On a late June day that will surely have been picked by the political astrologers around him, Kofi Annan of Ghana will likely be coronated for a second five-year term as Secretary General of the United Nations. The 63-year-old Annan's first term doesn't end until December, but since there's no opposition to him, the Security Council--which decides on such things--seems inclined to formally name him in June.
The timing, of course, couldn't be better, both for Annan and the beleaguered UN system, which is hurting financially because the United States, its biggest donor, owes it more than $1.2 billion in arrears and continues to refuse to pay. A freshly crowned Annan will clearly wield re-energized clout as the General Assembly opens a special session on HIV/AIDS on June 25, a three-day conference that is expected to draw even leaders known to harbor antipathy toward the UN--such as George W. Bush.
Annan has made AIDS his special cause this year. He has established a global fund; the initial target was $7-10 billion. Bush has pledged $200 million, a sum that most AIDS activists consider inadequate. It's quite likely that Annan will coax another $300 million out of the Western Europeans. It's not at all certain that the AIDS session will end up as an exercise in effective fundraising, but its value may well lie in drawing unprecedented attention to the subject.
It's probably uncharitable to suggest that Annan's engagement with the AIDS issue flows from concern about the incipient actions of the Oslo-based Nobel Peace Prize Committee. But if Annan is honored by this body, it may well be because of the extraordinary steps he's been taking to advance public support for helping victims of HIV/AIDS. Until recently the UN's approach had been to let the issue be handled by a small, quiet unit in Geneva called UNAIDS. It is headed by a Belgian physician named Peter Piot, who has traveled the world articulating fearful statistics associated with the AIDS pandemic and gaining the reluctant cooperation of various feuding UN agencies. But Dr. Piot lacks Annan's stature and does not enjoy the benefit of his bully pulpit. Moreover, there are many competing issues within the UN system.
Whether Annan will be able to mobilize additional resources for AIDS is an open question. The world's thirty richest countries--members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development--currently give less than $40 billion annually to the poorest 135 nations. The trend has been downward for several years now, since the record foreign-aid high of $75 billion some fifteen years ago. Some suggest that the $7-10 billion target for Annan's new global fund is a conservative figure, considering that the number of AIDS-affected people worldwide may well double in the next decade from the present 33 million. Most of the victims are in poor countries--especially in Africa--where economic and social development is already faltering.
Annan's strategy has been to link AIDS to the broader issues of jump-starting economic growth and insuring environmental security. The AIDS session in New York is only one of several international meetings that Annan is convening in the next eighteen months. The idea is that these conferences will serve as a sort of continuum and fashion a body of work on development issues. The idea is also to get leaders of rich and poor countries to commit at least modest new amounts of money to tackle the widening problems of poverty. And last, the idea is to project a recharged image of the UN.
Thus, a General Assembly special session on the plight of cities was held in early June; after the AIDS conference, there will be another assembly session, on the wide misuse of small arms and light weapons, especially in poor countries, where children are often employed as soldiers and vigilantes. During the summer, there will be a climate conference in Bonn, where the Bush Administration's stance against full recognition of the harmful effects of global warming--and renunciation of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol--will surely be a major item on the agenda. Then the UN will convene in Durban, South Africa, to mobilize world support against racism and other forms of discrimination. There's a summit on issues relating to children's rights and a world food summit in Rome, both in the fall; a conference on financing for development next spring in Mexico; and a conference on the problems of aging, also in the spring, in Madrid.
All these conferences will lead up to a World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, in September 2002. Annan wants every head of state or government to attend, and he wants to review what's happened in the fields of environmental protection and poverty alleviation since the June 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. World leaders, including Bush the Elder, promised to act on the Earth Summit's Agenda 21, a sort of blueprint for global economic development, and said that the world's thirty richest nations should commit $125 billion each year in development assistance to the 135 poorest countries. Of course, no one's kept the promise.
Annan and India's Nitin Desai, his Under Secretary General for Economic and Social Affairs, aver that the decline in development assistance is unacceptable, especially at a time when globalization is leaving more and more people further behind. They cite the fact that despite worldwide improvements in such matters as infant mortality and literacy rates, some 2 billion people out of a global population of 6 billion live in poverty.
But Annan knows it's unlikely the rich nations will pony up more cash for development, particularly when public support for foreign aid is steadily losing ground in many wealthy countries. So he's trying to rally big business behind his plans. On the eve of the UN meeting on AIDS, former US ambassador to the UN Richard Holbrooke said that with Annan's encouragement, he has agreed to head the Global Business Council on HIV and AIDS, a UN initiative. Annan also recently persuaded outgoing Shell chairman and CEO Sir Mark Moody-Stuart to chair a new "business action council" for the Johannesburg 2002 summit. Moody-Stuart, a soft-spoken man who acknowledges that the energy industry's environmental record has been less than commendable, wants to devise ways whereby the business community can generate culturally and socially sensitive economic development in the poor countries; he says more economically healthy and socially stable societies are in everyone's self-interest: "Less confrontation, more cooperation--let's give it a try," he said in a London interview.
Nice sentiment. But already some nongovernmental organizations are alarmed that big business may unduly influence the UN at a time when the world body has never been more vulnerable financially. While it's unlikely that various UN organizations would rescind carefully negotiated protocols on subjects like the environment, it's not at all clear that the UN would be able to resist some sort of reciprocity for business largesse. What might such reciprocity consist of--co-branding, such as combining corporate logos with that of the UN? Or perhaps something more troublesome, such as designating UN personnel to serve as de facto commercial representatives?
No one is insinuating, however, that Kofi Annan can be bought. Indeed, the prevailing consensus in the donor community and in the corridors of the UN is that a cozier UN/big business relationship can bring another source of strength to the world body, not to mention burnish Annan's own reputation as a dynamic secretary general.
Third term, anyone?
Arriving to record a television debate at the Hoover Institution here a few months ago, I found the personnel of the preceding show still standing around and chatting. Prominent was the rather chic figure of George Shultz, former Secretary of State, who has become almost dandyish and svelte since his second marriage, to a prominent local socialite. He was reminiscing about the first time that Ballistic Missile Defense, or "Star Wars," was being marketed to the American people. It was Ronald Reagan who set up the first Strategic Defense Initiative Organization, headed by Lieut. Gen. James Abrahamson. This officer duly arrived, accompanied by a uniformed associate, at Shultz's office on the fifth floor at Foggy Bottom. The Secretary bade him welcome and said he had a number of questions about the new scheme, some of which had to do with its feasibility. Whereat the general turned to his assistant and asked, in a rather show-stopping manner, "Is the Secretary cleared for this conversation?"
Of course, Shultz ought to have turned the man out of his office right then and there. (He had, after all, refused to have anything to do with the Oliver North operation, another military usurpation of civilian authority. And while at Treasury in a previous administration, he had rejected Nixon's demand for confidential tax information on political opponents.) As it was, he was recalling the moment as one of slightly sinister absurdity. But the core of the anecdote is the clue to the utter stupidity of the press coverage of the Bush "listening tour" of Europe. It is not true that the United States wants a missile defense, while "the Europeans" remain skeptical. The Turkish military, after all, has already signaled its sympathy for the scheme. So have the yes-man regimes that owe Washington a debt for the fantasy of NATO enlargement. I would expect Tony Blair to fall into line without very much demur. (It is, after all, what he's for.) It is the people of the United States who remain substantially unpersuaded, for excellent reasons, and who have never been given an opportunity to vote for or against this gargantuan, destabilizing boondoggle.
Reagan's original speech on the subject, which purported to make nuclear weapons "impotent and obsolete," was cleverly and explicitly designed to defuse the mass appeal of the nuclear freeze movement, which nineteen years ago this June drew a million people to Central Park. By suddenly discovering that mutual assured destruction was "immoral and unstable," it spoke to the years of effort, on the part of countless physicists and activists, to point out precisely that.
The Bush propaganda scheme is typically narrower and more parochial. It may call for an empire of science-fiction hardware on earth and in heaven, but its selling point is essentially isolationist: "We" can have our very own shield against "them." (Indeed, the earlier impetus given to the project under Clinton and Gore, who could and should have stopped the demented plan but didn't, derived from poll findings showing that millions of Americans believed that the United States already had a missile-proof roof arching above its fruited plains.)
Thus, as presented and packaged, the Star Wars proposal is the apotheosis of the Bush worldview. It appeals to the provincial and the inward-looking in American culture, while simultaneously gratifying and enriching the empire-building element in the military-industrial complex. If only it could be run on oil-based products alone, it would be the picture-perfect reward for the donor-based oligarchy that underpins the regime. And, by drawing on the imagery of shields and prophylactics, it neatly conceals its only conceivable utility, which--if it worked at all--would be the development of an impregnable first-strike capacity.
Just as the MX missile, advertised as a "silo-busting" weapon, was obviously not going to be fired at empty silos, so the "shield" would be a guarantee that an aggressive launch could take place; the aggressor possessing the ability to parry any retaliatory move. There is, quite literally and obviously, no other reason for wishing to possess such a system. Once in place, it would make its own decisions, and no elected politician would ever again be cleared for any discussion of it. The militarization of the state would be complete.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once summarized the preparation for nuclear war as the willingness to commit genocide and suicide at the same time. It has never been put better. The delusion of "Star Wars" is the delusion that the "suicide" bit can be taken out of the equation. That's why we hear the absurd term "nuclear umbrella" being circulated--possibly the greatest concentration of stupidity ever packed into any two words in apposition--while the words "suicide bomber" are reserved for small-time Levantine desperadoes, of the kind who can evade any known laser or radar.
Given the Clinton/Gore sellout on this greatest of all issues, and the extent to which the commitment to "research" has already been made, the Democrats will have to move very fast to outpace the juggernaut. I'm not holding my breath. I suppose there exists one faint hope. On advice from his daddy, the President abandoned his customary unilateralism and, against the temper of his Congressional right wing, upheld the US commitment to the United Nations. A few weeks later, again after urgent paternal representations, he reversed himself on North Korea. (The conduit in this case was Donald Gregg, former ambassador to South Korea and once Bush Senior's fall guy for Iran/contra matters.) This isn't much more heartening, for those of us who would like to live in a democratic republic, than reading of Prince Charles getting a dressing-down from Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip. It's not all that encouraging to think of our first line of defense being old-style, pinstripe Republicans, from George Shultz to Donald Gregg, who survived the wreckage of previous administrations, but it may be all that we've got.
FIRST AMENDMENT BEDFELLOWS
Every once in a while it behooves this 135-year-old journal (136 on July 5!) to remind ourselves that, like the broken clock that is right twice a day, the conservative nuts and true believers aren't always wrong. That's why we are pleased to join William Safire, the editors of the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Times, and Dave Shiflett of National Review Online--all of whom shouted "First Amendment!" when Senator Patrick Leahy asked R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr., the editor of The American Spectator, to turn over materials related to the nefarious Arkansas Project for hearings on Theodore Olson's nomination to be Solicitor General. Olson had served as the Spectator's lawyer and on its board of directors, and even wrote, anonymously, some of its anti-Clinton articles. But we agree with the above rogues' gallery of the right that the First Amendment requires that magazines, like the rest of the press, be immune from such Congressionally compelled turnovers. The Senate has since confirmed Olson, so we're stuck with him, but nothing in the First Amendment stops reporters from investigating the Spectator's $2.4 million Arkansas (Get Clinton) Project. Which articles did Olson write? Did he lie to the Senate when he swore he had no involvement with the A-Project? In the spirit of the First Amendment, we urge the Spectator to cooperate with inquiring journalists--but not at the expense of its Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
CAROL BERNSTEIN FERRY
Carol Bernstein Ferry, who died on June 9 after a long illness, was, with her late husband W.H. (Ping) Ferry, a friend and generous supporter of this magazine. The DJB Foundation, which she administered with three others after the death of her first husband, Daniel J. Bernstein, was a model for such enterprises. It distributed its entire capital of $6 million and the accrued income thereon as quickly as possible--without bureaucratic hurdles or petty conditions. Its giving, she wrote, "turned more and more away from usual objects of philanthropic attention toward the victims of what seem to us increasingly to be official malevolence and indifference." A memorial service will be held on June 27 at 5:30 pm at the Cosmopolitan Club, 122 East 66th Street, New York City.
At The Nation's 136th Anniversary Dinner held June 18 in New York, the Nation Institute and the Puffin Foundation Ltd. announced the first recipient of the $100,000 Puffin/Nation Prize for Creative Citizenship--to be given annually to "an individual who has challenged the status quo through distinctive, courageous and socially responsible work." And the winner is--civil rights leader and math-literacy advocate Bob Moses. In the early 1960s Moses organized the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Following six years of teaching mathematics in Tanzania, Moses was working toward his PhD at Harvard when he noticed that his daughter wasn't offered algebra in the eighth grade. He subsequently founded the Algebra Project, which devises curricular materials, trains teachers and provides other support for schools seeking to improve their math curriculum. It now reaches some 10,000 students a year in ten states. The Puffin/Nation prize is the brainchild of Perry Rosenstein, founder of the New Jersey-based Puffin Foundation, and is administered by the Nation Institute.
NEWS OF THE WEAK IN REVIEW
Representative James Hansen, Utah Republican, illuminates the Vieques issue: "I dunno, I come down to the idea that I don't see where Puerto Rico should get any favored treatment over the rest of these people. Now what have they done to get it? They sit down there on welfare and very few of them paying taxes. Got a sweetheart deal, I don't really see the equity in it."
SENATE SHUFFLE It was a remarkably different Senate that convened following Vermonter Jim Jeffords's switch from Republican to Independent status. The Jeffords jump did more than put a spring in the step of new majority leader Tom Daschle; it put a number of progressive players in a position, if not to pass all the bills they'd like, to use their control of key committees to alter significantly the tenor of the debate. "There's been a general view that you're only doing something when you are actually passing a piece of legislation," says incoming Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee chairman Paul Sarbanes. "I think you can also perform a very important service if [committees] exercise a careful oversight over the government departments and agencies and over the economic sectors for which they're responsible." Sarbanes plans hearings on predatory lending and perhaps credit-card-company abuses. While Daschle and Edward Kennedy continue to counsel caution and bipartisanship on the part of Democrats, other senators are leaping into action. Days after taking over as chairman of the Constitution subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee, Russ Feingold, the Senate's most ardent death penalty foe, convened a hearing that gave supporters of his bill seeking a death penalty moratorium a rare forum on Capitol Hill. On the same day that Feingold grilled aides to Attorney General John Ashcroft regarding discrepancies in their statistics on bias, the Justice Department announced it would initiate a comprehensive review designed to answer the question Feingold asked at his hearing: "How did we end up with 90 percent of the people on [the federal] death row minorities?"
SHOOTING DOWN STAR WARS With the Senate shift, few activist groups have seen prospects for lobbying success improve more dramatically than those opposing President Bush's National Missile Defense scheme. Senator Robert Byrd, the powerful Appropriations Committee chairman, is promising tough scrutiny of the bloated Defense budget, while Star Wars skeptics Joe Biden and Carl Levin now chair the Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees, respectively. Biden and Levin showed up at a session organized by the Council for a Livable World, where, according to Chris Madison, director of the CLW Education Fund's National Missile Defense Project, "They both made clear their extreme skepticism about where the Administration is going." Peace Action stepped up its "Star Wars Is a Lemon" campaign with a June rally at the Capitol and a lobbying push that included 115 meetings with legislators and their staffs. Peace Action's twenty-six state chapters are following up with an effort to deliver 300,000 "Star Wars Is a Lemon" postcards to Congress.
ELECTION INSPECTION Election reform initiatives that were expected to be unavoidable following last fall's Florida fiasco got buried in Trent Lott's Republican-dominated Senate, but that's likely to change now that Chris Dodd has taken over the Rules and Administration Committee. Dodd and Representative John Conyers Jr., ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, have proposed the sweeping Equal Protection of Voting Rights Act, designed to help states adopt uniform systems to assure that voting is easy and accessible, and that all votes are counted. Dodd is expected to arrange hearings not just on his bill but also on the broader issue of electoral disfranchisement. The opening comes just as activists are stepping up the pressure on the issue. A US Commission on Civil Rights draft report--characterized by the stark observation that "it was widespread voter disenfranchisement, not the dead-heat contest, that was the extraordinary feature in the Florida election"--has given new impetus to a Democracy Summer campaign backed by groups ranging from the Institute for Policy Studies to the NAACP Youth and College Division and the Fannie Lou Hamer Project. More than 100 young people from around the country gathered in Tallahassee in mid-June for a Democracy Institute at which Representative Maxine Waters urged them to re-create the "freedom rider" energy that led to passage of the original Voting Rights Act. Just prior to July 4, a Pro-Democracy Convention will bring activists to Philadelphia to make what IPS's Karen Dolan calls "the move from outrage to action." The groups are campaigning for an agenda that addresses problems that came into focus during the Florida recount, including bad ballot designs, outdated voting technologies and the denial of voting rights to ex-prisoners.
MAKING MUD The Bush Administration's energy plan may be DOA in a newly Democratic Senate, but real alternatives to utility company excesses are the province of the grassroots, especially in energy-strapped California. San Francisco activists launched a campaign in June for MUD, a proposed Municipal Utility District that could use eminent domain to take over Pacific Gas & Electric Company's electricity transmission and distribution systems. A November ballot initiative to create MUD has been endorsed by five San Francisco Commission members, California State Senate leader John Burton and the San Francisco Labor Council. "If we are able to take the power away from PG&E and put it in the hands of the people of San Francisco," says Global Exchange's Medea Benjamin, "we will send a louder signal regarding the answer to power problems than anything you hear coming from the Bush Administration."
Nancy Chan is a postfeminist icon of sorts. The ultimate lady entrepreneur, Chan--the title character of the popular serial Nancy Chan: Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl, catalogued on Salon.com--has an enviable collection of Prada bags, a pricey pad on the Upper East Side and a little black book full of Wall Street power brokers. Nancy's creator, Tracy Quan, is a former working girl herself, who describes her past life as a whirlwind of lucrative dates: "Here I was," she writes breathlessly, "a New York call girl, routinely bedding CEOs, foreign nobles, and entertainment moguls in the city's five-star hotels."
What would antipornography activists Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, who electrified a generation of women's studies majors, think of Quan and her resourceful, business-minded creation? Addressing an audience at the University of Michigan law school in 1992, Dworkin admonished that society might want us to "feel a kinky little thrill every time you think of something being stuck in a woman. I want you to feel the delicate tissues in her body that are being misused." All prostitution, she maintains, "whether the event took place in the Plaza Hotel or somewhere more inelegant," is a violation of women's bodies and their civil rights.
What's missing from both sides of the theoretical divide is the "work" half of the sex worker's job description ("sex worker" is a term preferred by many in the industry to the old-fashioned "prostitute" or the derogatory "hooker"). For women who make their living in strip clubs, brothels, massage parlors or in front of the pornographer's camera, sex is part of the job description, and the work is often as dull and unstimulating as telemarketing or stitching sleeves in a garment factory.
Describing the monotony of her job, Miss Mary Ann, a peep-show dancer, complained in an essay, "Labor Organizing in the Skin Trade":
The job has always been defined in MY mind by the repetitive manual labor it demands. Punch a time clock, spot an open window, make eye contact, pout, wink, swivel your hips a little, put a stilletto-clad foot up on the window sill to reveal an eye-full of your two most marketable orifices, fondle your tits, smack your ass, stroke whatever pubic hair you haven't shaven off, repeat these ten steps until the customer comes, then move on to the next window, repeat the process until your shift's over, punch out.
Miss Mary Ann works at the Lusty Lady Theater in San Francisco, which was recently the site of a bitter--and ultimately successful--unionization campaign (chronicled in the critically acclaimed documentary Live Nude Girls UNITE!).
Of course, a good stripper can never let on that she is thinking about collective bargaining and the picket line while she's working the stage. One of the requirements of the job is to pretend you're having a great time--as Miss Mary Ann says, to pout, wink and swivel your hips. Until recently, writing about the sex industry followed suit. Tell-alls like Madam: Chronicles of a Nevada Cathouse and Confessions of a Part-Time Call Girl satisfy our curiosity with a liberal ratio of sex scenes to story line. As the study of sex work has crept into the academy, usually through the backdoor of cultural studies but on some campuses in unabashed porn studies classes, volumes like Global Sex Workers: Rights, Resistance and Redefinition are beginning to reconsider sex work in the context of the historically limited employment opportunities for women.
Brothel, Alexa Albert's account of her four years spent observing life on and off at the Mustang Ranch, one of Nevada's legal brothels (while she also attended Harvard Medical School), is a mix of these two genres. Part serious reflection on the realities of working in the sex industry, part fluffy exposé, what Albert has to say is worth noting, if you can disregard how she says it. Think feature story in Oprah's O magazine, nestled somewhere between the life lessons and the daily goals calendar.
Albert's aim is to convince her squeamish, middle-American audience that prostitution can be a legitimate job and brothels a valid workplace. Or, as she puts it in her cloying girl-chat: "Nevada's legal brothels were far less repugnant than I had expected. They appeared to be clean, legitimate workplaces, and the women were not shackled hostages but self-aware professionals there of their own free will." Of the working girls themselves, Albert waxes even more sappy, declaring that "their hopefulness in spite of what they know about human nature makes my heart ache. These women are just like the rest of us."
It's the right sentiment in exactly the wrong tone. When Albert says that sex workers are "just like the rest of us," she means that even though they're whores, they have feelings, hopes and dreams too. She could have added that the troubles they face at work--everything from long hours away from their families to lack of health benefits and overtime compensation--are just like the problems many low-skilled Americans experience on the job.
For instance, management at the Mustang Ranch considers its seventy-five-odd women to be independent contractors, which means that for all legal purposes they aren't employees but freelancers working on temporary assignment. By claiming that they only provide a venue for paid sexual encounters to occur, the brothel's owners can avoid paying employee-related taxes and giving their "girls" health insurance, sick leave and workers' compensation. Such nonstandard and, in a way, deceitful working arrangements are by no means unique to the sex industry but are widespread in construction, manufacturing and the service sector as well. Subcontracting--by which employers avoid paying benefits--and an increased reliance on part-time work are posing a serious threat to job security and have come under fire recently by living-wage activists at Harvard University and workers at Boeing and UPS.
Just by bringing up taxes and health insurance--two highly unsexy topics--Albert goes a long way to redirect our image of sex work away from both the sanitized rags-to-riches fable of Pretty Woman and the sordid morality tale à la Hard Copy. Neither of these Hollywood types rings true to Albert; she writes, sounding a little like Al Gore during the populist phase of his presidential campaign, that the women she met possessed "a profound sense of personal responsibility and an unwavering commitment to their families that ultimately drove them to do this 'immoral' work." Over one-third of the women Albert met at the ranch have children, and because the brothel's residence policy requires sex workers to remain on the premises while working (often for weeks at a time), they cannot spend much time raising them. The concerns of women like Donna, who brings home hundreds of dollars in presents on her weeks off, echo the worries of all working parents: Should I take that second job and sacrifice the time I could be spending at home with my kids? Can quality time or piles of presents make up for my long hours at the office?
The difficulty of separating personal life from work, a common gripe in an age of cell phones and telecommuting, is particularly hard for the sex workers Albert got to know. Every woman has her own method of emotionally differentiating between her professional sex-kitten persona and her private sexual self. An older, seasoned prostitute, Linda, declared that a true working girl never enjoys sex with her clients. "I think about the money," she says honestly. "The calculator is always cha-ching-ing while the guy's fucking me." Baby, a wilder, free-spirit type, disagreed, saying just as sincerely that "if you're gonna have sex with strangers, your best bet is to try to make the most of the situation."
Sex workers often find--surprise, surprise--that work can get in the way of building stable romantic relationships. Straitlaced Brittany is married to Jon, who found himself bothered by the nature of her job (though he is one of her former clients). To silence his misgivings, Brittany told him that she is able to emotionally detach from her work. "She sees blackness and nothingness where the man's face should be," Jon told Albert, and then he wondered, "what am I, a wimp, because I can't block it out and she can?" Equally troubling for their relationship is Brittany's sexual timidity on her weeks off; she associates initiating sex with work, and she confided that as soon as he starts becoming sexual, "I become almost frigid."
The need to negotiate the often blurry boundary between one's professional and personal selves is not a problem unique to sex work. Nannies and home healthcare workers often experience an emotional attachment to their clients that can leave them feeling estranged from their own family. Professors, counselors and therapists must take care to distinguish their professional rapport with younger students and patients from inappropriate attention.
But comparing the stresses of sex work to the problems faced in other service jobs is not to underestimate the particularities of prostitution. Irene, the tough den mother at the ranch, warns new recruits that "this job is tough. Some of these guys are fat, some are ugly, and some have BO," but if you want to make money, you can't be choosy. When the bell rings, signaling that a customer is at the door, you have to join the lineup, smile coyly and "spread your legs." To soothe the irritation of frequent intercourse--a form of repetitive stress--women insert vitamin E capsules into their vaginas and coat their tampons with mentholatum. Sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS, are another unique occupational hazard, though Albert notes that since mandatory AIDS testing began in 1986, none of Nevada's sex workers have tested positive. Regulated brothels like the Mustang Ranch require condom use for all forms of sexual contact.
For all their hard work, the women of Nevada's legal brothels are treated as a class of untouchables, prohibited by management from leaving the grounds while on duty. Five days into her first visit to the ranch, Albert realized that she hadn't been outside. "It had struck me that the brothel residents actually lived like animals in a zoo," she writes. "Whereas the non-'working' staff and the customers are at liberty to come and go, the working girls were...let out for fresh-air breaks only in the enclosed front- and backyards." Women are required to rent a room--which doubles as an office and a place to sleep--from the brothel and to pay staff runners to do their errands in town. Though the women are supposedly independent contractors, their every move is carefully monitored: They are not allowed to sit out a lineup during their shift, and a floor manager listens to their private negotiations with clients over a secret intercom system to discourage the women from withholding part of management's cut or trading sex for drugs.
Brothel owners justify this near-captivity on a number of grounds, including the worry that their women will use their time off to expand their customer base on the side, cutting management out of the deal. Local governments are just as happy with this informal segregation of prostitutes. Ten of Nevada's seventeen counties allow prostitution in licensed brothels (one of the exceptions is Las Vegas's Clark County, which is prevented from doing so by a state law that applies only to counties with a population above 400,000). In 1998 local governments collected more than $500,000 from brothel licenses and associated fees. Yet, despite their financial interest in the legal sex industry, most counties tolerate prostitution only grudgingly and try to confine the unsavory business to the edges of town.
Nevada is not alone in this not-in-my-backyard approach. Even in Amsterdam, notorious for its thriving sex trade, it's hard to tell whether the strings of red lights marking off the red-light district are intended to attract clients or to separate the working girls from the rest of the city. In most of Europe and parts of the Third World prostitution itself is illegal but profiting from the proceeds of sex work (by pimping or running a brothel) is not. The real criminals, the thinking goes, are not the prostitutes but their greedy and abusive managers. Spend time in a brothel, and you'll be exposed not only to a lot of hard work but to a lot of sex. Despite all her insight into the "work" question, Albert quickly slips into the role of tawdry Dateline anchor in her accounts of brothel-style sexuality, offering her audience the vicarious thrill of exploring an underground world at a distance. Like a dutiful Jane Pauley, she joins the girls in trying on lingerie from a traveling salesman's collection, confiding "I couldn't help imagining myself in various risqué outfits." She chooses a slinky red number to surprise her husband. Nervously, she consents when Baby, and then Brittany, two of her closest friends, invite her to watch them "party" (the euphemism favored for turning a trick) and then spends days wondering, "Did I even want to watch? Would I feel uncomfortable? Embarrassed? Sickened?"
Despite all her questions, Albert never admits feeling the slightest bit turned on--but I don't believe her. At the very least, she is fascinated by the world of appearances and performance; at heart, she is a voyeur. "I spent hours on the parlor sofas watching the lineup," she writes without a hint of irony, "entertaining myself by silently handicapping each woman, asking myself who was most eye-catching, or whose outfit was most shameless. Was it the wet-pink vinyl, lace-up cat suit, or the sheer, sapphire baby doll?"
With little awareness of her appropriating gaze, which renders the women she befriends and elsewhere writes of so humanely as so much sexual fodder, her language is straight out of Penthouse Forum:
Though very different in appearance, all were surprisingly attractive, I found myself thinking, from a buxom Native American with silky-smooth black hair to her waist and bloodred fingernails, to a bleached blonde with serpent tattoos spiraling up her calves.... Ashley, for instance, a statuesque working girl in her early twenties who wore a sheer black peignoir trimmed with lush marabou over a rhinestone-studded black bikini and matching black marabou slippers.
Compare this to Rebecca Mead's description of Air Force Amy, one of the top bookers at another Nevada brothel, the Moonlite Bunnyranch, in an April 23 New Yorker article: "Amy has been a legal prostitute in Nevada for ten years; she has white-blond hair and blue-white teeth and wears a D cup; she is 35, though parts of her appear to be of more recent vintage." For Amy, a D cup is just a uniform to be worn, along with bleached hair and capped teeth, makeup and a G-string, to improve job performance.
In a few well-chosen words, Mead picks up on an essential fact that Albert ignores: For sex workers, "sex" cannot be divorced from "work." Dress, style, grooming and a well-timed moan are just tools of the trade, much like an artist's portfolio or a writer's clip file. The girl who presents herself in the lineup ready to party, a girl named Cherie or Desiree, is really a worker on duty, and when her shift is over, she punches out.
Most of the time I think of gay rights, women's emancipation and the decline of male dominance as irreversible historical processes, blah blah, driven as they are by powerful material, social and intellectual forces, blah blah blah. Then comes the Bush Administration and I find myself thinking: Yeah, right. Who would have imagined, for example, that the bright and shiny year 2001 would see the President moving to take away contraception coverage in insurance for federal workers? Is birth control "controversial" now? And what would Karl Marx say about abstinence education--slated for a huge increase in the budget, despite studies suggesting it is as worthless as the missile defense shield? Or about the angels-on-a-pinhead debate over stem cell research? I mean, why help actually existing people with painful fatal diseases when you can give an embryo a Christian burial?
According to the census, American families increasingly come in all shapes and sizes--single moms (7.2 percent), single dads (2.1 percent), live-togethers with kids (5.1 percent). "Nuclear households"--two married parents with children--are down to 23.5 percent of all households, the lowest ever. The census doesn't measure gay and lesbian parents, but their numbers are on the rise as well. So this is exactly the moment for Wade Horn, head of the Fatherhood Initiative and scourge of nontraditional families, to be nominated as assistant secretary for family support at HHS, where he'll be in charge of a vast array of programs serving poor children and families--from welfare and childcare to child support, adoption, foster care and domestic violence--and will have a great deal of influence over the reauthorization of welfare reform, coming up next year.
For Horn, "fatherlessness" causes every woe, from the Columbine massacre (hello?--both killers came from intact families) to "promiscuity" among teenage girls. "Growing up without a father is like being in a car with a drunk driver," he told the Washington Post in 1997. In other words, a woman raising a child alone, like a drunk driver, is the chief and immediate source of danger to that child--maybe she should be in jail! The cure for single motherhood is marriage, to be imposed on an apparently less and less wedlock-minded population by public policy. In his weekly "Fatherly Advice" column in the far-right Moonie rag the Washington Times, Horn has advocated giving married couples priority in public housing, Head Start places and other benefits, although he now says he's abandoned that idea--maybe someone clued him in that such discrimination was unconstitutional (tough luck, Sally, no preschool for you--your parents are divorced!). Horn favors paying people on welfare to marry (ah, love!), opposes abortion ("states should operate under the principle that adoption is the first and best option for pregnant, single women"), thinks spanking is fine, blames contraception for unwed pregnancies and STDs, and has kind words for the Southern Baptist dictum that wives should "submit" to their husbands--who are, in his view, rightly the primary providers, disciplinarians and "foundations of the family structure." Anyone who thinks gender roles aren't set in concrete--like maybe in some families Mom is "results-oriented" and Dad's a softie--is a "radical feminist," like those man-hating harpies at the National Organization for Women.
A long list of gay, feminist, welfare-rights, community activist and reproductive rights organizations have signed on to a letter protesting Horn's nomination; the Senate Finance Committee begins confirmation hearings on June 21. Unfortunately for those who want to blame the Republicans for everything, many Democrats share Horn's belief in marriage as a panacea for social ills--this is a favorite communitarian theme, after all, and Clinton's welfare reform bill explicitly called for marriage as "the foundation of a successful society." Readers of this column will remember that no less a progressive icon than Cornel West signed the Institute for American Values' Call to Civil Society, endorsing "covenant marriage" and the privileging of married people for public housing and Head Start and so on. The Child Support Distribution Act passed the House last year by a 405-to-18 vote and was just reintroduced--this would divert more than $140 million of welfare funds from poor mothers and children to job training and counseling for poor noncustodial fathers in the hope that the dads will pass along some of their earnings to their children (in one 1998 pilot project reported in the New York Times, the dads squeezed out an extra $4.20 a month).
Horn's not the only Bush nominee trying to turn back the clock on modernity. Fervent Bush supporter Scott Evertz, the new head of the White House AIDS office, whose major experience in AIDS education has been working with Catholic groups, was a fundraiser for Wisconsin Right to Life and fought to keep the antichoice plank in the state's Republican Party platform. Nonetheless, the Human Rights Campaign and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force praised the appointment--after all, Evertz is the first open homosexual to be appointed in a Republican administration! So much for those organizations' commitment to reproductive and "human" rights.
For the true flavor of the Middle Ages, though, consider John Klink, whose name has been floated for Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration. Klink is currently employed as a diplomat with the Holy See's Mission to the United Nations, in which capacity he has opposed any and all use of condoms and contraception, not to mention abortion. He was a major mover in the Vatican's defunding of UNICEF, on the grounds that it supported postcoital contraception on request for refugee women who had been raped, and he has led the Vatican's attempts to sabotage UN consensus documents on women's right to "methods of fertility regulation which are safe, efficacious, accessible and acceptable." Only "natural family planning" for the millions of women, very few of whom are Catholic, fleeing war, tyranny and famine around the globe!
Forward to the past, or a cynical bid for the Catholic vote? Stay tuned.
In the summer of 1986 I was traveling in Nicaragua, working on the book of reportage that was published six months later as The Jaguar Smile. It was the seventh anniversary of the Sandinista revolution, and the war against the US-backed contra forces was intensifying almost daily. I was accompanied by my interpreter, Margarita, an improbably glamorous and high-spirited blonde with more than a passing resemblance to Jayne Mansfield. Our days were filled with evidence of hardship and struggle: the scarcity of produce in the markets of Managua, the bomb crater on a country road where a school bus had been blown up by a contra mine. One morning, however, Margarita seemed unusually excited.
"Bono's coming!" she cried, bright-eyed as any fan, and then added, without any change in vocal inflection or dulling of ocular glitter, "Tell me: Who is Bono?"
In a way, the question was as vivid a demonstration of her country's beleaguered isolation as anything I heard or saw in the frontline villages, the destitute Atlantic Coast bayous or the quake-ravaged city streets. In July 1986, the release of U2's monster album The Joshua Tree was still eight months away, but they were already, after all, the masters of War. Who was Bono? He was the fellow who sang, "I can't believe the news today, I can't close my eyes and make it go away." And Nicaragua was one of the places where the news had become unbelievable, and you couldn't shut your eyes to it, and so of course he was there.
I didn't meet Bono in Nicaragua, but he did read The Jaguar Smile. Five years later, when I was involved in some difficulties of my own, my friend the composer Michael Berkeley asked if I wanted to go to a U2 Achtung Baby gig, with its hanging psychedelic Trabants. In those days it was hard for me to go most places, but I said yes and was touched by the enthusiasm with which the request was greeted by U2's people. And so there I was at Earl's Court, standing in the shadows, listening.
Backstage, after the show, I was shown into a mobile home full of sandwiches and children. There were no groupies at U2 gigs; just crèches. Bono came in and was instantly festooned with daughters. My memory of that first chat is that I wanted to talk about music and he was keen to talk politics--Nicaragua, an upcoming protest against unsafe nuclear waste disposal at Sellafield in northern England, his support for me and my work. We didn't spend long together, but we both enjoyed it. Bono was less taken with Michael Berkeley, however. Years afterward he told me he'd felt condescended to by the classical composer. My own view is that there was a misunderstanding--Michael isn't a condescending man, but a high culture/low culture rift had opened, and that was that.
Two years later, when the giant Zooropa tour arrived at Wembley Stadium, Bono called to ask if I'd like to come out on stage. U2 wanted to make a gesture of solidarity, and this was the biggest one they could think of. When I told my then-14-year-old son about the plan, he said, "Just don't sing, Dad. If you sing, I'll have to kill myself." There was no question of my being allowed to sing--U2 aren't stupid people--but I did go out there and feel, for a moment, what it's like to have 80,000 fans cheering you on. The audience at the average book reading is a little smaller. Girls tend not to climb onto their boyfriends' shoulders during them, and stage-diving is discouraged. Even at the very best book readings, there are only one or two supermodels dancing by the mixing desk. Anton Corbijn took a photograph that day for which he persuaded Bono and me to exchange glasses. There I am looking godlike in Bono's wraparound Fly shades, while he peers benignly over my uncool literary specs. There could be no more graphic expression of the difference between our two worlds.
It was inevitable that both U2 and I would be criticized in Britain in bringing these two worlds together. They have been accused of trying to acquire some borrowed intellectual "cred," and I of course am supposedly star-struck. None of this matters very much. I've been crossing frontiers all my life--physical, social, intellectual, artistic borderlines--and I spotted, in Bono and Edge, whom I've come to know better than the others so far, an equal hunger for the new, for whatever nourishes. I think, too, that the band's involvement in religion--as inescapable a subject in Ireland as it is in India--gave us, when we first met, a subject and an enemy (fanaticism) in common.
An association with U2 is good for one's anecdote stock. Some of these anecdotes are risibly apocryphal: A couple of years ago, for example, a front-page Irish press report confidently announced that I had been living in "the folly"--the guest house with a spectacular view of Killiney Bay that stands in the garden of Bono's Dublin home--for four whole years! Apparently I arrived and departed at dead of night in a helicopter that landed on the beach below the house. Other stories that sound apocryphal are unfortunately true. It is true, for example, that I once danced--or, to be precise, pogoed--with Van Morrison in Bono's living room. It is also true that in the small hours of the following morning I was treated to the rough end of the great man's tongue. (Van Morrison has been known to get a little grumpy toward the end of a long evening. It's possible that my pogoing wasn't up to his exacting standards.)
Over the years U2 and I discussed collaborating on various projects. Bono mentioned an idea he had for a stage musical, but my imagination failed to spark. There was another long Dublin night (a bottle of Jameson's was involved) during which the film director Neil Jordan, Bono and I conspired to make a film of my novel Haroun and the Sea of Stories. To my great regret this never came to anything either.
Then, in 1999, I published my novel The Ground Beneath Her Feet, in which the Orpheus myth winds through a story set in the world of rock music. Orpheus is the defining myth for singers and writers--for the Greeks, he was the greatest singer as well as the greatest poet--and it was my Orphic tale that finally made possible the collaboration we'd been kicking around.
It happened, like many good things, without being planned. I sent Bono and U2's manager, Paul McGuinness, pre-publication copies of the novel in typescript, hoping they would tell me if the thing worked or not. Bono said afterward that he had been very worried on my behalf, believing that I had taken on an impossible task, and that he began reading the book in the spirit of a "policeman"--that is, to save me from my mistakes. Fortunately, the novel passed the test. Deep inside it is the lyric of what Bono called the novel's "title track," a sad elegy written by the novel's main male character about the woman he loved, who has been swallowed up in an earthquake: a contemporary Orpheus' lament for his lost Eurydice.
Bono called me. "I've written this melody for your words, and I think it might be one of the best things I've done." I was astonished. One of the novel's principal images is that of the permeable frontier between the world of the imagination and the one we inhabit, and here was an imaginary song crossing that frontier. I went to McGuinness's place near Dublin to hear it. Bono took me away from everyone else and played the demo CD to me in his car. Only when he was sure that I liked it--and I liked it right away--did we go back indoors and play it for the assembled company.
There wasn't much after that that one would properly call "collaboration." There was a long afternoon when Daniel Lanois, who was producing the song, brought his guitar and sat down with me to work out the lyrical structure. And there was the Day of the Lost Words, when I was called urgently by a woman from Principle Management, which looks after U2. "They're in the studio and they can't find the lyrics. Could you fax them over?" Otherwise, silence, until the song was ready.
I wasn't expecting it to happen, but I'm proud of it. It's called "The Ground Beneath Her Feet." For U2, too, it was a departure. They haven't often used anyone's lyrics but their own, and they don't usually start with the lyrics; typically, the words come at the very end. But somehow it all worked out. I suggested facetiously that they might consider renaming the band U2+1, or, even better, Me2, but I think they'd heard all those gags before.
There was a long al fresco lunch in Killiney at which the film director Wim Wenders startlingly announced that artists must no longer use irony. Plain speaking, he argued, was necessary now: Communication should be direct, and anything that might create confusion should be eschewed. Irony, in the rock world, has acquired a special meaning. The multimedia self-consciousness of U2's Achtung Baby-Zooropa phase, which simultaneously embraced and debunked the mythology and gobbledygook of rock stardom, capitalism and power, and of which Bono's white-faced, gold-lamé-suited, red-velvet-horned MacPhisto incarnation was the emblem, is what Wenders was criticizing. Characteristically, U2 responded by taking this approach even further, pushing it further than it would bear, in the less-well-received POP-Mart tour. After that, it seems, they took Wenders's advice. The new album, and the Elevation tour, is the spare, impressive result.
There was a lot riding on this album, this tour. If things hadn't gone well it might have been the end of U2. They certainly discussed that possibility, and the album was much delayed as they agonized over it. Extracurricular activities, mainly Bono's, also slowed them down, but since these included getting David Trimble and John Hume to shake hands on a public stage and reducing Jesse Helms--Jesse Helms!--to tears, winning his support for the campaign against Third World debt, it's hard to argue that these were self-indulgent irrelevances. At any event, All That You Can't Leave Behind turned out to be a strong album, a renewal of creative force and, as Bono put it, there's a lot of good will flowing toward the band right now.
I've seen them three times this year: in the "secret" pre-tour gig in London's little Astoria Theatre and then twice in America, in San Diego and Anaheim. They've come down out of the giant stadiums to play arena-sized venues that seem tiny after the gigantism of their recent past. The act has been stripped bare; essentially, it's just the four of them out there, playing their instruments and singing their songs. For a person of my age, who remembers when rock music was always like this, the show feels simultaneously nostalgic and innovative. In the age of choreographed, instrumentless little-boy and little-girl bands (yes, I know the Supremes didn't play guitars, but they were the Supremes!) it's exhilarating to watch a great, grown-up quartet do the fine, simple things so well. Direct communication, as Wim Wenders said. It works.
And they're playing my song.
Though Bush intends to drop the missile treaty,
He's happy that this Putin guy's so neat, he
Will prove to be the nicest sort of Roosky.
So just relax, and crack yourself a brewski.
Behind closed doors at the UN and in Western capitals, government and corporate officials are arguing over the size and governance of a fund that is going to be the primary international response to the greatest public health pandemic since the Black Death.
'YO MAMA' IS A BIGOT
New York City
Arthur C. Danto contends that Renee Cox's Yo Mama's Last Supper is not anti-Catholic and deserves First Amendment protection ["In the Bosom of Jesus," May 28]. He should listen to the artist's own words and then reread the First Amendment. Renee Cox, debating me on CNN and other media outlets, made it clear that her art is designed to attack the Catholic Church. Her claims ranged from "the Catholic Church is all about money...about big business" to "40 percent of the slaveowners in the South were Catholic." As far as the First Amendment is concerned, she has a constitutional right to show her bigoted work. What she doesn't have is a right to the public purse. If taxpayers' money can't be used to further one's religion, how can it logically be permitted to be used to denigrate it?
Director of Communications
New York City
My article on Renee Cox's Yo Mama's Last Supper concerned a photograph, rendered controversial by some ill-considered remarks by Mayor Giuliani to the effect that it was indecent and anti-Catholic. The burden of my analysis was that it is neither. Scully's letter is not about that picture, but about some ill-considered remarks the artist is alleged to have made on CNN. They have no bearing on the work or on First Amendment policies.
Scully's letter reminds me of nothing so much as the transcript of the trial in which the painter Paolo Veronese was brought up before the Tribunal of the Holy Inquisition in Venice in 1573 for having depicted Mary Magdalene in what is described there as "The Last Supper, which Jesus Christ took with his disciples in the house of Simon." The inquisitors wished to know whether Veronese felt that it was "fitting at the Last Supper of the Lord to paint buffoons, drunkards, Germans, dwarfs and similar vulgarities." Veronese said, "I paint pictures as I see fit and as well as my talent permits"--and he cited the precedent of Michelangelo, who painted "Our Lord, Jesus Christ, His Mother, St. John, St. Peter, and the Heavenly Host. They are all represented in the nude--even the Virgin Mary--and with little reverence."
The Holy Tribunal was an anticipatory version of the Decency Panel under Giuliani's counterreformation in New York. There was, of course, no First Amendment at the time. My own view is that a fair amount of tax money in Veronese's Venice went into the suppression of images; it instead goes into supporting their exhibition in New York today, for the larger intellectual benefit of our society, whatever the collateral opinions of the artists who make them.
One incidental issue puzzles me. In view of profound biblical paintings by such Protestant artists as Rembrandt, by what right do critics like Giuliani or Scully infer that images treating biblical incidents in ways they find displeasing are anti-Catholic rather than simply anti-Christian? It was the strategy of the Counter-Reformation to use images to strengthen faith. It was one strategy of early Protestantism to destroy images, based perhaps on the same psychology. By Rembrandt's time it was recognized that the church ought not to exercise a monopoly on religious representations. The taxpayers' money supports institutions that house painting after painting intended in their time to further the artists' religion, whether Catholic or Protestant. Where did Scully get the idea that this is contrary to the spirit of the First Amendment?
ARTHUR C. DANTO
Art Winslow is absolutely correct in his analysis of today's art environment ["The Wind She Blows," June 11]. If we continue losing independent art spaces we'll end up with mediocre art, and artists and intellectuals will be outcasts. But all is not gloomy! Here in San Antonio last May 15 the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center won an important legal battle. Federal Judge Orlando Garcia courageously ruled that our mayor and city council violated the US Constitution and Texas's Open Meeting Act when they conspired to defund the center's art projects. Read the ruling at www.nysd.uscourts.gov/courtweb/pdf/D05TXWC/01-05845.PDF.
ANTONIO C. CABRAL
THE MISSING LINK
New York City
Thanks to everyone who wrote in to recommend more "sites for sore eyes" ["Full-Court Press," June 4], as well as those of you who added to the count of obscene and abusive letters in support of Ralph Nader. Of the many recommendations I received, I am happy to add those below to the list of intelligent and occasionally funny places to go on the web for political good sense and, in the case of Consortium News, investigative reporting. Happy surfing.
SINS OF THE FATHER
Dusko Doder is right to correct the Greek Press Office's extremely partial account of Greece's relations with Macedonia ["Letters," June 4]. But he is wrong to blame Foreign Minister George Papandreou for the sins of his father, Andreas. Papandreou the younger has made serious efforts to move Greek foreign policy beyond the paranoid nationalism fostered by Papandreou senior. With Prime Minister Costas Simitis, he helped to broker the peaceful removal of Slobodan Milosevic despite the Serbian dictator's considerable popular support in Greece. Simitis and Papandreou have also been constructively involved in efforts to resolve the current crisis in Macedonia--it is, after all, in their interest to do so. The cause of peace in the Balkans is best served by giving credit where credit is due.
For the record, the Greek government never quite claimed, as Doder says, that "Macedonia has been a part of Greece for 3,200 years." At the peak of nationalist hysteria in the 1990s, posters of archeological artifacts from Greek Macedonia with the legend "Macedonia: Three thousand years of Greek history" were displayed for the benefit of foreign visitors. There were also posters proclaiming "Macedonia was Greece ever," obviously Englished by some subversive mole.
THE CRIMSON & THE BLACK
Why are people surprised that Harvard is not acting in a socially just fashion [Benjamin L. McKean, "Harvard's Shame," May 21]? After all, the Harvard Corporation (which just inducted its first minority member and until a few years ago was an all-men's club) to its lasting shame never divested from South Africa (although it later gave Nelson Mandela an honorary degree). And when we alumni/ae successfully elected four petition candidates to the Board of Overseers on a prodivestment platform, the big U responded by changing the rules to make it far more difficult to elect someone not on the official slate.
It took a student strike back in 1969-70 to get the university to establish an African-American studies program. And, as the recent New York Times story on NYU's belated award to those protesting the collegiate sports world's "gentlemen's agreement" pointed out, Harvard, too, in the 1940s honored an opposing team's request not to field a black player. There's much more.
We can hope that Harvard will do the decent thing by way of a living wage for its employees, but I wouldn't count on it.
Poverty & Race Research Action Council
CAN WE AFFORD DAYCARE?
It seems I'm a rare bird indeed: a feminist who doesn't think that daycare is necessarily a fabulous thing, particularly for kids under 2 ["Subject to Debate," May 14]. Katha Pollitt is correct, as usual, that the National Institute for Child Health and Development's recent study purporting to link immersion in daycare with aggressive behavior probably can't infer causality but will be used to hurt moms who want to work outside the home. But political agendas aside, let's face it: It's widely considered better, developmentally speaking, for children up to 2 (the age when they really have something to gain from socializing with their peers) to interact one on one with their caregiver.
In my house, the care of my infant daughter is split; my husband and I both have part-time jobs (mine offers benefits). For children's sake, I'd like the childcare debate to include a discussion of how to give more part-time workers access to health insurance and how to convince conservatives and progressives alike that except for breastfeeding, dads can do everything for children that moms can.
Thanks to Katha Pollitt for succinctly pointing out why research into the effects of daycare is misdirected. The investigations should rather focus on the pay rates for daycare workers and the difficulty all but the very rich have in finding daycare or preschools that come close to the care provided in France and other enlightened countries. I have been a teacher's aide in a school where a high percentage of the kids qualified for free lunch, and I've also worked in a suburban school. You can guess which kids showed the most hyperactivity and aggression. (It wasn't the ones who had been going to the best preschools.) Searching for preschools for my own two children, I realized that my whole salary wouldn't cover the cost of the schools that met my standards. The bottom line is money--for parents, for state-run daycare with well-paid, qualified teachers, for family leave.
WHY, IT'S A SILVER BULLET...
Way out here in the Arizona desert, this cowgirl had been waiting for someone to ride to her rescue. Wasn't too long ago the guys in the white hats looked to win the shootout at the OK Corral. Then they were ambushed. Ever since, daily scans of the horizon turned up nothing but coyotes.
Then out of nowhere, in a cloud of dust, rides the Lone Ranger: Senator Jim Jeffords! God bless you, sir. May you ride tall in the saddle and turn the right-wing stampede before it carries all of us over the cliff.
Christ killing has been back in the news. It seems that my ancestors are once again catching hell for their alleged betrayal of God's son, this time from fundamentalist Christian basketball player Charlie Ward and fundamentalist Christian political organizer Paul Weyrich.
Speaking to The New York Times Magazine, the New York Knicks' point guard set off a controversy in April when he informed a Jewish reporter, "Jews are stubborn.... why did they persecute Jesus unless he knew something they didn't want to accept?" and added, "They had his blood on their hands."
If you read about this and thought, Who cares what some basketball player says about who killed Christ?, I'm with you. And if you were wondering whether the New York Knicks organization, the National Basketball Association or Madison Square Garden also blame the Jews for the Crucifixion, well, you can relax about that too. All three have helpfully issued statements putting that rumor to rest. But two people who have seemed oddly sympathetic are Florida Secretary of State Katherine (Cruella De) Harris and Governor Jeb (Fredo) Bush.
Cruella chose Ward, who won the Heisman Trophy playing college football in Florida, as the state's "Born to Read" literacy campaign spokesman. When the local chapter of the American Jewish Committee asked her to reconsider in light of the fact that the guy was spreading what used to be called a "blood libel"--one that has led, historically, to the murder of countless Jews, who happen to make up a significant portion of the state's citizenry--she demurred. That's when Fredo stepped in: "If we're going to become so rigid as a country to be able to disallow speech, even though it may not be politically correct, I think we're in danger."
Strictly speaking, the First Little Bro was absolutely right. But his statement had nothing to do with the controversy it purported to address. Nobody is denying Ward's right to speak as an ignorant anti-Semite, or even to play point guard in this highly Jewish metropolis as one. The issue is whether, in light of his comments about Jews, he remains the best possible representative of Florida's literacy campaign. Bush seems to have taken to its logical extreme the conservative habit of labeling any community standards of speech, no matter how sensible, "political correctness" gone mad, unless they involve protecting a citizen's right to threaten the lives of abortion doctors or to own assault rifles. If Democrats in the land of King Condo can't beat this anti-Semite-enabling creep next year, they should find another country.
Another staunch defender of the anti-Semites' right to blood-libel Jews is David Horowitz. When Paul Weyrich announced on his Free Congress website that "Christ was crucified by the Jews who had wanted a temporal ruler to rescue them from the oppressive Roman authorities.... He was not what the Jews had expected so they considered Him a threat. Thus He was put to death," a previously obscure right-wing pundit named Evan Gahr denounced him quite sensibly as an anti-Semite. The denunciation went up on Horowitz's website, which, like Weyrich's Free Congress movement, is heavily funded by conspiracy nut Richard Mellon Scaife. But it was ordered expunged by the same fellow who can currently be found whining at your local college about his own victimization at the hands of something he calls "the fascist Left."
While an unhealthy proportion of the far right has always had a soft spot for this kind of theological anti-Semitism, virtually all mainstream Christian churches have explicitly repudiated it. But Gahr was not only informed that his work would no longer be welcome on Horowitz's generously funded site; he was kicked off the masthead of The American Enterprise, the magazine published by the Scaife-funded think tank of the same name. Next, the Scaife-funded Hudson Institute, where Gahr had been employed (and Norman Podhoretz still is), also sent him packing. Stanley Crouch, the neo-neoconservative, compared the right's treatment of Gahr to a Stalinist purge ("Horowitz and Stalin: Together Again").
Personally, I can live with the injustice done to Gahr, who first came to attention as a media gossip/hatchetman for Rupert Murdoch's New York Post. Live by conservative attack-dog tactics, die by them, I say. But what does it reveal about modern-day American conservatives that they cannot countenance a denunciation from within their ranks of the kind of ignorant anti-Semitic remark that has historically led to mass murder?
Horowitz notes, allegedly in Weyrich's defense, that he made his statement in his "capacity as a Melkite Greek Catholic deacon." He might have made it in his capacity as the Pillsbury Doughboy for all the difference it makes. Weyrich, as Joe Conason pointed out, has long been swimming in anti-Semitic sewers. There's his early involvement with George Wallace's American Independent Party, along with his foundation's long association with Laszlo Pastor, who was convicted of Nazi collaboration for his World War II role in the violently anti-Semitic and pro-Hitler Hungarian Arrow Cross Party, and who was tossed off the Bush/Quayle campaign in 1988. Conason notes that another longtime Weyrich aide served on the editorial board of the Ukrainian Quarterly, an ethnic rightist publication strongly influenced by former Nazi collaborators.
All in all, it's rather odd that somebody--however deluded--who claims to be both a Jew and a champion of free speech should be censoring a writer who condemns the most disgusting kind of anti-Semitism, but then again, it's a bit counterintuitive to find a governor who also happens to be the President's brother defending his state's right to choose the same type of anti-Semite to represent it to children and others trying to learn to read.
No wonder Jim Jeffords wanted nothing to do with these goofballs. One Republican, writing on the Wall Street Journal's editorial page, has already accused the Vermonter of a "pattern of betrayal." I sure hope Jeffords has a good alibi for Good Friday, 33 AD.
Where's the fashionable rendezvous for the World Secret Government? In the good old days when the Illuminati had a firm grip on things, it was wherever the Bilderbergers decided to pitch their tents. Then Nelson and David Rockefeller horned their way in, and the spotlight moved to the Trilateral Commission. Was there one Secret Government or two? Some said all the big decisions were taken in England, at Ditchley, not so far from the Appeasers' former haunts at Cliveden and only an hour by Learjet from Davos, which is where jumped-up finance ministers and arriviste tycoons merely pretend they rule the world.
Secret World Rulers spend a good deal of time in the air, whisking from Davos to APEC meetings somewhere in Asia, to Ditchley, to Sun Valley, Idaho, though mercifully no longer to the Clinton-favored Renaissance Weekend in Hilton Head, South Carolina. But comes next July 14 and every self-respecting member of the Secret World Government will be in a gloomy grove of redwoods in northern California, preparing to Banish Care for the hundred and twenty-second time, prelude to three weeks hashing out the future of the world.
If the avenging posses mustered by the Bohemian Grove Action Network manage this year to burst through the security gates at the Bohemian Grove, they will (to extrapolate from numerous eyewitness accounts of past sessions) find proofs most convincing to them that here indeed is the ruling crowd in executive session: hundreds of near-dead white men sitting by a lake listening to Henry Kissinger, plus many other near-dead white men in adjacent landscape in a state of intoxication so advanced that many of them have fallen insensible among the ferns, gin fizz glasses gripped firmly till the last.
These same gaping posses would find evidence of bizarre rites, though not perhaps the Satanic sacrifice of children, as proposed in one new documentary. Why so many games of dominoes? Why the evidence that a significant portion of the Secret Government appeared to be involved in some theatrical production involving the use of women's clothes and lavish application of makeup?
Many an empire has, of course, been run by drunken men wearing makeup. But a look at the Bohemian Club, its members and appurtenances, suggests that behind the pretense of Secret Government lies the reality of a summer camp for a bunch of San Francisco businessmen, real estate plungers and lawyers who long ago had the cunning to recruit some outside megawattage--Herbert Hoover, a Rockefeller, Richard Nixon--to turn their mundane frolics into the simulacrum of Secret Government and make the yokels gape.
The Bohemian Club began as a San Francisco institution in 1872, founded by journalists and kindred lowly scriveners as an excuse for late-night boozing. The hacks soon concluded that Bohemianism, in the sense of real poverty, was oppressive. So they pulled in a few wealthy men of commerce to pay for the champagne, and the rot set in. Within a very few years the lowly scriveners were on their way out--except for a few of the more presentable among them to lend a pretense of Boho-dom--and Mammon had seized power.
Near the end of the last century the cult of the redwood grove as Nature's cathedral was in full swing, and the Boho-businessmen yearned to give their outings a tincture of spiritual uplift. The long-range planning committee of the club decided to buy a grove some sixty miles north of the city near the town of Monte Rio. Soon the ancient redwoods rang to the laughter of the disporting men of commerce.
The Bohemian Club is set up along frat house lines. Instead of Deltas and Pi Etas there are camps, some 120 in all, stretching along River Road and Morse Stephens canyon. Their names follow the imaginative arc of American industrialists and financiers over the past hundred years, from Hillbillies (George Bush Sr., Walter Cronkite, William F. Buckley) to Ye Merrie Yowls.
The waiting lists for membership are so long it takes years for the novitiate to be admitted. A friend of mine, big in Reagan's time, has been on the doorstep for fifteen years. He says he likes it that way. He's spared the sign-up fee of around $10,000 and annual membership dues and has to pony up only when he's invited, which is every two years. Particularly in the more sumptuous camps it takes plenty of money too, sharing bills for retinues of uniformed servants, vintage cellars, master chefs and kindred accoutrements of spiritual refreshment.
There are lakeside talks and increasingly popular science chats at the Grove's museum. There's skeet-shooting on the private range. There's endless dominoes--the Grove's boardgame par excellence. There's Not Being at Home With the Wife. But best of all, there are the talent revue and the play. Visit some corporate suite in San Francisco in June or early July, and if you see the CEO brooding thoughtfully before his plate-glass window overlooking the Bay Bridge, the chances are he is not thinking about some impending takeover or merciless downsizing. He is probably worrying about the cut of his tutu for the drag act for which he has been rehearsing keenly for many months.
In the nineties the Grove's reputation as the site of Secret Government was in eclipse. The young Christian zealots of the Newt revolution were scarcely Boho material, and Newt himself--he did give a lakeside talk one year--was a little too tacky in style for the gin fizz set. But here we are in the Bush II era, and the Bush Clan is echt Secret Government, all the way from the old Rockefeller connection to Skull and Bones and the Knights of Malta. Dick Cheney's a Grover.
So spare yourself the expense of traveling from Quebec to the next session of the WTO. Voyage to Sonoma County and muster against the Secret World Government. For details of the rally, call the Bohemian Grove Action Network, whose Mary Moore has been chivying the Grovers for twenty years, at (707) 874-2248 or check out www.sonomacountyfreepress.org.
"How would you feel if your wife and children were brutally raped before being hacked to death by soldiers during a military massacre of 800 civilians, and then two governments tried to cover up the killings?" It's a question that won't be asked of Elliott Abrams at a Senate confirmation hearing--because George W. Bush, according to press reports, may appoint Abrams to a National Security Council staff position that (conveniently!) does not require Senate approval. Moreover, this query is one of a host of rude, but warranted, questions that could be lobbed at Abrams, the Iran/contra player who was an assistant secretary of state during the Reagan years and a shaper of that Administration's controversial--and deadly--policies on Latin America and human rights. His designated spot in the new regime: NSC's senior director for democracy, human rights and international operations. (At press time, the White House and Abrams were neither confirming nor denying his return to government.)
Bush the Second has tapped a number of Reagan/Bush alums who were involved in Iran/contra business for plum jobs: Colin Powell, Richard Armitage, Otto Reich and John Negroponte. But Abrams's appointment--should it come to pass--would mark the most generous of rehabilitations. Not only did Abrams plead guilty to two misdemeanor counts of lying to Congress about the Reagan Administration's contra program, he was also one of the fiercest ideological pugilists of the 1980s, a bad-boy diplomat wildly out of sync with Bush's gonna-change-the-tone rhetoric. Abrams, a Democrat turned Republican who married into the cranky Podhoretz neocon clan, billed himself as a "gladiator" for the Reagan Doctrine in Central America--which entailed assisting thuggish regimes and militaries in order to thwart leftist movements and dismissing the human rights violations of Washington's cold war partners.
One Abrams specialty was massacre denial. During a Nightline appearance in 1985, he was asked about reports that the US-funded Salvadoran military had slaughtered civilians at two sites the previous summer. Abrams maintained that no such events had occurred. And had the US Embassy and the State Department conducted an investigation? "My memory," he said, "is that we did, but I don't want to swear to it, because I'd have to go back and look at the cables." But there had been no State Department inquiry; Abrams, in his lawyerly fashion, was being disingenuous. Three years earlier, when two American journalists reported that an elite, US-trained military unit had massacred hundreds of villagers in El Mozote, Abrams told Congress that the story was commie propaganda, as he fought for more US aid to El Salvador's military. The massacre, as has since been confirmed, was real. And in 1993 after a UN truth commission, which examined 22,000 atrocities that occurred during the twelve-year civil war in El Salvador, attributed 85 percent of the abuses to the Reagan-assisted right-wing military and its death-squad allies, Abrams declared, "The Administration's record on El Salvador is one of fabulous achievement." Tell that to the survivors of El Mozote.
But it wasn't his lies about mass murder that got Abrams into trouble. After a contra resupply plane was shot down in 1986, Abrams, one of the coordinators of Reagan's pro-contra policy (along with the NSC's Oliver North and the CIA's Alan Fiers), appeared several times before Congressional committees and withheld information on the Administration's connection to the secret and private contra-support network. He also hid from Congress the fact that he had flown to London (using the name "Mr. Kenilworth") to solicit a $10 million contribution for the contras from the Sultan of Brunei. At a subsequent closed-door hearing, Democratic Senator Thomas Eagleton blasted Abrams for having misled legislators, noting that Abrams's misrepresentations could lead to "slammer time." Abrams disagreed, saying, "You've heard my testimony." Eagleton cut in: "I've heard it, and I want to puke." On another occasion, Republican Senator Dave Durenberger complained, "I wouldn't trust Elliott any further than I could throw Ollie North." Even after Abrams copped a plea with Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh, he refused to concede that he'd done anything untoward. Abrams's Foggy Bottom services were not retained by the First Bush, but he did include Abrams in his lame-duck pardons of several Iran/contra wrongdoers.
Abrams was as nasty a policy warrior as Washington had seen in decades. He called foes "vipers." He said that lawmakers who blocked contra aid would have "blood on their hands"--while he defended US support for a human-rights-abusing government in Guatemala. When Oliver North was campaigning for the Senate in 1994 and was accused of having ignored contra ties to drug dealers, Abrams backed North and claimed "all of us who ran that program...were absolutely dedicated to keeping it completely clean and free of any involvement by drug traffickers." Yet in 1998 the CIA's own inspector general issued a thick report noting that the Reagan Administration had collaborated with suspected drug traffickers while managing the secret contra war.
So Bush the Compassionate may hand the White House portfolio on human rights to the guy who lied and wheedled to aid and protect human-rights abusers. As Adm. William Crowe Jr. said of Abrams in 1989, "This snake's hard to kill."
George W. Bush's European trip came at a time when American policy-makers, who once dismissed the European Union for its weakness and indecision on the world stage, are worrying about Europe's more assertive foreign policy. More than once this year, Washington has found itself upstaged as Europe showed itself willing and able to defy Washington on behalf of the larger global interest--organizing international opposition to the White House's repudiation of the Kyoto accords and taking it upon itself to keep the prospects of détente alive on the Korean peninsula, not to mention the role it played in voting the United States off the United Nations Human Rights Commission and its International Narcotics Control Board.
Still, the real danger is not a European-American divide, as serious as that would be, but a Europe that reverts to its old docile self when faced with Bush Administration pressure, deferring to Washington on issues like missile defense and NATO enlargement even when it disagrees with US policy. Although more confident in the foreign policy arena than it once was, the European Union is still struggling to develop a common foreign and defense policy and is reluctant to antagonize Washington on issues central to the transatlantic relationship. But it would be a mistake for European leaders to appease this Administration in the name of good relations with Washington. For on issues like global climate change, diplomacy on the Korean peninsula, missile defense and NATO enlargement, the EU better represents American interests and moral concerns than does the current Administration.
An immediate challenge is Washington's repudiation of the Kyoto accords on global warming. Europe is currently considering whether to continue with the treaty without the formal participation of the United States, which accounts for about 25 percent of greenhouse gases. The Administration hoped that Bush's more moderate tone of late would persuade Europe to back down or that there would be a lengthy renegotiation of the accord, but his pre-departure speech flopped. Many Americans will support Europe's decision to press ahead by demanding that US companies and local governments reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Even without full American compliance, it would keep the Kyoto accords alive.
European leaders must also stand firm on the question of missile defense. Many Americans share Europe's concerns: that Bush's missile defense will not work, that it will renuclearize great-power relations, and that it will eat up resources desperately needed to promote economic development and stability in the Balkans and other troubled regions. Only if Europe speaks with a clear and confident voice will it be possible for these American opposition voices to gain leverage in the US debate. The Administration hopes European governments will buy into the program and even cover part of the cost. But a Bush speech in Brussels to leaders of NATO countries was met with open doubts.
The Administration's plan for NATO enlargement, said to include the Baltic states, will be another test of European foreign policy. Many European leaders are skeptical about the wisdom of extending the NATO alliance up to Russia's borders. They know that what the countries in Eastern Europe need now is not a military alliance but more economic reform, more investment and more trade. They also know just how important Russia is to European security. Europe needs a constructive and reasonably strong Russia, one that can keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of criminals and terrorists, that can supply Europe and its eastern neighbors with cheap energy, that can help keep Belarus and the Ukraine from collapsing and that can help maintain order in the Caucasus and Central Asia. NATO expansion would unnecessarily put this critical relationship with Russia at risk and distract EU candidate countries from necessary economic reforms.
Europe may be reluctant to question Washington's lead on NATO issues for fear of weakening the US military commitment. But nothing should prevent Europe from staking out a contrary position on NATO that would be shared by a significant part of the US foreign policy establishment. Indeed, Europe has more leverage with Washington than at any time in the long history of the transatlantic relationship. There is now no military threat in Europe or even in the larger European zone that requires an American military presence. To be sure, Europe would prefer to have the United States shoulder part of the burden in the Balkans, particularly in Kosovo. But there is no reason it can't handle these problems without America's high-tech military, especially in light of the Pentagon's now-famous reluctance to put US soldiers at risk.
On a range of international issues, Europe brings an important perspective and experience to world affairs. It understands better than does the Bush Administration that foreign policy is more than a matter of advancing national power, and that economic development is more than imposing a free market economy without the requisite social and political institutions. Indeed, Europe's recent experience--after centuries of conflict--of pooling sovereignty, of knitting together diverse national perspectives, of encouraging democracy and economic reform and of managing more powerful neighbors is exactly what countries in Asia, Latin America and Africa might learn from. What Europe has been able to do over the past several decades and what it is trying to extend to the countries of Eastern Europe is what other regions could do to overcome decades of mutual suspicion to tackle common problems, reduce trade barriers and cooperate to stabilize currencies.
But this example will be lost if Europe remains in America's shadow, if it follows Washington's lead and makes missile defense and NATO enlargement the capstones of its international policy in the first decade of the twenty-first century. US interests and values would be better served by a Europe that acts as both a balance and a complement to American power.
"I want to know everything, everything...and I'm going to. I want to visit the theatre and the opera and the art galleries. I want to meet people. I want to learn...." The words are expressed by the youthful hero of Carl Van Vechten's 1924 novel The Tattooed Countess (reissued by the University of Iowa), but they reflect precisely the feelings of the author, who had become by that time an ebullient connoisseur of culture. His three consecutive careers--as a critic, novelist and photographer--left an exceptional imprint of and on American life and the celebrity icons who dominated it.
Van Vechten, who died in 1964 at the age of 84, also conducted another, unofficial career. He understood that letters bonded souls. An intimate form of communication, they permitted a relaxed freedom of phrase and individuality of style. The quality of paper, its cut and color, the pen and ink or the size of type, plus cross-outs, errors and quirky doodles, all represented Personality, which is the starting point for everything. Surely, he would protest today, there is nothing more clinical and intrusive than a perfect computerized missive that seems to smack of chain-mail from an Orwellian corporate sphere. The "imperfect" letter, he would argue, with its personal touch, capturing varying moods and spontaneous thoughts, is a social organism.
Starting as a journalistic gadabout before World War I, he reveled in the art of writing letters to just about anyone he knew, and this spirited original who cautioned others against mediocrity knew everyone (more or less) during the course of his life. His letters to Gertrude Stein, Mabel Dodge Luhan, Ronald Firbank, H.L. Mencken, Sinclair Lewis and Virgil Thomson, to take a quick peek, number in the thousands. There were twice-a-day communiqués to his wife of fifty years, Fania Marinoff, when they were apart--an apartness that seems to have held them together--and 10,000 letters over three decades to a beau who later became a boon companion. A consummate sophisticate, Fania, an actress with the Theatre Guild, once advised an opera diva with an ambivalent spouse, "You don't divorce your husband just because he's sleeping with another woman--or man, that's not civilized." Meantime, he wrote seven novels, nine volumes of musical and literary criticism, two books about cats and hundreds of articles and reviews.
The Letters of Carl Van Vechten, selected by his astute executor and biographer, Bruce Kellner, were published some years ago by Yale University Press. Depending on the recipient, they present an epigrammatic attitude, a disdain for philistines (who are always with us), and they form a social mirror of American cultural life, with its heavenly oddities and devilish defects. Significantly, this batch of letters piercingly reveals a cultivated tolerance for others, particularly in relations between whites and blacks. "Race prejudice," Van Vechten asserted, "is an acquired taste, like olives. It's something you have to learn."
At the time of his death, in a full-page tribute, Newsweek wrote, "More than anyone else, he promoted black culture, bringing unknown writers, artists and musicians to the attention of a wide audience." He publicized the black singer and critic Nora Holt, who became the first black American to earn a Master of Music degree; he became personal friends with the singer Ethel Waters, who said, "He was the only person in the world who ever has understood the shyness deep in me." He encouraged the artist Beauford Delaney, who eventually settled in Paris. And he discovered the gifted poet-novelist Langston Hughes when they met in 1924.
A mentor and lifelong friend to Hughes, for the next forty years Van Vechten exchanged nearly 1,500 letters with him. He had a special capability for friendship. A chunk of these letters have been insightfully edited, selected and annotated by Emily Bernard, who teaches African-American studies at Smith College. The book, Remember Me to Harlem, is a wondrous trip through American history, both socially and artistically. She gives us, with the letters, the hilarity and crises and emotional hurts that one or the other endured with a civilized smile, and offers us dramatic topical situations that open your imagination. Two fading men are recalled to life, with an extravagant cast that includes Mabel Dodge Luhan, Blanche Knopf, Countee Cullen, Paul Robeson, Bessie Smith and Chester Himes, with cameos by Tallulah Bankhead, Vachel Lindsay and George Jean Nathan, among others.
Van Vechten hailed from a privileged background; Hughes was striving to pull himself up out of poverty. During the hectic and zesty 1920s, poor Americans appreciated education and achievement. Even in the bread lines of the Depression, we feel, people longed to be smarter, not dumber. Hughes, like the hero of The Tattooed Countess and its author, wanted to know everything, everything. He wanted to learn, he wanted to meet people. When the two were introduced, Van Vechten, at 44, was a famous, occasionally flamboyant cultural visionary. As a music critic, he'd acclaimed Stravinsky and Satie, and drawn attention to the operas of Richard Strauss. Later he championed ragtime and jazz, and cheered George Gershwin, who played the piano at his parties. He jolted Americans into an awareness of Gertrude Stein and became her unofficial literary agent here. Then in 1922 he began his series of novels, mostly meringue comedies of American manners. Edmund Wilson, in his book The Twenties, mutters with astonishment at "The Vogue of Van Vechten."
Langston Hughes, at 22, was a sensitive, intelligent youth with an independence of mind. He moved easily in any society. He'd acquired an armor of worldliness from odd-job sea ventures that took him to Africa and Holland. From there, it was on to Paris, almost penniless, where he was a dishwasher in a boîte where Bricktop would sing, and onward to the beaches of Italy. He had been writing poetry since the age of 13 but yearned for expanding experiences. When the two were introduced at a benefit party in Harlem, Hughes had just returned from ten months abroad. The literati of what would be called the Harlem Renaissance had already heard about his poetry. During the movement's first stirring, Bernard reports, Hughes was considered one of its most promising talents. Soon he and Van Vechten would start the chronicle of letters and an eternal friendship.
Bernard further reminds us that as the Harlem Renaissance (or evolution in black American art) took shape, Van Vechten's role was regarded with suspicion by some black intellectuals. They didn't know that his father helped establish a school for black children or that as a student at the University of Chicago, Van Vechten visited black churches and nightspots. His interest in black culture became intense, she adds, as the renaissance was born. His biographer Kellner, author of the scholarly Carl Van Vechten and the Irreverent Decades, says he was impressed by black singers and dancers as well as black humor. Curious, passionate, obsessive, he seldom let go of anything once the addiction began. His book on cats, The Tiger in the House (Dorset), is a 300-page history on the manners and habits of the feline personality.
A year before his death, he told The New Yorker that he was "mad" for Simone Signoret. He had photographed her and hung a drawing of the actress in his foyer with a poster from a Signoret film. Back in the 1920s, his keen interest in LangstonHughes aroused obvious, possibly jealous, questions. Van Vechten never bothered to keep secret his sexual peccadilloes. Hughes was, as people are wont to say, a "very private person." It's not unlikely that the two may have rumbled into a Harlem club that would unbalance your Aunt Edna. But as Blake remonstrates, "Excess leads to the palace of wisdom."
Bernard confesses that while working on the letters she was constantly asked whether "Carlo" (his signature to all) and Hughes were lovers. She argues that they were not, and Kellner agrees. It's an ungenerous question, of course. Slyly, then, and deliberately, Bernard asks, "What was the secret that kept their friendship alive?" She replies simply: "Langston loved him." This hits upon an ordinary truth that may peeve the salacious-minded.Hughes, who died three years after Carlo, must have wept with joy upon reading in Newsweek that Van Vechten was "an adventurer in the realms of gold when others cultivated cabbage." For some of that gold symbolized Langston Hughes.
Hughes entered Van Vechten's life after the publication of his first novels, like Peter Whiffle, a whimsical biography of imaginary persons. Within a short time, Van Vechten was sending Hughes his novels and Hughes was sending Van Vechten poetry. Admiring some of Carlo's characters, Hughes wrote: "In a really perfect world, though, people who are beautiful or amusing would be kept alive solely because they are beautiful or amusing, don't you think?" A Van Vechten dinner party, Hughes realized, was similar to a fictional affair by Van Vechten. Among the beautiful or amusing he'd sup with might be Gershwin, Dalí, Bankhead, Ethel Waters or Man Ray. These salons were among the first in New York to integrate blacks and whites. "Carl's parties were so Negro," Hughes later recounted, "they were reported as a matter of course in the society columns. He never talks grandiloquently about democracy or Americanism. Nor makes a fetish of those qualities. But he lives them with sincerity--and humor." Van Vechten's last and best work, Parties (Sun & Moon Press), is arguably the wittiest and darkest swan song to the twenties.
Van Vechten believed that the secret of life was to know what you want, always, and to go after it while it was there. His fondness for Hughes deepened when he learned that the young poet shared this belief and was tirelessly, while working in Washington, DC, finding "sweet relief," as Hughes put it, turning out dozens of poems, happy and sad, relating to the racial rhythms he felt and heard.
Bernard cites no less a cultural figure than W.E.B. Du Bois for being convinced that art "should be approached with gravity, even reverence." Hughes had other ideas, though. He was bored, she asserts, by the smug black middle class but totally inspired by the blare of jazz bands and the rich contralto of Bessie Smith singing the blues. How would he express this distinctive vision? With a personal style. "We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame," proclaimed Hughes.
Excited by a collection of poems that Hughes titled The Weary Blues, Van Vechten wrote him in the spring of 1925: "Your work has a subtle sensitiveness...the poems are very beautiful.... Knopf is lunching with me today and I shall ask him to publish them." The book came out in January 1926, with Vanity Fair printing some of the poems; publication was accompanied by a reading by Hughes in Baltimore and, of course, the inevitable party in New York hosted by Carlo. Langston Hughes was launched. But for most of his life he was pursued by financial anxiety. "Being broke is a bore," he wrote Van Vechten. Sometimes he'd ask for a loan of $100. Months later Van Vechten would graciously acknowledge the repayment. Although Van Vechten was independently wealthy and, miraculously, untouched by the stock market crash, he apparently never, spur of the moment, dashed off a check to Hughes--even when he knew Hughes was working as a busboy at a hotel in Washington. The letters show mutual trust and respect, but never a hint of nostalgia over any past discreet liaison between the two.
Van Vechten felt that blacks should climb to fame "with material which is the heritage of their race," and some members of the Harlem Renaissance accused him of wanting to glamorize the culture. Never mind that Hughes also believed in revisiting familiar images. A music buff, Van Vechten predicted that the blues, someday, would be as respectable as religious songs. "I know very little to tell you about the blues," Hughes explained. "They always impressed me as being very sad, sadder even than the spirituals because their sadness is not softened with tears but hardened with laughter, the absurd." Hughes added that he first heard them sung as a child by a blind orchestra that wandered about the slums, singing for nickels or pennies or a fish sandwich. Anyway, there was no music in the world sadder for him than the blues. "But I was a kid then," he concluded.
Within time, Hughes, in a larky mood, was corresponding from California. "I find it amusing and not unprofitable working for Hollywood," he admitted. He was assigned a costume (pre-Civil War) script for the child singing star Bobby Breen. It involved an orphaned lad on a plantation and his faithful slaves. Sharing studio nonsense with Carlo, he noted that the producer had commanded, "Make a man out of Bobby Breen. Nothing sissy because he's already that." Soon the script, he added, was torn apart by a dozen people, but his contract was extended and then he was needed for story conferences. "Their time is spent in story conferences. And since I'm not much of a talker, I'm afraid I didn't help any. Eight people and three secretaries engaged a full hour in a story conference," he ended incredulously. "And that is Hollywood!"
Fleeing the bogus reality of the studio, he hurried north for some ennobling culture, catching, in San Francisco, the legendary soprano Kirsten Flagstad in Tristan und Isolde. The promenading opera crowd presented another view of society. "Diamonds by the ton," Hughes marveled, "and orchids like rose bushes"--droll throwaway lines that conjure up a dowager era of visual grandeur now extinct, except when re-created in period movies.
In 1940 Hughes publishedThe Big Sea, the first volume of his autobiography. Van Vechten urged him to write his personal story because "you have an amazing subject.... treat it romantically, be as formless as you please, disregard chronology if you desire." Appreciating this daunting task, Van Vechten proposed that he get down 300 words a day. Some days, who knows, he might want to write 2,000 words. "Try to be as frank as possible, but when your material runs a little thin, don't be afraid to imagine better material." Always encouraging, he was a shrewd editor for Hughes.
Van Vechten's adversaries fret about his influence on Hughes, or certainly did in the early years. Without noisily butting into his life, without being a dreary schoolmarm, Van Vechten--between gleeful bites of gossip ("Did I tell you that John Reed was a great friend of mine? I went abroad with him once")--sought to give counsel, when needed, in the mildest way. In any case, Hughes did not ask him about everything. He made a decision or two, and even ignored Van Vechten's advice, but that came back to haunt and hurt him years later.
The promotional tour for The Big Sea was fraught with troubling interruptions. Back in 1932 Hughes and a group of black actors and artists had gone to Russia, presumably to prepare a film on American race relations. He was still in shock from the Scottsboro case, in which nine young blacks were hauled off a train by an Alabama mob and falsely accused of raping two white women. It made international headlines and gave the Russian propaganda machine a chance to tweak America: Come on over, Mother Russia understands! The film was never made. However, watching a military parade "with a sea of workers bearing banners," as he wrote to Van Vechten, he was grazed by the revolutionary spirit and inspired to write a collection of "proletarian poems." Van Vechten bluntly told him the poems were merely revolutionary tracts and basically discouraged their publication. The tactful Blanche Knopf proposed that she and Hughes talk when he returned to America. Ultimately the poems were published in 1958 by a labor organization.
One of those poems, thoughtfully reprinted by Bernard, is titled "Goodbye Christ." It teases the Lord, the crackpot evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson and The Saturday Evening Post--telling them to prepare for a new, leftist world. Sister Aimee picketed a Los Angeles appearance that Hughes had scheduled, and his talk there was canceled. The commotion soon vexed The Saturday Evening Post, which spitefully reprinted the poem for its vast readership. It would all be insanely funny if it weren't so terribly sad.
Further perils lay ahead. In 1953 Hughes was hauled before McCarthy's committee on "un-American activities." Bernard reports that he neatly put his work into historical context (invoking the Scottsboro case as a motivating force) as a leftist flirt, and he smoothly survived, though it must have been a shattering experience. He did not write to Van Vechten about this session. Less than sympathetic, Carlo had earlier observed, "To mix metaphors, the wages of writing controversially about politics is that you have to face the music." Van Vechten remained loyal, enthusiastic over Hughes's continuing output (stories, poems), and was shortly writing to him, "I am delighted with you and your work.... I think you have completely grown up and represent the Negro at his BEST. Pardon the applause, please, but that is the way I feel."
Their last decade: The two continued to write each other, but the letters are often shorter, devoid of detail and sometimes lifeless. Carlo was frail and going deaf. Other than photography, and rounding up memorable black and white "sitters," he was focused on the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection that he'd gathered at Yale. Author, diplomat and executive director of the NAACP, Johnson, a close friend, had died in a car accident in 1938. Van Vechten, once again obsessively, amassed recordings, letters, photographs and manuscripts by blacks to forge a history of black America. Though Hughes would still confess financial fears--"Brokeness suddenly descended upon me.... I was shocked!"--he completed the second volume of his autobiography, I Wonder As I Wander, and had anthologies and selected poems published. He edited a treasury of essays and stories by black Africans, wrote Off-Broadway musicals and saw a revue based on his own life. He needed his own secretary. Van Vechten exclaimed, "I am beginning to believe you have finally arrived as a BIG Name."
There is so much exuberant, jazzy lyricism in the poetry of Langston Hughes, but for me, his triumphant legacy is heard in the opera Street Scene (1947). Elmer Rice based the libretto on his Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Kurt Weill composed the score, and Hughes wrote the sun-and-moonlight lyrics. Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times called the opera magnificent. George Jean Nathan said, "It makes a dent in intelligent emotion." The letters don't reveal anything about the collaboration, but Bernard says Hughes was thrilled to be working with Rice and Weill, and proud that they'd asked a black writer to participate in a project about whites caught on a baking summer day in a callous city--a compassionate tenement tragedy. "They wanted someone who understood the problems of the common people," Hughes said. "I did not need to ask why they thought of me. I knew." The run lasted about five months, but it wasn't a "show"--it was, after all, an opera. Within a few days of its opening, along came two highly competitive classic musicals: Finian's Rainbow and Brigadoon. That was Broadway in the forties.
While Hughes seemingly soared, I'm certain that Carlo obsessively pondered a decision that he'd made long, long ago--spurning advice--a decision that may have given him regrets in old age. For the past is always with us.
In 1926, Van Vechten, whose interest in blacks was already upsetting cabaret tables, published a fifth novel that he titled Nigger Heaven. It centered on an elevator boy who wants to be a writer and his girlfriend, a librarian. Black aristos, racketeers, bootleggers, fancy ladies--they're all there. It was, said Nora Holt, a view of blacks they did not wish to admit. It was the title, however, not the plot that caused outrage among blacks. For many, it was unforgivable. Van Vechten's father cautioned against the title, but Van Vechten knew it was provocative--and ironic. The hero calls out, "Nigger Heaven! That's what Harlem is. We sit in our places in the gallery of this New York theatre and watch the white world sitting down below.... occasionally, they turn their faces up...hard, cruel faces to laugh or sneer, but they never beckon."
Gertrude Stein wrote Van Vechten that he'd never done anything better. The Saturday Review hailed the novel as a frontier work. The critic Louis Kronenberger said that to get beneath the skin of another people was a conspicuous achievement. The black press seethed, but Van Vechten had black defenders like James Weldon Johnson, who called it "the most revealing, significant and powerful novel based exclusively on Negro life yet written." Later, in a letter to Van Vechten, Johnson asked, "Has anyone ever written it down that you have been one of the most vital factors in bringing about the artistic emergence of the Negro in America?"
Bernard salutes both Hughes and Van Vechten for helping to make the Harlem Renaissance, adding that this gives their story significance. But she stresses that the more important chronicle is of the warmth and devotion between two disparate men. Still, the literary controversy here is disquieting. Bernard comments on the boldness with which Van Vechten asserted his rights to "exotic material" and believes it was a combination of naïveté and arrogance that made him think he was unique and could get away with the Nigger Heaven title. According to her, both Johnson and Hughes encouraged him to mull alternatives.
In today's "just chill out" culture, maybe it's time to reflect anew on the lensthrough which Van Vechten saw his world. I am reminded of what Mary McCarthy once wrote about Oscar Wilde. Giving himself extreme freedom, she averred, he presumed on the acquaintanceship of his audience. "Oscar's real sin," she concluded, "(and the one for which society punished him, homosexuality being merely the blotter charge), was making himself too much at home."
And there you have it. I'd say the same thing about Carl Van Vechten.
When you spread your hand over the globe,
across mountain range, island, intuitive seas,
nothing disappeared, just as my first touch,
fingering down the rocky spine of your back,
ended in the confusion of whether to return
or continue. Furthest from home, the traveler
turns home, no matter where he turns.
But it was you I turned to, when I turned.
On May 8 twenty-three jubilant, grubby Harvard students left the offices of university president Neil Rudenstine after a twenty-one-day sit-in, the longest in Harvard's history. The students had demanded that the university pay its workers what the City of Cambridge had determined was a living wage--now the minimum for all municipal employees--$10.25 an hour. A university committee had ruled against a similar proposal a year earlier, but this time, after the sit-in drew three weeks of coverage critical of the university in the local and national media, the administrators gave ground, agreeing to reopen serious discussion.
Several commentators pointed out the incongruity of privileged Ivy Leaguers taking up such a blue-collar cause, but what the coverage often missed was that the Harvard sit-in was part of a growing movement on US campuses emerging from a burgeoning alliance between student activists and organized labor.
A significant factor in the Harvard students' victory was the support of local and national unions. The carpenters' local and the Boston office of the progressive, union-backed group Jobs With Justice organized a community march in support of the students. The dining-hall workers' union, itself in the middle of contract negotiations, listed amnesty for the student protesters among its demands and twice held rallies outside the president's office. In the last week of the sit-in, AFL-CIO leaders, including president John Sweeney, staged a 1,500-person rally at Harvard, and AFL-CIO lawyers helped shape the students' final agreement with the administration.
Across the country, according to Jobs With Justice, living-wage campaigns are now active on at least twenty-one college campuses, and those at Wesleyan and the University of Wisconsin/Madison have already claimed victories. Meanwhile, students elsewhere are working on related campus labor issues, like outsourcing, benefits and organizing nonunion workers--not to mention the catalyzing cause of sweatshops.
The AFL-CIO's student outreach program, Union Summer, has played a key role in turning simmering concerns on campus about sweatshops, globalization, the decline in real wages and the growing gap between rich and poor into effective campaigns. Union Summer, which was part of Sweeney's platform when he was campaigning for the AFL-CIO presidency in 1995, gives 200 interns--mostly, but not exclusively, college students--a small stipend and a few days' training in labor history and organizing, and then sends them out for monthlong stints with labor campaigns around the country.
After a month talking with people who work twelve-hour swing shifts and support a family on $6.50 an hour, the students often feel that returning to sheltered college life is no longer an option. "It was a transformative experience for me," says Dan Hennefeld, a Harvard graduate who's now employed by the garment and textile workers union, UNITE, and who attended the first Union Summer in 1996, after his freshman year. "It made me want to be in the labor movement," he says. When Hennefeld got back to Harvard that fall, he helped start a group called the Progressive Student Labor Movement, which became the driving force behind the recent sit-in (three of the organizers were also Union Summer grads).
The nearly 2,000 graduates of Union Summer have played a major role in spreading awareness of labor issues on campus. In addition to those at Harvard, student labor leaders at Duke, Brown, Georgetown and the universities of Tennessee, Connecticut and Wisconsin are all Summer alums. To make room for an increasing number of applicants, the AFL-CIO is offering three specialized, ten-week internships this summer: Seminary Summer for future religious leaders (mostly seminarians, novices and rabbinical students), Law Student Union Summer and International Union Summer, now in its second year, which places a few college students in organizing campaigns in such countries as Egypt, Mexico and Sri Lanka.
During their brief stints the interns are schooled in organizing techniques and tactics. "I'm blown away by how smart and focused the student leaders today are," says Paul Booth, currently assistant to the president of AFSCME and one of the writers of the 1962 Port Huron Statement of the Students for a Democratic Society. And, he adds, they've taken to heart an essential principle of today's campus activism: organizing campaigns around the school itself. Students understand, Booth says, that "they ought to be getting the institutions they relate to to do things that are meaningful."
Says Harvard's Hennefeld, "We realized early on that we wanted to focus on Harvard and the way it fits into labor issues. That potentially made the most sense to students, and it seemed the most effective use of whatever power we had." As on many campuses, this school-focused work quickly centered around their colleges' connection to overseas sweatshops, where underpaid workers turn out the sweatshirts the students wear to advertise their privileged status. These targeted antisweatshop campaigns have so far convinced seventy-eight colleges to join the Workers' Rights Consortium, the strictest of the independent groups that monitor conditions under which university garments are made.
For many antisweat student activists, the transition to campus labor issues seemed only natural. "While we were doing our antisweat work, we talked to a lot of people who said, You've got to look at what's going on here. It would be hypocritical not to," says Becky Maran, one of the leaders of UConn's successful wage campaign. "With the energy and momentum from winning [the antisweatshop] campaign, we felt we had the strength to move on."
Students' domestic labor campaigns have taken a variety of forms. At the universities of Pittsburgh and Utah, student labor groups have latched on to pre-existing citywide living-wage campaigns. At Harvard and Johns Hopkins, located in cities that had already adopted a living wage, student campaigns have focused on pressuring their administrations to adopt the city's wage floor. And at the University of Tennessee, where "right to work" laws make a living wage at best a distant goal, labor campaigns have used the mere idea of a living wage to encourage workers to organize. Recent UT graduate Anna Avato, now an AFL-CIO organizer, says that after a media campaign was launched, "Workers were calling us and saying they wanted a meeting. By the end of the week, we had 150 workers at our first action." Within a year, the UT campus workers had formed an independent union, put an end to forced overtime and, in May, fended off a subcontracting threat.
On many campuses, activism that started as a living-wage struggle has spiraled off in other directions. Harvard students, with their newly strengthened ties to campus labor, are helping out with upcoming contract negotiations and continuing to organize among those janitors and dining hall workers still without a union. At Wesleyan, where a union wage fight for campus janitors was won a year ago, students have spent the past year working with the bus drivers of Middletown public schools to pass a Middletown living-wage ordinance. At Johns Hopkins, where a seventeen-day sit-in in March 2000 convinced the administration to pay its workers a living wage a year earlier than planned, students have been working on a half-dozen campaigns, allying themselves with locals of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union (HERE), UNITE, the service employees' union (SEIU) and ACORN, a grassroots organizing group. At UT, with the independent campus workers' union up and running, students have taken a back seat to the workers themselves, helping to recruit new members and keeping up the pressure on the administration.
No matter what economic justice issue these campus efforts focus on, the thread that ties them together is their collaboration with labor. Encouraged by the students' successful campaigns, their enthusiasm and their ability to attract media attention, local and national unions are showing increased interest in working with student groups. UNITE pledged $25,000 to United Students Against Sweatshops to get it started in 1997 and continues to collaborate with USAS on ways to expand antisweat work. Jobs With Justice has joined the progressive United States Students' Association to form the Student Labor Action Project, which advises campus labor campaigns across the country and puts them in touch with local unions. And SEIU is planning an effort to bring young organizers, SEIU staff and student leaders together for discussions about how to reach out to more students.
Campus leaders, for their part, are eager to learn from the organizing experience of their union partners, as well as to get involved in real-world struggles for economic fairness. While such collaborations can be tricky--neither the student movement nor organized labor wants to give up its independence--both students and labor recognize the potential benefits. Dan DiMaggio, a Harvard freshman who participated in the sit-in, says that it "definitely galvanized workers. We went to a union negotiation the other night, and they gave us a standing ovation as they were about to receive their final offer." He adds, "The unions are very receptive to this idea of working together, and if the unions work together, that's pretty serious. If the unions and the students work together, that's pretty serious too."
Civil wars do not start overnight. You do not simply wake up one morning in what has been a peaceful country only to discover organized armed forces trying to destroy each other. One of the great insights of genuine conservatism (not the vulgar market fundamentalism that tries to pass for sound political philosophy today) is that human beings have a strong yearning for order and stability, and will put up with unfairness, even gross injustices, rather than risk violent chaos. Even when civil wars seem to emerge suddenly into the world news--as in, say, Sierra Leone in the nineties or Sri Lanka the previous decade--closer inspection invariably reveals many years of groundwork, of deteriorating economies, weakening governments, ethnic or social discrimination, of a cycle of earlier riots, vicious repression, attempted or successful coups, revenge.
Civil wars are rare as well. What is surprising about the world today is not how many there are but how few. In the early 1990s, people on both the left and the right warned that some combination of globalization and its disruptive changes, worsening unemployment and inequality, the rise of ethnicity and the end of the cold war international system meant that killing of the sort taking place in the Balkans, say, or Somalia, was likely to spread widely. Yet there is no pandemic. There are a half-dozen or so conflicts in Africa (a continent of fifty-odd nations), and a few more in south and central Asia. And Latin America, which was ripped during the 1980s by violence in Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Peru and by an earlier dirty war in Argentina, is basically peaceful. Except for Colombia.
We are lucky to have an on-the-spot look at the war there from one of the best and most experienced Latin American correspondents around, Alma Guillermoprieto, as part of her important and topical new book, Looking for History. She includes a brief but touching description of a "lively and doll-eyed" young guerrilla named Claudia, whom Guillermoprieto met in San Vicente del Caguán, the small town on the edge of the rainforest in southern Colombia that is the main base for the FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. The FARC, in existence since 1964, is the largest left-wing insurgency in recent Latin American history and is the main target of $1.3 billion in American aid to the government, most of it military.
Guillermoprieto notices that Claudia "had taken to bumping up against me and squeezing me...with a persistence I was beginning to find alarming until I thought to ask how old she was. 'Seventeen,' she answered. And how long had it been since she'd seen her mother? 'Four...no, five years,' she said."
Claudia is one of the 2 million Colombians already displaced by the growing civil war. Something has gone dramatically wrong in a country when a 12-year-old has to leave her mother and join a guerrilla army. Soon fifty American-made helicopters will join the Colombian military that is already trying to kill her.
Guillermoprieto is an indispensable corrective to the cool and fragmented mainstream reporting from Colombia, which, following the conventions of the genre, does indeed set down some of the facts. We do learn, approximately, of the rising number of political deaths (some 6,000 last year), the deepening economic crisis (20 percent unemployment) and the surface area of coca plants supposedly eradicated.
But we miss many of the human truths. Colombia is not a chess game in which various armed forces move around a map, advancing and retreating. Nor is it an intellectual debate, in which bureaucrats from the US government and Washington Post editorial writers (the Post favors American intervention) cleverly score points. It is a terrible civil war, one that is getting worse. It did not start quickly, and it will not end quickly, and before it does, many 17-year-old girls will die.
Guillermoprieto started off her American journalistic career at the Post, where she (along with Raymond Bonner of the New York Times) courageously reported on the 1981 El Mozote massacre in El Salvador, in which the American-backed army slaughtered nearly 1,000 people. The Reagan Administration denied the killings for years. Then she went off to write one of the great books about how poor people in the Third World live. Samba (1990) is her dazzling account of a year spent with Mangueira, one of the samba "schools" in a slum of Rio de Janeiro, preparing for the fierce music and dance competition that takes place at Carnaval. You learn about more than just the contest, interesting as that is; you get to know fascinating people and are introduced to an entire way of life.
Since then, Guillermoprieto, thoroughly bilingual and bicultural, has reported from all over Latin America for The New York Review of Books and The New Yorker. Looking for History is the second collection of her articles, following The Heart That Bleeds (1994). This time around, she deals almost exclusively with Colombia, Cuba and Mexico.
Her firsthand reporting on Colombia could not be more timely. One of Bill Clinton's most evil legacies is Plan Colombia, the military assistance program that will fail in its purported aim--to reduce the drug problem in North America--but that is already adding to the violence farther south [see Marc Cooper, "Plan Colombia," March 19].
Arguably her most valuable work is based on her visits to territory held by the left-wing FARC. Back in 1986, she met the reclusive FARC leader Manuel Marulanda, whose nickname is Tirofijo, or "Sureshot," in a remote spot in the Andean foothills, and last year she visited the group's present main base in San Vicente.
She is unsentimental about the FARC, pointing out that it raises funds by kidnapping civilians, a clear violation of international humanitarian law. The guerrillas also freely admitted to her that they are connected to drug production but insisted that they do not grow or traffic coca themselves, only "tax" the people who do in the areas they control.
Colombian small farmers plant coca to survive economically, not because they want to poison Americans, Guillermoprieto asserts. "Colombia had found what most developing countries lack," she writes, "a cheap crop that can produce levels of employment, return on investment, and national growth that only industrial goods normally provide." World prices for other primary commodities--like coffee, Colombia's other major export--continue to stagnate, a grim fact of life in the Third World that the cheerleaders for globalization usually ignore. She also emphasizes that drug production is by no means limited to areas controlled by the FARC or the ELN (National Liberation Army), a different (and sometimes rival) left-wing group. The right-wing paramilitares--who have been growing in recent years and who, according to Human Rights Watch and other monitoring groups, are responsible for three-quarters of all human rights violations in Colombia--are much more deeply implicated in the drug trade, getting significant financial support from the smaller and more numerous trafficking networks that replaced the infamous Medellín and Cali cartels of the 1980s. Yet Plan Colombia's coca defoliation efforts so far have concentrated on the FARC areas in the south, not in rightist-controlled territory elsewhere.
Probably Guillermoprieto's most important point is one invariably left out of the pro-Plan Colombia editorials and State Department briefings: that the FARC did try to advance its cause peacefully, back in the 1980s, forming a legal party called the Unión Patriótica. The group ran candidates in mayoral elections in 1988, winning in eighteen locales. "Thirteen of these mayors were subsequently assassinated, often after having been forced to resign," she reports. "No one has ever been charged with these murders, but it is widely assumed that members of the military, which has historically operated more or less independently of the chief executive, and sometimes at loggerheads with it, played a role."
She continues with an understated but quite astonishing summary: "By 1992, 3,500 UP militants and leaders of the legal party, including two presidential candidates, had been assassinated (although only a handful of those murders have ever been brought to trial). The guerrillas had lost nearly all of their urban, better-educated, politically minded leaders." Even so, as she reports, the FARC has not turned into a fanatical messianic movement like the Khmer Rouge, nor is it enslaved in a cult of personality, like Peru's Shining Path, now thankfully in decline after years of spreading terror in the Andean highlands.
Colombia's president, Andrés Pastrana, apparently recognizes that the guerrillas have deep roots in parts of rural Colombia, and he has been making what Guillermoprieto (and other observers as well) regard as genuine efforts to negotiate. But Colombia's central government is weak, and the right-wing paramilitares, with the collusion of key elements of the army and police, are undercutting his efforts by invading and terrorizing areas in which the left has support, and by murdering more labor leaders and human rights activists. The government did in fact recently stage a raid on a northern paramilitary stronghold, Montería, seeking information on the largest right-wing paramilitary army, the United Self-Defense Forces, but the move will do little to slow the rapid growth of the armed right. (Up-to-date information is available at www.colombiareport.org.)
Guillermoprieto is hopeful that Colombia's worsening polarization might be slowed by a massive grassroots movement for negotiations. In October 1999, a nationwide march for peace attracted 5 million people--a significant showing in any country, but in a country of 40 million, astounding.
Plan Colombia will add to the killing, however. Last August, President Clinton waived human rights requirements in American law so he could disburse the aid--because he knew the Colombian military could not otherwise qualify. The psychological impact will be even greater than the money, significant as that is to a Third World army. Colombia's generals and colonels understand exactly what they are being tacitly told: Crush the left-wing guerrillas by any means, pretend to move against the right-wing paramilitares, and America will look the other way.
Colombia could be on the road to an even more bloody reprise of El Salvador. There, several billion dollars in US aid promoted a twelve-year war in which 75,000 people died, including Archbishop Oscar Romero, other Salvadoran priests and American nuns murdered by right-wing death squads. Yet the Salvadoran government could not defeat the guerrillas and had to reach a negotiated settlement in 1992. Without American dollars, the war would have ended much sooner.
Guillermoprieto's reporting on Cuba is also gloomy, but for very different reasons. The island's impressive and undeniable advances in social welfare are stained by the fact that its leader is a tiresome and sometimes vicious megalomaniac. She reminds us of the disgusting Ochoa trial of 1989, a tropical repeat performance of Stalin's 1930s Moscow show trials. (Fidel Castro almost certainly ordered a general and national hero named Arnaldo Ochoa framed and then executed for drug trafficking, possibly in part because Castro feared Ochoa's popularity--and he televised the trial.) After the brave human rights activist Elisardo Sánchez gave an American reporter details about the show trial's aftermath, he was sentenced to three and a half years in prison, where he joined hundreds of other political prisoners; Guillermoprieto suggests that Castro cynically uses them to bargain with the outside world.
Cuba has survived economically since the collapse of the Soviet Union partly from increased tourism, which has now far surpassed sugar as a foreign exchange earner. But not just run-of-the-mill tourism. Guillermoprieto explains, without sensationalizing, that "the island has become an established part of the world sex tour circuit." The revolutionary government has become a de facto pimp, because "how [else] could Havana hope to compete with the likes of Martinique, Santo Domingo, Curaçao, or Cancún? Not on the basis of its shabby hotels, limited food supply, or terrible flight connections, certainly."
The tone of Guillermoprieto's reporting suggests she is personally disappointed. She respects Cubans who are still loyal to the revolution, and she is careful to make a distinction between their genuine idealism and power-madness at the top. But she notes that consumerism is growing, encouraged by tourists and visiting exiles bearing gifts. Consumptionism is a real force all over the world, one the left has historically gravely underestimated (and often too harshly dismissed). But it may have special potential here, as a safe outlet for human expression in a country whose one-party state stifles independent grassroots organization and cultural freedom.
Guillermoprieto then turns to Mexico, and finishes her remarkable book with optimism. She portrays a defining epoch in Mexican history, which opened with the Zapatista uprising on New Year's Day 1994 and reached one culmination in the July 2000 election of the first opposition president in the country's modern history, Vicente Fox.
Once again, Guillermoprieto has done her legwork, visiting the Zapatista home area in the southern state of Chiapas and interviewing Subcomandante Marcos sitting in a car in the middle of the night. She provides a much needed revisionist view of the Zapatistas, recognizing their importance without romanticizing them. She starts off with some genuine globalist analysis, not the unreflective cheerleading in the mainstream press, by pointing out that the collapse of the world coffee price in 1989 increased human misery among the small growers in Chiapas, aiding the insurrection (the same kind of economic pressure that induces some rural Colombians to turn to coca).
But she points out that the first reports that the Zapatistas constituted a huge avenging army of the poor were greatly exaggerated; "it turned out that they had no military strength and were in reality an armed pressure group." The Zapatistas survived because the Mexican public was tiring of the ruling party, the PRI (the oxymoronic Institutional Revolutionary Party), and would not have tolerated a military crackdown.
In early 1993, The Economist said that the PRI president, Carlos Salinas, "has a claim to be hailed as one of the great men of the 20th century," an honor the magazine conferred for his supposed courage in trying to impose market fundamentalism on Mexico. This judgment, typical of the mainstream world press at the time, was already more than a little starry-eyed; Salinas had almost certainly stolen the 1988 election. In time, though, this hero had to flee Mexico. Guillermoprieto reports that he had become "the person most deeply hated by most Mexicans," because of his links to corruption, drug trafficking and possibly murder, and because of his responsibility for the catastrophic collapse of the Mexican economy following the devaluation of the peso at the end of 1994 (which required a US bailout of nearly $50 billion).
Guillermoprieto does describe this economic debacle, but she might have devoted even more attention to it. "Transparency" is one of the buzzwords of market fundamentalism, the idea that governments and businesses should provide a free flow of information so people can make informed decisions. What actually happened was that the Mexican government, Wall Street and the US Treasury Department essentially cheated the Mexican people out of a free election in August 1994 by holding back key information about the deteriorating economy until after the ruling party's candidate had won. Then, too late, Mexico devalued, causing $5 billion in investment to leave within days, triggering a serious depression and making necessary a bailout of the (just privatized) banking system that is costing the Mexican people proportionally much more than the S&L rescue did here.
Mexico's story does have a happier tenor, at least for now. Vicente Fox, a maverick from the right who is nonetheless not afraid to listen to his high-ranking leftist advisers, seems set to consolidate democracy. The old ruling party is still reeling, having just lost a gubernatorial election in Yucatán, one of its former strongholds. Guillermoprieto credits the left's standard-bearer, the honest and courageous Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, with making change possible by breaking with the ruling party and then continuing the fight for democracy even after being robbed of the presidency in the 1988 election. Millions of Cuauhtémoc's supporters, seeing he would fall short this time around, cast strategic votes for Fox.
During one of Guillermoprieto's visits to the Zapatista base area in southern Mexico, some of the campesinos, or rural poor people, reversed roles and asked her: "Were there many campesinos in this city I wrote for, New York? I informed them that in truth, there were very few left. That was too bad, one of them said--they had wanted to send their regards. 'But in any case,' [one] added, 'please convey our very best greetings to the people you know in that place.'"
Fortunately, the lives of Guillermoprieto's campesino friends in Mexico are improving, however slowly, without real civil war; genuine land reform is even coming to Chiapas. The friends Guillermoprieto has in Colombia are not as lucky.