Almost every week, it seems, we get
to read about some state execution, performed or imminent, wreathed
in the usual toxic fog of race or sex prejudice, or incompetency of
counsel, or prosecutorial misconduct.
Take the recent
execution in Ashcroft country, February 7, of Stanley Lingar, done in
the Potosi Correctional Center in Missouri, for killing 16-year
Thomas Allen back in 1985. In the penalty phase of Lingar's trial,
prosecutor Richard Callahan, who may now be headed for the seat on
the Missouri State Supreme Court recently vacated by his
mother-in-law, argued for death, citing Lingar's homosexuality to the
jury as the crucial factor that should tilt poison into the guilty
man's veins. Governor Bob Holden turned down a clemency appeal and
told the press he'd "lost no sleep" over signing off on Lingar's
Is there any hope that the ample list of innocent
people either lost to the executioners or saved at the eleventh hour
will prompt a national moratorium such as is being sought by Senator
Russell Feingold of Wisconsin?
A year ago it seemed
possible. On January 31, 2000, Illinois Governor George Ryan
suspended imposition of the death penalty in his state on the grounds
that he could not support a system "which, in its administration, has
proven so fraught with error."
By June a Field Poll
reported the sensational finding that in the state with the most
crowded death row in the nation, Californians by nearly 4 to 1
favored stopping state executions to study how the death penalty was
being applied. The Field Poll respondents were told about wrong
convictions, also about appeals to Governor Gray Davis by religious
leaders for a moratorium. A poll at the end of last year, in which
California respondents were not offered this framework, put support
for a moratorium at 42 percent, just behind those opposed to any such
move. A national poll last fall found 53 percent for a
The discrepancy in the California polls
actually affords comfort to abolitionists, since it shows that when
respondents are told about innocent people saved from lethal
injection, often at the last moment, support for a moratorium soars.
It's a matter of public education.
But where are the
educators? Many eligible political leaders have fled the field of
battle, convinced that opposition to the death penalty is a sure-fire
vote loser. In the second presidential debate last fall Al Gore
wagged his head in agreement when George W. Bush declared his faith
in executions as a deterrent.
A few years ago Hillary
Clinton spoke of her private colloquys with the shade of Eleanor
Roosevelt. Their conversations left La Clinton unpersuaded, since she
stands square for death, as does New York's senior senator, Charles
Indeed, the death penalty is no longer a gut
issue, or even a necessary stand, for those, like Schumer, who are
associated with the Democratic Party's liberal wing. On February 12
the New York Post quoted Kerry Kennedy Cuomo, long known as a
leading death-penalty opponent, as saying that "it would be futile"
to try to repeal capital punishment in New York.
Cuomo, daughter of Robert F. Kennedy, told the Post that she
believes her husband, Andrew, a contender for the Democratic
nomination for governor, shares her views. "To tell you the truth, on
the death penalty, it's not as big an issue in the state as it was a
few years ago." Mrs. Cuomo's father-in-law, Mario, repeatedly vetoed
death-penalty measures during his years as governor.
line with Kerry Kennedy Cuomo's spineless stance, many liberal or
what are now cautiously called "human rights" groups have also found
it politic to sideline capital punishment as an issue. No better
illustration is available than the recent tussle over John Ashcroft's
nomination as Attorney General. Scores of groups flailed at him on
choice, racism and hate crimes, but not on the most racist
application of hatein the arsenal of state power: the death
Return for a moment to the fight to save Lingar's
life. Privacy Rights Education Project, the statewide Missouri gay
lobby group, endorsed Holden in his gubernatorial race. PREP,
however, was quite muted on Lingar's fate, taking little action
except to send a letter to the governor the day before the execution.
Another gay organization, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against
Defamation, the folks who want to shut down Dr. Laura, is a national
group but happens to have an office in Kansas City, Missouri. Surely
what prosecutor Callahan did to Stanley Lingar is well beyond
defamation. Where was the Gay and Lesbian Alliance on this case? Not
a peep from them. Noisy on hate crimes but silent on the death
penalty is the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest
The issue of capital punishment is
drawing much more attention these days. Just when help could really
make a difference, where are all these (ostensibly) liberal and
progressive groups? The Anti-Defamation League (all right, strike the
word "ostensible"), whose national director, Abraham Foxman, pulled
down $389,000 in 1999, was busy writing letters for Marc Rich. The
death penalty? The ADL endorsed Bill Clinton's appalling
Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996.
impetus given by Ryan last year could fall apart. Governor Ryan
himself faces difficult re-election prospects in 2002, and a
successor could rescind the moratorium. Liberals should abandon their
absurd and dangerous obsession with hate crimes and muster against
this most hateful excrescence on the justice system. Let them take
encouragement from the district attorney of San Francisco, Terrence
Hallinan, who told a San Francisco court on February 6 that he would
not participate in the capital sentencing of one Robert Massey since
"the death penalty does not constitute any more of a deterrent than
life without parole" and, among other evils, "discriminates racially
and financially, being visited mainly on racial minorities and the
poor.... It forfeits the stature and respect to which our state is
entitled by reducing us to a primitive code of
Every conservative is now a compassionate conservative.
Well, most were at the recent annual Conservative Political Action
Conference, which drew more than 3,000 right-wing activists and
leaders to a hotel outside Washington. A year ago George W. Bush was
viewed with suspicion by many conservative honchos who worried that
ideological wimpiness ran in the family and that Bush's Compassionate
Conservatism was a retreat from traditional conservatism. What
a difference a butterfly ballot can make. At the confab Bush was
embraced by this flock as one of their own, a politician who waged a
masterful, conservative campaign and who--even better--has adopted as
his role model not his pop but Ronald Reagan. Marc Holtzman, the
Colorado secretary of technology, proclaimed that a "conservative
revolution...is shaping America today."
Had a county
elections officer in Palm Beach not designed a confusing ballot,
these cons probably would be whining about Bush and the
wishy-washiness of compassionate conservatism. But winning--even by
Supreme Court fiat--changes everything. And the attendees were
delighted to grant Bush slack. They did not snipe at his tax-cut plan
(too small and unrevolutionary for most of them), his education plan
(which bolsters the Education Department rather than demolishes it
and nudges school choice toward the back of the bus) or his
military-spending plan (which includes a Pentagon raise but does not
immediately shower the military with extra tens of billions of
dollars). They're willing to wait for Bush to score legislative wins
before pressing Social Security privatization, and they're content
with an incremental approach to restricting abortion
This usually cantankerous lot is saluting and
following. Commentator Ann Coulter noted that Bush "could teach us a
few things.... He discovered all you had to do was go around calling
yourself nice.... Many of us took umbrage at that." But it worked.
Not everyone absorbed the lesson. Leftist-turned-rightist author
David Horowitz urged Republicans to "stop being so polite." Call the
liberals what they truly are, he advised: "totalitarians."
Still, the bitterness quotient at this CPAC was much lower
than in previous years. No more Where's Lee Harvey Oswald When You
Need Him? bumper stickers. (Instead, one could buy Dixie Forever
stickers--as speakers urged conservatives to reach out to blacks and
Latinos.) Bill and Hillary Clinton received fewer jabs than expected.
A group called America's Survival did hand out a report on "Hillary
Clinton's Secret United Nations Agenda." (Implement "world
government...that will destroy American sovereignty and traditional
families.") Oliver North blasted the ex-President for pardoning Marc
Rich, because Rich traded with hostage-holding Iran. (Did North
forget he sent missiles to hostage-holding Iran?) Senator
James Inhofe griped, "We have had a President who has given away or
covered up [the illegal transfer of] virtually every secret in our
nuclear arsenal." Nevertheless, many CPACers appeared to believe it
was time to move on.
But even as rightists control the
White House and Congress, cons still claim they are besieged. Terry
Jeffrey, the editor of Human Events, asserted that "the iron
law of American journalism" still stands: "The most conservative
candidate in any campaign will be demonized by the establishment
press." (Perhaps he ought to ask Al Gore about this.) Coulter, in all
seriousness, said that Republicans and conservatives--in battling
Democrats and liberals--"are always at a disadvantage because we
won't lie." One activist complained that Democrats "with their
talking points run circles around Republicans." Another fretted that
the GOP, up against a Democratic Party backed by organized labor, was
"losing the ground campaign." An NRA official had to remind him that
the gun lobby runs its own ground campaign pretty darn well. Perhaps
it's tough to be in power when you're accustomed to viewing yourself
as a victim of persecution.
Of course, enemies abound. The
National Right to Work Foundation's Stefan Gleason reported that the
AFL-CIO "has now embraced communist influences." Senator Mitch
McConnell noted that campaign finance reform is a plot mounted by
Hollywood, academia and the media to "quiet your vote...[so] they'll
have more power." The NRA's Wayne LaPierre warned that the organizers
of a UN conference on gun control "want the marvelous millennial
youth [of the United States] not to be American citizens but global
citizens.... I say never!" Andrea Sheldon Lafferty of the Traditional
Values Coalition accused Planned Parenthood of defending abortion
rights so it can make money selling fetal remains.
loathing continue, but Bush has tamed this fierce crowd. "The
ideologically motivated in politics are often disappointed," said
David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union. "But most
conservatives are surprised they like Bush so much." Marc Rotterman,
a senior fellow at the John Locke Foundation, reflected the spirit of
CPAC when he remarked, "We on the right need to give Bush a chance to
develop a broad-based agenda. After 1994 we expected things to go too
fast." Now they watch Bush with hope, and they dare to believe.
George W. Bush's description of the US-British bombing
of Iraq as a "routine mission" unwittingly summed up the mechanical
nature of the US-British air operations in Iraq, which have been
bombing on autopilot since 1992. These sorties continue because no
one has a better idea of what US policy toward Iraq should be. The
only rationales for the February 16 strike were to tell Saddam
Hussein that the mindless air campaign will continue under a new
administration and to reduce the possibility that Iraq's improved air
defenses might shoot down a US plane on the eve of Secretary of State
Colin Powell's trip to the Middle East.
But the attack's main outcome was to remind the world of the emptiness of US policy in the area. The sanctions regime is now widely ignored; US European
allies, led by the French, are furious at Washington's unilateralism
(even Tony Blair's foreign minister was preparing to relax sanctions). Bush spoke of enforcing "the agreement that [Saddam Hussein] signed after Desert Storm," but the Clinton Administration helped undermine the UN inspection regime instituted after the war by making it an anti-Saddam operation. UNSCOM inspectors pulled out, never to return, just before December 16, 1998, when cruise missiles
were unleashed against Baghdad in Operation Desert Fox. Washington's obdurate support of the sanctions, despite massive suffering among the Iraqi people, eroded the anti-Saddam consensus in the Arab world that developed after his invasion of Kuwait. Finally, the failure of Mideast peace talks and Ariel Sharon's victory in Israel lend credence to Saddam's claim to be the champion of the Palestinians, and it provided him with another opportunity to play to the Arab streets and mendaciously blame US-Israel conniving.
from strengthening Powell's mission, the bombings stirred up renewed
hostility among the Arab people. The Bush team's campaign
pronouncements on Iraq do not allow hope that Powell brings any new
ideas to the region. Indeed, the ineluctable drift of events in the
past year has left the new Administration few options. The old, cruel
sanctions policy is discredited, and there is scant hope at this
point that the Iraqis will agree to accept UN inspectors, who are the
best check on Saddam's efforts to rebuild his war machine. As it
happens, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan was to meet with the Iraqi
foreign minister February 26-27 to discuss reinstating them; the
bombing surely hasn't helped this initiative. And there is virtually
no international support for any of the Administration plans to beef
up support for Iraqi opposition groups. Without the backing of a wide
coalition of countries, no policy has any chance of success.
The wisest future course for the United States is to forge
a more modest containment and sanctions policy that might win the
support of America's partners. It should aim to put in place limited
and precisely targeted sanctions designed to curtail Iraq's import of
advanced military technology and to contain Saddam. That means
abandoning unilateralism (something that goes against the grain of
this new White House) and reaching out not only to the UN and allies
in Europe and the Middle East but to regional players like Turkey and
It is ironic that Colin Powell, the architect of
Desert Storm, must now deal with its long-term consequences--its
failure to bring peace and stability to the region.
George W. Bush's mid-February directive
ordering the Pentagon to review and restructure the US nuclear
arsenal is a wake-up call for supporters of arms control and
disarmament. Under the guise of revising nuclear policy to make it
more relevant to the post-cold war world, the Bush Administration is
pushing an ambitious scheme to deploy a massive missile defense
system and develop a new generation of nuclear weapons. If fully
implemented, Bush's aggressive new policy could provoke a multisided
nuclear arms race that will make the US-Soviet competition of the
cold war era look tame by comparison.
To understand the
danger of Bush's emerging nuclear doctrine, you have to read the fine
print. Some elements of his approach--first outlined at a May 23,
2000, speech at the National Press Club--sound sensible. Bush implied
that if elected President, he would reduce the nation's arsenal of
nuclear overkill from its current level of 7,500 strategic warheads
to 2,500 or less. In tandem with these reductions, which go beyond
anything the Clinton Administration contemplated, Bush also promised
to take as many nuclear weapons as possible off hairtrigger alert
status, thereby reducing the danger of an accidental
So far, so good: fewer nuclear weapons, with fewer
on high-alert status, would be a step in the right direction.
Unfortunately, Bush also committed himself to deploying, "at the
earliest possible date," a missile defense system capable of
defending "all fifty states and our friends and allies and deployed
forces overseas." Unlike the $60 billion Clinton/Gore National
Missile Defense scheme, which involved land-based interceptors based
in Alaska and North Dakota, Bush's enthusiasm for a new Star Wars
system knows no limit. The President and his Star Warrior in Chief,
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, are willing to put missile
interceptors on land, at sea, on airplanes and in outer space in
pursuit of continued US military dominance.
announced Rumsfeld's appointment in late December, he acknowledged
that the Pentagon veteran would have a big "selling job" to do on
national missile defense, with allies and potential adversaries
alike. But even Washington's closest NATO allies continue to have
grave reservations about Rumsfeld's suggestion that the United States
might trash the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty of 1972 in order to
pursue its missile defense fantasy. Meanwhile, Russian President
Vladimir Putin has flatly stated that a US breakout from the treaty
would call the entire network of US-Russian arms agreements into
The cost of Bush's Star Wars vision could be as
much as $240 billion over the next two decades, but that's the least
of our problems. According to a Los Angeles Times account of a
classified US intelligence assessment that was leaked to the press
last May, deployment of an NMD system by the United States is likely
to provoke "an unsettling series of political and military ripple
effects...that would include a sharp buildup of strategic and
medium-range nuclear missiles by China, India and Pakistan and the
further spread of military technology in the Middle
Bush's provocative missile defense scheme may not
even be the most dangerous element of his new-age nuclear policy.
According to Steven Lee Myers of the New York Times, Bush's
renovation of US nuclear doctrine will draw heavily on a January 2001
study by the National Institute for Public Policy that was directed
by Dr. Keith Payne, whose main claim to fame is co-writing a 1980s
essay on nuclear war titled "Victory Is Possible." Bush National
Security Council staffers Robert Joseph and Stephen Hadley were
involved in the production of the NIPP study, as was William
Schneider, informal adviser and ideological soulmate of Donald
In its most egregious passage, the study
advocates the development and design of a new generation of nuclear
weapons to be used for both deterrent and "wartime roles," ranging
from "deterring weapons of mass destruction (WMD) use by regional
powers" to "preventing catastrophic losses in a conventional war,"
from "providing unique targeting capabilities (deep
underground/biological weapons targets)" to "enhancing US
influence in crises." In short, at a time when a number of prominent
military leaders, like Gen. Lee Butler, the former head of the
Strategic Air Command, have been suggesting the abolition of nuclear
weapons on the grounds that they serve no legitimate military
purpose, George W. Bush is taking advice from a group of unreformed
initiates in the nuclear priesthood who are desperately searching for
ways to relegitimize nuclear weapons.
The unifying vision
behind the Bush doctrine is nuclear unilateralism, the notion that
the United States can and will make its own decisions about the size,
composition and employment of its nuclear arsenal without reference
to arms control agreements or the opinions of other nations. It is a
disastrous doctrine that raises the odds that nuclear weapons will be
used again one day, and as such it demands an immediate and forceful
It's not as if we haven't been down this
road before. In the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan rode into Washington
with guns blazing, pressing for a massive nuclear buildup and a Star
Wars missile defense system, the international peace movement helped
roll back his nightmare nuclear scenarios and push him toward a
policy of nuclear arms reductions, not mutual annihilation. It will
take that same kind of energy and commitment to stave off Bush's
A box of Chopin nocturnes handed down
from the other side of my mother's death--
evening gowns in trash bags making a little
Golgotha of their own right in the corner
of that studio we had spent all morning
emptying out--uncandled cold chaperoned
through the sill. Lullabies all of us had
already heard while drinks kept going round
the parlor after her wake assembled now
into makeshift history--bits of tenderness
discarded down the cosmos slide, each night
a phantom limb, the hours trapezing over
that sea of anonymous faces where sidereal
glances scale up the piano's mirrored lid.
industry has been celebrating the supposed defeat of Napster. The
Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has affirmed the grant of a
preliminary injunction that may well have the effect of closing the
service down completely and ending the commercial existence of
Napster's parent (that is, unless the record companies agree to an
implausible deal Napster has proposed). But despite appearances, what
has happened, far from being a victory, is the beginning of the
industry's end. Even for those who have no particular stake in the
sharing of music on the web, there's value in understanding why the
"victory"over Napster is actually a profound and irreversible
calamity for the record companies. What is now happening to music
will soon be happening to many other forms of "content" in the
information society. The Napster case has much to teach us about the
collapse of publishers generally, and about the liberative
possibilities of the decay of the cultural oligopolies that dominated
the second half of the twentieth century.
The shuttering of
Napster will not achieve the music industry's goals because the
technology of music-sharing no longer requires the centralized
registry of music offered for sharing among the network's listeners
that Napster provided. Freely available software called OpenNap
allows any computer in the world to perform the task of facilitating
sharing; it is already widely used. Napster itself--as it kept
pointing out to increasingly unsympathetic courts--maintained no
inventory of music: It simply allowed listeners to find out what
other listeners were offering to share. Almost all the various
sharing programs in existence can switch from official Napster to
other sharing facilitators with a single click. And when they move,
the music moves with them. Now, in the publicity barrage surrounding
the decision, 60 million Napster users will find out about OpenNap,
which cannot be sued or prohibited because, as free software, no one
controls its distribution and any lawsuits would have to be brought
against all its users worldwide. Suddenly, instead of a problem posed
by one commercial entity that can be closed down or acquired, the
industry will be facing the same technical threat, with no one to sue
but its own customers. No business can survive by suing or harassing
its own market.
The music industry (by which we mean the
five companies that supply about 90 percent of the world's popular
music) is dying not because of Napster but because of an underlying
economic truth. In the world of digital products that can be copied
and moved at no cost, traditional distribution structures, which
depend on the ownership of the content or of the right to distribute,
are fatally inefficient. As John Guare's famous play has drummed into
all our minds, everyone in society is divided from everyone else by
six degrees of separation. The most efficient distribution system in
the world is to let everyone give music to whoever they know would
like it. When music has passed through six hands under the current
distribution system, it hasn't even reached the store. When it has
passed through six hands in a system that doesn't require the
distributor to buy the right to pass it along, it has already reached
several million listeners.
This increase in efficiency
means that composers, songwriters and performers have everything to
gain from making use of the system of unowned or anarchistic
distribution, provided that each listener at the end of the chain
still knows how to pay the artist and feels under some obligation to
do so, or will buy something else--a concert ticket, a T-shirt, a
poster--as a result of having received the music for free. Hundreds
of potential "business models" remain to be explored once the
proprietary distributor has disappeared, no one of which will be
perfect for all artistic producers but all of which will be the
subject of experiment in decades to come, once the dinosaurs are
No doubt there will be some immediate pain that will
be felt by artists rather than the shareholders of music
conglomerates. The greatest of celebrity musicians will do fine under
any system, while those who are currently waiting on tables or
driving a cab to support themselves have nothing to lose. For the
signed recording artists just barely making it, on the other hand,
the changes are of legitimate concern. But musicians as a whole stand
to gain far more than they lose. Their wholesale defection from the
existing distribution system is about to begin, leaving the music
industry--like manuscript illuminators, piano-roll manufacturers and
letterpress printers--a quaint and diminutive relic of a passé
The industry's giants won't disappear overnight,
or perhaps at all. But because their role as owner-distributors makes
no economic sense, they will have to become suppliers of services in
the production and promotion of music. Advertising agencies,
production services consultants, packagers--they will be anything but
owners of the music they market to the world.
What is most
important about this phenomenon is that it applies to everything that
can be distributed as a stream of digital bits by the simple human
mechanism of passing it along. The result will be more music, poetry,
photography and journalism available to a far wider audience. Artists
will see a whole new world of readers, listeners and viewers; though
each audience member will be paying less, the artist won't have to
take the small end of a split determined by the distribution
oligarchs who have cheated and swindled them ever since Edison. For
those who worry about the cultural, economic and political power of
the global media companies, the dreamed-of revolution is at hand. The
industry may right now be making a joyful noise unto the Lord, but it
is we, not they, who are about to enter the promised land.
Back during the
presidential campaign, George W. Bush called Clarence Thomas and
Antonin Scalia his favorite Supreme Court Justices--a remark widely
interpreted at the time as just smoke-blowing in the direction of the
right. Guess what--it's time to start taking Bush at his word,
especially when it comes to Thomas.
Just weeks after the
inauguration, Justice Thomas has emerged as the new Administration's
judicial patron saint. The top three officials of the Bush Justice
Department--Attorney General John Ashcroft, Solicitor
General-designate Theodore Olson and Deputy Attorney
General-designate Larry Thompson--are all close Thomas friends.
Thomas even officiated at Olson's wedding (also Rush Limbaugh's) and
Ashcroft's swearing-in. While Thomas's wife, Virginia, shovels
Heritage Foundation résumés into the 1600 Pennsylvania
Avenue personnel department, his former clerk Helgard Walker sits in
the White House counsel's office.
After the Court's Florida
decision, Thomas told a group of high school students that his
famous, baffling reluctance to ask questions on the bench grows out
of his childhood fear of being mocked for speaking Gullah (a black
language) in an all-white seminary class. Maybe, but the vindicating
presence of so many friends in the White House seems to have given
the Supreme Court's Garbo new confidence: After nearly a decade on
the sidelines, in mid-February Thomas emerged into the Washington
spotlight at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) with a
Castro-length jeremiad on what he views as continuing liberal efforts
to stifle him and other conservative culture warriors.
Thomas was nominated for the Court, some African-American and liberal
voices argued that his biography as a black man gave hope that with
time he would moderate his far-right views on affirmative action,
welfare and civil rights. His rulings make their own testimony, of
course, but if that AEI dinner speech is any indication, what is most
remarkable about Thomas is that he has scarcely changed at all,
either in preoccupations or politics. The themes of his speech--a
hodgepodge of cherry-picked libertarian quotes from the likes of
Hamilton, Montesquieu and Thomas Sowell--were instantly familiar to
anyone who waded through his preconfirmation writings as the Reagan
Administration's dismantler of equal opportunity enforcement. Back
then, he praised sports and business as the great crucibles of
character in a free society. In his AEI speech he told of how "the
great UCLA basketball coach JohnWooden taught his players how to play
the game by first teaching them how to lace up and tie their shoes."
Back in 1991, Thomas dodged uncomfortable questions about his friend
Jay Parker, a flack and registered agent for the apartheid-era South
African government. In his speech he went out of his way to praise
Parker as his mentor.
Most of all, what has remained
consistent about Justice Thomas is his swirling hornet's nest of
resentment--that strange combination of megalomania and self-pity
embodied in his famous denunciation of his confirmation hearings as a
"high-tech lynching." At AEI he favorably compared himself and other
conservative culture warriors to Dimitar Peshev, a heroic Bulgarian
civil servant who during World War II secured the rescue of Sofia's
Jews at considerable personal risk. Thomas remains obsessed with the
idea of conservatives as persecuted victims--which, since those
conservatives now run the White House, Justice and Congress, raises
questions about his hold on reality. But the question currently being
floated in Washington judicial circles is whether Thomas, not the
oft-mentioned Scalia, is Bush's favored successor to Chief Justice
As Bush finds backs to pat and hands to
The Democrats can't seem to buy a break.
opposition doesn't coalesce,
Because the spotlight's on the
A mess that's just like catnip to the
Afraid that he will never go away,
The Democrats by
now just want to say,
Avoid the headlines, can't
Speak softly, please, not louder.
networks, can't you, Bill?
Enough, man! Take a
Ignored as long as he is on the
The Democrats, befuddled, try to gauge
How he, amidst
the sleaze, seems so unfazed
While they are crazed, and find
At all the oxygen the man
As he on his sword himself
Avoid the headlines, can't you,
They say. At any cost!
Eschew the networks, can't you,
Could you please just get lost?
We have many male authors known for loving women, fewer known for loving men. Love that is not overtly homoerotic--resolutely heterosexual, in fact--can take on an intimacy and purity untroubled by sex, even if still troubling for its intensity, its incoherence and frequent confusion, violence or aggression, its exclusionary quality. And so it is no surprise to find it so often in novels of war, or the military. In the last half-century American practitioners of this form have included Heller and Mailer, Ward Just, Tim O'Brien and, perhaps most overlooked, James Salter, who is interested in more than the camaraderie among men in uniform but also its inverse as well, the case of the solitary, perhaps a newcomer breaking in. Here is his description of the fighter pilot Robert Cassada from his new novel of that name:
It was his beauty, of course, a beauty that no one saw--they were blind to such a thing.... By beauty, nothing obvious is meant. It was an aspect of the unquenchable, of the martyr, but this quality had its physical accompaniment. His shoulders were luminous, his body male but not hard, his hair disobedient. Few of them had seen him naked, not that he concealed himself or was modest but like some animal come to drink he was solitary and unboisterous. He was intelligent but not cerebral and could be worshipful, as in the case of airplanes.
"They" and "them" are his colleagues, the men of a fighter squadron stationed in Germany in the 1950s. The men--Dunning, Isbell, Wickenden, Godchaux, Phipps, Dumfries, Ferguson, Harlan, Grace--lead restless, incurious, exalted lives, flying every day in the skies above Western Europe, waiting for the conflict that never comes. So conflict comes from within and among the men, who are arrogant, competitive, bored, cussedly suspicious yet trusting, too. They are not alike. Major Dunning is a Southerner and former college football star; Harlan is a rustic, an overgrown farm boy. Wickenden, or "Wick the prick," Cassada's nemesis, was "born in the wrong century. The cavalry was what he was made for, riding in the dust of the Mexican border with cracked lips and a line edged into his hair from the strap of a campaign hat." Cassada is from Puerto Rico, which leads Harlan to wonder what he's doing in the US Air Force. "Puerto Rico's part of the United States," replies Godchaux.
"I don't know. A long time."
"I must of missed hearing about it."
The banter may not recall Catch-22--while sharp, it is seldom witty--but Salter's particular genius is for the inexpressive man. He saves his tenderest regard for Cassada, about whom there is "an elegance...a superiority. You did not find it often." It is perhaps his gravest mistake, for to a reader with less invested in the project, Cassada is the least present, most flattened out, of all the men, the one who never steps out of the page despite being so beautiful or unforgettable as all that. Cassada, which is a revision of an early, out-of-print novel, The Arm of Flesh, should instead be titled Isbell.
In interviews Salter has dismissed The Arm of Flesh as a "failed book," and he says the same in his preface to Cassada. Admitting that the new venture might be "a mistake," he cites "the appeal of the period, the 1950s, barely a decade after the war; the place, the fighter bases of Europe; and the life itself." Cassada, then--in words that I have seen repeated in every notice--is "the book the other might have been."
I think in fact it is the same book, although better turned out for some crucial changes. The Arm of Flesh is a novel in alternating voices--seventeen altogether--some of which are hard to figure out, others appearing only briefly, even once. Several could be cut entirely, as their narrative distracts from the general thread, which is about the ordeal of two pilots (one whose radio is out) trying to make it home in terrible weather, while interspersed are episodes from lazy days on base and elsewhere. Cassada is told in the third person, but the structure is much the same--if the two books are laid side by side, one sees in Cassada a succession of loose little chapters that more or less correspond to an individual voice's narrative in The Arm of Flesh. Major Clyde is now Dunning. Lieutenant Sisse from the earlier book does not appear at all in the second. In The Arm of Flesh Cassada never speaks with his own voice. In both works his words are reported to us through the perspective of others; and so he is always at least once, often twice, removed from a reader.
"Something was usually beginning before the last thing ended." This is Isbell, and the words seem to me to be the key to the book. Cassada is a new arrival at the wing in Giebelstadt, but the rivalries, the ennui, the excitements of a life in the air, at speed, have been going on as long as men have been assembled to fight. Salter, who was a pilot himself in Korea--with the advantage, unlike many of the pilots in Cassada, of actually having seen combat--has written of this elsewhere, in his first novel, The Hunters, and in his memoir Burning the Days. A pilot, it seems, becomes obsessed with doing something remarkable, with being remembered and spoken about even after he's gone. "In the end there is a kind of illness," Salter writes in his memoir. "A feeling of inconsequence, even lightness, takes hold. It is, in a way, like the earliest days, the sense of being an outsider. Others are taking one's place, nameless others who can never know how it was." Cassada is driven relentlessly to prove himself; his immediate commander, Wickenden, thinks he has a death wish. Isbell, who grows to love Cassada, acknowledges his own part in stirring him up. "It was true [he] had sometimes opposed him. It had been essential to. It was part of the unfolding." Earlier we have learned of Isbell's mysticism, his sense of his role among the men as "biblical." "It was the task of Moses--he would take them to within sight of what was promised, but no further. To the friezes of heaven, which nobody knew were there."
In this kind of outfit, Cassada never stands a chance. It is he who is one of the pilots in trouble as they try to reach home. The other is Isbell. The bond between the two is the strangest in the book, yet critical to its success. I don't think Salter has convinced us that it is true. Isbell is decent, perceives Cassada's isolation; pencils himself in to fly with him once, on an early morning training mission over Germany. It is a matchless day, the kind fliers dream of. They hardly speak.
The earth lay immense and small beneath them, the occasional airfields white as scars. Down across the Rhine. The strings of barges, smaller than stitches. The banks of poplar. Then a city, glistening, struck by the first sun. Stuttgart. The thready streets, the spires, the world laid bare.
Afterward Isbell's body is "empty," his mind "washed clean." Cassada asks about a city they flew over, Ingolstadt. "It's not as great as it was this morning," Isbell replies.
"You could say that about everyplace," he commented.
It was true, Isbell thought, exactly. He felt a desire to reply in kind. It was not often you found anyone who could say things.
It is worth reprinting Salter's original language from The Arm of Flesh. The speaker is Isbell:
"The whole world's like that," he said.
A chance remark that entered my heart. I didn't know what to say. Suddenly he was not what he seemed--as wise as a schoolboy who knows sex--he was entirely different. Yes, I thought. The whole world is. And early we rise to discover the earth. I felt a sudden desire to bequeath him my dreams, to offer them up. All of the searching is only for someone who can understand them.
This seems to me rather better, nearly perfect, in fact. While terseness can suggest all the things that must remain unspoken in life, a writer striking at the essence of character must occasionally open himself up, like a pilot his engines. Earlier in the same passage, in The Arm of Flesh, we have the measure of Isbell that is stripped from its revision in Cassada--excitable, aroused, ready for risk: the risk of loving a fellow flier: "We stealthy two. Streaming like princes. Breathing like steers," he thinks while aloft. Over Stuttgart:
Watch out, Stuttgart. Watch out. We're at God's empty window. We can see everything. The thready streets. The spires. It's all apparent. We can stare through the roofs. Right into the first cups of coffee. Your warm secrets, Stuttgart. Your rumpled beds.
None of this is in Cassada. None of it says much about Cassada, but it says everything about Isbell. The end of the chapter is the same in both books, except for the following sentences from The Arm of Flesh: "He could have told me what he was going to be. I might have believed him." And later on, when the two men's mission has met its tragic end, a lengthy Isbell monologue is sharply cut, in which his obsession with Cassada again comes to the fore: "There is so much I almost told him. I can't understand why I didn't. I was waiting for something, a word that would fall, an unguarded act." Of course, there are no unguarded acts from the embattled Cassada, but more surprising is the sense--retained in Cassada--that the young pilot actually had something to say. Both versions ascribe uniqueness to him, the phrase "the sum of our destinies." Yet Cassada doesn't even pretend to understand Isbell in those moments when their communion is said to be greatest: "You amaze me, Captain.... We're talking about two different things. I don't know. I just don't understand, I guess."
In Burning the Days--the eponymous chapter of which, thirty pages long, is a true anticipation of the story told in The Arm of Flesh and Cassada--Salter invokes briefly a pilot named Cortada: "He was from Puerto Rico, small, excitable, and supremely confident. Not everyone shared his opinion of his ability--his flight commander was certain he would kill himself."
And that's it for Cortada. Another cipher, with too much in common with Cassada to be a coincidence. Salter has kept the story of both men to himself, which is why a reader turns more attentively to the lonely and appealing Captain Isbell, standing between the men and Major Dunning. It is no surprise, of course. Failing to attach ourselves to the protagonist for whom the book is named, we look elsewhere, and find our longing met in the author's substitute.
The end of Cassada is beautiful. It is only four pages. Isbell and his family are leaving Germany; they are on a train along the Rhine, his daughters rambunctious, his wife solicitous, Isbell alone with his thoughts, which include Cassada. For the first time he senses himself as the romantic figure readers have seen all along, joining the ranks of the eternals, "the failed brother, the brilliant alcoholic friend, the rejected lover, the solitary boy who scorned the dance." Isbell is Salter; and one turns to Burning the Days, where the author takes his own solitary farewell to the flying life:
When I returned to domestic life I kept something to myself, a deep attachment--deeper than anything I had known--to all that had happened. I had come very close to achieving the self that is based on the risking of everything, going where others would not go, giving what they would not give. Later I felt I had not done enough, had been too reliant, too unskilled. I had not done what I set out to do and might have done. I felt contempt for myself, not at first but as time passed, and I ceased talking about those days, as if I had never known them. But it had been a great voyage, the voyage, probably, of my life.
"I would have given anything, I remember that," Salter adds, remembering the pilot's terror ("none of it mattered"), including separation from his leader. Isbell mouths nearly those words in remembering a Cassada who "stands before him, fair-haired, his small mouth and teeth, young, unbeholden." In Burning the Days Salter recalls a beloved figure from West Point who fell in the war: "He had fallen and in that act been preserved, made untarnishable. He had not married. He had left no one...he represented the flawless and was the first of that category to disappear."
Reading Salter's memoir, or recollection, as he prefers to call it, one senses that much of his life has been a mourning. The list of the dead is long and unfolds over pages and pages--many are pilots, men Salter flew with--and it becomes easy to see what he hopes is evident from his preface to Cassada: "the fact that it was sometimes the best along with the worst pilots who got killed." All of Salter's novels--including The Hunters, A Sport and a Pastime and Light Years--are beautiful elegies in which a survivor tries to go on, somehow make sense of it all, knowing the task is futile but that perhaps peace can be achieved. Why should his memoir be any different? Cassada will take a few hours to read, in which time there is exquisite suspense, some lovely sentences, a tender portrait of a hero--Isbell, I still believe, not Cassada--and a lot of shoptalk about flying. But the flying talk is better, more exactly described and sustained, more rapturous--"exalted," to use a favorite Salter word--in Burning the Days, and the memoir has the advantage of tracking the two held-apart strands of Salter's emotional life--the chaste love of men, the unsatiable desire for women--more closely than is possible for a book about fighter pilots. The following sentence sounds like Isbell recalling Cassada, but in fact it's Salter standing in the wreckage of all who have died: "You are surviving, more than surviving: their days have been inscribed on yours."
The following is a forum on Ellen Willis's "Freedom From Religion," which appeared in the February 19 issue.
I am a spiritual man. I believe politics must arise from a spiritual source as well as an ideological one. The great movements in our history have been spiritually motivated, at least in part. I also want the religious institutions engaged in the questions of justice and morality every day of the week.
But there are problems with the new politics of religion about which Ellen Willis writes. One is the danger of the private religious sphere replacing the public sector, a new kind of privatization that is not accountable. The second is that these religion-based projects will be charitable in nature and will not express political rage--because they will be tax-exempt, dependent on government. Third, social programs and movements should be independent of any pressure to adhere to a religious doctrine to qualify.
What is needed is Old Testament rage, not a clerical seizure of the public sector.
Tom Hayden is a former California State Senator.
Ellen Willis makes two intertwined arguments. The first is a forthright defense of the separation of religion and the state, inflamed by George W.'s plan to fund "faith-based" service agencies. The second is a sweeping attack on those liberals and leftists who speak kindly of churches and devout churchgoers, ignoring their undemocratic beliefs and arrogant practices.
Anyone who truly cherishes the First Amendment should indeed be wary of Bush's desire to use tax money to proselytize Americans who are short on money and hope. But it's not only secularists who are concerned. Liberal evangelicals like Jim Wallis and faithful conservatives like Kate O'Beirne worry that manna from the Feds will compromise what Wallis calls the "prophetic voice" of religious bodies. Early in the nineteenth century, the very absence of a state-sanctioned church encouraged Americans to create and follow a wildly heterogeneous variety of creeds (and none at all). People who take their faith seriously would be foolhardy to give up the independence that served them so well in the past.
Willis's broader polemic against "religious orthodoxy" reveals how little she understands the spirituality she abhors. In challenging all manner of received authority, the rebellion of the 1960s also transformed the rituals of many churches and synagogues--and started many young people on a personal search for "meaning" that social movements by themselves could not satisfy. Today, the conflict between the devout left and the devout right--over economic issues like a living wage as well as an acceptance of homosexuality and support for abortion rights--is as intense as the one in which Willis does battle. And it's probably a more significant fight, given the minority of Americans who articulate their moral beliefs in strictly secular ways.
Strangely, Willis never seems to wonder why the "alternative moral vision" grounded firmly in the Enlightenment (which we share) captures few contemporary hearts and minds. The secular left has found nothing to replace the socialist dream and struggles to mount a persuasive challenge to the far-too-worldly gospel of free markets. Karl Marx, no friend of organized religion, nevertheless understood that, for ordinary people, religious faith was "the heart of a heartless world." If Willis hopes to build a more humane society, a bit of empathy for the spiritual choices of ordinary Americans might come in handy.
Michael Kazin's latest book (with Maurice Isserman) is America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s. He teaches history at Georgetown University.
Ellen Willis is right but does not go far enough. Even without Bush's faith-based initiatives the Catholic Church not only demanded but received exemption after exemption from providing the most unexceptional forms of reproductive health. No emergency contraception for women who have been raped. No voluntary postpartum sterilization for women who are having what they hope will be their last child. No fertility treatments for women who would like to have a child.
These services are legally denied by Catholic hospitals and they are often eliminated in secular hospitals that merge with Catholic institutions. Catholic Charities of California has sued the state, seeking an exemption from a state law that requires employers--other than religious institutions engaged in narrowly defined religious activities--to provide contraceptive coverage to its employees. At the same time Catholic Charities nationally receives about 75 percent of its income from government sources. Catholic hospitals receive the bulk of their funding from government sources and tax-exempt bonds.
But the simple claim of conscience by a Catholic institution or the assertion of "church teaching" is enough for most legislators to just give the church whatever it wants as well as tax dollars. There was no national interest in protecting women's consciences when the Clintons included in their health reform package a conscience clause for healthcare provider institutions allowing them to deny any service they deemed immoral and still be eligible for government grants and contracts. Catholics are against this. Eighty-two percent believe that if a Catholic hospital receives government funds it should be required to allow its doctors to provide any legal, medically sound service they believe is needed. But for most legislators the power of the 300 US Catholic bishops is much more important.
For the bishops to try to have their cake and eat it too is politics as usual. For ultraconservative Catholic groups to claim that any criticism of the Catholic Church is Catholic-bashing is part of the game. For our leaders, Democratic and Republican, to keep serving them more cake is unconscionable.
Frances Kissling is president of Catholics for a Free Choice.
New York City
The First Amendment was enacted not merely to keep the state off the back of religion. One of its prime functions was to keep religions off one another's back and to stop them from using the state as their agent.
Let us not imagine that this problem has long vanished. Two or three years ago, I was supposed to share a platform with John Cardinal O'Connor on the subject of Jewish/Catholic relations at the Park Avenue Synagogue in New York. The Cardinal was so ill he sent his speechwriter to read his remarks. I responded then, and later in an Op-Ed in the New York Times, by asking a very direct question: What would happen to my religious liberty as a rabbi if the campaign by the Roman Catholic hierarchy and the evangelical Protestants to outlaw abortion completely and under all circumstances passed into American law? As a rabbi, I am commanded--not permitted, but commanded--to advise a pregnant mother whose life is in danger that she must have an abortion. On the question of who comes first, the mother or the unborn child, Judaism, even its most Orthodox versions, insists that the mother's right to life is pre-eminent. The ultimate aim of the "pro-life" believers is to outlaw abortion completely. It is thus an attack on my religion. The First Amendment of the Constitution was enacted to make sure that I would not meet a triumphant collection of cardinals and bishops, and evangelical preachers, celebrating a victory of "natural law," as they interpret it, over the Talmud.
Even more fundamental, the notion that morality is safe only in the hands of the religions does not stand in the face of historical evidence. No society in which a church was dominant has ever emancipated the Jews. In the past two centuries or so, Jews have achieved political equality in the West, but everywhere, without exception, the forces that granted this freedom were fought by the majority religions. The major faiths of the world have learned, or are still learning, to live with one another as equals, but not because they have had new revelations from on high. On the contrary, this kinder and gentler aspect of their natures has been evoked by mercantilism and then by the Enlightenment, that is, by the very secular forces from which we would supposedly be saved by the major religious traditions in the name of their superior morality. In our day Roman Catholics and Orthodox have been slaughtering one another in the Balkans, and joining in the murder of Muslims, in the name of religion, and Muslims in the region have been no kinder. It is not self-evident that we will be cured of our ills if there is more control of public life by the various faiths.
In my ears, a recent statement by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, the contemporary keeper of orthodoxy in the Roman Catholic Church, continues to ring. He pronounced non-Christians to be "defective people." Pope John Paul II, despite some urging, did not disavow this assertion. I would suggest that those who want to cure our ills by asking for a return to "that old-time religion" need to be made to examine very closely what they are calling on our society to affirm.
Arthur Hertzberg, Bronfman Visiting Professor of the Humanities at New York University, is the author, most recently, of Jews: The Essence and Character of a People. He is currently working on a memoir.
Ellen Willis and I share much in common: our disdain for the religious right, our distrust of the Bush Administration's motives behind its new "faith-based" solutions--and our complete and unbending opposition to those religious claims that, when acted out, bring real and substantial harm to those whose views are not the same.
But Willis can't stop there--and yet should have, because taken as a whole her essay is so utterly lacking in historical understanding of religion's roles in America, so devoid of nuance in recognizing the immense varieties of experience, belief and religiously inspired political action, and ultimately so intolerant that she ends up willfully blind to the freedom-, justice- and equality-creating contributions religious ideals, language and actors have made to American life. Bereft of that, she disqualifies herself from being taken seriously. Her ideas, for example, that American religion perforce relies on "absolute truth" while "democracy, by contrast, depends on the Enlightenment values of freedom and equality," and that democracy has thrived here because it has "preserved relatively clear boundaries between public and private," and thereby kept "conflict between secularism and religion...to a minimum," mean she's never read Tocqueville or Perry Miller or Gordon Wood or Sydney Ahlstrom or Kevin Phillips's recent Cousins' Wars on religion's centrality in creating and sustaining our democracy, nor even vaguely begins to understand why and what divides American Christianity over literalist, inerrantist and historical/critical readings of the Bible itself--or why it's important to American politics.
Telling us that unless religion stays a chastely private "matter of personal conscience," it almost always and everywhere breeds intolerance that threatens democracy itself means Willis has never read Eugene Genovese on evangelical Christianity's emancipatory and sustaining role in the lives of African-American slaves. Certain that any religiously based assertion of a public voice serves power and bigotry means she's never read Herbert Gutman on faith's role in the lives of early industrial workers and how it helped them fight for unions and fair treatment before the law. Busy doing other things, apparently she's never picked up Lincoln's Second Inaugural or ever glanced through the private journals of Union soldiers who in their faith found the courage and reason to destroy slavery. Convinced that religion enforces only sexual and gender orthodoxies, she can't imagine why religiously organized colleges were the first to admit women or provide them advanced professional training.
In seeking to assure us that the best of all possible democratic worlds is one in which we enjoy "freedom from religion," she leaves us with no coherent explanation of what inspired the abolitionist movement, or early suffragists, or the temperance movement, or how the Progressive Era emerged. She gives us no way to understand why US Catholic bishops endorsed extensive worker ownership of the means of production in 1919 or why Father John Ryan was known as "Father New Deal," or how as Hitler rose to power in the 1930s, Jewish and mainline Protestant leaders worked together successfully to transform the then-common references to America as a "Christian nation" into a "Judeo-Christian" one, or how theologians like Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr led the early homefront mobilizations against Hitler well before Kristallnacht, let alone World War II.
Closer to the present day, Willis leaves us no way to affirm how the Kings and Abernathys and Lewises as well as the Berrigans and Coffins and Coxes and Hines--and the millions of white and black Americans--who found in their religious faith the reasons to battle racism and segregation or the horrors of the Vietnam War. Nor does she help us understand what, in the 1980s, sent Catholic nuns and Quakers and thousands of other religious Americans to Nicaragua and El Salvador and Guatemala, or inspired the Catholic bishops' pastoral letters on nuclear arms or on economic justice. Nor can she tell us why it is religious groups today that are in the forefront of the anti-death penalty movement, or living-wage campaigns, or massive debt relief for impoverished Third World nation campaigns, or why they were the principal supporters of reuniting Elián González with his father.
Nuanced when it comes to explaining the aesthetic behind Andres Serrano's Piss Christ, Ellen offers only unnuanced contempt to those she derides as "the earnest centrists and liberals who are doing [the] dirty work" of Bush and the Christian right by thinking religion has an important role to play in America's public and political life. Wrong in her history, wrong in her analysis, she is wrong in her judgments.
But how could she not be wrong? Living in a country where more than 90 percent of its citizens have always told pollsters they believe in the existence of God, Willis cannot see which traditions therein speak for justice, and those against, which seek freedom, and which do not, which love democracy and which do not--let alone how to build a progressive politics that can build on the shared values of the secular and religious alike. Blind, Willis cannot see; deaf, she cannot hear.
Led by this kind of thinking, progressivism should stop pretending even to be political--and settle permanently into the sort of dinner-table rant Willis's essay represents.
Richard Parker teaches on religion, politics and public policy at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.
Ellen Willis refers to a Joe Lieberman speech in which he mentions an incident after a talk I gave at Harvard on religion and public life. I don't know where Lieberman heard the story, but he got it wrong. Let me give the true account as a way of responding to Willis's piece. At an informal gathering of left intellectuals in the Harvard/Boston community discussing faith and politics, I was asked, "But Jim, what about the Inquisition?" I was a little surprised by the question, after laying out the history of progressive religion's contribution to myriad movements for social reform. I replied, "Well, I was against it at the time--and I am still opposed to it. Now unless you want me to raise Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge every time you bring up national health insurance, why don't we move on to a better conversation." The questioner smiled, got the point, and we did move into quite an intelligent discussion between religious and nonreligious progressives about common concerns. It's too bad that Willis missed the opportunity to do that.
In my own religious upbringing, I heard many people equating anybody on the liberal left with the most oppressive and totalitarian of regimes. But when I became involved in civil rights, antiwar and other social-justice movements, I discovered many people on the left quite committed to democracy, pluralism and human rights. It was quite comforting. Apparently, Ellen Willis hasn't yet figured out that there are religious people committed to the same things. She thinks we are all committed, instead, to special privileges for religion in the political arena. I guess she doesn't get out much, or hasn't bothered to read her history, or just can't bear realities that don't fit her pre-conceived ideological agendas.
It is tedious the way that "secular fundamentalists" like Willis continue to caricature and belittle religion and people of faith. Ellen, we are indeed motivated by our faith to seek justice and peace. But in the public arena, we don't make arguments based on others' accepting the "absolute truth" of our faith. We make cases appropriate to a pluralistic society. King's vision of the "beloved community" came directly from his biblical faith, but he argued for civil rights and voting rights on the basis of what was good and right for a democracy. Many of us make similar claims in similar ways all the time, even if it is faith that compels us to do so.
It's also very old and, frankly, politically stupid, to keep repeating the abuses of religion as if religious people didn't know or even agree. Yes, their owners gave the Bible to black slaves to turn their eyes toward heaven and away from their earthly plight. But in that same book, the slaves found Moses and Jesus, who helped inspire their liberation struggle. Some of us have been among the chief critics of oppressive religion for years but, at the same time, have lifted up its progressive practice and potential. Do we really need to keep reciting that progressive religious history? I think the Ellen Willises must know it and just choose not to pay any attention. Nothing will keep the secular left more irrelevant in America. Martin Luther King Jr. neither hid nor imposed his religion but rather used it as a social resource to transform America. That's exactly what many of us are doing today. And you know what, we don't need The Nation's permission to do so.
Jim Wallis is editor of Sojourners magazine, author of Faith Works and convener of Call to Renewal, a federation of faith-based organizations working to overcome poverty.
New York City
I applaud Ellen Willis's smartly reasoned critique and agree heartily about the dangers such politics present to democratic and feminist values. Two points that Willis neglects, however, show a more complicated view of the bipartisan, pro-religion landscape we face in the Bush II era.
My first point has to do with the link between the culture wars and macroeconomics. It is surely true that religious groups and politicians across the spectrum (from Jim Wallis and Floyd Flake to the Christian Coalition and the Vatican) are rushing to legitimize public support for "faith-based programs" in order to reclaim moral authority and "a privileged role in shaping social values." But the struggle over sexuality, gender definitions, parental control and popular culture is also tied to the struggle over public resources. At the macroeconomic level, the newassertiveness of religious institutions as stakeholders in the polity takes place in the larger context of globalization and the rapid privatization of social services formerly provided by the state.
Privatization wears many faces, including those of the so-called nonprofit as well as the corporate profit-making sector. In the United States, for example, Catholic/non-Catholic hospital mergers have proceeded at a nearly geometric pace since the mid-1990s, according to a series of studies by Catholics for a Free Choice. The result is that in numerous counties across the country, Catholic hospitals that systematically deny essential reproductive health services are the only provider hospitals in town. Likewise, with the attack on public schools and universities and erosion of their resources, parochial schools come to be seen--and advertise themselves in full-page New York Times ads--as a better-quality "choice" for poor black and Latino as well as middle-class children. All this is about not only control over social and sexual values but also the grab for tax dollars and the marketization of religious institutions. The strategic implications are clear: Progressives fighting for "freedom from religion" need to ally with groups opposing privatization in education and health.
My second point has to do with the potential constituency for such an opposition movement and carries a more optimistic note. I was the daughter of an observant Reform Jewish family who grew up in the heart of the conservative Christian, anticommunist Bible Belt in the 1950s. When I try to trace the roots of my liberal and left radicalism in later years, I find their earliest core in the alienation and anger I felt in public schools where Christian symbols and "Athletes for Christ" were compulsory fare and religion not only defined who you were but was itself defined in evangelical Christian terms. The resurgence of religiosity in politics today may pretend to be stylishly multicultural, but if the sanctimonious Joe Lieberman is any indicator, we can be sure that "correct" religion--and correct "faith-based programs" for the public coffers--will represent the Judeo-Christian mainstream. Even Willis neglects to mention Muslims, Hindus, Parsis, Buddhists and so on in her comments about devaluing the citizenship of "others." And her persistence in using "church" as a generic substitute for religion only underscores the ubiquity of certain exclusionary assumptions in the dominant political discourse.
My optimism comes from my childhood experience in a similarly conservative era. I predict that the movement to institutionalize and fund "faith-based programs" by the state will create its dialectical opposite. Not only secularists and Jews but a whole generation of immigrant young people--Indians, Vietnamese, Egyptians, Pakistanis--will become radicalized toward secular antiracist feminisms and the left. The sexual dimensions of religious politics (e.g., funding for "abstinence-only" sex education), whose importance Willis rightly emphasizes, will only intensify their fervor.
ROSALIND POLLACK PETECHESKY
Rosalind Pollack Petchesky, professor of political science and women's studies at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, CUNY, is the author of Abortion and Woman's Choice and the forthcoming Women and Global Power.
As an ordained Baptist minister and former pastor, I largely agree with Willis's principled and spirited defense of democratic secularism. But I've got a few bones to pick, only a couple of which I'll address here. While both left and right critics in their arguments about religion and politics often use the example of the black church, few ever get it just right, including Willis. She charges Stephen Carter with rewriting history by equating "the civil rights movement with Martin Luther King Jr. and the black church." To be sure, a lot of folk outside the black church were involved in that movement, but the central, even defining, influence of black religion on the civil rights struggle can't be missed. Counterposing "secular activists" like Rosa Parks--a devout Methodist--and John Lewis--an ordained minister--to black church activists is a serious misreading of just how much the gospel of freedom influenced many religious blacks who were leaders and foot soldiers in the NAACP, CORE and SNCC.
Unlike the Christian right, black Christian activists have mainly resisted the impulse to make ours a Christian nation. Martin Luther King Jr. and other black Christians were inspired by their religious beliefs to fight for equality and freedom for all citizens, even those who did not share their religion. That's why King opposed school prayer. He didn't want the state telling anyone that they had to pray, or whom to pray to, even if it turned out to be the God he worshiped. King understood the genius of secularism: It allows all religions to coexist without any one religion--or religion at all--being favored. Plus, King had a healthy skepticism about the white church, which lent theological credence to slavery and Jim Crow. He sided with the state against the church when the former intervened to keep white Christians from bombing black churches.
But Willis could also learn the skepticism that King and many black Christians had for the Enlightenment. Reason proved no better than religion in regulating the moral behavior of bigots. And proclaiming a devotion to freedom and equality meant nothing if black folk weren't even viewed as human beings worthy of enjoying these goods, either by religious whites or enlightened secularists. For many black folk, it wasn't whether white folk were religious or secular that mattered; it was whether they were just or not. To paraphrase Jesus, Willis and the rest of us should not only see the bad trees in religion's eye, but spot the forest that plagues the secularist's vision as well.
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON
Michael Eric Dyson, the Ida B. Wells-Barnett University Professor at DePaul University, is the author of I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr. (Touchstone).
New York City
Richard Parker, Michael Kazin and Jim Wallis all ignore what I actually said and impute to me views I don't hold--some of which my article explicitly disclaims. I did not write a broadside attack on religion or religious people but an argument against the current broadside attack on secularism and secularists, particularly the claim that secular society is antidemocratic and violates believers' rights. While quarreling with the notion that religion is the sole or primary inspiration of social movements--which writes secular activists out of history--I acknowledge the political contributions of the religious left, the common interests of religious and secular leftists, and the fact that many religious progressives oppose the antisecularist politics I criticize. Far from expressing abhorrence of spirituality, as Kazin charges, I note that in our postpsychedelic age many people who favor a secular society and are not religious in the conventional sense have their own conceptions of the quest for transcendence. (I include myself in that category.)
I do not, as Parker suggests, claim that religion has had no influence on American democracy--or American democracy on religion. Nor do I argue that religious and democratic sentiments are mutually exclusive. My contention that there is "an inherent tension" between the two is a response to the argument made by Stephen Carter and others that a democratic government should make special accommodations to religious belief because of its absolute nature. To recognize a tension, however, is not to deny the existence of efforts to transcend or reconcile it. In an odd misapprehension, Parker has me saying democracy has thrived by preserving clear boundaries between public and private, thereby minimizing conflict between secularism and religion. My point is essentially the opposite: that minimizing religious-secular conflict depen ded on confining the practice of democracy to a narrowly construed public, political sphere, and that the spread of democratic principles to "private" life--especially sex, gender and childrearing--has greatly intensified the conflict. Parker ought to do a better job of reading before presuming to lecture me on the supposed gaps in my bibliography.
I don't dispute Michael Eric Dyson on the centrality of the church to the civil rights movement, but would argue that secular ideas and organizations were also important. In fact, one laudable function of the Southern black church during the civil rights era, as with the Catholic Church in Poland in the 1980s, was to give shelter and space to a diverse assortment of dissidents, religious or not. I agree that secularists have no monopoly on morality or clear vision. As part of another group not considered fully human, I've experienced the gap between the profession of Enlightenment principles and their practice. But it's only because the principles exist that I can demand that they apply to me.
Pace Tom Hayden, I believe the only truly radicalizing force is people's desire to change their own lives for the better. In my experience, moral outrage all too quickly becomes self-righteous authoritarianism.
Thanks to Frances Kissling, Rosalind Petchesky and Arthur Hertzberg for their valuable additions and to Wallis for supplying the context of Joe Lieberman's use of his remarks.
As George W. Bush so fuzzily put it, "The California crunch really is the result of not enough power-generating plants and then not enough power to power the power of generating plants." Whatever that means, his main responses to California's deregulation crisis have been to tout drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) and to bar federal intervention that would curb the profiteering by big generating companies.
Since a tiny percent of the nation's electricity is produced by burning oil, drilling in the refuge is irrelevant to the problem. But, of course, it's quite relevant to the big oil and gas companies' expectations of a payoff from this Administration, in which they had invested millions in campaign contributions. They're salivating for exploration on hitherto off-limits federal lands with ANWR as the opening wedge. Bush plays along by fanning fears of power crises nationwide to overcome the pro-environment sentiment among voters. (Recent polls show that two-thirds of Americans favor a ban on drilling in the wildlife refuge.)
As for withholding federal intervention, that's simply the old-time deregulation religion preached by conservative pundits who blame the failure to deregulate fully for the California crunch. Actually, California's deregulation bill was drafted by the power companies, which made hefty contributions to grease its way through the legislature. Seeking to recapture from consumers the costs of their bad investments in nuclear plants, the utilities devised the very freeze on consumer rates on which they now blame the current crisis, and which they are trying to overturn in the courts. They also agreed to divest themselves of much of their generating capacity, leaving them vulnerable to the market manipulations of independent power producers--including their own parent companies, which are reaping huge profits from this contrived crisis. Those same parent companies are using their "near bankrupt" utilities to launder more than $20 billion in the stranded-cost bailouts that prompted the crisis in the first place.
Clearly, more bailouts for utilities and unleashing Big Oil to ravage the wilds are not the solutions to California's--or the nation's--power problems, especially when there is a native California solution at hand: municipal ownership and conservation. The model is the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, which, after closing down its one nuclear reactor in 1989, held prices steady, invested heavily in wind and solar power and promoted energy efficiency through programs like subsidized buyouts of old, energy-guzzling home refrigerators.
Unfortunately, Governor Gray Davis and the California legislature have chosen to ignore the lesson of Sacramento and to "solve" the crisis by throwing more billions in public money at the utilities. Davis should be using public money and eminent domain to buy the assets of these rogue utilities out of bankruptcy and turn them over to direct public control. A statewide network of public-owned, democratically run municipal utilities would work just fine.
Municipal ownership like Sacramento's is now being urgently considered by San Francisco and other beleaguered California cities. Rather than catering to his energy "adviser" Ken Lay of Enron (who injected $500,000 into Bush campaign coffers, making him the largest single contributor in the last election cycle) and the rest of the oil and gas companies, Bush should recognize that the wind and sun provide more than enough "power to power the power of generating plants" and that power is rightfully owned and most efficiently operated by the public itself.
Are the Clintons better off than they were eight years ago? The evidence appears to point to a resounding yes. So why do they seem to resent the question? Probably because only a full-dress Congressional investigation could establish quite how this came to be and exactly how much better off they are.
NAME THE PRESIDENT UPDATE
Our contest to pick a title for George W. Bush, the present occupant of the White House, has evidently touched a nerve. Hundreds of cards, letters and e-mails have poured in from those who can't bear to utter the words "President Bush." For the winner or winners: the glittering prize of a Bush-as-Alfred-E.-Neumann T-shirt. Judging from your letters, the contest has been therapeutic, a chance to vent the steam that's been building ever since the Supreme Court handed down the presidency. Final date for entries is February 19--Presidents' Day!
When the Washington Post (or any other big newspaper or magazine that's part of a media conglomerate) speaks on communications policy, readers should listen with skepticism. For example, in its February 12 issue, the Post weighed in on "The New Communications Boss." That would be Michael Powell, head of the FCC and also, to keep it in the family, son of Secretary of State Colin Powell. The Post gave an approving nod to the younger Powell's remarks at a press conference outlining his views on his new responsibilities. The editors applauded what he said about instant messaging--that AOL deserves to keep its present monopoly on this technology, rather than share it with competitors. It also approved of Powell's go-slow policy on regulating interactive television, which AOL-Time Warner threatens to dominate. The Post discreetly averted its eyes to Powell's lack of diplomacy in saying that the concerns about poor people's lack of access to computers (the so-called digital divide) were misplaced--like wanting to buy everyone a Mercedes-Benz. Never once in the editorial did the Post disclose its own broadband of interests in new technologies. Its parent company owns TV stations and cable properties. It owns Kaplan Inc., an online tutoring service, which now has AOL as a partner. It also owns Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive, an online information service. When it comes to media matters the Post should either disclose its interests or shut up--sorry, recuse itself.
BUSH'S TAX CUT/DEFENSE STRATEGY
George W. Bush's recent staged tour of several military bases was heralded by a pledge to shift $5.7 billion in the current defense budget to higher pay, better housing and more healthcare for the troops. Conservatives had been expecting something splashier in the way of defense spending. Instead, Bush called for a review of the overall mission of US military forces. This meshes nicely with the primacy on his agenda of his $1.6 trillion tax cut. Campaign promises about big bucks for high-tech weapons are put on hold. Peace activists, however, weren't putting the nuclear threat on hold. On February 5-6, movie stars Martin Sheen, Michael Douglas and Paul Newman led a phone blitz of the White House, part of the Back from the Brink Campaign (www.backfromthebrink.policy.net)--a nationwide call for taking US and Russian nukes off hairtrigger alert. And on Valentine's Day several Congress members joined a Washington rally protesting Star Wars outside the Ronald Reagan Building, where former TRW board member Dick Cheney held a love fest with defense contractors.
For the second year in a row, The Nation has been nominated for a GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) Media Award for "Outstanding Magazine Overall Coverage." Nation contributor Robert Scheer was also nominated in the "Outstanding Newspaper Columnist" slot for his writings in the Los Angeles Times.
NEWS OF THE WEAK IN REVIEW
Morgan Stanley invested more than $100,000 to hire Bill Clinton for a speech to a convention in Florida. After all, he presided over the longest stock market uptick in history, and the brokerage snagged him for his first postpresidential speech. Then came the Rich pardon, etc. Morgan Stanley was hit by complaints from its customers. Chairman Philip Purcell dispatched a sanctimonious e-mail to clients saying the invitation had "clearly been a mistake" given Clinton's "personal behavior as President."
GREEN GIANT KILLER Back in the early days of the Clinton Administration, then-North Dakota Agriculture Secretary Sarah Vogel was touted as a potential US Secretary of Agriculture. But her challenges to corporate agribusiness and her outspoken opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement scuttled that idea. Too bad; as her subsequent career as a lawyer in her home state shows, she would have been a hell of a fighter for family farmers. With associate Courtney Koebele, Vogel recently won a $41 million settlement for 8,000 wheat farmers who faced financial ruin when the USDA and finance corporations shifted crop insurance formulas to pay farmers far less than had been promised. Her clients were activist farmers like Paul and Tom Wiley, who drove through North Dakota blizzards to deliver court documents before key deadlines. Vogel and her legal team are also taking on factory farms that spoil the environment, agribusiness corporations accused of selling farmers bad seeds and insurance companies that fail to cover crop damage. She's even going after the Bureau of Indian Affairs on behalf of members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe who say BIA policies threaten Native American farmers. In farm country, Vogel has earned a reputation as "a giant killer in ag law." The fiery lawyer--who is using some of her fees to reopen Bismarck's natural-food restaurant, the Green Earth Cafe--says, "Corporate agriculture would have farmers be serfs." A third-generation rural activist, she says she'll keep using the courts until Washington enacts "farm policy from a farmer perspective"--including restrictions on agribusiness monopolies, fair-trade provisions and limits on genetic modification of food.
IN THE FDA WE DISTRUST Academics and agribusiness leaders who gathered on the University of Minnesota campus in early February dutifully sang the praises of Food and Drug Administration policies on genetically engineered foods. There was even a chorus of endorsements of FDA plans to implement voluntary guidelines for labeling altered foods. "The public trusts the FDA on this issue," intoned panelist Thomas Hoban. Outside in the Minneapolis cold, however, the public wasn't following the script. Police were called to disperse a crowd of several dozen activists from Genetically Engineered Food Alert, who raised a ruckus about what protester Matt Rand labeled the FDA's "very weak industry-backed policy." Food safety activists across the country are stepping up the campaign to get the United States to regulate the marketing of foods that are genetically engineered or that include GE ingredients--which now make up two-thirds of products on supermarket shelves. The Center for Food Safety and the Campaign to Label Genetically Engineered Foods are among those urging consumers to write to the FDA during a comment period that ends April 3, opposing the voluntary labeling plan and calling for tighter regulation. On Capitol Hill, Dennis Kucinich, the Ohio Democrat who heads the Congressional Progressive Caucus, is stepping up a drive for Congressional action on his Genetically Engineered Food Right to Know Act. He's working with the Organic Consumers Association and other groups to get constituents to push House members to endorse the bill--which had fifty-six co-sponsors in the last Congress. "If you ask the average American whether they want a label telling them the food they're buying has been genetically modified, they will answer, 'Absolutely,'" says Kucinich, who has developed a GE Food Action Center on his website, www.house.gov/kucinich. "By putting some organization behind that sentiment, we can make this into so big an issue that the industry lobbyists will have to get out of the way."
POLITICAL HEAT FROM THE KITCHEN "Eating is a political act," says Alice Waters, whose pioneering Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse has inspired dozens of organic eateries to reject the processed foods of agribusiness and buy produce from small farmers in neighboring communities. Top cooks from many of these restaurants have formed the Chefs Collaborative (chefnet.com), a network that promotes "sustainable cuisine" by supporting local farmers and educating children about healthy eating. Recently, they've stepped up efforts to educate chefs and consumers about threats to endangered species and ecosystems posed by corporate agribusiness. Chez Panisse, Philadelphia's White Dog Cafe and Chicago's Frontera Grill have launched high-profile initiatives to eliminate GE foods from their menus. "It is critical for us, as chefs, to lead in this public debate and to field questions in our dining rooms and in our kitchens," says Frontera's Rick Bayless. "We're still cooking, but we're also entering the public debate as people who work with food and who want Americans to start asking the questions we do about how food is produced," adds Ann Cooper, author of Bitter Harvest: A Chef's Perspective on the Hidden Dangers in the Foods We Eat and What You Can Do About It (Routledge)... Now that even TV networks are reporting on mad cow disease, activist-authors Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber are feeling a certain amount of satisfaction. "For years, when consumers should have been told about the risks they were taking when they bought beef, there was a blackout on the issue," says Stauber, who with Rampton wrote Mad Cow USA: Could the Nightmare Happen Here? (now available free at www.prwatch.com). Stauber and Rampton are back with a new book, Trust Us, We're Experts! How Industry Manipulates Science and Gambles With Your Future (Putnam).
"Of reconsiderations of Western socialism, there is no end," Norman Birnbaum writes cheekily at the opening of his new book--and immediately sets out to show us (successfully) why his is different. "The prominence of ideas on the supreme efficiency of the market, the large changes implied by the notion of globalization, are historically rather recent. They are, however, the contemporary forms of recurrent dilemmas," he declares.
With that thought in mind, Birnbaum, a Nation editorial board member and University Professor at Georgetown University Law School, spins out what is part comprehensive survey and part prescriptive meditation on the future of reformist impulses. Socialism "in all its forms was itself a religion of redemption," he observes, and yet, a paradox presents itself: that socialism "presupposed the kind of human nature it was intended to make possible." And it is the chasm between utopian hopes and reality that most interests Birnbaum. This is no apologia but a broad analysis of the history of progressive social change as it was carried out in Europe and America over the past century.
Some of the ground Birnbaum covers will be familiar--the appeal of socialism to writers from Auden to Dos Passos, Malraux to Mann, in a discussion of cultural modernism, for example, or his recounting Antonio Gramsci's efforts to invent an Italian Marxism that began with the cultural sphere in efforts to lead the political. Birnbaum moves broadly over the Russian Revolution and beyond, the 1930s and wartime in both Europe and the United States, the evolution (and devolution) of the welfare state, contending versions of socialism ("there is something distinctive about socialist movements in Catholic countries," he maintains, as they "become counterchurches, organized around militant secularism") and brings us up to the present moment--even to the effects of the Internet.
"Our societies are ready for a renewed public discussion of what economic and social rights are bound up with citizenship," Birnbaum concludes. Even anecdotally, he illustrates his point: The German constitutional court recently ruled that there was a "burden upon the government to ensure an equality of living standards," he notes, while in the United States the Senate bounced a prospective federal judge who had "argued that the government had a duty to prevent disease and starvation."
Imagine Madison Square Garden brimming over with 18,000 laughing and ebullient women of every size, shape, age and color, along with their male friends, ditto. Imagine that in that immense space, usually packed with hooting sports fans, these women are watching Oprah, Queen Latifah, Claire Danes, Swoosie Kurtz, Kathleen Chalfant, Julie Kavner (voice of Marge Simpson), Rosie Perez, Donna Hanover (soon-to-be-ex-wife of New York's bigamous mayor) and sixty-odd other A-list divas put on a gala production of The Vagina Monologues, Eve Ensler's theater piece about women and their mimis, totos, split knishes, Gladys Siegelmans, pussycats, poonanis and twats. Imagine that this extravaganza is part of a huge $2 million fundraising effort for V-Day, the antiviolence project that grew out of the show and that gives money to groups fighting violence against women around the world. That was what happened on February 10, with more donations and more performances to come as the play is produced by students at some 250 colleges around the country, from Adelphi on Long Island--where it was completely sold out and where, sources assure me, the v-word retains every bit of its shock value--to Yale.
And they keep saying feminism is dead.
The Vagina Monologues, in fact, was singled out in Time's 1998 cover story "Is Feminism Dead?" as proof that the movement had degenerated into self-indulgent sex chat. (This was a new departure for the press, which usually dismisses the movement as humorless, frumpish and puritanical.) In her Village Voice report on the gala, Sharon Lerner, a terrific feminist journalist, is unhappy that the actresses featured at the Garden event prefer the v-word to the f-word. ("Violence against women is a feminist issue?" participant Isabella Rossellini asks her. "I don't think it is." This from the creator of a new perfume called "Manifesto"!) Women's rights aren't what one associates with postfeminist icons like Glenn Close, whose most indelible screen role was as the bunny-boiling man-stalker in Fatal Attraction, or Calista Flockhart, television's dithery microskirted lawyerette Ally McBeal. Still, aren't we glad that Jane Fonda, who performed the childbirth monologue, has given up exercise mania and husband-worship and is donating $1 million to V-Day? Better late than never, I say.
At the risk of sounding rather giddy myself--I'm writing this on Valentine's Day--I'd argue that the implied contradiction between serious business (daycare, abortion, equal pay) and sex is way overdrawn. Sexual self-expression--that's self-indulgent sex chat to all you old Bolsheviks out there--was a crucial theme of the modern women's movement from the start. Naturally so: How can you see yourself as an active subject, the heroine of your own life, if you think you're an inferior being housed in a shameful, smelly body that might give pleasure to others, but not to you? The personal is political, remember that?
The Vagina Monologues may not be great literature--on the page it's a bit thin, and the different voices tend to run together into EveEnslerspeak about seashells and flowers and other lovely bits of nature. But as a performance piece it's fantastic: a cabaret floor show by turns hilarious, brassy, lyrical, poignant, charming, romantic, tragic, vulgar, sentimental, raunchy and exhilarating. In "The Flood," an old woman says she thinks of her "down there" as a cellar full of dead animals, and tells of the story of her one passionate kiss and her dream of Burt Reynolds swimming in her embarrassing "flood" of sexual wetness. A prim, wryly clever woman in "The Vagina Workshop" learns how to give herself orgasms at one of Betty Dodson's famous masturbation classes. At the Garden, Ensler led the cast in a chorus of orgasmic moans, and Close got the braver members of the audience to chant "Cunt! Cunt! Cunt!" at the climax of a poetic monologue meant to redeem and reclaim the dirtiest of all dirty words.
How anyone could find The Vagina Monologues antimale or pornographic is beyond me--it's a veritable ode to warm, quirky, affectionate, friendly, passionate sex. The only enemies are misogyny, sexual shame and sexual violence, and violence is construed fairly literally: A poor black child is raped by her father's drunken friend; a Bosnian girl is sexually tortured by Serbian paramilitaries. None of your ambiguous was-it-rape? scenarios here. Oprah performed a new monologue, "Under the Burqa," about the horrors of life for Afghan women under Taliban rule, followed by Zoya--a young representative of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA)--who gave a heartbreaking, defiant speech. Three African women spoke against female genital mutilation and described ongoing efforts to replace cutting with new coming-of-age rituals, "circumcision by words."
I hadn't particularly wanted to see The Vagina Monologues. I assumed that it would be earnest and didactic--or maybe silly, or exploitative, or crude, a sort of Oh! Calcutta! for women. But I was elated by it. Besides being a wonderful night at the theater, it reminded me that after all the feminist debates (and splits), and all the books and the Theory and the theories, in the real world there are still such people as women, who share a common biology and much else besides. And the power of feminism, whether or not it goes by that name, still resides in its capacity to transform women's consciousness at the deepest possible level: That's why Betty Friedan called her collection of letters from women not It Got Me a Raise (or a daycare center, or an abortion) but It Changed My Life. Sisterhood-is-powerful feminism may feel out of date to the professoriat, but there's a lot of new music still to be played on those old bones.
Besides, if feminists don't talk about sex in a fun, accessible, inspiring, nonpuritanical way, who will?
* * *
Subject to Debate: Sense and Dissents on Women, Politics and Culture, a collection of columns originally published in this space, is just out from Modern Library as a paperback original. It has a very pretty cover and a never-before-published introductory essay, and contains most of the columns I still agree with, and one or two about which I have my doubts.