George W. Bush's State of the Union address has laid bare his Administration's political strategy. It is to manipulate the grief, anger and patriotism inspired by September 11 to fit the contours of the right-wing Republican agenda of September 10. What that Day of Infamy means to George W. Bush & Co. is more tax cuts for the wealthy, more money for wasteful weapons schemes and the back of their proverbial hand to those who suffer the misfortune of not being rich in Bush's America.
Viewed under any other rubric, Bush's speech--received so rapturously by a well-stroked punditocracy--is entirely incoherent. Does war demand sacrifice? Let's give more tax breaks to the rich. Did stateless terrorists attack us wielding only box cutters? Let's build a nonfunctional $250 billion missile defense system. Does the bond market demand fiscal responsibility for sustained growth? Suppose we spend down the surplus, raid the Social Security trust fund and create deficits of a size unseen since the bad old days of Reagan/Bush. Do we need allies now more than ever in the fight against terrorism? Why not alienate all of them with a unilateral declaration of a global war against an imaginary "Axis of Evil"--nonsensically invoking Hitler and Tojo for good measure? Never mind that Iraq, according to the CIA, has not attempted a terrorist act against us in nearly a decade, or that Iran and Iraq hate each other, or that Iran has democratic elections (and the winner even gets to be president) and that North Korea has nothing to do with any of this. Just to be safe, perhaps we'd better give a pass to friendly terrorists like the Russians, currently engaged in the wholesale rape and pillage of Chechnya, and China, doing a quieter but more effective job in Tibet.
Bush's hyperbolic oration, inspired no doubt by the vanity and indiscipline of his speechwriters, recalls another President's politically inspired scare tactics. In late 1947 Clark Clifford and James Rowe instructed Harry Truman, "The worse matters get, up to a fairly certain point--real danger of imminent war--the more is there a sense of crisis. In times of crisis the American citizen tends to back up his President." The result was the famed war scare of 1948, in which that accidental President started trumpeting "the critical nature of the situation in Europe," the necessity for "speedy action," the "great urgency" of the problem of the Soviet threat. He did this even though, as State Department counselor Charles Bohlen explained in a confidential January 1948 memo, the government considered its position "vis-à-vis the Soviet better now than at any time since the end of the war."
As in 1948, we face a military threat that requires a vigorous, but proportional, response. And the government has no more critical responsibility than the defense of the "homeland." But once again the disjunction between those ends and the eternally expansive means proposed by Bush is so vast as to render transparent the political motivations behind it. Karl Rove nearly admitted as much when he recently advised a group of Republican activists to use the war in Afghanistan to win elections here at home. The Evil Empire has expired, but the Evil Axis is open for praxis.
As Slate reported, the response overseas to Bush's speech was almost uniformly disapproving, with editorialists condemning the "Hate of the Union" (The Guardian); the "distinctly disturbing" message (The Independent); a tone "more martial than ever" (Libération); containing "no hint here that he understands that he is talking of sovereign nations" (the Sydney Morning Herald).
Alas, foreigners don't vote. In fact, Americans don't vote until long after favor-seeking corporations like Enron have decided which candidates to fund in exchange for favors and after pundits have chewed up and spit out the issues and candidates sufficiently to determine who is a serious, responsible candidate and what might be prudently said about the issues on the campaign trail. For the latter reason, it is rather alarming to notice that conservative extremism has become so commonplace that even on allegedly nonpartisan broadcasts, it is treated as conventional wisdom.
Take the minor but emblematic example of CNBC's coverage of the Bush speech. The network's deal with the Wall Street Journal allows genuine reporters to provide viewers with a respite from the constant stream of analysts and CEOs showing up to hawk their portfolios and jack up stock prices. But as everyone but the network's executives seems to know, the Journal is really two newspapers: one with a crack news staff and one with a crackpot editorial staff.
During the Clinton Administration, no nutty rumor or oddball allegation about the President was deemed too goofy to publish by those editors. I have on my shelf six fat volumes containing some 3,000 pages of the Journal's editorial page fulminations regarding an Arkansas land deal called "Whitewater" in which both Clintons were found to be innocent of any criminal conduct by Republican-appointed special prosecutors. And yet following Bush's speech, the editors were invited by CNBC to comment on Bush and the Democratic respondent, Richard Gephardt, with no balance at all. To go as far left as the Journal editors are to the right, CNBC would have to convene a roundtable featuring Noam Chomsky, Alexander Cockburn, Vanessa Redgrave and Fidel Castro.
Were any CNBC viewers surprised to hear that Paul Gigot thought Bush gave "a muscular speech, a speech of old-fashioned muscular virtues--justice, honor, courage, responsibility"? Or Susan Lee's view that Bush had been "very polished...very laserlike...extremely intense," with "fantastic" rhetoric she found to be "incredibly manly and muscular"? How generous, too, of Gigot to note that Gephardt had given "a good speech...for one reason. It basically said: I agree with the president." Robert Bartley didn't think it mattered. "You know, Bush is going to win again the next time out." But didn't the sane portion of Bartley's newspaper publish its own poll showing that "a clear majority" of Americans would choose "delaying the already enacted tax cuts for the rich" to protect domestic programs? "That's a loaded question," says Bartley. Planted no doubt by an evil pollster with an axis to grind.
Right till the end of January, Dita Sari, an Indonesian in her late 20s, was preparing to fly from her home near Jakarta to Salt Lake City to bask in the admiration of assorted do-gooders and celebrities mustered by the public relations department of Reebok for its thirteenth annual Human Rights Awards, overseen by a board including Jimmy Carter and Kerry Kennedy Cuomo. Make no mistake, the folks--usually somewhere between four and six--getting these annual Reebok awards have all been fine organizers and activists, committed to working for minorities, the disfranchised, the disabled, the underdogs in our wicked world.
Dita Sari's plan was to proceed to the podium in the Capitol Theater in downtown Salt Lake City, on February 7, and then, when offered the human rights award, reject it.
Now, this annual Reebok ceremony isn't up there with the Nobels, or the genius grants from MacArthur. Despite Reebok's best efforts, it's definitely a second-tier event. Nonetheless, it has paid off for Reebok. Says Jeff Ballinger, an antisweatshop activist who's organized with shoe workers in Indonesia for the past thirteen years, "With this kind of ceremony, Reebok gets its name into respectable company. When they give a prize to someone like Julie Su, a lawyer for immigrant workers in California, people who wouldn't be seen dead in Nikes are impressed."
Dita Sari got picked by Reebok's judges because she defied her government on the issue of independent trade unions. In her own words: "In 1995, I was arrested and tortured by the police, after leading a strike of 5,000 workers of Indoshoes Inti Industry. They demanded an increase of their wages (they were paid only US $1 for working eight hours a day), and maternity leave as well. This company operated in West Java, and produced shoes of Reebok and Adidas."
She got out of prison in 1999. Since then she's been building a union in plants across Java. It was there that she got a good look at Reebok's contractors, the underbosses of all the apparel, footwear, computer and toy companies. These contractors run their plants in a notoriously harsh manner.
Reebok's flacks can brandish armloads of studies, codes, monitoring reports, guidelines and kindred matter, all attesting to the company's dedication to fair treatment of anyone making consumer items with the name Reebok printed on them. But nothing has really changed. "We've created a cottage industry of monitors and inspectors and drafters of codes," Ballinger says, "but all these workers ever wanted was to sit down in dignity and negotiate with their bosses, and this has never happened."
Due in large part to the efforts of the workers and Western allies like Ballinger's Press for Change, the daily wage in Indonesia actually went up more than 300 percent between 1990 and 1997, at which point the Asian economic crisis struck. Inflation wiped out all those gains. Workers' daily pay is now half what it was before the crisis hit.
These were the points Dita Sari was going to make when she got to Salt Lake City. Then she learned that Reebok intended to schedule her and other recipients for some public events before the actual award ceremony. Rather than let Reebok benefit in any way from her presence, Dita Sari pulled the plug and at last word is in Jakarta trying to raise relief money for workers left destitute by the worst flooding in decades. She's sent the speech she was planning to give at the awards:
I have taken this award into very deep consideration. We finally decide not to accept this....
In Indonesia, there are five Reebok companies. Eighty percent of the workers are women. All companies are sub-contracted, often by South Korean companies such as Dung Jo and Tong Yang. Since the workers can only get around $1.50 a day, they then have to live in a slum area, surrounded by poor and unhealthy conditions, especially for their children. At the same time, Reebok collected millions of dollars of profit every year, directly contributed by these workers. The low pay and exploitation of the workers of Indonesia, Mexico and Vietnam are the main reasons why we will not accept this award.
But isn't Reebok at least trying to do something decent? The way Dita Sari sees things, the attempt is phony. All the awards in the world--all the window dressing with Desmond Tutu, Carly Simon, Sting, Robert Redford--doesn't alter the basic fact that workers in the Third World are being paid the absolute minimum to make a very profitable product. The labor cost of a $70 pair of sneakers made in China, Vietnam or Indonesia is $1 or less.
Is there such a thing as a virtuous sneaker? Ballinger cites Bata, a Toronto-based company that runs its own factory in Jakarta. Its executives sat down with the union and worked out a contract with significant improvements on issues that employees care about greatly, like seniority. Though the margin has fallen recently, wage scales are better than minimum. Instances of bullying and intimidation are far fewer. Bata's shoes are sold in Indonesia for what an Indonesian can afford: $10 or less.
Ten years ago another courageous Indonesian, Teten Masduki, was asked by the Levi Strauss company to broker a clinic to be built near a contractor's factory. Teten, uncompromising labor advocate that he is, refused, even though the assignment would have made him a local hero. His reason: a clinic wouldn't give the workers what they need, a voice, the power to bargain.
Teten Masduki and Dita Sari see the world clearly, a lot more clearly than the celebrities and activists massed at such events as the one organized by Reebok in Salt Lake City, which is already awash with Olympian bunkum about human brotherhood. Dita Sari turned down $50,000 from Reebok. Teten Masduki turned down a tempting position with Levi Strauss. These days he's been responsible for chasing out a corrupt attorney general from his post as head of Indonesia's Corruption Watch. Do-gooders should study these fine examples and stiffen their spines.
It was the start of another Conservative Political Action Conference--the annual gathering of several thousand activists--and Republican Party chairman Marc Racicot, in unexciting fashion, was telling the right-wingers his party would push the Bush agenda "in civil tones." Civil tones, though, are not usually embraced at CPACs, where attendees often denounce liberals as socialist buffoons, the media as a hotbed of anti-conservative bias and less-right Republicans as sellouts intimidated by the powers of a diabolical left. A year ago conservatives scuttled Racicot's appointment as Attorney General, claiming he was not sufficiently antiabortion. Now, as he spoke, the Rev. Lou Sheldon, a leading social conservative, told me he heartily approved of Racicot: "He makes the establishment happy, and he's telling us the party platform [against abortion] is not going to change in 2004." Is that enough for the religious right? Don't its members want to hear more social conservatism from George W? Nah, Sheldon replied. "He doesn't have to stroke us and then have James Carville beat him up for that. We're not going anywhere." He then applauded enthusiastically for Racicot.
Throughout CPAC, it was clear that Bush is aces with a mostly satisfied, still-going-strong conservative movement and that the ideologues of the right don't have much space to wage battles separate from Bush's agenda. David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, noted that conservatives currently have two concerns regarding the Administration. First, will it use the national security crisis to impede civil liberties more than necessary? Second, will it become enamored of government as a solution to ills beyond the war on terrorism? But no one at CPAC wanted to point fingers over such matters.
Conservatives seemed content to let Bush be Bush. Few CPACers called for pushing the Administration to do more to end abortion, or to beat back affirmative action, or to replace the income tax. When advocates criticized Bush policies, they did so without assailing Bush. NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre soundly condemned the expansion of government power since September 11--"wand rape" at airports, "vast new powers" for the CIA, FBI e-mail intercepts--but he refused to blame Bush or Attorney General Ashcroft (both of whom have been slavish to the NRA on its core issue) for these liberty-threatening developments. Fiscal conservatives voiced anger over Bush's new budget for its overall increase of 9 percent (although it contains severe domestic cuts). "We do not need more money for Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, education," huffed Stephen Moore of the Cato Institute. "It's important we remain stalwarts of small government." But he did not attack the President or his aides. The war, Keene remarked, "takes the edge off the criticism of most conservatives. The first obligation of government is defense, and conservatives are happy to have a President who rises to the occasion. They are willing to put up with a lot to see that."
With a pro-gun, antiabortion, pro-tax cut, anti-Kyoto, pro-military guy riding high in the White House, CPACers appeared less crabby than in previous (Clinton-era) years. Still, there was the usual grousing that Democrats are better streetfighters than Republicans (I kid you not) and that the media are arrayed against conservatives. (Don't these people watch MSNBC, which now airs theocratic Republican Alan Keyes?) When a delegate asked Racicot about anti-Republican media bias, he griped that it's tough "to get a conservative message across," because that requires "a higher level of incisive analysis" and calls on people to engage in "a higher level of conduct." He added, "Children don't always like to hear what's passed on to them in terms of advice and counsel, and I think that's true with the conservative message."
Several speakers, including antifeminist Phyllis Schlafly, urged conservatives to mount a crusade against illegal aliens and to lobby for antiterrorism profiling focused on foreigners. (Right-wing strategist Grover Norquist, representing yay-for-cheap-labor and business-oriented conservatives, warned his comrades not to engage in activity that could alienate immigrant communities.) M. Stanton Evans, a founder of the modern conservative movement, suggested that the right could score points by decrying the "dismantling" of the national security system, which he attributed to political correctness. "CIA agents are sitting out in Langley," he explained, "sewing diversity quilts." (A CIA spokeswoman I contacted said its employees do not engage in the forced sewing of feel-good quilts. She noted that ten years ago a group of CIA employees who were quilting hobbyists fashioned a quilt on their own time.)
The tone was one of quiet triumphalism. Most speakers appeared in sync with Karl Rove's belief that voters will appreciate Bush's handling of the war and reward Republicans in this year's elections. Columnist Fred Barnes opined that it's silly to believe that Democrats can trump the war on terrorism with issues like the patients' bill of rights. Talking head Chris Matthews praised Bush and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld as "grown-ups" who exude "authenticity" and poked Democrats as the party of "whining." But GOP political consultant Marc Rotterman voiced a note of caution, foreseeing a Democratic effort to "Enron this Administration" by accusing Bush of neglecting domestic concerns, being in league with big business and raiding Social Security. "At the end of the day," he observed, "the economy always comes into play. If we're still at slow growth rates, it will impact Congressional races. I am not sure Bush's popularity translates to the House and Senate races."
Still, as pollster Kellyanne Conway maintained, at this point conservatives have little grounds for worrying or complaining. "George W. Bush has been more Reagan than Bush. His record now is impervious to conservative criticism." Does that pose difficulty for the die-hard conservatives who might want more--or perhaps less--from Bush? "Well," she said with a wink, "for some conservatives it is easier to be against something. But they're going to have to wait."
The fortunes of American unions have taken a turn for the worse. Thanks to terrorism and recession, union members are reeling from a series of economic and political setbacks. Nearly half a million of them now face unemployment in the hotel and airline industries, and at Boeing, Ford, major steel-makers and other manufacturing firms. Many public employees will be clobbered next, as state and local budget crises deepen around the country. Already, teachers in New Jersey and state workers in Minnesota have been forced into controversial strikes over rising healthcare costs--a trend that affects millions of Americans. The accompanying loss of job-based medical coverage by many people who still have jobs should be fueling a revived movement for national health insurance, but few unions bother to raise that banner anymore.
Promising new AFL-CIO initiatives on immigration--like its call for legalization of undocumented workers--have been undermined by post-September 11 paranoia about Middle Easterners and federal scrutiny of thousands of them. Union organizing is stalled on many fronts, and rank-and-file participation in protests against corporate globalization--on the rise in Seattle and Quebec City--has faltered amid the myriad political distractions of the "war on terrorism." While labor's nascent grassroots internationalism remains overshadowed by flag-waving displays of "national unity," trade unionists have yet to be rewarded for their patriotism, even with a modest boost in unemployment benefits. Instead, President Bush is seeking cuts in federal job-training grants for laid-off workers. He's already won House approval for fast-track negotiating authority on future trade deals that threaten even more US jobs--and expects a Senate victory on that issue soon. To insure that collective bargaining doesn't interfere with the functioning of various executive branch offices now engaged in "homeland security," the White House just stripped hundreds of federal employees of their right to union representation. As University of Illinois labor relations professor Michael LeRoy observed in the New York Times, "a time of national emergency makes it more difficult for unions to engineer public support."
Into this bleak landscape arrives State of the Union, Nelson Lichtenstein's intellectual history of labor's past 100 years. Readers might take comfort from the fact--well documented by the author--that labor has been down before and, as in the 1930s, bounced back. Nevertheless, Lichtenstein's book raises disturbing questions about when, where and how that's going to happen again in a period when "solidarity and unionism no longer resonate with so large a slice of the American citizenry."
The author's views on this subject are informed by both scholarship and activism. A professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Lichtenstein wrote The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit, a definitive biography of one-time United Auto Workers president Walter Reuther. In 1996 Lichtenstein helped launch Scholars, Artists, and Writers for Social Justice (SAWSJ), a campus-based labor support network. Through SAWSJ, Lichtenstein has aided teach-ins and protests about workers' rights and worked with AFL-CIO president John Sweeney to re-establish links between unions and intellectuals that might help labor become a more "vital force in a democratic polity."
Consistent with this mission, Lichtenstein hopes to revive interest in what liberal reformers in politics and academia once called "the labor question." State of the Union is thus a history of the ideas about labor that animated much of the action--all the great union-building attempts during the past century. "Trade unionism requires a compelling set of ideas and institutions, both self-made and governmental, to give labor's cause power and legitimacy," Lichtenstein argues. "It is a political project whose success enables the unions to transcend the ethnic and economic divisions always present in the working population."
He begins his survey in the Progressive Era, a period in which "democratization of the workplace, the solidarity of labor, and the social betterment of American workers once stood far closer to the center of the nation's political and moral consciousness." Politicians, jurists, academics and social activists--ranging from Woodrow Wilson to Louis Brandeis to Florence Kelley of the National Consumers League--all joined the debate about the threat to our "self-governing republic" posed by large-scale industrial capitalism. How could democracy survive when America's growing mass of factory workers were stripped of their civic rights, and often denied a living wage as well, whenever they entered the plant gates?
The Progressives' response was "industrial democracy"--extending constitutional rights of free speech and association to the workplace, enacting protective labor laws and securing other forms of the "social wage." Unfortunately, national-level progress toward these goals foundered after World War I on the rocks of lost strikes, political repression and Republican Party dominance in Washington. "Neither the labor movement nor the state, not to mention industrial management itself, generated the kind of relationships, in law, ideology, or practice, necessary to institutionalize mass unionism and sustain working-class living standards" during the 1920s, observes Lichtenstein.
The years of the Roosevelt Administration were a different story. State of the Union recounts how Depression-era unrest--plus the efforts of an unusual and uneasy alliance between industrial workers, labor radicals, dissident leaders of AFL affiliates, pro-union legislators and New Deal policy-makers--led to passage of the Wagner Act. It created a new legal framework for mediating labor-management disputes and boosted consumer purchasing power via the wage gains of collective bargaining.
As industrial unions experienced explosive growth before and during World War II, the previously unchecked political and economic power of the great corporations was finally tempered through the emergence of a more social democratic workers' movement, led by the Congress of Industrial Organizations. The CIO spoke up for the poor, the unskilled and the unemployed, as well as more affluent members of the working class. Even the conservative craft unions of the AFL ultimately grew as a result of the CIO's existence because many employers, if they had to deal with any union at all, preferred one with less ideological baggage.
Then as now, the nation's manufacturing work force was multiethnic, which meant that hundreds of thousands of recent immigrants used CIO unionism as a vehicle for collective empowerment on the job and in working-class communities. Successful organizers "cloaked themselves in the expansive, culturally pluralist patriotism that the New Deal sought to propagate," says Lichtenstein. "Unionism is the spirit of Americanism," proclaimed a labor newspaper directed at "immigrant workers long excluded from a full sense of citizenship." The exercise of citizenship rights in both electoral politics and National Labor Relations Board voting became, for many, a passport to "an 'American' standard of living."
State of the Union credits some on the left for noting, then and later, that New Deal labor legislation also had its limits and trade-offs. Wagner Act critics like lawyer-historian Staughton Lynd complain that it merely directed worker militancy into narrow, institutional channels--soon dominated by full-time union reps, attorneys for labor and management, not-so-neutral arbitrators and various government agencies. During World War II, attempts by labor officialdom to enforce a nationwide "no strike" pledge led to major rifts within several CIO unions and helped undermine the position of Communist Party members who tried to discourage wildcat walkouts.
The "union idea" that was so transcendent among liberals and radicals during the New Deal underwent considerable erosion in the 1950s. Many leading writers, professors and clergymen had signed petitions, walked picket lines, spoken at rallies, testified before Congressional committees and defended the cause of industrial organization in the 1930s. These ties began to fray after World War II and the onset of the cold war, when the CIO conducted a ruthless purge of its own left wing. This made it much harder for "outsiders" with suspect views to gain access to the increasingly parochial world of the (soon to be reunited) AFL and CIO. As Lichtenstein shows in his survey of their writings, the subsequent alienation of intellectuals like C. Wright Mills, Dwight Macdonald, Harvey Swados and others was rooted in the perception--largely accurate--that union bureaucracy and self-interest, corruption and complacency had replaced labor's earlier "visionary quest for solidarity and social transformation."
Lichtenstein questions whether unions were ever quite as fat, happy and structurally secure as some economists and historians claimed (after the fact) in books and articles on the postwar "labor-management accord." If such a deal had really existed during those years, State of the Union argues, it was "less a mutually satisfactory concordat" than "a limited and unstable truce, largely confined to a well-defined set of regions and industries...a product of defeat, not victory."
Measured by dues-payers alone, "Big Labor" was certainly bigger in the 1950s--at least compared with the small percentage of the work force represented by unions now (33 percent at midcentury versus 14 percent today). But union economic gains derived more from members-only collective bargaining than from social programs--like national health insurance--that would have benefited the entire working class.
Labor's failure to win more universal welfare-state coverage on the European or Canadian model led to its reliance--in both craft and industrial unions--on "firm-centered" fringe-benefit negotiations. The problem with the incremental advance of this "privatized welfare system" for the working-class elite was that it left a lot of other people (including some union members) out of the picture. Millions of Americans in mostly nonunion, lower-tier employment ended up with job-based pensions, group medical insurance, paid vacations, etc., that were limited or nonexistent.
The fundamental weakness of this edifice--even for workers in longtime bastions of union strength--was not fully exposed until the concession bargaining crisis of the late 1970s and '80s. As Lichtenstein describes in painful detail, employers launched a major offensive--first on the building trades, then on municipal labor and then on union members in basic industry. Pattern bargaining unraveled in a series of lost strikes and desperate giveback deals. This allowed management to introduce additional wage-and-benefit inequalities into the work force, including two-tier pay structures within the same firm, healthcare cost shifting, more individualized retirement coverage and greatly reduced job security due to widespread outsourcing and other forms of de-unionization.
By then, of course, African-Americans in the South, who suffered longest and most from economic inequality, had already risen up and made a "civil rights revolution." Their struggle was one that unions in the 1960s--at least the more liberal ones--nominally supported and in which veteran black labor activists played a seminal role. Yet the civil rights movement as a whole clearly passed labor by and further diminished its already reduced stature as the champion of the underdog and leading national voice for social justice. In a key chapter titled "Rights Consciousness in the Workplace," Lichtenstein explores how unions, their contracts and their negotiated grievance procedures have been further marginalized by the enduring legal and political legacy of the civil rights era. According to the author, this has created "the great contradiction that stands at the heart of American democracy today":
In the last forty years, a transformation in law, custom, and ideology has made a once radical demand for racial and gender equality into an elemental code of employer conduct.... But during that same era, the rights of workers, as workers, and especially as workers acting in an autonomous, collective fashion, have moved well into the shadows.... Little in American culture, politics, or business encourages the institutionalization of a collective employee voice.
Now, every US employer has to be an "equal opportunity" one or face an avalanche of negative publicity, public censure and costly litigation. Discrimination against workers--on grounds deemed unlawful by the 1964 Civil Rights Act and subsequent legislation--has become downright un-American, with the newest frontiers being the fight against unfair treatment of workers based on their physical disabilities or sexual preference. At the same time, as State of the Union and other studies have documented, collective workplace rights are neither celebrated nor well enforced [see Early, "How Stands the Union?" Jan. 22, 2001]. What Lichtenstein calls "rights consciousness" is the product of heroic social struggle and community sacrifice but, ironically, often reinforces a different American tradition: "rugged individualism," which finds modern expression in the oft-repeated threat to "call my lawyer" whenever disputes arise, on or off the job.
To make his point, Lichtenstein exaggerates the degree to which individual complaint-filers at the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (and equally backlogged state agencies) end up on a faster or more lucrative track than workers seeking redress at the National Labor Relations Board. There is no doubt, though, that high-profile discrimination litigation has paid off in ways that unfair-labor-practice cases rarely do. Among other examples, the book contrasts the unpunished mass firing of Hispanic phone workers trying to unionize at Sprint in San Francisco--a typical modern failure of the Wagner Act--with big class-action victories like the settlement securing $132 million for thousands of minority workers victimized by racist managers at Shoney's. The restaurant case involved much public "shaming and redemption" via management shakeups at the corporate level; Sprint merely shrugged off allegations of unionbusting until a federal court ruled in its favor.
Lichtenstein's solution is for labor today to find ways to "capitalize on the nation's well-established rights culture of the last 40 years," just as the CIO "made the quest for industrial democracy a powerful theme that legitimized its strikes and organizing campaigns in the 1930s." He looks to veterans of 1960s social movements--who entered the withering vineyard of American labor back when cold warriors like George Meany and Lane Kirkland still held sway--to build coalitions with nonlabor groups that can "make union organizational rights as unassailable as are basic civil rights."
In so doing, Lichtenstein recommends finding a middle way between a renewed emphasis on class that downplays identity politics--"itself a pejorative term for rights consciousness"--and an exclusive emphasis on the latter that may indeed thwart efforts to unite workers around common concerns. In the past, Lichtenstein notes, "the labor movement has surged forward not when it denied its heterogeneity" but instead found ways to affirm it, using ethnic and racial pluralism within unions to build power in more diverse workplaces and communities.
Given the enormous external obstacles to union growth, the author's other proposals--summarized in a final chapter titled "What Is to Be Done?"--seem a bit perfunctory. His "three strategic propositions for the union movement" do point in a better direction than the one in which the AFL-CIO and some of its leading affiliates are currently headed. State of the Union calls for more worker militancy, greater internal democracy and less dependence on the Democratic Party. These are all unassailable ideas--until one gets beyond the official lip service paid to them and down to the nitty-gritty of their implementation.
Too often in labor today--particularly in several high-profile, "progressive" unions led by onetime student activists--participatory democracy is missing. Membership mobilization has a top-down, carefully orchestrated character that subverts real rank-and-file initiative, decision-making and dynamism. The emerging culture of these organizations resembles Third World "guided democracies," in which party-appointed apparatchiks or technocrats provide surrogate leadership for the people who are actually supposed to be in charge. In politics, it's equally disheartening to see that labor's "independence" is not being demonstrated through the creation of more union-based alternatives to business-oriented groups within the Democratic Party or by challenging corporate domination of the two-party system. Instead, it's taking the form of very traditional and narrow special-interest endorsement deals with Republicans like New York Governor George Pataki.
This is not what Lichtenstein has in mind when he urges adoption of "a well-projected, clearly defined political posture in order to advance labor's legislative agenda and defend the very idea of workplace rights and collective action." His book applauds the authentic militants who battled contract concessions and the labor establishment prior to the 1995 palace coup that put John Sweeney and his associates in control of the AFL-CIO. While the author backs "the new agenda of the Sweeneyite leadership," with its primary focus on the right to organize, he argues that the fight for union democracy is equally "vital to restoring the social mission of labor and returning unions to their social-movement heritage."
How labor is viewed, aided, undermined or ignored by men and women of ideas (including the author) is, by itself, never going to determine its fate in any era. Workers themselves--acting through organizations they create or remake--are still the primary shapers of their own future, whether it's better or worse. Nevertheless, creative interaction between workers and intellectuals has helped spawn new forms of workplace and political organization in every nation--Poland, South Africa, Korea and Brazil--where social movement unionism has been most visible at some point in recent decades. In the United States, unions--and their new campus and community allies--face the daunting task of developing ideas and strategies that will "again insert working America into the heart of our national consciousness." If they succeed in restoring its relevance, the labor movement may yet have a broader impact on our society, and Lichtenstein's State of the Union will deserve credit for being a catalyst in that process.
There are no blue dresses to analyze in this one, or interns in berets to quiz. But make no mistake. The Enron scandal is the real thing--a window on the nexus of money and politics in Washington that is revealing our corrupted electoral, legislative and regulatory infrastructure.
Perhaps that's why the Bush White House is pushing the line that this is a business scandal, as opposed to a political one. But with mounting evidence that Enron executives were dictating Bush Administration appointments and policies affecting their company in particular and energy policy in general, Karl Rove is having a hard time getting his spin up to speed. Sure, there's a business component to the Enron affair. But, like most corporations these days, Enron was able to practice its brand of cutthroat cowboy capitalism only because of the ties it nurtured with the political class, which sets up the playing field on which businesses "compete." The Enron scandal reveals not just the lengths to which Wall Street and corporate America will go for obscene profits and personal enrichment at the expense of employees, shareholders and taxpayers but also the lengths to which politicians from Bush on down will go to help them.
Enron is about values, but not about the kinds of sexual peccadilloes condemned by Kenneth Starr and Ralph Reed--a notable beneficiary of Enron's largesse--or the traditional John Wayne-style flag-waving values of George W. Bush. As Michael Tomasky writes in the Washington Post, "'Values' can mean something else now, like integrity in business and government. It means that a president who ran on a promise of 'restoring dignity' to the White House ought to tell the truth about how long he's known the CEO who has been his biggest corporate backer. It means that the vice president should recognize as a simple ethical matter that the people...have a right to know which lobbyists he met with while formulating a major policy, just as Republicans demanded similar information from Clinton's health policy panel back in 1993."
If the political system works, if the opposition actually engages in opposition, if there is any justice--three huge ifs--the Enron scandal ought to shake Washington to the core and send tremors through the 2002 and 2004 elections. But that will happen only if Congress gets serious about performing its intended role in what is still supposed to be a system of checks and balances. The Senate must be aggressive not merely in issuing subpoenas to former Enron chief Ken Lay and his cronies but in pursuing the political players who associated with Lay. Representative John Conyers Jr., the Michigan Democrat who is the ranking member on the House Judiciary Committee, got to the heart of the matter when he announced that he will ask Rove to provide any information linking the Bush 2000 campaign with Enron. But Conyers will need a lot of help preventing the executive branch from weaving a cloak of invisibility around its inner operations (see Russ Baker on page 11).
Secrecy is a favored tool of the imperial presidency, and the Bush Administration's stonewalling on its Enron connections signals that it's declaring war on openness and is bent on quashing this scandal by any means. How about, for instance, distracting us with an endless war on an "axis of evil"?
Democrats must not be deterred by the Bush camp's attempts to erect a firewall of false patriotism as its defense against investigation. There are no longer any legal, moral or political grounds for not unleashing a multipronged, wide-ranging investigation into the Washington political culture that allowed an Enron--and how many more like it?--to operate unchecked. We already know a lot about who legally gave what to which politician, who lost pensions, who made out like bandits, how the scam worked, whose wheels were greased by soft money.
Now it's time for Congress to put the pieces together. Democrats in Congress should join reformer Republicans--yes, there are a few--to expose this scandal for what it is: a gamy display of excessive corporate power and a lack of economic democracy and government oversight. Congress needs to remember it's representing the people and deal with the tough issues raised by the cozy collusion between government and business (it should start with campaign finance reform in the House now and move on to putting labor and consumers on corporate boards, restoring defined benefits pensions, penalty-taxing excessive executive salaries, stopping stock price inflation and holding tricky auditors financially liable). The key vote on campaign finance is set for February 13. The outcome should tell us how serious the reform talk is.
A few months after the 1967 war, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, a professor at Hebrew University and a leading Israeli intellectual--who was also an observant Jew--stated that Israel must immediately withdraw from the occupied territories. He argued that the occupation was unjust and would inevitably lead to the oppression and subjugation of the Palestinians, and to the corruption if not destruction of Israeli society. Until his death in the mid-1990s, he continued to criticize the occupation, using piercing, prophetic language to condemn the immorality of Israeli policies. For years, Leibowitz also averred that if 500 reservist soldiers would simultaneously refuse to serve in the territories, the occupation would end.
The fifty combat officers and soldiers who announced--in an open letter published on January 25 in the Israeli press--that they would no longer serve in the territories were in many ways following Leibowitz's advice. Already, 125 more soldiers have signed, among them sergeants, lieutenants, captains and even a few colonels (see www.seruv.org.il/defaulteng.asp for the full list). Thousands of Israelis have called a hotline to express support for the group and to donate money to help it publish ads in local papers, while Yesh Gvul ("There Is a Limit"), started by Israelis who refused to serve in Lebanon twenty years ago, is distributing leaflets urging others to join the soldiers' action. A group of women is organizing a petition, claiming that reserve officers are not the only ones carrying the burdens of occupation, while a number of twelfth graders, who will be drafted this coming summer, have also announced that they will not serve in the territories.
The fact that the letter has created such a stir both inside the military establishment and in society at large has to do with the profile of those who initiated it: These are not radical leftists but rather people affiliated with Israel's political center and members of the social elite. They have experienced firsthand the effect of the occupation, so their views cannot be dismissed.
Shuki Sadeh, a paratrooper reservist who was among the signers, told a newspaper how he had seen an Israeli soldier kill a young Palestinian boy at a distance of 150 meters. "What angered me at the time," Sadeh explained, "was that our soldiers said, 'Well, that's another Arab who has disappeared.'" Ariel Shatil, an artillery master sergeant recently on duty in the Gaza Strip, recalled that while it's claimed that the Palestinians shoot first and Israelis just respond, in reality, "We would start shooting and they would fire back."
The Israeli military has been shaken by the letter--not least because the soldiers are discrediting the Israeli depiction of the conflict and exposing the army's excessive use of force--and is now trying to prevent the "damage" from spreading. Rami Kaplan, one signer, has been demoted from his position as deputy commander of a reserve tank battalion, and other signers have been notified that they, too, will be stripped of their command. Yigal Bronner, a Sanskrit scholar who serves in a tank unit and also signed the letter, says, "It is as if both sides [the military and refuseniks] believe Leibowitz's prophecy...the soldiers are committed to amassing 500 conscientious objectors, while the Israeli government and military are afraid that if they do, the occupation will actually end."
EXCERPTS FROM THE OPEN LETTER
We, reserve combat officers and soldiers of the Israel Defense
Forces, who were raised upon the principles of Zionism, sacrifice and
giving to the people of Israel and to the State of Israel, who have always served in the front lines, and who were the first to carry out any mission, light or heavy, in order to protect the State of Israel and strengthen it;
We, combat officers and soldiers, have been on reserve duty all over the occupied territories, and were issued commands and directives that had nothing to do with the security of our country, and that had the sole purpose of perpetuating our control over the Palestinian people. We, whose eyes have seen the bloody toll this occupation exacts from both sides;
We, who sensed how the commands issued to us in the territories destroy all the values we had absorbed while growing up in this country;
We, who understand now that the price of occupation is the loss of the IDF's human character and the corruption of the entire Israeli society;
We, who know that the territories are not Israel, and that all settlements are bound to be evacuated in the end;
We hereby declare that we shall not continue to fight this War of the Settlements.
We shall not continue to fight beyond the 1967 borders in order to dominate, expel, starve and humiliate an entire people.
We hereby declare that we shall continue serving in the Israel Defense Forces in any mission that serves Israel's defense.
The missions of occupation and oppression do not serve this purpose and we shall take no part in them.
EXCERPTS FROM THE LEAFLET
We all want to defend our country. We're all sick and tired of terrorism. We all want peace. But do our actions permit of an end to the cycle of bloodshed?
Since 1967, Israel has ruled over 3.5 million Palestinians, running their lives by means of a forcible occupation, with continual violations of human rights.
Ask yourself whether your actions in the course of your military service enhance national security? Or do those actions merely fuel the enmity and the acts of violence between us and our Palestinian neighbors?
SOLDIER: THE OCCUPATION BREEDS TERRORISM!
When you take part in extrajudicial killings ("liquidation," in the army's terms), when you take part in demolishing residential homes, when you open fire at unarmed civilian population or residential homes, when you uproot orchards, when you interdict food supplies or medical treatment, you are taking part in actions defined in international conventions (such as the 4th Geneva Convention) and in Israeli law as war crimes.
Soldier, is there a people anywhere in the world that will not resist an occupation regime? If you were in the Palestinians' shoes, would you be willing to bow your head to a foreign ruler?
SOLDIER: THE OCCUPATION UNDERMINES OUR COUNTRY
The occupation and the violence that it prompts drag the economy down into recession. Investors are in flight, tourists stay away, entire sections of the economy are in collapse.
SOLDIER: IT'S IN YOUR HANDS!
Despite an initial drop in attendance in the uncertain aftermath of September 11, and the changing of the guard at three major institutions, the London theater scene has rebounded with determination. Across the Thames at the Royal National Theatre, there's a bracing revival of Harold Pinter's chilling No Man's Land. Considered his most enigmatic work (playwright Patrick Marber calls the play "unknowable"), it's the one that is least revived among his many celebrated plays (The Birthday Party, The Caretaker, The Homecoming). In fact, Peter Hall's original production of No Man's Land in 1975 at the National, starring Ralph Richardson as Hirst and John Gielgud as Spooner, was so widely praised that only Pinter himself ventured to take on the role of Hirst thereafter.
Today, after twenty-six years, this darkly powerful play returns to the RNT under the author's direction, and the moonscape of Pinterland has never seemed starker. Critics have hailed its masterful cast, with Corin Redgrave and John Wood giving tour de force performances as Hirst, the debauched writer, and Spooner, the destitute poet he's met in a pub on Hampstead Heath and taken home to his elegant digs in a desperate search for companionship. There, Spooner is imprisoned in Hirst's sepulchral study by a pair of sinister servants, where Hirst invites him into an elaborate fantasy that they were once Oxford schoolmates. The scene of outrageous self-delusion--with Redgrave delivering one of Pinter's most mesmerizing monologues--is hilarious. But ultimately, No Man's Land is a harrowing portrait of failure, loss of memory and the past--a Lear and his Fool on yet another heath, suffering the terrors of loneliness and old age. It's also about the inability to write, a fear that plagued Pinter himself in the early 1970s. This is a landmark production of an elusive masterpiece, a haunting, menacing piece of theater that Marber (director of the 2000 revival of The Caretaker, starring Michael Gambon) describes as "clear and lucid as a dream, and like a dream it resists our need to know its meaning.... I'm not entirely sure I know what's going on in No Man's Land. But I'm not sure I want to know."
The writer's fear is a theme of another revival in London's season as well--Faith Healer, by the Irish poet-playwright Brian Friel (Philadelphia, Here I Come!; Dancing at Lughnasa), which premiered at Dublin's Abbey Theatre in 1980 and is now being given a luminous production at the Almeida Theatre. This gentle, elegiac play features four monologues by three characters--Frank, an Irish faith healer, part charlatan, part artist, played with self-deprecating charm by Ken Stott (award-winning star of Yazmina Reza's Art); Grace, his ruined wife, played by Geraldine James (of the BBC's epic Jewel in the Crown); and Teddy, the seedy talent agent who loves them both, in a remarkable performance by Ian McDiarmid, Almeida's joint artistic director. These three characters narrate the story, Rashomon-style, of the faith healer's return to Ireland after years of fruitless one-night stands in Scotland and Wales (he once allegedly healed a group of ten), where he attempts to restore his faltering powers. There he meets his tragic end. Under the delicate direction of Jonathan Kent, a tattered curtain sweeps across an empty stage and works theatrical magic, wiping away one monologue, revealing the next, as these stories interweave into a tapestry of three lives touched by tragedy. Like the faith healer whose powers are fleeting (and, eventually, self-destructive), so too Friel raises questions about the unpredictability of the writer's gift. In the end, only the gift of faith itself (whether miracles happen or not) and steadfast love abide, as the powers that can heal lives and artists.
In the midst of these distinguished revivals, a combustible new work on stage at the RNT's Cottesloe Theatre has exploded like a stick of dynamite. Gagarin Way is the first play of a 32-year-old Scottish writer named Gregory Burke, introducing a raw new world to the English-speaking stage and placing new Scottish theater at the table alongside the Irish and the impressive young voices of Conor McPherson (The Weir) and Martin McDonagh (Beauty Queen of Leenane).
Newly arrived from the Traverse Theatre, where it was the hit of the 2001 Edinburgh Festival, Gagarin Way is a fierce black comedy set in the storeroom of a high-tech computer factory in the industrial Scottish county of Fife. A frustrated factory worker, Eddie, and a hapless security guard, Tom, await the arrival of Eddie's accomplice, Gary, who is executing a scheme to kidnap a visiting multinational executive. Gary arrives with their prey, who is bound and hooded, and as the would-be thugs ponder his fate, they enter into an outrageous philosophical debate on existentialism, globalization, Marxism, anarchy and nihilism to express their disillusionment. The opening discussion on the relationship between Sartre and Genet is especially memorable: "The last thing you need after a hard day's gibbering pish on the Left Bank about how we're all subjects among objects is finding out you're a subject among no as many objects now you've got fucking Jean Genet out ay the jail."
This is a ferociously funny satire of terrorism and its bungling misguidedness (they kidnap the wrong person; Gary refuses to buy bullets as a cost-saving measure)--which takes a sudden, horrific turn and ends in heart-stopping violence. Written in colorful (and profane) Scottish dialect, and directed at dangerous speed by John Tiffany, Gagarin Way is a riotous, unpredictable and ultimately frightening ninety-minute ride of powerful, provocative theater.
An interview in the Daily Telegraph described Burke as a "barely literate dishwasher from the back end of post-industrial Scotland who had never written so much as a postcard, and who had to have 'who Harold Pinter was' explained to him when they ran into each other during rehearsals." This makes the accomplishment of this young, self-educated, first-time playwright all the more striking. Burke comes from a corner of Scotland that was staunchly communist in the 1960s, where streets in the village of Lumphinnans were named after heroes like Yuri Gagarin (hence, the play's title)--a region that took its politics seriously, with its coal-miner strikes in the 1980s and struggles against multinationals in the 1990s. A "prolapsed Catholic," as he describes himself, Burke dropped out of Stirling University after two years and "fulfilled a variety of vital roles in the minimum-wage economy," washing factory floors, working on assembly lines, etc. "I wanted to write a play about economics, it being the dominant (only?) theme in modern politics, and the source of real power in our increasingly globalised times. And I wanted to write about men and our infinite capacity for self-delusion." An inveterate humorist and storyteller, a keen observer of human behavior and an astute political thinker, Burke--who wrote his play well before September 11--offers terrifying and timely insights into the psychosis of terrorism and obsessive political ideology. His is a new and unique voice, for unique times. A tempest has blown down from Scotland onto the London stage, reminding us that the theater can be a place of prescience and prophesy as well as entertainment.
For those who prefer dry martinis at the theater rather than Molotov cocktails, there's a sparkling revival of Private Lives at the Albery Theatre on Charing Cross Road. This delectable drawing-room comedy by Noel Coward, crown prince of the genre, premiered in the West End in 1930, starring Coward and Gertrude Lawrence, and then went on to Broadway in 1931. It was one of his most popular and widely produced plays; Coward attributed its lasting success to "irreverent allusions to copulation...causing a gratifying number of respectable people to queue up at the box office." This comedic gem (written, legend goes, in four feverish days holed up in a Shanghai hotel) is celebrated for its insights into marital manners and mores, as well as its scintillating dialogue ("Don't quibble, Sybil") and unparalleled wit (playwright Christopher Hampton praises its portrayal of "bickering as sex pursued by other means"). Currently, it is enjoying a sleek revival with the sophisticated duet of Allan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan, under the smart direction of Howard Davies.
Another revival from that glittering era also graces the West End. Director Peter Hall has resurrected The Royal Family, the George Kaufman/Edna Ferber valentine to New York's roaring theatrical twenties. This delicious old chestnut evokes all the glamour of Broadway's famed 1927-28 season when it premiered, which also included Dracula (starring Bela Lugosi), the Gershwins' Funny Face (featuring Fred and Adele Astaire), Rodgers and Hart's A Connecticut Yankee, O'Neill's Strange Interlude, Helen Hayes in Coquette, Mae West in Diamond Lil and the Hammerstein/Kern Show Boat. Sir Peter's revival of The Royal Family is its first London production since Noel Coward's in 1930, when Laurence Olivier starred as the flamboyant Tony Cavendish. The Cavendishes are of course meant to be the Barrymores, the First Family of the American Theater, with its gifted siblings Ethel, John and Lionel (Drew, Hollywood's current Barrymore, is John's granddaughter). The colorful Cavendishes are played by members of Britain's own theatrical royalty--including the charismatic young Toby Stephens (son of Dame Maggie Smith) and the commanding Dame Judi Dench (whose performance in the newly released film Iris confirms her regal reputation). The star of this showbiz revival, however, is a golden era in the Broadway theater. There is also a bouquet of musicals, including the elaborate (if controversial) South Pacific at the RNT, directed by Trevor Nunn, in commemoration of the centennial of Richard Rodgers's birth. In the West End, there is the RNT's pleasing My Fair Lady starring Jonathan Pryce, and Peter Nichols's irreverent Privates on Parade (a musical satire on the postwar British military in the Far East) is diverting audiences at the cozy Donmar Warehouse (where the current Cabaret now playing in New York was born).
Challenging, moving or simply entertaining, it's a season of healing and faith in the theater.
As the World Economic Forum met in New York City recently, the American media were much more concerned with what protesters were doing in the streets than with what they were saying there. You'd think that dissenting views were old hat and "isms" were for the classroom, not the newsroom.
But it's far too early for that. Similarly, at first glance, Peter Glassgold's collection of prose and poetry from an American anarchist magazine of 1906-17 appears to be of only historical interest; something that might be recommended as supplemental reading in an American studies curriculum, because it treats the fights for birth control and civil liberties, and against joblessness and conscription in this period. It's full of names now obscure, words that have become archaic. Imagine a time when "a special throwaway" was printed up and "circularized" in New York City by the movement of the unemployed. Or when Zola was referred to repeatedly because his works had resonance. Another, distant era. But just when it seemed that anarchism was for scholars, along came demonstrations in Seattle, Philadelphia, Prague, Quebec City, Genoa. "Anarchist troublemakers" was the antique expression I heard on the TV news not long ago. Congratulations, Peter Glassgold--you couldn't be more timely.
Since the A-word is a dirty one to many, it's likely that the presence and actions of anarchists at recent demonstrations have been exaggerated to discredit the anti-WTO, global-justice movement. But it's also possible that anarchism is visible on the left because it has less competition at present. Now, as in the late 1960s, it may channel discontent after other outlets have been rejected. It can serve as the radicalism of last resort, profiting from crises in other camps. Socialism, sharing political power in much of Western Europe, has made so many deals and compromises with big business that it no longer seems principled to a lot of people. And there's widespread suspicion that ex-Communists are weak on democracy, having made excuses for repressive states for so long.
Anarchists have the advantage of exclusion, the nobility of failure, so to speak.
They've rarely had much power; in fact, they've rarely gotten on well with the powerful. There are exceptions to that oppositional stance, however, and Glassgold's book gives glimpses of some of them. The famous anarchist theoretician Peter Kropotkin supported France when it fought the German Kaiser in World War I. The prominent propagandists and agitators Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman rallied around the Bolsheviks in 1917, though they became angry and disillusioned when Lenin and his followers soon turned against rivaling revolutionary tendencies.
A "Philosophy of Non-Submission" was one name for anarchism, and the state and its institutions have not been the only target of anarchist wrath. Mother Earth, a New York journal edited by Goldman and Berkman, among others, which accepted work by anarchists and nonanarchists in the United States and abroad, spoke out against capitalism, the private ownership of land, religion, monogamy, female modesty, middle-class feminism--and I could go on. Glassgold's choice of texts captures not just the breadth but the depth of its antagonisms. "I do not want to 'love my enemies,' nor 'let bygones be bygones.' I do not want to be philosophical, nor preach their inclusion in the brotherhood of man. I want to hate them--utterly," wrote the American anarchist writer and activist Voltairine de Cleyre.
Clearly, the movement has attracted not only those who can bear angry isolation but those who find pleasure and strength in it. Berkman loved the menace in the black flag. When people try to inspire fear and loathing, I don't guarantee them satisfaction. I read this anthology with detached interest, to hear what all the Sturm und Drang was about.
Glassgold chose well when he culled from Mother Earth. The exuberance of its prose is what summaries of anarchism often fail to capture. It is all too easy for historians to make the movement sound more consistent and systematic than it was. The magazine itself, which I've examined in facsimile in a library, is full of a highly emotive type of writing and relies not just on metaphor but on a host of oratorical devices to stir an audience. Irony alternates with inspirational appeals for a better future. Essays in the journal often read like speeches (and sometimes were), where hyperbole covers holes in the arguments and exhortation often substitutes for analysis. But Glassgold hasn't prettified them.
Nor has he excised the extremism in anarchist history, which is sometimes moving, sometimes painful to read about. He doesn't skip over its martyrology: the periodic celebration and commemoration of those who suffered or died defending their ideal. With hagiography and eulogies, the movement articulated and reinforced its values: purity, courage, perseverance, self-sacrifice, devotion. These are military qualities, demanded of the soldier under fire, for anarchists were at war with society. But battles were not fought by men alone. In the anarchist milieu, women were allowed to be comrades and leaders, and to display what was at the time an unladylike anger. Revenge was tolerated, sometimes encouraged in the movement of the era. "Even animals possess the spirit of revenge," Berkman wrote in 1906. "As long as the world is ruled by violence, violence will accomplish results," he added in 1911.
Not all anarchists have taken his position. Alternative revolutionary methods, such as the general strike, were advocated at the time. Direct action could mean, simply, that the people must liberate themselves and not delegate that job to parliaments or other representatives. But at the end of the nineteenth century, it was associated with dynamite used by lone individuals or small conspiracies, and Mother Earth shows a lingering sympathy for such tactics. The process of renouncing them was slow, faltering and, in the case of some anarchists, incomplete. To omit this history would be to whitewash the movement. But to restrict anarchism to this tendency would be unfair as well.
The title Mother Earth points to an equally important and oft-neglected aspect of the movement: its appeal to a romanticized nature as the ultimate standard. While Glassgold is right that "the message of the name was not environmental but libertarian," anarchism was and remains a philosophy of nature. One of its major theorists, the Russian exile Kropotkin, was a Darwinist of a particular stripe who believed that evolution favors mutual support and cooperation, not competition. "Without that [sociable] instinct not one single race could survive in the struggle for life against the hostile forces of Nature," he stated in a lecture to a eugenics congress in London that was printed in Mother Earth in 1912. Two years later, he asserted in the same journal that
once it is recognized that the social instinct is a permanent and powerful instinct in every animal species, and still more so in man, we are enabled to establish the foundations of Ethics (the Morality of Society) upon the sound basis of the observation of Nature and need not look for it in supernatural revelation. The idea which Bacon, Grotius, Goethe, and Darwin himself (in his second work, The Descent of Man) were advocating is thus finding a full confirmation, once we direct our attention to the extent to which mutual aid is carried on in Nature.
The Spanish educator Francisco Ferrer also tied anarchism to evolution, writing in Mother Earth about the need to adapt instruction to "natural laws" and "the spontaneous response of the child." And Max Baginski, a German-born editor of Mother Earth, spurned the "artificial, forced, obligatory" aid of one trade union to another in times of trouble, preferring solidarity based on human nature--that is, his concept of it: "The gist of the anarchistic idea is this, that there are qualities present in man which permit the possibilities of social life, organization and co-operative work without the application of force." Optimistic faith in the goodness and beneficence of nature, combined with intense distrust of the "machinery" of government, the law courts and the military, distinguished anarchists from most Marxists before the First World War. And still does today. It is this combination of ideas, I think, that has become diffused among contemporary leftists who would not identify themselves as anarchists. For many radicals, then as now, nature is what Richard M. Weaver (in The Ethics of Rhetoric) calls a "god term" because it trumps all others.
Of course, one may well ask exactly what the anarchists' nature--including human nature--consists of. Shouldn't it be interrogated, not assumed? After all, the nature of nature is not self-evident. Sorry to disappoint: In Mother Earth, as in most other anarchist writing, the concept of nature was not analyzed but invoked and revered. The magazine appealed to enthusiasts. In fact, it raised what Berkman called "active enthusiasm" to a principle. There Kropotkin declared, "In a revolutionary epoch, when destructive work precedes constructive efforts, bursts of enthusiasm possess marvelous power." (When Emma Goldman was convicted in New York in 1916 for spreading birth control information in an allegedly indecent manner to an allegedly promiscuous audience, her friend and supporter Leonard Abbott reported, "Her face was alight with enthusiasm.") As Voltairine de Cleyre put it, "Wholesale enthusiasm is a straw fire which burns out quickly; therefore it must be utilized at once, if at all; therefore, those who seek to burn barriers away with it must direct it to the barriers at once."
Fire, storm, earthquake, volcano--when the topic was the coming revolution, anarchists tended to transform human actors into a force of nature. Berkman, who served a long prison sentence for attempting to kill the steel magnate Henry Clay Frick after workers had been shot in the Homestead steel strike, declared in Mother Earth that the bomb "is manhood's lightning out of an atmosphere of degradation of misery that king, president and plutocrat have heaped upon humanity." Anarchist metaphors made the rebel and criminal part of earth science, integrating and naturalizing them.
And then there are the environmental images for the vitality, joy and beauty of the anarchist goal. I wish I had a nickel for every "dawn" and "blooming spring" I've met in old anarchist publications. Glassgold's anthology has some superior examples. Praising the Paris Commune of 1871, Kropotkin asserted in Mother Earth, "The Government evaporated like a pond of stagnant water in a spring breeze." And the first cover of the magazine was heavy with traditional, even banal, symbols of paradise: human nakedness within lush vegetation. A New Age scene, Glassgold cannily observes.
Indeed, the alternative lifestyle we now call New Age was intertwined with anarchism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Health and dress reformers, homeopaths and herbalists, practitioners of free love and nudism were often sympathetic to anarchism, friends and neighbors of anarchists, if not anarchists themselves. In the German-speaking world, this symbiosis is relatively well-known, since it has been described in such books as Ulrich Linse's Ökopax und Anarchie("Ecopeace and Anarchy," 1986). The historian Paul Avrich has often demonstrated the close connection of anarchism to bohemia, and the tie between the two tendencies cannot be missed in the writings and biographies of Emma Goldman, Mabel Dodge and Margaret Anderson.
Yet it remains to be shown that in the American cultural realm, anarchists have had an influence out of proportion to their numbers. If we knew the continuity of anarchism in America--its influence on Gestalt psychology, Allen Ginsberg and the Beats, the folk-song counterculture of Joan Baez, the avant-garde art of Yvonne Rainer, etc.--we might not be surprised when it pops up in the news today. Certain ideas are in the air, distributed by word of mouth, more than secondhand. You may well repeat them never knowing they appeared in Freud, Marx or perhaps Bakunin. The process of popularization is notoriously hard to chart, which is probably one reason historians and social scientists tend not to study it. But the fact that something is vague and elusive doesn't necessarily make it trivial and unimportant. Is the marginalism of anarchism only apparent? I vote to leave this question open.
Let me lay my cards on the table: "I am not now nor have I ever been" an anarchist, but I've written essays as well as fiction about this tradition because I think it's widely misunderstood. Ignored, idealized or caricatured, it is still largely the stuff of polemics. Glassgold's achievement is to help it be heard in its intensity and complexity.
It's safe to assume that the 150 or so Al Qaeda and Taliban militiamen now occupying those 6-by-8-foot cages in Guantánamo Bay are not sympathetic characters. It's also reasonable, and important, to say that they are in less danger to life and limb than their comrades handed over by the United States to the Northern Alliance. While the Western press has focused almost exclusively on Camp X-Ray, Amnesty International reported on February 1 that "the lives of thousands of prisoners in Afghanistan are at risk" from hunger and "rampant" dysentery, pneumonia and hepatitis, in overcrowded prison camps where inmates suffer shortages of food and medical supplies and "are not sheltered from severe winter conditions."
The fact that Camp X-Ray comes out ahead of the dreadful prevailing POW standard in postwar Afghanistan does the United States no credit. The image of prisoners shipped hooded, shackled and sedated to an unknown location was a foreign-policy disaster: in Europe, the Mideast and Asia alike, conjuring raw memories of the most vicious hostage-takings. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld's insistence that X-Ray's prisoners fall outside the protections of the Geneva Conventions and the US Constitution only furthered the impression of an Administration descending to the brutal law-enforcement benchmark of an authoritarian regime like Saudi Arabia. (Evidently the Administration just wants its guests to feel at home: Saudis count for at least 100 of the Guantánamo prisoners.) The White House's February 7 turnabout, declaring that Geneva Convention rules apply to Taliban captives but not Al Qaeda, amounts to a fig leaf satisfying neither the specific requirements of the accords nor the broader sense of alarm worldwide.
In part the shock expressed by US allies at the method of transport and incarceration at Guantánamo shows the huge gap between Europe and the United States on prisons and punishment. Western European prisons, for the most part, come nowhere near the degrading and isolating inmate-control regimens in many US facilities. Camp X-Ray is a close cousin to supermax penitentiaries with their psychically debilitating twenty-three-hour-a-day solitary confinement and twenty-four-hour cell lighting.
But comparing X-Ray to conventional prisons, and Afghanistan militia to conventional prisoners, only forces the questions Rumsfeld and the White House have tried so hard to obfuscate: Are the prisoners POWs or criminals? Just what rights should these international brigades of clerical fascism retain, as the losing side in a war backed by the United States but fought largely by proxy forces? Rumsfeld and the White House insist that neither Taliban nor Al Qaeda are prisoners of war but instead "unlawful combatants," suggesting that they don't deserve the numerous protections afforded POWs, most famously the right to respond to questions with name, rank and serial number but also including rights to representation, repatriation and due process. The Administration is now willing to admit that Taliban militia, as the former army of Afghanistan, are at least covered by the accords' broader humanitarian provisions; but the majority of Guantánamo prisoners--those Al Qaeda "Arab Afghans" who fought as allies of the Taliban regime--the White House still casts completely outside the protection of the Geneva Conventions.
A press outspun by Rumsfeld's daily patter has missed the simple fact that, as law, this argument has more holes than a Tora Bora cave after US bombardment. "Unlawful combatants" is a phrase found nowhere in the Geneva accords. Here is how Human Rights Watch summarizes it: "Under international humanitarian law, combatants captured during an international armed conflict should be presumed to be POWs until determined otherwise." Only a court or other "competent tribunal"--not the Defense Secretary or the President--can make that determination. In fact, the Pentagon's own Judge Advocate General Handbook declares that "when doubt exists" about a prisoner's status, "tribunals must be convened"--as they were for Iraqi prisoners in the Gulf War.
The United States has good reason to care about these procedures. During the Vietnam War, Hanoi declared captured US fliers "unlawful combatants." It was Washington that insisted otherwise; in 1977 the United States made sure that the Geneva protocols were revised to insure that anyone captured in war is protected by the treaty whether civilian, military or in between, whether or not they technically meet the POW definition. Simply put, when President Bush unilaterally declares the majority of its prisoners outside the penumbra of the Geneva convention, he is still flouting both international law and international sensibility.
The trouble with placing Guantánamo's prisoners in a legal no man's land doesn't end there. If captured militia are not POWs then they can continue to be held only if they're individually charged with war crimes or other specific offenses. If that should happen to the Guantánamo prisoners, they're entitled to a "fair and regular trial" (a standard that almost certainly cannot be met by the drumhead courts authorized by Bush).
Bush's latest policy turn amounts to internment without trial for alleged Al Qaeda. It's entirely appropriate to want to question the Al Qaeda mafia's foot soldiers, and there are plenty of legitimate claims on the prosecution of Al Qaeda, from citizens in Kabul and New York and points between. But the way to go about both is through existing criminal and international laws--an approach that gets results, as the victims of Gen. Augusto Pinochet proved in courts on two continents. The Rumsfeld-Bush strategy, on the other hand, undermines the idea of cooperative transnational prosecution and representation of victims, replacing evolving international law with an autocratic extension of this Administration's foreign-policy unilateralism: If we can live without the ABM treaty, why not pitch those troublesome Geneva accords over the side as well?
In the Administration only Colin Powell understands how profoundly this shortsighted approach runs counter to the national interest. Powell is no friend of human rights. But he pushed so hard--winning the compromise of Geneva Convention recongition for Taliban prisoners--because as a former military man he knows that the United States, the world's number-one projector of force, has its own reasons to seek universal respect for the Geneva Conventions--conventions we instantly invoked when American pilots were shot down in the Persian Gulf, and again in the Balkans. Powell knows, too, that the whole logic of the Geneva accords--those special POW protections--is to entice losing combatants into pragmatic and dignified surrender. By making a transnational mockery of the Geneva protocols, Rumsfeld and Bush are inviting future enemies to conclude that suicidal escalation, rather than surrender, is the only sensible closing chapter of their jihad.
Rumsfeld is hell-bent on turning the prisoners of Camp X-Ray into legal nonpersons--essentially stateless, without the safe harbor of either international law or the US Constitution, granted status and rights only at the whim of the Defense Secretary. That may seem to serve the short-term goals of Al Qaeda interrogation, but the picture it presents to the world--a superpower playing semantic games with the most basic wartime covenants, setting back the evolving machinery for transnational justice--will generate its own unhappy blowback.
The slogans scrawled across the walls of Paris in May 1968 suggest possibilities most of us have forgotten or that were long ago deemed preposterous. "Never work!" said one slogan. "The more you consume the less you live!" warned another. The words, restless and uncompromising, ask you to wake up, to change your life, to find a better way to live.
At its zenith in the late 1960s, the Situationist International could claim that "our ideas are in everyone's mind," even though the SI itself never had more than a few dozen members. When the whole world was exploding in 1968, the Situationist texts that had appeared throughout the decade read like road maps for revolution, full of slogans and tactics that youthful rebels picked up en route to wildly varying destinations.
Nearly forgotten after their dissolution in 1972, the Situationist legacy was recovered in 1989 with the publication of Greil Marcus's Lipstick Traces, which purported to trace the subterranean relationships between medieval heresy, nineteenth-century utopianism, Dada, Surrealism, Situationism, soul music and punk rock.
Today, Situationism exerts considerable--though often unacknowledged and depoliticized--influence over academic discourse and artistic practice in many media. It also plays a role in shaping the movement for global justice (or the "antiglobalization movement," as its critics like to call it), from Naomi Klein's book No Logo to the magazine Adbusters to the proliferating network of Independent Media Centers. Kept alive by a stream of reprints, anthologies and retrospectives from mostly anarchist presses, the Situationist critique continues to gain fresh adherents.
The most recent anthology, Beneath the Paving Stones: Situationists and the Beach, May 1968, includes three major Situationist pamphlets, along with eyewitness accounts, photographs, poster art, leaflets and other documents of France's almost-revolution. City Lights, meanwhile, has published what is the inaugural volume of its "Contributions to the History of the Situationist International and Its Time," a long conversation with Jean-Michel Mension called The Tribe.
Jean-Michel Mension was a petty criminal and teenage drunk who hung around the Saint-Germain-des-Prés neighborhood of Paris from 1952 to 1954. There he met the Lettrists, a movement of poets and painters founded in the late 1940s by Isidore Isou in response to the growing impotence of Surrealism, and taught them to smoke hash, snort ether and consume heroic amounts of alcohol. It was in this capacity that Mension met Guy Debord, the bookish filmmaker who would later become the chief theorist of the SI.
In the photos throughout The Tribe, Debord is bespectacled and a bit short, resembling a young Woody Allen. Yet his slight physical stature belied a ferocious intellect and messianic personality, one that Marcus in Lipstick Traces identifies in young rebels from eighteenth-century blasphemer Saint-Just to punk rocker Johnny Rotten. "His instincts," says Marcus, "are basically cruel; his manner is intransigent.... He is beyond temptation, because despite his utopian rhetoric satisfaction is the last thing on his mind.... He trails bitter comrades behind him like Hansel his breadcrumbs."
Debord, says Mension, was fascinated by outlaws and by the prisons and reformatories where they could be found. Not that Debord was destined for prison--Mension notes that he lived a "very bourgeois" lifestyle, once finding his friend at home in Rue Racine "in the role of a gent in a dressing gown." Like the Beats in America (correctly characterized by the SI as "that right wing of the youth revolt"), the Lettrists saw in antisocial behavior the revolt they longed for. The young, said Isou in 1953, were "slaves, tools...the property of others, regardless of class, because they have no real freedom of choice...to win real independence they must revolt against their very nonexistence." Mension was a model for the Lettrists in that he refused to be a slave or a tool, was "always on the margins," always drunk.
"Guy taught me stuff about thinkers," says Mension, "and I taught him stuff about practice, action." Young men like Isou and Debord needed delinquents like Mension, whom they later expelled from the Lettrists for being "merely decorative." Mension was not an intellectual and did not pretend to be. "I was a youngster," says Mension, "who had done things that [Debord] was incapable of doing.... I was the existential principle and he was the theoretician."
Even in his own memoir, Mension comes off as the object of others' interpretations rather than as an active subject. The most engaging parts of The Tribe are not the conversations with Mension, who is vague and noncommittal about the great ideas of his day, but the photographs and excerpts of Lettrist writing that appear in the margins of the book. For example: "We are young and good-looking," says their leaflet against Charlie Chaplin, whom they deemed an artistic and political sellout, "and when we hear suffering we reply Revolution." Combining ironic arrogance with self-righteous anger, their words will be instantly familiar to anyone acquainted with the rhetoric of youth revolt. The Tribe is not the place to go if you are trying to understand Lettrism and its influence on other movements, but it is a charming sketch of a time and place where characters like Mension and Debord collided to create new ways of living and thinking.
In 1957 Guy Debord met with avant-garde artists and theorists from around Europe to found a new group, which would be devoted to creating situations: "moment[s] of life concretely and deliberately constructed by the collective organization of a unitary ambiance and a game of events." The Situationists were leftists in the tradition of Karl Marx and Rosa Luxemburg, but like the Lettrists they embraced youth as agents of revolutionary change--a mad and astonishingly prescient challenge to the sociological orthodoxy of their time. They also developed a radical new vision of how capital shapes culture and society.
"In the primitive phase of capitalist accumulation," writes Debord in his 1967 treatise The Society of the Spectacle, "political economy sees the proletarian only as the worker," who receives only enough compensation to survive. When the surplus of commodities reaches a certain level, however, it becomes necessary for capitalism to extract "a surplus of collaboration from the worker." As Henry Ford famously remarked, he had to pay his assembly-line workers enough so that they could afford to buy his cars. Thus was born the culture of consumption--and the society of the spectacle.
"The spectacle," says Debord, is "capital accumulated until it becomes an image" that mediates social relations among people, serving the needs and obscuring the power of capital. In the spectacular economy, all daily life and everything related to thought--sports, advertising, news, school, etc.--is mobilized on behalf of commodities, preaching work and consumption to the powerless so that the owners may prosper and live more fully. Unlike the rest of the Marxist left, the Situationists did not target scarcity, but instead abundance and the contradictions it entailed--especially boredom, which they saw as an ultramodern, artificially created method of social control.
According to Situationism, revolution in the spectacular economy cannot be waged only at the point of industrial production, as Marxists thought, but also at points of consumption and in the realm of image. It was at these points that alienation was deepest, the contradictions sharpest. By destroying the symbols that stand between the owners and nonowners, the underlying machinations of capital might be revealed. The proletariat was still a revolutionary class, but one joined by students, alienated youth and media workers. In 1966, a group of students used their posts in the student government at the University of Strasbourg to publish a stick of dynamite called "On the Poverty of Student Life," by SI member Mustapha Khayati. Thousands of copies were distributed to students at Strasbourg and throughout France, lighting a fuse that eventually ignited a general strike of students and workers in 1968. This is where Beneath the Paving Stones begins, with the moment in which Situationism broke through to its contemporaries.
Snotty and provocative, "On the Poverty of Student Life" asks students "to live instead of devising a lingering death, and to indulge untrammeled desire." By doing so, the erstwhile students would create a situation that goes beyond the point of no return. The spectacle and the mode of hierarchical, exploitative production it represents would be destroyed, replaced (rather magically, it must be said) by workers' councils practicing direct democracy and free individuals living without false desires. Voilà! Utopia!
"On the Poverty of Student Life" popularized ("diffused") the Situationist critique, but the centerpiece of Beneath the Paving Stones is "The Totality for Kids," by Raoul Vaneigem. In thirty elliptical sections, Vaneigem takes the reader from the "prehistoric food-gathering age" to the spectacular information economy and then to the point of revolution. There, says Vaneigem, the dispossessed must each seize their own lives, deliberately constructing each moment in a generalized conflict that stretches from domestic squabbles to classrooms to shop-floor struggles. It's a conception of revolution that encompasses feminism, black power, student power, anticolonial revolt, workers' control and even avant-garde artistic movements.
While Situationist writings, powerful and still relevant, deserve their perennial revival, Beneath the Paving Stones falters by not criticizing and updating Situationist theory and practice. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, it is simply not possible to present the events of 1968 without indulging in a certain radical nostalgia. Not only has postmodernism depoliticized or challenged many Situationist ideas (particularly reader-response theories arguing that nonowners actively participate in shaping the spectacle) but the Situationist legacy is often embraced by radical movements that forget to ask what happened after 1968. They certainly knew how to throw a great party, but they were not particularly interested in the details. The Situationist International ended its life fragmented, isolated, defeated. No other movement or organization was ever pure enough for them, and as personality conflicts and expulsions diminished their ranks, self-indulgent tactics limited their influence.
One can see this self-destructive tendency emerging early on, in the works and lives of those proto-punks, the Lettrists. By seeking to live without contradictions, on the margins where they had the freedom to construct their own daily lives--"we must survive," says Vaneigem, "as antisurvivors"--the Lettrists sacrificed their ability to attack those contradictions. The empty space in Situationist theory, as in many others, lies between constructing individual moments and changing the world. The Surrealists once sought to fill that space with official Communism, but were ultimately forced by Stalinism to sacrifice the subconscious for Socialist Realism. The Situationists learned from their sad example, taking a path that has left their ideas intact but confined to the realm of anthologies and retrospectives. Romanticizing their integrity might be useful, but fetishizing their failure is not. Situationism must be surpassed if it is ever to make a difference.
Recalling what took place before,
We must implore Al Gore: No more.
We have reached the point that the idea of liberty, an idea relatively recent and new, is already in the process of fading from our consciences and our standards of morality, the point that neoliberal globalization is in the process of assuming its opposite: that of a global police state, of a terror of security. Deregulation has ended in maximum security, in a level of restriction and constraint equivalent to that found in fundamentalist societies.--Jean Baudrillard, "L'Esprit du Terrorisme,"
reprinted in Harper's Magazine, February 2002
Sorry to have missed my column deadline. I got delayed at the airport. I was intending to write about the progress of the war on war. I wanted to write about how similar are the wars of words being used in the war on terrorism, the war on crime, the war on drugs, the war on poverty, the war on illiteracy and the war on hunger. I had intended to explore the ramifications of terms like "axis of evil," "triumvirate of terror," "parasites" and the concept of "taking no prisoners" (just detainees).
If I hadn't been delayed, I meant to talk about the war stories we're telling ourselves. That the Geneva Conventions aren't such a big thing. There's just no time for Miranda rights. Civil rights are just not needed. Got to break a few rules to enforce the law.
I was thinking that maybe I am just behind the times. While I wasn't looking, we moved on to less law, more New World Order. It's sort of a military order, as it turns out. It's a religious order too, what with our taxes becoming tithes for Faith Based Initiatives, Soldiers of Fortune and born-again Armies of Compassion.
But order it is, and you've got to admit, an ordered society is a nice and tidy one. Enemies are secretly and sanitarily disposed of. The media are controlled to provide only uplifting images of clean conquest and happy, grateful multitudes. Noisy protesters are swept into neat piles, like leaves. The government encourages village snoops and urban gossips to volunteer their infinite time and darkest thoughts as a way of keeping the rest of us in line. And I don't know much about Afghanistan's Hamid Karzai, but you've got to say this for him: that bias-cut green silk tunic worn over relaxed-fit, wool/linen blend trousers has become "le must" of the fashion world. No wonder Bush is up for that Nobel Peace Prize.
Anyway, that's what I was going to write about, but I didn't have time because I had to take a flight to Philadelphia and I was late because the old man who lives on the next block put his head in my car window as I was about to drive off and he wouldn't remove it while he told me all about how he's our new neighborhood volunteer-for-victory monitor or some such, and he wanted to take an inventory right there and then of any supplies I might have in my house that would be useful in case of national emergency. Any gas masks? Generators? Cell phones? Cudgels? Axes? Prescription drugs?
"Band-Aids," I offered politely. "And could we possibly do this another time?"
"How many people live in your house?" he persisted. "And didn't I see you pushing a baby carriage the other day?"
"Not in many years," I say.
"But I'm sure it was you," he pressed. At that instant I was visited by a very clear image of him on the witness stand. He is white-haired and gentle-eyed, firm-voiced and credible. Even I wanted to believe him so much that I forgot that I had not yet been charged with anything.
When I finally got to the airport I went through the abasements of security, a ritual cleansing of the sort practiced at maximum security prisons: I removed my shoes. I took off my coat. I held out my arms. A guard in a rakish blue beret bestowed apologies like a rain of blessings as she wanded my armpits. "You have an underwire in your bra?" she asked. "You mind if I feel?"
It is hard to be responsive to such a prayer with any degree of grace. It is ceremonial, I know, a warding off of strip-search hell. "Not at all," I intoned, as though singing in Latin.
Another agent was going through my bags. He removed my nail clippers from the intimacy of my makeup pouch and discarded them in a large vat filled with hundreds of nail clippers. A proper sacrifice, I think. I imagine they will distribute them to the poor.
The agent put on rubber gloves and opened my thermos and swirled the coffee around. He removed the contents of my purse and spread it out. When he picked up my leatherbound diary and flipped slowly through the pages, a balloon of irreligiosity exploded at the back of my head, and I could feel the hair rise up, as it does sometimes, getting all militant despite my best prostrations of mousse.
"My diary?" I said as evenly as I could. "This is getting like the old Soviet Union."
"So, you visited the Soviet Union...?" he asked, a glinty new interest hardening what had been his prior languor.
Anyway, I finally got to where I was going. And on my way back from Philadelphia, I wasn't searched at all. They stopped the woman just in front of me, though, and there she stood, shoeless and coatless, with the tampons from her purse emptied upon the altar of a plastic tray. Once on the plane, she and I commiserated, and then the oddest thing happened. Others around us joined in about how invaded and humiliated they felt when searched. The conversation spread across the aisle, then to the seat in front, the row in back. It grew to about five rows of people, all angry at the overseers, all suspicious, all disgruntled and afraid. I was, I admit, strangely relieved to see that we were not only black or brown; we were men and women, white and Asian, young kids, old designer suits. There was a weird, sad kind of unity in our vulnerability, this helplessness of ours. But there was a scary emotional edge to the complaining, a kind of heresy that flickered through it too. What a baffled little coterie we were. Equal opportunity at last.
Anyway, dear editor, that, in short, is why this is not a column. I was having a really bad hair day.