"Actions approved by the U.S. government aggravated political polarization and affected Chile's long tradition of democratic elections and respect for constitutional order and the rule of law," reads a White House press release that accompanied the November 13 declassification of 16,000 secret government documents on Chile. That statement, contorted bureaucratese for admitting a US contribution to undermining Chilean democracy and backing a brutal dictatorship, falls far short of accepting US accountability for the national and human horror experienced in Chile--an acknowledgment necessary for Chileans and Americans to reach closure on this shameful history.
The release marks the final installment of the Clinton Administration's special Chile Declassification Project. "One goal of the project," according to the White House statement--issued by the press secretary rather than in the name of the President--"is to put original documents before the public so that it may judge for itself the extent to which US actions undercut the cause of democracy and human rights in Chile." Among the 24,000 documents declassified over the past two years are secret cables, memorandums and reports making that judgment perfectly clear.
The new documents dramatically record the imperial spectacle of high-level US efforts to destroy Chilean democracy in order to prevent an elected socialist, Salvador Allende, from governing. In a declassified transcript of a November 6, 1970, National Security Council meeting, President Nixon and selected Cabinet members casually discuss the need to "do everything we can to hurt [Allende] and bring him down." There, in bald terms, the historical record reveals the callous willingness to promote upheaval and bloodshed to achieve this goal. "You have asked us to provoke chaos in Chile," the CIA station chief in Santiago cabled headquarters in October 1970 during covert efforts to foment a coup; "we provide you with [a] formula for chaos." The CIA Chilean coup-plotters predicted at least 10,000 casualties if the military coup went forward. "Carnage could be considerable and prolonged i.e. civil war."
The CIA knew a year before the coup that Pinochet was prone to ruthlessness. An intriguing intelligence report records Pinochet as saying in September 1972 that "Allende must be forced to step down or be eliminated." A Chilean informant, who apparently accompanied Pinochet on a trip to Panama to purchase US tanks for the Chilean military, told the CIA that US Army personnel based at the Southern Command had assured them, "US will support coup against Allende 'with whatever means necessary,' when time comes."
In the United States, revelations of covert operations to destabilize the Allende government caused a major scandal in the mid-1970s. In Chile, where even the pro-Pinochet media have been forced to report on the declassified US records, this history is only now having a major impact on the national psyche. Throughout the country, there is outrage at this dramatic evidence of US intervention in Chile's internal affairs. A group of prominent senators has demanded that the Chilean government formally protest US "violations of our sovereignty and dignity" and have summoned the foreign minister to explain what action the government of Ricardo Lagos intends to take toward Washington. Privately, Chilean government officials have requested that the United States clearly acknowledge actions that helped change the course of Chilean history.
The Clinton White House considered such an acknowledgment to accompany the final documents' release--but in the end decided against it. Some officials fear that Washington could be held liable for covert war crimes in Chile--that the long arm of international justice that nabbed Augusto Pinochet could someday reach US officials. Although President Clinton did apologize to Guatemala for Washington's cold war policy of aiding and abetting repression--"support for military forces or intelligence units which engaged in violent and widespread repression," the President stated in Guatemala City last year, "was wrong, and the United States will not repeat that mistake"--no similar statement on Chile will be forthcoming. With the declassified documents, we now have a fuller accounting of the US role in Chile--but with no accountability.
They laughed when I sat down with these two writers--and never mind that both books arrived in the same box. The bad gay boy and the cold war saint! The apostle of derangement and the lexicographer of Newspeak! The red cape and the tweed jacket, the rotting knee and the lousy lung, the drunken boat and the memory hole! "I came to find my mind's disorder sacred," said the poet on a camel. "Good prose is like a window pane," said the novelist who shot elephants.
But both Arthur Rimbaud and George Orwell did go down-and-out in Paris and London. Both their fathers were mostly absent, doing time as globocops in Third World tropics of the French and British empires. (On a sand dune, Captain Rimbaud taught himself Bedouin ways, the better to repress them. Orwell's dad was a deputy opium agent, making sure the poppy juice got from India to the Chinese addicts.) Both their mothers loved cards more than kids. Both sons, hating school, gifted at languages, hostile to religion, intrigued by popular culture, would follow their fathers to the colonies, enlist in foreign wars, lose not only their tempers but also amazing amounts of manuscript and die younger than they should have, after dreaming up and acting out alternative identities. (Take a hike, Eric Blair: "I is somebody else.")
Both live on as cautionary tales, litmus tests, celebrity role models and undead icons. In his wickedly entertaining revised version of Rimbaud, Graham Robb points to his posthumous career "as Symbolist, Surrealist, Beat poet, student revolutionary, rock lyricist, gay pioneer and inspired drug-user," as well as "an emergency exit from the house of convention" for avant-gardes everywhere. Well-thumbed copies of A Season in Hell and The Illuminations are to be found in the portmanteaus of Picasso, Breton, Cocteau and Malraux and in the backpacks of Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, Bruce Chatwin and Kurt Cobain. Jim Morrison, that swinging Door, is even rumored "to have faked his death in Paris and followed Rimbaud to Ethiopia"--just the right splash of mythic Tabasco.
Whereas Orwell's name is mentioned every time we are looked down upon by surveillance cameras, lied to by governments, read about journalists who have been "disappeared" or hear about dissidents in mental hospitals. Big Brother is a member of our extended family, the pigs go on drinking all the milk and eating all the apples, and the SLORC word for Burma in Newspeak is "Myanmar." In Democracy, her 1984 (!) novel of skulduggery on the Pacific Rim, Joan Didion would notice that "all reporters had paperback copies of Homage to Catalonia, and kept them in the same place where they kept the matches and the candle and the notebook, for when the hotel was bombed." So postmodern is Curious George that he has even been abducted by such aliens as Norman Podhoretz.
And both for a season or so professed revolutionary socialism. Even if the moment passed like measles, Rimbaud was there for the Paris Commune, and Orwell was there for the Spanish Republic, and these, of course, are two of the biggest Super Bowl games in the left's long losing streak, and it makes you want to weep.
Robb reminds us that the massacre of the Communards in 1871 "was the bloodiest week in French history: a savage humiliation of the proletariat. Thousands were shot, inexpertly tortured or shipped to the penal colonies without a proper trial. Women carrying bottles in the street were bayoneted by soldiers who had heard of the mythical, bomb-throwing 'pétroleuses.' More people died during la Semaine Sanglante than in the Reign of Terror or the Franco-Prussian War." While the Rimbaud article in my Britannica omits any mention of the Commune, the young poet yo-yo'd in and out of all of it, and Robb suggests that he may have been raped by a gang of soldiers while trying to slip through the lines a couple of weeks before the slaughter, after which he wrote his famous Lettre du Voyant--announcing the poet as Romantic Lucifer and Promethean Satan, whose job it was to rescue man from God.
On the open wound of the Spanish Republic, Jeffrey Meyers quotes Albert Camus: "It was in Spain that men learned that one can be right and yet be beaten, that force can vanquish spirit, that there are times when courage is not its own recompense. It is this, doubtless, which explains why so many men, the world over, regard the Spanish drama as a personal tragedy." Certainly it was personal for Orwell. On his first Barcelona stop, he found a socialist community "where no one was on the make, where there was a shortage of everything but no privilege and no bootlicking," and dining rooms in the luxury hotels had been turned into canteens for the militia. But his second time around, he saw fat men eating quails while children begged for bread, and the commissars were hunting down his anarchist friends like deer. And then he took a bullet in the throat.
Anyway, both of them were lonely guys: vagabonds and vanishing acts. And they somehow hang together, coincidental and corresponding, in a rainbow arc from the Cult of the Artist to the Writer on the Barricades to Joe DiMaggio for Mr. Coffee and Bob Dole for Viagra. In Democracy, Joan Didion also quotes Kierkegaard: "Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards."
It can only be the end of the world, ahead of time.
"The first poet of a civilization not yet born," as René Char called him, showed up on October 20, 1854, in Charleville in French Flanders, three years after Napoleon III's coup d'état. At age 4, already precocious, he tried to trade his baby sister for some colored prints in a bookshop window. At age 6, his father shipped off for Algeria and never came back, leaving Arthur at the mercy of a mother devoted to church, shopping and whist, with a "phenomenal capacity for not showing affection." At age 7, he entered the "corpse-yellow" rooms of the local lycée as if preparing "for a life in prison." By age 14, he had inhaled all of French poetry, won every academic prize and developed acute self-consciousness:
I have the bluish-white eyes of my ancestors the Gauls, their small brains, their clumsiness in battle. I find my dress as barbaric as theirs. But I do not butter my hair.
Picture him in the summer of 1870, chatting up navvies and quarrymen, reading Verlaine for the first time and stowing away under a seat on the train to Paris, where he will be arrested on suspicion of republicanism and/or spying for Bismarck, and spend maybe a week in prison, during which not even Robb can say for sure what happens to him, except lice. There followed, as if on an elastic string that kept snapping him back to "the Mouth of Darkness," as he called his disapproving mother, an itchy six-month period of itinerant journalism, cafe polemics, bohemian sonnets and shopping for surrogate fathers, during which he swore like a prisoner, ate like a pig, refused to pass the salt and came to believe that "the mind could be shaped by an act of will," that morality "is a weakness of the brain" and that Society "will fall to the axe, the pick and the steamroller."
In the cities, the mud suddenly appeared to me red and black, like a mirror when the lamp moves about in the next room, like a treasure in the forest! Good luck, I cried, and saw a sea of flames and smoke in the sky, and, to left and to right, all riches blazing like a billion thunders.
This is a kid ready for a Commune. He sells his watch for a third-class ticket to Paris in February 1871, and for two weeks walks the streets "feasting on theatre bills, advertisements, pamphlets and shop signs," sleeping on coal barges, competing with dogs for scraps of food--a "vagrant poet with a fish in his pants." Six days after he has hoofed it home, workers rise, generals are lynched and he has to go back again: "Paris had fallen to poets who worked with laws and human beings instead of words." A new chief of police removes "Saint" from every street name and issues a warrant for God's arrest. Maybe words actually do have "a direct, controllable influence on reality."
"Order is vanquished!" declares the 16-year-old, and writes his own revolutionary Constitution: A permanent state of referendum! Abolition of families and their "slave-holding" of children! Communication with animals, plants and extraterrestrials! He will return in late April, at the delirious height of the Commune, to enlist as a Left Bank guerrilla: "To whom shall I hire myself? What beast should I worship? What holy image are we attacking? Which hearts shall I break? What lie must I keep?--In what blood shall I walk?" When government troops bomb their own capital, he slips away, suffers what he suffers and enters the gaudy tent of his own legend: "I owe my superiority to the fact that I have no heart."
In fact, says Robb, he has decided "to seize control of the means of intellectual production.... In terms that were unavailable to him in 1871, he was considering the possibility of detaching the censorious superego from the endlessly imaginative id." And the "superego incarnate" is Mme. Rimbaud, from whom he's always hiding out in attics, cellars or latrines, and to whom he always returns, until Africa. You are saying this is reductive. But every once in a while, praxis so improves on theory that we get a penguin.
That summer of 1871 he posts a batch of poems to Verlaine so full of kinky innuendo that The Nasty Fellows raise a subscription to bring the prodigy to the capital and subsidize his genius. Rimbaud arrives with "a strange nostalgia for the future," one of the most remarkable poems in any language, "The Drunken Boat," and a plan to fold, bend, spindle and mutilate his own personality. Almost immediately, he will trash hotel rooms like a rock star and leave turds behind on pillows. Verlaine, of course, will fall in love with him, when he isn't rotting his brain with absinthe or setting his wife's hair on fire. Verlaine is easy to make fun of only if you've never been smitten by somebody bad for you, or until you are reminded that Pol Pot was one of his great admirers.
We are now in familiar territory, with the familiar contradictions. Rimbaud the vandal, hooligan, sadist and "murderous" prankster is also the Rimbaud who writes a lovely article about "human alarm-clocks" who for a small fee rush around in the early hours in the poorer sections of the city waking up factory workers. The "vile, vicious, disgusting, smutty little schoolboy" is also the author of the marvelous "Voyelles," a poem in which each vowel has its own color (noir, blanc, rouge, vert, bleu)--inspired by Ernest Cabaner, a composer who plays piano in a bar, collects old shoes to use as flowerpots and believes that each note of the octave corresponds to a particular color and vowel. According to Robb:
This is the ambiguity that lies at the heart of Rimbaud's work: the ardent search for powerful systems of thought that could be used like magic spells, conducted by an acutely ironic intelligence--a combination that rarely survives adolescence gracefully.
He loses a notebook, the Belgian poems and the manuscript of "Spiritual Hunt." Since he believes "every being...to be entitled to several other lives," why not go to England, live with Verlaine in Soho, grub sixpence from writing business letters and teaching French, admire the boys in tight-fitting suits waiting outside public urinals and read Shakespeare, Longfellow, Poe and Swinburne? Certainly, like all ex-Communards in jittery Europe, they are spied upon and hassled. So should they be. They hobnob with the socialist underground. They see Karl Marx. Robb even suggests that several of The Illuminations can be construed as glosses on Kapital--on "the alienated consumers of the modern metropolis, the disinherited masses, the resurrectionary mythology of the Commune and the magic wand of global capitalism."
Not so his astonishing A Season in Hell, in which Modernism rears its contrary head; in which experiments with language are investigations into the unstable self; in which, "like a particle accelerator," repellent forms of thought collide: Job and Goethe; fairy tales and Taine; Fleurs du Mal and "the Mouth of Darkness." "Rimbaud, at the age of 18, had invented a linguistic world that can be happily explored for years like the scrapyard of a civilization." After which, confoundingly, he abandoned literature, France, fame and Mme. Rimbaud.
Well, now: Brussels, Stuttgart, Milan, Siena. Enlisting in the Carlist rebel army, then absconding with the cash bonus. Enlisting in the Dutch Colonial Army, then deserting the minute he gets to Java. Trying to enlist in the US Navy, then having instead to run off to Scandinavia with a circus. Going over the Alps on foot, setting sail for Alexandria, learning Russian, Arabic and Hindi. Discovering at last that while no tree grows in Aden, there is a nearby Forbidden City unseen by Europeans since Richard Burton, and money to be made trading coffee, tobacco, incense, ivory, spices, spears, swords, ostrich eggs, animal skins and guns. He will wear a turban, keep a woman, chew khat, catch syphilis, ride camels, write mom, lose another manuscript (on Abyssinia) and then his right leg (to bone cancer). At the end, he refuses opium for fear of what he might say in his delirium to his sister.
Disregard previous rumors, even in Enid Starkie. He neither converted to Islam nor traded in slaves, though you couldn't do business in his part of Africa without cutting the warlords in on the deal. What he did do, by selling guns to Menelik, was help an African army defeat a European nation--well, at least Italy--for the first time. Disregard as well the Tragic Aura. He didn't die bitter and broke. He actually made a lot of money, which he hid from his mother in bank accounts all over the Middle East. Some people are still looking for it.
Some people are also still looking for the poet. Rimbaud killed him off when he stopped living with other people, after he realized that the world couldn't be changed by verbal innovation. Literature, Robb explains, hadn't worked:
For Rimbaud, poetry had always been the means to an end: winning esteem, causing irritation, changing the nature of reality. Each redefinition of the goal had rendered the old technology obsolete. The prose Rimbaud had shown no more nostalgia for verse than most mathematicians showed for their slide-rules after the invention of the personal computer.
It's hard to read this as anything other than a triumph of capitalism over Bohemia.
My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice.
(Orwell, "Why I Write")
Orwell lasted ten years longer, but all of it was much less thrilling. And so, compared to Graham Robb, is Jeffrey Meyers. Whether, after two volumes by William Abrahams and Peter Stansky, one full-length bio by Bernard Crick, another by Michael Shelden, a short and elegant "Literary Life" by the editor of the twenty-volume Complete Works, Peter Davison, and a brilliant black valentine by Raymond Williams in the "Modern Masters" series, we even need another account is open to question. "'Father Knew George Orwell' is a cracked old song," wrote Williams almost three decades ago. But the centennial of his birth will be upon us in three short years, so batten down your aspidistra.
According to Meyers, he felt guilty about everything: "his colonial heritage, his bourgeois background, his inverted snobbery and his elite education," not to mention his behavior as a policeman in Burma, his inability to get himself arrested while he was collecting material for Down and Out and maybe even the uncircumcised penis that so mortified him at Eton among such contemporaries as Anthony Powell, Henry Green and Harold Acton. And so his whole life was a kind of penance, never taking care of himself, doing it all the hard way, always off to another dangerous front, ending up on an island off the coast of Scotland as far away from medical attention as an Englishman with tuberculosis could get. "All these risky moves were prompted by the inner need to sabotage his chance of a happy life," Meyers the schoolmarm tells us.
We've heard this before, from everybody else, and it still doesn't explain anything. How many boys went to Eton and not to Spain? How many writers went to Spain, like Hemingway, and failed to notice anything peculiar? How come Lawrence Durrell and Anthony Burgess never felt guilty about their colonial service or imperial privilege? Who else (who didn't have to) went down the Wigan mines, or into the casual wards of a public hospital to find out how the poor died, or saw a man hanged and decided on the spot, "When a murderer is hanged, there is only one person at the ceremony who is not guilty of murder"?
From Meyers, we also get a surprising amount of sex, all of it depressing. Orwell was nervous about women, apparently not much good in bed and would complain in his "Last Literary Notebook" about "their incorrigible dirtiness & untidiness" and "their terrible, devouring sexuality":
Within any marriage or regular love affair, he suspected that it was always the woman who was the sexually insistent partner. In his experience women were quite insatiable, & never seemed fatigued by no matter how much love-making.... In any marriage of more than a year or two's standing, intercourse was thought of as a duty, a service owed by the man to the woman. And he suspected that in every marriage the struggle was always the same--the man trying to escape from sexual intercourse, to do it only when he felt like it (or with other women), the woman demanding it more & more, & more & more consciously despising her husband for his lack of virility.
How does this square with his adventures in Rangoon brothels or among Parisian trollops and Berber girls in Marrakech? Was the former colonial cop and declassed intellectual only capable of getting it up with the lower orders? Raymond Williams was much exercised by this class angle in Orwell--an unconscious condescension, a double standard, a writing off of the brute masses because he'd come to feel all politics "was a mode of adjustment to one's own wishes and fantasies." Hadn't he, in Nineteen Eighty-Four, projected his own apathy on the oppressed proles by insisting that, "Under the spreading chestnut tree/I sold you and you sold me"?
But these are difficult thoughts, getting into what Williams called Orwell's "submerged despairs"--the "radical pessimism" and "accommodation to capitalism" of this self-described "shock-absorber of the bourgeoisie." Meyers will no more entertain them than he will explore the kind of craft questions that bring out the best in Peter Davison--on, for instance, how those magnificent essays about elephants, toads and Dickens got themselves written. Or the precise debt of Nineteen Eighty-Four to Yevgeny Zamyatin's We, Jack London's Iron Heel and Katherine Burdekin's Swastika Night. No mention in Meyers, either, of how the 1955 film version of Animal Farm omitted the last-scene melding of men and pigs, which might have opened questions about cultural expropriation, body-snatching and even Doublethink--all for the greater good of the cold war cause. In all Meyers's many pages, not a single sentence stops us in mid-platitude to say anything half as intellectually arresting as these several in Raymond Williams, on Orwell's recurring patterns:
This experience of awareness, rejection, and flight is repeatedly enacted. Yet it would be truer to say that most of Orwell's important writing is about someone who tries to get away but fails. That failure, that reabsorption, happens, in the end, in all the novels mentioned, though of course the experience of awareness, rejection, and flight has made its important mark.
To think these thoughts is then to ask whether, on a fundamental level, Nineteen Eighty-Four had much of anything to say to Chinese students or the Velvet Revolutionaries, who turned out to be made of sterner stuff than Winston Smith.
Instead, we get the same old stories: St. Cyprian's, with Cyril Connolly and Cecil Beaton; Eton and his unrequited crush on a younger boy; Burma, where he briefly imagined that the "the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest's guts"; Paris, where he wrote and destroyed two novels; teaching boys, selling books, being rejected by T.S. Eliot, marrying Eileen; Spain, Morocco and the Blitz; the BBC, the adopted child and the dead Eileen; P.G. Wodehouse, Edmund Wilson, Animal Farm and the audition of the widows in waiting--after which egregious Sonia, the widow everybody loves to hate, who is said here to have spat in disgust whenever she passed a nun on the street.
And along with the famous decency, the equally famous abuse: W.H. Auden was "a sort of gutless Kipling." William Morris, Bernard Shaw and Upton Sinclair were "dull, empty windbags." Off with the heads of "the creepy eunuchs in pansy-left circles" and "all that dreary tribe of high-minded women and sandal-wearing and bearded fruit-juice drinkers who come flocking towards the smell of 'progress' like bluebottles to a dead cat." Wouldn't it be loverly "if only the sandals and the pistachio-colored shirts could be put in a pile and burnt and every vegetarian, teetotaler and creeping Jesus sent home to Welwyn Garden City to do his yoga exercises quietly!"
Wilfrid Sheed once said that Orwell wrote best about the things he hated. So maybe we're just lucky that some of the things he hated were more important than sandals and vegetarianism.
But for now, it's the night before. Let us receive all influxes of vigor and real tenderness. And at dawn, armed with ardent patience, we shall enter the splendid cities.
(Rimbaud, A Season in Hell)
I am reminded of Simone Weil, who also negated herself, who willed herself out of this world. At her funeral, the priest arrived too late, because of a stalled train. At Rimbaud's funeral, nobody came, because his mother kept it secret. Orwell is remembered on the one hand, by Malcolm Muggeridge, as having "loved the past, hated the present and dreaded the future," and on the other by H.G. Wells, as "a Trotskyist with big feet." And George himself told us that "saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent."
So Rimbaud gave up poetry when it failed to change the world. Orwell at the end must have had his doubts about language, too, or he wouldn't have dreamed up Newspeak. Neither is remembered for his hard work at identity-making. Instead, the poet's name is worn by freaks, geeks and videodrones as if it were a logo on a T-shirt or a jet-propelled sneaker, and the novelist is propped up on a horse like the dead El Cid to frighten the Moorish hordes. They have both been turned into the standard-issue celebrity flacks of this empty, buzzing time, selling something other than themselves, unattached to honor, glory, kingship, sainthood or genius. They join a talk-show parade of the power-mad, the filthy rich and the serial killers, the softboiled fifteen-minute Warhol eggs, the rock musicians addled on cobra venom, the war criminals whose mothers never loved them and the starlets babbling on about their substance abuse, their child molestations, their anorexia and their liposuction. "I have never belonged to this race," said Rimbaud.
The postelection battle for the presidency is without doubt some kind of crisis, but it's not easy to define precisely what kind. David Broder has suggested in the Washington Post that it grows out of deep divisions in the country. "The nation has rarely appeared more divided than it does right now," he writes, and attributes the phenomenon to quarrels left over from the 1960s among the "polarized baby boomers." Of course, it's true that the vote for Congress as well as the President was exceedingly close, and in that sense the country is, literally, divided. Division, however, should not be confused with polarization. On the contrary, the even split of the electorate can be attributed to the opposite of polarization--namely, the centrism of the candidates. Each carefully tailored his campaign to appeal to a reportedly contented "center," and each, unsurprisingly, won nearly half of it. The fact is that the United States, prosperous and at peace, is, politically speaking, more asleep than it is agitated. Almost 50 percent of the public did not bother to vote. Not a division in the country but a division between two politicians to win over a united country has been the source of the turmoil.
The battle, then, is between the parties rather than the people. It is, in the words of social critic Tom Engelhardt, a crisis of politics but not of the polity. A top-heavy establishment--overfunded, overpowerful, overcovered--has imposed its power struggle on a country that wants no part of it, except, perhaps, as entertainment. Almost entirely lacking in substance, that struggle possesses the logic more of vendetta than of authentic competition. A better analogy than the ideological divisions of the sixties would be the feuding Hatfields and McCoys of legend, or perhaps the Guelphs and Ghibellines of the Middle Ages. Like two armies fighting an unpopular war, both parties try to recruit support from a populace that for the most part would just as soon watch football. The consequence is the disconcerting spectacle before our eyes of all-out political war in a politically apathetic land.
It is important, though, to be more exact in assigning responsibility for the disturbance. The pressures of American politics create a temptation among journalists to practice a meretricious even-handedness in judging the parties. It is, of course, important for journalists to be nonpartisan. That is, they should exercise independent judgment, uninfluenced by any party interest. Being nonpartisan, however, does not mean blaming the two parties equally in all situations; it means judging both by the same standards and letting the chips fall where they may. If they are equal offenders, then that should be said, but if one party is by far the greater offender, then that must be said, too, even if it falsely creates an appearance of partisanship.
Such is the case at present. The Democrats have hardly been pacifists in the struggle. Their record is barren of moves taken for any evident reason but winning the presidency. The language of Gore's spokesmen and lawyers has at times been intemperate, as when the lawyer Alan Dershowitz called Florida's Secretary of State Katherine Harris "a crook." Yet by far the most dangerous escalations have come from the Republican camp. During the first ten days of the crisis, the fight was kept within certain bounds on both sides. Then came the Florida Supreme Court's decision to order Harris to refrain from certifying the election until further instruction. The GOP responded with a torrent of unsubstantiated defamation of the Gore campaign and of the boards conducting the recount in Florida. House Republican whip and impeachment zealot Tom DeLay announced without evidence that the election was "nothing less than a theft in progress" in Florida. A new spokesman for the Bush campaign, Governor Marc Racicot of Montana, charged that Democratic supervisors, by disallowing absentee military ballots without postmarks by Election Day and with other deficiencies, "have gone to war in my judgment against the men and women who serve in our armed forces," and opined that "when the American people learn about these things, they're going to ask themselves what in the name of God is going on here." Governor William Janklow of South Dakota announced that the Democrats "are going to steal the election." And Bush's press secretary, Karen Hughes, accused the Gore campaign of "reinventing and miscounting the true intentions of the voters."
At the same time, Republicans were beginning preparations to carry the battle beyond the Florida courts--into the Supreme Court, the Florida legislature and Congress. Former Senator Bob Dole and other Republicans said they might consider boycotting a Gore inaugural. Implicit in these preparations was the threat that if Bush didn't get his way in Florida the Republican Party was prepared to turn what so far has been a legal battle in one state into a true constitutional crisis. In that case, the mere party crisis, arising out of nothing more than a few people's love of power and lack of restraint in grasping for it, will have, by their single-handed efforts, created the national division that the country itself has failed to produce.
The twentieth century produced few American heroes like Joe DiMaggio. He was arguably the best all-around ballplayer who'd ever taken the field, a unique combination of power, speed and grace, a lifetime .325 hitter with a classic swing and an unworldly calm whose fielding was as nearly flawless as it seemed effortless. He was not a fidgeter, adjusting batting gloves a hundred times (there were no batting gloves). Once he squared his bat, said his friend Tony Gomez, "the guy was a statue." There was no wasted motion on the field--he flowed to the ball--and no hotdogging: The fielders' mitts were too small for snap-catches. Those of us who saw him play when we were teenagers would caricature the batting styles of other players, but we all wanted to look and move like DiMaggio. He was also the possessor, as any fan knows, of what is the most extraordinary feat in baseball, and perhaps in any sport, a fifty-six-game hitting streak that defies all statistical logic and that most people believe will never be matched again. That in itself is the material of myth.
But there was something else as well. When he first appeared in a New York Yankees uniform in 1936, he seemed to come from nowhere at the very moment when both the Yankees and a depressed nation--and the rising second generation of Italian-Americans--seemed to need him most. Paul Simon's line "where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio," could have been written as anticipatory longing thirty years before it became ironic sentimentality.
Unlike the boisterous beer-swilling Babe Ruth, who'd retired the year before, DiMaggio, the son of an immigrant Sicilian fisherman from San Francisco, became the essence of that elusive thing called class. He rarely spoke; he dressed superbly--another thing he would become known for--and he seemed to conduct himself, both on and off the field, with a royal calm, even an icy distance, that only enhanced the allure. The Yankees, in those days when baseball was the national pastime, had won the World Series just once since their Murderers' Row rampage of the 1920s. In the four years after he arrived, they would win four times. In his thirteen war-interrupted seasons--the last was 1951--they would win the pennant ten times. He played not only to win--to drive his team to win, often playing through his own pain, the bone spurs in his heels, the aching knees, the trick shoulder--but to play flawlessly. He was the epitome of Yankees royalty.
And somehow, after those thirteen seasons, when the myth might have faded into an endless haze of celebrity golf tournaments and testimonial dinners, it seemed only to thrive--through the 286-day klieg-light royal marriage to Marilyn Monroe, the ensuing divorce and the love that seemed to survive both, through the Mr. Coffee and Bowery Bank commercials and through tawdry rounds of high-priced baseball-card shows and memorabilia signings--little seemed to tarnish the mythic glow. If anything, the forty-eight years after DiMaggio's retirement--he died in 1999--seemed only to burnish it. Almost from the moment he arrived in New York, people wanted to touch him, do him favors, run his errands, drive him places, give him things. Cops gave him access to places denied anyone else. He rarely paid for his own meals, his own cars or even his own hotel rooms. There would always be guys eager to be his delivery boys, to bring him women--mostly the blond showgirls he preferred--even some who moved out of their homes to be with him, to take care of him. Anything for the Dago. The namewas used with so much affection that it became an honorific.
But of course there was more--lots of it--and Richard Ben Cramer is there to mine every ugly moment: the money, ultimately more than a million, that came under the table in hundreds and two hundreds from mobsters (who adored him even more than did other American males, and who found him a useful draw to Toots Shor's, El Morocco or the other clubs and restaurants they controlled in New York); DiMaggio's compulsive whoring, combined with his possessiveness--unto physical abuse--of his two wives; the estrangement from his own brothers, who were also big-league ballplayers; frosty rejection of his son (except when publicity photos were required), who would die of a drug overdose; the envy directed at other great players; the grudging World War II military career that he spent in safe, warm places playing baseball for the prestige of the brass under whom he served; the obsessive money-grubbing--$150, or $175, for each signed baseball, each signed bat, each photograph, thousands upon thousands of them, deals upon deals.
Cramer contends that DiMaggio not only wanted the money--he was pathological in the thought that others would profit: "Who else would make money off the deal? How much? Why should those guys make a buck off my life?" The fear went back to the beginning of his career, to the days before free agency when ballplayers were chattel: Club owners like Ruppert beer baron Jacob Ruppert of the Yankees and his general manager Ed Barrow owned not just the players but many of the writers and columnists as well. You could try to hold out, but in the end, it was the owners who set the terms; you either played for the team that owned you or you didn't play at all. Worse, as DiMaggio discovered early in his career, even the attempt was likely to expose you to a torrent of press and fan abuse as an ingrate. The same newspaper hacks who could manufacture heroes could just as easily be turned to embarrassing them or tearing them down. DiMaggio, the idol who was making the owners additional millions in attendance, was lucky to get his $25,000, or his $40,000. In the Depression years, those seemed like princely sums. In a way, you could understand the paranoia about other people making money off you. Lots of them tried.
In the course of telling the story, Cramer seems to have turned over every rock in DiMaggio's life, but in the end even he seems uncertain how to frame his flawed hero's life, caught up, on the one hand, in the man's greatness and lavishing us, on the other, with his rage, his distrust, his shabbiness.
DiMaggio excelled and continued to excel, against the mounting "natural" odds. He exceeded, withal, the cruelest expectations: He was expected to be the best--and he was. He was expected to be the exemplar of dignity, class, grace--expected to look the best.... And he looked perfect.
DiMaggio did for us--for the sake of our good opinion--through every decade, every day. He was, at every turn, one man we could look to who made us feel good. For it was always about how we felt...with Joe. No wonder we strove for sixty years to give him the hero's life. It was always about us. Alas, it was his destiny to know that, as well.
Of course it was always about us; what else could it be about? But as with a lot of other latter-day muckraking of heroes "who did for us"--Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Kennedy--the ground rules have changed. Even the un-kept, independent sports writers of the 1930s and 1940s would never have written the other DiMaggio story, would have respected the man's privacy, as the White House press respected Kennedy's. (Through Marilyn Monroe, of course, the two stories were linked: DiMaggio thought maybe the "fucking Kennedys" had killed her.) If we were charmingly naïve then, a nation of hicks who liked simple morality tales, our confessional age now demands full disclosure--we expose our potential heroes before they even have a chance to show their stuff. Cramer, who won a Pulitzer Prize for international reporting and wrote a fine book about the 1988 presidential campaign, gets himself caught in between--still in love with the performance, the style, the heroism, but probing the private, inner man until little is left. Heroes on pedestals are all fair game. But Cramer gives us little help in squaring the two DiMaggios. How do we hold the one without forgetting the other? In the end, it's even hard to square what Cramer tells us about DiMaggio's admiration for--and friendship with--people like Woody Allen with the shallow DiMaggio he mostly gives us.
What makes that even more exasperating is that Cramer gets into his characters' heads, reports events and quotes conversations with no attribution. The book's acknowledgments include a huge list of people, from old ballplayers to Henry Kissinger, himself a DiMaggio idolater from the 1930s who would later sit with the Clipper at Yankee Stadium and get enlightenment about the subtleties of big-league pitching and hitting. But there are no footnotes, no lists of sources. In the hours after the 1989 San Francisco earthquake, Cramer reports, DiMaggio rushed to his sister's house in the Marina--the house, which he had given to his family many years earlier, was undamaged--and emerged with "his big right hand around the neck of a garbage bag...which held six hundred thousand dollars, cash." How does he know that--not the part about the bag, but about the contents? And where did the cash come from? (It seems to have belonged to some long-gone mobster who was making certain that he could make a fast exit if necessary, but we are not sure.) There's also the touching story about Marilyn Monroe's tour entertaining the troops in Korea in 1954, three years after DiMaggio--who wanted his wives to be homebodies and never approved of their careers--had retired. "Joe," she said on her return, "you never heard such cheering." "Yes, I have," he said. Where did that come from? And when "he was off to himself, on his cot, thinking about (his first wife) Dorothy," where did that come from?
To compound the exasperation, Cramer likes to affect a wise-guy writing style that's often more annoying than evocative. The ambient sporting life of 1930s New York is itself a nice story, full of Guys and Dolls characters--prizefighters, jockeys, ballplayers; Broadway showgirls; politicians like La Guardia, columnists like Walter Winchell and Sidney Skolsky; small-time hoods like Jimmy "Peanuts" Ceres, who drove DiMaggio around, and some big-time ones as well, Ruggiero "Richie the Boot" Boiardo, Joe Adonis, Abner "Longy" Zwillman, "who put the 'organized' in organized crime"; Toots Shor himself, who loved the Dago and would later be spurned by him, as would so many other onetime friends. But the Runyonesque rhetoric gets in the way: sentences like "See, Joe had to have a private life," or "See, Gomez was gone," or "In the sixth, Joe got ahold of a pitch...", or "Winchell, Len Lyons, that nosy Kilgallen broad; even the battle-ax, Louella Parsons, used to write up Joe like an old friend" or (even more bizarre) "Joe was digging for second base, when Gionfriddo, in an act of God...and--Cazzo! Figlio di putana!--stole the home run away from DiMaggio." Now who said (or thought) that?
It's hard to deny Cramer's portrait of DiMaggio as an empty and increasingly lonely and embittered man, whose lifelong act as an aging public monument could only have added to the bitterness. "From the start," Cramer writes early in the book, "he had to have it both ways: he wanted to be well known at what he was known for--and for the rest, he wouldn't be known at all." We once allowed our heroes that privilege--but as Cramer's book demonstrates, we permit it less and less, either to the living or the dead. If DiMaggio had cooperated, he would probably have received more consideration, but DiMaggio being who he was, no such cooperation could have been expected. In the end, our sympathy is restored only by the venality of his lawyer Morris Engelberg, who continues to mine DiMaggio's memorabilia and exploit his name even more ruthlessly than DiMaggio did. In the penultimate moment in Cramer's book, a few minutes after DiMaggio's death, there is Engelberg, in DiMaggio's room, ordering the nurse to force DiMaggio's 1936 World Series ring, the only genuine one he had left, from the dead hero's finger. When the nurse succeeded, "Morris yanked [it] out of his hands, and left the room in a hurry." He would claim that DiMaggio "gave him that ring, on his deathbed--before Joe died in his arms."
Thirty years ago, I went to the San Francisco Giants Arizona spring-training camp to do a magazine piece on Willie Mays, another of our imperfect diamond heroes. How much, Mays asked, was he going to get paid for cooperating? At that point, I decided I would simply hang around for a week or two and watch and listen. There was little he could tell me, I decided, that would strengthen the piece. (In the days following, I learned more than I ever expected--about Mays, about the changing culture of baseball and about the game itself.) Sometimes, maybe, the work of athletes, like that of dancers or, for that matter, composers or actors or novelists, deserves to be well known, as DiMaggio seemed to wish, without the unceasing pursuit and exposure of all the rest. In some cases, say in Mozart's or Wagner's or J.D. Salinger's, or maybe even in Bill Clinton's, if you can't separate the neuroses or the anti-Semitism or just the ordinariness of a man from the public performance--you may never know greatness at all. But it gets harder every day.
In the Acknowledgments section of his biography of Saul Bellow, James Atlas quotes a somewhat greater biographer, Samuel Johnson: "We know how few can portray a living acquaintance, except by his most prominent and observable particularities, and the grosser features of his mind, and it may be easily imagined how much of this little knowledge may be lost in imparting it, and how soon a succession of copies will lose all resemblance of the original."
Johnson knew few of those whose lives he described and none nearly as well as Boswell knew him. (Would he have been as pessimistic about the unreliability of history and biography if he'd read Boswell's book? Probably more so. The truer the portrait, the more repellent to such a subject.)
I'm not as pessimistic about discovery as Johnson was. So, for instance, well as I knew Bellow before reading Atlas's biography, I think I know him better now.
I mean that I know more about the places he lived, what his parents were like, what others thought of him, what he said about many things, including me. (To my surprise, I learned that I was once mentioned in his will and that, perhaps after one of our arguments, I was removed from it.) It doesn't mean that my view of Bellow now is Atlas's. By no means.
Atlas also knows Bellow and was helped by him in the course of writing his book.1 He writes that he immersed himself in Bellow's records and acquaintances far more than he'd done in work for his prizewinning biography of Delmore Schwartz (whom he'd never met). Atlas wonders, though, if familiarity and labor have produced a better book. I think this is a better book, largely because Bellow is a more brilliant and interesting man than Schwartz was. (Indeed, his version of Schwartz in Humboldt's Gift is more interesting, amusing and touching than the one in the Atlas biography, which was--we learn in the new book--inspired by it.)
Better, truer; more interesting, more touching.
The first two distinctions don't matter in works of fiction. So the uproar over Bellow's Ravelstein and the real Allan Bloom doesn't bear on its power as a novel or, on the other hand, on the pain it gave and gives some who saw themselves "portrayed" and/or "betrayed" in it. They do matter, however, for biography. Would Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson be as good a book if it were a work of fiction--if, say, the Johnson in it hadn't lived or been a totally different man? It would not be. The understanding a biographer establishes with his readers includes the sense that he is telling as much of the truth as he's been able to gather about actual people and events. If that understanding is compromised, it constitutes an aesthetic betrayal different from--and, in my view, worse than--the "betrayal" of a fiction writer's acquaintance in his fiction.
I'm one of the many Bellow friends Atlas interviewed and whom he cites in Bellow: A Biography. Much I know and feel about Bellow is not in the book because I didn't tell Atlas about it. Some of it would have somewhat altered his portrait of Bellow; none of it would have altered it significantly.2
Most of the book's citations from me are from letters Bellow wrote me or I him.3 Such citations constitute the sort of record biographers and other historians have drawn on for the two or three hundred years in which history has been assessed as a function of it. If I'd given Atlas access to my diaries, he would have found another source of Bellow matter that would have expanded--if not deepened, let alone altered--his view of his subject. The subject of every biography has had millions of thoughts and experiences that have never--thank God--been recorded. It means that the gulf Johnson wrote about is an uncrossable one.
The difference between modern history/biography and, say, what constituted their equivalent in Thucidydean Athens or seventeenth-century Europe is enormous. Scholars don't believe that Pericles delivered the magnificent oration that Thucydides attributed to--that is, wrote for--him, though he probably delivered a speech that resembled it. Our problem with a presidential speech today is not the actuality of the words pouring from the presidential mouth but who wrote and even who conceived them. We're content that our conception of Periclean Athens is to no small degree that of Thucydides' interpretation of it, but the historical standard is different for modern events and people, those who leave their tracks in letters and diaries, interviews and film.
Atlas uses such archival materials and such biographical techniques as interviews, and he is far more aware of the hazards as well as the advantages of such usage than, say, Vasari was in his verbal portraits of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century artists, some of whom he knew. An experienced journalist, Atlas has a nose for bias and such vested interest as the desire of ordinary people to be part of the record of extraordinary ones. (This is probably a trait of most biographers.) He also raises the question of how his long biographical labor affected his book. Did he, like his mythical namesake, get so weary of "holding up" the "bewilderingly complex" Bellow world that the exasperated weariness created a portrait as far from actuality as Thucydides' Pericles was from the "actual" Pericles?
I've known Bellow for almost forty-five years. For many of those years, we've been close friends and have said things to each other we may not have said to other people. We have also quarreled, disagreed and not seen each other for months and even years at a time. Our politics have been different, and the difference counted--perhaps more for him than for me. Nonetheless, we are close enough so that a few days before I write these words, we could tell each other on the phone--the first time we'd spoken since my wife and I stayed with him and his wife in their Vermont house two years ago--that we loved each other. We are old men now, and I believe that we both thought it possible that we wouldn't see each other again. In that conversation, I told Bellow that I'd read much of Atlas's book and that he shouldn't be concerned about it. I said that Atlas had built a crate large and secure enough to deliver the marvelous sculpture within.
A few hours later, I finished the last 100 or 150 pages of the book. In them, I detected the kind of weariness Atlas himself mentions, but I saw it as a weariness complicated by judgmental anger. Atlas had interviewed many people who'd been hurt--or said they'd been hurt--by Bellow. Partly as an attempt to maintain his independence of and objectivity about Bellow, partly from exasperated weariness, partly from his sense that he'd surrendered--his verb--his life to another man, a man whom he'd been seeing in part through the angry eyes of others, Atlas became harsher and harsher in his assessments. So I wrote Bellow telling him that although what counted--the portrait of a remarkable person becoming over decades ever more remarkable--was intact, I believe that it was deformed by Atlas's querulous anger, if not by sanctimonious contempt, and that he and Janis (Bellow's wife) would do well not to read it. "Hector and Andromache," I wrote, "Don't need to know Thersites' version of their lives."
This was perhaps as unfair to Atlas as I thought he was, at times, to Bellow, but then Atlas writes that I am Bellow's "old and loyal friend," the "Boswellian explainer of the great man to the general public," so any unfairness to him has been--clairvoyantly?--subverted.
Very well. As friend of subject and author,4 I am disqualified from reviewing this--I'll risk two adjectives--fascinating and sometimes brilliant book. I will instead talk about Johnson's concern, the gulf between actuality and its representation in biography, conversation and history.
I've read a number of books and hundreds of articles about people I've known. There are few, though, from which I've not learned often surprising, even shocking, facts, none in which I haven't felt at least some distance between what was written and what I knew. At times, as in the case of Bellow, my complex admiration for the central portrait has complicated and deepened my admiration for the friend portrayed. Reading remarks Bellow made or wrote years before I met him made me realize even more how remarkable a person he was and is.
Twenty-odd years ago, the day after I finished reading the manuscript of Humboldt's Gift, I had lunch with its author and said to him that it was difficult for me to think that the man across the table was the same man who'd written that profound, delightful and beautiful book. The man eating a sandwich and drinking tea talked with me about ordinary as well as extraordinary things, but nothing out of his mouth came close to the depth and beauty of what was on its best pages, and I said something like, "Yet there's less distance between you and your work than between any writer I've known and his."5
Atlas's biography has narrowed that distance for me. For all the schmutz that accumulates about and spatters the central portrait, it emerges as that of a very great man becoming great in the course of a long life of activity, acquaintance, introspection and expression. There is more original power in the intelligence recorded here than in 95 percent of biographies. Atlas does not have the mimetic power of Boswell or of a writer he rightly praises here, Mark Harris, author of a delightful Bellow book called Saul Bellow, Drumlin Woodchuck;6 he does not have the stylistic or analytic gifts of Samuel Johnson or Richard Ellmann, but what he does have is access to hundreds of brilliant Bellow observations and analyses outside of Bellow's books. Atlas's Bellow is like a match, Atlas's contribution being the assemblage and, perhaps, the wooden stem, Bellow's the sulfur that, rubbed, ignites and fires the wood.
The day the galleys of this book arrived in the mail, I saw my sister-in-law, who, days earlier, on a trip with her husband to Israel, had swum in the Dead Sea. She said there were all sorts of perils there, the crystalline spears one dodges to get to the viscous water, which deposits a salty scum on one's skin, and the water's semi-impenetrability, so that if one somehow managed to dive into it, ascending would be dangerously difficult. I felt an analogy to the perils of biography. The subject is himself almost impenetrable, guarded by fearful suspicion and his own complexity; even after getting access to him, the progress is difficult, and biographer-readers are left with the scum of his resistance to their penetration.
I've thought and talked about Bellow--and now this biography--with a few friends who also know him. Each sees Bellow in a somewhat different way; all condemn Atlas's version more than I. (I credit Atlas for collecting and organizing the materials that enable us to know more about Bellow; they blast him for his inability and/or unwillingness to understand him.) One friend, a first-rate novelist, thinks Atlas not only misunderstands Bellow's radical independence but resents it. So he sees a politically correct Atlas piling up criticism along familiar--to Bellow critics--misogynist, conservative and racial lines. He thinks that Atlas is shocked by Bellow's anarchic "cocksmanship," and when I suggested that Bellow had a grand streak of bad boy, if not outlaw, in him, he found a different way to express his own view: "He's a transgressive monkey. And a great con man."7 He makes Bellow into a version of a favorite character of his own fiction, a brilliantly anarchic, half-crazed sexual adventurer.
A former woman friend of Bellow's talked of his powers of devotion and charm. She detests Atlas's portrait, especially the account--to which she feels one of her letters has contributed--of his lovemaking.8 "He made me feel wonderful. I still love him." (She hasn't seen him in ten years.)
I myself have written about Bellow as a man simpler in many ways than other people, one who very early in his life discovered his own powers and let them set his course. More important than what happened to him--and I'm persuaded by Atlas that such things as the death of his mother help explain much later behavior--were these exceptional powers, an extraordinary memory, an extraordinarily acute and cultivated sensorium (visual, musical, olfactory, tactile) and--let's call it--emotional power (unusual ability to empathize, sympathize, love, hate and also, be detached). Like most of us, Bellow is many things, but unlike most of us, he's more of a piece and has been that way a very long time. The piece is stamped "writer," indeed "great writer," and the pressure of that stamp isn't like most other professional pressures; but this is something that is talked about ad nauseam meam, and I'll not add to the nauseating complex here.
What I've mostly wanted to hint at is the difficulty of writing, reading and being the subject of other people's descriptions of oneself, and to spell out what Johnson said was the distance between the real, the remembered and the written version of reality, the deformation of the "was" in the "is."
Yet such versions are what we have of the past, the history and biography with which we're left. One work of history can challenge or even refute another, or it can add, refine or subtilize it. Even memories rub against one another. Yet I do not subscribe to the notion (of, say, Peter Novick's splendid book That Noble Dream) that tries to dispose of the actuality of objectivity. I don't think we should abandon the recording of actuality as an ideal or ever think that there's no crucial difference between what we believe is actual and what we know we've made up or lied about. Nonetheless, what we get when we describe something or someone is, at its driest and purest, metamorphosis.
The greatest--at least the most delightful--investigator of such metamorphoses, Marcel Proust, claimed that only in what he called "involuntary memory" does the past ever re-emerge with its original--and even more than its original--power. (Beckett's comment about this was that Proust showed that the only real paradise was a lost one.) That sensuous, unsummoned memory is clarified as reflections in a clear pool are, free of the dust particles and blinding light that make what's reflected almost impossible to see.
Atlas's Bellow is a work built around voluntary, elicited and recorded memory. It is a version of actuality that may be read, sometimes with shivers of remembrance, by its subject and his acquaintances. It has a truth of its own, somewhere between the original actualities, the complex feelings and memories of those who supplied the author with data, and the author's own gifts and feelings. The portrait of the great man who is its subject will be difficult to dislodge. Luckily, the man has left a far more powerful self-portrait, that of the mentality behind his beautiful books.
1. Although Bellow recently told me that he "opened himself" to Atlas, who, lately, seemed to have turned away from him. I said that Atlas probably didn't want his work to be compromised by affection. After I wrote him not to read the book, he answered that he wouldn't, that there was "a parallel" between it "and the towel with which the bartender cleans the bar." This image of biography as the soak of spilled drinks is the sort of thing Bellow has invented for most of his 85 years.
2. One description of me there is so peculiar--"the Oblomov-like Stern"--that I actually wrote Atlas to ask what it meant. When I told Bellow, he said that Atlas had probably not read the wonderful Goncharov novel. When I questioned the adjective in a letter to Atlas, he replied genially that Oblomov "is a sympathetic character and so are you."
3. Most of our letters are filed in the Special Collections of the Regenstein Library at the University of Chicago.
4. Cf. Atlas's well-done interview with me, originally commissioned by George Plimpton for the Paris Review, in Chicago Review, Fall-Winter, 1999.
5. No one seemed more different from his work to me than Samuel Beckett, whom I saw about once a year between 1977 and 1987. Cf. the portrait of him inOne Person and Another (Dallas: Baskerville Books. 1993).
6. A book dedicated to me in which I play a minor role.
7. We both remember Bellow's early portrait of the terrific Chicago con man, Yellow Kid Weil.
8. One of John F. Kennedy's "girls" is said to have described the relationship as "the greatest thirty seconds of my life."
The President has gone to Vietnam,
A smallish country that we used to bomb
But now would like to send our products to.
And so our corporations take the view
That if the country's ruling class has picked
A form of rule that can be somewhat strict,
That's up to them. And Clinton went to say
That there is nothing standing in the way
Of being friends with them forevermore.
Remind me, please: Why did we fight that war?
"Simone de Beauvoir said 'Books saved my life.' I think that's true for me," announced Gloria Whelan in accepting her National Book Award recently for Homeless Bird (which won for Young People's Literature). It was a refreshing zenith in the remarks that evening, and I suspect that what she said holds true for many of us--or that books save us from a certain type of life, anyway, one more arid and circumscribed than we'd prefer. They help us create who we are, in a kind of secular but still miraculous transubstantiation. And who we are--how we determine the nature of that--is a question you will find running like a highway stripe through the essays assembled here.
Are we dispassionate scientists or self-interested exploiters of the less fortunate, whether on the individual or state level? Patrick Tierney's Darkness in El Dorado reaches one conclusion, reviewer Greg Grandin another, slightly askew from Tierney. Does divorce cause long-term damage to children? Andrew Cherlin, some of whose own research has been used by others to support the idea that it does, has a less ominous view in discussing Judith Wallerstein's conclusions. And what is the inescapable bias in reporting on each other, in any respect? Longtime Saul Bellow friend Richard Stern contemplates the question as spurred by James Atlas's new bio of the Nobelist. Peter Schrag offers a variation on the theme while assessing Richard Ben Cramer's life of American icon Joe DiMaggio. When told the hero worship "was always about us," Schrag retorts, "Of course it was always about us; what else could it be about?"
Michelle Jensen begins her overview of Third Wave feminism and the Manifesta of Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards by putting a different twist on the question, noting that, so far, works representing the Third Wave have been personal accounts too much about "us," which leaves one thirsting for a theoretical grounding. And academic theory is invoked again, this time from the classics, Georgette Fleischer reports, in Judith Butler's revisitation of the story of Antigone; she uses the tale to refract out--or perhaps in--a perspective for sexual "outsiders." And through what sort of prism are we to filter a historian's self-history? Paul Buhle considers Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s beginnings, innocent or otherwise.
Elsewhere in the issue, faith in the transformative prospects of the word may be most evident in Rimbaud's conviction that his poetry would change the world, or in Orwell's more blatantly political reporting, or in W.E.B. Du Bois's double-header life as both political and literary powerhouse. Margaret Atwood and Eduardo Galeano, of course, have spent a lifetime tracing our silhouettes through language--as has Jules Feiffer with his pen and wry sense of paradox.
Last but not least, we come to the issue of who we are in a literal sense, here at The Nation. We take this opportunity to welcome Hillary Frey, who has joined our staff as assistant literary editor. She was formerly managing editor of Lingua Franca. We hope you enjoy the issue.
The article on electronic books ["On Pixel Pages It Was Writ," June 12] left out the most intriguing aspect of this new format: digital rights management technologies (DRM). These technologies are being developed by the electronic publishing industry to protect the rights of the copyright holders and, of course, are not so diligent about protecting the rights of readers. DRM standards, such as the XrML standard developed by Xerox and endorsed by Microsoft, contain mechanisms to allow publishers to put time limits on reading, to potentially charge by the page or by the minute, to protect against excerpting and printing. These "rights" go significantly beyond the rights recognized by copyright law.
Among the many annoyances of these systems is that works are generally licensed to a particular piece of hardware, such as an individual computer or e-book reader. While the hardware industry is working to make our computing devices obsolete, the content industry is tying our content to those same machines. Upgrade your computer, and you lose access to all the content you have licensed. So, the question is not whether we'll be able to read digital works in the bathtub or on the beach--the question is whether we'll be able to reread them in a few years, quote from them or offer them to friends once we've finished with them.
BREAD, CIRCUSES & MUSIC
Siva Vaidhyanathan, in "MP3: It's Only Rock and Roll and The Kids Are Alright" [July 24/31], suggests that Metallica has somehow "forgotten that it got rich through free music" simply because the band objects to Napster's accessory to theft. Giving away free music to build a following is a valid business model; as a musician, I may do the same thing. But the fact that Metallica gave away the music it once created has nothing to do with whether it wants to (or ought to) give away the music it now creates. That's Metallica's choice, but Napster, Gnutella, etc., make it easy to take that choice away; they don't distinguish between music that an artist has granted permission to distribute free and music that some unethical third party has offered without the artist's permission.
As we celebrate the demise of the recording industry's distribution near-monopoly, the distinction between freedom of information and respect for intellectual property is being ignored. Music fans rejoice in the "right to free music" Napster has brought them, but it has brought them no such thing; it has simply permitted them to do something possibly illegal without facing the consequences. Any musician will tell you that they're last in line to get paid; stealing from them and justifying it by pointing to recording industry profiteering is intellectually dishonest.
Vaidhyanathan levels fair criticism at the recording industry, which is clearly fighting a losing battle to retain its monopoly over distribution channels, but his dismissal of Napster as a serious issue defeats his own alternative. He points out that bands can bypass the entire conventional production/distribution/marketing monopoly through home production and Internet alternative-music websites, charging "$1 per song for MP3 downloads." But Napster, Gnutella and the rest don't come close to enabling that business model to be used; in fact, they make it absurdly easy to defeat. Certainly, these services are not going to go away, but it's crucial to recognize that they are morally and ethically neutral and that they fail to make distinctions between lawful and unlawful behavior. How to support the decision of the artist about how his or her music is to be distributed is the conversation we ought to be having. My music is not yours simply because I created it.
TALES OF 'OLD BUBBLEHEAD'
In a hagiographic review of the Culver/Hyde biography of Henry Wallace ["The Wallace Doctrine," June 12], Kai Bird rhetorically inquires as to "who wouldn't" like its protagonist. I, for one. Whatever Truman's failings, at least he didn't belong to a weird cult in which he used the code names "Shamballal" and "Logvan" (his wife was "Poroona") and uttered such inanities as "I shall obey the Gita as remorselessly as Krishna." For all his loony mysticism, Wallace was quite capable of double-crossing his guru, Nicholas Roerich, when he thought he had become a political embarrassment. Having sent him on a mission to Asia, Wallace prevented him from returning by threatening him with a $14,000 tax lien.
Wallace's insensitivity in personal relations was legendary. Given a new car when he married, he went off on a three-hour solo spin while his bride waited in bewilderment. A rich man, he was such a stingy tipper that at restaurants aides would have to surreptitiously flesh out his niggardly gratuities. In World War I, his well-heeled family kept him out of military service as an "essential farmer." After the 1948 election, he walked out of his headquarters without a word of thanks to devoted campaign workers. When asked by H.L. Mencken about the "guru letters"--fawning missives he had addressed to "Beloved Master" Roerich in happier days-- Wallace weaseled, causing intense mirth among the press corps, who unaffectionately referred to him as Old Bubblehead. Objective scrutiny of the man and his record makes Westbrook Peglers of us all.
So Wallace was quite a character! I'll still take his eccentricities any day over the men who defeated him.
BOWLING ALONE IN THE 8TH CIRCLE
The August 7/14 issue contained two articles that, when read against each other, produce serious discontent. In "The Crack in the Picture Window," Benjamin Barber's review of Bowling Alone, we are presented with an analysis of the loss of "social capital" and "civic grace" in the face of growing social isolation. It's astounding that no mention is made of the profound dominance of social life by corporations. In fact, no meaningful reference to the tyranny of corporate power occurs in the entire review.
If only Barber had read E.L. Doctorow's passionate polemic in the same issue, "In the Eighth Circle of Thieves." Doctorow sees clearly that American life outside and in is manipulated for the sake of corporate dominance and gain; the consequent result is distorted priorities, child poverty, media domination, the swelling of ethnic prison populations, the high cost of health insurance, international trade agreements that defeat national environmental laws--"the list is long."
Doctorow calls on the iconic power of Whitman and proposes a reform bill. Barber could not recognize corporations, but Doctorow cannot, apparently, recognize that corporations are embedded in a social-productive system--capitalism. Capitalism forces the movement of corporations among their various paths to venality and social-environmental destruction. What has come to dominate The Nation is a new populism, a recognition of large-scale social destructiveness unrelated to its underlying economic determinant.
S. Gardiner, Me.
E.L. Doctorow remarks that "campaign finance reform as a phrase has been bruited about so long and to so little effect and is so yawningly dull, dreary and unresounding, it makes one wonder if it's not partly responsible for the conditions it has so far failed to address." I totally agree. "Graft" seems the appropriate term. It puts the focus on the politician, which is exactly where it belongs.
And while we're calling a spade a spade, how about returning the name of the Defense Department to its historical and accurate name, the War Department? It would have a major effect in stemming that hemorrhage from the public treasury. Just imagine how it would sound: "President recommends increase in the war budget." It would be a well-placed thorn in the media's bag of foul air.
R. D. BALDWIN
OLD LEFT/NEW LEFT, RED LEFT...
Tom Hayden ["Harrington's Dilemma," June 12] draws a plausible lesson from Michael Harrington's life: The Shachtman-Harrington crowd shouldn't have been so nasty to the rest of the left. But there's another lesson, more relevant for today: The left is torn apart and weakened when part of it makes peace with the US war machine. When Harrington was expelled from Norman Thomas's Socialist Party in 1952 "because of his involvement in trying to take over its youth branch," the underlying reason was that Harrington was against the war in Korea, while Thomas was for it. And in Hayden's 1965 debate with Irving Howe, I'd have been more upset at Howe for supporting the Vietnam War than for his "paternalistic needling." Now that Soviet-style Communism is dead and buried, the US empire is more powerful and seductive than ever. Drawing this lesson seems more important than rehashing old feuds among ex-Communists, ex-Trotskyists and ex-New Leftists.
For those of us who knew Harrington and worked with him, one of his more endearing qualities was his capacity to reflect, in a self-critical way, on his political past. Both in his published writings and in conversation, he would forthrightly state that he mishandled the relations between the parent League for Industrial Democracy and the newborn Students for a Democratic Society in 1962, that he waited too long to express publicly his opposition to the Vietnam War and that his censure of the New Left had often been unduly harsh and unnecessarily polarizing. Harrington's description of that behavior as "stupid" in the copy of his autobiography he signed for Hayden was quite characteristic.
But Harrington and others from the old left had no monopoly on stupidity and sectarianism. Those of us who came of political age as part of the New Left contributed mightily in both of those areas, and any reasonable account of that period would have to address the incredible self-destructiveness of that movement, which ended with SDS dissolving into a bunch of warring sects adhering to the worst caricatures of Marxism-Leninism and Stalinism. Until the New Left is as direct and as honest in our self-evaluations as Harrington was, we will be willfully blind to our own history. Hayden made his share of mistakes, and then some, as a leader of SDS and the New Left, and one would have hoped he would use this review to acknowledge them. If there is a "true believer" in this story, it is much more my fellow New Leftist Hayden than Harrington.
"Indeed, it seems to me that Nader, who is a reformer acting empirically, has in many ways raised more radical questions, and possibilities, than the European social democrats. His lead should be carefully followed."
Prophetic words? They were written by Michael Harrington in 1972, in Socialism, chapter 12. The torch was passed, unremarked, nearly thirty years ago. Now it's up to the rest of us to unite behind another torchbearer in an international Green-Red movement. Is that Michael's ghost with a hopeful smile?
The throngs of Vietnamese who hailed Bill Clinton as "the antiwar President" demonstrated that they as a people remember something that we as a people have chosen to forget. It is time to restore our memory of that great antiwar movement by tens of millions of Americans, a movement that began with the first US acts of war in 1945.
Yes, 1945. In September and October of that year, eight troopships were diverted from their task of bringing American troops home from Europe to transport US-armed French soldiers and Foreign Legionnaires from France to recolonize Vietnam. The enlisted seamen on those ships immediately began organized protests. On arriving in Vietnam, the entire crews of the first four troopships met in Saigon and drew up a resolution condemning the US government for using American ships to transport an invasion army "to subjugate the native population" of Vietnam.
The movement kept growing. In 1954, when Vice President Nixon suggested sending American troops to replace the French because "the Vietnamese lack the ability to conduct a war or govern themselves," thousands of letters and telegrams opposing US intervention deluged the White House. An American Legion division with 78,000 members demanded that "the United States should refrain from dispatching any of its Armed Forces to participate as combatants in the fighting in Indochina or in southeast Asia." On the Senate floor, Senator Ed Johnson of Colorado declared, "I am against sending American GIs into the mud and muck of Indochina on a blood-letting spree to perpetuate colonialism and white man's exploitation in Asia." A Gallup poll revealed that 68 percent of those surveyed were against sending US troops to Indochina. Because of the American people's opposition, the US war had to be waged by four administrations under the cloak of plausible deniability.
We have been depriving ourselves of pride about the finest American behavior during that war. In most wars, a nation dehumanizes and demonizes the people on the other side. Almost the opposite happened during the Vietnam War. Tens of millions of Americans sympathized with the Vietnamese people's suffering, many came to identify with their 2,000-year struggle for independence and some even found them an inspiration for their own lives.
But in the decades since the war's conclusion, American consciousness of the Vietnamese people, with all its potential for healing and redemption, has been systematically obliterated. Ironically, it was after the war that demonization of the Vietnamese began to succeed, thanks in part to the national beatification of POWs and the myth of POWs as martyrs still being tortured by Vietnam. Soon those who had fought against the war became, as a corollary, a despised enemy. They also became the villains in another myth, developed from the 1980s to the present: the spat-upon veteran. As Vietnam veteran and sociologist Jerry Lembcke has shown in The Spitting Image, there is not a shred of evidence of this supposedly widespread phenomenon.
In fact, Vietnam veterans and active-duty soldiers and sailors became the vanguard of the antiwar movement. At home, veterans led the marches and demonstrations, including the 1971 assembly of a half-million protesters headed by a thousand Vietnam veterans, many in wheelchairs and on crutches, who paraded up to a barricade erected to keep them from the Capitol and hurled their Purple Hearts, Bronze Stars and Silver Stars at the government that had bestowed them. In Vietnam, fraggings and mutinies helped compel the withdrawal of most of the ground forces, while rebellions and sabotage put at least five aircraft carriers out of combat. (Who today can believe that 1,500 crew members of the USS Constellation signed a petition demanding that Jane Fonda's antiwar show be allowed to perform on board?)
As the antiwar movement spread even into the intelligence establishment, the American people got access to the most damning truths in the leaked Pentagon Papers. As Senator Mike Gravel noted in 1971, only a person who "has failed to read the Pentagon Papers" could believe we were fighting for "freedom and liberty in Southeast Asia."
But we as a nation have forgotten all that, just as we have forgotten our government's pledge to help rebuild the country it destroyed despite all our opposition.
In Texas, vote-counters routinely count a dimpled chad as a vote
for the candidate because it clearly establishes the voter's intent.
Three weeks ago, that sentence would have been gibberish, a sure sign
that the writer had lost his mind. But I offer it today as the key point
in the debate about who should be President and as proof positive that
the Bush camp is being, to put it politely, disingenuous.
Both Texas and Florida law hold that a voter's intent is all important
in determining how a vote is counted. An indented ballot--the now-famous
dimpled or pregnant chad--has been interpreted in states, from Texas to
Massachusetts, as proof that the voter intended to vote for a particular
All the Florida Supreme Court has done, by a unanimous vote, is to
affirm that the manual count is legal, just as it would be in Texas. So
what's the fuss? Why are all of the Bushies yapping about the possibility
of a stolen election, given that what county election officials are now
doing in Florida has long been the common practice in their candidate's
George W. Bush is acting as if he believes the presidency is part of
his natural inheritance. Otherwise, why wouldn't he gracefully play out
the hand that the Florida Supreme Court has dealt and accept Al Gore's
offer to agree to support the decision of the voters as announced in four
days, a decision that is still most likely to go Bush's way?
Even with the dimpled chad ballots included, Bush may be the next
President, ambiguous though his victory may be. He did, after all, lose
the national popular vote by more than 250,000 votes, which would make
him the first loser since 1888 to squeak through in the electoral
college. But our system requires that, if that happens, he be granted the
awesome powers of the presidency, in which case we should all give him
the respect due to the occupant of that office.
By endorsing the manual count, the Florida Supreme Court made the best
of a bad situation. The Bush team is solely responsible for not
exercising its right--after Gore asked for recounts in several
counties--to request hand counts in those counties where Bush could have
picked up more votes. Instead, Bush and his aides have done their best to
obstruct the fairest way to recount legitimate votes in disputed
counties, and they have muddied the waters with their attacks on manual
counting as some sort of Democratic plot. It isn't, as demonstrated by
the widespread use of this device to check the fallibility of machines
throughout the nation. Imperfect, yes; devious, no.
And what about the other voting irregularities in Florida, most of
which seem to have cheated Gore? The case of the Republican campaign
helpers in Seminole County who were allowed to work in the registrar's
office--some up to ten days--adding required information to thousands of
absentee ballot applications that would have been disqualified; the
flawed butterfly ballots in Palm Beach County; the tens of thousands of
ballots of black voters around Jacksonville that were rejected because of
a confusing ballot that led to double-punching.
The Gore campaign decided against asking that the outcome of the
election be held up pending an investigation of those cases. Gore also
stated that he wouldn't accept any electoral college votes cast for him
by Bush electors in any state, and will willingly accept the results of
the count underway in Florida as a final disposition of the presidential
race, no matter the outcome.
The Bush camp appears ready to accept that result only if its man is
the victor. Toward that end, it is willing to trample on the cherished
Republican principle of states' rights by appealing to the US Supreme
Court to overturn Florida's highest court. It has also threatened to use
Florida's GOP-controlled state Legislature to undermine the court, making
a hash of the principle of an independent judiciary.
The Bush blitzkrieg against the Democrats for exercising their right
to ask for a manual count betrays the bipartisan cooperation that Bush
promised during the campaign. It is neither candidate's fault that this,
the most closely contested election in over a century, has proved so
difficult to call.
Bush probably will win the electoral battle, but he will only emerge
as a true winner by taking the high road now and joining Gore in pledging
to be bound by the vote totals as reported to the secretary of state in
keeping with the Florida Supreme Court's order.
This essay, from the December 12, 1969, issue of The Nation, is a special selection from The Nation Digital Archive. If you want to read everything The Nation has ever published on war and human rights abuses, click here
for information on how to acquire individual access to the Archive--an electronic database of every Nation article since 1865.
When you read this, George W. Bush may be President, which will most likely mean that his lawyers, his brother Jeb and his Florida campaign co-chair and ambassadorial wannabe Katherine Harris succeeded in short-circuiting the manual recounts in Florida that had Al Gore's total edging upward. Or Gore--who, as we went to press, said he would abide by the results of a limited or, if Bush preferred, statewide hand recount--may have wrested victory from the jaws of premature concession because the hand-counted chads were hanging his way.
The bromide "every vote must count" has oft been uttered, but the Florida election ripped the veil off the many ways votes can be made not to count. Such as: Secretary of State Harris's refusal to redress blunders like the mysteriously unrecorded 6,600 presidential-line votes in Broward County; her selective tolerance of a 5 percent error rate in Florida's voting-card machines in an election with a far narrower margin; improprieties in the handling of GOP absentee ballots in Seminole County; closings of polling places in certain black precincts while voters were still waiting in line; and denial of requests for Creole interpreters.
In tandem with these ward-heeler power plays went the Bush forces' relentless stealth attack on democracy--the strategy seemed to be to sow confusion and doubt about the counting process. Leading the spinners was the pompous ex-Secretary of State James Baker, whose phalanx of lawyers sought an injunction in federal court--never mind the hypocrisy of champions of states' rights trying to overturn state elections laws. Federal judge Donald Middlebrooks gave these ploys short shrift and underscored that recounts are not aberrations in our system but routine occurrences, which a body of state and local law exists to handle.
The polls showed that a majority of Americans approved of the idea that the votes be fully and fairly counted; it was mainly the conservative punditocracy and academic talking heads who called for Gore to fall on his sword. We were reminded of the run-up to impeachment, when some of these same tribunes were hectoring President Clinton to resign rather than "put the country through" a period of instability threatening to undermine democracy and the Free World. Such warnings were dusted off for Baker's PR drive, enlivened with dire threats that the market would go south if a recount continued (upon which the market, driven by its inner neuroses, went up). Conveniently forgotten was the fact that there's a President on the job until January 20.
As the legal/political maneuvers unfolded we were struck by the relevance of what contributors to this issue, among them Lani Guinier, Theodore Lowi and William Greider, are saying from different angles: First, that democracy is messy and unpredictable--something the elites abhor--and all the more reason to insure that every vote is duly counted; and second, that over the long term the aftermath of this election may be more important than the question of which contender wins the race--if it galvanizes citizens to take a fresh look at the American way of voting. Right now we live in a drafty old house, and our contributors propose some practical ways to fix the roof and shore up the foundation. As Americans have learned throughout history, our rights periodically have to be wrested back from elites trying to take them away--as the Bush team was caught doing in Florida.
To buy or not to buy turns out to have been the question of the century in America--Just Do It or Just Say No. And in the past fifteen years, consumer society has moved to the center of historical inquiry as well. It began with the social history of commercial culture and the advertising industry, in books such as Kathy Peiss's Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York (1986) and Roland Marchand's Advertising the American Dream (1985). Drawing inspiration from the pioneering anthropological explorations of Dick Hebdidge (Subculture, The Meaning of Style, 1979), Arjun Appadurai (The Social Life of Things, 1988) and, especially, Mary Douglas and Baron Isherwood (The World of Goods, 1979), investigators then turned to the cultural history of how ordinary people use and assign meanings to commodities. A good example of this genre is Alison Clarke's Tupperware: The Promise of Plastic in 1950s America (1999). In recent works--such as Robert Collins's More: The Politics of Economic Growth in Postwar America (2000) and Alan Brinkley's The End of Reform: New Deal Liberalism in Recession and War (1995)--they have studied the political history of how nation-states promote and foster particular regimes of consumption. Where once consumption was deemed relevant only to the history of popular culture, in other words, it is now seen as intertwined with the central themes of American history, touching as it does on economics, politics, race relations, gender, the environment and other important topics.
Gary Cross, a professor at Penn State University and a pioneering and prolific historian of Europe and America, has explored the social, cultural and political dimensions of consumption before. In the past decade, he has published a half-dozen books on topics ranging from the history of leisure and working-class commercial amusements to the material culture of children's toys. Cross may study leisure, but his scholarship suggests that he doesn't take a whole lot of time to participate in consumer society. Fortunately, his work ethic has enabled the rest of us to understand our consumer ethic with clarity and historical perspective. Indeed, An All-Consuming Century displaces Daniel Horowitz's still-impressive but less wide-ranging The Morality of Spending (1985) as the best survey yet written of the history of modern American consumer society. Much more than a summary of recent scholarship (although it performs this task admirably), it is an informed, balanced, thoughtful and surprisingly passionate meditation on the making and meaning of our society. Avoiding the extremes of celebration and condemnation that too often pass for analysis, Cross's searching book is imbued with a generous concern for the revival of an active, democratic and participatory public sphere.
According to Cross, a paradox lies at the heart of American consumer society: It has been both an ideological triumph and a triumph over politics. Although it may be "difficult for Americans to see consumerism as an ideology," this is, Cross argues, precisely how it functions. It is, in his words, the "ism that won," the quiet but decisive victor in a century of ideological warfare. Over the course of the twentieth century it became naturalized to such an extent that few citizens "consider any serious alternatives or modifications to it."
In describing this ideological victory, Cross eschews conspiratorial interpretations of advertising and business collusion and gives consumer society its due for concretely expressing "the cardinal political ideals of the century--liberty and democracy--and with relatively little self-destructive behavior or personal humiliation." It won, Cross believes, because in large measure it met people's basic needs, helped them to fit into a diverse society even as it enabled them to forge new understandings of personal freedom, and served to fulfill, rather than mock, people's desire for the pleasures of the material world.
In spite of its popularity and successes, Cross believes that the ascension of consumer society has come at great cost: the abrogation of public life in favor of private thrills. By valorizing the private over the public and the present over the past and future, consumer society has "allowed little space for social conscience" and truly democratic politics. Rather than shoring up civil society, consumerism has pretty much replaced it: "The very idea of the primacy of political life has receded" as individual acquisition and use of goods has become the predominant way that Americans--and, increasingly, the rest of the industrialized world--make meaning of their lives. The suggestion that there should be limits to commercialism--that there are sacred places where the market does not belong--is, according to Cross, no longer taken seriously in a society that equates commercialism with freedom. Moreover, by the end of the century, "there seemed to be no moral equivalent to the world of consumption." The politics of consumption, in Cross's view, makes alternative conceptions of the good life virtually unimaginable in large part because it encourages people to think about themselves in isolation from the rest of society and from their history. (Reading Cross's book, I was reminded of Edward Hopper's painting Nighthawks, in which a customer at an urban diner sits alone, utterly disconnected from the humanity that surrounds him.) If Cross ultimately loses sight of the paradoxical nature of American consumerism and concludes on this dark note, An All-Consuming Century nonetheless provides important resources for others to explore the democratic potential of consumer society.
The narrative unfolds both chronologically and analytically. Cross divides the development of modern consumer society into four periods: 1900-1930, 1930-1960, 1960-1980 and 1980 to the end of the century. In this breakdown, the first three decades of the century were a takeoff period, during which a number of crucial elements converged to make America a consumer society. Cross consistently overstates the degree to which nineteenth-century America was a "traditional" society, untainted by commercialism; many elements of consumer society were born in the market revolution of the early 1800s and the corporate revolution of the later nineteenth century. But he is right to single out important developments that transformed the country from what we might call a nineteenth-century society with consumerist features to a full-blown consumer society in the twentieth century. The keys were increases in leisure time and personal income on the demand side, along with new products and innovations in selling on the supply side.
New, nationally advertised, branded products became widely available and affordable after the turn of the century. These products alleviated material needs, but more than that, Cross astutely notes, they became markers of new feelings of "comfort and ease" and "new sensations of power and speed." Modern products like cigarettes, candy and soft drinks made the sensational available on a daily, indeed almost hourly, basis. Amusement parks like Coney Island and other "cheap amusements" also made the regular purchase of spectacular thrills affordable for working people. In the consumer society, the utilitarian was always mixed with the sensual. The embodiment of this mixture was, of course, the great symbol of early-twentieth-century consumer society, the automobile. Already characterized by an increasing number of what Cross calls "private pleasures," in this period, as he shows, mass culture contributed to political and social changes as well: It blurred ethnic and class divisions and encouraged the children of immigrants to redefine themselves as members of a blended, multiethnic, if still racially segregated, youth culture.
The period 1930-1960 was one of consolidation in time of crisis. The constraints of the Great Depression and World War II led to a "frustrated consumerism more than a rejection of the capitalist system." Rather than blame the new consumerism, most policy-makers and indeed many ordinary Americans came to see "underconsumption" as the root cause of the slump. After the war, government policy encouraged the development of mass purchasing power rather than efforts to equalize the distribution of wealth. During the cold war, consumer society became "a positive answer to communism." In his 1959 "kitchen debate" with Nikita Khrushchev, Vice President Richard Nixon drove this point home by contrasting modern American appliances with outdated Soviet culinary technology. Despite the linkage in these years between consumption and freedom, Cross notes that the consumerism of the postwar years was not hedonistic but "domesticated," focused on the suburban home and the nuclear family. Signature developments of these years were Levittown, McDonald's and Holiday Inn, sites of responsible, respectable, family-oriented consumption.
From 1960 to 1980 consumer society faced a very different set of challenges but emerged stronger than ever. First, the counterculture challenged the very premises of consumerism, and in the 1970s, the specter of scarcity called into question the permanence of the cornucopia upon which consumer society depended. In spite of these challenges, "consumption became even more ubiquitous." Indeed, Cross suggests, the roots of the even more individualistic and socially fragmenting consumerism of the late twentieth century lay in part in the 1960s critique of consumerism: While countercultural figures critiqued conformity and idealized the "authentic self," many Americans sought to achieve this authenticity through consumption. Businesses began to modify the Fordist practice of mass production in favor of flexible production and segmented, demographically distinct markets. Drawing on the work of cultural critic Thomas Frank (rendered throughout the book as "Frank Thomas"), Cross writes that consumerism became "adaptable to the green and the hip." Similarly, during the energy crisis of the 1970s those politicians who took the shortage to be the result of overproductionwere rebuked as naysayers. With great political success, Ronald Reagan attacked President Jimmy Carter for a speech in which Carter had the temerity to suggest that "owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning." Reagan called that 1979 "malaise" address un-American in its pessimism and its call for restraint.
The trend toward fragmented, individualistic consumption accelerated during the last two decades of the century, an era that Cross labels "markets triumphant." Radical faith in the virtues of the market led politicians like Reagan to put a moral gloss on the "unfettered growth of market culture in the 1980s." Government constraints of an earlier era, in the form of environmental and advertising regulation, weakened, and commerce entered unfettered into areas where it had previously been kept at arm's length: children's homes and classrooms. By century's end the "Victorian notion that some time and place should be free from commerce" seemed as quaint as a Currier and Ives lithograph. Cross, who has a knack for unearthing telling statistics, notes that "supermarkets carried about 30,000 different products in 1996, up from 17,500 in 1986 and about 9,000 in the mid-1970s." Even the all-time-high consumer debt--$1.25 trillion by 1997--did nothing to stop the belief that the future of American prosperity and freedom depended upon the continuing expansion of the realm of consumption. Indeed, shopping had become the nation's primary form of entertainment, and monuments to consumption like the gargantuan 4.2-million-square-foot Mall of America became a haven for tourists from around the world.
In Cross's telling, the attractions and problems of consumer society are in effect one and the same: the cult of the new, immediate gratification and the valorization of "private pleasures." Consumerism is the "ism that won," owing to its ability not only to withstand challenges but, through a magical jujitsu, to co-opt them. Although initially formulated in terms neither celebratory nor condemnatory, Cross's story is ultimately one of declension. While he avoids the nostalgia of many commentators, there is little doubt that Cross finds contemporary consumer society to be a negative force: asocial, apolitical, amoral and environmentally dangerous. Whereas consumerism once helped integrate the diverse inhabitants of an immigrant nation in a youthful mass culture, by century's close, cynical marketers were happy to divide an equally multicultural nation into segmented demographic units based on "multiple and changing lifestyles." Thus the shift from an integrative, public-spirited popular culture in the early twentieth century to an increasingly privatized, solipsistic commercial culture of the late twentieth century. What was seductive in 1900--cornucopia and pleasure for the masses--became obscene by 2000, as a cultural stimulant turned into a dangerous narcotic.
An All-Consuming Century is one of the few indispensable works in the ever-expanding library of books on American consumer society. But in an otherwise rich overview the author has surprisingly little to say about the role of women, African-Americans and ethnic minorities (and nothing about regional variations) in the construction of consumer society. These are serious omissions. As admen and women's organizations recognized early on, women have performed the vast majority of the unpaid labor of consumer society: the shopping, budgeting and refashioning of older items. Cross notes that African-Americans were excluded from many of the benefits of the emerging mass culture, but he does not address the ways popular culture served to reinforce both the whiteness of the "new immigrants" from Eastern and Southern Europe--a skin privilege that was not yet fully acknowledged by the majority culture--and the otherness of Asian and Latino immigrants.
Nor does Cross discuss the attractions of nationwide retailers and national brands for African-Americans, who often took advantage of what the historian Edward Ayers has called the "anonymity and autonomy" made possible by the advent of the Sears catalogue (and chain stores in the nonsegregated North), whose mass customer base and "one price" system reduced the possibilities for racial discrimination that frequently accompanied visits to the corner store. For this group, the private pleasures occasionally afforded by the advent of national markets offered advantages over the public humiliations that so often accompanied local commerce.
Cross's relative neglect of women and minorities leads him to underestimate the importance of grassroots consumer activism as well, which has often been led by members of these groups. Meat boycotts, cost-of-living protests, "don't buy where you can't work" campaigns and sit-ins were integral to the development of American consumer society because they represented demands to expand the benefits of consumerism beyond a middle-class elite. One of the most important women's political organizations of the first half of the century, the National Consumers League, which pioneered the crusade for "ethical consumption" and labor rights, goes unmentioned. Cross stresses the ways marketers attempted to co-opt the civil rights movement, but he does not address the degree to which the demand for full participation in consumer society was a key ingredient in that crusade for social justice. By virtually ignoring these movements, Cross leaves out an important part of the story of consumer society--efforts to unite citizenship with consumption.
The critics of consumer society whom Cross discusses most often are proponents of what he calls the "jeremiad," the high-culture dismissal of mass culture as vulgar. He condemns the elitism and arrogance of such thinkers and is surely correct to note that their criticism had little impact on ordinary shoppers. Cross is less critical of the "simple living" tradition and calls the self-provisioning movement of the 1960s "the most positive aspect" of the counterculture. He argues that "the idea of the 'simple life,' perhaps never more than a daydream, had almost ceased being even a prick to the conscience," but he only briefly mentions the growing popularity of the "voluntary simplicity" movement, a topic addressed in more detail in Juliet Schor's The Overspent American (1998).
Cross also develops a persuasive critique of the consumer rights movement. While the Depression era saw the rise of groups like Consumers Union, which sought to make consumers a greater force against the power of business and advertisers, he notes that by focusing primarily on product quality and prices, many consumer rights groups have served only to reinforce "the individualism and the materialism of American consumption." This tradition of angry but apolitical individualism can still be found at innumerable websites, like starbucked.com, that highlight at great length the indignation of formerly loyal customers: "The sales clerk who sold me the machine was rude, then decidedly refused to hand over the free half pound of coffee given with every purchase of a Starbucks espresso machine...." The democratizing power of consumer demands for corporate responsibility is too often dissipated by such narrowly cast diatribes.
In spite of the failure of the jeremiad, the seeming irrelevance of simplicity and the individualization of the concept of consumer rights, Cross is too definitive about the nature of the "victory" of consumer society. Many Americans still recognize that however much advertisers and marketers attempt to cover it up, consumption is fundamentally a social and political act. So although it is true that "late twentieth century consumerism turned social problems into individual purchasing decisions," it is also the case that individual shopping decisions have frequently been viewed in the context of social problems. As consumer activists from the League of Women Shoppers in the 1930s through environmentalists today have pointed out, the goods that we buy leave ecological, labor and government "footprints." In spite of corporate attempts to fetishize goods, diligent activists like John C. Ryan and Alan Thein Durning of Northwest Environment Watch have described--and tried to estimate--the hidden social costs incurred by the purchase of quotidian products, including coffee and newspapers. The actions of students in the antisweatshop campaigns of recent years indicate that a growing number of consumers are looking behind the logo to determine the conditions under which the clothing they buy is made. As Naomi Klein has recently argued in No Logo:Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies, the ubiquity and importance of brands provides an opening for protesters who can threaten, through consumer boycotts and other actions, to sully corporate America's most valuable asset, the brand name. One teen in Klein's book puts it this way: "Nike, we made you. We can break you." Cross may decry the "inwardness of the personal computer," but the protests at the Seattle World Trade Organization and Washington International Monetary Fund meetings reveal that the Web creates alliances and expands social bonds. The history of consumer activism--and its recent incarnations--shows that consumerism does not necessarily lead to an antipolitics of radical individualism.
Cross does put forth important arguments about the "excesses of consumer culture": the environmental degradation, the waste, the lack of free time and the sheer mind-numbing meaninglessness that accompany modern consumerism. But these must be balanced with the recognition that most Americans, especially those in the working class, have viewed the enjoyment of the fruits of consumer society as an entitlement, not a defeat. This should not be dismissed as false consciousness or "embourgeoisement." Far from allowing consumerist demands to erode political impulses, working people--through living-wage, union-label and shorter-hour campaigns--have consistently politicized consumption. Rather than pitting the culture of consumption against democracy, it will be important to continue this tradition of democratizing, rather than demonizing, the culture of consumption. In his assessment of the twentieth century's most influential "ism," Cross provides important warnings about the difficulties of such an effort. But in its stress on the paradoxes of consumer society--an emphasis that then too rapidly gives way to condemnation--An All-Consuming Century also provides lessons from history about the necessity of the undertaking.
For years many of us have called for a national conversation about what it means to be a multiracial democracy. We have enumerated the glaring flaws inherent in our winner-take-all form of voting, which has produced a steady decline in voter participation, underrepresentation of racial minorities in office, lack of meaningful competition and choice in most elections, and the general failure of politics to mobilize, inform and inspire half the eligible electorate. But nothing changed. Democracy was an asterisk in political debate, typically encompassed in a vague reference to "campaign finance reform." Enter Florida.
The fiasco there provides a rare opportunity to rethink and improve our voting practices in a way that reflects our professed desire to have "every vote count." This conversation has already begun, as several highly educated communities in Palm Beach experienced the same sense of systematic disfranchisement that beset the area's poorer and less-educated communities of color. "It felt like Birmingham last night," Mari Castellanos, a Latina activist in Miami, wrote in an e-mail describing a mammoth rally at the 14,000-member New Birth Baptist Church, a primarily African-American congregation in Miami. "The sanctuary was standing room only. So were the overflow rooms and the school hall, where congregants connected via large TV screens. The people sang and prayed and listened. Story after story was told of voters being turned away at the polls, of ballots being destroyed, of NAACP election literature being discarded at the main post office, of Spanish-speaking poll workers being sent to Creole precincts and vice-versa.... Union leaders, civil rights activists, Black elected officials, ministers, rabbis and an incredibly passionate and inspiring Marlene Bastiene--president of the Haitian women's organization--spoke for two or three minutes each, reminding the assembly of the price their communities had paid for the right to vote and vowing not to be disfranchised ever again."
We must not let this once-in-a-generation moment pass without addressing the basic questions these impassioned citizens are raising: Who votes, how do they vote, whom do they vote for, how are their votes counted and what happens after the voting? These questions go to the very legitimacy of our democratic procedures, not just in Florida but nationwide--and the answers could lead to profound but eminently achievable reforms.
§ Who votes--and doesn't? As with the rest of the nation, in Florida only about half of all adults vote, about the same as the national average. Even more disturbing, nonvoters are increasingly low-income, young and less educated. This trend persists despite the Voting Rights Act, which since 1970 has banned literacy tests nationwide as prerequisites for voting--a ban enacted by Congress and unanimously upheld by the Supreme Court.
We are a democracy that supposedly believes in universal suffrage, and yet the differential turnout between high-income and low-income voters is far greater than in Europe, where it ranges from 5 to 10 percent. More than two-thirds of people in America with incomes greater than $50,000 vote, compared with one-third of those with incomes under $10,000. Those convicted of a felony are permanently banned from voting in Florida and twelve other states. In Florida alone, this year more than 400,000 ex-felons, about half of them black, were denied the opportunity to vote. Canada, on the other hand, takes special steps to register former prisoners and bring them into full citizenship.
§ How do they vote? Florida now abounds with stories of long poll lines, confusing ballots and strict limitations on how long voters could spend in the voting booth. The shocking number of invalid ballots--more ballots were "spoiled" in the presidential race than were cast for "spoiler" Ralph Nader--are a direct result of antiquated voting mechanics that would shame any nation, let alone one of the world's oldest democracies. Even the better-educated older voters of Palm Beach found, to their surprise, how much they had in common with more frequently disfranchised populations. Given how many decisions voters are expected to make in less than five minutes in the polling booth, it is common sense that the polls should be open over a weekend, or at least for twenty-four hours, and that Election Day should be a national holiday. By highlighting our wretched record on voting practices, Florida raises the obvious question: Do we really want large voter participation?
§ Whom do they vote for? Obviously, Florida voters chose among Al Gore, George Bush and a handful of minor-party candidates who, given their status as unlikely to win, were generally ignored and at best chastised as spoilers. But as many voters are now realizing, in the presidential race they were voting not for the candidates whose name they selected (or attempted to select) but for "electors" to that opaque institution, the Electoral College. Our constitutional framers did some things well--chiefly dulling the edge of winner-take-all elections through institutions that demand coalition-building, compromise and recognition of certain minority voices--but the Electoral College was created on illegitimate grounds and has no place in a modern democracy.
As Yale law professor Akhil Reed Amar argues, the Electoral College was established as a device to boost the power of Southern states in the election of the President. The same "compromise" that gave Southern states more House members by counting slaves as three-fifths of a person for purposes of apportioning representation (while giving them none of the privileges of citizenship) gave those states Electoral College votes in proportion to their Congressional delegation. This hypocrisy enhanced the Southern states' Electoral College percentage, and as a result, Virginia slaveowners controlled the presidency for thirty-two of our first thirty-six years.
Its immoral origins notwithstanding, the Electoral College was soon justified as a deliberative body that would choose among several candidates and assure the voice of small geographic areas. But under the Electoral College, voters in small states have more than just a voice; indeed their say often exceeds that of voters in big states. In Wyoming one vote in the Electoral College corresponds to 71,000 voters; in Florida, one electoral vote corresponds to 238,000 voters. At minimum we should eliminate the extra bias that adding electors for each of two senators gives our smallest states. As Robert Naiman of the Center for Economic and Policy Research reports, allowing each state only as many electors as it has members in the House of Representatives would mean, for example, that even if Bush won Oregon and Florida, he would have 216 and Gore would have 220 electoral votes.
Today its backers still argue that the Electoral College is necessary to insure that small states are not ignored by the presidential candidates. Yet the many states--including small ones--that weren't close in this election were neglected by both campaigns. Some of the nation's biggest states, with the most people of color, saw very little presidential campaigning and get-out-the-vote activity. Given their lopsided results this year, we can expect California, Illinois, New York, Texas and nearly all Southern states to be shunned in the 2004 campaign.
§ How are their votes counted? The presidency rests on a handful of votes in Florida because allocation of electoral votes is winner-take-all--if Gore wins by ten votes out of 6 million, he will win 100 percent of the state's twenty-five electoral votes. The ballots cast for a losing candidate are always "invalid" for the purposes of representation; only those cast for the winner actually "count." Thus winner-take-all elections underrepresent the voice of the minority and exaggerate the power of one state's razor-thin majority. Winner-take-all is the great barrier to representation of political and racial minorities at both the federal and the state level. No blacks or Latinos serve in the US Senate or in any governor's mansion. Third-party candidates did not win a single state legislature race except for a handful in Vermont.
Given the national questioning of the Electoral College sparked by the anomalous gap between the popular vote and the college's vote in the presidential election, those committed to real representative democracy now have a chance to shine a spotlight on the glaring flaws and disfranchisement inherent in winner-take-all practices and to propose important reforms.
What we need are election rules that encourage voter turnout rather than suppress it. A system of proportional representation--which would allocate seats to parties based on their proportion of the total vote--would more fairly reflect intense feeling within the electorate, mobilize more people to participate and even encourage those who do participate to do so beyond just the single act of voting on Election Day. Most democracies around the world have some form of proportional voting and manage to engage a much greater percentage of their citizens in elections. Proportional representation in South Africa, for example, allows the white Afrikaner parties and the ANC to gain seats in the national legislature commensurate with the total number of votes cast for each party. Under this system, third parties are a plausible alternative. Moreover, to allow third parties to run presidential candidates without being "spoilers," some advocate instant-runoff elections in which voters would rank their choices for President. That way, even voters whose top choice loses the election could influence the race among the other candidates.
Winner-take-all elections, by contrast, encourage the two major parties to concentrate primarily on the "undecideds" and to take tens of millions of dollars of corporate and special-interest contributions to broadcast ads on the public airwaves appealing to the center of the political spectrum. Winner-take-all incentives discourage either of the two major parties from trying to learn, through organizing and door-knocking, how to mobilize the vast numbers of disengaged poor and working-class voters. Rather than develop a vision, they produce a product and fail to build political capacity from the ground up.
§ What happens after the voting? Our nation is more focused on elections now than it has been for decades; yet on any given Sunday, more people will watch professional football than voted this November. What democracy demands is a system of elections that enables minor parties to gain a voice in the legislature and encourages the development of local political organizations that educate and mobilize voters.
Between elections, grassroots organizations could play an important monitoring role now unfulfilled by the two major parties. If the Bush campaign is right that large numbers of ballots using the same butterfly format were thrown out in previous elections in Palm Beach, then something is wrong with more than the ballot. For those Democratic senior citizens in Palm Beach, it was not enough that their election supervisor was a Democrat. They needed a vibrant local organization that could have served as a watchdog, alerting voters and election officials that there were problems with the ballot. No one should inadvertently vote for two candidates; the same watchdog organizations should require ballot-counting machines like those in some states that notify the voter of such problems before he or she leaves the booth. Voters should be asked, as on the popular TV quiz show, "Is that your final answer?" And surely we cannot claim to be a functioning democracy when voters are turned away from the polls or denied assistance in violation of both state and federal law.
Before the lessons of Florida are forgotten, let us use this window of opportunity to forge a strong pro-democracy coalition to rally around "one vote, one value." The value of a vote depends on its being fairly counted but also on its counting toward the election of the person the voter chose as her representative. This can happen only if we recognize the excesses of winner-take-all voting and stop exaggerating the power of the winner by denying the loser any voice at all.
There's an easy way to take your own pulse, and that of anyone you know, concerning the vertiginous events of the night of November 7. Was the apparent non-outcome really a "mess" or a crisis? Or was the pre-existing system a sordid mess and a crisis waiting to happen? If you choose the second explanation, then the meltdown of all the fixers and self-appointed gatekeepers and pseudo-experts, as well as being a source of joy, is also an unparalleled opportunity, an occasion for a long-postponed national seminar on democracy and how to get it.
A proposed 14.2 percent postage increase for periodicals was swept aside by the Postal Rate Commission in a recommendation issued on November 13. The five-member presidentially appointed commission approved increases that average just under 10 percent. In our view that's just about 10 percent too much, given that the Postal Service is--the Internet notwithstanding--the circulatory system of our democracy. The Nation was among the witnesses cited in the commission's 1,000-page opinion who warned about the potentially destructive impact of the proposed rate hikes on journals of opinion.We were pleased that the commission recognized these magazines as a category worthy of separate consideration, but next time we hope to persuade them that it's as wrong to tax ideas through postal-rate increases as it was to tax tea in colonial times.
Katha Pollitt is not writing a column this week; she will be back in two weeks.
HEARING THE OTHER SIDE
At a time when Israeli opinion has hardened against peace efforts, 120 Palestinian academics and activists published an "urgent statement to the Israeli public" as a paid ad in Israeli newspapers on November 10. The statement called for "a final historic reconciliation that would enable our two peoples to live in peace, human dignity and neighborly relations." The signers argued that the Oslo accords have been used to camouflage expansion of settlements and the continuing expropriation of Palestinian land. It said that freedom of movement for Palestinians has been severely curtailed while settler violence against Palestinian communities continues. Resolving current inequities within the framework of the Oslo agreements with exclusive American "brokerage" was now impossible. Four principles were declared to be essential to a just peace agreement: Ending the occupation of the territories captured in 1967; Palestinian sovereignty over East Jerusalem and recognition of the city as the capital of two states; Israel's acknowledgment of its responsibility in the creation of Palestinian refugees in 1948; and mutual respect for spiritual and historical sites.
The quiet grace of Ring Lardner Jr., who died the other week at 85, seemed at odds with these noisy, thumping times. I cannot imagine Ring playing Oprah or composing one of those terribly earnest essays, "writers on writing," that keep bubbling to the surface of the New York Times. He was rightly celebrated
for personal and political courage but underestimated, it seems to me, as a protean writer who was incapable of composing an awkward sentence. It ran against Ring's nature to raise his voice. Lesser writers, who shouted, drew more acclaim, or anyway more attention.
The obituaries celebrated his two Academy Awards but made less of other achievements. Ring's novel,The Ecstasy of Owen Muir, begun in 1950 while he was serving his now-famous prison sentence for contempt of Congress, drew a transatlantic fan letter from Sean O'Casey. Ring felt sufficiently pleased to have the longhand note framed under glass, which he then slipped into a shirt drawer. He was not about advertisements for himself. In 1976 he published The Lardners: My Family Remembered. Garson Kanin commented, "In the American aristocracy of achievement, the Lardners are among the bluest of blue bloods. In Ring Lardner, Jr. they have found a chronicler worthy of his subject. The Lardners is a moving, comical, patriotic book."
The progenitor was, of course, Ring Lardner Sr., the great short-story writer, who sired four sons, each of whom wrote exceedingly well. James Lardner was killed during the Spanish Civil War; David died covering the siege of Aachen during World War II; a heart attack killed John in 1960, when he was 47. Add Ring's prison term to the necrology and you would not have what immediately looks to be the makings of a "moving, comical" book. But The Lardners was that and more because of Ring Jr.'s touch and slant and his overview of what E.E. Cummings called "this busy monster, manunkind."
From time to time, Ring published splendid essays. The one form he avoided was the short story. He wrote, "I did not want to undertake any enterprise that bore the risk of inviting comparison with my father or the appearance of trading on his reputation."
We became close in the days following the death of John Lardner, who was, quite simply, the best sports columnist I have read. I set about preparing a collection, The World of John Lardner, and Ring, my volunteer collaborator, found an unfinished serio-humorous "History of Drinking in America." He organized random pages with great skill. Reading them I learned that the favorite drink of the Continentals, shivering at Valley Forge, was a Pennsylvania rye called Old Monongahela. George Washington called it "stinking stuff." At headquarters the general sipped Madeira wine.
A year or so later, with the blacklist still raging, I picked up Ring for lunch at the Chateau Marmont, an unusual apartment hotel on Sunset Boulevard near Hollywood. Outside the building, a fifty-foot statue of a cowgirl, clad in boots and a bikini, rotated on the ball of one foot, advertising a Las Vegas hotel. I asked the room clerk for Mr. Robert Leonard. Ring was writing some forgotten movie, but could not then work under his own name. "Robert Leonard" matched the initials on his briefcase.
This was a pleasant November day, but the blinds above Ring's portable typewriter were drawn. When I asked why, he opened them. His desk sat facing the bikinied cowgirl, bust-high. Every eighteen seconds those giant breasts came spinning round. "Makes it hard to work," Ring said and closed the blinds.
The Saturday Evening Post was reinventing itself during the 1960s, on the way to dying quite a glorious death, and with my weighty title there, editor at large, I urged Clay Blair, who ran things, to solicit a piece from Ring about the blacklist. Ring responded with a touching, sometimes very funny story that he called "The Great American Brain Robbery." He explained, "With all these pseudonyms, I work as much as ever. But the producers now pay me about a tenth of what they did when I was allowed to write under my own name."
Clay Blair lived far right of center, but Ring's story conquered him, and he said, "Marvelous. Just one thing. He doesn't say whether he was a member of the Communist Party. Ask him to put that in the story."
"I won't do that, Clay."
"He chose jail, rather than answer that question."
"Then, if he still won't, will he tell us why he won't?"
Ring composed a powerful passage.
The impulse to resist assaults on freedom of thought has motivated witnesses who could have answered no to the Communist question as well as many, like myself, whose factual response would have been yes. I was at that time a member of the Communist party, in whose ranks I found some of the most thoughtful, witty and generally stimulating men and women in Hollywood, I also encountered a number of bores and unstable characters.... My political activity had already begun to dwindle at the time [Congressman J. Parnell] Thomas popped the question, and his only effect on my affiliation was to prolong it until the case was finally lost. At that point I could and did terminate my membership without confusing the act, in my own or anyone else's head, with the quite distinct struggle for the right to embrace any belief or set of beliefs to which my mind and conscience directed me.
These words drove a silver stake into the black heart of the blacklist.
Ring won his first Oscar for Woman of the Year in 1942, and when he won his second, for M*A*S*H in 1970, numbers of his friends responded with cheering and tears of joy. The ceremony took place early in 1971, and Ring accepted the statuette with a brief speech. "At long last a pattern has been established in my life. At the end of every twenty-eight years I get one of these. So I will see you all again in 1999."
Indeed. Early in the 1990s I lobbied a producer who had bought film rights to my book The Boys of Summer, to engage Ring for the screenplay. Ring, close to 80, worked tirelessly. A screenplay is a fictive work, and Ring moved a few days and episodes about for dramatic purposes. His scenario ended with the Brooklyn Dodgers winning the 1955 World Series from the Yankees and my account of that ballgame landing my byline on the front page of the New York Herald Tribune. The sports editor is congratulating me on a coherent piece when the telephone rings: My father has fallen dead on a street in Brooklyn; I am to proceed to Kings County Hospital and identify his body.
As I, or the character bearing my name, move toward the morgue, I bump into two beer-drunk Dodgers fans. One says, "What's the matter with him?" The other says, "He's sober. That's the matter with him." The body is there. It is my father's body. Beer drunks behind us, my mother and I embrace. Fin.
I can only begin to suggest all that Ring's scene implies. I would start with the point that winning the World Series is not the most important thing on earth, or even in Brooklyn. I was always careful not to embarrass Ring with praise, but here I blurted out, "This is the best bleeping screenplay I've ever read, Ringgold. Oscar III may come true in '99."
"Curious," Ring said. "I seem to have had the same thought myself."
The blacklisting bounders were now dead, but a new generation of Hollywood hounds refused to shoot Ring Lardner's scenario. The grounds: "a father-son angle" was not commercial. "It worked in Hamlet," Ring said, but to unhearing ears. And then we were talking about Ring writing a screenplay for a book I published in 1999 about Jack Dempsey and the Roaring Twenties. "Have to cut it back a bit," Ring said. "Following your text would give us the first billion-dollar picture."
Years ago, the critic Clifton Fadiman wrote that Ring Lardner Sr. was an unconscious artist and that his power proceeded from his hatred of the characters he created. Ring told me: "If my father hated anyone or anything, it was a critic like Fadiman. Unconscious artist? My father knew perfectly well how good he was and--better than anyone else--how hard it was to be that good."
Ring Jr. knew the very same thing about himself. Or so I believe. Yeats writes, "The intellect of man is forced to choose/perfection of the life, or of the work." As well as anyone in our time, my suddenly late friend Ring Lardner came pretty damn close to achieving perfection in both.
Long before Carrie-Anne Moss rips open Val Kilmer's shirt and begins pounding his chest, providing him with a version of CPR that she must have learned from a Japanese drum troupe, the makers of Red Planet have resorted to their own thumpings and flailings, as if to resuscitate a film that's gone limp. It's a panic response, coming from people who have realized too late that the hookup of a radio would be a high point of their picture.
Their script has stuck Moss in a stricken spaceship that's orbiting Mars; by this point, her comrades Kilmer and Tom Sizemore have been marooned, incommunicado, on the planet's surface. So when the boys stumble upon an old circuit board in the dust, it's time for high-energy drama. "Let's do it!" shrieks Sizemore, as if he were starting the Indy 500. With a roar, guitars and drums begin pounding away on the soundtrack. Kilmer, in closeup, damn well solders a wire, sending a meteor shower's worth of sparks across the screen--at which point, back on the spaceship, Moss decides to strip down to a sleeveless T-shirt, giving us a much better view of her breasts.
I'm really grateful for the breasts. If not for them, I might have fallen asleep and missed the climactic scene, in which Kilmer performs a diagnostic check on a computer.
If only the makers of Red Planet had trusted in their story's essential schleppiness! Then, instead of giving us this lumbering, expensive beast, they might have realized the small but halfway-clever idea that's still dimly visible within: a story about the heroism-by-default of a spaceship janitor.
The character in question, a fellow named Gallagher, holds the job title of mechanical systems engineer; but to the rest of the personnel on this flight to Mars, that's like saying he's the guy who fixes the toilets. "It's high school," he remarks to a fellow civilian in the crew, after being brushed back by a swaggering NASA pilot. "They're the jocks, and we're the nerds." Just so. When he bumps into Moss--the ship's commander--on her way out of the unisex shower, Gallagher can think of nothing better to do than fumble with his fingers and blush. Later, when the outcome of the mission comes to rest on him, Moss has to give him a pep talk before he'll even get to his feet. Yet he's the guy who must save Earth from destruction and consummate a rendezvous with those breasts. What a role for Steve Buscemi! How the hell did it go to Val Kilmer?
He's good, of course. Kilmer is always good--but he's a guy who previously played Jim Morrison, Elvis and Batman. The only thing that's nerdlike about him is the hairdo he's been given for this picture, which is brushy and yellow and makes him look as if he's in crying need of a conditioner. Mind you, the premise of Red Planet is that all of Earth needs a conditioner. After these many years of environmental degradation, we've burned out our world and must colonize someplace else. Hence the desperate and very expensive project, in the year 2057, of sending Moss and her crew to Mars. Wouldn't it have been cheaper, as well as more practical, to institute a few conservation measures instead? No doubt. But humans, according to this movie, lack much capacity for self-discipline and forethought, and so must splurge on stupid but spectacular stunts. As if to prove this point, the producers have done their own splurging and hired Kilmer--the actorly equivalent of a rocket to Mars, compared with Buscemi's compost heap.
As they cast the lead, so too did they decide to ladle on the excitement: pounding guitars, sleeveless T-shirts, unmotivated shrieks. How were these choices made? I can venture a guess. The credits for Red Planet list three producers and two executive producers. This is a fairly standard aggregation in today's movie business; and with so many big shots keeping themselves busy on the picture, how could a mere idea survive? The story, written by a lone guy named Chuck Pfarrer, was almost sure to be buried alive; and into the dirt with it went a few other notions.
One of them might have involved some sexual role-play, based on the fact that the only females in the story are Moss, the shipboard computer (named Lucille) and a navigation robot called Amee. "She's my kind of girl," Gallagher says of the robot, just before it goes into killer mode. (It was designed for the Marines.) Somebody, maybe Pfarrer, seems to have wanted the nerdy Gallagher to feel ambivalent toward strong women: attracted to them when they shower, threatened by them when they turn into whirring kung-fu machines.
But since the production is at war with its own screenplay--have I mentioned that Red Planet is directed, more or less, by Antony Hoffman?--this kinky little idea is no better realized than the movie's religiosity. As far as I'm concerned, it's just as well that this latter theme gets only lip service. Ever since 2001: A Space Odyssey, Earthlings in Outer Space have sought God, and found light shows. At least Red Planet spares us that final cliché--though it still makes us listen to a lot of spiritual blather.
Those Deep Thoughts are provided by Terence Stamp, who manages to be the crew's world-famous scientist despite having abandoned rationalism. Science cannot provide the answers he craves, Stamp explains to a sweetly patient Kilmer, and so he has turned to religion. Kilmer obligingly spends the rest of the picture looking for a divine purpose--which doesn't seem so misguided, considering the level of scientific expertise around him. When the crew's biologist (Sizemore) discovers a life form on Mars, he cries out, "Nematodes!" Either he's forgotten his Linnaeus--nematodes are worms--or else the solution to God's mysteries is to be found not in Outer Space but in the pages of old sci-fi magazines. These creatures are clearly arthropods: the genre's usual bugs.
Fans of the platoon-in-space movie will want to know that the Mars scenery is furnished with the necessary rocks, peaks and ravines. Fans of Carrie-Anne Moss--meaning the adolescent boys, of whatever age, who admired The Matrix--will want to know that here, too, she gets to fly around. Not every actress is suited to antigravity; and so, until such time as Moss gets the chance to deliver a performance, I will congratulate her on giving good float.
As rain dances used to serve certain primitive tribes and scripture still serves true believers, the two-party system serves as the religion of the political class. Never mind that more than 50 percent of Americans may not share the civic religion, answering yes to pollsters when asked if they would prefer more than two choices (and that includes many regular voters as well as the bulk of habitual nonvoters). Nevertheless, every new party that has ever tried to establish itself has been treated by the political priesthood as a blasphemer--an evil force that inevitably contributes to the disastrous victory of the more detested of the two major candidates. Perot elected Clinton. Nader elects Bush.
The real culprit in the current election imbroglio is the two-party system itself and the state laws supporting it. These laws exist to discourage new parties. Florida has come in for special attention because of the current crisis, but Florida is typical among states. The beautiful irony is that the laws written to discourage third parties have proved to be a double-edged sword, cutting for the moment against those responsible for the existence of those laws.
Consider first how the laws work against all new parties. It is not Providence that takes an energetic social movement and crushes it as soon as it chooses to advance its goals through elections. It is the laws of the state here on earth that keep the party system on life support by preferring two parties above all others. The key example will be found in the laws of the states and Congress that mandate the single-member district system of representation plus the plurality or first-past-the-post method of election. Another historic example is provided by the "antifusion" laws in all but a half-dozen states, which prohibit joint nomination, whereby a third party seeks to nominate for its ticket the candidate already nominated by one of the major parties. Even the Supreme Court has approved such laws with the argument that having the same name in two places on the ballot would confuse the poor, defenseless voters.
Add to all this the new gerrymandering. Traditional gerrymandering was at least a genuine struggle between the majority parties to dilute the vote power of the other party by concentrating a maximum of their voters into a minimum of districts. The new method takes advantage of the Voting Rights Act by benign race-conscious gerrymandering in order to keep minorities within one of the major parties. In practice, blacks are guaranteed one or more additional Congressional or state legislature seats within the Democratic Party, while Republicans gain strength in districts from which the minority voters are evacuated.
Then there are the countless state laws that prescribe higher thresholds for the number of correct signatures required on third-party nominating petitions than for regulars on two-party ballots. Even the laws that apply equally to all parties are discriminatory, because they are written in such detail that ballot access for third-party candidates requires expensive legal assistance just to get through the morass of procedures. That mind-numbing detail is doubly discriminatory because the implementation of these laws thrusts tremendous discretion into the hands of the registrars, commissioners and election boards, all staffed by political careeristas of the two major parties, whose bipartisan presence is supposed to provide "neutrality with finality"--but it is common knowledge that they can agree with each other to manipulate the laws for the purpose of discouraging the candidacies of smaller and newer parties.
The same principles help explain why less than 50 percent of the electorate turns out to vote. Most of the blame goes to the forbidding proceduralism of registration, enrollment and eligibility and the discretionary power of local and county officials in implementation. And don't forget the gruesome timing of state election laws that restrict voting to one ordinary workday. The duopoly has a stake in low turnout. Virtually all expansion of the electorate (to include women, 18-year-olds, blacks) and the easing of restrictions on registration (judicial enforcement of the "motor voter" law) have been imposed on the state two-party systems from the outside by national social movements and federal courts.
Now, as poetic justice would have it, this legal structure is cutting the other way. Just look at the havoc it has wreaked: Loused-up ballots. Machine versus manual recounts. A lawyers' field day and the threat of court intervention that could cause a constitutional crisis or take Florida out of the electoral vote altogether. The Florida crunch can happen in any state where the results are extremely close and the outcome can change the national results.
That's because the two constituted parties cooperate well as a duopoly so long as market share is stable, with decisive election results. But whenever there is an extremely close election, the two parties become vicious antagonists, and the high stakes make it profitable for each to use its control of the electoral machinery as a weapon of mass destruction against the other. No war is more destructive than a civil war, and ordinarily the two parties have incentives to keep civil war from happening. Civil war in 2000 has broken out because two-party competition has turned from a public good to a public evil. The two-party system has at the moment become a menace to the Republic, made worse by the overwhelming weakness of the parties' presidential candidates and the impossibility of choosing between them when the only way to vote no for the candidate you hate is to vote yes for the one you can barely tolerate. And forget about having a good option when you hate both equally.
With Nader in the race, a lot of things got said that otherwise wouldn't have--no matter that the leading candidates excommunicated him. Making issues out of nonissues is what third parties are about, but those issues obviously did not create the stalemate we now confront. Stalemate is putting the case too mildly; mutual assassination is more like it. The crisis will not end with a certified recount in Florida. The civil war will continue, and the two parties will give us competition literally with a vengeance. Forget about smooth transitions. The FBI won't be ready with its security checks of top appointees, and the Senate will look at them with far greater than average scrutiny, even if the President's party is in the majority, because the Senate is run by sixty antifilibuster votes, not by mere majorities. That will apply in spades to judicial vacancies. Get ready for a Supreme Court of eight, seven, even six members, because as the vacancies occur, there'll be a majority against any nominee, even ones as mushy and fuzzy as President Bush or Gore will nominate. (The Constitution does not require any particular number of Justices on the Supreme Court.)
No exit? We have to turn the civic religion on its head and lionize the principle of a multiparty system, because its presence on a regular and expanded basis would relieve the two major parties of the need to be all things to everyone in order to get their phony majorities. We don't do that by inviting third parties to join the major parties on legal life support--as government-sponsored agencies. We do it by deregulating our politics. Hey, guys, deregulation. If you really meant it all these years, you Republicans and you Democrats, then be honest and deregulate yourselves. Take away the two-party safety net, by legislation and better yet by judicial review, and the democratic revolution can begin.