I am no doubt not the only one who writes in order to have no face. Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same.
Ever since I was assigned to read A Room of One's Own in college eight years ago, I have kept it close for support. Besides the fact that, like Virginia Woolf, I had also read Leo Tolstoy's journals and was similarly enraged by the clarity he exhibited at such a young age, I felt she was on to something. "A room of one's own," however, wasn't quite it.
I grew up in the 1980s inside a charming, if small, Spanish-style California home with a mom, a sister, a piano, many dogs and two brothers who were relentless in their efforts to jimmy my locks with butter knives. Although I liked to think I had my own room, the space's original and (now that I'm an adult I can say it) idiotic plans called for its doubling as a shortcut to one of the house's more popular bathrooms. I went to great and occasionally violent lengths to discourage use of this particular feature. The results? Ha, as DrRogue would say.
Time and time again, my brothers broke triumphantly in, capturing me on my bed writing in my journal. I smile now, but back then, those intrusions enraged me. You see, unlike those jerks I was becoming a woman, and it was making me miserable. I liked being a girl. And it wasn't necessarily that I was surprised to discover that girls became women--in a rational way, I knew it happened all the time. It was just that I found the obvious sexuality of it offensive. It was clear to me that once breasts made their appearance against a shirt, a person could not be taken seriously.
I looked around at school and saw happy, pretty girls who went to the beach. They seemed content being female, and I liked boys too, so I did what they did. Then I went home depressed, slammed my doors, locked them and wrote to my journal about how much I loathed myself, until my brothers broke in after school. Here is a genuine entry from November 4, 1988: "I've gained five lbs. in a week if that's possible. I loathe myself. I'm sick of being regarded as 'muscular'--I want to be petite like Kate. Sports have ruined me."
Yes, you could say I was self-involved, melodramatic, petty. Worse, I was repetitive: November 4, 1988, was no date with an epiphany. Nonetheless, I was in pain. All I knew was that I'd gone from being an outspoken girl interested in everything to someone withdrawn and incapable of participating in class. I was depressed, but more than that I was hating myself for being a woman. I'd slipped onto a path that is as vicious and uncreative as it is a cliché of young womanhood. In a rare moment of teen lightness, I named it the Dark Horrible Sucking Trail of the Lost Voice. The Trail shouldn't be underestimated. Every day, another girl gets stuck in its mud.
Virginia Woolf would have liked DrRogue, a bright, confident writer with a lashing wit. As to whether DrRogue is a genius as defined by Woolf, only time will tell. In the meantime, she manages beyond the confines of a tiny school (there are just five girls in her class), her parents' limited financial means and, oh yes, childhood, to find experience and "a room of her own" for the cultivation of her talents. You see, DrRogue is known to those in her small New England town as 13-year-old Susan.
We met on July 14, 2000. I'm a part-time producer of commercial websites for teen girls and was spending some time perusing the vast number of homepages linked to one another on the Internet. There are thousands out there, colorful and animated, with names like Glitter Girl, Fairy Dawn, Overcooked, Pixie Kitten, Foily Tin, Quasi Grrrl, Peppermint and Intelligent Life. They can be constructed at established homepage-building areas of sites such as gURL, ChickClick, Lycos and Bolt. Or they can be created independently, then hooked into freer-floating webrings like "Shut Up You're Only 16!" and "Music Girl." Some are smart; some are sappy. Most are filled with poetry. If you visit, you may find writings, drawings, photos, interactive games and the creator's deepest, darkest secret. But you won't ever find her. Instead, your experience will be that of discovering an anonymous diary on a crowded city street. You can read it and learn everything about its owner, but look up and she's long gone.
DrRogue, however, is right here. I have no idea who she is.
She flashes onto my screen, an insistent clump of text in a small, square dialog box aboard America Online's ubiquitous Instant Messenger (IM).
DrRogue: Hey, Bronwyn!
Aha, exclamation points. Dead giveaway. DrRogue, I now know, is one of the dozen or so teen girls whom I have e-mailed about their homepages. By now, I've visited enough to identify the prints.
I flip through my list of teen e-mails. DrRogue is Susan, the one with the website called Intelligent Life. Evidently, she has made a note of my AOL e-mail address and posted it to her "buddy list" to see when I'm online. She's flashing again.
DrRogue: Hello, it's Susan.
(Slowness, you see, is terminal here.)
BGAR2: Yes, Susan, of Intelligent Life. Hello.
DrRogue: Yeah, yeah, just thought I'd reiterate.
In my web travels, I've discovered that most Internet-savvy, homepage-creating girls provide only first names on their sites and to people they meet online. Discussing this find via e-mail with many different young women, I learn that the "first name only" policy is pretty strictly followed in these parts. Not every teen, of course, approaches her online development in the same way. Websites like Goosehead, for example, the work of a 15-year-old student, her parents and a growing staff, serves up a huge number of provocative photos of the pretty tenth-grade founder. For self-run sites, however, those who forgo anonymity are just throwing bait to bad people. "Avoid the psychopaths," as DrRogue says.
Anonymity is one of the hallmarks of safety online. And both anonymity and online safety, I learn, are crucial to privacy. If you'd asked me in high school what privacy meant in my life, I might have said, locked physical space that cannot be invaded with a butter knife. I mention this to DrRogue. It becomes clear that things have changed.
DrRogue: Privacy is [about] having your personal space in a more intellectually abstract, metaphysical sense. It is making sure that no one can find out too much about your real life through your online follies, keeping relationships strictly anon and not putting yourself at risk of psychopaths.
Evidently, DrRogue's issues go beyond keeping her brother out of her room (although this is cited as an ancillary goal). No matter the "horror stories blown up by newscasters," Susan asserts that she doesn't "feel threatened that [her] anonymity is slipping away." On the contrary, she blames the media for exacerbating the situation with their stupidity:
DrRogue: Newscasters report the invasion of my privacy very sternly, as though they're the ones decoding the human genome. From the way they speak, as though every technical word is new and unknown, it's clear that they're still asking their kids how to log on to the Internet.
Notwithstanding adult ignorance, DrRogue's understanding of privacy, "metaphysical" as it may be, is still predominantly about hiding the cord that could lead "psychopaths" to the "real" her. But isn't this paranoia for good reason? I ask. Haven't we all heard stories of "psychopaths" locating teenagers from clues carelessly dropped in chatrooms? DrRogue blisters at this one.
DrRogue: And then we have, "Cyber stalkers! Are your kids safe on the net?" If they have an IQ higher than a rock. Never give your full, real name, specific location, or phone number to a stranger. EVERY kid should know that!
"Keeping relationships strictly anon," in fact, is just the beginning of what a user, child or adult, must learn about the web, according to DrRogue. Sensing my ignorance, she outlines society's paranoia, the real issues as she sees them and the solutions--albeit in a somewhat mocking tone:
DrRogue: "Companies are putting something called 'COOKIES' onto your hard drive to TRACK WHAT SITES YOU VISIT!" screams the television. Anyone with a brain and a mouse should know that you can clear all the cookies off your hard drive anytime, or even set your computer to not accept them at all. "CREDIT CARD FRAUD!" is another big one. If you have a grain of sense, you won't give your credit card number to sites with names like Bob's Discount Warehouse. If you're not sure it's credible, DON'T SHOP THERE. "A new virus is spreading like wildfire around the world and through major corporations!" Major corporations where the employees are so out of touch, apparently, that they'll download anything.
Although DrRogue and most of the teens I encounter online are very careful about their privacy, the Annenberg Public Policy Center's The Internet and the Family 2000 reports that 75 percent of teens consider it acceptable to reveal what the study has defined as "private family information" in exchange for gifts, online. These "older kids," aged 13 to 17, are even more likely than younger ones, according to the study, to divulge personal details, including the names of their own and their parents' favorite stores, the type of car their family drives, whether their parents talk about politics and what their parents do on the weekends.
In the adult world, a person's concern for her own physical safety goes without saying, while the current discourse surrounds public image more than it does personal safety. In a New York Times Magazine article on privacy and technology, Jeffrey Rosen states that through the interception of e-mails, the tracking of browsing habits and purchases online and statements made in chatrooms, one's "public identity may be distorted by fragments of information that have little to do with how you define yourself."
Indeed, we've all heard stories about e-mail fragments being taken out of context by employers and others. The Washington Post described the case of James Rutt, the CEO of Network Solutions Inc., who feared his years of candid postings about sex, politics and his weight problem might be taken out of context, thus damaging his reputation and his ability to run his company effectively. Consequently, the new CEO employed a program called Scribble to help erase his online past.
Rutt's story is not unusual. This fear of being taken for a "fragment" of information is enough for most of us to employ private e-mail accounts we switch to at work when we have something personal to communicate. Even though we take these precautions, everyone I know goes to great lengths to erase all of her business e-mails when leaving a company. Why? Because the medium is seductive: Web travel is about exploration, and e-mails begun as impersonal memos often become more intimate exchanges. Intimacy does not translate well to third parties.
Take the 1997 example Rosen cites of Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig's e-mailed comment to a friend that he had "sold [his] soul" in downloading Microsoft Internet Explorer. Lessig, who had downloaded Explorer simply to enter a contest for a PowerBook, was not stating a biased opinion about the company, he was flippantly quoting a song. However, Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson, who had chosen Lessig as an adviser in the Microsoft antitrust suit, was forced to take such a bias seriously, removing Lessig as his adviser.
Rosen makes the point that we all wear different social "masks" in different settings and with different people. This may be true, even as it is socially taboo. From our estimations of Joan of Arc down to President Clinton, we celebrate and trust those with consistent (and consistently good) characters and criticize those who "waffle," or behave as if they are "spineless." Because we do not know how to define someone who changes with each new setting, we call her things like "mercurial," a "chameleon" or "two-faced." Consequently, the web induces fear in an adult not just for the things online crooks might do with Social Security numbers and other personal information but what a user herself may do to complicate her own "character."
However, while the adult world may suffer from a preoccupation with consistency, teens have the peculiar advantage of being dismissed as inconsistent before they begin. Adolescence is the societally condoned window in which we may shuffle through identities with abandon. My older sister, for example, horrified my grade-school self by morphing from punk to hippie to Hare Krishna to surfer girl all in the next room. Yet by the time I graduated from high school, I'd been through a few of those identities myself.
Besides their assumed role as explorers, teens may actually face fewer risks of this kind than their adult counterparts. Statistics relate that around 45 percent of large companies monitor their employees e-mail accounts, while few junior highs and high schools in America offer all their students computers or e-mail accounts. Even if they did, chances are that monitoring kids' private mail in public schools would raise countless legal issues. DrRogue's school is just now hooking up six new computers for the whole school of fifty-six students and has no intention of providing them with e-mail accounts. Ironically, it is this deprivation that has made monitoring less of an issue for students than it is for employees at big companies.
For girls like DrRogue who create and maintain personal homepages and explore the web's massive serving of chatrooms and boards, safety is not the only motivation for anonymity. "Bodilessness," it seems, can be the means to a more intellectual objective: credibility. Says Peppermint, a 17-year-old writer,
I definitely feel "bodiless" when writing for my page. The Internet has provided me with an audience that will forever be my biggest fan and my worst enemy. Just as I can say what I want on my site without fear of rejection, others can e-mail me their honest thoughts without the face-to-face consequences of criticism. My audience, as well as my privacy, is crucial to my development as a writer.
In a world with, as DrRogue sees it, "a seemingly endless supply of people to talk to and sites to visit, from all around the world," immediate, physical privacy gives some young women confidence they don't have when they're attached to developing physiques, school cliques or societal and familial expectations.
Only bodiless, confess some girls, can they relate certain ideas and thoughts at all. Indeed, screen names have become so popular that AOL is currently offering the option of seven aliases to the users of Instant Messenger. DrRogue herself has five that she can remember. In addition, girls can, if only for the experience, switch genders online. (Studies suggest 40 percent have done it.) "The ONLY reason I go into a chatroom is to pretend to be someone else!" insists DrRogue. Other young women are altogether wary of chatrooms. "I don't believe in chatrooms," explains Peppermint. "They've become a forum for online popularity contests and cyber sex." Does the monitoring of chatrooms add to their problems?
DrRogue: I've never felt like I was being monitored, because a monitor would do a better job of kicking out the scum.
Bodiless, many girls use their homepages as a sounding board before taking ideas out into "the real world." Others put the space and the "audience" to work on facets of themselves or ideas they plan to confine permanently there.
Peppermint, whose "real life" friends know her as Caitlin, addresses the consequences that she believes her physicality can have upon the reception of her ideas. "I do not post pictures of myself," she states in an e-mail, "simply because I want to be perceived as 'more than just a pretty face.'" Peppermint is so adamant that her physical self be distinct from her online self that she does not give her website address to "real life" friends.
Peppermint: I don't allow friends that I have known in person to have my Website address. The Web is a sacred place for me to speak to a receptive and critical audience, while at the same time, I do not need to worry about making a first impression, [about] coming off how I'd like to, or [about] what will happen the next time I see them. Because I don't need to make impressions, I am who I am, and I am being honest.
Peppermint believes her femininity and "real life" identity can negatively affect the reception of her ideas. She observes: "As a woman, I think we will always be viewed as sexual objects. [I want a person] to be able to look past the outside and realize that there is an opinionated, intelligent, creative young woman behind the pretty face." DrRogue, who at 13 is really just entering adolescence, simply may not have experienced her femininity as a handicap yet. If all goes well, she never will.
To many, appearance is the essential problem of female development. With the world standing by to notice her changing body, a young woman begins to perceive her somewhat limited access to what psychologist Lyn Mikel Brown (and many others, of course) points to as the patriarchal framework of our culture. From here, a struggle to retain her childhood identity and value system ensues, followed typically by a loss of voice, the narrowing of desires and expectations and the capitulation to conventional notions of womanhood. Yes, the Dark Horrible Sucking Trail of the Lost Voice is so trodden it is cliché. We've all seen countless articles on the phenomenon, but that doesn't make it any less painful for the young women going through it.
Less publicized, though more interesting than the pervasiveness of the Sucking Trail, is what Lyn Brown and Carol Gilligan (author of groundbreaking studies of female adolescence) have identified as a period before adolescence when girls' "voices" are at their most powerful. Young women, most of whom I imagine to be variations on DrRogue, actively resist dominant cultural notions of femininity at the edge of puberty. Finding a means to connect, harness and preserve the loud, defiant voices may empower girls to defy cultural norms and, in the process, eclipse the resentment that Virginia Woolf so protested.
On the one hand, Peppermint's sensitivity to a societal bias we'd like to think has passed is tragic. On the other hand, unlike those of us who were teenagers even ten years ago, Peppermint and DrRogue can literally construct their own worlds, with their own standards, where the only thing that matters is their ideas. They can't live in it forever, but maybe a few hours a day is long enough to change their lives.
BGAR2: how many hours do you spend online each day?
DrRogue: 1, usually.
BGAR2: really? That's nothing.
DrRogue: 2, really.
DrRogue: 3, if I'm bored.
BGAR2: still, I imagined more.
DrRogue: well, I'm prolly scaling down a lot.
BGAR2: why's that?
DrRogue: let's just say I've had to LIMIT my online time in the past.
BGAR2: ahh. los padres?
BGAR2: how much time did you spend yesterday?
DrRogue: lemme check my log.
DrRogue: ok, I lied. I spent 4 hours online.
Intelligent Life, DrRogue's latest homepage, which makes vague note of a Susan somewhere in the meat of its smart, sometimes acerbic, steadfastly spelling-error-free content, is exactly what it sounds like: an SOS for brain activity in a spectrum overwrought with misspelled emotion. Intelligent Life, when just a month old, had already received nearly 400 visitors--and that was during the summer. Whether they're up to DrRogue's standards is another matter.
Intelligent Life: I'm not being snobbish or narrow-minded, the time has simply come to draw the line. I want to meet people (of any age) who are bright and exciting, funny, kind, and intelligent. I want to meet people who are clearly individuals, not stereotypical, bumbling, senseless teenagers with limited vocabularies who take extreme liberties with spelling.
In short, do not visit Intelligent Life if you are, and there's no easy way to say this, a "ditz." Ding.
DrRogue: Have you been to Narly Carly yet?
Narly Carly's Super Awesome Page, to be specific, is DrRogue's spoof site--she recommended I look at it for research. Pulling the purple page with the rotating star up onto the screen, I see another reactionary move by DrRogue: a parody of the many sunny, earnest, "overwrought" teen sites splattered across the web. In the usual autobiographical style of these things, the fictional Narly Carly describes herself and her life, albeit without any of the eloquence DrRogue saves for, well, DrRogue. "I am a junior at Willingford High!" screams Narly at her visitors, "Go Wolfs!!!"
Although to the naked eye Narly Carly's Super Awesome Page looks quite a lot like any other teen site, its status as a farce lies in its suspicious abuse of exclamation points, the word "like" and an overload of personal information, among other things. Narly gives away reels of intimate details--for the visitors who "get it," this is a reproach of lax security. There is, after all, no one currently policing the Internet to keep people from divulging too much about themselves. In this era, something like Narly Carly serves as a gentle warning--as gossip does in a small town--to keep people in line. The irony is, of course, that a real Narly Carly may not understand irony.
Narly Carly bears the treadmarks of an adolescent critical of hypocrisy in older girls, making Susan appear to be someone Gilligan might identify as a "resister." Before they give up any measure of voice and shift into idealized femininity, girls are louder than ever, embodying what Gilligan believes may be political potential of an active adolescent underground. Whatever Susan's reasons for building an older "teenybopper's" site, they are her own. However, the underground political potential, along with Susan's strength and clarity of character, are palpable on Narly Carly. Indeed, a handful of the guestbook's visitors, whether male or female, passed the first test--they "got it." Said one visitor: "This page is so evil! I know whoever made it did this intentionally. No 'real' person acts this pathetic. And 'like' was WAY back in the 1980s. I know this is a joke and the person who made it is laughing their head off reading the guestbook."
When I argue that web diarists like her must be a bit self-conscious, DrRogue seethes: "People really put themselves out on these things!" Unlike my diaries though, they also get visitors who comment and provide discourse and insight, making the creator feel less alienated, making the pages actually useful methods of growth. Not to knock the diary--I certainly got somewhere venting in my own. Anaïs Nin kept a journal to "free" herself of "personae." The web is, in some ways, a more evolved journal, even as it is so many other things. Studies have shown that students write better papers and learn foreign languages more fluently when they actually have something to communicate to another person.
BGAR2: so these sites are like journals.
BGAR2: couldn't you print them out and store them in a closet or something and then delete them?
DrRogue: AH no!
DrRogue: that would defeat the purpose of the web!
BGAR2: what's the purpose?
DrRogue: interactivity, for one.
DrRogue: longevity of information, two. i can visit the Susan of a year ago. she's there in the same place, just as alive.
BGAR2: but how do you know when you're done?
DrRogue: I stop visiting it. I'm sick of it.
D.W. Winnicott defined a process of imaginative "saturation" in children's play in which the child plays with a certain toy or enacts an imaginative experience until all of the emotional ambivalence, fear, anxiety, etc., are diffused from that action or thing. DrRogues may be "playing" out their emotions to make offline "reality" less emotional. Selfishly, while she contributes to the textual wasteland of so many sites created and then abandoned, DrRogue hates to stumble upon such a "haunted" site herself.
DrRogue: It makes me feel really bad, manipulated almost, when I'm browsing a site, and then there's a date, and that date is like, March 13, 1996.
BGAR2: why, because it's old?
DrRogue: "does this person still exist?"
DrRogue: because I spent time getting to know the person
BGAR2: is it a waste if it's old?
DrRogue: it depends.
DrRogue: I like retail sites because they're constantly busy.
BGAR2: yeah, the idea of an updated site is good.
DrRogue: like someone's alive.
A good character's job is to "manipulate" her audience. Perhaps then, a date is some sort of narrative flaw that pulls DrRogue out of the story. What should a date matter to her anyway, I wonder: She'll never meet the site's creators. Why does she care whether she or he is still "alive"? The presence of a date on a site is like an actor's mustache falling off--it brings reality back into focus.
DrRogue's sense that a retail site, for example, might have human qualities, or something resembling a heartbeat, implies her ability to suspend disbelief so that the mechanism--words on the web--dissolves away. Further, it suggests a narrative view of the Internet, a desire to read and live through other people's stories. Susan seeks to learn about the world, about people and about herself, insight she can glean from any good story, regardless of its medium. I express some weariness of the homepages, but DrRogue says reading about their creators' everyday doings is fascinating, "sort of like having someone's life for a minute."
Stories, like "playing," can be powerful agents of personal transformation. "The right stories can open our hearts and change who we are," says Janet Murray, a professor of a digital fiction course at MIT. Indeed, ultimately the best stories render their technologies transparent so that we experience only the power of the characters and the story itself.
DrRogue created Intelligent Life to find other people, to hear their stories, to "have someone's life for a minute." In exchange, she shares her own experiences and, in doing so, develops a bit more as a human being. Logging on has enabled DrRogue to get beyond her small town, her age and her financial situation and has allowed her through narrative to experience the world.
Somehow, maybe because she pummels me with Instant Messages whenever I log on, I have come to associate the web with DrRogue. It is her "room," you might say.
BGAR2: shouldn't you be at camp or something
DrRogue: I said ALL my friends were at camp. I'm not so fortunate.
BGAR2: oh. sucks. well, you have the web.
DrRogue: I have the web.
Writing has always allowed people to step outside their skin, to try on different identities, to see through other perspectives. Lyn Lifshin, who edited a collection of women's journals by professional writers and others, recalled that contributors' friends were often shocked at the people represented in the diaries. For Foucault, writing was about growth and escaping the confines of identity. No one understands this better than the growth-hungry DrRogue, who, thanks to technology, can go even further in her explorations. She can gain experience of the world from a tiny room in Vermont.
The term "cyberspace" was coined by William Gibson, the prolific science fiction novelist, to define the virtual landscape of a human being's consciousness. It is voyeurism, entertainment, education, communication, interaction and self-expression all at once. Above all, it is a human environment, an extension of, rather than an escape from, the "real world." As such, it poses "real world" risks as well as opportunities. For young women like DrRogue and Peppermint, it is the real stories, the sense of community and communication, that keep them coming back.
Peppermint: Receiving responsive email to something I've written is the most rewarding part of the experience. I've received in excess of fifty letters, especially from girls a few years younger than myself, saying that I've taught them that there is nothing wrong with being yourself. This is a lesson that I wish I had learned at their age, and to know that I have taught it to someone younger than me is an incredible feeling.
DrRogue: IGG. [I gotta go.] Time to do something productive today.
BGAR2: Go write your novel.
I forgot to mention that, since she's not going to camp, DrRogue is writing a novel. It's tentatively titled: Teen Girls: Not as Stupid as You Think.
During his closing weeks in office, Bill Clinton refused a plea, signed by many leading lawyers and civil libertarians, that he declare a moratorium on capital punishment. The moratorium enjoys quite extensive support among Republicans and is gaining ground with public opinion; its imposition would undoubtedly have given a vital second chance to defendants and convicts who are in dire need of it. Clinton waved the petition away. So I think we can safely dispense with the argument being put forward by some of his usual apologists--that his sale of indulgences in The Pardoner's Tale was motivated by his own fellow feeling for those trapped in the criminal justice system. His fellow feeling is for fellow crooks, now as ever.
MCCARTHYISM ALIVE AND WELL IN NH
New Hampshire State Senator Burt Cohen thought that putting up a plaque honoring the Abraham Lincoln Brigade would provide a history lesson about Americans who volunteered to fight fascism in the Spanish Civil War. He did not foresee that the gesture would instruct about another kind of history--McCarthyism. When it was announced that the bronze plaque would be hung in the Statehouse at a ceremony on Lincoln's Birthday, the archreactionary Manchester Union Leader rallied Granite State granite heads. The Republican leadership in the legislature ordered the plaque removed. When Cohen, along with an ALB vet, relatives of another vet and supporters of the plaque went ahead with the dedication ceremony in the legislative office building on Lincoln's Birthday, an angrily buzzing swarm of Republican legislators descended. One addressed "Comrade Cohen"; another told a reporter, "Thank God for Franco--he saved us in Spain." When a plaque supporter stalked out saying, "McCarthyism is alive in this hall and in this state," an onlooker yelled, "Goodbye, Communist." The following week a legislative committee voted to ban the plaque from all state property, although it said another one might someday be displayed. Senator Cohen vowed to go ahead with a redesign. As for the insidious commie plaque, it now reposes in a Statehouse vault. Said Cohen (who has written for this magazine), "I thought the cold war was over."
SPEAK & BE ARRESTED
C. Clark Kissinger, head of Mumia Abu-Jamal support activities at Refuse & Resist!, was sentenced to ninety days last December for violating his probation (see David Lindorff, "Mumia and Free Speech," December 18, 2000). The violation? Traveling to speak at a Mumia rally. He was scheduled for release on March 5, but supporters worry he may be in for more harassment, such as demands for names of contributors. A larger issue is the chilling message his imprisonment sent to dissidents in this country. An open letter championing Kissinger, signed by Terry Bisson, Kurt Vonnegut, Alice Walker, Norman Mailer, Grace Paley, Barbara Kingsolver, Adrienne Rich and others sums up: "It is not polite, sanctioned, or permitted speech that the First Amendment is intended to protect. It is political dissent--and dissidents." For a copy of the letter and more information call (212) 571-0962; firstname.lastname@example.org.
BUSHISMS OF THE WEEK
Asked after his meeting with Tony Blair what he and the British Prime Minister had in common, George W. Bush replied: "We have both got great wives. We are both dads, and proudly so. That's our most important responsibility, being loving dads." Advocating his education reform package: "You teach a child to read, and he or her will be able to pass a literacy test."
Will Paris become the first large city in France (indeed, the first major city or national capital anywhere in the world) to elect an openly gay candidate as mayor--the Socialist Bertrand Delanoë? Beyond that question, highly symbolic for same-sexers everywhere, the two-stage Paris elections, which take place on March 11 and 18, will have far-reaching consequences. If the left succeeds in winning the City of Light for the first time ever, that could presage a national victory in France's presidential and legislative elections, to be held in May 2002.
The right has maintained hegemony in Paris since the first municipal elections in 1977, when Jacques Chirac--then president of the neo-Gaullist RPR--led the right to victory. He remained mayor of Paris until his election as President in 1995, when he dictated the selection of his successor--the current mayor, Jean Tiberi, Chirac's first deputy mayor for nearly two decades.
But the unbroken succession in this city, dominated for the past twenty-four years by la droite chiraquienne (the Chirac conservative majority), has suddenly and dramatically deteriorated following an avalanche of financial and electoral scandals. Mayor Tiberi is at the center of accusations concerning, among other things, the secret financing of political parties through a highly organized system of corrupt rakeoffs and kickbacks on contracts, filling the electoral rolls with phantom voters, illegally allocating low-rent apartments in city-owned housing (reserved for the economically disadvantaged) to political cronies and the families of elected officials and giving hundreds of no-show municipal jobs to full-time workers for the RPR and its campaigns. These scandals now threaten to undo Chirac himself, a danger underscored by the recent arrest of Chirac's former municipal chief of staff.
Aside from the scandals, the right's management of the city has also been sharply criticized. Paris is in danger of becoming a city-museum: Rents have skyrocketed, and the lack of subsidized housing for low- and middle-income families has forced many of them to move to less costly suburban developments with onerous commutes. While tourism continues to increase, Paris has serious air pollution and has not modernized or improved its public transportation or its noncommercial recreation facilities (especially for the young, hardest hit by unemployment).
All this means the left has an excellent chance of winning the municipal elections. Its leading candidate, Dominique Strauss-Kahn (number two in Prime Minister Lionel Jospin's government and the man in charge of the French economy), was forced to withdraw and lost his ministry after being tainted by yet another money scandal. After much internecine maneuvering, Jospin's Socialist Party finally settled on Delanoë. A little-known senator at the time of his designation, with a reputation as an unimaginative apparatchik and Jospin loyalist, Delanoë chose to make his homosexuality public during a 1998 television appearance. His matter-of-fact manner in coming out made few waves at the time, but since then he has enjoyed the media's favor, and--thanks to the Ubuesque situation in which Paris's right finds itself--his popularity has steadily increased in the opinion polls. And he has secured the endorsement of all the smaller parties in Jospin's "plural left" coalition, including the Communists (except for the Greens, who are nonetheless expected to support Delanoë in the second round of municipal voting). Within the city's sizable gay population, Delanoë has broad support, all the more so because, in contrast to his right-wing opponents, he has been a supporter of the pact of civil solidarity (PACS) for unmarried couples. Passed by the left-controlled National Assembly in 1999, the PACS recognizes and gives a large number of social and fiscal rights to domestic partnerships, whether homo- or heterosexual.
The conservative RPR, recognizing that Tiberi was politically bankrupt, dropped him as its mayoral candidate in favor of Philippe Séguin, a former party president and minister under Chirac. But even though Séguin is an RPR heavyweight with a reputation for intellectual honesty, his rigidity and independence (in the past he's feuded with Chirac) render him unsuited for the kinds of concessions necessary to unify the fractious Paris right. Meanwhile Mayor Tiberi, despite being disavowed by the RPR, has maintained his candidacy for re-election as an independent and is running a slate of candidates for City Council. In addition, the two extreme-right parties are running their own slates.
Delanoë's ambitious campaign proposals include making Paris "a model of democracy" (through the creation of neighborhood and youth councils and an official forum for civic organizations, the institution of referendums by petition and, above all, a guarantee of "real financial transparency" in government); building 5,000 new low-income and student housing units a year; ending the policy of "autos first" by building a new tramway to encircle Paris, creating 300 kilometers of new bus lanes, more car-free zones for pedestrians, cyclists and roller skaters, and improved river transport on the Seine; providing more daycare centers and facilities for the aged and handicapped; and doubling the city's cultural budget. He also promises halfway houses for gay kids rejected by their parents, giving gay organizations equal access to the subsidies the city already provides to civic groups, creating a new gay archive/research center and waging aggressive city-sponsored campaigns against antigay discrimination and AIDS.
However, even if Delanoë wins, as now seems probable, giving Paris back its former demographic mixture and improving its quality of life--especially for those of modest means--won't be easy, given a city budget that has been fiscally unsound for many years. Moreover, Delanoë's personal shortcomings continue to raise doubts, including on the left: Can a party workhorse with no management experience, nominated almost by default for his mayoral post, innovatively lead the first city of France?
Still, changing the political control of Paris--and ending what Le Nouvel Observateur has dubbed "the corrupt Chirac-Tiberi system"--is a top priority, one that could lead to the right's (and Chirac's) defeat next year. And if this permits one of the world's greatest cities to elect a mayor who is openly gay, why not gamble on his success? Frédéric Martel
LIBERTÉ, EGALITÉ, FÉMINISME
"Feminism...is the most popular and most effective movement to emerge from the sixties left," writes Katha Pollitt in her introduction to Subject to Debate, the volume of her selected columns published in The Nation over the past seven years. Dismissed by the right and the left as identity politics, proclaimed "dead" by Time in 1998, eschewed--as denoted by the term "feminist"--by young women everywhere, the women's movement, Pollitt declares, "moves on."
And it's a good thing, too. Although, as Pollitt writes, "political feminism is still with us: regulations are challenged and proposed, candidates funded and campaigned for, lawsuits fought and not infrequently won"--there's much work to be done. And many of the essays included in Subject to Debate have worked, and still do, as a call to action. Writing on issues including reproductive rights, school vouchers, privacy, welfare, the culture wars, religion, the workplace, education and "family values" with wit and a perspective simultaneously personal and political, Pollitt has composed pieces that, collected in this volume, articulate a larger argument for social change. She reminds us that "feminism is not a single, independent, all-powerful force, but is connected in complicated and even contradictory ways with other historical forces--egalitarianism and individualism, hedonism and puritanism, capitalism and the critique of capitalism," and that "gender equality requires general equality."
Indeed, Pollitt notes, "rights are free; social justice costs a fortune." This has been especially evident in the welfare debate, which she plumbs often. In a signature lampoon, she writes in "Deadbeat Dads: A Modest Proposal" that "Marion Barry's views...are shared by millions: Women have babies by parthenogenesis or cloning, and then perversely demand that the government 'take care of them.'" In "Of Toes and Men," a 1996 column responding to the exposed relationship between Clinton "family values" strategist Dick Morris and Sherry Rowlands, a $200-an-hour dominatrix, Pollitt quips: "[Since] family values don't seem to generate much work.... welfare moms should take a leaf from struggling single mother Sherry Rowlands.... [and] become dominatrixes. Here is a lucrative profession with flexible hours that combine well with childrearing, which...it resembles in many ways."
On a different tack, Pollitt worries in "Opinionated Women" that women in the media are largely confined to certain issues in terms of giving their opinions: "As Saint Augustine put it, men need women only for the things they can't get from a man. For procreation (the one thing Saint A. could come up with), substitute 1,000 words on breast implants or day care, and that view still holds a lot of sway." Luckily, as Subject to Debate makes plain, Pollitt has never been so constricted.
If a critic's clout can be measured by the ability to make an artist's name, the most important art critic in America today is clearly Rudolph Giuliani. Just over a year ago he excoriated the Brooklyn Museum of Art for including in its "Sensation" show Chris Ofili's Holy Virgin Mary--the elephant-dung-decorated painting of an African BVM, which the mayor found "anti-Catholic," blasphemous and disgusting--and turned Ofili himself into a sensation overnight: One collector, I heard, complained that the media attention had driven Ofili's prices so high he couldn't afford him anymore. If I were Jake & Dinos Chapman, represented by a perverse sculpture of deformed and weirdly sexualized children, I would have been seriously peeved, and if I had been Richard Patterson, whose Blue Minotaur, a profound meditation on postmodernity and the heroic tradition, got no attention at all, I would have wept.
You'd think the mayor would have learned to stay his theocritical thunderbolts, but once again he has gone after the Brooklyn Museum for including an "anti-Catholic" work--Renee Cox's Yo Mama's Last Supper--in the new show of contemporary black photographers, "Committed to the Image." He's even suggested that what New York needs is a "decency commission," which got big laughs all around, since the mayor, a married man, is openly carrying on with his mistress, upon whom he has bestowed police protection worth some $200,000 annually at taxpayers' expense. As the whole world now knows, Yo Mama is a five-panel picture in which Cox appears naked, as Jesus, surrounded by male disciples--ten black, one white--at the Last Supper. As an artwork it's negligible, glossily produced but awkwardly composed and, to my eye, rather silly. Cox is thin and beautiful; the men, in robes and caftans, are handsome and buff--apparently the first Christians spent a lot of time in the gym and at the hair salon, getting elaborate dreadlocked coiffures. Unlike the figures in Leonardo's Last Supper, which are highly individualized and dramatically connected, the figures here are generic and stiff. My eye kept going to the limited food on offer: bowls of wax-looking fruit (did they have bananas in Old Jerusalem?), rolls, pita bread. Was the Last Supper a diet Seder?
If you want to see visually haunting work at "Committed to the Image," there's Gordon Parks, Albert Chong, Imari, Nathaniel Burkins and many others. LeRoy W. Henderson's black ballet student, dressed in white and standing in front of a damaged classical frieze, interrogates the Western tradition much more deeply than Yo Mama does. Mfon's self-portraits of her mastectomized torso, a meditation on beauty, heroism and tragedy expressed through the female body, lay bare the high-fashion hokiness of Cox's costume drama. For fan and foe alike, the interest of Yo Mama appears to be political. Cox describes her art in ideological terms ("my images demand enlightenment through an equitable realignment of our race and gender politics"), and she has been quite pungent in defending it. As with The Holy Virgin Mary, the mayor hasn't actually seen it, nor had the numerous people who sent me frothing e-mails after I defended government support for the arts on The O'Reilly Factor.
Even the New York Observer's famously conservative art critic, Hilton Kramer, who usually delights in withering descriptions of pictures he hates, apparently felt that depicting Christ as a naked black woman was so obviously, outrageously anti-Catholic he need say no more about the photo before embarking on his usual rampage. It would be interesting to know where the offense lies: Is it that Cox as Christ is naked, black or female? All three? Two out of three? If one thinks of Catholics, the people, there's nothing bigoted about any of this. (Like Ofili, Cox is Catholic--as are most perpetrators of "anti-Catholic" works.) There is no ethnic stereotyping of the sort on view, for instance, on St. Patrick's Day, when the proverbial drunkenness of the Irish is the butt of endless rude humor, especially from the Irish themselves. While we're on the subject of ethnic stereotyping, it's worth noting that in a great deal of Christian art, Jesus and the disciples are portrayed as Northern Europeans, while Judas is given the hooked nose and scraggly features of a cartoon Jew.
But if what is meant by anti-Catholic is anti-Catholic Church, why can't an artist protest its doctrines and policies? The Church is not a monastery in a wilderness, it's a powerful earthly institution that uses all the tools of modern politics to make social policy conform to its theology--and not just for Catholics, for everyone. It has to expect to take its knocks in the public arena. A church that has a 2,000-year tradition of disdain for women's bodies--documented most recently by Garry Wills (a Catholic) in his splendid polemic Papal Sin--and that still bars women from the priesthood because Jesus was a man can't really be surprised if a twenty-first-century woman wonders what would be different if Jesus had been female, and flaunts that female body. And a church with a long history of racism--no worse than other mainstream American religions but certainly no better--can't expect the topic to be banned from discussion forever.
At the Brooklyn Museum, Yo Mama's Last Supper is in a separate room with its own security guard. On Sunday afternoon, it attracted blacks, whites, Asians, parents with small children, older women in groups, dating couples, students taking notes--le tout Brooklyn, which is turning out in large numbers for the show. I asked one black woman, who described herself as a Christian, what the picture meant to her. "It shows Life as a woman," she said. "It's beautiful." Her friend, who said he was a Muslim, liked the picture too.
If only I could get the Mayor to review my book!
Show George W. Bush you support RU-486. Make a donation in W.'s name to the Concord Feminist Health Center (38 South Main Street, Concord, NH 03301) and help it buy the ultrasound machine this method requires. The center will send the President a card to let him know you were thinking of him when you wrote your check.
V.S. Pritchett, whose essays are an invaluable companion, a sort of Dante's Virgil in the navigation of modern literature, once described Don Quixote as "the novel that killed a country by knocking the heart out of it and extinguishing its belief in itself forever." This is no doubt an incisive statement, and perhaps truthful too. If so, it should be expanded to say that Don Quixote also artfully extirpated Spain from Europe's intellectual conscience. For beyond Cervantes, where are its influential figures to be found in the international sphere? This is not to say that Spain has given up on literature. On the contrary, many thousands of books--nonfiction, poetry and as much fiction as there are mushrooms that spring up in a forest after a rainstorm--are published annually at home. The number of Spanish literary awards has multiplied dramatically in the last couple of decades: Every major publisher has its prize and parades its winners with unrestrained flair. But does anybody abroad really pay attention?
If this diagnosis--that the Spanish novel is in a centuries-old hiatus--sounds improbable, even a bit offensive, I suggest an exercise in improvised criticism. Stop for a moment at your local bookstore and look for, say, a dozen Iberian novels--classics and commercial--on the shelf. I bet the task defeats you. You might stumble upon a title by Camilo José Cela, whose Nobel Prize, like that of his fellow Spaniard, Jacinto Benavente, only accentuated his obscurity; and you will surely come across the "brainy" thrillers of Arturo Pérez-Reverte, probably the most popular español of our time. But beyond these, what? It would be easy to blame the publishing industry for this void, yet most editors, especially at university presses, are far from parochial, and censorship is not a principle they endorse. Furthermore, even in such an atmosphere as ours, fastidiously allergic to foreign cultures, far more literature from France and Germany, even from Italy--not to mention the quick westbound trip of scores of Britons--is released in the United States. Spain simply isn't trendy; its intellectual life is of no global consequence.
The problem, in part, is internal. It is symptomatic that whenever an Iberian's letters are discussed at home, critics recur to similes: "Benito Pérez Galdós was our Dickens," it is said, "and Juan Benet our Faulkner." In all fairness, these comparisons are often to an author's advantage. A handful of essayists, and chiefly poets, fare better: Unamuno and Ortega y Gasset, still not fully translated into English, are the owners of pungent, incisive voices unstilted by time that are delightful to read; and Federico García Lorca, along with poets of the Civil War (Machado, Cernuda et al.), are true giants. But a quick survey of the landscape in fiction evidences a kind of wasteland: Miguel Delibes, Carmen Martín Gaite, Rafael Sánchez Ferlosio, Alvaro Pombo and younger figures like Almudena Grandes, Juan Luis Cebrián, Antonio Muñóz Molina. Are these recognizable names? Even if he isn't taken at face value, Pritchett, I think, is on to something of significance: The country's literary flame might not have been extinguished altogether with Don Quixote, but it surely burns at a low intensity. Spain appears in a permanent state of eclipse.
Beyond national borders, one of the very few heralded talents of the last decade is Javier Marías. His work has been timidly appearing in US bookstores, praised in literary supplements and review pages. But it remains, not surprisingly, largely ignored by readers. Still, Marías has much to offer; even if his work isn't consistently breathtaking, a push should be made to bring him to the attention of a wider audience. From his 1971 debut novel Los dominios del lobo to collections of essays like Literatura y fantasma, his books have sold in excess of 3.2 million copies, mainly in Europe and Hispanic America. (Sales and quality don't always match, but they do in his case.) He has been translated into some twenty languages. It is time Americans also wake up to this skillful littérateur.
Marías (born in 1951) is a grounded madrileño, the son of a prominent cultural critic. Figuratively, he is one of Borges's grandchildren, although Proust should also be considered a prominent source of inspiration: Marías's themes are circular and metaliterary, his style meditative to the point of cantankerousness. Infatuated by British fiction since an early age, Marías has been, aside from a practitioner of fiction, a translator of high caliber who has made Hardy, Conrad and Yeats sit comfortably in Cervantes's tongue. His rendition of Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy is especially noteworthy: It brings the original to life without ever mimicking it. This talent, it ought to be said, is no meager achievement in a culture with a miserable history of translation, one made of uninhibited displays of ineptitude and misinformation.
HarperCollins and Harcourt both tried to publish Marías in the United States in the nineties, with little success. New Directions, the small, estimable New York publisher founded by James Laughlin, has now taken over the effort. It is serving a few of Marías's previously published titles and a novel formerly available only in England as an hors d'oeuvre, along with a main dish comprised of a fresh collection of stories, When I Was Mortal, and Dark Back of Time, a bizarre experiment in fiction--described by the author as a "false novel." The project is laudable: Although I'm sure it won't change the global status of Iberian fiction, it should at least make the exercise of browsing through a shelf for invigorating stories from Spain a bit less frustrating. And it should place the ball in the reader's court: From now on anybody who doesn't read Marías is doomed (as, loosely, Neruda once put it of Cortázar).
I used the word bizarre in reference to Marías. It fits him to the dot, for he enjoys exploring the eerie, mysterious and supernatural--what Cortázar once described as lo neofantástico, a term limited to Hispanic letters, close to the neogothic in English, it indulges in the supernatural without ever inspiring fear--in a way that is reminiscent of Stevenson, Wells and W.W. Jacobs (author of the legendary tale "The Monkey's Paw"). But, to extend the comparison, the figure to whom he can be equated without hesitation is Henry James: Marías's writing has the same syncopated prose and introspective inquisitiveness, and he often uses equally long, tortuous sentences. But, unlike James, he isn't quite a novelist, even though, for lack of a better term, he is invariably portrayed as one. Under close scrutiny, it is clear that Marías's narratives are made of disconnected segments--fragments that are abrupt and constantly interrupted by side effects that seldom add up to a whole--and his train of thought functions as a spiral: One scene leads to another, and then another--ad infinitum. Still, the result is rewarding because he is a literary magician who understands literature as a game of mirrors.
This is not to say, of course, that everything he writes is spun of gold. I've just reread him in the lucid translations by Margaret Jull Costa and Esther Allen: The pedantry and sense of superiority to his readers that I came across the first time around, when I discovered Marías in the original half a decade ago, strike me as more pronounced in re-encounters. He loves the donnish pose, a little as Wilde did. He invites you to his universe, but once you're in it, he shrieks: Look at how divine, how gifted I am! The effect might be off-putting, but the reader should put it aside and persevere in order to enjoy the material in full.
The sermonic tone is explicit in All Souls, based on his two-and-a-half-year experience at Oxford (the institution that has turned "donnishness" into a profession, after all). The novel fits snugly into a tradition of so-called campus fiction that includes recent entries by such figures as David Lodge, Jane Smiley, Francine Prose, A.S. Byatt and Philip Roth.
The narrator of All Souls is a Spanish lecturer who observes the ridiculous pomposity of academics devoted to obscure themes, painfully aware of their overall insignificance--people for whom, as Marías puts it, "simply being is far more important than doing or even acting." The adventures Marías comes up with are sheer fantasy, although his characters, among them faculty and bookstore owners, are not; some of the author's acquaintances have recognized themselves easily in his portrayals. The narrative suffers some from homogeneity: Marías's erudite monologues too frequently sound alike. Perhaps that doesn't matter here, though, for the author doesn't seem to be looking for full-fledged characterizations; instead, his is a tangential disquisition, one about Spain from without, a study of an Iberian intellectual abroad in the spirit of James's Daisy Miller, an American's rendezvous on the Continent. Marías zooms in on the dislocation of one lonesome, perplexed Spanish observer in the land that Dr. Johnson once invoked with the chant: "Ye patriot crowds, who burn for England's fame." He never ponders issues of national identity. And yet, this is a book about a self-imposed "highbrow" traveler, a stranger in a strange place.
My personal favorite among Marías's books is Tomorrow in the Battle Think of Me, originally released in 1994 and the recipient of Venezuela's prestigious Rómulo Gallegos Prize. It is a complex, centripetal whodunit about the reverberations of a sudden death. The protagonist is a scriptwriter in Madrid who has an affair with a married woman while her husband is in London. As her child goes to bed and she begins to undress, she is taken ill and collapses grimly. The narrator's consciousness is vividly mapped out. The leitmotif is the quest for morality in a dissolute universe. Marías ponders large philosophical themes, like the role of memory and morality in human affairs, by intertwining the individual in a larger picture. A quote:
No one knows anything for sure, not even what they do or decided or see or suffer, each moment sooner or later dissolves, its degree of unreality constantly on the increase, everything travelling towards its own dissolution with the passing of the days and even the seconds that appear to sustain things but, in fact, suppress them: a nurse's dream will vanish along with the student's vain wakefulness, the tentatively inviting footsteps of the whore, who is possibly a sick young man in disguise, will be scorned or go unnoticed, the lover's kisses will be renounced.... And, as if it was just another insignificant, superfluous tie or link, the murder or homicide is simply lumped in with all the crimes--there are so many others--that have been forgotten and of which no record remains and with those currently being planned and of which there will be a record, even though that too will eventually disappear.
This is the book Marías was destined to write by the Emersonian High Spirit and is the introduction to him that readers should have. Its exposition is hypnotizing, and its plot plays tricks on us: It falsifies its routes by pushing to its denouement.
Also of notice is A Heart So White, portions of which take place in Havana and New York, about a 34-year-old husband haunted by the demons of suicides by women close to him (his father's first wife, his mother's sister, his aunt Teresa). It has brought Marías the applause of many, including Francis Ford Coppola and Salman Rushdie, and is considered his best work. It might well be: It is an anti-detective story about genealogy and sin. (The title pays homage to Macbeth: "My hands are of your colour; but I shame/To wear a heart so white.")
In contrast, Marías's collection of stories, When I Was Mortal, is in a minor key. It appeared in 1996 and is made of material published in anthologies, as well as in periodicals like El País and El Correo Español. The short tale constrains him as a form and pushes him to summarize in a way that does him a disservice. His is an elastic vision that fits the longer narrative better. These are all pieces drafted on commission, which Marías states in his foreword didn't "compromise them." He then goes on to craft an ars poetica that again recalls Henry James:
You can write an article or a story on commission (though not, in my case, a whole book); sometimes even the subject matter may be given and I see nothing wrong in that as long as you manage to make the final product yours and you enjoy writing it.... It is perhaps worth reminding those sentimental purists who believe that, in order to sit down in front of the typewriter, you have to experience grandiose feelings such as a creative "need" or "impulse," which are always "spontaneous" or terribly intense, that the majority of the sublime works of art produced over the centuries--especially in painting and music--were the result of commissions or of even more prosaic and servile stimuli.
The best tales in the volume are peopled by victims of mistaken identities, unexpected friends and professional liars. Through "In Uncertain Time," Marías explores the fanaticism surrounding soccer in Spain in particular and Europe in general. In another, "Everything Bad Comes Back," clearly autobiographical in tone, a melancholic translator of Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy ponders his place in the world. And yet another, "On the Honeymoon," reproduces the same subplot of A Heart So White and also several of its paragraphs, thus acknowledging Pierre Menard's lesson: The same page used twice is a different page.
By far the brainiest, most emblematic and abstruse book by Marías, as well as the most demanding, is Dark Back of Time, about, well, everything and nothing. This is what Italo Calvino described as hyperfiction, a kind of narrative that twists and turns of its own volition, that is ever reflecting on its rhythm and style, ultimately giving the reader the sense that it is literature itself, not reality, that the author attempts to capture. I'm inclined to describe the book as a meditative essay. But to pigeonhole it seems preposterous anyway, for its strength lies precisely in its amphibious, if not anarchistic, structure. This, after all, is a nonlinear opera aperta that functions as a circuitous rendezvous through the realms of knowledge and imagination. It mixes autobiography with fiction, truth with lies, so as to show the extent to which an author--Javier Marías himself--is enriched and also cursed by his oeuvre.
Marías's overall journey, with stops in Tristram Shandy and All Souls and explorations of such figures as John Gawsworth and Wilfrid Ewart, accompanied by a long list of cameo appearances by the famous and not-so-famous, as well as maps, news clips, photographs and insignias, parades before our eyes. G.K. Chesterton, in a mini-biography of Stevenson, offered some poignant thoughts on the role of the critic, helpful as advice on how to think of Marías. Chesterton argued (in 1928) that reviewers had been in the business of "depreciating" Stevenson, of "minimizing and finding fault" with his work. He suggested that the matter that mainly interested him, and the one critics should always be on the lookout for, "is not merely [a writer's] pose, but the large landscape or background against which he was posing; which [the writer] himself only partly realised, but which goes to make up a rather important historical picture." That, I think, is the way Marías ought to be perceived: The merit of his books is unquestionable, but the niche he has made for himself in Spain must be understood. He isn't really "a writer's writer," as I've seen him described, but a reader's writer: His corpus invites us to engage a rereading of the Spanish tradition beyond the nation's borders, in an unconstrained, cosmopolitan fashion. Marías's worth is to be found in his disinterest in lo español. Indeed, he might be among the last to try to rescue his country by refurbishing its belief in itself. Of course, that attribute might be precisely the one that makes him such an enthralling Spaniard today.
The network honchos called by
Louisiana Representative Billy Tauzin and the House Energy and
Commerce Committee to testify on the election night debacle were a
decidedly ungrateful bunch. True, they were forced to sit through a
video of their billion-dollar babies making idiots of themselves.
(Watching Dan Rather offering "a big tip and a hip, hip, hurrah and a
great big Texas howdy to the new President of the United States," and
instructing viewers to "Sip it. Savor it. Cup it. Photostat it.
Underline it in red. Press it in a book. Put it in an album. Hang it
on the wall," more than once ought to be considered cruel and unusual
by anyone's standards.) And how rare it must be that anyone, much
less mere members of Congress, would dare keep these boys cooling
their heels for a full five hours before finally bringing them
forward to demand that they swear to tell the truth, the whole truth
and nothing but the truth--in public, no less. But really, all the
"concern" and "uneasiness" voiced by the execs about government
meddling in the news was a bit much. There was never any danger to
the networks' independence in Tauzin's hearings; at least none that
originated from Congress, rather than their own parent
Tauzin, a Democrat turned Republican, originally
professed to possess an "analysis" that indicated "in almost every
case, [the networks] favored early calls for Al Gore over George
Bush." Absent any evidence, however, he withdrew the charge of
intentional bias and retreated behind a mysterious theory of "flawed
data models" and "biased statistical results" that happened to favor
Democrats. He offered no evidence this time either, but almost all
reporters felt duty-bound to repeat his nonsensical accusations.
Hence precious little attention was focused on more concrete
election-coverage questions, most notably Fox's decision to rely on
the analysis of John "I can't be honest about [my cousin George W.
Bush's] campaign.... He's family, and I'm for him" Ellis. And
needless to say, there was no time left for an examination of the
corrupting effect of the networks' interlocking structure of
Had Tauzin and company really tried
to censor or intimidate the networks, that would have been
interesting, but it is damn near impossible to imagine. As a
comprehensive report on media lobbying by the Center for Public
Integrity demonstrates, when it comes to mutual backscratching, the
primates in the National Zoo have nothing over the networks and
Take Tauzin, for instance. According to the CPI
report--which might as well have been classified "top secret" for all
the attention lavished on it by the media it exposes--the cagey Cajun
received more PAC money from media companies than anyone else in the
House, including more than $150,000 from entertainment and
telecommunications companies for his 2000 campaign, in which he had
no credible opponent. Moreover, no member of Congress has traveled
more frequently on the media industry's dime. Between 1997 and 2000,
Tauzin and his staff took a total of forty-two trips--one out of
eight industry-sponsored junkets taken by members of Congress during
that period. In December 1999 Tauzin and his wife enjoyed a six-day,
$18,910 trip to industry "meetings" in Paris. Representative John
Sweeney managed to make the same trip for a mere $7,445. How can
Tauzin act as an honest broker for the networks filling his pockets?
Easy: He simply does not believe in the concept of conflict of
interest. "I have no choice but to do effective oversight," he says
by way of explanation. Tauzin's view is hardly unique. His successor
as chairman of the House Telecommunications Subcommittee, Fred Upton,
has a portfolio worth millions in those very same
Again, we are seeing nothing unusual here,
except perhaps gumption. In 1999 alone, according to the CPI, the
fifty largest media companies and four of their trade associations
coughed up more than $30 million to lobby Congress, an increase of
26.4 percent in three years. Since 1993, they have given more than
$75 million in direct campaign contributions, according to the Center
for Responsive Politics. And the numbers tell just a small part of
the story. These fellas are not just selling toasters, after all. As
former FCC chairman Reed Hundt has explained, more important than the
industry's money is the perception of its "near-ubiquitous, pervasive
power to completely alter the beliefs of every American." Politicians
fear that if they displease these companies, they will simply
"disappear" from view.
And what do the media want in
exchange for this largesse? They want to be left alone so they can
make themselves and their stockholders rich, regardless of their
impact on American democracy. To take just one example, according to
data collected by Competitive Media Reporting, politicians and
special interests spent an estimated $600 million for paid political
ads in the last election cycle, which makes the $11 million or so the
National Association of Broadcasters and five media outlets
cumulatively spent between 1996 and 1998 to defeat campaign finance
reform look like a prudent investment. Note, by the way, that John
McCain, the heroic white knight of campaign finance reform, who
raises more money from the media companies than even Tauzin, was
crucial to the media companies' successful effort to kill the FCC's
plan to force a lowering of the cost of political commercials, the
primary culprit driving the vicious election/money
With Michael Powell as George Bush's new appointee
to head the FCC, the networks might not even have to bother lobbying
Congress anymore. Powell signaled his own expansive definition of
conflict of interest when he refused to recuse himself from the vote
approving the merger of AOL and Time Warner, despite the fact that
his father, Colin Powell, stood to make millions from the stock he
received as a company director. (I don't suppose he opposes the
repeal of the estate tax, either.)
"We don't look to the
government to correct the press. We look to the people," explained
ABC News president David Westin to Tauzin's committee. "If we fail,
the audience will judge us and move somewhere else." I'm thinking
The first moments of a recent documentary about Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), Rebels With a Cause, recall one of the signal images of the 1960s civil rights struggle: police training torrents of water from fire hoses on demonstrators in Birmingham, Alabama. According to its makers, the student New Left and the antiwar movement derived their principal inspiration from the struggle for black freedom.
In this phase of the movement blacks and their allies sought three rights: integrated public schools; desegregation of public accommodations such as trains and buses, restrooms and water fountains, restaurants and, in much of the South, the right to walk down a street unmolested; and perhaps most important, voting rights. Nearly forty years later the Birmingham confrontation reminds us not only of the violence of Southern resistance to these elementary components of black freedom but also how clear-cut the issues were. The simple justice embodied in these demands had lurked on the margins of political life since the 1870s betrayal of black Reconstruction by politicians and their masters, Northern industrialists. Not that proponents of black freedom were quiescent in the interim. But despite some victories and defeats, mainly in the fight against lynching and legal frame-ups, these demands remained controversial and were largely sidelined. In 1940 Jim Crow was alive and well in the South and many other regions of America.
World War II and its aftermath changed all that. Under threat of a March on Washington by A. Philip Randolph of the Sleeping Car Porters union and other black leaders, in 1941 President Roosevelt issued an executive order banning discrimination in military-industry hiring. But when millions of black veterans returned from the war and found that America had returned to business as usual--even as the United States was embroiled in a cold war, claiming to be at the forefront of freedom and democracy--pressure mounted for a massive assault on discrimination and segregation. Shrewdly looking forward to an uphill re-election battle, President Truman ordered the desegregation of the armed forces, and the turbulent 1948 Democratic convention passed the strongest civil rights plank of any party since the Radical Reconstruction laws of 1866. Consequently, the party suffered the first of what became a long line of defecting Southern political leaders when Strom Thurmond bolted and ran as the Dixiecrat Party candidate for President. In the early 1950s the NAACP mounted a series of legal cases against school segregation that culminated in the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education, sustaining the plaintiffs' claim that the historic Court doctrine of "separate but equal" was untenable. The Court agreed that school integration was the only way to guarantee equal education to black children. The next year an NAACP activist, Rosa Parks, refused to move to the back of a Montgomery, Alabama, bus--a disobedience that sparked a monumental boycott that finally ended in victory for the black community. In 1962, flanked by federal troops, James Meredith entered the University of Mississippi, and, under similar circumstances, a black woman named Autherine Lucy broke the color bar at the University of Alabama.
As important as these breakthroughs were, they were regarded by some as only the first stage of what was considered to be the most important phase in the struggle-- achieving black voting rights as a prelude to overturning white-supremacist economic and political domination of the South. Many on both sides of the civil rights divide were convinced that the transformation of the South by ending black exclusion was the key to changing US politics. The struggle for voting rights proved as bloody as it was controversial, for it threatened to reduce the Democratic Party to a permanent minority. In summer 1964, in the midst of a major effort by civil rights organizations to enroll thousands of new black voters, three field-workers were murdered and many others were beaten, jailed and in some cases forced to run for their lives. Fearing further losses in the less-than-solid South, the Kennedy Administration had to be dragged kicking, if not screaming, to protect field-workers in various civil rights groups. Indeed, it can be argued that beginning with the 1964 Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, and perfected to an art form by Richard Nixon, the right's infamous Southern Strategy was the key to Republican/conservative domination of national politics in subsequent decades. But driven by the exigencies of the Vietnam War as well as the wager that the Democrats could successfully cut their losses by winning the solid backing of millions of black and Latino voters, Lyndon Johnson's Administration rapidly pushed the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts through Congress. By 1965 a century of legally sanctioned black subordination apparently came to an end. The Democrats won black loyalty, which to this day remains the irreducible condition of their ability to contend for national political power.
Today the predominant commentary on the state of race relations in the United States no longer focuses on discrimination but on the consequences of the economic and cultural chasm that separates black and white: white flight from the cities; the formation of a black middle class, which in pursuit of a better life has tended to produce its own segregated suburban communities; and the persistence of black poverty. For after more than three decades of "rights," the economic and cultural reality is that the separation between black and white has resurged with a vengeance. Housing segregation is perhaps more profound than in the pre-civil rights era, and the tiering of the occupational structure still condemns a large percentage of blacks and Latinos to the bottom layer. What's more, the combination of the two has widened the educational gap that pro-integration advocates had hoped would by now be consigned to historical memory. In the wake of achieving voting rights and passing antidiscrimination laws, some now worry more about whether blacks will maintain access to the elite circles of American society, especially in education and the economy. Others have discovered that, despite their confidence that legal rights are secure, the stigma of race remains the unmeltable condition of the black social and economic situation.
But even voting rights are in jeopardy. What are we to make of the spectacle of mob intimidation of election officials and the brazen theft of thousands of black Florida votes during the 2000 presidential election--so egregious it led the NAACP to file suit? Or the ideological and political mobilization of a conservative Supreme Court majority to halt the ballot recount of George W. Bush's razor-thin lead? Or the refusal of a single member of the Senate, forty-eight of whom are white Democrats, to join mainly black House members in requesting an investigation of the Florida voting events? Vincent Bugliosi has persuasively shown that Gore's lawyer did not use the best arguments at the Court [see "None Dare Call It Treason," February 5]. And then there's the Congressional battle over George W. Bush's nomination of John Ashcroft as Attorney General, during which Ted Kennedy concluded that he could not muster the votes to sustain a filibuster and had to be content with joining forty-one of his colleagues in a largely symbolic protest vote against confirmation. Ashcroft's nomination was perhaps the Bush presidency's blatant reminder that the selection of Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell for leading foreign policy positions should not be understood as having any relevance to the Administration's stance on domestic racial politics. Contrary to progressives' expectation that the Democratic Party would constitute a genuine opposition to what has become a fairly strident right-wing government, as the events since November 7 have amply demonstrated, the Democrats seem to know their place.
These events--calumnies, really--cast suspicion on the easy assumption that the civil rights struggle, even in its legal aspect, largely ended in 1965. The deliberate denial of black suffrage in Florida was a statement by the Republican minority that it would not countenance the Gore campaign's bold maneuver, in tandem with the AFL-CIO and the NAACP, to register and turn out tens of thousands of new black and non-Cuban Latino voters. As if to acknowledge his indiscretion, after it became clear that he "wuz robbed," Gore ordered his supporters not to take to the streets; instead, he contented himself with a weak and ultimately unsuccessful series of legal moves to undo the theft. Thus even if their hopes for victory always depended on blacks showing up at the polls in the battleground states, including Florida, Gore and the Democratic Party proved unwilling to fight fire with fire. In the end the right believes it has a royal right to political power because it is grounded in the power of Big Capital and the legacy of racism; the Democrats believe, in their hearts, that they are somehow illegitimate because of their dependence on blacks and organized labor.
Yet inspired by the notion that the United States is a nation of laws, some writers have interpreted the 1960s judicial and legislative gains to mean that the basis has been laid for full equality of opportunity for blacks, Latinos and other oppressed groups. (I speak here of those like Ward Connerly, Glenn Loury and Shelby Steele.) They cite affirmative action as evidence that blacks may be able to attain places in the commanding heights of corporate office, if not power. But they forget that Nixon utilized affirmative action to derail efforts, inspired by the 1960s civil rights victories, to dramatically expand funding for education and other public goods. In the context of Nixon's abrogation of the Bretton Woods agreement, which destabilized world currencies, and the restructuring of the economy through the flight of manufacturing to Third World countries and capital flight from those same countries, affirmative action was the fig leaf covering the downsizing of the welfare state. As the political winds blew rightward, welfare "reform" became a mantra for Nixon's successors, from Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan through Bill Clinton. Needless to say, providing spaces for black students in a handful of elite colleges and universities was not, in itself, a bad idea. That affirmative action accompanied the Reagan tax cuts, ballooning military spending, the gradual end of an income floor for the unemployed and severe spending cuts in housing, public health and education demonstrated its purpose: to expand the black professional and managerial class in the wake of deindustrialization--which left millions of industrial workers, many of them black and Latino, stranded--and the hollowing out of the welfare state, which in contrast to the 1960s gains widened the gap between rich and poor.
If only the most naïve believed that in time racism would disappear, many have misread William Julius Wilson's 1978 book The Declining Significance of Race to argue that black inequality is not a sign of the persistence of institutional or structural racism but is a remnant. On the contrary, Wilson claims that the persistence of black poverty may not be a sign of discrimination in the old sense but an indication of the vulnerability of blacks to structural changes in the economy. Race still frames the fate of many blacks, but there is also a crucial class dimension to their social situation: Despite having acquired comprehensive legal rights, both deindustrialization of many large cities and black as well as white middle-class flight have left working-class blacks in the lurch. Once, many had well-paid union jobs in steel mills, auto plants and other production industries. But since the mid-1970s, most urban and rural areas where they live have become bereft of good jobs and local services. There are not enough jobs to go around, and those that can be found are McJobs--service employment at or near the minimum wage. Cities also lack the tax base to provide citizens with decent education, recreation, housing and health facilities, and basic environmental standards like clean air and water. Lacking skills, many blacks are stuck in segregated ghettos without decent jobs, viable schools, hope or options.
To make things worse, the neoliberal policies of both Democratic and Republican governments have drastically slowed public-sector job growth and have eliminated one of the main sources of economic stability for blacks and Latinos. In fact, during his campaign Al Gore boasted that he was an architect of the Clinton Administration's program of streamlining the federal government through layoffs and attrition, which was undertaken to facilitate "paying down the debt." The private sector was expected to pick up the slack, and it did: In many cases laid-off public employees joined former industrial workers in the retail trades and in low-paid construction and nonunion factory jobs.
But the problems associated with race/class fail to detain some writers--e.g., John McWhorter and Stephen Carter. Having stipulated black economic progress without examining this claim in any depth, their main concern is how to assure that blacks obtain places in the elite intellectual and managerial professions. As if to stress the urgency of this problem, they adduce evidence to show that despite the broad application of affirmative action, blacks have fallen back in educational achievement. For example, while celebrating the civil rights movement's accomplishments, in Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America, his book about the question of why black students still lag behind whites in educational attainment, linguistics professor McWhorter discounts the salience of racism. McWhorter allows that although some police brutality and discriminatory practices such as racial profiling still exist, these regrettable throwbacks are being eradicated. Accepting the federal government's definition of poverty (now $17,650 a year or less for a household of four), McWhorter minimizes these problems by citing statistics showing that under 25 percent of America's black population lives in impoverished conditions, a decline from 55 percent in 1960. Of course, these federal standards have been severely criticized by many economists and social activists for substantially understating the amount that people actually need to live on in some of America's major cities.
While $17,650 may constitute a realistic minimum standard in some rural areas and small towns--and even then there is considerable dispute about this figure--anyone living in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Detroit, Oakland, Washington or Atlanta--cities with large black, Latino and Asian populations--knows that this income is far below what people need to live on. The United Way's regional survey of living standards found that households of three in New York City require at least $44,208 to meet minimum decent standards. While the amounts are less for most other cities, they do not run below $25,000, and most of the time they are higher. In many of these cities two-bedroom apartments without utilities cannot be rented for less than $800 a month (plus at least $100 for telephone, gas and electricity)--more than half the take-home pay of a household earning $25,000. In New York City the rent is closer to $1,200, even in the far reaches of the Bronx and Brooklyn. But perhaps half of black households earn less than the rock-bottom comfort level in most areas today.
None of this bothers McWhorter and other black centrists and conservatives. They know that when measured by grades and standardized tests, educational attainment among children of poor black families may fall short because of poverty, insecurity or broken homes. Why, they ask, do black students in the middle class perform consistently worse by every measure than comparable white students, even when, owing mainly to affirmative action, they gain admission to elite colleges and universities? Relying heavily on anecdotes drawn from his own teaching experience at the University of California, Berkeley, McWhorter advances the thesis that, across the class system, blacks are afflicted by three cultural barriers to higher educational achievement that are of their own making: victimology, according to which all blacks suffer from racism that stands between them and success; separatism, a congenital suspicion of whites and of white norms, including high educational achievement; and, perhaps most salient, endemic anti-intellectualism among blacks, which regards those who study hard and care about learning as "nerds" who tend to be held in contempt. To be "cool" is to slide by rather than do well. The point of higher education is to obtain a credential that qualifies one for a good job, not to take academic learning seriously.
McWhorter is deeply embarrassed by the studied indifference of many of his black students (almost none of whom are economically disadvantaged) for intellectual pursuits and is equally disturbed by their low grades and inferior test scores. In the end, he attributes much of the problem to affirmative action--a "necessary step" but one that he believes ultimately degrades blacks in the eyes of white society. McWhorter admits that he is troubled that he got tenure in four and a half years instead of the usual seven, and that he was privileged in part because he is black. Like another "affirmative action baby," Stephen Carter, he is grateful for the boost but believes the door should be closed behind him because the policy has morally objectionable consequences, especially cynicism, examples of which litter the pages of his book. Affirmative action "inherently divests blacks and Latinos of the unalloyed sense of personal, individual responsibility for their accomplishments.... The fact that they tend not to be aware of this follows naturally from the fact that affirmative action bars it from their lives: You don't miss what you never had." Instead, he wants blacks "to spread their wings and compete" with others on an equal basis. Condemning the thesis of Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray (in The Bell Curve) that affirmative action should be eliminated because blacks "are too dumb," at the same time he urges his readers to "combat anti-intellectualism" and victimology as cultural norms.
Before discussing what I regard as the serious flaws in McWhorter's thesis, it is important to note that it is by no means unique; a growing number of black as well as white pro-civil rights intellectuals embrace it. Having asserted that the legislative and court victories effectively buried the "external" barriers to black advancement, these critics seek answers to the persistence of racial educational disparity within the black community itself--particularly the "culture" of victimization, a culture that, however anachronistic from an objective standpoint, remains a powerful force. Unlike many black conservatives, McWhorter professes admiration for the icons of the civil rights struggle, especially Martin Luther King Jr. and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. But he is not alone in his uncritical assessment of the past half-century as an era of black "progress." As a result, he discounts the claim that racism remains a structural barrier to blacks' further advances. Nor is there justification for the politics and culture of separatism; for McWhorter, blacks are shooting themselves in the foot because these values prevent them from overcoming the psychological and cultural legacy of slavery, the root cause of the anti-intellectualism that thwarts black students from performing well in an academic environment. This culture, he argues, is reproduced as well in the black family when parents refuse to take their children's low or failing grades as an occasion for scolding or punishment and, in the extreme, in peer pressure against the few kids who, as early as elementary school, are good scholars. Academically bright black kids are ridiculed and charged with not being loyal to "the race."
We have seen this pattern played out in a somewhat different mode among working-class white high school students. In his study of male working-class students in an English comprehensive high school--the term that corresponds to our public schools--Paul Willis describes in his study Learning to Labor how the "lads" rebel against the curriculum and other forms of school authority and thereby prepare themselves for "working-class jobs" in a nearby car factory. We can see in this and many other school experiences the same phenomena that McWhorter ascribes to racial culture. To study and achieve high enough grades to obtain a place in the university is to betray the class and its traditions. One risks isolation from his comrades for daring to be good. But it is not merely anti-intellectualism that produces such behavior; it is a specific form of solidarity that violates the prevailing norm that the key to economic success for the individual working-class kid is educational attainment.
But as a certified good student who, by his own account, suffered many of these indignities at the hands of classmates, this is beyond McWhorter's grasp. Since he sees no external barriers, anyone who refuses to succeed when he or she has been afforded the opportunity without really trying must be the prisoner of a retrograde culture. And since he defines anti-intellectualism in terms of comparative school performances in relation to whites--and there is no exploration of the concept of intellectual endeavor as such--he must avoid entering the territory of rampant American anti-intellectualism. It may come as a shock to some, but it can be plausibly claimed that we--whites, blacks and everyone else--live in an anti-intellectual culture. Those who entertain ideas that have no apparent practical utility, enjoy reading books without being required by course assignment and play or listen to classical music, attend art museums, etc., are sometimes labeled "Mr. or Miss deadbrains." Moreover, as many have observed, the public intellectual--a person of ideas whose task is to hold a mirror to society and criticize it--is an endangered species in this country.
McWhorter focuses absolutely no attention on the loss of intellectual life in this sense. His idea of intellectualism is entirely framed by conventional technical intelligence and by a sense of shame that blacks are coded as intellectually inferior. There is little justification of the life of the mind in Losing the Race except as a valuable career tool. So McWhorter cares about educational attainment as a matter of race pride and climbing the ladder. He cannot imagine that working-class and middle-class whites are routinely discouraged from spending their time in "useless" intellectual pursuits or that the disparity between black, Latino, Asian and white school performances can be attributed to anything other than internal cultural deficits.
Scott Malcomson and Thomas Holt have cast different lights on race disparity in the post-civil rights era. Departing, but only implicitly, from Tocqueville's delineation of the three races of American society--Indian, black and white--Malcomson, a freelance writer and journalist, offers a long, sometimes rambling history, fascinating autobiography and social analysis of the career of race in America. The main historical theme is that racial separatism is interwoven with virtually every aspect of American life, from the sixteenth-century European explorations and conquests that led to the brutal massacres of Native Americans, on through slavery and postemancipation race relations. Malcomson's story is nothing less than a chronicle of the defeat of the ideal of one race and one nation. Black, Native American and white remain, throughout the centuries, as races apart. Not civil war, social movements or legislative change have succeeded in overcoming the fundamental pattern of white domination and the racializing of others. Nor have territorial and economic expansion allayed separatism and differential, racially burdened access to economic and political power.
Malcomson, the son of a white Protestant minister and civil rights activist, caps One Drop of Blood with a hundred-page memoir of his childhood and youth in 1960s and '70s Oakland. In these pages, the most original part of the book, Malcomson offers an affecting account of his own experience with race but also renders the history of three major twentieth-century Oakland celebrities--Jack London, William Knowland and Bobby Seale. London was, of course, one of America's leading writers of the first two decades of the past century. He was famous not only for his adventure stories, which captured the imagination of millions of young adults and their parents as well, but also for his radical politics. He was a founder of the Intercollegiate Socialist Society, the student branch of a once-vibrant Socialist Party, which regularly won local offices in California until World War I and spawned the explosive political career of another writer, Upton Sinclair. (In 1934 Sinclair even became the Democratic candidate for governor.) Less well known was London's flaming racism, a sentiment shared by the archconservative Oakland Tribune publisher and US Senator William Knowland.
Deeply influenced by his parents' anti-racist politics, Malcomson was enthralled by the movement and especially by the Black Panthers, whose ubiquitous presence in Oakland as a political and social force was unusual--they lacked the same level of visibility elsewhere, even in their period of fame. But the pathos of his involvement is that his main reference group was neither black nor white: Their separation was simply too painful for a young idealist to bear. Instead, he hung out with a group of Asian students who nevertheless emulated black cultural mores. They did well in school but, by this account, nothing much except social life went on there. To satisfy his intellectual appetites, Malcomson sought refuge in extracurricular reading, an experience I shared in my own high school days in the largely Jewish and Italian East Bronx of the 1940s and 1950s.
The point of the memoir is to provide a contemporary illustration of the red thread that runs through his book: The promise of a century and a half of struggle for black freedom, and especially of the end of racial separation and of racism, remains unfulfilled. Malcomson takes Oakland as a paradigmatic instance of a majority black population gaining political office but little power because the city's white economic elites simply refused to play, until civic disruption forced them (especially Knowland) to acknowledge that their power was threatened by the militancy of new political forces within the black community. With the waning of black power, Oakland, like many other cities, reverted to its ghettos, punctuated in the 1980s and 1990s by a wave of gentrification that threatened the fragile black neighborhoods and, in the wake of high rents, forced many to leave for cheaper quarters. When Malcomson returns home in the late 1990s after a few decades in New York he finds that the experiment of his father and a local black preacher in interracial unity in behalf of community renewal has collapsed, leaving the clergyman with little hope but a firm conviction that since whites were unreliable allies, blacks had no alternative but to address the devastation of black neighborhoods on their own.
Thomas Holt is a black University of Chicago social and cultural historian whose major work, The Problem of Freedom, is a brilliant, multifaceted account of Jamaican race, labor and politics in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The question Holt asks in his latest book-length essay, The Problem of Race in the Twenty-First Century, is whether W.E.B. Du Bois's comment that the color line is the problem of the twentieth century remains the main question for our century. Holt addresses the issue from a global perspective on two axes: to place race in the context of both the national and global economies, and to adopt a "global" theoretical framework of analysis that situates race historically in terms of the transformation of production regimes from early to late capitalism. In bold but sharp strokes the book outlines three stages: pre-Fordist, Fordist and post-Fordist.
Fordism was more than a production system based on a continuously moving assembly line where workers performed repetitive tasks. The "ism" in the term signifies that mass production and mass consumption are locked in an ineluctable embrace: If the line makes possible mass production, ways must be found to provide for mass consumption. Fordism therefore entails the formation of a new consumer by means of raising wages, mainly by the vast expansion of the credit system. Now workers could buy cars, houses and appliances, even send their kids to college on the principle of "buy now, pay later." This practical consideration led to a new conception of modernity.
The advent of consumer society has changed the face of America and the rest of the capitalist world. Before Fordism, which Holt terms pre-Fordism, the US economy was crucially dependent on slavery. Whatever their egregious moral and ethical features, blacks were at the core of both the pre-Fordist and Fordist production regimes. In the slave and post-Reconstruction eras they planted and picked cotton and tobacco; during and after World War II they were recruited into the vast network of industrial plants as unskilled and semiskilled labor. Indeed, they shared in the cornucopia of consumer society, owning late-model cars and single-family homes; in some instances, they were able to send their kids to college. As Holt points out, exploitative as these relationships were, blacks occupied central places in American economic life.
The 1970s witnessed the restructuring of world capitalism: The victories of the labor movement prompted capital to seek cheaper labor abroad; cities like Detroit, Cleveland, New York, Oakland and Chicago, where black workers constituted a significant proportion of the manufacturing labor force, were rapidly deindustrialized. In their place arose not only retail establishments but "new economy" computer-mediated industries like hardware and software production, dot-coms and financial services.
But the reindustrialization of the 1980s and 1990s occurred without the participation of blacks. In industries marked by the old technologies, hundreds of thousands of immigrants made garments, toys and other consumer goods. Lacking capital, African-Americans could not own the retail businesses in their own communities; these are largely owned by immigrants--Koreans, Indians, Caribbean and African merchants. Holt argues that American blacks are now largely excluded from the global economy; they occupy economic niches that are no longer at the center of production, positions that augur badly for the future of race in America. Even the growing black middle class is located in the public sector, which has been under severe attack since the 1980s. Moreover, Holt plainly rejects the judgment of "black progress" that leads to culturalist explanations for the growing economic and social disparity between blacks and whites. He finds:
overwhelming contemporary evidence that racism permeates every institution, every pore of everyday life. Justice in our courts, earnings on our jobs, whether we have a job at all, the quality of our life, the means and timing of our death--all form the stacked deck every child born black must take up to play the game of life.
Holt's essay ends with the faint hope that racial stigma and segregation will one day be overcome. For now, he insists, race remains, for all African-Americans--not only those suffering the deprivations of ghetto life--the problem of the twenty-first century. But neither Malcomson nor Holt can find sources of resistance. In fact, Holt explicitly gives up on the labor movement--a prime mover within the Fordist regime. It has been severely weakened by post-Fordist globalization. Nor does he identify forces within the African-American movements capable of leading a fight. As other sharp critics of racism such as Paul Gilroy point out, despair overwhelms hope.
The concept that judicial and legislative prohibitions against discrimination are sufficient to erase the legacy of four centuries of social and economic oppression is deeply embedded in the American imagination, always alert to the quick fix. From this view follows the inevitable conclusion that if income and social disparities stubbornly refuse to go away, something must be wrong with the victim. Thus the tricky and misleading term "culture" as explanation, which segues into proposals that blacks "pull up their socks" and reach for the main chance. But those who are passionate in their insistence that the elimination of the structurally induced racial divide will require a monumental struggle have hesitated before the gateway of class politics.
For those like Holt and Malcomson, who are less concerned with whether blacks enter corporate boardrooms than with raising the bottom, there is little alternative to calling on the power of the labor movement to join the fray. It might be argued that organized labor, still dominated by a relatively conservative white leadership, has shown little inclination to mount a fierce defense of black interests. But as unions lose their traditional white, blue-collar base, the labor movement is becoming more black and Latino, and certainly more female. And as its constituency is transformed, there are signs that the top leadership is learning a few lessons. The AFL-CIO's 2000 call for amnesty for undocumented immigrants was a move of historic precedent. And its attempt to organize low-wage workers is a reversal of past practice. If race remains a central problem of the new century, the way forward is probably to re-establish the race/class alliance that fell on hard times in the 1960s and 1970s. Without it, black freedom is confined to a cry in the darkness.
Almost every week, it seems, we get
to read about some state execution, performed or imminent, wreathed
in the usual toxic fog of race or sex prejudice, or incompetency of
counsel, or prosecutorial misconduct.
Take the recent
execution in Ashcroft country, February 7, of Stanley Lingar, done in
the Potosi Correctional Center in Missouri, for killing 16-year
Thomas Allen back in 1985. In the penalty phase of Lingar's trial,
prosecutor Richard Callahan, who may now be headed for the seat on
the Missouri State Supreme Court recently vacated by his
mother-in-law, argued for death, citing Lingar's homosexuality to the
jury as the crucial factor that should tilt poison into the guilty
man's veins. Governor Bob Holden turned down a clemency appeal and
told the press he'd "lost no sleep" over signing off on Lingar's
Is there any hope that the ample list of innocent
people either lost to the executioners or saved at the eleventh hour
will prompt a national moratorium such as is being sought by Senator
Russell Feingold of Wisconsin?
A year ago it seemed
possible. On January 31, 2000, Illinois Governor George Ryan
suspended imposition of the death penalty in his state on the grounds
that he could not support a system "which, in its administration, has
proven so fraught with error."
By June a Field Poll
reported the sensational finding that in the state with the most
crowded death row in the nation, Californians by nearly 4 to 1
favored stopping state executions to study how the death penalty was
being applied. The Field Poll respondents were told about wrong
convictions, also about appeals to Governor Gray Davis by religious
leaders for a moratorium. A poll at the end of last year, in which
California respondents were not offered this framework, put support
for a moratorium at 42 percent, just behind those opposed to any such
move. A national poll last fall found 53 percent for a
The discrepancy in the California polls
actually affords comfort to abolitionists, since it shows that when
respondents are told about innocent people saved from lethal
injection, often at the last moment, support for a moratorium soars.
It's a matter of public education.
But where are the
educators? Many eligible political leaders have fled the field of
battle, convinced that opposition to the death penalty is a sure-fire
vote loser. In the second presidential debate last fall Al Gore
wagged his head in agreement when George W. Bush declared his faith
in executions as a deterrent.
A few years ago Hillary
Clinton spoke of her private colloquys with the shade of Eleanor
Roosevelt. Their conversations left La Clinton unpersuaded, since she
stands square for death, as does New York's senior senator, Charles
Indeed, the death penalty is no longer a gut
issue, or even a necessary stand, for those, like Schumer, who are
associated with the Democratic Party's liberal wing. On February 12
the New York Post quoted Kerry Kennedy Cuomo, long known as a
leading death-penalty opponent, as saying that "it would be futile"
to try to repeal capital punishment in New York.
Cuomo, daughter of Robert F. Kennedy, told the Post that she
believes her husband, Andrew, a contender for the Democratic
nomination for governor, shares her views. "To tell you the truth, on
the death penalty, it's not as big an issue in the state as it was a
few years ago." Mrs. Cuomo's father-in-law, Mario, repeatedly vetoed
death-penalty measures during his years as governor.
line with Kerry Kennedy Cuomo's spineless stance, many liberal or
what are now cautiously called "human rights" groups have also found
it politic to sideline capital punishment as an issue. No better
illustration is available than the recent tussle over John Ashcroft's
nomination as Attorney General. Scores of groups flailed at him on
choice, racism and hate crimes, but not on the most racist
application of hatein the arsenal of state power: the death
Return for a moment to the fight to save Lingar's
life. Privacy Rights Education Project, the statewide Missouri gay
lobby group, endorsed Holden in his gubernatorial race. PREP,
however, was quite muted on Lingar's fate, taking little action
except to send a letter to the governor the day before the execution.
Another gay organization, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against
Defamation, the folks who want to shut down Dr. Laura, is a national
group but happens to have an office in Kansas City, Missouri. Surely
what prosecutor Callahan did to Stanley Lingar is well beyond
defamation. Where was the Gay and Lesbian Alliance on this case? Not
a peep from them. Noisy on hate crimes but silent on the death
penalty is the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest
The issue of capital punishment is
drawing much more attention these days. Just when help could really
make a difference, where are all these (ostensibly) liberal and
progressive groups? The Anti-Defamation League (all right, strike the
word "ostensible"), whose national director, Abraham Foxman, pulled
down $389,000 in 1999, was busy writing letters for Marc Rich. The
death penalty? The ADL endorsed Bill Clinton's appalling
Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996.
impetus given by Ryan last year could fall apart. Governor Ryan
himself faces difficult re-election prospects in 2002, and a
successor could rescind the moratorium. Liberals should abandon their
absurd and dangerous obsession with hate crimes and muster against
this most hateful excrescence on the justice system. Let them take
encouragement from the district attorney of San Francisco, Terrence
Hallinan, who told a San Francisco court on February 6 that he would
not participate in the capital sentencing of one Robert Massey since
"the death penalty does not constitute any more of a deterrent than
life without parole" and, among other evils, "discriminates racially
and financially, being visited mainly on racial minorities and the
poor.... It forfeits the stature and respect to which our state is
entitled by reducing us to a primitive code of
Every conservative is now a compassionate conservative.
Well, most were at the recent annual Conservative Political Action
Conference, which drew more than 3,000 right-wing activists and
leaders to a hotel outside Washington. A year ago George W. Bush was
viewed with suspicion by many conservative honchos who worried that
ideological wimpiness ran in the family and that Bush's Compassionate
Conservatism was a retreat from traditional conservatism. What
a difference a butterfly ballot can make. At the confab Bush was
embraced by this flock as one of their own, a politician who waged a
masterful, conservative campaign and who--even better--has adopted as
his role model not his pop but Ronald Reagan. Marc Holtzman, the
Colorado secretary of technology, proclaimed that a "conservative
revolution...is shaping America today."
Had a county
elections officer in Palm Beach not designed a confusing ballot,
these cons probably would be whining about Bush and the
wishy-washiness of compassionate conservatism. But winning--even by
Supreme Court fiat--changes everything. And the attendees were
delighted to grant Bush slack. They did not snipe at his tax-cut plan
(too small and unrevolutionary for most of them), his education plan
(which bolsters the Education Department rather than demolishes it
and nudges school choice toward the back of the bus) or his
military-spending plan (which includes a Pentagon raise but does not
immediately shower the military with extra tens of billions of
dollars). They're willing to wait for Bush to score legislative wins
before pressing Social Security privatization, and they're content
with an incremental approach to restricting abortion
This usually cantankerous lot is saluting and
following. Commentator Ann Coulter noted that Bush "could teach us a
few things.... He discovered all you had to do was go around calling
yourself nice.... Many of us took umbrage at that." But it worked.
Not everyone absorbed the lesson. Leftist-turned-rightist author
David Horowitz urged Republicans to "stop being so polite." Call the
liberals what they truly are, he advised: "totalitarians."
Still, the bitterness quotient at this CPAC was much lower
than in previous years. No more Where's Lee Harvey Oswald When You
Need Him? bumper stickers. (Instead, one could buy Dixie Forever
stickers--as speakers urged conservatives to reach out to blacks and
Latinos.) Bill and Hillary Clinton received fewer jabs than expected.
A group called America's Survival did hand out a report on "Hillary
Clinton's Secret United Nations Agenda." (Implement "world
government...that will destroy American sovereignty and traditional
families.") Oliver North blasted the ex-President for pardoning Marc
Rich, because Rich traded with hostage-holding Iran. (Did North
forget he sent missiles to hostage-holding Iran?) Senator
James Inhofe griped, "We have had a President who has given away or
covered up [the illegal transfer of] virtually every secret in our
nuclear arsenal." Nevertheless, many CPACers appeared to believe it
was time to move on.
But even as rightists control the
White House and Congress, cons still claim they are besieged. Terry
Jeffrey, the editor of Human Events, asserted that "the iron
law of American journalism" still stands: "The most conservative
candidate in any campaign will be demonized by the establishment
press." (Perhaps he ought to ask Al Gore about this.) Coulter, in all
seriousness, said that Republicans and conservatives--in battling
Democrats and liberals--"are always at a disadvantage because we
won't lie." One activist complained that Democrats "with their
talking points run circles around Republicans." Another fretted that
the GOP, up against a Democratic Party backed by organized labor, was
"losing the ground campaign." An NRA official had to remind him that
the gun lobby runs its own ground campaign pretty darn well. Perhaps
it's tough to be in power when you're accustomed to viewing yourself
as a victim of persecution.
Of course, enemies abound. The
National Right to Work Foundation's Stefan Gleason reported that the
AFL-CIO "has now embraced communist influences." Senator Mitch
McConnell noted that campaign finance reform is a plot mounted by
Hollywood, academia and the media to "quiet your vote...[so] they'll
have more power." The NRA's Wayne LaPierre warned that the organizers
of a UN conference on gun control "want the marvelous millennial
youth [of the United States] not to be American citizens but global
citizens.... I say never!" Andrea Sheldon Lafferty of the Traditional
Values Coalition accused Planned Parenthood of defending abortion
rights so it can make money selling fetal remains.
loathing continue, but Bush has tamed this fierce crowd. "The
ideologically motivated in politics are often disappointed," said
David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union. "But most
conservatives are surprised they like Bush so much." Marc Rotterman,
a senior fellow at the John Locke Foundation, reflected the spirit of
CPAC when he remarked, "We on the right need to give Bush a chance to
develop a broad-based agenda. After 1994 we expected things to go too
fast." Now they watch Bush with hope, and they dare to believe.
George W. Bush's description of the US-British bombing
of Iraq as a "routine mission" unwittingly summed up the mechanical
nature of the US-British air operations in Iraq, which have been
bombing on autopilot since 1992. These sorties continue because no
one has a better idea of what US policy toward Iraq should be. The
only rationales for the February 16 strike were to tell Saddam
Hussein that the mindless air campaign will continue under a new
administration and to reduce the possibility that Iraq's improved air
defenses might shoot down a US plane on the eve of Secretary of State
Colin Powell's trip to the Middle East.
But the attack's main outcome was to remind the world of the emptiness of US policy in the area. The sanctions regime is now widely ignored; US European
allies, led by the French, are furious at Washington's unilateralism
(even Tony Blair's foreign minister was preparing to relax sanctions). Bush spoke of enforcing "the agreement that [Saddam Hussein] signed after Desert Storm," but the Clinton Administration helped undermine the UN inspection regime instituted after the war by making it an anti-Saddam operation. UNSCOM inspectors pulled out, never to return, just before December 16, 1998, when cruise missiles
were unleashed against Baghdad in Operation Desert Fox. Washington's obdurate support of the sanctions, despite massive suffering among the Iraqi people, eroded the anti-Saddam consensus in the Arab world that developed after his invasion of Kuwait. Finally, the failure of Mideast peace talks and Ariel Sharon's victory in Israel lend credence to Saddam's claim to be the champion of the Palestinians, and it provided him with another opportunity to play to the Arab streets and mendaciously blame US-Israel conniving.
from strengthening Powell's mission, the bombings stirred up renewed
hostility among the Arab people. The Bush team's campaign
pronouncements on Iraq do not allow hope that Powell brings any new
ideas to the region. Indeed, the ineluctable drift of events in the
past year has left the new Administration few options. The old, cruel
sanctions policy is discredited, and there is scant hope at this
point that the Iraqis will agree to accept UN inspectors, who are the
best check on Saddam's efforts to rebuild his war machine. As it
happens, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan was to meet with the Iraqi
foreign minister February 26-27 to discuss reinstating them; the
bombing surely hasn't helped this initiative. And there is virtually
no international support for any of the Administration plans to beef
up support for Iraqi opposition groups. Without the backing of a wide
coalition of countries, no policy has any chance of success.
The wisest future course for the United States is to forge
a more modest containment and sanctions policy that might win the
support of America's partners. It should aim to put in place limited
and precisely targeted sanctions designed to curtail Iraq's import of
advanced military technology and to contain Saddam. That means
abandoning unilateralism (something that goes against the grain of
this new White House) and reaching out not only to the UN and allies
in Europe and the Middle East but to regional players like Turkey and
It is ironic that Colin Powell, the architect of
Desert Storm, must now deal with its long-term consequences--its
failure to bring peace and stability to the region.
George W. Bush's mid-February directive
ordering the Pentagon to review and restructure the US nuclear
arsenal is a wake-up call for supporters of arms control and
disarmament. Under the guise of revising nuclear policy to make it
more relevant to the post-cold war world, the Bush Administration is
pushing an ambitious scheme to deploy a massive missile defense
system and develop a new generation of nuclear weapons. If fully
implemented, Bush's aggressive new policy could provoke a multisided
nuclear arms race that will make the US-Soviet competition of the
cold war era look tame by comparison.
To understand the
danger of Bush's emerging nuclear doctrine, you have to read the fine
print. Some elements of his approach--first outlined at a May 23,
2000, speech at the National Press Club--sound sensible. Bush implied
that if elected President, he would reduce the nation's arsenal of
nuclear overkill from its current level of 7,500 strategic warheads
to 2,500 or less. In tandem with these reductions, which go beyond
anything the Clinton Administration contemplated, Bush also promised
to take as many nuclear weapons as possible off hairtrigger alert
status, thereby reducing the danger of an accidental
So far, so good: fewer nuclear weapons, with fewer
on high-alert status, would be a step in the right direction.
Unfortunately, Bush also committed himself to deploying, "at the
earliest possible date," a missile defense system capable of
defending "all fifty states and our friends and allies and deployed
forces overseas." Unlike the $60 billion Clinton/Gore National
Missile Defense scheme, which involved land-based interceptors based
in Alaska and North Dakota, Bush's enthusiasm for a new Star Wars
system knows no limit. The President and his Star Warrior in Chief,
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, are willing to put missile
interceptors on land, at sea, on airplanes and in outer space in
pursuit of continued US military dominance.
announced Rumsfeld's appointment in late December, he acknowledged
that the Pentagon veteran would have a big "selling job" to do on
national missile defense, with allies and potential adversaries
alike. But even Washington's closest NATO allies continue to have
grave reservations about Rumsfeld's suggestion that the United States
might trash the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty of 1972 in order to
pursue its missile defense fantasy. Meanwhile, Russian President
Vladimir Putin has flatly stated that a US breakout from the treaty
would call the entire network of US-Russian arms agreements into
The cost of Bush's Star Wars vision could be as
much as $240 billion over the next two decades, but that's the least
of our problems. According to a Los Angeles Times account of a
classified US intelligence assessment that was leaked to the press
last May, deployment of an NMD system by the United States is likely
to provoke "an unsettling series of political and military ripple
effects...that would include a sharp buildup of strategic and
medium-range nuclear missiles by China, India and Pakistan and the
further spread of military technology in the Middle
Bush's provocative missile defense scheme may not
even be the most dangerous element of his new-age nuclear policy.
According to Steven Lee Myers of the New York Times, Bush's
renovation of US nuclear doctrine will draw heavily on a January 2001
study by the National Institute for Public Policy that was directed
by Dr. Keith Payne, whose main claim to fame is co-writing a 1980s
essay on nuclear war titled "Victory Is Possible." Bush National
Security Council staffers Robert Joseph and Stephen Hadley were
involved in the production of the NIPP study, as was William
Schneider, informal adviser and ideological soulmate of Donald
In its most egregious passage, the study
advocates the development and design of a new generation of nuclear
weapons to be used for both deterrent and "wartime roles," ranging
from "deterring weapons of mass destruction (WMD) use by regional
powers" to "preventing catastrophic losses in a conventional war,"
from "providing unique targeting capabilities (deep
underground/biological weapons targets)" to "enhancing US
influence in crises." In short, at a time when a number of prominent
military leaders, like Gen. Lee Butler, the former head of the
Strategic Air Command, have been suggesting the abolition of nuclear
weapons on the grounds that they serve no legitimate military
purpose, George W. Bush is taking advice from a group of unreformed
initiates in the nuclear priesthood who are desperately searching for
ways to relegitimize nuclear weapons.
The unifying vision
behind the Bush doctrine is nuclear unilateralism, the notion that
the United States can and will make its own decisions about the size,
composition and employment of its nuclear arsenal without reference
to arms control agreements or the opinions of other nations. It is a
disastrous doctrine that raises the odds that nuclear weapons will be
used again one day, and as such it demands an immediate and forceful
It's not as if we haven't been down this
road before. In the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan rode into Washington
with guns blazing, pressing for a massive nuclear buildup and a Star
Wars missile defense system, the international peace movement helped
roll back his nightmare nuclear scenarios and push him toward a
policy of nuclear arms reductions, not mutual annihilation. It will
take that same kind of energy and commitment to stave off Bush's
A box of Chopin nocturnes handed down
from the other side of my mother's death--
evening gowns in trash bags making a little
Golgotha of their own right in the corner
of that studio we had spent all morning
emptying out--uncandled cold chaperoned
through the sill. Lullabies all of us had
already heard while drinks kept going round
the parlor after her wake assembled now
into makeshift history--bits of tenderness
discarded down the cosmos slide, each night
a phantom limb, the hours trapezing over
that sea of anonymous faces where sidereal
glances scale up the piano's mirrored lid.
industry has been celebrating the supposed defeat of Napster. The
Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has affirmed the grant of a
preliminary injunction that may well have the effect of closing the
service down completely and ending the commercial existence of
Napster's parent (that is, unless the record companies agree to an
implausible deal Napster has proposed). But despite appearances, what
has happened, far from being a victory, is the beginning of the
industry's end. Even for those who have no particular stake in the
sharing of music on the web, there's value in understanding why the
"victory"over Napster is actually a profound and irreversible
calamity for the record companies. What is now happening to music
will soon be happening to many other forms of "content" in the
information society. The Napster case has much to teach us about the
collapse of publishers generally, and about the liberative
possibilities of the decay of the cultural oligopolies that dominated
the second half of the twentieth century.
The shuttering of
Napster will not achieve the music industry's goals because the
technology of music-sharing no longer requires the centralized
registry of music offered for sharing among the network's listeners
that Napster provided. Freely available software called OpenNap
allows any computer in the world to perform the task of facilitating
sharing; it is already widely used. Napster itself--as it kept
pointing out to increasingly unsympathetic courts--maintained no
inventory of music: It simply allowed listeners to find out what
other listeners were offering to share. Almost all the various
sharing programs in existence can switch from official Napster to
other sharing facilitators with a single click. And when they move,
the music moves with them. Now, in the publicity barrage surrounding
the decision, 60 million Napster users will find out about OpenNap,
which cannot be sued or prohibited because, as free software, no one
controls its distribution and any lawsuits would have to be brought
against all its users worldwide. Suddenly, instead of a problem posed
by one commercial entity that can be closed down or acquired, the
industry will be facing the same technical threat, with no one to sue
but its own customers. No business can survive by suing or harassing
its own market.
The music industry (by which we mean the
five companies that supply about 90 percent of the world's popular
music) is dying not because of Napster but because of an underlying
economic truth. In the world of digital products that can be copied
and moved at no cost, traditional distribution structures, which
depend on the ownership of the content or of the right to distribute,
are fatally inefficient. As John Guare's famous play has drummed into
all our minds, everyone in society is divided from everyone else by
six degrees of separation. The most efficient distribution system in
the world is to let everyone give music to whoever they know would
like it. When music has passed through six hands under the current
distribution system, it hasn't even reached the store. When it has
passed through six hands in a system that doesn't require the
distributor to buy the right to pass it along, it has already reached
several million listeners.
This increase in efficiency
means that composers, songwriters and performers have everything to
gain from making use of the system of unowned or anarchistic
distribution, provided that each listener at the end of the chain
still knows how to pay the artist and feels under some obligation to
do so, or will buy something else--a concert ticket, a T-shirt, a
poster--as a result of having received the music for free. Hundreds
of potential "business models" remain to be explored once the
proprietary distributor has disappeared, no one of which will be
perfect for all artistic producers but all of which will be the
subject of experiment in decades to come, once the dinosaurs are
No doubt there will be some immediate pain that will
be felt by artists rather than the shareholders of music
conglomerates. The greatest of celebrity musicians will do fine under
any system, while those who are currently waiting on tables or
driving a cab to support themselves have nothing to lose. For the
signed recording artists just barely making it, on the other hand,
the changes are of legitimate concern. But musicians as a whole stand
to gain far more than they lose. Their wholesale defection from the
existing distribution system is about to begin, leaving the music
industry--like manuscript illuminators, piano-roll manufacturers and
letterpress printers--a quaint and diminutive relic of a passé
The industry's giants won't disappear overnight,
or perhaps at all. But because their role as owner-distributors makes
no economic sense, they will have to become suppliers of services in
the production and promotion of music. Advertising agencies,
production services consultants, packagers--they will be anything but
owners of the music they market to the world.
What is most
important about this phenomenon is that it applies to everything that
can be distributed as a stream of digital bits by the simple human
mechanism of passing it along. The result will be more music, poetry,
photography and journalism available to a far wider audience. Artists
will see a whole new world of readers, listeners and viewers; though
each audience member will be paying less, the artist won't have to
take the small end of a split determined by the distribution
oligarchs who have cheated and swindled them ever since Edison. For
those who worry about the cultural, economic and political power of
the global media companies, the dreamed-of revolution is at hand. The
industry may right now be making a joyful noise unto the Lord, but it
is we, not they, who are about to enter the promised land.
Back during the
presidential campaign, George W. Bush called Clarence Thomas and
Antonin Scalia his favorite Supreme Court Justices--a remark widely
interpreted at the time as just smoke-blowing in the direction of the
right. Guess what--it's time to start taking Bush at his word,
especially when it comes to Thomas.
Just weeks after the
inauguration, Justice Thomas has emerged as the new Administration's
judicial patron saint. The top three officials of the Bush Justice
Department--Attorney General John Ashcroft, Solicitor
General-designate Theodore Olson and Deputy Attorney
General-designate Larry Thompson--are all close Thomas friends.
Thomas even officiated at Olson's wedding (also Rush Limbaugh's) and
Ashcroft's swearing-in. While Thomas's wife, Virginia, shovels
Heritage Foundation résumés into the 1600 Pennsylvania
Avenue personnel department, his former clerk Helgard Walker sits in
the White House counsel's office.
After the Court's Florida
decision, Thomas told a group of high school students that his
famous, baffling reluctance to ask questions on the bench grows out
of his childhood fear of being mocked for speaking Gullah (a black
language) in an all-white seminary class. Maybe, but the vindicating
presence of so many friends in the White House seems to have given
the Supreme Court's Garbo new confidence: After nearly a decade on
the sidelines, in mid-February Thomas emerged into the Washington
spotlight at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) with a
Castro-length jeremiad on what he views as continuing liberal efforts
to stifle him and other conservative culture warriors.
Thomas was nominated for the Court, some African-American and liberal
voices argued that his biography as a black man gave hope that with
time he would moderate his far-right views on affirmative action,
welfare and civil rights. His rulings make their own testimony, of
course, but if that AEI dinner speech is any indication, what is most
remarkable about Thomas is that he has scarcely changed at all,
either in preoccupations or politics. The themes of his speech--a
hodgepodge of cherry-picked libertarian quotes from the likes of
Hamilton, Montesquieu and Thomas Sowell--were instantly familiar to
anyone who waded through his preconfirmation writings as the Reagan
Administration's dismantler of equal opportunity enforcement. Back
then, he praised sports and business as the great crucibles of
character in a free society. In his AEI speech he told of how "the
great UCLA basketball coach JohnWooden taught his players how to play
the game by first teaching them how to lace up and tie their shoes."
Back in 1991, Thomas dodged uncomfortable questions about his friend
Jay Parker, a flack and registered agent for the apartheid-era South
African government. In his speech he went out of his way to praise
Parker as his mentor.
Most of all, what has remained
consistent about Justice Thomas is his swirling hornet's nest of
resentment--that strange combination of megalomania and self-pity
embodied in his famous denunciation of his confirmation hearings as a
"high-tech lynching." At AEI he favorably compared himself and other
conservative culture warriors to Dimitar Peshev, a heroic Bulgarian
civil servant who during World War II secured the rescue of Sofia's
Jews at considerable personal risk. Thomas remains obsessed with the
idea of conservatives as persecuted victims--which, since those
conservatives now run the White House, Justice and Congress, raises
questions about his hold on reality. But the question currently being
floated in Washington judicial circles is whether Thomas, not the
oft-mentioned Scalia, is Bush's favored successor to Chief Justice
As Bush finds backs to pat and hands to
The Democrats can't seem to buy a break.
opposition doesn't coalesce,
Because the spotlight's on the
A mess that's just like catnip to the
Afraid that he will never go away,
The Democrats by
now just want to say,
Avoid the headlines, can't
Speak softly, please, not louder.
networks, can't you, Bill?
Enough, man! Take a
Ignored as long as he is on the
The Democrats, befuddled, try to gauge
How he, amidst
the sleaze, seems so unfazed
While they are crazed, and find
At all the oxygen the man
As he on his sword himself
Avoid the headlines, can't you,
They say. At any cost!
Eschew the networks, can't you,
Could you please just get lost?
We have many male authors known for loving women, fewer known for loving men. Love that is not overtly homoerotic--resolutely heterosexual, in fact--can take on an intimacy and purity untroubled by sex, even if still troubling for its intensity, its incoherence and frequent confusion, violence or aggression, its exclusionary quality. And so it is no surprise to find it so often in novels of war, or the military. In the last half-century American practitioners of this form have included Heller and Mailer, Ward Just, Tim O'Brien and, perhaps most overlooked, James Salter, who is interested in more than the camaraderie among men in uniform but also its inverse as well, the case of the solitary, perhaps a newcomer breaking in. Here is his description of the fighter pilot Robert Cassada from his new novel of that name:
It was his beauty, of course, a beauty that no one saw--they were blind to such a thing.... By beauty, nothing obvious is meant. It was an aspect of the unquenchable, of the martyr, but this quality had its physical accompaniment. His shoulders were luminous, his body male but not hard, his hair disobedient. Few of them had seen him naked, not that he concealed himself or was modest but like some animal come to drink he was solitary and unboisterous. He was intelligent but not cerebral and could be worshipful, as in the case of airplanes.
"They" and "them" are his colleagues, the men of a fighter squadron stationed in Germany in the 1950s. The men--Dunning, Isbell, Wickenden, Godchaux, Phipps, Dumfries, Ferguson, Harlan, Grace--lead restless, incurious, exalted lives, flying every day in the skies above Western Europe, waiting for the conflict that never comes. So conflict comes from within and among the men, who are arrogant, competitive, bored, cussedly suspicious yet trusting, too. They are not alike. Major Dunning is a Southerner and former college football star; Harlan is a rustic, an overgrown farm boy. Wickenden, or "Wick the prick," Cassada's nemesis, was "born in the wrong century. The cavalry was what he was made for, riding in the dust of the Mexican border with cracked lips and a line edged into his hair from the strap of a campaign hat." Cassada is from Puerto Rico, which leads Harlan to wonder what he's doing in the US Air Force. "Puerto Rico's part of the United States," replies Godchaux.
"I don't know. A long time."
"I must of missed hearing about it."
The banter may not recall Catch-22--while sharp, it is seldom witty--but Salter's particular genius is for the inexpressive man. He saves his tenderest regard for Cassada, about whom there is "an elegance...a superiority. You did not find it often." It is perhaps his gravest mistake, for to a reader with less invested in the project, Cassada is the least present, most flattened out, of all the men, the one who never steps out of the page despite being so beautiful or unforgettable as all that. Cassada, which is a revision of an early, out-of-print novel, The Arm of Flesh, should instead be titled Isbell.
In interviews Salter has dismissed The Arm of Flesh as a "failed book," and he says the same in his preface to Cassada. Admitting that the new venture might be "a mistake," he cites "the appeal of the period, the 1950s, barely a decade after the war; the place, the fighter bases of Europe; and the life itself." Cassada, then--in words that I have seen repeated in every notice--is "the book the other might have been."
I think in fact it is the same book, although better turned out for some crucial changes. The Arm of Flesh is a novel in alternating voices--seventeen altogether--some of which are hard to figure out, others appearing only briefly, even once. Several could be cut entirely, as their narrative distracts from the general thread, which is about the ordeal of two pilots (one whose radio is out) trying to make it home in terrible weather, while interspersed are episodes from lazy days on base and elsewhere. Cassada is told in the third person, but the structure is much the same--if the two books are laid side by side, one sees in Cassada a succession of loose little chapters that more or less correspond to an individual voice's narrative in The Arm of Flesh. Major Clyde is now Dunning. Lieutenant Sisse from the earlier book does not appear at all in the second. In The Arm of Flesh Cassada never speaks with his own voice. In both works his words are reported to us through the perspective of others; and so he is always at least once, often twice, removed from a reader.
"Something was usually beginning before the last thing ended." This is Isbell, and the words seem to me to be the key to the book. Cassada is a new arrival at the wing in Giebelstadt, but the rivalries, the ennui, the excitements of a life in the air, at speed, have been going on as long as men have been assembled to fight. Salter, who was a pilot himself in Korea--with the advantage, unlike many of the pilots in Cassada, of actually having seen combat--has written of this elsewhere, in his first novel, The Hunters, and in his memoir Burning the Days. A pilot, it seems, becomes obsessed with doing something remarkable, with being remembered and spoken about even after he's gone. "In the end there is a kind of illness," Salter writes in his memoir. "A feeling of inconsequence, even lightness, takes hold. It is, in a way, like the earliest days, the sense of being an outsider. Others are taking one's place, nameless others who can never know how it was." Cassada is driven relentlessly to prove himself; his immediate commander, Wickenden, thinks he has a death wish. Isbell, who grows to love Cassada, acknowledges his own part in stirring him up. "It was true [he] had sometimes opposed him. It had been essential to. It was part of the unfolding." Earlier we have learned of Isbell's mysticism, his sense of his role among the men as "biblical." "It was the task of Moses--he would take them to within sight of what was promised, but no further. To the friezes of heaven, which nobody knew were there."
In this kind of outfit, Cassada never stands a chance. It is he who is one of the pilots in trouble as they try to reach home. The other is Isbell. The bond between the two is the strangest in the book, yet critical to its success. I don't think Salter has convinced us that it is true. Isbell is decent, perceives Cassada's isolation; pencils himself in to fly with him once, on an early morning training mission over Germany. It is a matchless day, the kind fliers dream of. They hardly speak.
The earth lay immense and small beneath them, the occasional airfields white as scars. Down across the Rhine. The strings of barges, smaller than stitches. The banks of poplar. Then a city, glistening, struck by the first sun. Stuttgart. The thready streets, the spires, the world laid bare.
Afterward Isbell's body is "empty," his mind "washed clean." Cassada asks about a city they flew over, Ingolstadt. "It's not as great as it was this morning," Isbell replies.
"You could say that about everyplace," he commented.
It was true, Isbell thought, exactly. He felt a desire to reply in kind. It was not often you found anyone who could say things.
It is worth reprinting Salter's original language from The Arm of Flesh. The speaker is Isbell:
"The whole world's like that," he said.
A chance remark that entered my heart. I didn't know what to say. Suddenly he was not what he seemed--as wise as a schoolboy who knows sex--he was entirely different. Yes, I thought. The whole world is. And early we rise to discover the earth. I felt a sudden desire to bequeath him my dreams, to offer them up. All of the searching is only for someone who can understand them.
This seems to me rather better, nearly perfect, in fact. While terseness can suggest all the things that must remain unspoken in life, a writer striking at the essence of character must occasionally open himself up, like a pilot his engines. Earlier in the same passage, in The Arm of Flesh, we have the measure of Isbell that is stripped from its revision in Cassada--excitable, aroused, ready for risk: the risk of loving a fellow flier: "We stealthy two. Streaming like princes. Breathing like steers," he thinks while aloft. Over Stuttgart:
Watch out, Stuttgart. Watch out. We're at God's empty window. We can see everything. The thready streets. The spires. It's all apparent. We can stare through the roofs. Right into the first cups of coffee. Your warm secrets, Stuttgart. Your rumpled beds.
None of this is in Cassada. None of it says much about Cassada, but it says everything about Isbell. The end of the chapter is the same in both books, except for the following sentences from The Arm of Flesh: "He could have told me what he was going to be. I might have believed him." And later on, when the two men's mission has met its tragic end, a lengthy Isbell monologue is sharply cut, in which his obsession with Cassada again comes to the fore: "There is so much I almost told him. I can't understand why I didn't. I was waiting for something, a word that would fall, an unguarded act." Of course, there are no unguarded acts from the embattled Cassada, but more surprising is the sense--retained in Cassada--that the young pilot actually had something to say. Both versions ascribe uniqueness to him, the phrase "the sum of our destinies." Yet Cassada doesn't even pretend to understand Isbell in those moments when their communion is said to be greatest: "You amaze me, Captain.... We're talking about two different things. I don't know. I just don't understand, I guess."
In Burning the Days--the eponymous chapter of which, thirty pages long, is a true anticipation of the story told in The Arm of Flesh and Cassada--Salter invokes briefly a pilot named Cortada: "He was from Puerto Rico, small, excitable, and supremely confident. Not everyone shared his opinion of his ability--his flight commander was certain he would kill himself."
And that's it for Cortada. Another cipher, with too much in common with Cassada to be a coincidence. Salter has kept the story of both men to himself, which is why a reader turns more attentively to the lonely and appealing Captain Isbell, standing between the men and Major Dunning. It is no surprise, of course. Failing to attach ourselves to the protagonist for whom the book is named, we look elsewhere, and find our longing met in the author's substitute.
The end of Cassada is beautiful. It is only four pages. Isbell and his family are leaving Germany; they are on a train along the Rhine, his daughters rambunctious, his wife solicitous, Isbell alone with his thoughts, which include Cassada. For the first time he senses himself as the romantic figure readers have seen all along, joining the ranks of the eternals, "the failed brother, the brilliant alcoholic friend, the rejected lover, the solitary boy who scorned the dance." Isbell is Salter; and one turns to Burning the Days, where the author takes his own solitary farewell to the flying life:
When I returned to domestic life I kept something to myself, a deep attachment--deeper than anything I had known--to all that had happened. I had come very close to achieving the self that is based on the risking of everything, going where others would not go, giving what they would not give. Later I felt I had not done enough, had been too reliant, too unskilled. I had not done what I set out to do and might have done. I felt contempt for myself, not at first but as time passed, and I ceased talking about those days, as if I had never known them. But it had been a great voyage, the voyage, probably, of my life.
"I would have given anything, I remember that," Salter adds, remembering the pilot's terror ("none of it mattered"), including separation from his leader. Isbell mouths nearly those words in remembering a Cassada who "stands before him, fair-haired, his small mouth and teeth, young, unbeholden." In Burning the Days Salter recalls a beloved figure from West Point who fell in the war: "He had fallen and in that act been preserved, made untarnishable. He had not married. He had left no one...he represented the flawless and was the first of that category to disappear."
Reading Salter's memoir, or recollection, as he prefers to call it, one senses that much of his life has been a mourning. The list of the dead is long and unfolds over pages and pages--many are pilots, men Salter flew with--and it becomes easy to see what he hopes is evident from his preface to Cassada: "the fact that it was sometimes the best along with the worst pilots who got killed." All of Salter's novels--including The Hunters, A Sport and a Pastime and Light Years--are beautiful elegies in which a survivor tries to go on, somehow make sense of it all, knowing the task is futile but that perhaps peace can be achieved. Why should his memoir be any different? Cassada will take a few hours to read, in which time there is exquisite suspense, some lovely sentences, a tender portrait of a hero--Isbell, I still believe, not Cassada--and a lot of shoptalk about flying. But the flying talk is better, more exactly described and sustained, more rapturous--"exalted," to use a favorite Salter word--in Burning the Days, and the memoir has the advantage of tracking the two held-apart strands of Salter's emotional life--the chaste love of men, the unsatiable desire for women--more closely than is possible for a book about fighter pilots. The following sentence sounds like Isbell recalling Cassada, but in fact it's Salter standing in the wreckage of all who have died: "You are surviving, more than surviving: their days have been inscribed on yours."