"I remind myself that much of television is now comic strip," Ralph Ellison told TV Guide in 1988. It is not surprising that the author of Invisible Man would be uncomfortable with the cool medium. After all, Ellison's only completed novel repeatedly attacks the vulgarity of literal representation to the point where even the novel's hero is famously nameless. Ellison directs us away from appearances and keeps his hero running, from white cops, black nationalists, hypocritical Communists and corrupt academics, only to find himself nestled in the Dostoyevskian underground of the written word. Regardless of much of its politics, the literary Modernism of Mann, Eliot, Joyce, Faulkner and others provided Ellison with an unlikely harbor from racism; representing that literary process on television is a little like disobeying Kafka's instructions and drawing the insect of The Metamorphosis.
Yet in that same TV Guide interview, Ellison acknowledged that television "while very fleeting, has its permanent side, too, which allows you to go back." Poised somewhere between comic strip, permanence and VH1's Behind the Music, writer-producer-director Avon Kirkland has served up Ellison for middlebrow America in Ralph Ellison: An American Journey. At its worst, Kirkland's documentary stages melodramatic depictions of Ellison's triumphant novel, reducing its hallucinatory nuance to earnest television. At its best, the documentary stages melodramatic depictions of Ellison's disappointing life, and it is this haunting story that makes for a compelling made-for-TV biopic.
Since there is still no published biography of Ellison (there are two in the works, by Lawrence Jackson and Arnold Rampersad), Kirkland has the advantage of telling a story that has never been told in public before, at least not in any sustained, ostensibly objective way. Ellison may have told the story of hopping a freight train to enroll in Tuskegee as a scholarship student in an essay; but until you've seen his bandaged student ID and heard the narration of the story with a montage of trains, hobos and predators to the strains of Howlin' Wolf, it's not quite real in the way that TV makes events seem real. And unless you've dug through his archives at the Library of Congress, happened to be watching when, say, he was being interrogated by Bryant Gumbel on the Today show or had the opportunity to actually speak with him in person, Ellison's TV persona--with his halting, Oklahoman elegance and stammering, reticent speech--may seem at first a great contrast to the defiant iconoclast you would find in his writing. Instead, whether you see him recount how he modestly resisted Richard Wright's suggestion that he try his hand at fiction writing, humbly insist why he thought T.S. Eliot and Louis Armstrong were similar in their approaches, or listen to his own readings of his unfinished second novel--looking simultaneously bewildered and amused by the cadences of his own voice and the eccentricity of his own prose--he is the image of a man haunted. One photograph shows him hunched over the typewriter, with whiskey decanter ominously prominent, as the narrator gives us Ellison's account of his lack of productivity in the 1960s. Referring to the mounting attacks on his integrationist vision from the kind of black nationalist voices he had already dreamed up in the figure of Invisible Man's Ras the Destroyer, Ellison said simply, "It's hard to write with a clenched fist."
Audiences have thrilled to rise-and-fall stories from Oedipus to VH1's Behind the Music. But unlike the self-destruction of kitschy pop stars, Ellison's supernova is a genuine tragedy; the stakes presented are nothing less than high art and racial understanding, and it is these stakes that are so at odds with a medium that favors sensationalism over sensation, and sentimentality over sentiment. "Why do I write, torturing myself to put it down?" asks the narrator of Invisible Man. Ellison answers with another question: "Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?"
Ellison was particular about the way he did speak for us, and he made it clear that his own prose would be the only truly acceptable medium for this representation. The Modernist who retreated from the superficial expectations imposed by racism into the perfection of his own art would probably have been troubled to see key episodes in his novel--the grandfather's deathbed speech, the Battle Royal episode, the revelation at the Liberty Paints factory--transformed from literary phantasmagoria into searing teleplay, in which Ellison's ironies are turned into pieties and his jokes are transformed into obvious slogans. This is what television usually does, of course, but the very reason Ellison the documentary subject becomes a hero is that his achievement is in the less-than-telegenic activity of spending long hours in front of the typewriter.
But even if Kirkland's documentary reduces Ellison's novel to comic strip, the medium serves him well to provide the cultural context so crucial to Ellison's reading of America. The sights and sounds of Ellison's early life--complete with baby pictures, Tuskegee footage and Jimmy Rushing clips--are expertly captured, and anyone who wants to understand Ellison's world would have to confront this context. Kirkland also succeeds by producing useful soundbites from commentators, including Robert O'Meally, Morris Dickstein, Farah Griffin, R.W.B. Lewis and especially Cornel West--who delivers his riffs like a Baptist preacher with borscht-belt timing and a Marxist liturgy. A word that many of these commentators use repeatedly is "complexity," a favorite of Ellison's. Yet sometimes complexity can be sacrificed for storytelling, especially on television.
This disparity is certainly evident when Henry Wingate tells a famous story of Ellison's confrontation with a black nationalist at Grinnell College in 1967. According to Wingate's version, when Ellison was called an Uncle Tom, he "became unglued and began to cry, repeating, 'I'm not an Uncle Tom, I'm not an Uncle Tom.'" Wingate, a federal judge, should be taken at his word, but the late Willie Morris, in his memoir New York Days, allowed Ellison to retort, "What do you know about my life? It's easy for you. You're just a straw in the wind. Get on your motorcycle and go back to Chicago and throw some Molotov cocktails. That's all you'll ever know about." Kirkland's version, corroborated by Morris's son, paints Ellison as the kind of helpless victim his own work avoided depicting. Morris's version allows Ellison to fight back--perhaps a little less congenial to a PBS tearjerker.
Of course, even a tragic TV documentary needs an optimistic denouement, and Kirkland provides it with the 1999 publication of Juneteenth. Ellison's inability to produce a follow-up to Invisible Man was the bane of his existence, and perhaps the most frustrating literary waiting game in recent memory. We see Ellison lose more than 350 pages of the manuscript in a fire, retreat from public appearances at the horror of having to answer yet another question about the book, and become an alcoholic hermit, obsessively poring over manuscripts. What the documentary doesn't mention is the quite legitimate argument leveled by many scholars, including Louis Menand in the New York Times Book Review, that Juneteenth isn't really an Ellison novel at all but a dubiously edited and spuriously marketed attempt by Random House to collect on its advance. Instead, we are shown a mellifluous reading by Toni Morrison of a passage from the book, with Robert O'Meally asserting that the passage seemed, "for that day, the greatest thing that had ever been written." We also see GQ writer-at-large Terrence Rafferty acknowledging that while Juneteenth may not have achieved its vast ambitions, it is, "like America, forever a work in progress."
It is true that textual scholarship does not usually make for good television, but there might have been another way to end the show on a triumphant note without making inflated claims for a highly disputed book. What the documentary could have shown was the rise of overtly Ellisonian institutions like the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard, where founder and chair Henry Louis Gates has done considerable work in restoring Ellison's reputation while using Ellisonian criteria as a curricular model, and Jazz at Lincoln Center, where Ellison's vision of jazz has been a guiding principle for his confidant Albert Murray and his disciples Stanley Crouch and Wynton Marsalis.
Fifty years ago, Ellison's notions that Louis Armstrong was an icon of artistic independence; that white and black culture were interdependent; and that there was more than a unicausal explanation for the rise of black American culture were the product of an original, idiosyncratic and routinely attacked individual. In the past few years alone, Ellison's afterlife has been more prolific than the last forty years of his life: Philip Roth's The Human Stain successfully used the theme of passing that Ellison struggled with throughout the writing of his unfinished novel. Spike Lee's Bamboozled, filled with overt references to Invisible Man, was also a perverse riff on Ellison's integrationism, portraying whites and blacks as equally complicit in a common cultural phenomenon. And Ken Burns's Jazz demonstrated how Ellison's reading of Louis Armstrong as a transcendent genius who could "bend a military instrument into a beam of lyrical sound" could provide a significant basis for another PBS program. The frequencies of that station may not have been able to pick up on the full range of Ralph Ellison, but a rereading of his prophetic writings will continually remind us that, on the lower frequencies, he speaks for us more than ever.
I must say that Katha Pollitt's exquisite and moving memorial to Pierre Bourdieu ["Subject to Debate," Feb. 18] brought a little warmth to this soul, calloused and made cynical by the current state of things in the world. As a sociologist/social activist whose venue for change has been healthcare and medical education, I have seen Bourdieu as one of my guiding lights, both intellectually and morally. In keeping with Bourdieu's central thesis, contemporary American medicine clearly qualifies as a "stratified social system of hierarchy and domination that persists and reproduces intergenerationally without powerful resistance and without the conscious recognition of [its] members."
His moral stance, regardless of his own stature in the academy, served as a source of reaffirmation for me in my relationship with my students, whose personal and professional development was nurtured through providing care to the disadvantaged in the inner city of Chicago or making themselves vulnerable to the needs of the disfranchised in Africa, southeastern Europe or Central America.
Regarding Richard Posner, that silly ass, besides his megalomania (a contagious virus that seems to have reached epidemic proportions in the law school and economics department at the University of Chicago), he is the prime example of the philosophical conservative who is willing to pay the price of other people's suffering for his own principles.
EDWARD J. ECKENFELS
ENRON RON-RON-RON , O ENRON-RON
I'm still scratching my head after reading Alexander Cockburn's attack on my support for Enron's merger with the Portland General Electric Company (PGE) almost five years ago ["Beat the Devil," Jan. 7/14]. His baffling conclusion that "the role of that green seal of approval [in Enron's collapse] should not be forgotten" is a non sequitur of the highest order.
Natural Resources Defense Council was part of a coalition of environmental and consumer groups that negotiated an agreement with the merging companies on future investment in energy efficiency, renewable energy, watershed restoration and low-income energy services. Cockburn is indignant that I said I trusted Enron to execute the agreement. But Cockburn, who never called me before publishing his diatribe, evidently didn't check to find out what actually happened. Enron and PGE did indeed meet their merger obligations, and environmental and consumer interests were among the winners. Enron left in place a hometown management group with a commitment to improved performance on both environmental and equity issues. Its subsequent decision to leave the utility business, long before its collapse, had no adverse environmental consequences at PGE or elsewhere.
There is no connection between Enron's current calamity and the merger that NRDC and many others supported conditionally nearly five years ago. Only Cockburn's overactive imagination could suggest otherwise.
Natural Resources Defense Council
Lest your readers believe that all Oregon environmental groups were bought off by Enron, none of my clients agreed to the contract ("memorandum") with Enron. In fact, the Utility Reform Project, Lloyd Marbet and Larry Tuttle appealed the Oregon Public Utility Commission's 1997 merger approval to the courts, where we eventually lost in December 2000.
As of October 1, 2001, Enron was granted a $400 million (41 percent) annual rate increase by the Oregon commission. Enron also squirmed out of its merger commitment to pay its Oregon ratepayers $105 million for the use of assets paid for by those ratepayers, after having paid only $32 million.
Former PGE executives Ken Harrison and Joseph Hirko cashed in more than $110 million in Enron stock options before the collapse, while hundreds of PGE employees lost their life savings while locked into a 401(k) plan that consisted of 58 percent Enron stock, now essentially worthless. The Enron bankruptcy now threatens to dismember PGE (with transmission and hydro assets sold out from under state regulation), which would cause massive additional rate hikes.
Thank you, Alexander Cockburn, for beginning an important dialogue about the harm done when environmental groups run interference for corporations. The Enron debacle in Portland, Oregon, is just one piece of the story about how certain organizations and their funders promoted utility deregulation in the name of protecting the environment. Some even lent their names to defeat a grassroots initiative movement in California to stop the nuclear bailout associated with the deregulation legislation in the state.
Early in the debate over deregulation, a small group of us working on energy issues argued with the funders and environmental proponents of deregulation. We pleaded with them to put their resources and leadership behind a grassroots movement against electricity deregulation, consolidation in the electricity industry and a bailout for the nuclear utilities. Our arguments fell on deaf ears. The dissenting organizations formed a coalition against deregulation called the Ratepayers for Green Electricity. Over the next several years we fought deregulation, but always on a shoestring because the prevailing wisdom was to "cooperate and deregulate."
Since then, with the blessing and help of some public-interest advocates, deregulation bills have passed in more than twenty states. The crumbs the environmental supporters of deregulation got in exchange for their support are not lasting or significant enough to protect consumers or the environment. We predict more trouble ahead as these deregulation bills are phased in. Fortunately, so far no federal legislation has been enacted, although the proponents of deregulation are still pushing for it.
Furthermore, as we predicted, deregulation has been a disaster for consumers and the environment. Prices are higher, and the promised increase in competition has not come to pass. Rather than creating a green market for renewable energy, deregulation has resulted in thousands of megawatts of new, nonrenewable electricity plants being built or planned. Energy-efficiency programs have lost ground, and the entire thrust is to use more electricity, since under deregulation there is no incentive to save it.
But what is more important than the hollow victory of saying we told you so or naming names is understanding the lessons of the deregulation battle. Deregulation and privatization of public services is about making a profit (just watch the coming industry efforts to privatize water), not about helping consumers or protecting the environment. When environmental groups sign off on these deals in hopes of good will from profit-hungry corporations, they are deluding themselves and betraying the public. Environmental organizations and the foundations that support them should take a hard look at the "market-based" strategy and start putting their resources into creating a broad-based grassroots movement to protect people and the environment.
Energy & Environment Program
Just to inject one tiny sliver of reality into Ralph Cavanagh's bland tissue of self-exculpation, which will be read with hilarity in Oregon. Portland General Electric sought and received $340 million in rate hikes on PGE customers for federal income taxes over the past three years. It shipped the money to Enron HQ in Houston. Over that period, Enron paid only $17 million in taxes in 1998, nothing in 1999 or in 2000. In fact, the company got a big tax rebate.
OUR LEADERS NEED TO HEAR THIS
In "And Darkness Covered the Land" [Dec. 24] Robert I. Friedman has given voice to what very few other US journalists have the guts to say--that people don't blow themselves up in crowded restaurants because their Coke doesn't have enough ice. It takes desperation to commit suicide for one's cause. America's role in the Palestinian apartheid is appalling and intensely hypocritical. Thank you to Friedman for having the cojones to point it out. If only our government would listen before our military support of Israel leads to more blood spilt on our or any other country's soil.
Yet another nauseatingly inaccurate and biased dispatch from Israel. Just to correct the (intentional?) inaccuracies would take almost as many pages as this article runs. Just one example: No one disputes that Arabs feel perfectly safe in Jewish towns in Israel. However, no Jew would venture into an Arab village, as brutal death awaits those who do, like the two Jewish kids lost on a hike who were stoned to death. By the time Truth has put on her shoes, Lie has run twice around the globe. It is tragic that The Nation supports Lie before an international audience.
EVA S. BELAVSKY
Robert Friedman's article makes clear the real tragedy for both the Israeli and Palestinian people. All Americans should read it. Our leaders should read it at least twice.
What can we do to get a movement going in this country to demand that the United States and/or the United Nations impose and enforce a peace settlement? Sharon, as Friedman points out, has no desire for a peace that would give a viable country to the Palestinians. Conditions in the West Bank and Gaza can only breed more hatred and consequently more suicide bombers. An imposed peace settlement, which could be altered as cooler heads emerge on both sides, would save face for Israel and Palestine.
Why, if the world can impose peace and peacekeepers between the Greeks and the Turks in Cyprus; between Albanians and Serbs in Kosovo; between Albanians and Slavs in Macedonia; and among the Croats, Serbs and Muslims in Bosnia, why not between Israelis and Palestinians? I am old enough to remember when Gdansk was Danzig, and now the Germans and Poles manage to live in peace. I would rather have my tax money supporting peacekeepers than supplying military equipment to Israel. And certainly a more even-handed US relationship with Israel and Palestine would have immense ramifications for a real peace between the West and the Muslim world.
MILDRED P. KATZ
AN INADVERTENT DECAPITATION
In last week's issue, we inadvertently lopped off the head of artist Jonathan Twingley's name, rendering him Jonathan Wingley. (His illustrations appear on pages 11, 16 and 18.) Our apologies.
Like last year's freewheeling Senate debate on the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill, this week's debate on the House version of McCain-Feingold, the Shays-Meehan bill, provided an all-too-rare display of what an engaged Congress might look like.
Not only did the reform coalition break through the barricades erected by the House Republican coalition to win an unexpectedly wide 240-189 vote, it sparked a debate worthy of what is, after all, supposed to be a deliberative body.
For the most part these days, Congressional debates are defined by both their brevity and their vapid nature. Consider the embarrassingly abbreviated discourse over providing George W. Bush with the authority to respond to the September 11 terrorist attacks -- not exactly an inconsequential matter -- and it is easy to understand why so many Americans doubt whether this Congress is capable of a serious discussion.
Have US forces in Afghanistan engaged in war crimes?
That's a provocative question, the sort of query that few, if any, reporters at the Pentagon br...
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.