nobody whines about their losses, the inconvenience or even the inevitable screw-ups. It's a city I never knew existed. I go for walks and come back all choked up.

But then I get home, check in with my television and computer to see the latest screeds that pass for analysis in our benighted punditocracy, and my inner cynic is rekindled. "Nothing will ever be the same in America ever again," we are instructed. Well, yes and no. For many pundits, this tragedy is just one more excuse to explain how right they were in the first place. The discourse is dominated by a center-right argument, expressed most cogently by ex-Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, advising his successors, "We've got to be somewhat irrational in our response. Blow their capital from under them." (Not to put too fine a point on things, but terrorism has no capital. Remember, that's the problem.)

Sometimes it takes the near-destruction of a village to discover just how crazy some of these erstwhile respectable conservatives can be. George W. Bush did backflips and handflips during the Republican primary season to win the endorsements of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, who concur that we got "what we deserve," adding that the ACLU has "got to take a lot of blame for this." Just in case anyone misunderstood, Falwell clarified their position: "I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way--all of them who have tried to secularize America--I point the finger in their face and say, 'You helped this happen.'" (Robertson and Falwell apologized, but did not really retract.)

These crazies are not exactly alone on the Republican right. Over at National Review Online, Ann Coulter published an ostensible tribute to Solicitor General Ted Olson's wife, Barbara Olson, who died in the Pentagon crash, in which she first noted that Olson "praised one of my recent columns and told me I had really found my niche. Ted, she said, had taken to reading my columns aloud to her over breakfast." Finally came the red meat: "We know who the homicidal maniacs are. They are the ones cheering and dancing right now. We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity." This column, quite amazingly, also appeared on the website of a right-wing outfit, Jewish World Review, until the geniuses there figured out that by Coulter's theology they were next, and dumped it. Another confused NRO/JWR writer, Iran/contra adventurer Michael Ledeen, believes Olson "was killed by a fraudulent and arrogant establishment."

In another not quite shocking development Marty Peretz explained that the crime was the fault of insufficient hatred of Arabs. "I do not understand why so many people are so surprised by the radical evil emanating from the Muslim world," Peretz writes. To be fair, I suppose those of us who witnessed the terrorism of Meir Kahane, Baruch Goldstein and Menachem Begin have only ourselves to blame if we are surprised by the radical evil emanating from the Jewish world.

Over at the Wall Street Journal editorial pages, the editors discovered in this self-consciously low-tech attack yet another argument for space-based missile defense. Why? "Hijacking a jet and flying it into a target is now yesterday's threat." Now they tell us. Even the discredited "terrorist expert" Steven Emerson, who once upon a time tried to blame the Arabs for Oklahoma City, has seen his fortunes revived as a talking head: a perfect metaphor for a medium without a memory.

The right has been without a rallying point since the end of the Soviet Union. Now they have one again. By fortunate happenstance it coincides exactly with the desire of many of them to make Israel a vassal state of a global American empire. Note that among the commentators who seek to blame Yasir Arafat in some way for the atrocities and even mention the Palestinian Authority on a possible list of targets--a group that includes Seth Lipsky, Michael Kelly, Mark Helprin and George Will--not one even bothers to argue that Arafat had anything to do with the attacks. Rather, this horrific tragedy looks to be just one more excuse to try to get the US military to do Israel's dirty work rather than pursue the more difficult but constructive business of resuming the search for a workable peace.

To achieve the ends they have always sought, these conservatives demean considered analyses of our predicament with the epithet "appeasement." Andrew Sullivan--the author of a book on friendship--has already accused his friend Robert Wright of exactly this crime in response to the latter's thoughtful musings about some of the difficulties of retaliation. As if possessed by the spirit of an A. Mitchell Palmer or J. Edgar Hoover, the famed "gaycatholictory" has taken to listing the names of those he considers to be appeasers. And if that's not enough, Sullivan also warned that "the great red zone that voted for Bush is clearly ready for war. The decadent left in its enclaves on the coasts is not dead--and may well mount a fifth column." Yes, you read that right.

The grave risk in allowing these self-serving arguments to hijack the public discourse is that we will embark on a self-destructive cycle of retribution that does little more than indulge our wholly understandable desire for vengeance as it simultaneously exacerbates the problem we attempt to address. No, I don't have a better idea right now, but what's the rush? We are a great nation. We can afford to take our time.

Nothing tests our commitment to principle like terrorism. Before September 11, America banned assassinations of foreign leaders; now the Administration is considering abandoning that prohibition. Before September 11, more than 80 percent of the American public felt that racial or ethnic profiling was wrong; today, that consensus is rapidly eroding, as FBI agents detain dozens of suspects solely because of their Arab or Muslim identity and associations. Ten years ago, Congress repealed McCarran-Walter Act provisions making mere membership in various political organizations a deportable offense. Now the Administration seeks authority to detain and deport aliens accused of virtually any tie to a terrorist group--defined expansively to include any group that has or might use weapons.

The September 11 terrorist attack undoubtedly warrants a comprehensive review of our intelligence and law enforcement capabilities. But what is needed is better-coordinated intelligence and more targeted law enforcement, not broad-brush legislation that simply throws more power at government agencies that have already shown a proclivity to abuse the power they have.

This country has a long tradition of responding to fear by stifling dissent, punishing association, launching widespread political spying and seeking shortcuts around the Constitution. Few Americans opposed the imprisonment of antiwar dissenters during World War I, the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II or the anti-Communist laws of the McCarthy era. We now acknowledge that those initiatives were wrong, but have we learned from our mistakes?

To some extent we have. No one has yet proposed making membership in a Muslim organization a crime, detaining all Americans of Arab descent or Muslim faith, or criminalizing dissent. But in 1996, after the Oklahoma City bombing, we resurrected guilt by association, criminalizing any material support to any foreign group deemed terrorist by the Secretary of State, even if that support consisted of sending human rights pamphlets to an organization fighting a civil war. And now the INS seeks unprecedented authority to lock up and deport as a "terrorist" any alien remotely associated with a any group that has ever used force--even if the alien himself has no connection to violent acts.

And all indications are that the FBI continues to operate as if guilt by association is the rule. While the September 11 terrorists were training for and coordinating their conspiracy in Florida, the FBI was spending vast resources investigating Mazen Al Najjar, a Palestinian professor from Tampa who spent three and a half years in detention on secret evidence and charges of political association. Al Najjar was released last December when an immigration judge found no evidence that he posed a threat to national security. And while the terrorists were conspiring in New Jersey, the FBI focused its efforts on Hany Kiareldeen, a Palestinian in Newark detained for a year and a half on secret evidence for associating with terrorists. He was freed after immigration judges flatly rejected the government's charges as unfounded; the FBI's principal source was apparently Kiareldeen's ex-wife, with whom he was in a bitter custody dispute and who had filed several false reports about him.

The government already has adequate powers to combat terrorism. It has authority to wiretap any person suspected of working for a foreign government or organization, without any criminal predicate whatsoever. It can prosecute and freeze the assets of those who provide aid to terrorist organizations. It can bar entry to members of terrorist organizations, and it can detain and deport any alien who has engaged in or supported a terrorist act.

When, in less turbulent times, a bipartisan National Commission on Terrorism appointed by Congress recommended steps to improve our response to terrorism, it advocated none of the measures now advanced by Attorney General Ashcroft. Its advice was to streamline and coordinate existing authority, but that entails hard work and substantial turf battles; it's far easier, but far less effective, to give the FBI still more power to spy on the American people.

So long, politics? As George W. Bush mounted Operation Noble Eagle, Republicans and Democrats found little over which to disagree. In the days after the September 11 terror attack, the entire House and Senate--with the exception of one Congresswoman--approved a resolution of war that granted Bush wide latitude. (Congress declared war, but Bush will designate the enemy.) The Senate OK'd by voice vote the controversial nomination of John Negroponte to be UN ambassador. Congress passed $40 billion in emergency funds and ceded Bush great control over their disbursement. The Senate, with little deliberation, endorsed quickly prepared legislation to expand the government's ability to wiretap suspected terrorists and to order the CIA to scuttle rules on the recruitment of informants with violent pasts. A $15 billion bailout of the airline industry nearly sailed through the House. Republican and Democratic Congressional leaders hailed the sublimation of partisan differences. House majority whip Tom DeLay even jettisoned his opposition to paying back dues to the United Nations.

Who can say how long comity will last? The Democrats' agenda has vanished as the party tries to work out the dilemmas of being in opposition during a time of declared (if not actual) war. "We're confused, as you might imagine," says a liberal House Democrat. "My fear is that most members will give Bush everything he wants and try to adjourn as quickly as possible, not have any tough votes, no debates that might get them into trouble. Every Democratic issue is down the drain." For instance, Representative Marty Meehan, a Massachusetts Democrat, suspended his almost-successful attempt at forcing Republican House leaders to bring his campaign finance reform bill up for a vote. "All efforts are on helping New York City and the Pentagon rebuild," a Meehan aide explains. House and Senate Democrats shelved provisions that imposed limits on national missile defense funding. "No one wants to look partisan now," says a Democratic Senate aide. "You can argue SDI money is better spent elsewhere, but no Democrat wants to give Bush and the Republicans the opportunity of pointing a finger and saying, 'There they go.'"

It was Bush, not a Democrat, who publicly noted that Washington must remember that a domestic agenda remains. "Sure," says a Democratic Congressional aide, "education and a patients' bill of rights, on his terms now." As members of Congress returned to Washington, Democrats were hoping the Republicans would not move fast with a proposal for a capital gains tax cut. "If they push this forward under the cover of crisis, it will be very difficult to stop," the aide remarks.

On the Democratic side, Representative Barney Frank has tried to initiate one crafty strategic thrust. The liberal Democrat drafted legislation to rescind the reduction in the top income tax rate that passed as part of Bush's tax cut. That particular cut mainly benefits the top 1 percent, and Frank would devote the billions rescued to Social Security and Medicare. "This would let us spend $100 billion on reconstruction, airport security, military action, the economy, without tapping the Social Security surplus," Frank says. "The Republicans promised not to touch Social Security; this would allow them to keep their promise."

Frank's colleagues applauded when he described the bill at a Democratic caucus meeting. But the GOPers will certainly seek to smother Frank's legislation, and they have the means to do it. Credit Frank with attempting to provide the Democrats an active position of their own. The question is, Do enough of his colleagues want one? "Great idea," says a House Democrat. "I just don't know if we're strong enough to do this."

Another unknown is whether Democrats and Republicans will skirmish over the attack-related matters that will dominate Washington. A dramatic boost in Pentagon spending appears a certainty. Will there be disagreement over how much? (Some GOPers yearn for a 25 percent increase.) The Administration will be pressing assorted law enforcement and security initiatives. Senator Pat Leahy, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, has signaled that he's not eager to rubber-stamp new measures with civil liberties consequences. And Senator Russ Feingold, who chairs a judiciary subcommittee, has declared he feels "a special duty to defend our Constitution against proposals, born of an understandable desire for vengeance and justice, that would undermine the constitutional liberties that make this country what it is." Yet how much of a fight might arise? "The mood is basically to cave," says Julian Epstein, the former minority staff director of the House Judiciary Committee. But Epstein believes a partisan clash could materialize if the Republicans get greedy and push for too much.

"This all will be very frustrating," says a senior House Democratic aide. "Who knows how long a war on terrorism takes?" Noting disappointment with his leader, a Democratic Congressman remarks, "Dick Gephardt said there should be no light and no air between us and the President. But there have to be things worthy of debate. It's not political bickering to deal with the economy and civil liberties. There are debates to be had--even if most people want to run out of town."

When Congress voted to authorize the Bush Administration to use military force in response to the September 11 terror attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Representative Barbara Lee stood alone in opposition to what she saw as a "rush to judgment." Lee, the California Democrat who holds the Bay Area seat once occupied by antiwar activist Ron Dellums, spoke with John Nichols,
The Nation's Washington correspondent, this week.

THE NATION: How did you reach the decision to oppose authorizing the use of force?

LEE: I was at the National Cathedral in Washington. I went to the memorial service on the Friday after the attacks and I prayed. I said to myself, "You've got to figure this one out." I was dealing with all the grief and sorrow and the loss of life, and it was very personal because a member of my staff had lost a cousin in the Pennsylvania crash. I was thinking about my responsibility as a member of Congress to try to insure that this never happens again. I listened to the remarks of the clergy. Many of them made profound statements. But I was struck by what one of them said: "As we act, let us not become the evil that we deplore." That was such a wise statement, and it reflected not only what I was feeling but also my understanding of the threats we continue to face. When I left the cathedral, I was fairly resolved.

THE NATION: Were you also concerned about the constitutional implications of the vote?

LEE: Absolutely. Given the three branches of government, and given that each has a role in the making of monumental decisions such as this, I thought the Congress had a responsibility in this instance especially to step back and say,"Let's not rush to judgment. Let us insist that our democracy works by insuring that the checks and balances work and that the Congress is a part of the decision-making process in terms of when we go to war and with whom.... I think we disenfranchised the American people when we took their representatives out of the decision-making on whether to go to war with a specific nation.

THE NATION: Were you surprised that no other members of Congress voted with you?

LEE: It never dawned on me that I would cast the only vote against this resolution. Many members asked me to change my position. They were friends, and they said, "You do not want to be out there alone." I said, "Oh, no, don't worry. There will be others." When there weren't, I said, "Oh my God." I could not believe it. It was an awesome feeling. And a lonely feeling.

THE NATION: You mentioned that other members said, "You don't want to be out there alone." Do you think other members shared your concerns but were unwilling to cast a risky vote with emotions running so high?

LEE: If you read the floor statements. you'll see that there are many members of Congress who share my concerns. I think that, when I cast that vote, I was speaking for other people in Congress and outside Congress who want a more deliberative approach.

THE NATION: At the same time, you have received precisely the sort of criticism that most politicians fear.

LEE: I've been called a traitor, a coward, a communist, all the awful stuff. It's been quite difficult for me. But I still believe that I cast the right vote. My district, I think, understands this vote.... I've gotten probably 20,000 e-mails. At first, there were a lot of very harsh messages. But now we are hearing more from people who are saying, "Yes, let's use some restraint. Yes, let's break the cycle of violence if we can." I think the further we get away from that tragic day, the more we will hear those voices of reason.

The Nation's phone and e-mail were disrupted as a result of the World Trade Center attacks. We are grateful to Public Interest Network Services for advice and technical support enabling us to maintain crucial e-mail and telephone communications during the emergency. Until full service is restored, you may have difficulty contacting our offices. We apologize for any delays.

In the editorial on page 3 we suggest contributions to working people affected by the September 11 disaster. Out of 1,200 janitors from Local 32BJ of the SEIU who worked at the World Trade Center more than 100 were killed or are missing. Send checks made out to "SEIU September 11 Fund" c/o SEIU International September 11 Fund, 1313 L Street NW, Washington, DC 20005. Another fund for victims of the Trade Center attack is the NYC Central Labor Council Disaster Fund (to whom checks should be made out), 386 Park Avenue South, New York, NY 10016.

Update [September 27 (October 10 issue)]: Contrary to our report last week, twenty-six members of SEIU's Local 32-BJ were killed at the World Trade Center. Fifty members of HERE died, and thousands more were thrown out of work. Send donations to: HERE New York Assistance Fund, Judson Memorial Church, 55 Washington Square South, New York, NY 10012.

The atrocious attacks on the World Trade Center were massive crimes against humanity in both a real-world sense and in a technical legal sense, as Richard Falk reminds us. As such they are appropriately and lawfully the object of concerted US and international efforts to find and punish those responsible. But acknowledging a legitimate right of response is by no means equivalent to an endorsement of unlimited force. Indeed, notes Falk, an overreaction may be what the terrorists were seeking to provoke in order to mobilize popular resentment against the United States on a global scale. We must act effectively, but within a framework of moral and legal restraints.

Americans need to take a deep breath, clear their heads of the political frenzy in Washington and demand much better from their leaders. As we go to press, with combat planes headed for the Persian Gulf and President Bush poised to address the nation, the din of war rhetoric grows louder. But our objective should be justice, not vengeance. We will advance justice, as well as national security, by sticking to the facts and the cooperative procedures of international law and institutions (which means seeking a mandate from the UN Security Council and supporting a special world court to try the perpetrators of terrorism), and by recognizing that a random slaughter of more innocents is immoral and contrary to America's self-interest, as well as to its core beliefs.

At home, the Bush White House is using fears of a recession to advance a partisan and exploitative agenda--repackaging familiar tax cuts for business and capital under a flag of crisis. What would be most effective in staving off recession, however, would be to assist those at the lower end of the economic scale who live from one paycheck to the next. It would also be the right thing to do. The essential reality of American life, long neglected in this era of bubble and boom but revealed again by this tragedy, is our reliance upon the enduring fiber of ordinary workers, from firefighters and police to nurses, flight attendants and janitors. Many of them died and many more will become innocent victims as the recession deepens. (Nation readers can act on their own by contributing to the disaster relief funds set up by unions; see "Nation Notes.")

Under the guise of fighting terrorism and in an ominous echo of past ill-conceived wartime measures targeting aliens, the Administration has expanded its powers to detain legal immigrants. It has drafted "antiterrorist" legislation that assumes sweeping powers of deportation but does little to fight terrorists, as David Cole shows.

The worst consequence of Washington's war talk is how it fogs public thinking, sustaining the nostalgic illusion that the military can somehow conquer this elusive enemy. If the objective is to crush the networks of scattered terrorists--whoever they are--who organized the murderous assault and might strike again, then military force is generally impotent. But the United States and other advanced nations have many effective, nonlethal weapons with which to break up the organizations.

The global financial system is one. A terrorist organization may camp in remote desert caves beyond the reach of strategic bombing or cruise missiles, but its activities depend crucially upon financing. Some of that may be done through informal channels, as Dilip Hiro notes, but some of it is also done through legitimate financial institutions. Governments can stop those money flows. If history is any guide, however--witness the Bush Administration's unwillingness to get tough on money-laundering--they seem unlikely to do so.

We have now entered a new era--one without battlefields and borders, in which old ideas about national security are obsolete. In this new era, Falk tells us, the only viable security is one built on a commitment to "human security" in the form of economic and social well-being for all people. This is the message that must be sent to Washington and the other capitals of the world.

We must act effectively but within a framework of moral and legal restraints.

Great Oracle,why are you staring at me,

do I baffle you, do I make you despair?

I, Americus, the American,

wrought from the dark in my mother long ago,

from the dark of ancient Europa--

Why are you staring at me now

in the dusk of our civilization--

Why are you staring at me

as if I were America itself

the new Empire

far greater than any in ancient days

with its electronic highways

carrying its corporate monoculture

around the world

And English the Latin of our day--

Great Oracle, sleeping through the centuries,

Awaken now at last

And tell us how to save us from ourselves

and how to survive our own rulers

who would make a plutocracy of our democracy

in the Great Divide

between the rich and the poor

in whom Walt Whitman heard America singing

O long-silent Sybil,

You of the winged dreams,

Speak out from your temple of light

as the serious constellations

with Greek names

still stare down on us

as a lighthouse moves its megaphone

over the sea

Speak out and shine upon us

the sea-light of Greece

the diamond light of Greece

Far-seeing Sybil, forever hidden,

Come out of your cave at last

And speak to us in the poet's voice

the voice of the fourth person singular

the voice of the inscrutable future

the voice of the people mixed

with a wild soft laughter--

And give us new dreams to dream,

Give us new myths to live by!

Spoken to the Oracle by the author at UNESCO's World Poetry Day, March 21, at Delphi