"There are things/We live among 'and to see them/Is to know ourselves.'" These three lines are among the most stirring written by George Oppen, a poet whose modesty and honesty permitted him to look for meaning only in the knowable. He was preoccupied with the world outside his window, and writing about it in a clear language was always a struggle: "say as much as I dare, as much as I can/sustain I don't know how to say it."
For all his commitment to clarity, there is much about Oppen himself that remains unknown. He was a Modernist, but unlike his mentors Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, he was not prolific. When he published his Collected Poems in 1975, he had written exactly one book review and one essay. No manifestoes, no dissertation, no autobiography. When he died in 1984, he had given only a handful of interviews. A Selected Letters was published in 1990, but its paper trail begins in 1958, the year Oppen and his wife, Mary, returned to the United States from political exile in Mexico. The Oppens had been members of the Communist Party in the 1930s, and they went into exile in 1950 to escape the dragnet of McCarthyism. Even George's FBI file, a crucial source of information about the Mexico years, is riddled with black-outs. To know Oppen one must live among his poems, a pleasure that has been greatly enhanced by the publication of George Oppen: New Collected Poems. Housing Oppen's seven full-length books, plus fifty-seven pages of previously uncollected poems, the volume is an astonishing record of the development of an indigenous American avant-garde style by a poet of great intelligence and humanity.
Discrete Series, Oppen's first book, was published in 1934. At first glance its thirty-one lyrics look like offshoots from Williams's Spring and All. Both Oppen and Williams favored spare, compressed lines divested of emotional subversions and devoted to sight and sound. But for all their quotidian scenes, Oppen's poems lack Williams's drama and localism. Instead, they are general, almost categorical, building a moment of perception from prepositions, generic nouns and pauses. "On the water, solid--/The singleness of a toy--//A tug with two barges.//O what O what will/Bring us back to/Shore,/the shore//Coiling a rope on the steel deck." What's equally notable about Discrete Series is that Oppen hewed to a Modernist style without endorsing Modernism's abiding themes; no blood-dimmed tides are loosed, no fragments shored against ruins. But Oppen didn't only defy Modernism. He joined the Communist Party in 1935, and instead of abiding by an orthodoxy that had corralled Pegasus and led it to the Socialist Realist glue factory, he stopped writing altogether. He was a left-wing thinker who did not believe that poetry had the same kind of efficacy as political action, a view that made him "A most inappropriate man/In a most unpropitious place," to borrow a few lines from Wallace Stevens's "Sailing After Lunch." Oppen did not write again until 1958.
What to make of Oppen's silence? Hugh Kenner called it a mere pause between poems; Charles Bernstein has wondered if it is the longest line break in Oppen's oeuvre. While it would be inaccurate to say that the hiatus did not cause Oppen any anxiety as a poet, it's certainly misleading to describe it as just another pregnant pause. Oppen did many things during those years; none were poetic, but all nourished his thinking as a poet. He and Mary organized a farmers' union milk strike in 1937; they became parents in 1939. George worked as a tool-and-die maker at Grumman Aircraft during the early years of World War II and then served as an infantryman in the US Army. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge in 1944; later, near Alsace, he suffered serious shrapnel wounds from German shellfire. After the war he built houses near Los Angeles.
"And Bronk said/Perhaps the world/Is horror," Oppen writes in "A Narrative." The poem is from This in Which (1965), and Oppen is most likely referring to a few lines from William Bronk's "The Nature of the Universe": "we/are the inner mirror of those stars, who find/only an ecstasy to outfeel/horror." When Oppen was writing in the 1960s, he returned over and over to the political and philosophical dimensions of horror. He was terrified and disgusted by the proliferation of nuclear weapons ("My love, my love,/We are endangered/Totally at last") and the escalation of the Vietnam War ("Now in the helicopters the casual will/Is atrocious"). Elsewhere he takes a longer view, wondering about "a lone universe that suffers time/Like stones in sun. For we do not." Oppen's struggles with horror and suffering, however, did not turn him into either a nihilist who sneered at a meaningless universe or an aesthete who walled off that universe with intricate formal masonry. "Survival: Infantry," from The Materials (1962), is an important poem for understanding why. Oppen returns to his wartime experience in Alsace, with memories of an artillery barrage--"Where did all the rocks come from?/And the smell of explosives"--mixed with memories of recovery:
We were ashamed of our half life and our misery: we saw
that everything had died.
And the letters came. People who addressed us thru our
They left us gasping. And in tears
In the same mud in the terrible ground
The crucial word is "addressed." Oppen does not say that people "wrote" to him; they addressed him, spoke to him, through their words and hence through his life. Those words in turn create an experience of awe ("They left us gasping"), and while they fail to deliver Oppen from a devastated world (he remains stuck in the "same mud"), they alleviate his despair.
The letters, in other words, gave Oppen a language of survival, and of his many attempts to create this language himself the richest is the serial poem "Of Being Numerous," which appeared in the 1968 Pulitzer Prize-winning book of the same title. "Urban art, art of the cities, art of the young in the cities--/The isolated man is dead, his world around him exhausted," Oppen writes, and he tries to understand and repair that failure through the very construction of "Of Being Numerous." Some of its poems begin with "Or," "So" or "Because" while others redact lines from Oppen's earlier poems, as if the poet was publishing excerpts from an endless conversation with himself. Yet "Of Being Numerous" is not Oppen's song of himself. Self-reflection is knitted into a larger conversation with friends, family members and other writers, whose words Oppen lifted from correspondence or essays and incorporated into his jagged little lyrics, sometimes in quotation marks, sometimes not. To write a language of survival is to be numerous, but to be numerous is not necessarily to contain multitudes. Rather, it is to startle the self into a meditative drama of reversal and qualification, interruption and invitation, of being pressed into dialogue with others.
Oppen's last book, Primitive, which appeared three years after the publication of his Collected Poems, is perhaps his most haunting vision of survival. Oppen wrote its thirteen poems under some duress; he was growing increasingly disoriented and forgetful, battling the Alzheimer's disease that went undiagnosed until 1982 and claimed his life two years later. Yet it is difficult to determine the impact of the disease on Oppen's poetry, since Primitive is the culmination of the vibrant, attenuated syntax that Oppen had introduced in Of Being Numerous and continued to hone in his next two books, Seascape: Needle's Eye and Myth of the Blaze. In poem nine of "Of Being Numerous," Oppen proposes an ideal: "To dream of that beach/For the sake of an instant in the eyes." Primitive is the dream of that beach, a linguistic "sea-surge," as Eliot Weinberger writes in his lucid preface to this volume, "of contradictory forces: assertions and their negations, declarations couched in double-negatives, questions without answers." The poems are the work of "a returned Crusoe," a poet entranced by mysterious images of war, water, light and rescue. From "The Poem":
in the room it was all
part of the wars
of things brilliance
in the appalling
lives and wakes us together
out of sleep the poem
opens its dazzling whispering hands
The inclusion of Primitive is not the only reason Michael Davidson's edition of Oppen's Collected Poems is "new." The volume also contains the twenty-nine poems that were published in magazines or anthologies but not collected during Oppen's lifetime, and sixty poems that were not published at all. Among the uncollected poems are some gems, including Oppen's last published verse and an epitaph for his close friend and fellow poet Charles Reznikoff. The unpublished poems are fascinating as well and of more than a scholarly interest; one can better appreciate Oppen's technique by considering what he chose to leave in the drawer. Some of the unpublished poems are derivative of Williams's work, relying too much on parochial images or idiomatic speech to convey an idea or emotion. Still others are a heap of images and phrases that Oppen had yet to refine into a few radiant and haunting parts of speech. "The New People," for instance, which dates from the late 1950s, opens with a description of a neighborhood's gentrification: "Crowding everywhere/Angrily perhaps/The world of stoops,/The new young people//With their new styles, the narrow trousers/Of the young men and the girls' bee hive/hair-do's this year they seem a horde." The scene is a messy version of the milieu portrayed in poem twenty-five in "Of Being Numerous": "Strange that the youngest people I know/Live in the oldest buildings//Scattered about the city/In the dark rooms/Of the past.... They are the children of the middle class.//'The pure products of America--'//Investing/The ancient buildings/Jostle each other." It's telling that like most of Oppen's unpublished poems, "The New People" lacks the generic adjectives and nouns that Oppen treasured: thin, strange, home, populace, little and, most important, small.
Davidson's arrangement of the uncollected and unpublished material is curious. Instead of organizing the entire volume chronologically, which would have involved interspersing the uncollected published poems between the contents of the seven published books and placing the unpublished poems (which are often difficult or impossible to date) at the end of the volume, Davidson has placed the uncollected and unpublished poems in a single annex following Primitive. If you want to compare published, uncollected or unpublished poems, which Davidson's editorial notes to individual poems often encourage, be prepared for some page-flipping between poem and poem and poem and note.
The notes themselves are usually informative, providing snippets of relevant biographical and bibliographical information. A few notes could stand to be more precise. The fifth poem in "Of Being Numerous" begins with one of Oppen's most famous images: "The great stone/Above the river/In the pylon of the bridge//'1875.'" Here is Davidson's gloss: "Probably a reference to the Brooklyn Bridge, which was built between 1869 and 1883, making 1875 a likely date for one of the pylons." A glimpse at any good history of the bridge's construction will reveal that its two granite pylons (or towers) were completed in 1875, and that on the eastern and western facades of the Manhattan pylon, centered between the apexes of its great gothic arches, is a stone engraved with the digits "1875." (The Brooklyn pylon is undated.) The engraved stone is easily seen from the pedestrian walkway that runs above the bridge's roadways.
Verifying the location of the engraved stone is important, and not merely for precision's sake. "The great stone" is a central poem of Oppen's canon because it symbolizes the poet's relationship to the visible world. He seizes on a public object--the engraved marker--as an image of consciousness: "Frozen in the moonlight/In the frozen air over the footpath, consciousness//Which has nothing to gain, which awaits nothing,/Which loves itself." Clarifying that Oppen is referring to the Brooklyn Bridge helps to underscore the unromantic nature of his aesthetic. Oppen's stance is the antithesis of Hart Crane's, who in the opening lyric of his long poem "The Bridge" pleads with the granite and cables to "lend a myth to God." In Oppen's poem, the bridge does not become heroic or mythical in the poet's eyes. And even though "1875" hovers at a height that, in the topography of Oppen's poetry, is usually cluttered by the absurd parapets of office buildings, the engraved stone is hardly above it all. Instead, both stone and poet remain public, functional and objective, firmly lodged within the bridge's design as well as the various streams and cycles of space and time churning below and above: the East River, automobile traffic, pedestrian traffic and the moon's orbit.
Oppen was well acquainted with the Brooklyn Bridge. It loomed over the building where he rented a workroom and was not far from the three different apartments in Brooklyn Heights where he and Mary lived at different times between 1960 and 1966. Brooklyn Heights occupies a bluff directly across the East River from lower Manhattan, and while walking around Oppen's old neighborhood it's impossible not to wonder what he would have thought about the devastation of September 11. One recalls an image of Manhattan in "Of Being Numerous":
A city of the corporations
Or a line Oppen used repeatedly in his correspondence, "the girder/Still itself among the rubble," which is a misquotation of a line from Reznikoff's Jerusalem the Golden ("Among the heaps of brick and plaster lies/a girder, still itself among the rubbish"). But these images, though provocative, are mere fragments, and Oppen's work is likely to disappoint someone who thinks that poems of the past can somehow divine the physical and emotional dimensions of the recent catastrophe. "The events of Sept. 11 nailed home many of my basic convictions," the poet Mary Karr explained recently in the New York Times, before describing her September 11 reading list, "including the notion that lyric poetry dispenses more relief--if not actual salvation--during catastrophic times than perhaps any other art form."
I can't imagine a sentiment more alien to Oppen's work. How peculiar to have one's aesthetic convictions "nailed home" by an act of mass murder, and how more peculiar still for Karr to proclaim, after having assimilated September 11 into poetic accounts of past disasters, "Here I stand, bat cocked, ready for whatever impossible pitch history flings." Oppen wrote often about disasters, but he never counseled a quick flight into culture as a remedy for them. His poems are as void of softball pitches as they are of similes. Things are not "like" other things; they appear and exist before your eyes. In this respect, Oppen's work offers no figurative or topical premonitions of what occurred on September 11; neither thing is like the other, which is precisely why his work remains remarkable and relevant. Hardly a self-contained world of words, the poetry of George Oppen is a place where words about the world must be earned--phrase by phrase, line by line, poem by poem.
Boston's Bernard Cardinal Law deserves the Watergate Award for Obfuscatory Declamation: He has characterized his nearly two decades of cover-up of felonies--namely, the rape and molestation of hundreds of Boston-area children by scores of priests--as "tragically incorrect." Records uncovered by the Boston Globe's Spotlight Team disclose the shocking extent to which Law's cold-shouldering of young victims made him an enabler of known recidivist pedophiles, including former priest John Geoghan, whose thirty-six-year spree of child sexual exploitation ended in a prison sentence on February 21.
Over and over, Law sought to pay hush money to victims of known molesters and then moved the predators to new parishes, where they once again had access to children. For years Law counted on the cooperation of several judges who, sharing his belief that the faith of rank-and-file church members might not survive a reckoning with the truth about the priestly criminals in their midst, moved to seal archdiocese files. Even as the child-rape stories were breaking, Law permitted his lawyers to pursue a defense based on "comparative negligence"--the theory that the abuse was partially due to victims' negligence.
Ever since Superior Court Judge Constance Sweeney's November ruling forced public release of documents detailing the crimes, the Cardinal's voice has had a from-the-bunker timbre. At his official residence, Law has been hunkered down with wealthy male advisers from Boston's Catholic elite--bankers, executives, university presidents and politicians who together calibrate the spin of each statement that issues from the Chancery. But sometimes a furious Law bursts through the kitchen-cabinet insulation: His Nixonian response to the news that nearly half of polled Boston Catholics want him to resign--including those faithful who keep a Law-Must-Go vigil in front of his residence--was to declare them enemies of the Church. His persistent disparagement of the Globe reporters who sued to unseal those documents is not a response to stress; it's his longstanding M.O. In 1992, after the Globe exposed Father James Porter as a serial rapist, the cosmopolitan Harvard-man Cardinal inveighed, "By all means, we call down God's power upon the media, particularly the Globe."
While the US Catholic Church has so far paid out $1 billion in settlements for clerical molestation cases, the predator priests are less emblems of fatal flaws in doctrine--including the doctrine of celibacy--than they are evidence of the mortal danger posed by any institutional leadership that perpetuates the myth that it is answerable to no laws but its own. (This presumption of immunity has taken an ominous new turn, as bishops across the country fling priests alleged to have molested from their jobs: As one Massachusetts picket sign reads: There Is No Due Process in Cardinal's Law.) Protestants have sustained public-relations catastrophes and paid huge sums for years of cover-ups: In December the Anglican Church of Canada announced that ten of its thirty dioceses are facing bankruptcy as a result of child sexual-abuse claims. Australian Governor General Peter Hollingworth faces mounting cries for his resignation since evidence surfaced that while he was an archbishop, he grossly mishandled cases of pedophilia. The children sexually exploited by Deacon Robert Tardy of Washington's Peace Baptist Church have never heard one word of apology from church authorities. Predators and their protectors are also ensconced within synagogue walls. This past summer Boca Raton's Jerrold Levy, rabbi of the largest Reform congregation in the South, was prosecuted for procuring underage boys in four states via the Internet. After he was convicted on one count, federal prosecutors abruptly reversed their sentencing recommendation from sixty years to six and a half, reportedly because of pressure from influential synagogue members. Several weeks ago Cantor Howard Nevison of Manhattan's famed Temple Emanu-El was arrested for an alleged two-generation-long rampage of child rape; some suspect his low bail is connected to Manhattan DA Robert Morgenthau's position as a trustee of Nevison's temple.
As Law's regime wrapped a blanket around criminals in the priesthood, it swung a terrible swift sword in the direction of women aspiring to fuller participation in Catholic liturgy. Two years ago, an organization called Massachusetts Women-Church, made up primarily of lifelong-Catholic mothers and grandmothers advocating the ordination of women, was banned by Law from church-affiliated buildings. When members picketed outside a church, Law shouted at them, "You are in violation of your faith!"
Treating women as contaminants and children as invisible while coddling criminals in Roman collars allowed Boston's imperial bishopric to shore up support for Law's real goal: making a permanent move to Rome as the first American Pope. If Law had been, say, director of a daycare center or a summer camp, he would probably be on his way to jail. But with powerful people at his elbows, Law is as unlikely to serve prison time as he was to let the violated bodies of children get in the way of his career building. When Boston Catholics finally force him out, he'll probably be humming "My Way" as he packs his bags.
A place was found for Mr. Cheney
Where, even if the missiles rain, he
Can carry on his governing nonstop.
They then found bunkers down so far
That closed-lip Bushies even are
More secretive than they have been on top.
So if some heinous act occurred,
Our continuity's assured:
The government will run forevermore.
And since the Congress has no caves,
There'll be no Waxmans to make waves--
Which should make things much smoother than before.
In my last column, I mentioned that most actual drug users are young white people, even though most of those "profiled" as drug users are people of color. Indeed, according to the Sentencing Project, 72 percent of all illegal drug users are white.
But profiling is further vexed by the eternal question of how one determines who is white and who is not. In today's diasporic world, racial identity or "whiteness" is less determined by lines of "blood" or descent than it once was in certain Southern states. Today, whiteness is more dominantly a matter of appearance, based on malleable aesthetic trends.
This point--the malleability of how we assign "race" to people--is certainly illustrated by the example of Noelle Bush, to whom I referred as white. I received much mail insisting that she is not in fact white but Latina "because her mother is." It's an interesting question, this: the potential tension between "actual" and actuarial determinations of race. But first, let us agree that although there is no biological reality of race, the force of race is a powerful if constantly negotiated sociocultural construction, and has been since colonial times. Second, allow me to sidestep for now the complex anthropology of whether being Latina is determined matrilineally, thus canceling out her conspicuous Puritan patrimony. Third, let us also agree that recent migrations from Latin America have increasingly complicated national demographics as historically inflected by Jim Crow laws. And so, while "Latina" seems to be used as a racial category when it comes to most compilations of criminal justice statistics (meaning brown people from south of the border, of mixed Spanish, African and Native American descent), the reality is that not all Latinos are people of color. Indeed, "Latino" is perhaps more accurately understood as a broad linguistic, regional and cultural category rather than a racial one.
In any event, I called Ms. Bush white because, in photographs, that's what she looked like to me, admittedly through all the filters of my particular geographic and generational prism. At the same time, a number of letters pointed out that Noelle Bush and her brother are the grandchildren whom George Bush the Elder once described as "the little brown ones." This underscores the essential irrationality of profiling by appearance alone: If old George and I (just let your imagination wander here) were working as airport screeners, side by side and in accordance with the logic of most racially based profiling guidelines, he'd have stopped her, and I'd have waved her through. "But she's really..." has no fixed meaning in such profiling. This is not a new aspect of racial scrutiny; in generations past, perhaps, Noelle Bush's status might have been familiar as that of Tragic Mulatta. In today's more global context, I re-examine her picture and note how she resembles supermodel Christy Turlington--herself endlessly exploited for the vaguely "exotic" racial ambiguity that her mother's Ecuadorean "blood" supposedly lends her. But however one may or may not want to classify Ms. Bush, the existence of a confused limbo of those who can "pass" does not alter the fact that once classified as "suspect," as are too many of the unambiguously dark-skinned, the license of heightened investigation significantly colors the fundamental counterpresumption of innocent until proven guilty.
Let me shift topics here. One striking feature of virtually all the letters I received was the application of the word "smug" to my description of "Governor Jeb Bush's poor daughter, Noelle." This attribution was attended by detailed accusations, all starting with the word "impliedly." I impliedly took delight in the Bush family's suffering. I impliedly reveled in her getting what she deserved. I impliedly used the daughter to make fun of the father.
A little clarification is perhaps in order. When I said "poor Noelle," I meant it, with no irony attached. Whether fueled by biological predisposition or depression, substance abuse knows no political, class or ethnic boundary. Poor Prince Harry, poor Betty Ford, poor Robert Downey Jr., poor not-a-few Kennedys. I don't find a single bit of enjoyment in what is clearly a pervasive modern crisis. If one must project, let me provide some guidance. I see our crisis of drug dependency as a medical or mental health issue rather than a criminal cause. This stance obviously places me at odds with the Prohibition-era policies of Jeb and both Georges. It doesn't mean I doubt that Governor Bush is less desperately concerned about the fate of his daughter than any other father. He believes the war on drugs is to the greater good; I think it woefully misguided. Asserting such disagreement about the efficacy of policy is democratic, not inherently disrespectful.
I also agree with those who counsel against publishing the unruly actions of children, whether their parents happen to be in the limelight or not. I believe minors, defendants or witnesses, deserve protection from the media. But Noelle Bush is well over 21, has had five traffic violations, seven speeding tickets and three car crashes and was convicted of impersonating a doctor in order to fraudulently obtain a prescription. The actions of adults who are brought before the criminal justice system are appropriately the subject of public record. Noelle Bush was given probation and referred to a drug treatment center. Who's to say if that's what she "deserved," but most likely it's what she, and so many others like her, needs. Where her example might be of continuing public interest is in contrasting her fate with that of poorer women, who, if convicted of drug offenses, are ineligible for welfare benefits for life. And in a case recently before the Supreme Court, an elderly woman whose retarded granddaughter smoked a joint three blocks away from her house was evicted from public housing based on her "relation" to drug use or sale. If such rules were applied across the socioeconomic spectrum, we'd have to ask Jeb Bush to give up the governor's mansion. It is, after all, public housing. I know--some of you will be affixing meanspirited, giggling gratuity to that image, but my point is rather the sad absurdity of it.
In all this, the bottom-line concern is whether fundamental fairness remains the measure of how we treat anyone--rich or poor, white or Latino, anonymous minor or poor Noelle.
Thanks to Stephen Metcalf for his informed article "Reading Between the Lines" [Jan. 28]. There is another winner from Bush's education act: Ignite! Learning, which promotes an "innovative approach to standards-based middle school subject matter." In other words, Ignite!'s multimedia, online, interactive program is designed just for those students most affected by the new bill and its emphasis on standardized testing. The chairman and CEO of Ignite! Learning? Neil Bush, the pResident's brother.
Cape Coral, Fla.
Kudos on your article about the Bush family's love affair with standardized testing. Here in Florida, where I teach, Governor Jeb Bush has pushed a test called the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. Based on their scores, schools receive a grade that can affect their funding, so ignoring the test is not an option. Good teachers are forced into teaching to a test that does not necessarily represent what a child knows. At the same time, Governor Bush has encouraged the state legislature to cut school funding, so teachers are in a no-win situation--they must get the students ready for a standardized test without the resources to prepare the kids. Thanks for reporting that the real concern is not for children but for the profits to be made by testing companies.
SCOTT B. KILHEFNER
George Bush made a great show of voluntarily taking a drug test. Let's see him volunteer to take the mandatory eighth grade test and promise to reveal his score.
Although Stephen Metcalf correctly alerts us to the way large textbook and testing companies influence education policy, his simplistic view of reading instruction insults many progressive educators who applaud the instructional strategies advocated by the National Reading Panel (NRP). In a simple-minded dichotomy, Metcalf places educators politically into two camps based on their views on phonics. One camp aims to cultivate critical and reflective citizens. The other, which supports systematic phonics, aims to produce minimally competent and uncritical workers for big business.
But understanding that comprehending texts requires critical thinking and reflection has little connection with one's politics or position on phonics. The NRP report and its most recent summary, Put Reading First (www.nifl.gov), devote more pages to vocabulary, comprehension and fluency instruction than to phonics.
Agreement with NRP about systematic phonics is no clue to one's politics. In fact, many progressives hope that approach will close the achievement gap between rich and poor students, at least in the early grades. Most children of well-educated, affluent parents enter school with thousands of hours of literacy preparation, and for them a more casual approach to phonics suffices. Systematic instruction, however, insures that children lacking such backgrounds are introduced to every sound and letter element--the basic tools for true reading comprehension, which goes far beyond simple phonics.
Calling supporters of systematic phonics reactionary lackeys is a harmful simplification that insults many socially committed educators seeking effective ways to narrow the gap between the haves and the have-nots.
Principal Education Consultant
Illinois Board of Education
Note: Ms. Goldsmith-Conley's views are her own, not those of the Illinois Board of Education.
Just when we might have hoped for an end to the politicization of the debate over reading instruction, along comes Stephen Metcalf to keep the battle going. The debate was always scientific and educational, not political: To what extent can written language be acquired naturally (the way spoken language is), and to what extent is structured teaching necessary? Representatives of one theory, whole language, asserted in the 1970s and '80s that written language can be acquired naturally. But whole language contradicted what linguistics and cognitive psychology teach us: that written language is a subtle code for spoken language; learning to read is unlike learning to speak; and explicit instruction--phonics--is essential for many. Although whole language should have been a nonstarter, it had a significant impact because of its political marketing. Whole language wrapped itself in liberation rhetoric, promising such things as "the empowerment of learners and teachers." The right wing was jubilant. Here was a left-wing conspiracy that could imperil children's literacy! A flurry of newsletters and websites appeared attacking the left-wing menace of whole language and vigorously promoting phonics. In the end, as Metcalf makes clear, the phonics counterrevolution found a home in the Bush White House.
Metcalf suggests that we look to the Bush family's links to McGraw-Hill for an explanation of the current situation. I disagree. Metcalf's anecdotes of corruption on the reading front, if true, are a sideshow--a symptom, not a cause. If effective phonics instruction is now inextricably linked to educational trends promoted by "conservatives and business leaders," as Metcalf claims, the progressive community has no one but itself to blame. The war against phonics was a Lysenkoist aberration. It is time to put it to rest. There is no connection between politics and how we should teach children to read, and there never was.
New York City
I would like to clarify several of the misconceptions in Stephen Metcalf's "Reading Between the Lines." McGraw-Hill Education is proud of the role we play in improving student achievement. We have products that meet the standards and pedagogical approaches our customers require. And our materials have demonstrated positive results, especially in the critically important arena of reading.
Results matter. Accountability must be part of the educational system. However, education leaders in all fifty states will determine the appropriate pedagogical approach for their constituents. McGraw-Hill must be prepared to address the needs state and local governments identify. The phonics-based reading programs Metcalf references are but two of a range of programs published by McGraw-Hill. Collectively, these instructional programs represent an approach to reading instruction that is as diverse as the broad-based support this year's education bill received in Congress. Regrettably, Metcalf's one-sided view only examined one successful approach to reading instruction.
We are proud of the collaborative relationships we have with our customers. The products and programs we produce are not created in a vacuum. They are produced using the best research available to us, the input of our customers and our decades of experience.
Metcalf's article also attempted to diminish the Harold W. McGraw Jr. Prize in Education, which in its fourteen-year history has become one of the most prestigious awards in education. Honorees are selected by a highly respected panel of judges, and winners have come from all parts of the academic, pedagogical and political spectrum.
As the nation's largest K-12 textbook publisher, we are committed to improving teaching and learning and will continue to work with our customers and public officials across the nation in pursuit of this goal.
ROBERT E. EVANSON
President, McGraw-Hill Education
New York City
I urge readers to please go back and read my article. I nowhere placed educators into camps, accused phonics of being a waste of time or advertised whole language as a cure for illiteracy, and certainly never reached for so silly a phrase as "reactionary lackeys." Furthermore, I imagine that Elizabeth Goldsmith-Conley and I agree that gifted teachers should use any means necessary to teach children the ABCs, politics be damned. But it is simply a fact: A vocal subset of the phonics constituency is politically motivated. Even a glance at the public record reveals that the "reading wars" is a red-meat issue for social conservatives, many of whom demonize whole language by way of camouflaging the root causes of illiteracy--poverty and the chronic underfunding of schools.
I did argue that the standardized testing industry, controlled by three major publishing companies, now has exactly the education policy it wants--centered on radically expanding standardized testing. It has done this by lobbying heavily and by having a friend in the White House; and an assist should be credited to the enormous prestige business leaders and social conservatives wield in educational circles, at the local, state and now federal level. Educators of any political stripe must be happy with increased attention and funding, but phonics and testing are often promoted by conservatives as virtually cost-free solutions to a broken system. I know no serious educator, progressive or otherwise, who can swallow this without gagging.
The reading wars, sadly, do continue--not because a handful of flat-earthers refuse to acknowledge good science but because the supposedly ironclad scientific neutrality (not to mention validity) of the NRP's work has come under serious fire. Even a cursory examination of the NRP report--as opposed to its widely circulated summary--reveals that science has not determined a straightforward, uniform prescription for reading failure; that the panel's findings were often quite narrow and based on dubious interpretations of the research; and that the summary overstated (to put it mildly) the panel's conclusions. Nonetheless, the report was presented to policy-makers, educators and the public as the end of the reading wars by a publicist whose prominent clients include McGraw-Hill, which in turn stands to profit mightily from a Bush reading plan based in its specifics on--guess what?--the NRP report. I leave it to readers--Lysenkoist, Taoist, Maoist and otherwise--to conclude whether they prefer their educational policies to travel this route into public consciousness and federal legislation.
It's hard to imagine a better example of the new market paradigm for public education than Robert Evanson's letter, where we hear (three times) about "customers," as well as politicians and their "constituents," but nothing about teachers or students. As to his suggestion that my article was "one-sided," I never felt any burden to address McGraw-Hill's entire product line when pointing out the controversy over two of its programs--and still don't. I did not diminish the McGraw Prize, though a glance at the roster of past winners reveals a curious number of superintendents--Secretary of Education Rod Paige, Los Angeles super Roy Romer and recent winners Nancy Grasmick and Carl Cohn--who have adopted or promoted Open Court, one of McGraw-Hill's primary phonics programs. Maybe we should retain a qualified researcher to tell us if this is statistically random.
It's official now: The United States has a policy on climate change. President Bush announced it on Valentine's Day at a government climate and oceans research center. "My approach recognizes that economic growth is the solution, not the problem," he said. Instead of requiring the nation to lower greenhouse gas emissions below 1990 levels, as called for in the Kyoto Protocol, the new policy is voluntary and aims only to slow the growth of emissions, not reduce them. The centerpiece of the new climate policy is a tiny little tax cut for any manufacturers who are interested.
Of course, it's not nearly as big as the tax cuts used for real national priorities like distributing income upward or starving civilian government of resources. It's just some walking-around money, less than $1 billion a year, for investors who voluntarily, now and then, feel like doing the right thing for the environment. The President would also like industries to report their own emissions levels voluntarily, which may earn them valuable credits in the future if an emissions trading scheme is implemented.
It takes a creative imagination to believe that this is an appropriate way for the world's largest economy (and producer of about 20 percent of the world's greenhouse emissions) to respond to a serious global crisis. If you believe, that is, that global warming is a crisis. George Bush and his friends keep hoping it's not, but the scientific consensus, not to mention world opinion, is absolutely clear on this point. At the request of the Bush Administration, the National Academy of Sciences re-examined the climate change issue last year and promptly concluded that the problem is every bit as important as previously reported. Finding a way to debunk all this annoying environmental science must be high on the White House wish list.
It almost looks like that wish has been granted. Bjørn Lomborg, a statistics professor at a Danish university and self-described "old left-wing Greenpeace member," says the story began when he got interested in the longstanding debate between environmentalist Paul Ehrlich and economist Julian Simon. Ehrlich claimed that shortages of many natural resources were imminent; Simon said they were not. A few years ago Lomborg started researching the facts in order, he says, to prove that Ehrlich was right. Instead he found to his surprise that Ehrlich was wrong--and indeed, environmentalists were wrong about many, many things.
Trapped by the "litany" of doom and gloom, environmental advocates have, according to Lomborg, missed the evidence that most of the problems they worry about are not so bad, and are not getting any worse. There are more acres of forests all the time, plenty of fish in the sea, no danger of acid rain, no threat of rapid extinction of species, no need to do much about global warming and no reason to worry about environmental causes of cancer. Everyone in the environmental world, his erstwhile comrades at Greenpeace included, has misunderstood the subtleties of statistics and overlooked the growing good news, as he graciously offers to explain.
Preposterous as it sounds (and, in fact, is), that's the message that Lomborg presents in The Skeptical Environmentalist. It received rave reviews in the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, The Economist and elsewhere, and it looks as if the Bush Administration has torn a few pages from it. Lomborg plausibly points out that the environmental litany of short-run crisis and impending doom is unrealistic, and sometimes based on statistical misunderstandings. If he had stopped there, he could have written a useful, brief article about how to think about short-run versus long-run problems and avoid exaggeration.
Unfortunately, Lomborg stretches his argument across 350 dense pages of text and 2,930 somewhat repetitive footnotes, claiming that the litany of doom has infected virtually everything written about the environment. As an alternative, he paints a relentlessly optimistic picture of dozens of topics about which he knows very little. Responses from researchers who are more familiar with many of his topics have started to appear, including rebuttals in the January issue of Scientific American, in a report from the Union of Concerned Scientists and on the website www.anti-lomborg.com.
On global warming, Lomborg believes that "the typical cure of early and radical fossil fuel cutbacks is way worse than the original affliction, and moreover [global warming's] total impact will not pose a devastating problem for our future." In support of this Bush-friendly thesis, Lomborg attempts to reinterpret all the massive research of recent years, including the carefully peer-reviewed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports. But he is not up to the task. Discussing the standard graphs of average temperature over recent centuries, which most analysts use to highlight the exceptional recent increases, he offers pages of meandering speculation and concludes that "the impression of a dramatic divergence [in recent world average temperature] from previous centuries is almost surely misleading." Lomborg's own figures 134, 135 and 146 present strong visual evidence against his strange conclusion, showing average temperatures heading sharply and unprecedentedly upward in recent decades. He also finds it terribly significant that we do not know exactly how fast temperatures will change in the future, as greenhouse gases accumulate in the atmosphere; nonetheless, he accepts IPCC estimates that temperatures above the range of recent historical experience are essentially certain to occur.
When it comes to estimating the economic costs of greenhouse gas reduction, Lomborg's claim that all models produce "more or less the same results" is absurd. He has missed a valuable analysis from the World Resources Institute, by Robert Repetto and Duncan Austin (The Costs of Climate Protection: A Guide for the Perplexed), which describes and analyzes the huge range of sixteen major models' estimates of the costs of greenhouse gas reduction. Repetto and Austin attribute the divergent estimates to the models' differing assumptions about the pace of economic adjustment to future changes, the extent of international emissions trading and the uses the government will make of revenues from carbon taxes or similar measures, among other factors.
I turn out to have a small part in Lomborg's story, in a manner that does not increase my confidence in his research. My name appears in footnote 1,605 in his chapter on solid waste, where he cites in passing a three-page article based on my 1997 book on recycling but overlooks the book (Why Do We Recycle?) and the larger point that it makes. Lomborg's solid-waste chapter simply says that the United States is not running out of space for landfills. Echoing an example long favored by the most vehement critics of recycling, he calculates that a landfill big enough to hold all US solid waste for the next 100 years would be quite small compared with the country's land area. Nothing is said about other countries--Denmark, for example--where land might be a bit scarcer. Almost nothing is said about recycling, either, because it seems that it doesn't much matter: "We tend to believe that all recycling is good, both because it saves resources and because it avoids waste.... We may not necessarily need to worry so much about raw materials, especially common ones such as stone, sand and gravel, but neither should we worry about wood and paper, because both are renewable resources."
The United States is not running out of landfill space, but this does not invalidate concern about waste and recycling. Rather, it shows the error of collapsing our thinking about long-term problems into short-term crisis response.
Several life-cycle analyses of material production, use and disposal (none of which Lomborg refers to) have found that extraction and processing of virgin materials accounts for far more environmental damage than landfilling the same materials when they are discarded. The greatest benefit of recycling is not that it solves a nonexistent landfill crisis, or that it staves off any immediate scarcity of resources, but rather that it reduces pollution from mining, refining and manufacturing new materials.
There are similar shortcomings in many other areas of The Skeptical Environmentalist, of which I will mention just a few. Lomborg claims that there is little need to worry about trends in air pollution: "The achievement of dramatically decreasing concentrations of the major air pollutants in the Western world...is amazing by itself.... There is also good reason to believe that the developing world, following our pattern, in the long run likewise will bring down its air pollution." He endorses wholeheartedly the hypothesis that economic growth will first cause air pollution to get worse, but then later will lead to improvement. This controversial idea, the so-called environmental Kuznets curve (EKC), was more widely accepted in the mid-1990s, the period from which Lomborg's citations are taken. Recent research has cast doubt on this pattern, as he acknowledges in the second sentence of a footnote. Yet he has missed the most comprehensive critique of the EKC research, by David Stern ("Progress on the Environmental Kuznets Curve?," Environment and Development Economics, 1998). According to Stern, the EKC pattern can be clearly detected only for a few air pollutants, such as sulfur, and then only in developed countries.
Rushing to critique environmental views in one area after another, Lomborg may not have had time to read all his citations. In his introductory chapter he maintains that the collapse of the indigenous culture of Easter Island was based on factors unique to that island and does not suggest that an ecological crash caused by resource overuse could threaten other societies. But the only source he cites about Easter Island reached exactly the opposite conclusion, speculating that ecological problems could have caused the decline of such civilizations as the Maya, early Mesopotamia and the Anasazi in what is now the southwestern United States: "Easter Island may be only one case of many where unregulated resource use and Malthusian forces led to depletion of the resource base and social conflict," concluded James Brander and M. Scott Taylor in "The Simple Economics of Easter Island" (American Economic Review, March 1998).
In his concluding chapter, Lomborg relies heavily on studies by John Graham and Tammy Tengs. These studies purport to show vastly different costs per life saved, or per life-year saved, from different regulations. At one extreme, the federal law requiring home smoke detectors, flammability standards for children's sleepwear and the removal of lead from gasoline have economic benefits outweighing their costs. At the other extreme, controls on benzene, arsenic and radioactive emissions at various industrial facilities are said to cost from $50 million to $20 billion per life-year saved. The implication is that shifting resources from the more expensive to the cheaper proposals would be enormously beneficial--by one wild calculation (which Lomborg uncritically accepts) saving 60,000 lives annually: "And the Harvard study gives us an indication that, with greater concern for efficiency than with the Litany, we could save 60,000 more Americans each year--for free." Graham and Tengs follow closely in the footsteps of John Morrall, who made similar claims in a related, earlier study.
A widely cited article in the Yale Law Journal ("Regulatory Costs of Mythic Proportions," 1998) by Georgetown University law professor Lisa Heinzerling explains the fatal flaws in the Morrall study. This, too, escaped Lomborg's notice. Heinzerling demonstrates that Morrall's long list of allegedly expensive regulations includes numerous items that were never adopted and in many cases never even proposed. Moreover, many of the cheaper lifesaving measures--removing lead from gasoline, for example--have already been done and cannot be redone for additional savings. Thus the re-allocation of money that would putatively save thousands of lives would have to be from nonexistent expensive regulations to already completed cheaper rules. In more recent, forthcoming work, Heinzerling and I have found that the same fundamental errors occur throughout the Graham and Tengs studies, including "the Harvard study" that Lomborg likes so well.
Finally, Lomborg cannot be allowed to speak for "old left-wing Greenpeace members" in general. I personally remain happy to support Greenpeace because, among other reasons, I admire its courageous and imaginative confrontations with the likes of nuclear weapons testers, the whaling industry and oil companies drilling in ecologically fragile areas. I am of course disappointed, but hardly shaken in my worldview, to learn that Lomborg claims to have caught Greenpeace in a statistical error or two. Greenpeace doesn't rely on me to throw grappling hooks onto whaling ships, and I don't rely on it for quantitative research. On the strength of this book, I won't rely on Lomborg, either.
This is a special selection from The Nation Digital Archive. If you want to read everything The Nation has ever published on the women's rights movement and feminism, click here for information on how to acquire individual access to the Archive--an electronic database of every Nation article since 1865.
As partisan squabbles in the US Senate continue to delay meaningful action on election reforms proposed after the Florida recount crisis of 2000, California voters are taking ballot matters into their own hands. Voters in the Golden State endorsed a group of state and local election reform proposals Monday that ought to make the state a leader in fixing not just broken election machinery but a broken political system.
They even nominated a reform-minded Democratic candidate for Secretary of State who -- unlike Florida's Katherine Harris -- actually believes that election officials ought to count every vote.
From an election reform standpoint the news from California was all good, and one development -- the decision of San Francisco voters to create an instant runoff voting system -- is particularly important.
This essay, from the July 17, 1948, issue of The Nation, is a special selection from The Nation Digital Archive. If you want to read everything The Nation has ever published on feminism and women's rights, click here for information on how to acquire individual access to the Archive--an electronic database of every Nation article since 1865.
Editor's note: Below is David Corn's article, posted on March 4, 2002, that first broke news of the Bush-Enron oil deal. An update follows.
The nation's largest media corporations are now poised to gain dramatically greater control over what Americans watch, listen to and read. A February 19 decision by the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit nullified two longstanding government regulations limiting the scope and size of media companies that use the public airwaves. If the decision stands, there will no longer be limits on the same company owning television stations and cable franchises in the same market. The court also ordered the Federal Communications Commission to reconsider a rule barring a TV network from owning stations that reach more than 35 percent of the national audience.
The end result of this latest deregulation wave could be, in the words of Gene Kimmelman of Consumers Union, "the most massive consolidation in media this nation has ever seen." The only good news in the appeals court's ruling was its rejection of a claim by media company lawyers that regulation of media monopolies is itself unconstitutional. This means that even as FCC chairman Michael Powell seeks to repeal the remaining regulatory limits on media monopoly, Congress could reassert its authority over communications law. Some powerful legislators, including Senator Ernest Hollings and Representative John Conyers Jr., want to do just that. But they are going to need public pressure from a real media reform movement if they are to have any hope of converting their fellow members to a fight for Americans' right to a diverse media.
With the looming prospect of one or two giant media conglomerates controlling almost all our news and entertainment, the survival of alternative, noncommercial media outlets becomes more important than ever. One of them--Pacifica radio--has famously been rocked by internal problems and requires support from all who care about independent media. The Nation is deeply committed to the Pacifica ideal of independent broadcasting (at both the national and local levels) and has many friends and longtime contributors involved in the network in various capacities. Now that an Alameda County Superior Court judge has replaced the old board with an interim body charged with restoring harmony and solvency to the battered network, it's vital that those of us in the penumbra of the Pacifica community do what we can to help the new cast of characters be true to the Pacifica ideal.
Recent events--including the axing of Pacifica Network News, the firing of KPFK station manager Mark Schubb, the suspension of Marc Cooper and the cancellation of his daily show on KPFK (Cooper is a contributing editor of this magazine and also the host of RadioNation)--suggest that all is not pacified at Pacifica. Further, the network is saddled with a debt of $4.8 million, partly as a result of litigation during the recent troubles.
We'll have a report in an upcoming issue on the latest developments. Meanwhile, Pacifica remains a beacon of independent thinking and progressive values in a sea of conglomeratized and homogenized media. Readers who have strong views on Pacifica's future course should convey them to their local station. For those of you who wish to send contributions to offset the alarming deficit: Make out checks to Pacifica Foundation and mail them to Pacifica Radio, Attention: Accounts, 2390 Champlain St. NW, Washington, DC 20009.
One of the pitfalls of publishing a weekly journal of critical opinion at a moment when the political culture has drifted to the right is that there is so much of which to be critical that we often don't take time out to count our blessings, hail our heroes and salute our comrades in arms. Add to that the liberal left's propensity for internecine warfare (see our editorial on page 3) and the temptation to pass over those guilty of committing good works is often too great to resist. So, let us take a moment to cheer two local heroes whose good works, not incidentally, have benefited Nation writers, among many others, over the years.
First, Bill Moyers. For years, his documentaries, speeches and articles have illuminated such subjects as the way money distorts politics, how secrecy perverts liberty and how, under the flag of free trade, NAFTA has permitted multinationals to undermine democracy. As Moyers (quoting John Dewey) wrote in our pages, it's not easy to interest the public in the public interest. In recent weeks Moyers has been the target of a Weekly Standard demolition job and a misguided assault by the Washington Post's Sebastian Mallaby. He must be doing something right.
Second, Jeff Chester, one-man monitor of concentration among the communications conglomerates, reminds us how we were almost deprived of the good works of Norman Lear. Citing a Writer's Guild of America statement on harmful vertical and horizontal integration in television, he notes that Norman Lear (and his colleague Bud Yorkin) made two pilots for ABC of the controversial series All in the Family. ABC kept asking him to water it down, soften it, blur the edges. Lear refused and took the series to CBS, where he was allowed to follow his vision and create one of the groundbreaking shows of all time. As the WGA notes, "He could do that only because he owned it. Today, the network would have an ownership position and would be able simply to fire Lear and replace him with a writer and producer who would do what they wanted." As a result Lear made his fortune and has used it, among other things, to purchase one of the few surviving original versions of the Declaration of Independence and to found People for the American Way, which fights to put the principles of the Declaration and the Bill of Rights into practice. A recent example: turning the national spotlight on a Bush court nominee with an abominable civil rights record, as described by John Nichols in this week's issue.
We take our hat off to Bill Moyers and Norman Lear.
Remember anthrax? The investigation into the anthrax attacks that killed five people and infected eighteen others this past fall drags on, and the FBI says it has not identified any firm suspects. The whodunit question aside, the Bush Administration has announced it will spend more than $11 billion to counter bioterrorism in the next two years. That sounds like plenty of money, but will it be used properly? As Marc Siegel shows on page 14, a major problem with the government's response to the anthrax assaults last year had nothing to do with money. Rather, the FBI's unwillingness to work fully with the Centers for Disease Control led to poor decision-making that placed mail handlers and others at risk. At the same time, the government overreacted, putting more people on antibiotics--perhaps the wrong ones--than was necessary.
This episode illustrates the need for scientists and epidemiologists to be completely involved in any response to a biological threat. But much of the money the government is spending on bioterrorism will go to stockpiling antibiotics and vaccines, and in many instances stockpiles are less useful than a well-managed and well-coordinated first response. Antibiotics would not be the weapon of choice against a bubonic plague attack, for instance, which is best thwarted by public-health measures like quarantining, tracking those infected and exterminating rodents.
To counter the threat of bioterrorism, the government will have to use its new funds to build a cadre of medical experts, bolster coordination among agencies and dramatically improve the communications systems between the Feds and local agencies.
The birds stopped coming after the annuals died.
I didn't realize how much I missed them until the bluebird
Returned, lured by the burgundy haze of the fall pansies
Pouring from the window boxes. I was too slow finding
The camera and then I left the cap on. The bird rose
Into a cut of sky and I was left with a vision of blue--
His sapphire eye and marigold breast. Maybe it was you,
Released from your standing body--fingers fluid between
Tissue and organ--as you operate in the crowded surgical
Theatre, transformed to tell me autumn is here. I would not
Be surprised. This brief visit imitates your frequent calls
Between cases. After he flies, the room seems to hold you.
I see the white waves throwing themselves into the Cliffs
Of Moher, your eyes stealing blue from the sky.
What the Islamic fascists do, and what they believe, and what they intend, are three aspects of the same one-dimensional thing. It is ludicrous to accuse them of being untrue to themselves or their cause. The usual rush to "understand" Pervez Musharraf's difficulties seems to supply a partial explanation for this moral feebleness.