Four days after the press reported that
he was about to cut climate-altering carbon dioxide emissions from
power plants, George W. Bush caved in to the Neanderthal wing of the
fossil fuel lobby--the coal industry and ExxonMobil--and reversed
himself. In reneging on his campaign pledge, Bush thumbed his nose at
Holland, Germany and Britain, which are planning to cut carbon
emissions by 50 to 80 percent over the next fifty years, as well as
EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman, who had voiced support for
By calling the science "still
incomplete," Bush also lent new credibility to the tiny handful of
industry-sponsored "greenhouse skeptics" who have been thoroughly
discredited by the mainstream community of climate
researchers--including the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate
Change (IPCC), the National Academy of Sciences and other blue-ribbon
scientific groups that deem global warming to be real, immediate and
For most of the 1990s, Western Fuels, a $400
million coal industry propaganda outlet, funded the most visible of
the greenhouse skeptics. Now ExxonMobil--the only major oil company
to deny the reality of climate change--has joined the coal industry
to finance the skeptics, confuse the public and undermine the work of
2,000 scientists from 100 countries on the IPCC.
widely quoted skeptic, S. Fred Singer, denied receiving oil industry
money in a February letter to the Washington Post. But in 1998
ExxonMobil gave $10,000 to Singer's institute, the Science and
Environmental Policy Project, and $65,000 to the Atlas Economic
Research Foundation, which shared building space with SEPP. Says
Atlas's website, "For those who believe public policy should be based
on sound science, Dr. Singer offers a wealth of information,
credibility and encouragement."
Singer's denial of oil
funding is only the most recent of his many fabrications. In 1997 he
declared that Dr. Bert Bolin, then chairman of the IPCC, had changed
his position on climate change and denied a connection between global
warming and extreme weather, accusations that Bolin called
"inaccurate and misleading." While he touts himself as an
accomplished scientist, Singer has been unable to publish in the
peer-reviewed literature for at least fifteen years, other than one
technical comment, according to Congressional
ExxonMobil states candidly that it "provides
support to selected organizations that assess public policy
alternatives on issues with direct bearing on the company's business
operations and interests." Many of the ExxonMobil grants are
relatively small. But given the company's size and reputation, they
are useful in leveraging other grants. For example, the company
supports the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global
Change, staffed by Sherwood Idso, a longtime coal-sponsored global
warming skeptic, and two relatives, Keith and Craig Idso. In 1998
ExxonMobil gave $15,000 to the Cato Institute's Environment and
Natural Resources program, which boasts coal-sponsored skeptic
Patrick Michaels as its senior fellow. Michaels's "statements on
[climate models] are a catalog of misrepresentation and
misinterpretation," says Dr. Tom Wigley, a leading climate modeler at
the National Center for Atmospheric Research. And ExxonMobil
bankrolls the Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy, which
published The Heated Debate, a book by greenhouse skeptic Dr.
ExxonMobil has isolated itself from the
community of major oil companies in the area of climate. British
Petroleum is now the world's largest producer of solar energy
systems, Shell created a $500 million renewable energy company and
Texaco has invested substantial resources in hydrogen-powered fuel
Around the world, glaciers are melting, oceans are
heating up and infectious diseases are migrating. The buildup of our
coal and oil emissions has triggered a wave of violent and chaotic
weather. All this has resulted from one degree of warming. During
this century, the temperature will rise by up to 10 degrees,
according to the IPCC. It's time for journalists to stop quoting
Singer and the other global warming skeptics. They might as well go
straight to the ExxonMobil public information office for
Many compared it to marching through a dream.
After seven years under siege by 70,000 Mexican Army troops in the
jungles and highlands of Chiapas, the Zapatista National Liberation
Army (EZLN) sent twenty-four delegates, including its pipe-smoking
writer-spokesman Subcomandante Marcos, on a triumphant two-week
motorcade that landed in Mexico City on March 11.
believe that in any place, in any space in this world--and I have the
memory of my own revolution twenty-six years ago--I don't remember a
more moving moment than I lived yesterday," declared the
septuagenarian Portuguese Nobel Prize-winning author José
Saramago the next morning.
The US press coverage of the
march, limited though it was, hinted at such an apotheosis: the
cheering multitudes that greeted the Zapatistas from the roadsides
and at mass rallies in twelve states along the route, the flowery
words of peace and civil rights coming to Mexico's mythical newfound
democracy. But for the Zapatistas and Mexico's indigenous movement,
the struggle now turns into a battle to codify the movement's
progress into law.
The caravan came to demand
constitutional recognition for Mexico's 10 million indigenous
citizens, subjected to generations of repression, poverty, racism and
exploitation of their lands and labor. As Mexico's President Vicente
Fox passed his hundredth day in office, he reiterated calls to the
Zapatistas to negotiate a peace. Not until the government fulfills
the promises it has already made, answered the rebels: release of
Zapatista political prisoners, closure of seven of the 259 military
bases in Chiapas, and congressional passage of the law that would
ratify the 1996 San Andrés peace agreements signed by the
government [see Jerry W. Sanders, "Two Mexicos and Fox's Quandary,"
The geographical advance was accompanied by a
steady rise in the popularity of Marcos and the Zapatistas in opinion
polls, an average gain of two percentage points per day, with over 50
percent in support. The implementation of the San Andrés
Accords is now the sticking point. Marcos and the Zapatistas, with
more than 1,000 delegates from the Indigenous National Congress,
encamped at the base of Mexico City's Cuicuilco pyramid--a circular,
370-foot-diameter stone monument that has survived at least 2,600
years of lava flows, earthquakes and urban
Underscoring their credo, "We will not sign a false
peace," the Zapatistas caused a fierce uproar when, as the caravan
was launched from San Cristóbal, Chiapas, they named architect
Fernando Yáñez Muñoz as their representative to
the federal Congress. Mexican police agencies have long claimed that
Yáñez is Comandante Germán, the feared national
guerrilla leader of the 1970s and '80s who, they say, helped found
the Zapatista army in the jungle in 1983, a charge that
Yáñez has denied. The Zapatistas have also, for the
first time, called upon other guerrilla movements to protect their
journey and remain alert, implying that if the state doesn't keep its
word, an armed guerrilla response could explode
María Luisa Tomasini, 78, a Chiapas
native designated by Marcos as the "grandmother of all the
Zapatistas," analyzed his call to the other insurgent groupsas she
was returning from the March 7 Zapatista rally in Iguala, Guerrero, a
state with at least sixteen armed clandestine guerrilla
organizations. "Clearly," she said, "it was a threat to the
government that it had better comply."
The powerful sectors
that have always gotten their way in Mexico--bankers, chambers of
commerce chiefs, right-wing clergy, the TV networks and key
legislators--are working furiously to sabotage the road to a genuine
peace. Fox's party, the PAN, teamed up with the former ruling party,
the PRI, against the left-wing PRD party to propose that the
Zapatistas meet with twenty congressional leaders instead of the
entire Congress. Marcos, noting that the indigenous of Mexico have
always been hidden "in the kitchen, on the back porch," rejected the
offer, arguing that the Zapatistas and the Indigenous National
Congress deserve to address the whole Congress. Hard-liners continue
to seek any roadblock to passage of the full indigenous rights bill
with hysterical claims that autonomy would fracture the nation, and
they vow radical surgery to the initiative.
On March 19 the
Zapatistas announced they will return to the jungle, citing the
"close minded" attitude of "cavemen politicians," saying, "Nothing
will be able to stop the popular mobilization" that stems from the
Congress's failure to act. "We will return with everyone who we are."
Immediately, thirteen national peasant-farmer groups pledged
nationwide marches, students plotted direct action and five major
indigenous groups in Oaxaca vowed to close the Pan American Highway
until Congress passes the accords. Congressional leaders begged the
Zapatistas to stay, Fox urged the Congress to meet with the rebels
and the drama now moves in unpredictable directions.
guiding principle of the San Andrés Accords is autonomy. The
word has galvanized many beyond Mexico's indigenous populations. The
battered Mexican left--peasant farmers, urban workers and especially
the nation's youth--view themselves, too, under the banner of
autonomy. Indeed, the popularity of the Zapatista struggle around the
world derives at least in part from the coherent language of
opposition to globalized and savage capitalism that they have
constructed. French sociologist Alain Torraine, who accompanied the
caravan, praised the Zapatistas during a March 12 discussion with
Marcos and the comandantes in Mexico City, marveling, "The entire
world, and we are speaking of the left, is looking for a new
language." Comandante David, a Tzotzil delegate who was a chief
negotiator and architect of the San Andrés Accords,
acknowledges that the demand for autonomy goes far beyond indigenous
rights. "We are going to explain directly to the indigenous and
nonindigenous brothers of the country that indigenous rights are for
the good of all the peoples," he said while preparing to leave on the
Autonomy--what might be called "home rule" in
other parts of the world--includes local control of land use, a sore
point for big business in Mexico, its eyes on natural
Beyond Mexico, US investors and corporate
interests, with expectations that Fox will be the most effective
deliveryman yet of Mexican resources under NAFTA, are stoking the
subterfuge. Former US Ambassador to Mexico James Jones, now a
railroad baron and rainmaker for the Manat, Phelps and Phillips law
and lobbying firm in Washington, is on the board of directors of TV
Azteca, the most notorious manipulator of public opinion among all
the Mexican media. TV Azteca joined the other broadcasting giant,
Televisa, to present a March 3 Concert for Peace live from Aztec
Stadium, featuring a laser light show, a Woodstock-style logo and the
usual condescension toward "our indigenous brothers." The prepackaged
video aired with the concert didn't mention autonomy, or indigenous
political prisoners, or 500 years of conquest--certainly not justice
in connection with the 1997 massacre of unarmed indigenous peasants
at Acteal. The only proposed solution was to send aid to the poor,
barefoot indigenous communities, an approach known in Mexican
politics as "clientism." Many analysts saw Fox's fingerprints on the
TV peace show, as both stations rely on state permission to broadcast
in Mexico. Indeed, one of the demands of the San Andrés
Accords is the right of indigenous peoples to break that control by
forming their own media, including the use of radio and television
The question of indigenous autonomy also has
consequences for the US-imposed "war on drugs." The San Andrés
Accords would restore indigenous rights to the use of currently
illicit sacred plants and codify the pre-eminence of ancient forms of
community justice. Luciano, a spokesman for the Zapatista community
of Polho, explained to me in 1998 how the autonomous system works
without constructing a single prison cell: "If a young man grows
marijuana, he goes before a municipal judge to be disciplined and
oriented so that he won't ever do it again. If the youth does it
again, there is no response whatsoever: He cannot be pardoned a
second time. He would then be expelled from the
That the Zapatista communities have had far
more success in driving out the narcotraffickers and preventing drug
and alcohol abuse than any other region of the Americas is of little
concern to the big talkers of law and order. Opponents charge that
autonomy in matters of criminal justice would "balkanize" the country
and subvert the "rule of law."
Indigenous and social
movements across Latin America--in Ecuador, Colombia, Bolivia, Peru,
Panama, Brazil and other nations--had representatives quietly
observing the caravan. In spite of the powers stacked against them,
the Zapatistas, newly strengthened, their national support deepened,
have many cards yet to play in forcing legislative victory. In the
latest of the ironies under NAFTA, autonomy may thus, and soon,
become Mexico's leading export product.
'FREELANCE' DOESN'T MEAN FOR FREE
The case of Tasini v. New York Times, which
the Supreme Court will hear soon, turns on technical language in
copyright law, but it has raised a larger issue between historians
and freelance writers, whose work might be said to be the raw
material of history. The freelancers, led by Jonathan Tasini,
president of the National Writers Union, challenge the Times's
and other newspapers' claim that they have the right to post articles
on databases like Lexis-Nexis without compensation to the writers.
The writers argue that they should be cut a share of the revenue
generated by this recycling of their work. The publishers and
databases say that Internet or CD-ROM compilations of newspaper
articles are simply an extension of the original publication, as
permitted by copyright law. If the writers win, the publishers fear
they'll be vulnerable to lawsuits by ink-stained wretches and so will
be forced to excise freelance articles from their databases. That
specter haunts the historians, who bemoan the loss of this material
from the historical record. We respect the historians' farseeing
dedication to historical truth, but we also believe writers deserve
compensation in the here and now. As George Bernard Shaw told Sam
Goldwyn, who made an unsatisfactory offer for the screen rights to
his plays: "The trouble, Mr. Goldwyn, is that you are only interested
in art, and I am only interested in money."
UPDATE: WE'LL ALWAYS HAVE PARIS
Ireland writes: Paris became the first national capital to choose an
openly gay candidate for mayor, in the second round of municipal
voting on March 18 (see Frédéric Martel, "Retour du
Socialisme?" March 19). Socialist Bertrand Delanoë led the
"plural left" coalition to a resounding victory, giving the left a
sizable governing majority on the municipal council (which actually
elects the mayor), carrying two-thirds of the city's
arrondissements against a divided right (although the two
conservative tickets' scores, if combined, would have given the right
a majority of votes cast). About half of the 10,000-plus crowd that
celebrated Delanoë's victory in front of the Hotel de Ville were
gay. Lyons, France's second city, also fell to the left for the first
time since 1957. But where the right was united, it won: Forty cities
and towns with incumbent left governments passed to the
conservatives. All this spells trouble for Prime Minister Lionel
Jospin in next year's presidential and legislative elections. Biggest
winner: the Greens, who scored heavily everywhere in the first round
of voting, becoming the second-largest force in the left
PREGNANT WOMEN'S RIGHTS
The Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional a South
Carolina public hospital's policy of requiring women in a prenatal
care program to take drug tests (see Rachel Roth, "Policing
Pregnancy," October 16, 2000). If the women (mostly poor and
African-American) tested positive, they were threatened with arrest
unless they entered a treatment program. Some thirty women landed in
jail. Writing for the 6-to-3 majority, Justice John Paul Stevens
ruled that the policy was an unconstitutional search and seizure.
It's no secret that the fetal-rights groups inspired the policy. The
Supreme Court's decision affirms the proposition that pregnant women
do have rights--even if they are poor and black.
Rx FOR THE DRUG COMPANIES
Associates are taking action against Big Pharma (see John le
Carré, page 11) by bombarding the CEOs of multinational drug
companies with protest letters, signing Internet petitions and
supporting legislation to stop sanctions on countries that import or
produce generic versions of patented drugs. To find out more about
Nation Associates, e-mail
He jumped, of course. But also
he was pushed. And when Primo Levi, on "a sudden violent impulse,"
threw himself down three flights of stairwell in the Art Nouveau
apartment house on the Corso Re Umberto in Turin--where, except for
twenty months in World War II as "a dead man on vacation," he had lived his entire life--he killed something else besides a
67-year-old chemist, writer and witness (Auschwitz #174517). For lack
of a better way to characterize our complicated investment in
everything he stood for, let's just say that on April 11, 1987, he
killed our wishful thinking.
I am about to blame Franz
Kafka. This is spurious, even hysterical. But why let the Nazis have
the last word? From Myriam Anissimov's anguishing biography Primo
Levi: Tragedy of an Optimist and a quarter-century of remarkable
interviews assembled in The Voice of Memory, I want to cobble
up some options.
We could blame instead a Corso Re Umberto
family atmosphere that Anissimov describes as "both protective and
repressive," with Levi, "the prisoner in Turin," trapped in servitude
to a 91-year-old mother ("paralyzed, tyrannical and senile") and a
95-year-old mother-in-law (blind, requiring twenty-four-hour care).
Plus which, he'd stopped taking antidepressants because of prostate
surgery, he was so immobilized by fear of memory loss that he spent
whole days playing chess with his computer, and his adult children,
the botanist Lisa and the physicist Renzo, "turned pale and burst
into tears" whenever he tried to talk about the death camps, wouldn't
admit to reading his books and had always wanted a "normal"
We could blame as well the Holocaust deniers, who
had made a well-publicized comeback in the mid-1980s. Or Ronald
Reagan, who had recently gone to Bitburg to honor the SS dead. Or
Commentary magazine, which had published, in October 1985, a
shameful essay accusing Levi not only of "denatured pseudo-scientific
prose" and "a tin ear for religion," but also of opportunism. Or Jean
Améry, the Austrian philosopher who had likewise survived
Auschwitz, also wrote about it and, before killing himself, called
Levi "the forgiver." Or even Italo Calvino, who on that fateful April
Saturday was already two years dead, which meant that instead of
telephoning his old friend for help, Levi phoned instead the chief
rabbi of Rome, who neglected to tell anybody until ten years later.
What the writer said to the rabbi was: "I don't know how to go on. I
can't stand this life any longer. My mother has cancer, and each time
I look at her face I remember the faces of the men lying dead on the
planks of the bunks in Auschwitz."
Anyway, he lost his
balance. And balance was what we needed from him, along with what H.
Stuart Hughes called his "equanimity" and Irving Howe his "moral
poise." Against the odds and the century, we relied on his integrity
and even his charm--the Pan-like exuberance Philip Roth notes in an
interview in The Voice of Memory, like "some little
quicksilver woodland creature empowered by the forest's most astute
intelligence." Every word he ever wrote, in a prose as purely
Mediterranean as the best Greek poets, opposed the fascist "world of
shame," as if the bankrupt moral economy it left behind demanded all
our goods and services to square the account, a humanity
"commensurate" to the horror. "Commensurate" was a favorite word of
his. So was "counterweight." And so was "proportion." He was troubled
in The Drowned and the Saved (1986) by the idea that his
testimony "could by itself gain for me the privilege of surviving....
I cannot see any proportion between the privilege and its
Elsewhere in those final essays, through which we
scuttle for clues to his secession, the anthropologist, linguist and
camera-eye of the Holocaust worried that "reason, art and poetry are
no help in deciphering" a place where they are banned. He quoted
Améry, his accuser, to agree with him: "Anyone who has been
tortured remains tortured.... Anyone who has suffered torture never
again will be able to be at ease in the world." But he refused a
label of "forgiver": "I demand justice, but I am not able,
personally, to trade punches or return blows." He sought redress in
law: "I know how badly these mechanisms function, but I am the way I
was made." (As The Periodic Table put it: "I am not the Count
of Montecristo.") And he disdained "confusions, small-change
Freudianism, morbidities, or indulgences. The oppressor remains what
he is, and so does the victim. They are not interchangeable. The
former is to be punished and execrated (but, if possible,
understood), the latter is to be pitied and helped; but both, faced
by the indecency of the irrevocable act, need refuge and protection,
and instinctively search for them. Not all, but most--and often for
their entire lives."
And he also thought about suicide--"an
act of man and not of the animal," "a mediated act, a noninstinctive,
unnatural choice." While the "enslaved animals" in the Lager
(camp) sometimes let themselves die, they did not
choose to: "Svevo's remark in The Confessions of
Zeno...has the rawness of truth: 'When one is dying, one is much
too busy to think about death. All one's organism is devoted to
breathing.'" Suicide, he said, "is born from a feeling of guilt that
no punishment has attenuated." But in the camps "the harshness of
imprisonment was perceived as punishment, and the feeling of guilt
(if there is punishment, there must have been guilt) was relegated to
the background, only to reemerge after the Liberation." What
guilt? That "we had not done anything, or not enough.... And this is
a judgment that the survivor believes he sees in the eyes of those
(especially the young) who listen to his stories and judge with
facile hindsight, or who perhaps feel cruelly repelled." Leading to
the worst of introspections:
I might be alive in the place
of another, at the expense of another; I might have usurped, that is,
in fact, killed. The "saved" of the Lager were not the best, those
predestined to do good, the bearers of a message: what I had seen and
lived through proved the exact contrary. Preferably the worst
survived, the selfish, the violent, the insensitive, the
collaborators of the "gray zone," the spies.... I felt innocent, yes,
but enrolled among the saved and therefore in permanent search of a
justification in my own eyes and those of others. The worst survived,
that is, the fittest; the best all died.
Which brings us
back, like a black boomerang, to Kafka.
Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K....
It's a pathogenic book. Like an onion, one
layer after another. Each of us could be tried and condemned and
executed, without ever knowing why. It was as if it predicted the
time when it was a crime simply to be a Jew.
to Germaine Greer)
In the summer of 1982, a publisher
asked Levi to translate The Trial, as Calvino and Natalia
Ginzburg had been asked to translate Lord Jim and Madame
Bovary. For his mother, he needed the money. While he would have
preferred Joseph Conrad or Thomas Mann, he sounded at the time almost
cheerful about the project:
I like and admire Kafka because
he writes in a manner that is totally foreign to me. In my writings,
for better or worse, knowingly or unknowingly, I have always made an
effort to move from dark to clear, like a filtration pump that sucks
in cloudy water and expels it clarified, if not sterile. Kafka takes
an opposite path; he pours out an endless stream of the
hallucinations dredged up from levels unbelievably deep, and never
filters them. The reader feels them swarming with seeds and spores:
they are burning with meaning, but he is never helped to tear down or
bypass the veil, so as to see things in the place where they are
hidden. Kafka never touches ground, he never deigns to offer you the
clue to the maze.
His tune would soon change. In a 1983
interview, this dutiful child of the Enlightenment conceded that
Kafka had a gift "that went beyond everyday reason...an almost
animalesque sensitivity, like snakes that know when earthquakes are
coming." But Levi also wondered "if it is a good idea to give a book
like this to a fifteen-year-old.... Now this ending is so cruel, so
unexpectedly cruel, that if I had a young child I would spare him. I
fear it would disturb him, make him suffer, although of course it is
the truth. We will die, each of us will die, more or less like that."
This is odd enough from a writer whose feelings had been hurt when
his own children declined to discuss his books. But, he confessed,
"the undertaking disturbed me badly. I went into a deep, deep
depression." And: "I felt assaulted by this book." Disappearing into
Joseph K., "I accused myself, as he did."
well-known for his impatience with long-winded, solipsistic or
obscurantist prose. (About Beckett: "It is the duty of every human
being to communicate." About Pound: "writing in Chinese simply showed
a disrespect for the reader." Borges he found "alien and distant,"
Proust "boring" and Dostoyevsky "rebarbative" and "portentous.") But
this was different. Kafka got to him so much that he resolved never
to read him again: "I feel a repulsion that is clearly of a
How so? Let's look at that strange
unfinished novel, written shortly after Franz broke off his
engagement to Félice, under the influence of Søren
Kierkegaard and the "rebarbative" author of Crime and
Punishment, with its attic offices and courts of impeachment, its
brittle beards and colored badges, its "ostensible acquittals" and
"indefinite postponements," its hopelessness, sinfulness and
sinister-enigmatic tropes: "It did not follow that the case was lost,
by no means, at least there was no decisive evidence for such an
assumption; you simply knew nothing more about the case and would
never know anything more about it."
Imagine a Primo Levi
meditating on, for instance, this creepy middle
One must lie low, no matter how much it went
against the grain, and try to understand that this great organization
remained, so to speak, in a state of delicate balance, and that if
someone took it upon himself to alter the disposition of things
around him, he ran the risk of losing his footing and falling to
destruction, while the organization would simply right itself by some
compensating reaction in another part of its machinery--since
everything is interlocked--and remain unchanged, unless, indeed,
which was very probable, it became still more rigid, more vigilant,
severer, and more ruthless.
Or, at the end of the novel, this impasse:
Were there arguments in his favor that had
been overlooked? Of course there must be. Logic is doubtless
unshakable, but it cannot withstand a man who wants to go on living.
Where was the Judge whom he had never seen? Where was the High Court,
to which he had never penetrated? He raised his hands and spread out
all his fingers.
Easy enough to say that the survivor read
himself into such paranoid cloud shapes, where guilt was nameless,
justice faceless, space liquid, time centrifugal, God absent and Law
a myth--because everybody does. We all feel something ominous and
devouring about corporations and bureaucracies, about banking and
religion, even about Prague, that baroque estrangement. But a
sentence like this one had to seem personal: "Only our concept of
time makes it possible for us to speak of the Day of Judgment by that
name; in reality it is a summary court in perpetual session." And
still more chilling: "The hunting dogs are playing in the courtyard,
but the hare will not escape them, no matter how fast it may be
flying already through the woods."
Moreover, Franz K.'s
Joseph K. is devoured as well by sexuality--by Elsa, the cabaret
waitress, who receives visitors in bed; by Leni, the lawyer's
servant, who only sleeps with men who have been accused; by
Fräulein Bürstner and the usher's wife; by the half-naked
mothers nursing babies in the Lower Court, the prostitute maids and
prostitute custodians, and the little girls who molest him in the
painter Titorelli's garret, behind the red door--never even mind the
mother he hasn't seen for three years. Maybe that butcher's knife
wasn't intended, after all, for his self-interrogating
Well, Kafka: He was all about failure. Everything
was incomprehensible, nothing could be known, and there were no happy
endings. (His three sisters all died in the camps.) Kafka told us:
"Balzac carried a cane on which was carved the legend: I smash every
obstacle; my legend reads: Every obstacle smashes me." And about this
Kafka, Levi, "a puritanical introvert," was crystal clear: "I fear
him, like a great machine that crashes in on you, like the prophet
who tells you the day you will die."
If there is an
Auschwitz, then there cannot be a God.
For the most part the Levi we meet in The Voice of
Memory is the man in his books: "I'm Italian, but I'm also
Jewish. It's like having a spare wheel, or an extra gear." He is also
an "amphibian, a centaur," split in two--on the one hand, the chemist
and technician; on the other, the writer who gives interviews. That
he survived, unlike 647 of the 650 Italians who accompanied him to
Poland, he attributes again to "sheer luck," "sound instinct,"
"unsuspected stamina," "knowing German" and "professional
background." (Believing in God, which he didn't, and bearing witness,
as he would, were irrelevant. He had happened to be a chemist in a
concentration camp that was also an I.G. Farben synthetic rubber
factory.) That he should have passed through the dark of Survival
in Auschwitz to the light of The Reawakening seems a
miracle. That he should have married, fathered, worked in a paint
shop, made radio programs, won literary prizes--"Paradoxically, my
baggage of atrocious memories became a wealth, a seed; it seemed to
me that, by writing, I was growing like a plant"--and lectured
schoolchildren in the same "calm and reasonable tone" is practically
In the Roth interview, we see him in his
study, in the room where he was born, with the flowered sofa, easy
chair, word processor, color-coded notebooks, a big wire butterfly, a
little wire bug and an owl. In the pages that follow, as if from Dr.
Gottlieb in The Reawakening, "intelligence and cunning
emanated from him like energy from radium, with the same silent and
penetrating continuity." Or so we want to believe. He repeats,
rethinks, amends, clarifies. We hear again about spoons and shoes;
the "healing" in his first book and the "joy" of his second. About
socialism and Sophie's Choice. About Rabelais, Dante and
Ariosto. About solidarity in the camps (none) and resistance
(futile). About James Joyce (whom he likes) and Bruno Bettelheim
(whom he doesn't). He describes his chemical work ("at war with the
obtuse and malign inertia of matter"), his responsibilities as a
writer ("All we can ask of those who create is that they should be
neither servile nor false") and what he reads in his spare time ("I
prefer to stick to the tried and tested, to make a hole and then
nibble away at it, perhaps for an entire lifetime, like woodworms
when they find a piece of wood to their taste").
who we want him to be. It argues that perhaps something of the best
of us, skeptical, ironic and aware, could outlive the worst. Like a
Nobel Prize acceptance speech, it answers our secular-humanist need
for a secular-humanist grace, a darting and undaunted intelligence
capable of suggesting in 1980 that "Auschwitz may be the
punishment...of barbarian Germany, of the barbarian Nazis, against
Jewish civilization--that is to say, the punishment for daring, just
as the shipwreck of Ulysses is the punishment of a barbarian god for
human daring. I was thinking of that vein of German anti-Semitism
that struck chiefly at the intellectual daring of the Jews, such as
Freud, Marx, and all the innovators, in every field. It was that
daring that irked a certain German philistinism much more than
the fact of blood or race."
So if, in The Reawakening, he asked us to look at a Chagall-like scene in
Zhmerinka ("The walls of one of the station latrines were plastered
with German banknotes, meticulously stuck there with excrement"), we
also saw the Russians dancing, the Gypsy orchestra at Slutsk and the
train with a piano car. And if, in The Periodic Table, he
recalls "the vilification of the prayer shawl," turned into underwear
for Lager Jews, he also explains the political chemistry of
Jewishness: "In order for the wheel to turn, for life to be lived,
impurities are needed...in the soil, too, as is known, if it is to be
fertile. Dissension, diversity, the grain of salt and mustard are
needed.... I am the impurity that makes the zinc react, I am the
grain of salt or mustard." And if, in The Monkey's Wrench, he
had to tell us about the German engineer who went to Bombay's Towers
of Silence and informed the Parsees "how German technicians had
designed a grille to be placed at the bottom of the towers: a grille
of electric resistors that would burn the dead body...without flames,
without smell, and without contaminating anything," he also told us
what it tastes like to drink a glacier's melting snow: "I couldn't
explain it to you, because you know how hard it is to explain tastes
and smells, except with examples, like if you say the smell of garlic
or the taste of salami. But I would actually say that water tasted
like sky, and, in fact, it came straight down from the
But by the time he got to The Drowned and the
Saved, the year before he died, it was as if the dogs ate the
hare. It tore him apart to consider the pathos, ambiguities and
collaborations of the "gray zone" in the camps, the "filtered
memories" of victims and the survival strategies of even the bravest:
"I come first, second, and third. Then nothing, then again I; and
then all the others." This calm man was suddenly furious: "We
survivors are not only an exiguous but also an anomalous minority: we
are those who by their prevarications or abilities or good luck did
not touch bottom. Those who did so, those who saw the Gorgon, have
not returned to tell about it or have returned mute, but they are the
'muslims,' the submerged, the complete witnesses, the ones whose
deposition would have a general significance. They are the rule, we
are the exception." He seemed almost to relish the sleazy story of
Chaim Rumkowski, "king of the Jews" of Lodz, who collaborated himself
all the way to the gas chamber:
Like Rumkowksi, we too are
so dazzled by power and prestige as to forget our essential
fragility.... Forgetting that we are all in the ghetto, that the
ghetto is walled in, that outside the ghetto reign the lords of
death, and that close by the train is waiting.
change of heart, or perhaps a buried shadow, there are passing hints
in The Voice of Memory: "My defect is lack of courage, fear
for myself and for others." And: "I'm not very balanced at all. I go
through long periods of imbalance.... I find it very hard to cope
with problems. This side of myself I've never written about"--except
perhaps in his angry, oblique poems, "suffused with auras and
shadows." But: "I am incapable of analyzing myself. My work is
nocturnal, often carried out unconsciously." Was it possible, he was
asked, to destroy the humanity in man? "Yes, I'm afraid
In Anissimov's biography, however, the shadows hound
us from the start. She's done all the busy work; read the report
cards; buried the engineer father in 1942; tracked down the real
Alberto; explained, on the one wing, Cesare Pavese, Benedetto Croce
and Antonio Gramsci and, on the other, the sinister clowns of Italian
Futurism and Italian Fascism; looked at the racial laws, the Chemical
Institute and the asbestos mine; gone into the beast's belly with all
the rage that Levi suppressed (the vertical stripes and brass bands,
the Jewish women in the camp orchestra wearing blue hats with polka
dots while they play Vienna waltzes, the children burned alive to
economize on hydrogen cyanide, tobacco pouches made from tanned
scrotums); the engagement to Lucia Morpurgo ("Levi was infinitely
grateful to Lucia for having consented to love him--an ex-deportee, a
shy and repressed young man"); the suicide of Pavese, after all his
friends had left town for the summer; the cigarettes (mentholated);
the literary life (smarmy); the Red Brigades (appalling); Israel (get
out of Lebanon, get rid of Sharon); Saul Bellow's famous-making
praise for The Periodic Table; mother, witness, mother,
But all along--from a childhood fear of
spiders dating back to his first glimpse of Doré's sketch of
Arachne in Canto XII of Dante's Purgatorio, to a pubescent
belief in what he was told by his Christian classmates about
circumcision and castration, to his peculiar detestation of rabbits
("like certain human beings, they had nothing in their heads but food
and sex") that had somehow extended to the girls around him, none of
whom he could bring himself to touch, to the tormenting "dream within
a dream" that came to him even after he was married ("I am alone in
the center of a grey and turbid nothing, and now, I know what
this thing means, and I also know that I have always known it; I am
in the Lager once more, and nothing is true outside the Lager. All
the rest was a brief pause, a deception of the senses, a dream; my
family, nature in flower, my home"), to the obscene absurdity of
receiving a signed copy of the Spandau diaries of Albert Speer, who
claimed to be reading Levi, which could account for a renewed fever
of the poetry-writing he called an "illness" ("dark and morbid
themes," "violent feelings of rage," chimneys, shadows) and another
downward spiral into depression, which is where he met Joseph K.--all
along, it seems, he may have been as buggy and neurotic as Kafka
himself, with more reason and less crawl space.
In his last
letter to Ruth Feldman, the American translator of his poetry, two
months before he died, he told her that "the period he was living
through was worse than Auschwitz, because he was no longer young and
no longer had the ability to react, and take a grip on himself." His
last essay, published two weeks after the stairwell, was called "The
Fear of Spiders":
Their hairiness is supposed to have a
sexual significance, and the repulsion we feel supposedly reveals our
unconscious rejection of sex: this is how we express it and at the
same time this is how we try to free ourselves of it.... The spider
is the enemy-mother who envelops and encompasses, who wants to make
us re-enter the womb from which we have issued, bind us tightly to
take us back to the impotence of infancy, subject us again to her
Like a great machine that crashes in on you...
I would have reformulated Adorno's remark like
this: After Auschwitz, there can be no more poetry, except about
It is not
necessary to accept everything as true, one must only accept it as
Cynthia Ozick reviewed The Drowned and the
Saved as if it were a suicide note. He had at last let loose his
rage. She was proud of him for finally giving in to hate. So what if
it cost him his life? She only wished that all his books "had been as
vehement." And there's the ugly rub. In order to approve of his
farewell testament she needed somehow to trash everything else he'd
written. Ladling on such inverted comma words and phrases as "curious
peacefulness," "famous 'detachment,'" "so transparent, so untainted,"
"pure spirit," "vessel of clear water," "well-mannered cicerone of
hell," "Darwin of the death camps," and (worst of all) purveyor of
"uplift," she actually seemed to sneer.
At the time I
thought Ozick's essay impudent and maybe even ulterior. Imagine
blaming a writer for his blurbs and a witness for his reasonableness.
Why not come right out and complain that he was a Sephardic Jew
instead of an Ashkenazi, an assimilated Italian instead of a
lacerated Pole, a socialist instead of a Zionist, a nonbeliever going
into the camps and a nonbeliever coming out, pro-Diaspora and
anti-Eretz Israel, who didn't even speak Yiddish?
older now, and ulterior on my own time. And while it still seems that
anyone unmoved to tears and scruple by a brilliant book like The
Reawakening has become sadly coarsened, somehow tone-deaf, I am
also aware of our desperate need to cling to whatever purchase we
think we have on the sudden edge and the bloody sleeve and the fiery
sign. Reading mirrors, we are horrified by what we see. We abduct and
torment our heroes of consciousness as if we were Giacomettis
torturing metals and ideas.
"We hate in itself our masters' insane dream of greatness, and their contempt for God and men, and for ourselves, as men," wrote Levi. And: "It is naive, absurd, and historically false to believe that an infernal system such as
National Socialism was, sanctifies its victims; on the contrary, it
degrades them, it makes them similar to itself, and this all the more
when they are available, blank, and lack a political or moral
armature." Where to find such armature? To this bonfire, he can't be
said to have brought a sword: "We must be democrats first, and Jews
or Italians, or anything else, second." But that is who he was, and
it would kill him. "I tell you they are just like other people," he
said of the Sonderkommandos, "only a lot more
He had never wanted to be a writer, or an
intellectual, or a victim, or a witness. He had troubles of his own,
ordinary spiders, before he met Kafka in the gray zone. And now that
we know all about them, there still remains the mystery of his
transcendence. For a while, only for a while, but all the more
astonishing--water tasted like the sky.
"Ishall never be able to forget," writes Christopher Hitchens of the poems of the slain Wilfred Owen, "the way in which these verses utterly turned over all the furniture of my mind; inverting every conception of order and patriotism and tradition on which I had been brought up." With Owen's war poems in mind, Hitchens observes that the dead soldier "has conclusively outlived all the jingo versifiers, blood-bolted Liberal politicians, garlanded generals and other supposed legislators of the period. He is the most powerful single rebuttal of Auden's mild and sane claim that 'Poetry makes nothing happen.'" Thus does our "Minority Report" columnist introduce the subject of his collected meditations on writers in the public sphere, Unacknowledged Legislation. Rather than setting out to treat overtly political scribes, Hitchens focuses on writers as they encounter public life. He disputes the Stendhalian view of politics in the novel "as a pistol shot in the middle of a concert" or "a stone tied to the neck of literature." While conceding that the directly politicized writer is someone we have come to distrust and the surreptitiously politicized one "is no great improvement" (he offers as example Tom Wolfe), Hitchens contends that when the parties of state agree on a matter, it is the individual pen that creates "the moral space for a true argument"--whether Paine, Douglass and Howells, or Mailer, Lowell and Vidal. This is the extended argument of his own that Hitchens advances over a span of thirty-five essays and reviews, culled from the London Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement, Dissent, Vanity Fair, Harper's, the New York Review of Books, The Nation and elsewhere. We are treated to both insight and anecdote as Hitchens attempts to tease out the Platonic forms, as it were, of Wilde and Orwell and Raymond Williams and Vidal and Rushdie and Bellow and Kipling and Eliot, Isaiah Berlin, Allan Bloom, Martha Nussbaum and Norman Podhoretz, O'Brian (Patrick), O'Brien (Conor Cruise) and others. Along the way he parses the line that "divides pseudo-objectivity from propaganda," tells us how Whittaker Chambers fired the young Bellow as the future Nobelist began working for Time, bemoans the lack of a "Blake or Camus or Koestler to synthesize justice and reason with outrage" and holds up Wilde in firebrand fashion to "encourage us to think that the bores and the bullies and the literal minds need not always win. May he induce us to rise from our semi-recumbent postures."
There is a brief but arresting passage in Primo
Levi's 1947 classic memoir Survival in Auschwitz (originally
titled If This Is a Man) about a French Jewish inmate he
identifies simply as "Henri." Levi, a chemist and an Italian Jew who
had been shipped to Auschwitz in 1944, dissected with Darwinian
and Dantean lyricism the human types who
inhabited Hitler's most lethal death camp. If the cast is all too
familiar--SS men and their prisoner-lackeys; Jewish inmates speaking
the Babel of a dozen tongues; the "drowned" and the "saved," Levi's
terms for victims and survivors--the individual portraitures rise to
the level of characters in literature.
One of the more
memorable personages was this Henri, said to be 22 at the time, with
a soul encased in armor. Fluent in four languages, Henri had the
"delicate and subtly perverse body and face" of one of those
sado-erotic, arrow-pierced figures you see in Italian Renaissance
paintings. Few were his equal at "organizing," camp slang for
stealing and trading. None had more patrons and protectors throughout
the camp. Henri resembles nothing so much as a postmodern trickster
in his facility at conjuring power out of powerlessness. But Levi,
always the moralist and stern judge, preferred similes of seduction
when characterizing Henri, likening him in one place to a wasp that
paralyzes its prey by eliciting their pity, comparing him in another
to the biblical serpent.
It is not that Levi disliked
talking to his fellow Häftling; they worked together in a
chemistry lab operated by the German industrial giant I.G. Farben in
Monowitz, also known as Auschwitz III. Henri was engaging. He was
intelligent and civilized. Yet Levi never came away from their
encounters without tasting defeat. The only time Henri paid him
notice was when Levi and his bunkmate showed they could "organize"
like veteran prisoners, whose ability to engross the scarce supply of
black-market rations spelled fewer calories and shorter life spans
for the next shipment of fresh prisoners.
"I know that
Henri is living today," Levi concluded. "I would give much to know
his life as a free man, but I do not want to see him again." It's a
telling admission. Of all the Auschwitz prisoners memorialized by
Levi, none drew greater disapproval from him than Henri. It was as
though the young Frenchman was his doppelgänger, symbolizing by
his very urbanity the ethical compromises Levi himself had been
forced to make, with their bitter aftertaste of guilt and remorse.
You can't help suspecting Levi had Henri in mind when he wrote in
The Drowned and the Saved: "The worst survived--that is, the
fittest; the best all died."
It just so happens that Henri,
whose real name was Paul Steinberg, did survive, as Levi surmised,
returning to Paris after the war, where he raised a family and
pursued a business career. And his memoir, Speak You Also,
written five decades after the fact and almost ten years following
Levi's still mysterious death in 1987 (and beautifully translated
from the French last year) is a barely concealed attempt to win
clemency in the jury's eyes. Levi's indictment casts a long shadow
across the pages of this book. Was I cold and calculating prior to
deportation? Steinberg wonders. Or did the sheer awfulness of
Auschwitz make me this way?
Steinberg doesn't tackle these
questions in the world-must-know tone you find in a lot of recent
survivor accounts. He writes with self-deprecatory irony and mordant
wit, occasionally revealing the cynicism that bothered Levi.
Auschwitz was a "boarding school," and Steinberg inventories the
"invisible resources" that allowed him eventually to graduate. There
was his aforementioned fluency in several languages, especially
German (he was born in Berlin), and the physical and psychological
resilience of youth (he was actually only 18 years old when Levi met
him). There was his history of displacement and a drab home life.
Before being rounded up in Paris and deported to Auschwitz in 1943,
Steinberg lived the sporting life, stealing money from his Bolshevik
father's pockets to bet at Paris tracks. He barely got by in school.
An uncircumcised Jew, he lacked anchorage in religious tradition. But
these were advantages in retrospect, he says. A stable and loving
family would have ill equipped him for his wartime travails. Looking
back from the vantage point of fifty years, he now sees that he
possessed "an intuitive and acute understanding of that parallel
universe in which we had been stranded. I figured out its antilogic,
Before he could put that knowledge to use, he
had to withstand multiple assaults on his physical well-being: the
melting away of his flesh and the loosening of his teeth, the
liquefying of his guts due to chronic dysentery. In quick order came
hepatitis, scabies and ulcerating leg sores. Roll call in the bitter
cold and backbreaking work, sustained only by starvation rations,
nearly reduced him to a "muselmann," one of those walking ghosts
everyone knew was destined for the smokestacks. Marching back from
work to the tune of the camp band, Steinberg would jam his hand
between his buttocks, "eyes right and sphincter tight," to hold back
the diarrhea. There is a gallows humor in Steinberg that you seldom
find in Levi.
It is the climb back from degradation,
however, what Steinberg calls his evolution into "extermination-camp
man," that gives Speak You Also its special quality. In chaste
language, Steinberg anatomizes how he practiced the arts of
psychological seduction, searching out the weaknesses of the powerful
brutes who ruled the camps as Kapos, inmates, mostly from the
criminal class, whom the SS empowered to carry out their orders. One
Kapo might be susceptible to flattery, another possessed "a repressed
paternal instinct." Steinberg became very close to the powerful
dwarf, a former acrobat and professional pimp, who had half-strangled
Levi. He won over a hulking camp boss with a box of delicacies
received in the mail. Stroking the tiger's whiskers, to use his own
metaphor, entailed grave risk. The veteran prisoners were
psychologically unstable, friendly one day, violent the
And then there is the matter of seduction plain and
simple. Camp homosexuality pervades this book. Steinberg admits it
was rampant, and that old-timers (the very types he so assiduously
courted) were always on the lookout for young flesh. He himself
denies ever having been intimate with another man, but the demurral
is scarcely persuasive, what with allusions to his "whoring" and the
flusterings of "a two-hundred-pound virgin." Of course, what took
place in the camps says nothing about same-sex intimacy and
everything about sexual power, yet Steinberg skirts the issue. It's
the one false note in an otherwise unsparing
All the while, Steinberg economized on
human feeling (save with a small coterie of friends). Why waste
sympathy on people who were just passing through? Even long after
liberation he was never able to show remorse in the face of death.
However, Auschwitz's greatest psychological blow was to his dignity.
"I lived and am still living in humiliation," he writes. While he
never yielded to hate, which would have been tantamount to
internalizing the norms of his oppressors, he did learn to repay
assaults on his dignity with icy contempt, and the disdainfulness
stayed with him after the war. Forever after Steinberg saw civilians
bifocally--as both the persons they were under normal circumstances
and the prisoners they might have become had fate ruled differently;
and he was often coolly dismissive.
This is an anguished
book, made all the more so by Steinberg's charting of his emotional
swings as he returns to that time and place. He becomes insomniacal,
his moods darken. He worries about what he remembers. Sensory
memories make the sores on his leg and the chill in his bones as
vivid as yesterday. So are the brutes and sadists, but not close
friends. The sole glorious deed that he performed--saving bread for a
dying inmate--is offset by a terrible memory of slapping another
dying Jew. "If only I could get rid of this memory, sweep it away
with my hand...," he writes. You can almost feel him relive the
original offense, which is how traumatic memory often manifests
And then there is the reckoning with Levi, whom
Steinberg doesn't remember at all because, as he sadly admits, he
didn't think Levi at the time possessed utilitarian value. Steinberg
wants nothing better than to persuade his former fellow
Häftling to set aside the verdict by showing him there
were extenuating circumstances: "Can one be so guilty for having
There are unmistakable signs that something
approaching Holocaust fatigue is setting in among readers of serious
memoirs and histories. That a book like Norman Finkelstein's The
Holocaust Industry, with its wild allegations verging on rant,
can command widespread attention is one sign of the times. So is
Peter Novick's deeply researched and more measured The Holocaust
in American Life, which challenges the idea that the Nazi
genocide has meaningful lessons to teach and questions whether you
can learn much about human nature by looking at it in
extremis. After all, the victim literature is replete with
contradictions--one survivor highlighting solidarity among inmates,
others (like Levi and Steinberg) pointing to a remorseless struggle
of all against all. How do you adjudicate the competing claims?
Novick rightly asks. The answer is, you can't. Nor should you try, if
for no other reason than both conditions obtained even in the
infernal regions described by Levi and Steinberg. Anyway, you don't
study the Holocaust to learn lessons in the didactic sense of that
term (lessons that the reader or viewer usually brings to the
subject). You delve into the Holocaust in order to grapple with
excruciating moral dilemmas, "choiceless choices," to use Lawrence
Langer's apt characterization. That's usually what ends up happening,
at least, when you are brought face to face with survivor literature
of the quality of Speak You Also. Like the best of the genre,
Steinberg's searching self-examination compels one to clarify values
and the social and political responsibility one bears toward those
values. Which is another way of saying that his is a work of
permanent significance. I find it hard to imagine reading Levi's
classic work except in tandem with Steinberg's brief for the
Would Levi have softened his judgment of Steinberg
had he lived to read Speak You Also? (The title seems to have
been drawn from a Paul Celan poem of the same title, with its first
stanza admonition, "speak as the last,/have your say.") It is not an
easy question to answer. Levi was not a forgiver, even of his own
transgressions, which is why those who argue that he committed
suicide will always have the stronger argument. But Levi's judgments
did soften with age, as he became more and more intrigued with the
"gray zone" of Holocaust ethics, even finding mitigating
circumstances in the conduct of Chaim Rumkowski, the notorious head
of the Lodz Judenrat. Although this is only a hunch, Levi probably
would have reopened Steinberg's case, even reconsidered his aversion
to seeing him again. (Steinberg himself died in 1999.) That would
have been an interesting reunion, two shrewd and anguished students
of the human condition sharing notes on how humans like themselves so
easily sloughed off the shell of civilization when faced with extreme
During the false calm that descends between the announcement of Oscar nominations and the bad-TV night of their awards, the smug nominees are routinely re-released to a presumably eager public in order to boost box-office returns and
build a swell of public opinion for their candidacy. Into this big-stakes arena this year ambled a little film, The Gleaners and I (Les Glaneurs et La Glaneuse), which launched its national release at New York's Film Forum. Nothing could be further from the bombast of Oscar contenders. Its director, Agnès Varda, is a veteran whose first film (La Pointe Courte, shot in 1954 when she was 26) predates the French New Wave, a movement she soon joined; today, she's its most tenacious and intrepid survivor.
The Film Forum has used the occasion to mount a retrospective of Varda's films, made over fifty years with considerable charm, occasional sentimentality and, in hindsight, historical acuity. My favorite is her 1961 classic Cleo From Five
to Seven, a prescient study of a young woman's wait for test results to determine whether she has breast cancer. For a hint of Varda's current interest, there's her 1985 hit Vagabond, with Sandrine Bonnaire as a homeless drifter whose brushes with society disturb the surface but cannot save her life.
Vagabond and The Gleaners and I both explore society's margins, but whereas Vagabond was an imaginative fiction, Varda's new film has the indelible urgency of documentary. It explores the world of "gleaners," by definition those people who harvest what others reject. In the countryside, that might mean potatoes too large or small for the market or grapes ripening in
untended vineyards. In cities and towns, it's a range of trash and discarded objects and leftover market produce, the kind of harvest derisively dismissed as "dumpster diving" on this side of the Atlantic.
No such judgment impedes Varda's research, as she refuses to separate out those who glean for food to survive from those who simply glean for fun: She levels the gleaning field. Varda interviews professional artists who recycle detritus in their studios; inspired amateurs who construct Watts-like towers; rural
poor who forage from trailers; urban poor who glean in trash bins; eccentrics who keep tabs on refuse-collection routes; even a celebrated chef who gleans herbs on the hillside. And there's no shortage of ordinary country folk who glean, indulging in a "field day" after the official harvest is done, simply because their grandparents taught them to do so.
Varda has always been very much of her moment, so it comes as no surprise that her film about waste is economical of means: a digital production--shot with a
Sony DV CAM DSR 300 and a Sony Mini DV DCR TRV 900 E, if you must know, given how quickly camera names are replacing genres as aesthetic signposts. More noteworthy than the equipment, however, is the response; The Gleaners and I has already spent more than eight months in French theaters. In addition to a clutch of festival awards, in February it was declared the best French film of 2000 by
the French Union of Film Critics, which broke with tradition by not
choosing a dramatic film.
Why has The Gleaners and I struck such a chord? I suspect it's due in considerable part to Agnès Varda's own presence. Her voice on the soundtrack supplies a kind of thinking motor to propel the audience along the
literal roadways of the French countryside, like an erudite travel guide who sees past the surface. She appears frequently in front of the camera, too, interacting with her subjects and whimsically posing with a sheaf of wheat. There are times when she's in front of and behind the camera simultaneously. Varda acknowledges her own habits of gleaning, too: souvenirs carried back from Japan or, well, the
footage of this film.
American films about the homeless--Dark Days, for instance, last year's chronicle of a subway-station encampment--tend to emphasize the distance between
"us" and "them," usually exoticizing their subjects into another species entirely. Varda tries for the opposite, throwing herself, on screen and soundtrack, into the breach. Indeed, the French title is an explicit recognition of this bond between director and subject, while its English translation creates a rupture. Such directorial presence is a violation, of course, of the "direct cinema" style of documentary that has so dominated US practice since the 1960s, but
Varda aligns herself with the "essay film" tradition of French
filmmakers like her old pal Chris Marker, or Latin Americans like
Patricio Guzman. This kind of film essay, which Varda calls
"cinécriture," opens documentary up beyond the limited frame
of the quotidian to allow space for analysis as well as
Varda provides back stories to grant a context to
her subjects and their way of life. She also ingeniously and movingly
illuminates their stories, enlisting history, poetry and even the
Bible to justify the practice of gleaning. Consider Deuteronomy
24:19: "When thou cuttest down thine harvest in thy field, and hast
forgot a sheaf in the field, thou shalt not go again to fetch it: it
shall be for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the
To prove that French law agrees with Scripture,
Varda shoots French attorneys in formal black robes. Clutching red
volumes of the French Penal Code, they are incongruously posted in
fields and on street corners. One traces the right of rural gleaning
back to a 1554 statute, while another affirms the legality of urban
scavenging, for "these objects cannot be stolen since they have no
owner." Nonetheless, Varda witnesses gleaning's modern curtailment by
property owners' citing it as a violation of private property. Varda
not only charts gleaning's legal progression but, in one scene, tries
to reverse it: She notifies a food kitchen of potatoes dumped into a
field, then accompanies the group to "glean" hundreds of pounds to
feed the poor.
Another personal touch is Varda's emphasis
on nineteenth-century French paintings that celebrate gleaning as a
joyous activity: Jean-François Millet's Les Glaneuses,
Jules Breton's La Glaneuse and Le Retour de Glaneuses,
among others. One painting, Léon Lhermitte's Les
Glaneuses, hangs in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It is
tempting to imagine its becoming an emblem for a US pro-gleaning
movement inspired by Varda's film. With the Girl Scouts updating
their image with hip new commercials, maybe they'll consider
instituting a merit badge in gleaning.
Since a few million
folks are less likely to see The Gleaners and I than to plunk
down hard cash for big-budget movies with platformed releases,
perhaps the opportunity to comment on the Oscar nominations should
not be, er, wasted. This is one of the better vintages, actually,
with less wincing than usual. It's a year in which Hollywood passed
over many of its own shiny releases (What Women Want, Cast
Away) for Best Picture and Best Director honors, in favor of
films and directors who started out looking like independents--Ang
Lee and Steven Soderbergh--but ended up right where they wanted to be
all along: at the helm of polished big-budget features (Crouching
Tiger, Hidden Dragon in Lee's case, Traffic and Erin
Brockovich in the case of Soderbergh's double
Ang Lee has become the great synthesizer, capable
of transforming most any genre from melodrama (Sense and
Sensibility) to period action movie (Ride the Whirlwind)
into a polished evocation of love lost, honor gained and times gone
by. With Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, he is happily
claiming his success in melding romance with action (the same trick,
by the way, James Cameron managed with Titanic). While a
recent succession of articles, including one by Lee's longtime
collaborator James Schamus, have kept busy by arguing the film's
relative success or failure with Asian audiences, its triumph in the
West is undisputed.
As for Soderbergh, he is less a
synthesizer of genres than the expert devotee of just one: a
clear-cut story stripped down to its formulaic essence, then deployed
in a contemporary setting, all visceral, fast-paced and
consequential. In effect, he's retooled the traditional studio
formula to fit contemporary themes, from sexual angst (sex, lies,
and videotape) to modern corruption (The Limey) and law
enforcement (Out of Sight, sort of). Soderbergh's most
appealing quirkiness is his recent emphasis on father-daughter ties,
a zone of affection too often left out of movies.
Soderbergh and Lee happily place women in the middle of their films,
making them central players even in stories that demand combat--with
firearms or swordplay. Like all real Hollywood movies (and unlike
indies, until recently), they also rely on star power to animate
their scripts and draw audiences to the product. With ever-larger
budgets, they're drawing bigger names and more freedom in deploying
them: In Lee's case, the power to cast Asian stars speaking Mandarin
instead of English; in Soderbergh's, the ease of piling star upon
star upon star.
Interestingly, the pre-awards commentary on
this year's nominations ranged beyond the usual movie writers. In the
New York Times, pundit Neal Gabler claimed that the
nominations of Gladiator and Traffic as Best Picture
constituted a Hollywood endorsement of family values. His article's
location in the Week in Review section instead of Arts and Leisure
signaled the paper's attachment to his position.
right? With crowd-pleasing spectacles like Gladiator, it's
best not to examine the narrative details--or sources--too closely. A
cursory reading of history reveals that Marcus Aurelius doted on his
son Commodus, who didn't kill him but did succeed him, with
eventually dire results. Historical texts note that leaving the
throne to his son was the one feat for which Marcus Aurelius remains
roundly criticized, and they further point out that Commodus was the
first emperor "born in the purple." Hmmm, a ruler who takes power
thanks to Daddy but is not up to the task? Sounds uncannily relevant,
but more to this nation-state than to any pro-family
Gabler left Erin Brockovich and
Crouching Tiger off his family report card, wisely enough,
since they don't remotely fit his argument in their shared selection
of crime-busters who have grander loyalties than mere blood ties. As
for Traffic, well, family man and drug czar Michael Douglas
does forsake power to try to "save" his daughter, but he's a failure
at both tasks. The film's clearly marked hero is Benicio Del Toro,
corrupt cop turned secret crusader. But family? The film's whole
point is that Del Toro has none. His cop does what he does (turn mole
for the DEA) for the good of community. Traffic's final scene
catches him relaxing his long-stoic features at last, as he happily
watches kids play baseball on the diamond he's made the DEA build in
the Mexican town that drugs once ruled. Kids, yes; family,
As for the final Best Picture contender,
Chocolat--the fluffy film that Miramax muscle and Juliette
Binoche charm propelled onto the slate--it delivers the most
resounding slap of all to the sanctity of the family. Binoche's
character, an all-knowing chocolatier who happens to be the daughter
of a runaway wife and mother of an illegitimate girl, is the only
force capable of healing the wounds wrought by church and family in a
French provincial town. It's too bad that Robert Nelson Jacobs's
screenplay (also nominated) removes the pro-witchcraft and
anti-clerical message of the original novel, though it's easy to
imagine Miramax's relief at avoiding Catholic rancor at the box
Family is an odd grid on which to try to place this
year's nominations, actually. Every category was filled with honorees
playing outside its bounds. There's Javier Bardem, for instance, in
Julian Schnabel's Before Night Falls, brilliantly embodying
the spirit, and not incidentally the body, of the notorious Reinaldo
Arenas. While he may have been a literary lion and martyr to a cause,
Arenas was nobody's idea of a family man. And Ellen Burstyn may
indeed play a mother in Requiem for a Dream, but she and her
son are hardly on the same page, once the drugs kick in, let alone in
the same family unit. Pollock explains family so little that
we never learn whether Ed Harris or Marcia Gay Harden, in their
scenery-chewing roles as glorious geniuses, even had fathers: we see
his monstrous mother and unhappy brothers without ever knowing the
first thing about them, while she seems to have dropped from the sky
The Gleaners and I did not make an
appearance in the still-troubled Foreign Film section, where national
politics still dominate the process. Happily, the directing debut of
Agnès Jaoui, The Taste of Others, did. It's not
incidental that the French nominated a woman, for women directors
have played a major role in the remarkable resurgence of the French cinema in recent years. Jaoui is an established actor and screenwriter i
n France, not yet well-known in the United States. Other French women
directors are, though: Claire Denis and Catherine Breillat, to name
two recent favorites. Nor have French male directors been slacking:
Olivier Assayas, Laurent Cantet and Bruno Dumont have attracted US
fans, and Patrice Chéreau is likely to follow.
events at the March 25 Oscar Awards won't change the fact that French
cinema will continue to demand our attention. Not since the days of
the French New Wave have so many exciting films emerged from its
industry, and not since the 1960s has it had so much to offer
audiences in the way of rethinking our cinematic expectations.
Nations go in and out of fashion, not just in terms of tourism or
trade agreements but in their cinemas as well. France, it's clear, is
Sounds that twisted
around the room like smoke,
where I did not want
to find them, but I find them
over and over. Father,
bless your hair.
Bless your hammer
and your no-song whistle,
your voice, your strange
language--embarrassing to me
once. Too lyrical, too vulgar.
But father, bless your hair:
sculptural, short, black
lamb's wool, steel wool
like your voice--gravel
underfoot when I'd walk
home from school. Bless
your voice, the gravel
underfoot, your hammer,
your strange language twisting
like smoke, biting like a snake
the head of which I wanted
to stroke or crush with my heel.
And your whistle father,
and when you'd stop
in the middle of your work,
as if something had cut
away the part of you
that wanted to sing.
Yes, W. once took the view
He says he's had a turnabout:
We make this stuff when breathing out,
So dangerous is what it's not.
From lobbyists you learn a lot.
But won't our ozone cover scatter?
So? Nader said it wouldn't matter.
With "None Dare Call It Treason" [Feb. 5], an exposé of the crime committed by the Supreme Court when it appointed George W. Bush as President, Vincent Bugliosi drew the largest outpouring of mail in our 136-year history and tapped a deep reservoir of outrage among our readers: "God bless you for printing this! I'm sending it to everyone I know." "It gave me heart that I am not alone in my outrage." "Bugliosi has made me angry all over again--and I'm glad he did." "One of the most important articles I've ever seen, up there with the Pentagon Papers." "Wish it could be air-dropped to every American city." "One of the most intelligent, bold and straightforward articles I have ever read." "The most important document to come out of the entire farce called an election." "How fitting it is that the lowest point in the history of our Supreme Court is the subject of the best article I've ever read in The Nation." "Thank God for Bugliosi. A voice crying out what needs to be heard." "I cannot express my elation at finding this article." "Bravo, bravo, bravo, bravo, bravo!" "It's because I do hold the Court in such high regard that I want to scream out Treason!" A sample follows.
Highest honors to Vincent Bugliosi for his courageous indictment of the Supreme Court. Sir John Harington's epigram scores a bull's eye on this political crisis: "Treason doth never prosper: what's the reason?/For if it prosper, none dare call it treason." The country should honor such courageous patriots as Bugliosi, who would dare to call the wresting of the presidency from Gore and handing it to Bush an act of the most blatant usurpation.
HENRY F. SALERNO
In case Vincent Bugliosi doesn't get to Washington very often, he might be interested in my observation that some prankster has chiseled a tasteless joke into the pediment of the Supreme Court building. It reads, Equal Justice Under Law.
Did you hear the one about the brave attorney who spoke out against five Supreme Court Justices? He was overruled.
Myrtle Beach, S.C.
Bugliosi has hit the nail on the head. I just wish that his reasoning had hit the heads of the supreme court justices. I am an African-American, and I am embarrassed that Uncle Clarence Thomas is on the supreme court. (I type "supreme court" in lowercase because of the lack of respect I now have for that body.)
Finally someone calls it as it is! I keep telling my friends how furious I am at what happened in the "election," how the fury only ripens with each passing day. This is Boston Tea Party time! People of America, rouse yourselves and rise! Nothing short of sacking the Heinous Five and an immediate national re-election is morally required. This is not about Bush or Gore or Nader: This is purely about who we are as a people.
Vincent Bugliosi's piece was superb. It seems that most of the country is wandering around as if in a mindless fog, filled with media-supplied trivia. Instead of justice being blind, the Justices have blindfolded us and given us, and democracy, a swift kick in the rear.
LINDA S. ANDERSON
West Hollywood, Calif.
Right after the imperial hand of the Supreme Court reached down and slammed the door on the libraries and counting offices across the state of Florida, a bemused Republican election official was interviewed on MSNBC. She pointed out that the best way to get an accurate count was to first run the ballots through the machines several times so they can exfoliate and the count can stabilize. Duh. Instead, those who fear the chad got hysterical when they found the little things in the bottom of counting boxes--you'd think they'd found bugs in the flour. And so we have the final image of Justice Scalia holding up the glimmering ballot...protect its sanctity, keep it safe from harm, defend it against impostors. Don't count it.
I applaud you for not letting us go quietly into that dark night of American democracy to which our own Supreme Court was intent on leading us. Those of us who refuse to accept the Court's outrageous ruling and "just get over it" need a strong voice, and I am thankful that The Nation is there. What the Supreme Court has done is truly frightening. I find equally chilling the apparent ability of so many--including our politicians and judiciary--to passively accept this blatant affront to democracy.
I am a criminal defense attorney who represents capital defendants in federal court. I have toiled in the field of judicial disingenuousness for a long time, in cases in which a person's very life is at stake. Heretofore, I have viewed Vincent Bugliosi somewhat suspiciously, as an adversary, if you will (he is, after all, from the prosecutorial side of the courtroom). I must say, however, that his article took my breath away. His passion and his brutal cut-to-the-chase shook even me--jaded and world-weary--from my cynical malaise over the judicial theft of the election. I found myself shouting and cheering out loud for the pithiness of his metaphors and his "cut the bullshit" on-target analysis. I am heartened that he has put words to the outrage that I have difficulty fully articulating about the shabbiness of the Court's ruling. I am heartened that he has put the lie to the Court's brazen pedantry, which it used to disguise its plain malfeasance.>
Your counterinauguration issue looks like a gift from the heaven where dwell the truly righteous and the just, where abide the eternal spirits of the great liberal and progressive beacons of liberty. (I see the face of Adlai Stevenson smiling benevolent approval. I see Robert La Follette, Wayne Morse, Norman Thomas and Reinhold Niebuhr observing with urgent concern the endangered ship of state thrown crazily about by the storm of singular corruption rampant in this election.) I observe how thinly informed is the American public re what really goes on behind the thin veneer touched upon by our mainstream journalists and commentators. For most of my eighty years my hopes for a Jeffersonian-like informed electorate have been sustained by the courage, dedication and service to high ideals of small minority voices like yours.
CLIFFORD P. WOLFSEHR
Sherman Oaks, Calif.
If we mere citizens were to consider pressing charges, how many of us would stand up and say so? Who would represent "We the People"? And to what judicial body would we plead our case? Most of America has already forgotten about their rights being violated, thanks to an apathetic McMedia. Is there anyone else out there who prefers these matters not be forgotten? who thinks there should be televised hearings? Anyone? Hello?
There are millions of people wanting some remedy to what has happened, although many of us have no idea where to begin. Can no efforts be made to remove these Justices from the bench? I think such a campaign would be a lightning rod for hopes that the possibility of democracy is not entirely dead.
Contrary to what most Americans may believe, bringing the five conservative Supreme Court Justices to the bar of justice is very possible. The Constitution expressly authorizes criminal proceedings against judges if they are found guilty of "bad behavior." Article III, Section 1 states: "The Judges, both of the supreme and inferior Courts, shall hold their offices during good Behavior...." Article II, Section 4 states: "The President, Vice President, and civil officers shall be removed from office on impeachment for conviction of treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors." The five Justices appear to have committed a "high crime." The issue is whether the five Justices are guilty of criminal "bad behavior" in approving a decision that denied Gore his victory and if they are also impeachable for the "high crime" of judicial conspiracy to fix the election.
CHARLES O. PORTER
Member of Congress, 1957-60
On October 20, 1973, Solicitor General Robert Bork executed what came to be known as the Saturday Night Massacre, following orders to fire Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox after both Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus refused to heed White House orders and resigned in protest. Twenty-seven years later, a Saturday Night Massacre of voting rights occurred when a split Supreme Court ruled to stop the count in Florida, a transparently political decision engineered with Machiavellian calculation by the ignominious "Gang of Five." In glaring contrast to this ruling of the Rehnquist Court, in 1974 the Burger Court unanimously voted to uphold a lower court ruling and ordered President Nixon to release the tapes of subpoenaed White House conversations. In that heralded 8-0 decision, the Burger Court ruled definitively in favor of the principle that no person is above the law, a decision that upheld the Constitution and caused Nixon irreparable harm. Is there any doubt that this current Supreme Court would have ruled in Nixon's favor?
BARBARA ALLEN KENNEY
Your article led to remembrance of things past wherein US self-righteousness condemned other countries for choosing their leaders much as the US Supreme Court Five chose George W. Bush. Russia was the "Evil Empire" because a Central Committee rather than the people chose its leader. Central American and Caribbean countries were invaded--sometimes openly, sometimes not--to teach them our "democratic values," since they were governed by "dictators" rather than by popularly elected leaders (of course, Washington wanted to choose the dictator).
We all saw it happen and wondered, How can it be?! Then the mind numb-ers went to work: Sam Donaldson dismissed the recounts with "Get over it!" Not in my lifetime, Sam.
THIS IS THE THIRD of what now threatens to become The Nation's annual Hollywood issue. Following in the footsteps of the catholic Mr. Soderbergh, whose Y2K output ran the gamut from Erin Brockovich to Traffic, this time around there is not even the shadow of a theme. But a little eclecticism never hurt anyone. In the forum, GENE SEYMOUR engages black filmmakers, who, as a group, appear to be enjoying unprecedented success, although he finds clouds within the silver lining. ELLEN WILLIS puts The Sopranos on her couch with a dazzling appreciation-slash-deconstruction of the East Coast's favorite soap (interestingly, the West Coast appears to be more taken with Gladiator), while MARC COOPER does the same for Hollywood's version of the labor movement, giving us an eye-opening glimpse into the internal politics of the guilds on the eve of what at this point seems to be an inevitable strike.
GEOFFREY GILMORE, who has run the Sundance Film Festival for eleven years, takes on "purists" and "ideologues" in a spirited assessment of the current state of independent film. Also in the not-so-pure department, AMY WALLACE reports that Jodie Foster is looking to make a feature out of the life of infamous filmmaker-cum-Hitler- groupie Leni Riefenstahl. The byzantine Oscar documentary process gets put under the microscope by CARL BROMLEY, who notes that the academy's snub of Wim Wenders's Buena Vista Social Club last year was only the most recent in a long history of mind-boggling misjudgments. We've tossed some candy throughout the issue in the form of reflections--both visual and verbal, from some names you'll recognize--on the allure of certain matinee idols. Finally, there is a real treat: an excerpt of newly published letters that present RAYMOND CHANDLER in a wholly unexpected light.
With negotiations between the Writers Guild and some of Hollywood's major film studios and TV networks at an impasse as the May 1 deadline nears, putting the panic of a strike in the usually gilded air, we're reminded of the often uneasy relationships between writers and the film industry--which Raymond Chandler amply described in writings outside his famous novels. The following are portions excerpted from The Raymond Chandler Papers: Selected Letters and Non-Fiction, 1909-1959, edited by Tom Hiney and Frank MacShane and published in April by Atlantic Monthly Press.
Letter to Erle Stanley Gardner, January 29, 1946. Chandler was working steadily on a fifth Marlowe novel. The cheap editions of all four earlier Marlowes were now selling in the hundreds of thousands, and Newsweek had reported in 1945 that "Chandlerism, a select cult a year ago, is about to engulf the nation."
Most of what you write is a complete surprise to me--including the idea that you are a lousy writer.... As I speak I have two solid rows of Gardners in front of me, and am still trying to shop around to complete the collection. I probably know as much about the essential qualities of good writing as anybody now discussing it. I do not discuss these things professionally for the simple reason that I do not consider it worthwhile. I am not interested in pleasing the intellectuals by writing literary criticism, because literary criticism as an art has in these days too narrow a scope and too limited a public, just as has poetry. I do not believe it is a writer's function to talk to a dead generation of leisured people who once had time to relish the niceties of critical thought. The critics of today are tired Bostonians like Van Wyck Brooks or smart-alecks like Fadiman or honest men confused by the futility of their job, like Edmund Wilson. The reading public is intellectually adolescent at best, and it is obvious that what is called "significant literature" will only be sold to this public by exactly the same methods as are used to sell it toothpaste, cathartics and automobiles. It is equally obvious that since this public has been taught to read by brute force it will, in between its bouts with the latest "significant" bestseller, want to read books that are fun and excitement. So like all half-educated publics in all ages it turns with relief to the man who tells a story and nothing else. To say that what this man writes is not literature is just like saying that a book can't be any good if it makes you want to read it. When a book, any sort of book, reaches a certain intensity of artistic performance, it becomes literature. That intensity may be a matter of style, situation, character, emotional tone, or idea, or half a dozen other things. It may also be a perfection of control over the movement of a story similar to the control a great pitcher has over the ball. That is to me what you have more than anything else and more than anyone else. Dumas Père had it. Dickens, allowing for his Victorian muddle, had it; begging your pardon I don't think Edgar Wallace approached it. His stories died all along the line and had to be revived. Yours don't. Every page throws the hook for the next. I call this a kind of genius. I regard myself as a pretty exacting reader; detective stories as such don't mean a thing to me. But it must be obvious that if I have half a dozen unread books beside my chair and one of them is a Perry Mason, and I reach for the Perry Mason and let the others wait, that book must have a quality.
As to me, I am not busy and I am not successful in any important way. I don't get written what I want to write and I get balled up in what I write. I made a lot of money last year, but the government took half of it and expenses took half of the rest. I'm not poor, but neither am I in anything like your condition, or ever will be. My wife has been under the weather with the flu for ten days, but she wants to come down to your place as much as I do. I'm working at home because I refused to report to Paramount and took a suspension. They refused to tear up my contract. A writer has no real chance in pictures unless he is willing to become a producer, and that is too tough for me. The last picture I worked on was just one long row.
Letter to Alfred Knopf, January 12, 1946. Though Knopf was no longer Chandler's publisher, he and Chandler had buried the hatchet and were to remain in touch for the rest of Chandler's life. Knopf had written in response to reading Chandler's article in The Atlantic Monthly about screenwriting.
One of the troubles is that it seems quite impossible in Hollywood to convince anyone that a man would turn his back on a whopping salary--whopping by the standards of normal living--for any reason but a tactical manoeuvre through which he hopes to acquire a still more whopping salary. What I want is something quite different: a freedom from datelines and unnatural pressures, and a right to find and work with those few people in Hollywood whose purpose is to make the best pictures possible within the limitations of a popular art, not merely to repeat the old and vulgar formulae. And only a little of that.
The ethics of this industry may be judged by the fact that late last night a very important independent producer called me up and asked me to do a screenplay of one of the most advertised projects of the year, do it on the quiet, secretly, with full knowledge that it would be a violation of my contract. That meant nothing to him; it never occurred to him that he was insulting me. Perhaps, in spite of my faults, I still have a sense of honor. I may quarrel, but at least I put the point at issue down on the table in front of me. I am perfectly willing to let them examine my sleeves for hidden cards. But I don't think they really want to. They would be horrified to find them empty. They do not like to deal with honest men.
From the beginning, from the first pulp story, it was always with me a question (first of course of how to write a story at all) of putting into the stuff something they would not shy off from, perhaps even not know was there as a conscious realization, but which would somehow distill through their minds and leave an afterglow. A man with a realistic habit of thought can no longer write for intellectuals. There are too few of them and they are too specious. Neither can he deliberately write for people he despises, or for the slick magazines (Hollywood is less degrading than that), or for money alone. There must be idealism but there must also be contempt. This kind of talk may seem a little ridiculous coming from me. It is possibly that like Max Beerbohm I was born half a century too late, and that I too belong to an age of grace. I could so easily have become everything our world has no use for. So I wrote for the Black Mask. What a wry joke.
No doubt I have learned a lot from Hollywood. Please do not think I completely despise it, because I don't. The best proof of that may be that every producer I have worked for I would work for again, and every one of them, in spite of my tantrums, would be glad to have me. But the overall picture, as the boys say, is of a degraded community whose idealism even is largely fake. The pretentiousness, the bogus enthusiasm, the constant drinking and drabbing, the incessant squabbling over money, the all-pervasive agent, the strutting of the big shots (and their usually utter incompetence to achieve anything they start out to do), the constant fear of losing all this fairy gold and being the nothing they have really never ceased to be, the snide tricks, the whole damn mess is out of this world. It is a great subject for a novel--probably the greatest still untouched. But how to do it with a level mind, that's the thing that baffles me. It is like one of these South American palace revolutions conducted by officers in comic opera uniforms--only when the thing is over the ragged dead men lie in rows against the wall, and you suddenly know that this is not funny, this is the Roman circus, and damn near the end of civilization.
Chandler having decided to stop studio work and move permanently to La Jolla, The Atlantic Monthly persuaded him to report on the 1946 Oscar ceremony for them.
If you think most motion pictures are bad, which they are (including the foreign), find out from some initiate how they are made, and you will be astonished that any of them could be good. Making a fine motion picture is like painting "The Laughing Cavalier" in Macy's basement, with a floorwalker to mix your colours for you. Of course most motion pictures are bad. Why wouldn't they be? Apart from its own intrinsic handicaps of excessive cost, hypercritical bluenosed censorship, and the lack of any single-minded controlling force in the making, the motion picture is bad because 90 per cent of its source material is tripe, and the other 10 per cent is a little too virile and plain-spoken for the petty-minded clerics, the elderly ingénues of the women's clubs, and the tender guardians of that godawful mixture of boredom and bad manners known more eloquently as the Impressionable Age.
The point is not whether there are bad motion pictures or even whether the average motion picture is bad, but whether the motion picture is an artistic medium of sufficient dignity and accomplishment to be treated with respect by the people who control its destinies. Those who deride the motion picture usually are satisfied that they have thrown the book at it by declaring it to be a form of mass entertainment. As if that meant anything. Greek drama, which is still considered quite respectable by most intellectuals, was mass entertainment to the Athenian freeman. So, within its economic and topographical limits, was the Elizabethan drama. The great cathedrals of Europe, although not exactly built to while away an afternoon, certainly had an aesthetic and spiritual effect on the ordinary man. Today, if not always, the fugues and chorales of Bach, the symphonies of Mozart, Borodin, and Brahms, the violin concertos of Vivaldi, the piano sonatas of Scarlatti, and a great deal of what was once rather recondite music are mass entertainment by virtue of radio. Not all fools love it, but not all fools love anything more literate than a comic strip. It might reasonably be said that all art at some time and in some manner becomes mass entertainment, and that if it does not it dies and is forgotten.
The motion picture admittedly is faced with too large a mass; it must please too many people and offend too few, the second of these restrictions being infinitely more damaging to it artistically than the first. The people who sneer at the motion picture as an art form are furthermore seldom willing to consider it at its best. They insist upon judging it by the picture they saw last week or yesterday; which is even more absurd (in view of the sheer quantity or production) than to judge literature by last week's ten bestsellers, or the dramatic art by even the best of the current Broadway hits. In a novel you can still say what you like, and the stage is free almost to the point of obscenity, but the motion picture made in Hollywood, if it is to create art at all, must do so within such strangling limitations of subject and treatment that it is a blind wonder it ever achieves any distinction beyond the purely mechanical slickness of a glass and chromium bathroom. If it were merely a transplanted literary or dramatic art, it certainly would not. The hucksters and the bluenoses would between them see to that.
But the motion picture is not a transplanted literary or dramatic art, any more than it is a plastic art. It has elements of all these, but in its essential structure it is much closer to music, the sense that its finest effects can be independent of precise meaning, that its transitions can be more eloquent than its high-lit scenes, and that its dissolves and camera movements, which cannot be censored, are often far more emotionally effective than its plots, which can. Not only is the motion picture an art, but it is the one entirely new art that has been evolved on this planet for hundreds of years. It is the only art at which we of this generation have any possible chance to greatly excel.
In painting, music and architecture we are not even second-rate by comparison with the best work of the past. In sculpture we are just funny. In prose literature we not only lack style but we lack the educational and historical background to know what style is. Our fiction and drama are adept, empty, often intriguing, and so mechanical that in another fifty years at most they will be produced by machines with rows of push buttons. We have no popular poetry in the grand style, merely delicate or witty or bitter or obscure verses. Our novels are transient propaganda when they are what is called "significant," and bedtime reading when they are not.
But in the motion picture we possess an art medium whose glories are not all behind us. It has already produced great work, and if, comparatively and proportionately, far too little of that great work has been achieved in Hollywood, I think that is all the more reason why in its annual tribal dance of the stars and the big-shot producers Hollywood should contrive a little quiet awareness of the fact. Of course it won't. I'm just daydreaming.
Show business has always been a little overnoisy, overdressed, overbrash. Actors are threatened people. Before films came along to make them rich they often had need of a desperate gaiety. Some of these qualities prolonged beyond a strict necessity have passed into the Hollywood mores and produced that very exhausting thing, the Hollywood manner, which is a chronic case of spurious excitement over absolutely nothing. Nevertheless, and for once in a lifetime, I have to admit that Academy Awards night is a good show and quite funny in spots, although I'll admire you if you can laugh at all of it.
If you can go past those awful idiot faces on the bleachers outside the theater without a sense of the collapse of the human intelligence; if you can stand the hailstorm of flash bulbs popping at the poor patient actors who, like kings and queens, have never the right to look bored; if you can glance out over this gathered assemblage of what is supposed to be the elite of Hollywood and say to yourself without a sinking feeling, "In these hands lie the destinies of the only original art the modern world has conceived"; if you can laugh, and you probably will, at the cast-off jokes from the comedians on the stage, stuff that wasn't good enough to use on their radio shows; if you can stand the fake sentimentality and the platitudes of the officials and the mincing elocution of the glamour queens (you ought to hear them with four martinis down the hatch); if you can do all these things with grace and pleasure, and not have a wild and forsaken horror at the thought that most of these people actually take this shoddy performance seriously; and if you can then go out into the night to see half the police force of Los Angeles gathered to protect the golden ones from the mob in the free seats but not from that awful moaning sound they give out, like destiny whistling through a hollow shell; if you can do all these things and still feel next morning that the picture business is worth the attention of one single intelligent, artistic mind, then in the picture business you certainly belong.
Letter to Charles Morton, November 22, 1950.
Television is really what we've been looking for all our lives. It took a certain amount of effort to go to the movies. Somebody had to stay with the kids. You had to get the car out of the garage. That was hard work. And you had to drive and park. Sometimes you had to walk as far as half a block to the theater. Then people with big fat heads would sit in front of you and make you nervous... Radio was a lot better, but there wasn't anything to look at. Your gaze wandered around the room and you might start thinking of other things--things you didn't want to think about. You had to use a little imagination to build yourself a picture of what was going on just by the sound. But television's perfect. You turn a few knobs and lean back and drain your mind of all thought. And there you are watching the bubbles in the primeval ooze. You don't have to concentrate. You don't have to react. You don't have to remember. You don't miss your brain because you don't need it. Your heart and liver and lungs continue to function normally. Apart from that, all is peace and quiet. You are in poor man's nirvana. And if some nasty-minded person comes along and says you look more like a fly on a can of garbage, pay him no mind...just who should one be mad at anyway? Did you think the advertising agencies created vulgarity and the moronic mind that accepts it? To me television is just one more facet of that considerable segment of our civilization that never had any standard but the soft buck.
Letter to Gene Levitt, who had been adapting Marlowe for the radio show, November 22, 1950.
I am only a very recent possessor of a television set. It is a very dangerous medium. And as for the commercials--well, I understand that the concoction of these is a business in itself, a business that makes prostitution or the drug traffic seem quite respectable. It was bad enough to have the sub-human hucksters controlling radio, but television does something to you which radio never did. It prevents you from forming any kind of a mental picture and forces you to look at a caricature instead.
Letter to Dale Warren, November 7, 1951.
You ask me how anybody can survive Hollywood? Well, I must say that I personally had a lot of fun there. But how long you can survive depends a great deal on what sort of people you have to work with. You meet a lot of bastards, but they usually have some saving grace. A writer who can get himself teamed up with a director or a producer who will give him a square deal, a really square deal, can get a lot of satisfaction out of his work. Unfortunately that doesn't happen often. If you go to Hollywood just to make money, you have to be pretty cynical about it and not care too much what you do. And if you really believe in the art of the film, it's a long job and you really should forget about any other kind of writing. A preoccupation with words for their own sake is fatal to good film making. It's not what films are for. It's not my cup of tea, but it could have been if I'd started it twenty years earlier. But twenty years earlier of course I could never have got there, and that is true of a great many people. They don't want you until you have made a name, and you have developed some kind of talent which they can't use. The best scenes I ever wrote were practically monosyllabic. And the best short scene I ever wrote, by my own judgement, was one in which a girl said "uh-huh" three times with three different intonations, and that's all there was to it. The hell of good film writing is that the most important part is what is left out. It's left out because the camera and the actors can do it better and quicker, above all quicker. But it had to be there in the beginning.
Letter to Carl Brandt, regarding television, November 15, 1951.
However toplofty and idealistic a man may be, he can always rationalize his right to earn money. After all the public is entitled to what it wants. The Romans knew that and even they lasted four hundred years after they started to putrefy.
The corporate class is flying high in Washington. With George W. Bush--CEO style and all--in the White House and the Republicans controlling Congress, the business community has been exploiting its enhanced clout. Workplace safety rules, ten years in the making and designed to prevent a million or so injuries a year, were scrapped in a few hours of Congressional action. A signal was sent: We Are Business. Hear Us Roar. At the same time, House Republicans rammed through the central provision of Bush's tax cut for the rich. And in another early action, the House approved a bankruptcy bill that favors creditors, among them MBNA America Bank, one of the largest issuers of credit cards and--coincidence? ha!--one of the largest corporate donors to Bush and the GOP in the election. But surely the most egregious display of corporate power was Bush's decision to reverse a campaign pledge to seek reductions in the carbon dioxide emissions of the nation's power plants after the coal and oil industries objected. Congressman Henry Waxman rightly called the move a "breathtaking betrayal" of Bush's promise to fight global warming.
All this activity has emboldened corporate lobbyists to plan other assaults. They want to rewrite privacy rules regarding medical records, beat back environmental and land-use regulations, open Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, limit corporate liability for dangerous products, deep-six the federal lawsuit against the tobacco industry and undo the Clinton ban on road-building in 60 million acres of national forest. And don't forget tax breaks. Bush told the K Streeters who eyed the Bush tax package for special-interest tax breaks to keep their mitts off. But there's a tacit deal in the air. If the corporate crowd helps Bush win his tax cut this year, next year he'll help them get theirs.
None of this is a surprise. Bush and the Republicans are merely following the law of supply and demand: Donors supply campaign money, then they demand. Bush set records in terms of pocketing corporate donations, and Congressional Republicans--particularly those in the House under the leadership of majority whip Tom DeLay--have perfected the pay-to-play, in which they hit up the business community for campaign cash and then allow its representatives to participate in drafting legislation.
Which brings us to campaign finance reform. The Senate is poised to consider the McCain-Feingold bill, a modest initiative that would ban federal soft-money contributions and at least inconvenience the high rollers. Yet some Democrats are skittish, realizing that their party has become as dependent on soft money as the GOP. And labor is nervous about a provision that would limit issue ads. Regardless of the outcome of this debate, we need extensive reform going beyond McCain-Feingold, along with a fight-back on the GOP initiatives. Opposition to those initiatives does exist, including a coalition of 500 organizations working to combat the Bush tax cut. That, plus a spirited grassroots effort, could stop the Bush agenda while pushing progressive alternatives.
Twenty years ago this season, when another new Republican President arrived in Washington to push for massive income-tax reductions, I was having breakfast every other Saturday morning with David Stockman, the brainy young budget director, and collecting his insider account of the Reagan revolution. Stockman was the enfant terrible who implemented the supply-side agenda and promised to achieve the improbable--reduce taxes dramatically and double defense spending, while cutting other federal programs sufficiently to produce a balanced budget. It didn't work out that way. Ronald Reagan's great legislative triumph of 1981 destabilized federal fiscal policy for nearly two decades, creating the massive structural deficits that were not finally extinguished until a few years ago. Washington seems about to replay history as farce, albeit on a less threatening scale. It prompts me to reflect on what, if anything, was learned from the revolution.
My private sessions with Stockman stretched over nine months and led to a controversial magazine article, "The Education of David Stockman," in which I disclosed the contradictions and internal swordplay behind Reaganomics, but the real sensation was Stockman's own growing doubts and disillusionment with the doctrine. Both of us were excoriated in the aftermath. The Gipper likened me to his would-be assassin John Hinckley. Stockman was roasted for duplicity and cynical manipulations; for concealing the truth about the looming deficits while Congress plunged forward in fateful error. Stockman was guileful, yes, but it was his intellectual honesty that shocked Washington. That brief moment of truth-telling resonates with the current delusions and deceptions. A lot of what he said twenty years ago seems painfully relevant.
"None of us really understands what's going on with all these numbers," the budget director confided during intense budget-cutting battles in the spring of 1981. That admission should be engraved over the door at the Treasury, the Capitol and the White House. Projections of fabulous budget surpluses that provide the premise for this year's political action are no less airy-fairy. Nonetheless, official fantasy becomes the operating truth, so long as everyone bows to it. Stockman's wishful forecasts on economic growth were nicknamed Rosy Scenario by his colleagues, but now the Congressional Budget Office has matched his rosiness. The economy is expanding this year by 2.4 percent and faster next year, according to the CBO. Actually, right now it's headed into the zero-minus territory known as recession.
Stockman's boldest accounting gimmick--reporting $40 billion in budget cuts but declining to identify them--was dubbed by insiders "the magic asterisk." Bush has already topped him with his "magic blueprint" and the miraculous "trillion-dollar reserve" he saves and spends at the same time. The new President has not actually issued a real budget, only a "blueprint" that leaves out the grisly, painful details of what spending will get whacked. Dubya sounds like the Queen of Hearts: Tax cuts first, punishment later! Congressional nerds protest, but Bush intends to ram through his tax cuts before anyone has been given an honest picture of the fiscal consequences.
"Do you realize the greed that came to the forefront?" Stockman exclaimed to me twenty years ago. "The hogs were really feeding." As the Reagan White House lost control of the action, Democrats and Republicans engaged in a furious bidding war to see which party could deliver more tax breaks and other boodle to the special-interest hogs (Republicans won, but the Dems gave it a good try). The Bushies recognize this danger and are trying to wall off the usual business greedheads from exploiting the same opening this year. The deal-making may still begin, however, if the White House is a few votes shy and needs to seduce a few hungry senators with special favors. As Stockman learned, if you buy one senator, you might have to buy them all.
Another of Stockman's vivid metaphors is the centerpiece for 2001--the "Trojan horse" approach to rewarding the rich. Giving everyone the same percentage rate cut sounds fair, but actually delivers most of the money to the very wealthy, who pay the top rate. Supply-side doctrine "was always a Trojan horse to bring down the top rate," Stockman revealed. "It's kind of hard to sell trickle-down economics, so the supply-side formula was the only way to get a tax policy that was really trickle down." This year's new wrinkle is a Keynesian twist. Instead of talking about rich investors who need a little encouragement to invest in America, Bush talks about the waitresses who need a little cash to pay off their credit-card debts.
The most disturbing difference I see in 2001 is political--the role reversal between the two major parties. What Republicans learned from the revolution is this: Deficit spending doesn't really count for that much in politics--not among average voters--and a party will not be punished for creating fiscal disorder as long as other good things seem to happen. Democrats used to understand this as a visceral matter but have forgotten the street-smarts their party knew in olden days. On fiscal discipline, the two have swapped positions. Republicans, once the scolds, are now the reckless feel-good party, willing to risk big deficits in order to deliver goodies to main constituencies. Democrats, perhaps wishing for respectability, have become the party of rectitude, preaching forbearance of pleasure. Republicans want voters to have a little fun. Democrats sound like nervous bookkeepers.
Leaving aside economic consequences, Democrats have dealt themselves a very weak position, even though they're largely right about the budget accounting. Most Americans are not fiscal experts and cannot be expected to absorb all the fine-print arguments about cause and effect. Think of the old Far Side cartoon with a dog listening to his master. All the dog hears is: "Fido, blah, blah, blah, Fido, blah, blah, blah." What voters hear from Republicans is: "Want to cut your taxes, blah, blah, blah, want to cut your taxes, blah, blah, blah." What voters hear from Democrats is: "Must pay down the debt first, blah, blah, blah, must pay down the debt first, blah, blah, blah." For skeptical voters with already low expectations of government, this is not a tough choice.
The great accomplishment of Reagan and the supply-siders was to persuade the old-guard Republican Party that its root- canal approach to fiscal policy was a loser--and that recklessness can be a win-win proposition for their side. If the Trojan horse approach succeeds in winning regressive tax-cuts, the GOP delivers huge rewards to its favorite clients. If this also creates a big hole in the federal budget, that's OK too, since runaway deficits will throw another collar around the size of the federal government and provide yet another reason to slash the liberals' social spending. With clever marketing, the GOP may even persuade voters it was spendthrift Democrats who created the red ink. Even recession is OK if the timing is as lucky as the Gipper's. When this recession ends, Bush will credit his tax cuts for the recovery and claim vindication in time for re-election.
Democrats, meanwhile, are the "responsibles," telling the people to save their allowance for a rainy day. They were led into this cul-de-sac by the champion of artful deception, Bill Clinton. Two years ago, when the prospect of burgeoning federal surpluses arose, Clinton devised a very clever ploy to hold off Republican tax-cutters. We will not spend the extra trillions, he announced, we will pay off the national debt. Democrats felt exceedingly virtuous about this position, although they understood that the subtext was quite different: The surpluses would allow government to do big things again for people--someday, but not yet. A different kind of leader might have recognized that politics doesn't wait for ten-year budget projections. If Democrats wished to accomplish big things like universal healthcare or helping debt-soaked families, they should have gone for it right then while the resources were available. Instead, Clinton's stratagem actually adopted the old-time religion that Reagan had shed--a loss of nerve that is the opposite of activist government. Some Dems are agitating to change that, proposing a genuine commitment to healthcare reform and other measures, but others have internalized the bookkeeper politics and are preaching hair-shirt economics: Cancel any tax cuts if a severe recession wipes out our sacred surplus. That's a righteous recipe for more pain.
One more point: Both parties are playing with a phony deck of cards. No matter what unfolds this season, the government is not going to reduce the "national debt." On the contrary, the government's total indebtedness is going to keep growing steadily, from $5.6 trillion right now to $6.7 trillion by 2011. Despite what you read in the newspapers, that occurs with or without tax cuts and even if all the outstanding Treasury bonds are paid off (if you still don't believe it, check the CBO's latest budget forecast with its chart on page 17). The awkward fact neither party brings up is that federal financing has depended crucially on collecting more money than it needs from working people since 1983, when both parties collaborated in a great crime of bait and switch. After Reagan cut taxes for the wealthy and business in 1981, he turned around two years later and raised Social Security payroll taxes dramatically on workers (earnings above $76,000 are exempted from Social Security taxes). Ever since, workers have been paying in extra money toward their future retirement--trillions more than needed now by Social Security--and the government simply borrows the surplus revenue to spend on other things: upper-income tax cuts or paying off Treasury bonds or reducing the fiscal damage from deficits in the operating budget.
Taxing one class of citizens--the broad ranks of working people--so government can devote the money to other people and purposes is not only wrong but profoundly deceptive, bait and switch on a grand scale. Government still owes workers the money, of course, and someday will have to find the borrowed trillions somewhere, either by raising taxes or borrowing the money or possibly by cutting Social Security benefits. When FICA taxes were raised in 1983, Reagan at first objected and reminded aides that he was opposed to raising taxes--of any kind. David Stockman reassured him. If the rising payroll-tax burden was imposed on young working people, they would eventually revolt and Social Security would self-destruct of its own weight. The Gipper liked that and gave his OK. The same objective, now called privatization, shows up again this year on George W. Bush's agenda. He proposes to "save" Social Security by destroying it.
CAMPAIGN FINANCE UPDATE
As the Senate geared up for a debate on the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill (McFein for short), which bans soft money, Democratic Senator Robert Torricelli was again grumbling about how the bill is flawed because it doesn't close down the issue-ad loophole. He's essentially right, but that's no reason to vote against McFein, which does close another big loophole. If McFein passes, some soft money might be diverted to issue ads, but some would not, its sponsors believe. Sparking more valid concerns is a provision in the bill that bars corporations and unions from spending money on issue ads within sixty days of an election. That worries labor because the plan does nothing to curb individual spending on such ads. There are plenty of wealthy people with pro-corporate axes to grind. So even if corporate funding of issue ads is banned, the pro-business message will flood out in ads paid for by well-heeled individuals. Labor has few individual supporters with such deep pockets. The unions also oppose raising the $1,000 cap on hard money. Campaign reform groups are wobbling on this one, with some risking a compromise that would index hard-money limits to inflation. But any increase in the hard-money limit makes it easier for wealthy special interests to buy influence and access and does nothing to open up the system to ordinary Americans.
EXTRA! GORE WINS FLORIDA! HELLO?
The Palm Beach Post's recount of undervotes--hanging, dimpled, pinhole chads--gave Al Gore 784 additional votes in Palm Beach County. If the same recount method were followed statewide, Gore would win overwhelmingly. The butterfly ballots, on which confused voters marked both Gore and Pat Buchanan, cost Gore some 6,600 votes, the Post estimated; another 2,908 voted for Gore and Socialist David McReynolds.
RUN JEB RUN
There has been speculation recently that Jeb Bush may not run in 2002 because of "family concerns." We hope he stays the course. It would be democracy's loss if he didn't give African-Americans and other Floridians a chance to register a protest against the electoral shenanigans last fall.
YOU CAN ALWAYS TELL A HARVARD MAN...
Former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, named as Harvard's new president, is on record as saying that Africa is "under-polluted." This phrase, Jon Wiener reminds us, appeared in a 1991 memo Summers wrote while he was chief economist for the World Bank. In it he recommended that the bank encourage "more migration of the dirty industries to the LDCs" (less developed countries). He went on to give three reasons: (1) The cost of sickness caused by pollution--in terms of lost wages--is lower in the LDCs, since their average wages are so low, (2) LDCs are "under-polluted" by industry and (3) demand for a clean environment for health and aesthetic reasons is small in countries with high mortality rates. After the memo became public, Brazil's secretary of the environment wrote Summers, "Your reasoning is perfectly logical but totally insane."
BUSHISM OF THE WEEK
In a talk to Treasury Department workers: "The way I like to put it is this: There's no bigger issue for the President to remind the moms and dads of America, if you happen to have a child,
be fortunate to have a child."
THE CREDITORS' BALL
The bankruptcy bill passed by the House denies bankruptcy protection to small borrowers who get in over their heads. The bill contains a special provision exempting American partners in Lloyd's of London from having to pay their share of the insurer's added costs from payouts on recent disasters. The bill also protects wealthy deadbeats' real estate holdings in Florida, Texas and other states that local laws have made into bankruptcy havens. Those laws allow the wealthiest debtors to convert their hidden assets into lavish homes, immune from seizure.
NEWS OF THE WEAK IN REVIEW
Another of Bush's conflict-of-interest Cabinet members can join Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, the man from Alcoa, and the boys from Big Oil. Say hi to Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, who served on the board of directors of Northwest Airlines. Nothing to do with the untimely sixty-day cooling-off period Bush slapped on the mechanics' union at Northwest.
In the near future we plan to expand our faith-based initiative, Holy Terror Sandblasting and Demolition Corp. New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani finds much merit in our proposal for a workfare program in which homeless people (men only, naturellement!) would be trained in medieval theology, art criticism and the use of explosives. Please send dollars and the floor plan of the Brooklyn Museum. Or else.
Dear Professor DiIulio,
With medical costs going through the roof, you'd think there'd be a better way. And now, with the Lord's help, there is! Our idea is to buy up struggling inner-city hospitals and turn them into profit centers--no doctors, no nurses, no fancy-shmancy machines and best of all, no messy malpractice suits. Just the blessed healing power of prayer, provided 24 hours a day at bedside by recovering drug addicts as part of their therapy. It's total win-win--the government saves, the patient is saved--if not in this world, the next. And that's the world that counts, right?
Rev. Tommy Johnson
Pentecostal Holiness Church, Memphis, TN
People say communism is just another religion, and they're right! We have everything the other faiths have--an all-encompassing worldview, sacred texts, meetings (and how!), schisms, excommunications and declining numbers and influence. We'd like to reverse that last item with funding for our workfare proposal: First, we provide welfare mothers a crash course in job readiness, parenting skills and the works of Karl Marx. Then, we get them jobs in daycare centers, where they pass their new "faith" on to the next generation, hopefully in time for the stock market crash. Don't count us out--a god that failed is still a god.
The Communist Party, USA
Dear Brother in Christ,
Did you know the Chicago Archdiocese has an exorcist on staff? Our faith-based initiative, The Exercist, would get this superbly trained but underutilized man out of the apse and into the community, where he'd help the so-called mentally ill get their sillies out with a carefully graduated low-impact aerobic workout that goes beyond head swiveling and projectile vomiting to get at the real nitty-gritty of diabolical possession! Then, everyone cools down with a sharing session, novena and group hug: because admitting you're possessed by the Devil is half the cure!
Hope to hear from you soon,
Msgr. George O'Reilly
Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago
Dear Prof. DiIulio,
For ten years we've been trying to get our own public school district so our kids wouldn't have to go to school with goyim. The courts keep turning us down. Then we wanted buses with only male drivers and sex-segregated seating, and the self-hating Jewish liberals said no to that too. So we would like to become a Faith-Based Initiative with ourselves as clients. Our project is, we stay in our own town and only talk to each other. Because that's what G-d wants. Eventually we hope to get NEA funding as a conceptual art project ("The Choice: Chosen People Choose Themselves"), but a starter grant from your office would really put us on track.
Let us know,
Rabbi Shlomo Greenblatt, Kiryas Joel, NY
Ever wonder what's really behind that weird weather of recent years ? Hint: It's a long time between burnt offerings. How about paying some deadbeat dads to slaughter a herd of oxen and throw those fabulous thighbones on the barbie? Everybody benefits: They learn the meat business, you get fruitful harvests, favorable winds and calm winedark seas, and we get a decent meal. Reply soonest--the wife is pushing me to zap you with a thunderbolt.
Death Row Dad is a moving story of one father's embrace of capital punishment--despite his own imminent execution! While his ACLU lawyer tries frantically to turn up new evidence even as his own marriage unravels, and beautiful crusading nun Helen Prejean pleads with the governor for a stay, Leroy, who is in fact innocent, wants only that his son renounce his homosexual lifestyle and accept Christ as his personal savior. Soon the whole prison--even the crusty warden and a pair of racist guards--is praying for Leroy to get his wish. Jack, I promise you, when Leroy looks up from the gurney just before the lethal injection, sees his son standing there with his new girlfriend, and rejects the last-minute stay of execution ("I reckon the Lord is waitin' for my sorry self"), the audience won't know whether to cheer or go down on its knees. Morgan's people think yes for the lead, Julia's very interested in doing the nun. A major studio is ready to greenlight the minute your office comes through with co-financing.
Talk to you after the prayer meeting,
How about a grant where I become a lay minister and practice laying on of hands? There's a whole heck of a lot of lonely women out there with big spiritual needs. I mean, really big.