One mystery I've tried to disentangle:
Why Cheney's head is always at an angle.
He tries to come on straight, and yet I can't
Help notice that his head is at a slant.
When Cheney's questioned on the Sunday shows,
The Voice of Reason is his favorite pose.
He drones in monotones. He never smiles--
Explaining why some suspects don't need trials,
Or why right now it simply stands to reason
That criticizing Bush amounts to treason,
Or which important precept it would spoil
To know who wrote our policy on oil,
Or why as CEO he wouldn't know
What Halliburton's books were meant to show.
And as he speaks I've kept a careful check
On when his head's held crooked on his neck.
The code is broken, after years of trying:
He only cocks his head when he is lying.
NOT AN APOLOGIST FOR ISRAEL
His justifiable zeal to defend Palestinian rights leads Alexander
Cockburn to call me an apologist for "policies put into practice by
racists, ethnic cleansers and, in Sharon's case, an unquestioned war
criminal who should be in the dock for his conduct" ["Beat the Devil,"
June 3]. Since I share Cockburn's criticism of reflexive support for
every Israeli policy and I agree with much of what he says about false
claims of anti-Semitism, I wish he'd accompanied his identification of
my possible inconsistencies with accurate reporting of what I actually
wrote. Ascribing to me words I'd never say and views I reject is either
sloppy or dishonest.
My essay in Salon suggested the pro-Palestinian left should
address, where it exists, anti-Semitism, superficial argumentation and
difficulties of communication. I end with this: "The justice-based left
must seek analyses and solutions built on general principles, and reject
those that make new forms of oppression inevitable."
I also say this: I march to protest Israeli policy; Israel has committed
past massacres and West Bank atrocities; ending Palestinian oppression
is central; the occupation must end; expulsion of Palestinians would
amount to ethnic cleansing; the pro-Israel explanation of how
Palestinians became refugees in 1948 is unsupported; armed resistance
(though not against uninvolved civilians) is legitimate; a Palestinian
call for militant nonviolent resistance is welcome. And I say clearly
that opposing Israeli policy is not anti-Semitic.
Cockburn's absolutism is matched by his opposites. A letter to my local
newspaper, for which I write a column, claimed that my views would lead
to "the destruction of Israel and create a danger to Jews throughout the
world." That writer, too, sees only what he wants to see.
I continue to advocate justice-focused discussion. Please see
people.uis.edu/dfox1/politics/israel.html for more.
There was nothing sloppy or dishonest about what I wrote. The third
paragraph of Fox's letter is fine, and if my column pushed him to make
it clear, it served its purpose. I wish he'd written it in his
NOT AN ON-THE-RECORD SOURCE
Jason Leopold's "White Should Go--Now" [May 27] is built upon lies and
unethical reporting. Not only did Leopold unethically list me as an
on-the-record source, he attributed comments to me that were never
discussed and are absolutely not true.
In reference to energy contracts signed with major California customers
in 1998, the article incorrectly states, "Jestings said he told [Thomas]
White that EES [Enron Energy Services] would actually lose money this
way, but White said Enron would make up the difference by selling
electricity on the spot market...which Enron had bet would skyrocket in
2000." The article continues the lies by stating that "Jestings said he
continued to complain to White that the profits declared by the retail
unit were not real." These statements were never made to Leopold and are
absolutely false. I had significant responsibility for these 1998
contracts and believed that they would be profitable, and therefore I
would never have made such statements. Furthermore, if Enron believed
the spot market would skyrocket in 2000, it would never have signed
long-term, fixed-rate contracts with these California customers in 1998!
Leopold then states that "Jestings said he resigned from EES in 2000
because he did not agree with the way EES reported profits." Again, this
is not true. I resigned in early 1999 for personal reasons and not
because of the way EES reported profits. In fact, EES was not making
profits when I left.
It is clear that Leopold is trying to build a picture of cover-up and
manipulation by White using statements falsely attributed to me. This is
irresponsible reporting at its worst. In my short tenure at EES, I
developed great respect for White. He is an honest and ethical man and
deserves fair reporting.
During my hourlong conversations with Lee Jestings on not one but
three different occasions leading up to the publication of this story, I
reminded Jestings that I would be using his comments in print. Simply
put, Jestings was well aware that he was on the record. He cannot
retract his statements after the fact and then accuse me of being
unethical and a liar. I sought out Jestings, and when I found him he
chose to respond to my numerous questions about EES and Thomas White. I
did, however, mistakenly report that Jestings left EES in 2000.
Jestings says that EES did not show a profit when he left. However, EES
under White's leadership reported that the unit was profitable in 1999
after Jestings left the company. But Enron was forced in April to
restate those profits because they were illusory. Moreover, Jestings
said during the interview that he had taken issue with EES's use of
"mark to market" accounting, in which the unit was able to immediately
book gains based on contracts signed with large businesses. Jestings
never said during the interview that he believed these contracts would
eventually become profitable. But that's beside the point. Jestings said
EES's use of aggressive accounting tactics during White's tenure left
shareholders believing the company was performing better than it
Jestings says White was honest and ethical while he was vice chairman at
EES. My report indicates otherwise.
NOT SMALLER THAN A DAISY CUTTER
West Orange, NJ
There was a critical error in "Relearning to Love the Bomb" by Raffi
Khatchadourian [April 1]. Khatchadourian says that so-called mini-nukes
of about five-kiloton yield have smaller explosive effects than the US
conventional "daisy cutter" bombs. This is clearly wrong. A five-kiloton
explosion is equal to 5,000 tons of TNT, while the daisy cutter weighs
only 7.5 tons. Even allowing for the development of modern explosives
more powerful than TNT, the difference between the weapons, and their
relative destructive potential, is of several orders of magnitude. The
following excerpt from the Federation of American Scientists' Military
Analysis Network (www.fas.org/man/dod-101/sys/dumb/blu-82.htm) directly addresses that point.
"The BLU-82B/C-130 weapon system, nicknamed Commando Vault in Vietnam
and Daisy Cutter in Afghanistan, is a high altitude delivery of
15,000-pound conventional bomb, delivered from an MC-130 since it is far
too heavy for the bomb racks on any bomber or attack aircraft.
Originally designed to create an instant clearing in the jungle, it has
been used in Afghanistan as an anti-personnel weapon and as an
intimidation weapon because of its very large lethal radius (variously
reported as 300-900 feet) combined with flash and sound visible at long
distances. It is the largest conventional bomb in existence but is less
than one thousandth the power of the Hiroshima nuclear bomb."
No useful analysis of nuclear policy can be made by equating large
conventional bombs with even the smallest nuclear bombs in any way. An
analysis of policy and decision-making regarding the
conventional/nuclear threshold demands a clear understanding of how very
powerful and devastating nuclear weapons are. The author seems to be
blurring the lines of allowable nuclear-weapons use far more than the
Administration he criticizes.
New York City
Let me begin by pointing out that I said "five kilotons or less." Some
proponents of new nukes have pushed for weapons of lower tonnage. Others
argue that five kilotons is roughly optimal.
C. Paul Robinson, director of Sandia National Laboratories, demonstrates
the debate: "I'm not talking about sub-kiloton weapons...
as some have advocated, but devices in the low-kiloton range, in order
to contemplate the destruction of hard or hidden targets, while being
mindful of the need to minimize collateral damage." In April, Benjamin
Friedman, an analyst at the Center for Defense Information, wrote: "What
is revolutionary about current proposals is the idea of reducing the
yield of tactical nuclear weapons to levels approaching those of
conventional explosives, to around one-tenth of a kiloton, which would
theoretically bridge the gap between a conventional and a nuclear
The United States has developed "sub-kiloton" atomic weapons before. One
such weapon, the Davy Crockett, contained warheads weighing only
fifty-one pounds, with explosive yields near 0.01 kilotons (roughly 10
tons of TNT). We made 2,100 of those between 1956 and 1963.
When my article was written, it was unclear what size the Bush
Administration's defense team envisioned for its nuclear bunker buster.
To a degree it still isn't, although some now suggest it could be above
five kilotons. However, this doesn't change what's being contemplated: a
weapon that appears to avoid the kind of casualties that put current
nukes outside the boundary of political acceptability.
I regret if I seemed to suggest that a five-kiloton nuclear warhead
could be smaller in explosive power than the world's largest
conventional weapon. That is inaccurate. I attempted to illustrate that
on the continuum of weaponry, a gap that appeared inconceivably wide not
so long ago is now being pushed closer. As the recent Nuclear Posture
Review demonstrates, narrowing that distance is as much a matter of
ideas as a matter of tons.
NOT THE GREAT WHITE HOPE?
Katha Pollitt is right on about great white hope Dennis Kucinich
["Subject to Debate," May 27 and June 10]. The boys who disparage
abortion rights as a foolish, single-issue orthodoxy don't have a clue.
Here's a hint for you guys. "Abortion" is about equitable reproductive
health services for women, obviously including the ability to end a
pregnancy, but it's also about how we think of women, and how we treat
them. Are women valued as the sum of their reproductive parts, or as
We know where the fundamentalists stand: Protestant, Catholic, Hindu,
Islamic and Jewish fundamentalisms, as well as secular dictatorships,
are united on the need to control women's bodies. And now, thanks to
Pollitt, we know where Kucinich stands. He moves or he loses.
New York City
As co-directors of an organization of the economic left, we second
Katha Pollitt's admonition that Dennis Kucinich cannot claim the mantle
of an economic progressive while being virulently anti-choice.
Reproductive freedom is not just a matter of personal morality, it is a
fundamental element of economic justice. No woman can determine her own
economic destiny without the freedom to choose whether to bear a child.
Progressives looking for champions cannot be so desperate as to overlook
such a fundamental right. There are numerous other members of
Congress--of course, we'd like a lot more--who understand that
reproductive rights are part of the fight for economic justice.
RICHARD KIRSCH, KAREN SCHARFF
Citizen Action of New York
My weekly ritual of reading the Nation cover to cover on Monday
was stymied last week when my postman left my mailbox door open on a
soaker of a day. I got home eager for the week's insights only to find a
soggy Nation limp in the box. Eek! I ran upstairs and spastically looked
for options. My girlfriend with astonishment: "What the heck are you
doing?" when she saw me using the hair dryer to dry my coveted pages one
by one. Did you ever know how important your work is!
In Texas, where he managed George W. Bush's political rise, Karl Rove was often referred to as "Bush's brain."
In fact, Austin reporters used to note that crazy notions Rove expounded upon at the bar on Saturday night had a funny way of popping out of his candidate's mouth on Monday morning.
The Bush White House has gone to great pains since George W. assumed the presidency to downplay the influence that Rove has over the administration's political and policy agendas. But the Republican faithful know the real story, and they have made Rove a star of the Grand Old Party's national fund-raising circuit. Rove regularly appears at $500-a-head, closed-door "VIP receptions" around the country. Republican operatives say he rates a bit above Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Mississippi, and far above House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Illinois, on the list of most desired after-dinner speakers at gatherings of the faithful.
There are those who wrongly believe that the debate over civil liberties in this country breaks along ideological grounds. It's an easy mistake to make: Especially when Attorney General John Ashcroft, a certified -- and, arguably, certifiable -- conservative is treating the Constitution like it was a threat to America.
The important thing to remember is that Ashcroft's misguided war on individual rights has been supported at key turns by top Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-SD, and House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo. Both Democrats backed the draconian USA PATRIOT ACT last fall, as did the overwhelming majority of their fellow Congressional Democrats. And both Daschle and Gephardt have been troublingly mild in their criticism of Ashcroft's recent attempt to interpret that legislation in a manner guaranteed to undermine Constitutional protections.
To be sure, criticism of Ashcroft's excesses has not fit into the easy stereotypes that are often used to analyze Congress. US Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., who broke with Democrats to back Ashcroft's nomination for attorney general, cast the sole Senate vote against Ashcroft's anti-terrorism legislation. Georgia conservative Bob Barr and California liberal Maxine Waters, bitter foes during the Clinton impeachment fight of 1998, held a joint press conference to condemn the Bush administration's disregard for civil liberties.
Did you know that the mere act of asking what kind of warning members of
the Bush Administration may have received about a 9/11-like attack is
just clever hype by that sneaky liberal media conspiracy? So goes the
argument of the regular National Review seat on Communist News
Network liberal media program, Reliable Sources. Recently, host
(and Washington Post media reporter) Howard Kurtz decided to fill
the chair not with his favorite guest/source, NR editor Rich Lowry, or the much-invited NR
Online editor, Jonah Goldberg, but with the relatively obscure
NR managing editor, Jay Nordlinger. Nordlinger explained, "The
story is surprisingly slight," blown up by a liberal media fearing Bush
was getting "a free ride." Give the man points for consistency. The Bush
White House's exploitation of 9/11 to fatten Republican coffers via the
sale of the President's photo that fateful day--scurrying from safe
location to safe location--was also, in Nordlinger's view, "another
Nordlinger's complaint echoed the even stronger contention of another
Kurtz favorite, Andrew Sullivan. The world-famous
gaycatholictorygapmodel took the amazing position that potential
warnings about a terrorist threat that would kill thousands and land us
in Afghanistan was "not a story" at all. Sounding like a Karl Rove/Mary
Matalin love child, Sullivan contended, "The real story here is the
press and the Democrats' need for a story about the war to change the
climate of support for the President."
But Sullivan at least deserves our admiration for expertly spinning
Kurtz regarding The New York Times Magazine's decision to cut him
loose. Echoing Sullivan's PR campaign--and with a supportive quote from,
uh, Rich Lowry--Kurtz framed the story entirely as one of Times
executive editor Howell Raines avenging Sullivan's obsessive attacks on
the paper's liberal bias. OK, perhaps the standards for a Post
writer tweaking the Times top dog are not those of, say, Robert
Caro on Robert Moses, but where's the evidence that Raines was even
involved? The paper had plenty of reasons to lose Sullivan even if his
stupendously narcissistic website never existed. Sullivan's Times
work may have been better disciplined than his "TRB" columns in the
notsoliberal New Republic (before he was replaced by editor Peter
Beinart) and certainly than the nonsense he posts online, but it still
must have embarrassed the Newspaper of Record. As (now Times Book
Review columnist) Judith Shulevitz pointed out in a critique of his
"dangerously misleading" paean to testosterone, Sullivan was permitted
to "mix up his subjective reactions with laboratory work." Stanford
neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky told Shulevitz at the time, Sullivan "is
entitled to his fairly nonscientific opinion, but I'm astonished at the
New York Times." The Andrew Sullivan Principles of Pre-Emptive
Sexual Disclosure also embarrassed the magazine when he used its pages
to out as gay two Clinton Cabinet members and liberal Democrats like
Rosie O'Donnell. (I imagine he came to regret this invasion of privacy
when his own life became tabloid fare.) Meanwhile, Sullivan's
McCarthyite London Sunday Times column about September 11--in
which he waxed hysterical about the alleged danger of a pro-terrorist
"Fifth Column" located in the very city that suffered the attack--should
have been enough to put off any discerning editor forever. Yet the myth
of his martyrdom continues. Sullivan's website carries the vainglorious
moniker "unfit to print." For once, he's right.
* * *
Sorry, I know enough can be more than enough, but this quote of Sully's
is irresistible: "I ignored Geoffrey Nunberg's piece in The American
Prospect in April, debunking the notion of liberal media bias by
numbers, because it so flew in the face of what I knew that I figured
something had to be wrong." When a conservative pundit "knows" something
to be true, don't go hassling him with contrary evidence. It so happens
that linguist Geoffrey Nunberg did the necessary heavy lifting to
disprove perhaps the one contention in Bernard Goldberg's book
Bias the so-called liberal media felt compelled--perhaps out of
misplaced generosity--to accept: that the media tend to label
conservatives as such more frequently than alleged liberals. Tom
Goldstein bought into it in Columbia Journalism Review. So did
Jonathan Chait in TNR. Howard Kurtz and Jeff Greenfield let it go
unchallenged on Communist News Network. Meanwhile, Goldberg admits to
"knowing," Sullivan style, happily ignorant of any relevant data beyond
his own biases. He did no research, he says, because he did not want his
book "to be written from a social scientist point of view."
Unfortunately for Bernie, Nunberg discovered that alleged liberals are
actually labeled as such by mainstream journalists more frequently than
are conservatives. This is true for politicians, for actors, for
lawyers, for everyone--even institutions like think tanks and pressure
groups. The reasons for this are open to speculation, but Nunberg has
the numbers. A weblogger named Edward Boyd ran his own set of numbers
that came out differently, but Nunberg effectively disposed of Boyd's
(honest) errors in a follow-up article for TAP Online. In a truly
bizarre Village Voice column, Nat Hentoff recently sought to ally
himself with the pixilated Goldberg but felt a need to add the
qualifier, "The merits of Goldberg's book aside..." Actually, it's no
qualifier at all. Goldberg's worthless book has only one merit, which
was to inspire my own forthcoming book refuting it. (Hentoff
mischaracterizes that, too.) Meanwhile, the merits of Hentoff's column
aside, it's a great column.
* * *
Speaking of ex-leftists, what's up with Christopher Hitchens calling
Todd Gitlin and me "incurable liberals"? Since when is liberalism
treated as something akin to a disease in this, America's oldest
continuously published liberal magazine? Here's hoping my old friend
gets some treatment for his worsening case of incurable Horowitzism. (Or
is it Sullivanism? Hentoffism? Is there a Doctor of Philosophy in the
Meanwhile, I've got a new weblog with more of this kind of thing at
www.altercation.msnbc.com. Check it every day, or the terrorists
In the past two months I have talked with many people who have a keen
interest in whether the Senate will decide to ban therapeutic cloning.
At a conference at a Philadelphia hospital, a large number of people,
their bodies racked with tremors from Parkinson's disease, gathered to
hear me speak about the ethics of stem cell research. A few weeks
earlier I had spoken to another group, many of whom were breathing with
the assistance of oxygen tanks because they have a genetic disease,
Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, that destroys their lungs and livers.
Earlier still I met with a group of parents whose children are paralyzed
as a result of spinal cord injuries.
At each meeting I told the audience there was a good chance that the
government would criminalize research that might find answers to their
ailments if it required using cloned human embryos, on the grounds that
research using such embryos is unethical. The audience members were
incredulous. And well they should have been. A bizarre alliance of
antiabortion religious zealots and technophobic neoconservatives along
with a smattering of scientifically befuddled antibiotech progressives
is pushing hard to insure that the Senate accords more moral concern to
cloned embryos in dishes than it does to kids who can't walk and
grandmothers who can't hold a fork or breathe.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise that George W. Bush and the House
of Representatives have already taken the position that any research
requiring the destruction of an embryo, cloned or otherwise, is wrong.
This view derives from the belief, held by many in the Republican camp,
that personhood begins at conception, that embryos are people and that
killing them to help other people is simply wrong. Although this view
about the moral status of embryos does not square with what is known
about them--science has shown that embryos require more than genes in
order to develop, that not all embryos have the capacity to become a
person and that not all conception begins a life--it at least has the
virtue of moral clarity.
But aside from those who see embryos as tiny people, such clarity of
moral vision is absent among cloning opponents. Consider the views of
Leon Kass, William Kristol, Charles Krauthammer and Francis Fukuyama.
Each says he opposes research involving the cloning of human embryos.
Each has been pushing furiously in the media and in policy circles to
make the case that nothing could be more morally heinous than harvesting
stem cells from such embryos. And each says that his repugnance at the
idea of cloning research has nothing to do with a religiously based view
of what an embryo is.
The core of the case against cloning for cures is that it involves the
creation, to quote the latest in a landslide of moral fulminations from
Krauthammer, "of a human embryo for the sole purpose of using it for its
parts...it will sanction the creation of an entire industry of embryo
manufacture whose explicit purpose is...dismemberment for research."
Sounds like a very grim business indeed--and some progressives, notably
Jeremy Rifkin and Norman Mailer, have sounded a similar alarm as they
have joined the anticloning crusade.
From the secular viewpoint, which Krauthammer and like-minded cloning
opponents claim to hold, there is no evidence for the position that
embryonic clones are persons or even potential persons. As a simple fact
of science, embryos that reside in dishes are going nowhere. The
potential to become anything requires a suitable environment. Talk of
"dismemberment," which implicitly confers moral status on embryos,
betrays the sort of faith-based thinking that Krauthammer says he wants
to eschew. Equally ill-informed is the notion that equivalent medical
benefits can be derived from research on adult stem cells; cloned
embryonic stem cells have unique properties that cannot be duplicated.
The idea that women could be transformed into commercial egg farms also
troubles Krauthammer, as well as some feminists and the Christian
Medical Association. The CMA estimates that to make embryonic stem-cell
cloning work, more than a billion eggs would have to be harvested. But
fortunately for those hoping for cures, the CMA is wrong: Needed now for
cloned embryonic stem-cell research are thousands of eggs, not billions.
While cloning people is a long shot, cloning embryos is not, and it
should be possible to get the research done either by paying women for
their eggs or asking those who suffer from a disease, or who know
someone they care about who has a disease, to donate them. Women are
already selling and donating eggs to others who are trying to have
babies. Women and men are also donating their kidneys, their bone marrow
and portions of their livers to help others, at far greater risk to
themselves than egg donation entails. And there is no reason that embryo
splitting, the technique used today in animals, could not provide the
requisite embryo and cloned stem-cell lines to treat all in need without
a big increase in voluntary egg donation from women.
In addition to conjuring up the frightening but unrealistic image of
women toiling in Dickensian embryo-cloning factories, those like
Krauthammer, who would leave so many senior citizens unable to move
their own bodies, offer two other moral thoughts. If we don't draw the
line at cloning for cures, there will soon enough be a clone moving into
your neighborhood; and besides, it is selfish and arrogant to seek to
alter our own genetic makeup to live longer.
The reality is that cloning has a terrible track record in making
embryos that can become fetuses, much less anything born alive. The most
recent review of cloning research shows an 85 percent failure rate in
getting cow embryos to develop into animals. And of those clones born
alive, a significant percentage, more than a third, have serious
life-threatening health problems. Cloned embryos have far less potential
than embryos created the old-fashioned way, or even frozen embryos, of
becoming anything except a ball of cells that can be tricked into
becoming other cells that can cure diseases. Where Krauthammer sees
cloned embryos as persons drawn and quartered for their organs, in
reality there exists merely a construct of a cell that has no potential
to become anything if it is kept safely in a dish and almost no
potential to develop even if it is put into a womb. Indeed, current work
on primate cloning has been so unproductive, which is to say none made
to date, that there is a growing sentiment in scientific circles that
human cloning for reproduction is impossible. The chance of anyone
cloning a full-fledged human is almost nil, but in any case there is no
reason that it cannot be stopped simply by banning the transfer of these
embryos into wombs.
But should we really be manipulating our genes to try to cure diseases
and live longer? Kass and Fukuyama, in various magazine pieces and
books, say no--that it is selfish and arrogant indulgence at its worst.
Humanity is not meant to play with its genes simply to live longer and
Now, it can be dangerous to try to change genes. One young man is dead
because of an experiment in gene therapy at my medical school. But the
idea that genes are the defining essence of who we are and therefore
cannot be touched or manipulated recalls the rantings of Gen. Jack D.
Ripper in Doctor Strangelove, who wanted to preserve the
integrity of his precious bodily fluids. There's nothing inherently
morally wrong with trying to engineer cells, genes and even cloned
embryos to repair diseases and terminal illnesses. Coming from those who
type on computers, wear glasses, inject themselves with insulin, have
had an organ transplant, who walk with crutches or artificial joints or
who have used in vitro fertilization or neonatal intensive care to
create their children, talk of the inviolate essence of human nature and
repugnance at the "manufactured" posthuman is at best disingenuous.
The debate over human cloning and stem cell research has not been one of
this nation's finest moral hours. Pseudoscience, ideology and plain
fearmongering have been much in evidence. If the discussions were merely
academic, this would be merely unfortunate. They are not. The flimsy
case against cloning for cures is being brought to the White House, the
Senate and the American people as if the opponents hold the moral high
ground. They don't. The sick and the dying do. The Senate must keep its
moral priorities firmly in mind as the vote on banning therapeutic
cloning draws close.
Sister, they say heed the hymn in your heart.
You've learned you've an odd rhythm in your heart.
You and I versus our brothers: pitched war.
The four of us in the swim of your heart.
I saw a bird chasing moths trace spirals
in the air, how you love him in your heart!
The wind blows an apple, an acorn down.
Let's revise: follow each whim in your heart.
In the west, weft ascends warp. In the east,
weft treads warp. Silk Route wisdom in your heart.
Knowledge an ocean shaped by desire,
who defines the idiom: in your heart
of hearts? How many hearts do we have? When
one breaks song soothes like a balm in the heart.
Who'll play dub to your syncopated lub?
Endeavor, love, 'gainst tedium in the heart.
The hated math teacher played, "Less is more,"
with my name. Whence the harem in your heart?
Greens running against Democrats, and maybe giving Republicans the edge?
Anyone who thinks we'll have to wait till the Bush-Gore rematch in 2004
to get into that can of worms had better look at Minnesota this year.
Here's Senator Paul Wellstone bidding for a third term, with the tiny
Democratic majority in the Senate as the stake. Writing in The
Nation, John Nichols sets the bar even higher. "His race," Nichols
wrote tremulously this spring, "is being read as a measure of the
potency of progressive politics in America."
Wellstone's opponent is Norm Coleman, former mayor of St. Paul and
enjoying all the endorsements and swag the RNC can throw in his
direction. The odds are against Wellstone. Coleman is a lot tougher than
the senile Rudy Boschwitz, whom Wellstone beat in 1996, and many
Minnesotans aren't enchanted about his breach of a pledge that year to
hold himself to two terms.
But ignoring Wellstone's dubious future, liberals are now screaming
about "the spoiler," who takes the form of Ed McGaa, a Sioux born on the
Pine Ridge Reservation, a Marine Corps vet of the wars in both Korea and
Vietnam, an attorney and author of numerous books on Native American
religion. The Minnesota Green Party picked him as its candidate on May
18 at a convention of some 600, a lively affair in which real politics
actually took place in the form of debates, resolutions, nomination
fights and the kindred impedimenta of democracy.
Aghast progressives are claiming that even a handful of votes for McGaa
could cost Wellstone the race. Remember, in 2000 Ralph Nader got 127,000
in Minnesota, more than 5 percent. Some national Greens, like Winona
LaDuke, Nader's vice-presidential running mate, didn't want a Green to
run. Some timid Greens in Minnesota are already having second thoughts,
For his part, McGaa confronts the "you're just helping the Republicans"
charge forthrightly: "Let's just let the cards fall where they're at,"
he recently told Ruth Conniff of The Progressive. "It will be a
shame if the Republicans get in. On that I have to agree with you. I'm
not enamored by George Bush's policies." But McGaa says he'll probably
get a slice of Jesse Ventura's Independent Party vote too: "So you
Wellstone people can just calm down."
McGaa's own amiable stance contrasts markedly with liberal Democratic
hysteria. Wellstone is now being pitched as the last bulwark against
fascism, whose defeat would lead swiftly to back-alley abortions, with
the entire government in the permanent grip of the Bush Republicans.
A sense of perspective, please. Start with Wellstone. This was the guy,
remember, who promised back in 1991 that he'd go to Washington with his
chief role as Senator being to work "with a lot of people around the
country--progressive grassroots people, social-action activists--to
extend the limits of what's considered politically realistic."
So what happened? Steve Perry, a journalist with a truly Minnesotan
regard for gentility and good manners, wrote in Mother Jones last
year the following bleak assessment: "10 years after he took his Senate
seat, Wellstone has disappeared from the national consciousness. He
never emerged as the left's national spokesman for reforms in health
care, campaign finance, or anything else."
Early on, Wellstone took a dive on the biggest organizing issue for
reformers in 1993. He abandoned his support for single-payer health
insurance in the face of blandishments from Hillary Clinton.
No need to go overboard here. As with all liberal senators, Wellstone
has had some lousy votes (yes to an early crime bill, no on recognition
of Vietnam) and some honorable ones. He denounced the Gulf War in 1991
but in 2001 endorsed Ashcroft's war on terror, when Russell Feingold was
the only senator to vote no. Wellstone has been good on Colombia but, in
common with ninety-eight other senators, craven on Israel. (McGaa has
spoken up for justice for Palestinians and is now being denounced as an
anti-Semite for his pains. Imagine, a Sioux having the nerve to find
something in common with Palestinians!)
So one can dig and delve in Wellstone's senatorial career across twelve
years and find grounds for reproach and applause, but one thing is plain
enough; he's not shifted the political idiom one centimeter to the left,
even within his own party, let alone on the overall national stage. In
the Clinton years, when he could have tried to build a national
coalition against the policies of the Democratic Leadership Council, he
mostly opted for a compliant insider role.
You don't have to be in the Senate as long as Bobby Byrd to put together
an impressive résumé. There are examples of heroic
one-term stints. Look at what Jim Abourezk of South Dakota achieved in
his one term, between 1972 and 1978. Within a year of getting into the
Senate he was taking on the oil cartel. In one of the most astounding
efforts of that decade, he pushed a bill to break up the oil companies
to within three votes of passage in the Senate.
Abourezk and Howard Metzenbaum of Ohio thwarted one boondoggle after
another by all-night sentry duty on the floor of the Senate in final
sessions, when the barons of pork tried to smuggle through such treats
as a $3 billion handout to the airline industry, which Abourezk killed.
He and Phil Burton managed an epoch-making expansion of Redwood National
Park. Abourezk worked with radical public interest groups and was a
lone, brave voice on Palestinian issues.
The suggestion that progressive politics will now stand or fall in sync
with Wellstone's future is offensive. Suppose he were to lose of his own
accord, without a Green Party third candidate? Would it then be
appropriate to sound the death knell of progressive politics in America?
Of course not. Even the most ardent Wellstone supporters acknowledge
that Minnesota's Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party is moribund. Hence
Ventura's triumph. The Greens have every right to hold Wellstone
accountable, and if they have the capacity to send him into retirement,
then it will be a verdict on Wellstone's failures rather than some
supposed Green irresponsibility.
Henry James could not resist giving the hero of his 1877 novel The
American the allegorical name "Newman," but he went out of his way
to describe him as a muscular Christian, to deflect the suggestion that
Newman might be Jewish, as the name would otherwise imply. He is, as an
American, a New Man, who has come to the Old World on a cultural
pilgrimage in 1868, having made his fortune manufacturing washtubs; and
James has a bit of fun at his hero's expense by inflicting him with an
aesthetic headache in the Louvre, where his story begins. "I know very
little about pictures or how they are painted," Newman concedes; and as
evidence, James has him ordering, as if buying shirts, half a dozen
copies of assorted Old Masters from a pretty young copyist who thinks he
is crazy, since, as she puts it, "I paint like a cat."
By a delicious historical coincidence, another New Man, this time
unequivocally Jewish--the Abstract Expressionist Barnett Newman--visits
the Louvre for the first time in 1968, exactly a century later. By
contrast with his fellow noble savage, this Newman has had the benefit
of reading Clement Greenberg and working through Surrealism. So he is
able to tell his somewhat patronizing guide, the French critic Pierre
Schneider, to see Uccello's The Battle of San Romano as a modern
painting, a flat painting, and to explain why Mantegna's Saint
Sebastian bleeds no more than a piece of wood despite being pierced
with arrows. He sees Géricault's Raft of the Medusa as
tipped up like one of Cézanne's tables. "It has the kind of
modern space you wouldn't expect with that kind of rhetoric." And in
general the new New Man is able to show European aesthetes a thing or
two about how to talk about the Old Masters, and incidentally how to
look at his own work, which so many of his contemporaries found
intractable. In Rembrandt, for example, Newman sees "all that brown,
with a streak of light coming down the middle...as in my own painting."
"All that brown, with a streak of light coming down the middle" could be
taken as a description of the first of Newman's paintings with which the
artist felt he could identify himself, done exactly two decades earlier
than the Louvre visit, and retroactively titled by him Onement 1.
Most would have described it as a messy brown painting with an uneven
red stripe down the middle, and nobody but Newman himself would have
tolerated a comparison with Rembrandt. But Newman told Pierre Schneider,
"I feel related to this, to the past. If I am talking to anyone, I am
talking to Michelangelo. The great guys are concerned with the same
problems." We must not allow it to go unnoticed that Newman counted
himself as among the great guys, though it is something of a hoot to
imagine trying to convince Henry James, were he resurrected, that the
works that make up the wonderful Newman exhibition at the Philadelphia
Museum of Art (until July 7, when they travel to the Tate Modern) are
concerned with the same issues as the Louvre masterworks that gave his
protagonist Newman a headache and eyestrain. Even critics otherwise
sympathetic to advanced painting in the 1950s were made apoplectic by
Newman's huge, minimally inflected canvases--fields of monochromatic
paint with a vertical stripe or two--and they have provoked vandalism
from the time of his first solo show at the Betty Parsons Gallery in
1950. As we shall see, Newman thought he had resolved the problems that
concerned the great guys who preceded him. They had been struggling to
make beautiful pictures, whereas he considered himself as having
transcended beauty and picturing alike. His achievement was to capture
the sublime in painting.
Newman regarded Onement 1 as marking a breakthrough for his work,
and a new beginning. The installation in Philadelphia dramatizes this by
framing the piece by means of a doorway leading from one gallery into
another. While standing in a gallery hung with pictures done by Newman
before the breakthrough, one glimpses a new order of painting in the
room beyond. Like all the great first generation of Abstract
Expressionists, Newman seems to have passed abruptly from mediocrity to
mastery with the invention of a new style--like the flung paint of
Pollock, the heavy brush-strokes of de Kooning, Kline's timberlike black
sweeps against white, Rothko's translucent rectangles of floating color.
The pre-Onement paintings may seem somehow to point toward it, in
the sense that there is in most of them a bandlike element that aspires,
one might say, to become the commanding vertical streak. But in them,
the streak (or band, or bar) shares space with other elements, splotches
and squiggles and smears that are tentative and uninspired. The vertical
streak alone survives a kind of Darwinian struggle for existence, to
become the exclusive and definitive element in Newman's vision, from
Onement 1 onward. The basic format of Newman's work for the
remainder of his career is that of one or more vertical bands, which run
from the top to the bottom of the panel, in colors that contrast with a
more or less undifferentiated surrounding field. Sometimes the bands
will be of differing widths in the same painting, and sometimes, again,
they will differ from one another in hue. But there will no longer be
the variety of forms he used in the pre-Onement period of his
work. It is as if he understood that with Onement 1, he had
entered a newfound land rich enough in expressive possibilities that he
need seek for nothing further by way of elementary forms. Onement
1 is planted like a flag at the threshold, and when one crosses over
it, one is in a very different world from that marked by the uncertain
pictures that preceded it.
I have followed Newman in respecting a distinction between pictures and
paintings. Onement 1 was a painting, whereas what he had done
before were merely pictures. How are we to understand the difference? My
own sense is that a picture creates an illusory space, within which
various objects are represented. The viewer, as it were, looks through
the surface of a picture, as if through a window, into a virtual space,
in which various objects are deployed and composed: the Virgin and Child
surrounded by saints in an adoration; stripes surrounded by squiggles in
an abstraction. In the Renaissance, a picture was regarded as
transparent, so to speak, the way the front of the stage is, through
which we see men and women caught up in actions that we know are not
occurring in the space we ourselves occupy. In a painting, by contrast,
the surface is opaque, like a wall. We are not supposed to see through
it. We stand in a real relationship with it, rather than in an illusory
relationship with what it represents. I expect that this is the
distinction Newman is eager to make. His paintings are objects in their
own right. A picture represents something other than itself; a painting
presents itself. A picture mediates between a viewer and an object in
pictorial space; a painting is an object to which the viewer relates
without mediation. An early work that externally resembles Onement
1 is Moment, done in 1946. A widish yellow stripe bisects a
brownish space. Newman said of it, "The streak was always going through
an atmosphere; I was trying to create a world around it." The
streak in Onement 1 is not in an atmosphere of its own, namely
pictorial space. It is on the surface and in the same space as we are.
Painting and viewer coexist in the same reality.
At the same time, a painting is not just so much pigment laid across a
surface. It has, or we might say it embodies, a meaning. Newman did not
give Onement 1 a title when it was first exhibited, but it is
reasonable to suppose that the meaning the work embodied was somehow
connected with this strange and exalted term. In general, the suffix
"-ment" is attached to a verb like "atone" or "endow" or "command,"
where it designates a state--the state of atoning, for example--or a
product. So what does "onement" mean? My own sense is that it means the
condition of being one, as in the incantation "God is one." It refers,
one might say, to the oneness of God. And this might help us better
understand the difference between a picture and a painting. Since Newman
thinks of himself and Michelangelo as concerned with the same kinds of
problems, consider the Sistine ceiling, where Michelangelo produces a
number of pictures of God. Great as these are, they are constrained by
the limitation that pictures can show only what is visible, and
decisions have to be made regarding what God looks like. How would one
picture the fact that God is one? Since Onement 1 is not a
picture, it does not inherit the limitations inherent in picturing. The
catalogue text says that Onement 1 represents nothing but itself
and that it is about itself as a painting. I can't believe, though, that
what Newman regarded in such momentous terms was simply a painting about
painting. It is about something that can be said but cannot be shown, at
least not pictorially. Abstract painting is not without content. Rather,
it enables the presentation of content without pictorial limits. That is
why, from the beginning, abstraction was believed by its inventors to be
invested with a spiritual reality. It was as though Newman had hit upon
a way of being a painter without violating the Second Commandment, which
Kant wrote in the Critique of Judgment that "perhaps the most
sublime passage in Jewish Law is the commandment Thou shalt not make
unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in
heaven or on earth, or under the earth," etc. This commandment alone can
explain the enthusiasm that the Jewish people felt for their religion
when compared with that of other peoples, or can explain the pride that
Islam inspires. But this in effect prohibited Jews from being artists,
since, until Modernism, there was no way of being a painter without
making pictures and hence violating the prohibition against images!
Paintings that are not pictures would have been a contradiction in
terms. But this in effect ruled out the possibility of making paintings
that were sublime, an aesthetic category to which Kant dedicated a
fascinating and extended analysis. And while one cannot be certain how
important the possibility of Jewish art was to Newman, there can be
little question not only that the sublime figured centrally in his
conception of his art but that it was part of what made the difference
in his mind between American and European art. Indeed, sublimity figured
prominently in the way the Abstract Expressionists conceived of their
difference from European artists. Robert Motherwell characterized
American painting as "plastic, mysterious, and sublime," adding, "No
Parisian is a sublime painter." In the same year that Newman broke
through with Onement 1, he published an important article, "The
Sublime Is Now," in the avant-garde magazine Tiger's Eye. And my
sense is that in his view, there could not be a sublime picture--that
sublimity became available to visual artists only when they stopped
making pictures and started making paintings.
Peter Schjeldahl recently dismissed the sublime as a hopelessly jumbled
philosophical notion that has had more than two centuries to start
meaning something cogent and has not succeeded yet. But the term had
definite cogency in the eighteenth century, when philosophers of art
were seeking an aesthetics of nature that went beyond the concept of
beauty. Beauty for them meant taste and form, whereas the sublime
concerned feeling and formlessness. Kant wrote that "nature excites the
ideas of the sublime in its chaos or in its wildest and most irregular
disorder and desolation, provided size and might are perceived," and he
cited, as illustrations,
Bold overhanging and as it were threatening rocks; clouds piled up in
the sky, moving with lightning flashes and thunder peals; volcanoes in
all their violence of destruction; hurricanes with their track of
devastation; the boundless ocean in a state of tumult; the lofty
waterfall of a mighty river, these exhibit our faculty of resistance as
insignificantly small in comparison with their might.
Since Kant was constrained to think of art in terms of pictures as
mimetic representations, there was no way in which painting could be
sublime. It could only consist in pictures of sublime natural things,
like waterfalls or volcanoes. While these might indeed be sublime,
pictures of them could at most be beautiful. Kant does consider
architecture capable of producing the feeling of sublimity. He cites
Saint Peter's Basilica as a case in point because it makes us feel small
and insignificant relative to its scale.
What recommended the sublime to Newman is that it meant a liberation
from beauty, and hence a liberation from an essentially European
aesthetic in favor of an American one. The European artist, Newman
has been continually involved in the moral struggle between notions of
beauty and the desire for the sublime.... The impulse of modern art was
this desire to destroy beauty. Meanwhile, I believe that here in
America, some of us, free from the weight of European culture, are
finding the answer, by denying that art has any concern with the problem
of beauty and where to find it. The question that now arises is how can
we be creating an art that is sublime?
There can be little doubt that in Newman's sense of his own achievement,
he had solved this problem with Onement 1. It is certainly not a
beautiful painting, and one would miss its point entirely if one
supposed that sooner or later, through close looking, the painting would
disclose its beauty as a reward. There was a standing argument, often
enlisted in defense of Modernism, that the reason we were unable to see
modern art as beautiful was because it was difficult. Roger Fry had
written, early in the twentieth century, that "every new work of
creative design is ugly until it becomes beautiful; that we usually
apply the word beautiful to those works of art in which familiarity has
enabled us to grasp the unity easily, and that we find ugly those works
in which we still perceive only by an effort." Newman's response to this
would have been that he had achieved a liberation from what feminism
would later call the beauty trap. He had achieved something grander and
more exalted, a new art for new men and women.
Newman used the term "sublime" in the title of his Vir Heroicus
Sublimis (1950-51). It is a tremendous canvas, nearly eight feet high and eighteen feet
wide, a vast cascade of red paint punctuated by five vertical stripes of
varying widths, set at varying intervals. Newman discussed this work
(which the critic for The New Republic called asinine) in an
interview with the British art critic David Sylvester in 1965.
One thing that I am involved in about painting is that the painting
should give a man a sense of place: that he knows he's there, so he's
aware of himself. In that sense he related to me when I made the
painting because in that sense I was there. Standing in front of my
paintings you had a sense of your own scale. The onlooker in front of my
painting knows that he's there. To me, the sense of place not only has a
mystery but has that sense of metaphysical fact.
Newman studied philosophy at City College, and Kant sprang to his lips
almost as a reflex when he discussed art. But it is difficult not to
invoke the central idea of Martin Heidegger's philosophy in connection
with his comment to Sylvester. Heidegger speaks of human beings as
Dasein, as "being there," and it is part of the intended experience
of Newman's paintings that our thereness is implied by the scale of the
paintings themselves. In his 1950 exhibition at the Betty Parsons
Gallery, he put up a notice that while there is a tendency to look at
large paintings from a distance, these works were intended to be seen
from close up. One should feel oneself there, in relationship to the
work, like someone standing by a waterfall. The title of the painting
meant, he told Sylvester, "that man can be or is sublime in his relation
to his sense of being aware." The paintings, one might say, are about us
as self-aware beings.
A high point of the Philadelphia show is Newman's The Stations of the
Cross, a series of fourteen paintings that is certainly one of the
masterpieces of twentieth-century art. As a spiritual testament, it
bears comparison with the Rothko Chapel in Houston. I have the most
vivid recollection of being quite overcome when I first experienced
The Stations of the Cross in the Guggenheim Museum in 1966.
Newman used as subtitle the Hebrew words Lema
Sabachthani--Christ's human cry on the Cross. The means could not be
more simple: black and white paint on raw canvas, which he used as a
third color. The fourteen paintings do not map onto corresponding points
on the road to Calvary. But Newman seems to use black to represent a
profound change of state.
The first several paintings have black as well as white stripes (or
"zips," as he came to call them, referring perhaps to the sound that
masking tape makes when it is pulled away). Black entirely disappears in
the Ninth Station, in which a stripe of white paint runs up the
left edge, and two thin parallel white stripes are placed near the right
edge. The rest is raw canvas. The Tenth and Eleventh
stations resemble it, through the fact that they too are composed of
white stripes placed on raw canvas. Then, all at once, Twelfth
Station is dramatically black, as is the Thirteenth Station.
And then, in the Fourteenth Station, black again abruptly
disappears. There is a strip of raw canvas at the left, and the rest is
white, as if Christ yielded up the ghost as St. Matthew narrates it. The
work demonstrates how it is possible for essentially abstract paintings
to create a religious narrative.
No one today, I suppose, would hold painting in the same exalted state
that seemed possible in the 1950s. Newman became a hero to the younger
generation of the 1960s, when the history of art that he climaxed gave
way to a very different era. He triumphed over his savage critics, as
great artists always do; and all who are interested in the spiritual
ambitions of painting at its most sublime owe themselves a trip to
Philadelphia to see one of the last of the great guys in this thoughtful
and inspired exhibition, the first to be devoted to his work in more
than thirty years.
When Donna Brazile learned in late May that the Justice Department might
sue three Florida counties over voting rights violations that
disfranchised minority citizens in the 2000 presidential election, the
woman who managed Al Gore's presidential campaign called her sister in
Florida's Seminole County. In one of the milder examples of the
harassment suffered by thousands of African-American and Latino voters
in the disputed election, Brazile's sister had been forced to produce
three forms of identification--instead of the one required under Florida
law--before she could cast her ballot.
Informed that the Feds were riding to the rescue eighteen months after
the fact, Brazile's sister asked, "What took 'em so long?" When the
Justice Department finishes its tepid intervention, the question likely
to be asked is, Why did they bother?
When it comes to missing signs of serious trouble, failing to respond to
clear threats and then botching the cleanup of the mess, the Justice
Department's response to the 2000 election crisis has been at least as
inept as the much-criticized terrorist-tracking performance of the FBI
and the CIA. Although it is charged with enforcing Voting Rights Act
protections, Justice was nowhere to be found when its presence could
have made a difference--not just for Florida but for a nation that had
its presidential election settled by a 5-to-4 decision of the US Supreme
Immediately after the November 7, 2000, election, minority voters who
had never committed crimes complained of having had their names removed
from voting rolls in a purge of "ex-felons," of being denied translation
services required by law, of seriously flawed ballots, of polling places
that lacked adequate resources and competent personnel, and of
harassment by poll workers and law-enforcement officials [see Gregory
Palast, "Florida's 'Disappeared Voters,'" February 5, 2001, and John
Lantigua, "How the GOP Gamed the System in Florida," April 30, 2001].
But after newspaper analyses uncovered evidence of disproportional
disfranchisement of minority voters, and even after a US Commission on
Civil Rights review condemned Florida's Governor, Jeb Bush, and its
Secretary of State, Katherine Harris, for running an election marked by
"injustice, ineptitude and inefficiency," another year passed before
Assistant Attorney General Ralph Boyd told the Senate Judiciary
Committee in May that the civil rights division was preparing to act.
"Act" is a generous characterization. Eleven thousand election-related
complaints have been whittled down to five potential lawsuits--targeting
three Florida counties, along with St. Louis and Nashville. The Florida
suits focus on the failure of Miami-Dade, Orange and Osceola county
officials to provide Spanish- and Creole-language assistance to voters.
Issues of accessibility for the disabled and flawed registration
procedures are also likely to be addressed. And, encouragingly, Boyd
told the Judiciary Committee that his department would examine the
purging of eligible voters from election rolls in a process overseen by
But don't expect to see Harris--now a Congressional candidate--in court
anytime soon. Boyd wants to settle his suits before they are filed,
through negotiations with local officials. That will bring limited
reform to three of Florida's sixty-seven counties and perhaps a bit more
restraint on the part of the Republican-controlled Secretary of State's
office. There is no real evidence, however, that John Ashcroft's Justice
Department is going to call anyone in Florida--least of all the
President's brother or his political allies--to account for the
widespread disfranchisement of minority voters.
Justice Department attorneys continue to limit the scope of an
investigation that should be examining the collapse of voting rights
protections in all Florida counties, from Palm Beach in the south to
Duval in the north and Gadsden in the west--where as many as one in
eight ballots cast by minority voters was discarded. In addition, Jeb
Bush and the Florida legislature continue to reject needed reforms and
to stall the allocation of sufficient funds to bring voting machinery in
predominantly minority precincts up to par with equipment in
predominantly white precincts. And the US House and Senate remain
deadlocked over legislation that would promote and fund reforms in other
states--like Illinois, which had a higher rate of ballot spoilage than
Florida. Until the Justice Department and state and federal legislators
get serious about making real reforms, the 2002 and 2004 elections won't
be any more fair or functional than the flawed election of 2000.
British folk-rocker Billy Bragg has to be the only popular musician who
could score some airtime with a song about the global justice movement.
The first single from Bragg's England, Half English (Elektra),
"NPWA" (No Power Without Accountability), is destined to become an
enduring anthem for anticorporate organizers everywhere. Just before leaving England to tour the United States in April, Bragg took a few minutes to talk with
Nation assistant literary editor Hillary Frey about
globalization, Woody Guthrie, the duty of a political songwriter and,
perhaps most important, why the AFL-CIO should be sponsoring free rock
concerts. A longer version of this interview appears on The
Nation's website (www.thenation.com).
HF: I've read that you were politicized during the Thatcher years
in England. How did that happen, and how did your politics find their
way into your music?
BB: When Margaret Thatcher was first elected, in 1979, I didn't
vote. Perhaps that was the arrogance of youth.... It was at the height
of punk, and I was titularly an anarchist. Although, frankly, that was
more of a T-shirt than a developed idea. Her second term, between 1983
and 1987, really brought my political education. By then, Thatcher had
started to chip away at the idea of the welfare state and what that
stands for--free healthcare, free education, decent affordable housing
for ordinary people.
Then, the 1984 Miners' Strike [which protested pit closures and paltry
pay increases for workers] was the real politicization for me. I started
doing gigs outside of London in the coal fields and found that I was
able to articulate what I believed in so that these people who we were
doing benefits for--the miners--didn't think I was just some pop star
from London trying to enhance my career by doing a few fashionable
benefits. I began to define myself by something other than the standard
"Blowin' in the Wind" sort of politics, which aren't that hard to
HF: You were in New York City when the World Economic Forum [WEF]
met, and I heard you speak about the groups organizing demonstrations. I
recall a comment to the effect of, "If you really want to be doing
something active and participatory you would organize your local
McDonald's." What are your opinions on the tactics of the global justice
BB: I feel very strongly that the movement is a positive thing.
The fact that it hasn't yet defined itself in a clear ideological way
doesn't mean that it won't eventually. I feel very much on the
activists' side. However, I don't believe you can change the world by
smashing up fast-food joints.
My approach is perhaps a little more traditional left; I believe that if
you want to change the world, as I said, you should be organizing
fast-food joints. To me, that is a positive way of changing the world.
It's a lot slower, and it won't get you on CNN. But the sort of
campaigns that I've worked with in the USA--Justice for Janitors,
living-wage initiatives in LA and cities like that--have all been rooted
in labor organizing.
HF: How did your relationship with the labor movement evolve?
BB: I made a very strong bond with the labor movement in England
during the Thatcher years, particularly during the Miners' Strike. And
those bonds have stood me in good stead when coming to a country like
the United States, where not only are the politics very different from
the ideological politics of my own country, but I'm a foreigner. As an
internationalist I support UNITE, who are trying to end sweatshop labor
in the clothing industry; we're doing that in the UK as well. That is
the sort of internationalist angle prevalent in the global justice
movement too, and it's something that I can support across borders.
HF: I was surprised to see that your tours are actually sponsored
by a union.
BB: I've just come off a tour actually, that was sponsored by the
GMB, which is one of our general unions.
HF: I can't imagine a union being involved in a concert here in
the United States.
BB: I know! In 1992 I participated in a concert in Central Park
marking the eightieth birthday of Woody Guthrie that was sponsored by
one of the big soft-drink companies. Now why could it not have been
sponsored by the AFL-CIO? Why couldn't the AFL-CIO say, "This is what we
do, we put on free gigs." This is what unions do--bring people together.
The unions have been doing this in the UK for a while, and certainly all
over continental Europe. I've been doing gigs in Italy and France
organized by the big unions there for the last two decades.
How do you explain to young people what unions are for--do you wait
until they're in trouble? Do you wait till they're in a dead-end job?
Wait till they're fired? Or do you get in before with some positive
ideas of what a union is?
HF: Speaking of Woody Guthrie... A few years back you recorded,
with the band Wilco, Mermaid Avenue Vols. I and II--two records
comprising songs written around unrecorded Woody Guthrie lyrics. How did
you get to be the lucky one rooting around in the Guthrie archives and
recording his words?
BB: Woody Guthrie is the father of my tradition--the political
singer/songwriter tradition. I've tried to answer the question of why
[Woody's daughter] Nora chose to give me the great honor of being the
first one in her father's archives.... I guess Nora saw something in my
experience that she thought chimed in with Woody's. Who writes about
unions in the United States and the song gets on the charts? All of the
postwar singer/songwriters have grown up in a nonideological atmosphere.
Their influences have been single issues like the civil rights movement,
Vietnam, campaigning for the environment. There's not been that whole
ideological struggle really going on in the USA.
HF: Is it harder to write political music now than it was when
BB: It's much more difficult to do this now, without Margaret
Thatcher and Ronald Reagan and the Berlin wall and apartheid--these
things were shorthand for struggles that went on across the world. Now I
don't miss any of those things; I have absolutely no nostalgia for the
1980s whatsoever, and I never want to see any of those things again. But
the job of the political singer/songwriter is perhaps more challenging
because, with a subject like identity, which I deal with on England,
Half English, it's personal--it means different things to different
HF: But it's clear there is plenty happening now to respond to.
The single from your new record, "NPWA" (No Power Without
Accountability), strikes me as a paean to the global justice movement.
BB: The job of the singer/songwriter is to try to reflect the
world around him, and obviously the global justice movement has been the
big cause célèbre since Seattle. When I was in New York in
February, there was stuff I saw going on the like of nothing I've ever
seen on the left before.
I went to a Methodist Church where activists were speaking about how
they were going to organize the demonstrations [around the WEF] two days
later. They asked me to sing a couple of songs so I sang "NPWA"--and
then they wanted me to sing the "Internationale," and that really
touched me, because we do have a strong tradition on the left, and one
of the things we have to gain from the demise of the Stalinism of the
Soviet Union and the Berlin wall is that we have an opportunity to
create a leftist idea outside the shadow of totalitarianism. And there,
in New York, among very radical young people, I thought, "OK--this isn't
really so different from what I know. It's just a different approach to
get to the same place." And the fact that I've been doing this for
twenty years and people are still interested--I feel fortunate. I figure
I must be hitting some bases.
England, Half English is available now from Elektra Records.
SENATOR HOLLINGS TO THE RESCUE
Jeff Chester writes: Public interest advocates claim a victory in
their fight against the seemingly invincible media-consolidation
juggernaut. Ernest Hollings, the octogenarian "junior" senator from
South Carolina and Democratic chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee,
answered the advocates' call for an investigation of the
Administration's latest media maneuvers and dealt the White House one of
its few defeats in the media policy realm. Hollings forced the Bush team
to abandon a plan that would have radically restructured the merger
review process. Hatched in secret over several months with the input of
industry-connected "advisers," the Administration plan, put into
place in March, removed all media-, communications-, Internet- and
software-related mergers from FTC purview. Traditionally, the Justice Department and FTC have shared jurisdiction over media- and
Internet-related mergers, but Bush officials and industry lobbyists,
arguing for a more "efficient" review process, wanted to turn these
matters over to the DOJ exclusively. In light of the rubber-stamp
support for media deregulation at the FCC, there was great concern over the removal of the FTC from merger oversight. Unlike the DOJ, the FTC is bipartisan by law, and it also brings a consumer focus to the antitrust review process. Fortunately, the back-room DOJ-FTC deal was terminated in late May, after Senator
Hollings threatened to cut the budget of both agencies. Hollings also
took the initiative to insure that FCC chairman Mike Powell takes a more
honest look at the impact of media consolidation on our democracy.
Joined by Senators Herb Kohl and Mike DeWine, Hollings requested that
the FCC study "concentration in the television programming marketplace
and its impact on program diversity." Powell has told public interest
groups that they must "prove or lose" critical safeguards on media
ownership. Now he'll have to provide evidence that media monopoly encourages diverse voices and quality
MOST FASCINATING JOKE OF THE WEEK
From the Sun, New York City's new right-wing paper: "The
evening's honorary chairman was Peggy Noonan, who brought the house down
with her anecdotes, including a hilarious joke about Vice President
Gore, President Bush, Queen Elizabeth II, Prime Minister Blair and
Secretary of State Powell. I'll give you the punch line at another
time." Readers are invited to concoct a joke using the above personages,
with punch line.
NEWS OF THE WEAK IN REVIEW
Two-thirds of Americans, commie sympathizers? Asked in a nationwide survey, commissioned by Columbia Law School, whether the
Constitution includes "the following statement about the proper role of
government: 'From each according to his ability, to each according to
his needs,'" 35 percent answered "yes" and 34 percent "don't know."
Further rampant radicalism: 60 percent said (correctly) that the
President may not suspend the Bill of Rights "in time of war
A young man of 16, visiting his cousins in Calcutta in a house in a
"middle-middle-class area," has just published his first poem. This
not-yet-poet from Bombay is the narrator of Amit Chaudhuri's short story
"Portrait of an Artist." The artist in the story is not the visiting
youth, however, but an older man, the English tutor who comes each week to instruct the cousins. This
man is respectfully called mastermoshai.
Mastermoshai has already been shown the narrator's poem. (One of the
cousins reports that the teacher was "very impressed.") On a Saturday
morning, the budding poet meets mastermoshai. He has a "very Bengali
face" with "spectacles that belonged to his face as much as his eyes
did" and "teeth that jutted out from under his lip, making his face
belong to the preorthodontal days." The cousins, and also the narrator,
wait for mastermoshai to say something about the poem. When two literary
men meet in Bengal, they do not indulge in small talk but instead
"straightaway enter realms of the abstract and articulate," we are
advised. Fittingly, mastermoshai's first question to the poet, in a
Bengali-inflected English, is, "Are you profoundly influenced by
"It was mastermoshai who first spoke to me of Baudelaire," the narrator
says, and there are other discoveries in this induction into the
literary life. When the older man takes the poet to an editor's house in
another part of Calcutta, Chaudhuri's portrait of the artist shades into
a portrait of private homes and of the city as a whole. In Calcutta, our
poet discovers, clerks and accountants nurture an intellectual or
literary life, not only in English but also Bengali. The city appears
provincial, but it also reveals, like Joyce's Dublin, its particularity.
The literary passions that this city with a colonial past breeds are
already obsolete elsewhere. Yet they inspire a romance that is real and
productive. That is what the young poet feels after the years have
passed. By then, mastermoshai has faded into the oblivion of insanity.
His interest in Eliot and Baudelaire is seen by the narrator as a
"transitional" time during which, after the early losses of his life,
mastermoshai had returned to his "youthful enthusiasms." You realize
that the story is not so much about the space of literature, which like
the city itself offers surprises that serve as a refuge from the general
claustrophobia and madness. Instead, it is about the patient and
sometimes crazy, and mostly anonymous, striving in the former
colonies--and also about the tribute we need to pay to mentors in a
literary culture that functions without the trappings of creative
writing programs and, in the case of the poor, even ordinary colleges
Chaudhuri's other stories in this debut collection, Real Time,
also concern themselves with the conditions under which art is born or
the circumstances in which artists live. The book's closing story is
about Mohanji, a gentle and gifted singer trained in classical
Hindustani music. He makes a living by teaching affluent housewives in
Bombay how to sing devotional bhajans and ghazals.
Mohanji's life now is "a round of middle-aged women" in Bombay's
affluent districts like Cuffe Parade and Malabar Hill. At night, he
takes the fast train back to his home in a ghetto in distant Dadar.
Lately, Mohanji has been feeling ill. He believes he has an ulcer. He
also suffers from tension. This tension comes "from constantly having to
lie to the ladies he taught--white lies, flattery--and from not having a
choice in the matter."
Mohanji's student Mrs. Chatterjee does not always have the time to
practice. But, she would like to sing. She tells her teacher that she
wishes she could sing like him. Mohanji is "always surprised" that the
rich had desires for "what couldn't be theirs." He is also amused that
"it wasn't enough for Mrs. Chatterjee that she, in one sense, possessed
him; she must possess his gift as well."
This sudden sharpness on Mohanji's part, like his illness, reveals a
malaise. The gentleness in the guru, a quality to which Mrs. Chatterjee
had grown so accustomed, is now shown to be the result of great
restraint and even artistic discipline. The story's presentation of
Mohanji's speech and his silence ushers us into the domain of criticism.
We get a clue here to Chaudhuri's own art. He belongs to a very small
group of Indian writers in English who are as good critics as they are
storytellers. This skill at criticism is not a result of close
reading--though that ability is in fine evidence in The Picador Book
of Indian Literature, which Chaudhuri has edited--but of a serious
search for a reading public. Chaudhuri's writing, both critical and
fictional, subtly demonstrates for this public (which is yet unborn) its
most responsible function.
There is a great need for such acts in India. Recently, at a literary
festival in Delhi, I heard a well-known writer telling her audience that
there were only two literary critics in Punjabi in the whole country.
But this wasn't the worst. She said that one of the two critics was a
university professor who was interested only in promoting the female
students who were doing their doctorates under him. The other was a man
in Chandigarh who wrote exclusively about other writers from his own Jat
caste. The writer said, "Since I am neither a pretty face nor a Jat, I
I thought about the Punjabi writer, and about Chaudhuri, who was also
there at the festival, when I was awakened past midnight in my hotel
room in Delhi by a call from London. It was someone from the BBC.
Earlier that day, V.S. Naipaul had been rude to another writer. Now the
BBC wanted to know if I believed that "Naipaul had lost it."
I wasn't able to provide gossip. But, as I lay awake in bed after the
call, I remember wondering whether I hadn't made a mistake thinking that
the problem of building a critical culture was India's alone. Did
Britain, for example, have a vibrant literary public sphere? Why then
was the BBC not rousing people from sleep to ask about the solitude of a
writer working in Punjabi, a language that is used by millions, and
endowed with a rich literary past, but now possessing no critics?
Fifteen short stories and a reminiscence-in-verse make up Real
Time. Not all the pieces are as strong as the ones mentioned above.
A few of the short stories, like the one in the voice of a humiliated
demon from the Ramayana, are clever sketches but call for a more
extended treatment in order to be satisfying. There is a first-person
account of a housewife who is writing a memoir--a story meant to mock
the Indian writing scene, where, it seems, a new writer is born every
day. But Chaudhuri's wit is suited to a more muted, or perhaps just more
nuanced, register, and here the mockery falls flat.
"Words, silences," a story about two male friends who are meeting each
other after a long time, contains a hint of a half-understood homosexual
exchange between them in their boyhood. But the story, in its reticence,
offers too little, the author's silence acting like a silencing of its
own. A couple of other stories in the autobiographical mode work better,
recalling the lyricism and humor of Chaudhuri's earlier fiction. His
first three novels, published in a single volume in the United States
under the title Freedom Song, won a Los Angeles Times book
award in 2000. That year Chaudhuri also published a novel, A New
World, about an expatriate Indian's return to Calcutta after his
A real gem in the present collection is the title story "Real Time,"
which along with the account of Mohanji was first published in the
British magazine Granta. This elegantly crafted story recounts an
executive's visit to a house in Calcutta where a shraddha, or
memorial ceremony, is being held. The ceremony is for a young married
woman who has committed suicide by jumping from the third-floor balcony
of her parents' house.
The visitor and his wife--the latter is related to the family--have been
able to find the house only with some difficulty. They have bought
tuberoses on the way, having bargained the price down from sixteen to
fourteen rupees. The rituals of mourning are not clear in the case of a
suicide. The narrative supplies very little conventional pathos, and yet
pathos is present in the story, always in tension with other quotidian
details that intrude upon the consciousness of the narrator. The visitor
spots an acquaintance and they fall into a conversation about "the
recent changes in their companies," their own children and even "a brief
disagreement about whether civil engineering had a future as a career
Death produces a great absence, but here, in the story, the absence has
more to do with the fact that the visiting couple know very little about
the suicide. They had learned of the death from an item in the
newspaper. Grief remains remote. More than death, it is this distance
that produces a blankness, which, however, slowly gets filled with
ordinariness, and even trivia. The narrative is so precise that it is
with a tiny jolt that the reader realizes that this inconsequential
ordinariness is what we usually call life.
Jacques Derrida has written that the Moroccan Abdelkebir Khatibi does
not speak of his mother tongue "without a trembling that can be heard,"
a "discreet tremor of language that undersigns the poetic resonance of
his entire work." The same can be said of Chaudhuri. In his prose,
history always happens elsewhere. It is like an earthquake in the heart
of the earth. What the writing registers is only the shock and the
In early 1993, a short while after the demolition of the Babri Mosque in
Ayodhya and the riots that had followed, Chaudhuri wrote a travel essay
about this return to India from Oxford. In that essay, he described how
the metal nameplates in the house where his father had lived in Bombay
were now all blank. This had been done to protect the Muslims living in
the building. "Small, accidental sensations, too small to be called
incidents," he wrote, "told me I was now living in a slightly altered
The trip on which Chaudhuri discovered the small detail of blank metal
nameplates sowed the seed for his novel Freedom Song. While
reading his earlier novels, I had been struck by the way in which
Chaudhuri's evocative, Proustian sentences accumulated visual details. I
thought of Bengali cinema, the moment of its modernity and the movement
of the camera recording the texture of middle-class life. But there was
also an aural element to this writing. It was punctuated with delicate
pauses that made the prose musical. The sentences were marked by spaces
of silence and filled with near-poetry.
It was only when reading Freedom Song, however, that I got a more
vivid sense of Chaudhuri's unique and flawed aesthetic. The rise of
Hindu fundamentalism and the changes ushered in by market liberalization
provide the immediate occasion for the novelist to examine the changes
that affect a small group of relatives and friends. These changes are
not overwhelming; they are subtle variations on a more settled routine.
The technique works because it saves history from the banality of a
slogan. At the same time, it also carries the danger of slipping into a
mannerism. Both the strength and, on occasion, the weakness are present
in the stories of Real Time.
In recent weeks, hundreds have died in India in religious riots
orchestrated by the Hindu right in retaliation for the burning alive of
fifty-eight Hindus in a train. These events have challenged the
democratic credentials of the Indian nation-state. But they also pose a
question for intellectuals and artists, and this is the question of
seeking a powerful and imaginative response to the carnage.
What is our response in "real time"? And how does this time find breath
in our writing? Chaudhuri, in his attention to the imaginative use of
language, makes the search for the answers a process of magical
discovery. Let me end with a passage from Freedom Song that
captures the inertness but also the dynamism of the life that Chaudhuri
sees unfolding around him:
It was afternoon. And in a small lane, in front of a pavement, with the
movement of a wrist, something like a curve began to appear, it was not
clear what pattern was forming, then the letter D appeared upon a wall
of a two-storey house, in black paint, and then U, and N, until DUNKEL
had been formed, in the English language, which seemed to blazon itself
for its curious purpose; then it began again, and I and M and F began to
appear in another corner. Afternoon; no one saw them; it was too hot; on
the main road cars went past, up and down; a few people rested; they had
eaten; beggars dozed, blind to the heat and shadows, their heads bent to
When the Kansas Board of Education voted in 1999 to remove the teaching
of evolution from the state's science curriculum, most thinking
Americans groaned about the growing influence of the antirational
religious right. But Stephen Jay Gould, the nation's most prominent
evolutionary biologist, refused to write off Kansas--or reason. He
hopped a plane for the Midwest and delivered a series of speeches in
which he declared, "To teach biology without evolution is like teaching
English without grammar."
With its decision, Gould argued, "the board transported its jurisdiction
to a never-never land where a Dorothy of the new millennium might
exclaim, 'They still call it Kansas, but I don't think we're in the real
world anymore.'" The reference to The Wizard of Oz took Gould
from behind the lectern and into the thick of the public debate. That
was where Gould, who died May 20 at age 60, was at his best. A
paleontologist who studied the land snails of Bermuda, and a historian
of science whose last book was a 1,400-page dissection of Darwinism and
the evolution of evolutionary theory, the Harvard professor was secure
in his academic place. But he believed that scientists also had a place
in the popular discourse of the day.
Science for the People was the name Gould, Richard Lewontin and
their allies gave to the magazine and the movement they forged in a
post-1960s burst of optimism about the prospects of linking scientific
insights and social activism. With his unique talent for explaining
complex ideas through eminently comprehensible references to baseball,
choral music and the shrinking size of Hershey's chocolate bars, Gould
took on the yahoos who attempted to use pseudoscience to justify race,
class and gender discrimination. His 1982 book, The Mismeasure of
Man, gave antiracist campaigners the tools they needed to prevail in
the bitter debates over inherited intelligence and IQ testing.
In the mid-1990s, when conservatives embraced sociologist Charles
Murray's book The Bell Curve, which claimed that race and class
differences were largely caused by genetic factors, Gould charged into
the battle anew. His review of The Bell Curve for The New
Yorker savaged the book for advancing racially charged theories with
"no compelling data to support its anachronistic social Darwinism." As
for right-wing politicos who promoted The Bell Curve, Gould
wrote, "I can only conclude that [the book's] success in gaining
attention must reflect the depressing temper of our time--a historical
moment of unprecedented ungenerosity, when a mood for slashing social
programs can be powerfully abetted by an argument that beneficiaries
cannot be helped, owing to inborn cognitive limits expressed by low IQ
"What made Steve different was that he didn't make a cartoon out of
science. He didn't talk down to people," recalled Lewontin, his Harvard
colleague and comrade. "He communicated about science in a way that did
not try to hide the complexities of the issues and that did not shy away
from the political side of these issues. Steve's great talent was his
ability to make sense of an issue at precisely the point when people
needed that insight."
In the past two decades, Richard Rodriguez has offered us a gamut of
anecdotes, mostly about himself in action in an environment that is not
always attuned to his own inner life. These anecdotes have taken the
form of a trilogy that started in 1983 with the classic Hunger of
Memory, continued in 1993 with Days of Obligation and concludes now with his new book Brown:
The Last Discovery of America. This isn't a trilogy about history.
It isn't about sociology or politics either, at least in their most
primary senses. Instead, it is a sustained meditation on Latino life in
the United States, filled with labyrinthine reflections on philosophy
Rodriguez embraces subjectivity wholeheartedly. His tool, his
astonishing device, is the essay, and his model, I believe, is
Montaigne, the father of the personal essay and a genius at taking even
an insect tempted by a candle flame as an excuse to meditate on the
meaning of life, death and everything in between. Not that Montaigne is
Rodriguez's only touchstone. In Brown he chants to Alexis de
Tocqueville and James Baldwin as well. And in the previous installments
of his trilogy, particularly owing to his subject matter, he has emerged
as something of a successor to Octavio Paz.
The other trunk of this genealogical tree I'm shaping is V.S. Naipaul,
or at least he appears that to me, a counterpoint, as I reread
Rodriguez's oeuvre. They have much in common: They explore a
culture through its nuances and not, as it were, through its
high-profile iconography; they are meticulous littérateurs,
intelligent, incessantly curious; and, more important, everywhere they
go they retain, to their honor, the position of the outsider looking in.
Rodriguez, in particular, has been a Mexican-American but not a
Chicano--that is, he has rejected the invitation to be a full part of
the community that shaped him. Instead, he uses himself as a looking
glass to reflect, from the outside, on who Mexicans are, in and beyond
politics. This, predictably, has helped fill large reservoirs of
animosity against him. I don't know of any other Latino author who
generates so much anger. Chicanos love to hate him as much as they hate
to love him.
Why this is so isn't difficult to understand: He is customarily critical
of programs and policies that are seen as benefactors to the community,
for example, bilingual education and affirmative action, which, in his
eyes, have only balkanized families, neighborhoods and cities. In
Hunger of Memory he portrayed himself as a Scholarship Boy who
benefited from racial profiling. He reached a succinct conclusion: Not
race but individual talent should be considered in a person's
application for school or work--not one's skin color, last name or
country of origin, only aptitude. Naipaul too can play the devil: His
journeys through India and the Arab world, even through the lands of El
Dorado, are unsettling when one considers his rabid opinions on the
"uncivilized" natives. But Naipaul delivers these opinions with
admirable grace and, through that, makes his readers rethink the
colonial galaxy, revisit old ideas. In that sense, Naipaul and Rodriguez
are authors who force upon us the necessity to sharpen our own ideas. We
read them, we agree and disagree with them, so as to fine-tune our own
conception of who we are. They are of the kind of writer who first
infuriates, then unsettles us. What they never do is leave the reader
unchanged. For that alone, one ought to be grateful.
Apparently, the trilogy came into being after Rodriguez's agent, as the
author himself puts it in "Hispanic," the fifth chapter of Brown,
"encouraged from me a book that answers a simple question: What do
Hispanics mean to the life of America? He asked me that question several
years ago in a French restaurant on East Fifty-seventh Street, as I
watched a waiter approach our table holding before him a shimmering
The image of îles flottantes is a fitting one, I believe,
since the Latino mosaic on this side of the border (Rodriguez often
prefers to use the term "Hispanic" in his pages) might be seen as
nothing if not an archipelago of self-sufficient subcultures: Cuban,
Puerto Rican, Mexican, Salvadoran, Nicaraguan, Dominican... and the
whole Bolivarian range of possibilities. Are these islands of identity
interconnected? How do they relate to one another? To what extent are a
Brazilian in Tallahassee and a Mexicano in Portland, Oregon, kindred
Judging by his answer, Rodriguez might have been asked the wrong
question. Or else, he might have chosen to respond impractically. For
the question that runs through the three installments is, How did
Hispanics become brown? His belief is that brown, as a color, is the
sine qua non of Latinos, and he exercises it as a metaphor of mixture.
"Brown as impurity," he reasons. "I write of a color that is not a
singular color, not a strict recipe, not an expected result, but a color
produced by careless desire, even by accident." It is the color of
mestizaje, i.e., the miscegenation that shaped the Americas from
1492 onward, as they were forced, in spite of themselves, into modern
times. It is the juxtaposition of white European and dark aboriginal, of
Hernán Cortés and his mistress and translator, La
Malinche. And it is also the so-called raza cósmica that
Mexican philosopher José Vasconcelos talked about in the early
twentieth century, a master race that, capitalizing on its own impurity,
would rise to conquer the hemisphere, if not the entire globe.
But have Hispanics really become brown on the Technicolor screen of
America? Rodriguez is mistaken, I'm afraid. The gestation of race in the
Caribbean, from Venezuela to Mexico and the Dominican Republic, has a
different tint, since African slaves were brought in to replace Indians
for the hard labor in mines and fields, and their arrival gave birth to
other racial mixtures, among them those termed "mulattoes" and "zambos."
Argentina, on the other hand, had a minuscule aboriginal population when
the Spanish viceroys and missionaries arrived. The gauchos, a sort of
cowboy, are at the core of its national mythology, as can be seen in the
works of Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, José Hernández and
Jorge Luis Borges. "Brown," in Rodriguez's conception, might be the
color of Mexicans in East LA, but surely not of Cubans in Miami. Some
Latinos might have become brown, but not all. And then again, what does
"brown" really mean? Rodriguez embraces it as a metaphor of impurity.
Mestizos are crossbreeds, they are impure, and impurity is beautiful.
But the term "brown" has specific political connotations as well. It is,
to a large extent, a byproduct of the civil rights era, the era of
César Chávez and the Young Lords, coined in reaction to
the black-and-white polarity that played out in Washington policy
corridors and the media: Brown is between white and black, a third
option in the kaleidoscope of race. A preferred term in the Southwest
was La Raza, but "brown" also found its way into manifestoes, political
speeches, legal documents and newspaper reports.
Rodriguez isn't into the Chicano movement, though. My gut instinct is
that he feels little empathy toward the 1960s in general, let alone
toward the Mexican-American upheaval. His views on la
hispanicidad in America are defined by his Mexican ancestry and by
his residence in San Francisco, where he has made his home for years. He
is disconnected from the Caribbean component of Latinos, and, from the
reaction I see in readers on the East Coast, the Caribbean Latinos are
also uninvolved with him.
Furthermore, Rodriguez limits himself to the concept of miscegenation,
but only at the racial level. What about promiscuity in language, for
example? Promiscuity might be a strong word, but it surely carries the
right message. Rodriguez's English is still the Queen's English:
overpolished, uncorrupted, stainless. How is it that he embraces
mestizaje but has little to say about Spanglish, that
disgustingly gorgeous mix of Spanish and English that is neither one nor
the other? Isn't that in-betweenness what America is about today? On the
issue of language, I have a side comment: I find it appalling that
Rodriguez's volumes are not available in Spanish to Mexicans and other
Latinos. Years ago, a small Iberian press, Megazul, released Hambre
de memoria in a stilted, unapologetically Castilian translation.
That, clearly, was the wrong chord to touch, when the author's resonance
is closer to San Antonio than to San Sebastián. How much longer
need Mexicans wait to read the work en español mexicano of
a canonical figure, whose lifelong quest has been to understand Mexicans
beyond the pale? The question brings us back to Paz and his "The Pachuco
and Other Extremes," the first chapter in his masterpiece The
Labyrinth of Solitude, released in 1950. It has angered Chicanos for
decades, and with good reason: This is an essay that distorts Mexican
life north of the border. Paz approached the pachuco--a social type of
Mexican youth in Los Angeles in the 1940s who fashioned a specific
lingo, and idiosyncrasies that Elvis Presley appropriated obliquely--as
a deterioration of the Mexican psyche. In his work, Rodriguez has
established a sort of colloquy with Paz, though not a direct address. He
embraces Paz's cosmopolitanism, his openness, and perceives him as a
Europeanized intellectual invaluable in the quest to freshen up Mexican
elite culture. But he refuses to confront Paz's anti-Chicanismo, and in
general Paz's negative views on Latinos in the United States. Once, for
instance, when asked what he thought about Spanglish, Paz responded that
it was neither good nor bad, "it is simply an aberration." In any case,
reading both authors on US-Mexican relations is an unpredictable,
enlightening catechism, filled with detours. While Mexicans might not
like to hear what Rodriguez has to say about them and about himself (he
has talked of "hating Mexico"), at least they will be acquainted with
All this is to say that Rodriguez's response to "What do Hispanics mean
to the life of America?" is partial at best. The trilogy shows a mind
engaged, but its subject is almost unmovable. Hunger of Memory
was an autobiographical meditation set in the United States as the
country was about to enter the Reagan era. It denounced a stagnant
society, interested in the politics of compassion more than in the
politics of equality, a society with little patience for Mexicans.
Days of Obligation was also about los Estados Unidos as
the first Bush presidency was approaching its end. By then the Reagan
mirage was officially over. We were about to enter another house of
mirrors under the tutelage of Bill Clinton. And this third installment
of the trilogy arrives in bookstores at a time when the melting pot,
la sopa de culturas, is boiling again, with xenophobia against
Arabs at a height, and Latinos, already the largest minority according
to the latest US Census data--35.3 million strong by late 2000, if one
counts only those officially registered--are still on the fringes,
fragmented, compartmentalized, more a sum of parts than a whole.
These changes are visible only through inference in the trilogy;
Rodriguez seldom makes use of political facts. He lives in a dreamlike
zone, a universe of ideas and sensations and paradox. Somewhere in
Brown he announces:
A few weeks ago, in the newspaper (another day in the multicultural
nation), a small item: Riot in a Southern California high school.
Hispanic students protest, then smash windows, because African-American
students get four weeks for Black History month, whereas Hispanics get
one. The more interesting protest would be for Hispanic students to
demand to be included in Black History month. The more interesting
remedy would be for Hispanic History week to include African history.
This sums up Rodriguez's approach: a micromanagement of identity
delivered periodically from the same viewpoint. Or has the viewpoint
changed? It is possible to see a growing maturity by reading the trilogy
chronologically. He started as an antisegregationist, a man interested
in assimilation of Mexicans into the larger landscape of America. His
feelings toward Mexico and toward his homosexuality were tortured at the
time. These became clear, or at least clearer, in the second
installment, in which a picture of a San Francisco desolated by AIDS and
an argument with the author's own mexicanidad as personified by
his father, among other changes, were evident. Assimilation was still a
priority, but by the 1990s Rodriguez had ceased to be interested in such
issues and was more attracted to his own condition as a public gay
Brown is again about assimilation, but from a perspective that
asserts America is a country shaped by so many interbred layers of
ethnicity that nothing is pure anymore. At one point, he describes the
conversation of a couple of girls one afternoon on Fillmore Street. He
renders them and their dialogue thus: "Two girls. Perhaps sixteen.
White. Anglo, whatever. Tottering on their silly shoes. Talking of boys.
The one girl saying to the other: ...His complexion is so cool, this
sort of light--well, not that light." And Rodriguez ends: "I realized my
book will never be equal to the play of the young." This need to capture
what surrounds him is always evident, although it isn't always
successful, because he is an intellectual obsessed with his own stream
of consciousness rather than in catching the pulse of the nation. But
I've managed to explain the continuity of themes in Rodriguez's three
volumes only tangentially.
There is another take, summed up in three catchwords: class, ethnicity
and race. He appears to encourage this reading. The first installment is
about a low-income family whose child moves up in the hierarchy; the
second about the awakening to across-the-border roots; and the third
about "a tragic noun, a synonym for conflict and isolation," race. But
Rodriguez is quick to add:
race is not such a terrible word for me. Maybe because I am skeptical by
nature. Maybe because my nature is already mixed. The word race
encourages me to remember the influence of eroticism on history. For
that is what race memorializes. Within any discussion of race, there
lurks the possibility of romance.
So is this what the trilogy is about, finally? The endeavor strikes me
as rather mercurial. Because Rodriguez works extensively through
metaphor and hyperbole, future generations will read into his books what
they please, depending on the context. I still like Hunger of
Memory the best. Days of Obligation strikes me as a
collection of disparate essays without a true core. And Brown is
a book that is not fully embracing, not least because it refuses to
recognize the complexity of Latinos in the United States. In it
Rodriguez describes his namesake, Richard Nixon, as "the dark father of
Hispanicity." "Surviving Chicanos (one still meets them) scorn the term
Hispanic," Rodriguez argues, "in part because it was Richard Nixon who
drafted the noun and who made the adjective uniform." A similar
reference was invoked in an Op-Ed piece by him in the New York
Times, in which he declared George W. Bush the first Hispanic
President of the United States, the way Bill Clinton was the first black
President. Is this true? The argument developed is not always clear-cut:
It twists and turns, as we have by now come to expect. I've learned to
respect and admire Rodriguez. When I was a newly arrived immigrant in
New York City, I stumbled upon an essay of his and then read his first
book. I was mesmerized by the prose but found myself in strong
disagreement with its tenets, and we have corresponded about that in the
At any rate, where will Rodriguez go from here, now that the trilogy is
finished? Might he finally take a long journey overseas? Is his vision
of America finally complete? Not quite, I say, for the country is
changing rapidly. Mestizaje, he argues, is no longer the domain
of Latinos alone. We are all brown: dirty and impure. "This is not the
same as saying 'the poor shall inherit the earth' but is possibly
related," Rodriguez states. "The poor shall overrun the earth. Or the
brown shall." This is a statement for the history books. In his view,
America is about to become América--everyone in it a Hispanic, if
not physically, at least metaphorically. "American history books I read
as a boy were all about winning and losing," Rodriguez states in
"Peter's Avocado," the last of the nine essays in Brown. And with
a typical twist, continues, "One side won; the other side lost.... [But]
the stories that interested me were stories that seemed to lead off the
page: A South Carolina farmer married one of his slaves. The farmer
died. The ex-slave inherited her husband's chairs, horses, rugs, slaves.
And then what happened? Did it, in fact, happen?"