However varied their styles, poets writing in English today still rely on the early-twentieth-century Imagist principles of clarity, directness, presentative imagery and rhythm based on cadences. Although Imagism, revolutionary in its time, gathered force from several classical traditions, Chinese poetry was at the forefront.
Now, Crossing the Yellow River shows anew the vitality of classic Chinese poetry. Sam Hamill's collected translations contains beautiful versions by more than sixty poets, from the Shih Ching, or "Classic of Poetry" (10th century-600 BCE) through the eighth-century masters, Tu Fu, Li Po and Wang Wei, to the sixteenth-century poet Wang Yang-ming.
As W.S. Merwin writes in his elegant introduction, Hamill's translations stand in a long tradition of modern versions of classic Chinese poetry, notably Arthur Waley's 170 Chinese Poems of 1918. Merwin adds: "Sam Hamill's work, like Waley's, represents a lifetime's devotion to the classic originals, which survived in a long, subtle, intricate current."
Earlier than Waley's work, Ezra Pound's slim book Cathay (1915) was a landmark in poetry as well as in translation from the Chinese. Pound's contemporaries valued the tactile images and the musical freedom based on the concurrence of sounds rather than on rhyme and fixed stress counts. Still, his versions were marred by inaccuracies (such as referring to the "River Kiang" as though the river had a name, when actually the word kiang means river). "The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry," an essay written by Ernest Fenollossa and edited by Pound, introduced a new poetic method in which clusters of images and ideas (similar to what is conveyed in Chinese written characters) would take the place of the old logic and sequence of European poetics.
Following Pound's directness and musical freedom, Hamill returns to form, but in a far more natural way than did Pound's Georgian predecessors. For example, in translating the work of Tu Fu (712-770) Hamill observes the couplet that follows syntactical parallelism, as in "The palace walls will divide us/and clouds will bury the hills" ("Taking Leave of Two Officials"). Rightly the tone supersedes regularity of meter and rhyme, but in his
approximation of original forms he uses assonance, consonance and near-rhyme. (Caveat: I can compare English versions but since I do not read Chinese, I must rely on intuition, as well as the work of scholars elsewhere.)
The poems are radiant. "Taking Leave of a Friend," by Li Po (701-762), reads in its entirety:
Green mountains rise to the north;
white water rolls past the eastern city.
Once it has been uprooted,
the tumbleweed travels forever.
Drifting clouds like a wanderer's mind;
sunset, like the heart of your old friend.
We turn, pause, look back and wave.
Even our ponies look back and whine.
Li Po evokes the torment of emotional ambivalence with startling truth. The first two couplets contain natural images in motion, capturing the wanderer's intention: mountains that rise, water that rolls, tumbleweed that travels. The second set of couplets present images of fixity that also imply mortality. He is compelled to roam and he is attached--as are we all.
Here is the title poem of this collection, "Crossing the Yellow River," by Wang Wei (701-761):
A little boat on the great river
whose waves reach the end of the sky--
suddenly a great city, ten thousand
houses dividing sky from wave.
Between the towns there are
hemp and mulberry trees in the wilds.
Look back on the old country:
wide waters; clouds; and rising mist.
The metaphor, crossing the river, implies boundaries between present and past, change and habit, youth and the sense of aging (the latter prevalent in this anthology). By and large, the poets here attempt not the big emotion, which by itself can be intimidating, but the smaller fissures of that emotion. They deal with innuendoes, with truth relayed as it is in common speech, through bits of information, through sudden juxtapositions, through offhand observations of nature. From T.S. Eliot and Marianne Moore down to the present, this kind of emotional accounting prevails: I think immediately of poems such as Moore's "The Paper Nautilus," Eliot's "Preludes," Philip Levine's "Milkweed" and Karl Kirchwey's "In Transit," among others.
Li Ch'ing-chao (1084-1151), is one of the book's few poets known to be a woman. Hamill notes that she was one of China's greatest and also "one of the most influential critics of her age." "To the Tune: Boat of Stars" brings back to me Ezra Pound's remarkable adaptation of Li Po's "The River Merchant's Wife." Her poem begins:
Spring after spring, I sat before my mirror.
Now I tire of braiding plum buds in my hair.
I've gone another year without you,
shuddering with each letter--
I'm intrigued, too, by the work of an earlier poet, Tzu Yeh (fourth century). Like the speakers of the early Anglo-Saxon poems, such as "Wulf and Eadwacer" and "The Wife's Lament," the personae often are of women, but the author is unknown. The poems are brief, even slight, but their wit leaves room for growth in the reader's mind. Here, for instance, is "A Smile":
In this house without walls on a hill,
the four winds touch our faces.
If they blow open your robe of gauze,
I'll try to hide my smile.
Hamill's revised translation of Lu Chi's Wen Fu: The Art of Writing, a third-century ars poetica, reveals practices that are valuable for our time. More than a handbook, it counsels the mind and the spirit, which are all of a piece with style in Confucian Chinese thought. From Lu Chi's poetic treatise come these important maxims:
As infinite as space, good work
joins earth to heaven
Although each form is different,
each opposes evil:
none grants a writer license.
Language must speak from its essence
to articulate reason:
verbosity indicates lack of virtue.
Some of Lu Chi's injunctions are familiar ground rules:
Only through writing and then revising
may one gain the necessary insight.
Others are subtle but immensely meaningful:
Past and present commingle:
in the single blink of an eye!
Emotion and reason are not two:
every shift in feeling must be read.
The wen of Wen Fu means literary arts. In Confucian China, Hamill tells us, writing was inseparable from morality in that truth meant naming things. The fu is the form, whose syntactic parallelism strikes this listener as having affinities with passages in the Hebrew Bible, notably the Song of Songs.
As in the poetry anthology, Hamill's ease conveys profound ideas and intricate images with simplicity, naturalness and directness. The Wen Fu has appeared in other translations. When I was a teenager trying to write poetry, a family friend gave me for my birthday a desk dictionary and the Bollingen edition of E.R. Hughes's Lu Chi's Wen Fu, AD 302, which includes the document's history as well as a translation. I read it, but not happily, for the writing is ponderous. On the other hand, Hamill's prose is a fresh breeze.
Hamill is founding editor of Copper Canyon Press and a prolific author--the latest and best of his own poetry collections is Gratitude (1998). In "Discovering the Artist Within," he tells a disconcerting but lifting story of how he came to poetry. Orphaned at the age of 2, adopted, later beaten and sexually molested, he grew up to commit unlawful acts. Throughout his difficult early adulthood, though, he held to his literary talent as to a life raft. Among the contemporary poets whose work saved him and his writing were the Beat poets, Gary Snyder and especially Kenneth Rexroth, whose One Hundred Poems From the Chinese Hamill thanks in his new volume. It was from Rexroth he learned the discipline that poetry required. Three years in Japan--two in the Marines and one on a fellowship--added to his expertise as an Asian linguist as well as to his Zen practice.
Devotion aside, these books will endure. Their tone is a combination of zest, generosity and humility. "We are fortunate to live during the greatest time for poetry since the T'ang Dynasty," Hamill writes in his introduction to Crossing the Yellow River, aware that the classic Chinese poems capture the essence of today's practice. His humility is apparent from the last sentence of his introduction, an impassioned stance for our casual age: "I sit at the feet of the great old masters of my tradition not only to be in a position to pass on their many wonderful gifts, but to pay homage while in the very act of nourishing, sustaining and enhancing my own life."
A new era has begun in Serbia, not only because Slobodan Milosevic has at last been expelled from office but because the deed was accomplished by the Serbian people acting in solidarity and without recourse to violence to seize their political destiny. The world will not soon forget the spectacle of Serbian riot police embracing demonstrators or the ballots spilling from the windows of the Serbian Parliament building.
Six months ago, such developments were unthinkable: Serbia's opposition had grown battle-weary and despondent, outmaneuvered by a repressive regime and fractured by internal divisions. Much of the credit for the energy, creativity and wherewithal of the protests belongs to Serbia's youth movement, Otpor, which aggressively advocated coalition-building, nonviolent civil disobedience and the importance of winning police and military support. The popular rebellion in Serbia bore the hallmarks of Otpor's strategy, as well as the youth movement's exuberance and optimism.
Still, the politics of coalition-building are complicated and perilous. Can groups, individuals and institutions that once supported Milosevic's ruling party or that launched and sustained the rhetoric of war really be trusted to help lead Serbia into the new era? For how long will the eighteen opposition parties that united behind Vojislav Kostunica continue to cooperate in the absence of a common enemy? Given Serbia's deeply divided political scene, Kostunica, a nationalist democrat from the center right, was a canny choice for presidential nominee: Uncorrupted by regime ties or mafia connections, Kostunica has a reputation for personal honesty and integrity. An anti-Communist, he also has a history of fierce opposition to Western interference in Serbian affairs. He has denounced the Hague war crimes tribunal as a political tool, he had strong wartime ties to Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, and he decried the Dayton agreement of 1995, favoring more substantial Serbian territorial claims in Bosnia. As for the Serbian offensive against Albanians in Kosovo, Kostunica once told the Chicago Tribune, "Their leaders asked for Kosovo to be bombed. How should we behave? How would Americans behave?"
These views appealed to Milosevic's former constituency as well as to the substantial nationalist opposition that has long felt that Milosevic betrayed Serbian territorial aims and soiled the country's international image. Many ordinary Serbs share an abiding distrust of the international community, especially the United States, which they feel punished the people for the actions of a leader many of them despised. At the same time, although he wears his nationalism proudly, Kostunica says that it entails neither chauvinistic intent nor "Greater Serbian" aspirations. Kostunica has always opposed the deployment of paramilitaries, and he is a democrat who favors a free press, a truth commission and the rule of law. His impressively level-headed command of the peaceful rebellion speaks for his commitment to nonviolent conflict resolution within Yugoslavia.
And yet there is an antinationalist segment of the Serbian opposition, however small, that embraces the country's new leader very cautiously. These civil society leaders, many of whom weathered the Milosevic years in Serbia's sizable NGO community, worry that Kostunica will bring with him certain elites who fell from Milosevic's favor in the mid-nineties. After all, among Kostunica's close allies are the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts and the Serbian Orthodox Church, both of which helped produce the nationalist rhetoric that Milosevic seized to bolster popular support and to fuel the war machine. Serbian nationalism in all its varieties will not soon disappear, and the student movement in particular has a crucial role to play in keeping Kostunica, as well as his future challengers, honest and in helping a meaningful political life to take root at last in Serbia.
Meanwhile, the practical challenges are monumental. Yugoslavia's economy is a shambles. Not only did NATO bomb key factories last year; not only did sanctions create a vacuum since filled by an all-pervasive black market; not only does Serbia lack a banking system and access to foreign banks; but Milosevic and his cronies established an elite class of gangsters and paramilitaries whose ill-gotten wealth will be difficult to simply wish away. To neutralize the power of organized crime, the holdings of war profiteers and mafia lords may have to be legalized, or at the very least, these characters, who have played such a nefarious role in Serbia's financial and cultural life for the past decade, must be persuaded to invest their wealth constructively. In a society whose institutions, from banks and hospitals to schools and courts, have been neglected or co-opted, and where the flight of the professional classes became a virtual hemorrhage, the road to recovery will be long indeed. Although the easing of sanctions and the promise of aid will help, the people of Serbia must survive a very difficult period of adjustment.
At the end of this period, however, Serbia, the largest and most populous nation in the ex-Yugoslav region, could once again become a forceful neighbor. This is just one reason that it is so important for Serbia to reckon with its recent history and rebuild its relationships with the other ex-Yugoslav republics on a foundation of humility and cooperation. The status of Montenegro remains an open and vexed question, with some of Milo Djukanovic's followers still straining for independence and Milosevic's party officially governing Montenegro on the federal level. And against the will of the Albanian majority, Kosovo remains nominally a part of Yugoslavia; with a reputable government in Belgrade, the international community will eventually withdraw.
The question of reconciliation with the past, specifically Serbia's role in the Yugoslav wars, is also a critical one, and it will most likely be resolved on local terms or not at all. Many Serbs believe they have been demonized by the world media and unfairly singled out for punishment for the Bosnian war. Thus, stern rebukes from abroad often meet with hostility. Although Kostunica has unfortunately vowed not to cooperate with The Hague, he may offer war crimes trials on Serbian soil. One hopes the new freedom of expression Kostunica promises will allow journalists and academics to explore recent history publicly and candidly. This internal process will be delicate, painful and contentious, but it offers the possibility of deep and lasting change.
Why are white men so screwed up? If you can believe the polls, they
identify by a huge margin with George W. Bush as one of them. What gives
with these delusions of grandeur in which Joe Six-Pack puts himself in
the same boat with a pampered son of the super-rich? Did average white
males grow up in the lap of luxury and get to squander funds invested by
family friends in failing oil ventures? Can they fashion a well-greased
political career based solely on their fathers' names?
Obviously not, but what has traditionally bound white males to men
like Bush is that they, too, like to think of themselves as being
winners simply as a perk of birth. That way, if they also got poor
grades in college, they could still think of themselves as smart enough
to be president, when even the brightest women couldn't. Not that all
white males are actually winners, but they don't have to feel like
losers, since they can still feel superior to women and minorities.
But now, with equality growing between the sexes and even the
races, white males feel their privilege threatened by the prospect of an
even playing field. They blame this on the Democrats for pushing
affirmative action, which started to break up the old-boy network. So
they tend to vote for Republicans in large numbers, thinking that
progress can be held back and traditional values restored, meaning that
women will be put back in their place.
Such a reversal of white female fortunes would be a disaster for
white males, if they would only stop to think about it, but being white
males, they don't. The brute truth of the statistics on the boom in
American family prosperity is that it is based on females entering the
work force and obtaining better pay. Particularly white females, who
have been the main beneficiaries of efforts to make the job market a bit
White men are inclined to think that a rise in women's pay means a
decline in males' standard of living. That's because white males have
not grasped the fact that women tend to intermarry--with men--meaning
that their incomes are shared with husbands and male offspring and even
fathers, whom they occasionally help support.
But beyond the economics of equal pay for equal work, there are
those other "women's issues," which the Democrats support and to which
men are indifferent, most significantly the issue of "choice." If males
would just ponder for a second how women get pregnant, they might not be
so quick to define abortion as a "women's issue."
Let's say that George W. gets to make good on his expressed desire
to pick U.S. Supreme Court justices in the mold of Anthony Scalia and
Clarence Thomas, who then overturn Roe vs. Wade. Where does that leave
men who have gotten women pregnant and decide they are not ready for
fatherhood? Well, in the bad old days, it left them accompanying fearful
women on a trip to Tijuana or some back-alley abortion mill in this
country, in the process not only betraying the health needs of a woman
they claimed to love but incurring legal risks as well.
It's perplexing how a host of other issues that would seem to
affect men equally with women got to be gender-defined in polls. Why are
women more pro-environment, pro-children and pro-health care, or more
concerned about saving Social Security? Is it that Darwinian nesting
thing? Women want the civilizing effect of government to protect the
vulnerable. Men see themselves as cowboys at war on the frontier in need
of personal arms and a strong cavalry at the fort to back them up.
Do men not know that if Social Security gets wrecked with this
privatization gamble Bush is hustling, they will be hurt? Even younger
men who might have to cut into their discretionary income to take care
of their aging parents. As for the environment, one has to assume men's
lungs are not gender-protected from the poisonous fumes that now make
Houston the pollution capital of the nation. Surely males can appreciate
the wonders of hunting and fishing in the pristine environment of Alaska
that is threatened by the Bush-Cheney team's promise to rape its energy
resources and turn it into another Texas.
If being pro-choice, pro-environment and in favor of the security
of older people makes Al Gore a wimp, shouldn't we men reexamine our
macho standards? Remember that limp cigarette in the mouth of the cowboy
in those anti-tobacco ads that link smoking with impotency? Macho men
are a dying breed.
HITTING HILLARY HARDER
Despite an agreement (steadily unraveling) to call off issue groups
supporting him in the New York Senate race, Rick Lazio's loyal band of
Hillary-haters is on the march. Witness the urgent e-mail just
dispatched by the Conservative Leadership PAC to the faithful. Sounding
a note of alarm, if not panic, the PAC warns that Hillary is leading by
9 points in the polls. That's because "the establishment media have
protected Bill and Hillary Clinton from the worst of their CRIMES,
CORRUPTION and COVER-UPS" (their caps). Also, candidate Lazio has been
soft on Hillary. He can't fulminate about the aforesaid "crimes" lest
that same "establishment media" denounce him for running a negative
campaign. The conservative PAC will do it for him. Its long list of
Hillary's crimes includes Whitewater, threatening grand jury witnesses,
calling on the IRS to harass her critics, "the use of Air Force planes
to wage her Senate Campaign" and serving on the board of the Children's
Defense Fund. The PAC promises to raise $6 million in stop-Hillary
Making the rounds on e-mail these days is an "analysis" of the typical
readers of newspapers: "The Wall Street Journal is read by the
people who run the country. The New York Times is read by people
who think they run the country. The Washington Post is read by
people who think they ought to run the country. USA Today is read
by people who think they ought to run the country but don't understand
the Washington Post. The Los Angeles Times is read by
people who wouldn't mind running the country if they could spare the
time. The Boston Globe is read by people whose parents used to
run the country. The New York Daily News is read by people who
aren't too sure who's running the country. The New York Post is
read by people who don't care who's running the country as long as they
do something scandalous." Here's Fred Siegel's emendation: "The New
York Post is read by people who are sure that a liberal conspiracy
is running the country." And our addition: "The National Enquirer
is read by people who believe space aliens are running the country." Any
BULLISH ON BUSH
An investors' newsletter, Oil & Energy Investment Report,
predicts a Bush victory in the presidential race and says now's a great
time to stock up on oil service stocks. Here's why: "The secret to
profiting from the Bush-Cheney ticket is simple: follow the trail of
money from the big, politically well-connected oil companies that the
new administration will owe favors to." The O&E Investment
Report goes on to say, "Like his famous father before him, [George
W.'s] political career has been molded, crafted, and sponsored every
step of the way...by Big Oil." (This sounds like a Ralph Nader speech.)
The newsletter provides a list of contributions to Bush from the oil and
gas companies, which he owes big time. And the payback? On the pretext
of reducing US dependence on foreign oil, W. will decimate environmental
regulations, dole out big tax breaks for oil and gas exploration and
open up protected areas. So buy into Bush and make your fortune!
NEWS OF THE WEAK IN REVIEW
Asked by Howard Kurtz whether CBS's news coverage of Survivor
crossed the line between news and entertainment, Steve Friedman,
producer of The Early Show, replied, "That line is long gone....
to compete you've got to compete. And we are in this to win. And we will
use this show to help us win."
Little ventured, little gained--the first Gore-Bush debate featured both
candidates at their usual. No breakouts, no bold thrusts. The face-off
reflected the narrow parameters of the campaign, with Al Gore and George
W. Bush jabbing at each other on a small number of poll-tested fronts--a
drug prescription plan for the elderly, Social Security and education.
(There was, for example, no discussion of trade-related matters or how
to provide healthcare to uninsured adults and children.) Prior to the
much-hyped event, blacked out by Fox and NBC (the latter eventually said
local affiliates could show it), the bearers of conventional wisdom had
decided Gore's task was to show he was more likable than his caricature
and Bush's challenge was to persuade undecided voters he was more
presidential (read: not dumb) than his late-night-talk-show image.
Ninety minutes of back-and-forth demonstrated that neither could easily
recast himself, which is, ultimately, somewhat reassuring. A smuggish
Gore was trying too hard to show he's smart as a whip; an edgy Bush was
trying too hard to prove he's not a lightweight. It wasn't pretty to
When the debate ended, it was hard to tell if it had mattered. Each
contestant had, with limited eloquence, played familiar refrains. Gore
offered a Clinton-like New/Old Democrat mix: Balance the budget, pay
down the debt, protect Medicare and Social Security, cut taxes for some
middle-class families, protect children against "cultural pollution,"
invest in the environment. Bush, who had earlier branded himself "a
different kind of Republican," dished out his own New/Old Republican
stew. He led with a GOP classic, his tax cut for all ("I'm not going to
be a pick-and-chooser"). He pushed his plan to privatize part of Social
Security and blasted Gore for being an inside-the-Beltway,
big-government liberal eager to unleash 20,000 new bureaucrats on the
citizenry. Then Bush championed his own education and drug prescription
proposals and soft-pedaled his antiabortion stand.
Gore boasted that his economic plan devotes more of the coming surpluses
to the military than Bush's budget. Bush spent more time discussing
Medicare than any previous GOP presidential candidate. In the Clinton
era, both parties engage in political copyright infringement. On
points--as they say--Gore probably won. The semi-sanctimonious
know-it-all effectively attacked Bush's various proposals, noting
repeatedly that Bush's tax cut benefits the well-to-do. Bush hardly
soared when discussing foreign policy, national security and how to
handle a financial crisis. (Get me Greenspan!) Yet a less-smirkful Bush
spoke in complete sentences and avoided the worst Bushisms. (He did say
of Social Security, "I want you to have your own assets that you can
call your own.") Those predisposed to either could find reasons to stick
with their man; those caught in between or disgusted with both were
still out of luck.
This debate could have been boiled down to ten minutes apiece of yada
yada yada talking points. Still, a thousand journalists had assembled in
the hockey rink adjacent to the Nader- and Buchanan-free debate hall at
University of Massachusetts, Boston. And they had to be fed.
Anheuser-Busch, one of the corporate sponsors of the Commission on
Presidential Debates, did so liberally, serving up free food, free beer
and Foosball to the scribes in a hospitality tent that contained
multiple Budweiser signs and a display trumpeting the company's
community programs--not its lobbying campaign against lowering the DWI
threshold. And dozens of pols and spinners were present to feed the
journalists quotes. Before the debate, Bush and Gore campaign surrogates
(George Pataki for the Republicans and Robert Reich for the Democrats,
among others) promenaded through the media center dropping predictable
lines. At the same time, several dozen Ralph Nader supporters, who were
protesting his exclusion from the debates at the entrance to the school,
were engaged in a near-tussle with some of the hundreds of union workers
who had been bused in to wave Gore signs. The Naderites shouted, "A vote
for Gore is a vote for Bush! Gore is antiunion, and you're blind! We're
fighting for higher wages and for you!" The union members replied,
"Freaks, freaks! Get a job! I'm making twenty-six dollars an hour, and
that's pretty damn good!"
Ten minutes before the debate concluded with Gore's vow to fight the
"powerful forces"--did he mean the sponsors of the debate, like Ford,
which sells SUVs with exploding tires?--the true spin parade began. The
big-shot campaign aides and surrogates, accompanied by escorts holding
banners bearing their names, filed into the media hall to declare (in
soundbites) their candidate the winner. This was what reporters refer to
as "spin alley," but it was more of a sluice pit. Gore campaign chairman
William Daley maintained that the Vice President's performance had been
"solid." Republican Representative Jennifer Dunn asserted that Bush "got
to the peak of his performance when talking about tax policy." Clinton
economic adviser Gene Sperling handed out copies of Bush's Medicare plan
to prove that, yes, Gore was correct when he stated that Bush's proposal
does not cover all seniors immediately. Bush überstrategist
Karl Rove hissed at Gore for being "condescending" and used "in command"
repeatedly to describe Bush's performance. And in the swarm, J.C. Watts
Jr., Alexis Herman, Donna Brazile, John Engler, Karen Hughes,
Condoleezza Rice, Judd Gregg, Harold Ford Jr., Kate Michelman and others
twisted the night away, spinning for about as long as the debate had
run. In this mob, Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer noted that the next
debate's format--candidates seated at a table rather than standing
behind podiums--would present a more favorable setting for Bush. And,
Fleischer added, he sure was looking forward to that. The question is,
after this debate, How many other Americans are? David Corn
It took twelve years for the FDA to approve mifepristone--also known as
RU-486--and most of that time had less to do with medicine than with the
politics of abortion. Still, the late-September decision was a
tremendous victory for American women. In approving RU-486, the FDA
showed that science and good sense can still carry the day, even in an
The long delay may even backfire against the drug's opponents. In 1988,
when mifepristone was legalized in France, it was a medical novelty as
well as a political flashpoint. Today, it's been accepted in thirteen
countries, including most of Western Europe; it's been taken by more
than a half-million women and studied, it sometimes seems, by almost as
many researchers. By the end of the approval process, the important
medical professional organizations--the AMA, the American Medical
Women's Association, the American College of Obstetricians and
Gynecologists--had given mifepristone their blessing; impressive
percentages of Ob-Gyns and family practitioners said they would consider
prescribing it; thousands of US women had taken it in clinical trials
and given it high marks, with 97 percent in one study saying they would
recommend it to a friend. Against this background of information and
experience, the antichoicers' attempt to raise fears about the drug's
safety sounds desperate and insincere.
In a normal country, RU-486 would simply be another abortion method, its
use a matter of personal preference (in France it's the choice of 20
percent of women who have abortions, while in Britain only 6 percent opt
for it). But in the United States, where abortion clinics are besieged
by fanatics and providers wear bulletproof vests, mifepristone's main
significance lies in its potential to widen access to abortion,
especially in those 86 percent of US counties that possess no abortion
clinic, by making it private--doctors unable or unwilling to perform
surgical abortions could prescribe it, and women could take it at home.
It is unlikely, however, that Mifeprex, as the drug will be known when
it comes on the market, will prove to be the magic bullet that ends the
war on abortion by depriving antichoice activists of identifiable
targets. The nation has been retreating from Roe v. Wade for a
quarter-century, and a good portion of the patchwork of state and local
regulations intended to discourage surgical abortion will apply to
Mifeprex as well: parental notification and consent laws (thirty-two
states), waiting periods (nineteen states), biased counseling and
cumbersome reporting and zoning requirements. States in which
antichoicers control the legislatures will surely rush to encumber
Mifeprex with hassles, and small-town and rural physicians in particular
may find it hard to prescribe Mifeprex without alerting antichoice
activists. Doctors are a cautious bunch, and the anticipated flood of
new providers may turn out to be a trickle, at least at first. Abortion
rights activists should also brace themselves for a backlash from their
hard-core foes: Just after the FDA's decision was announced, a Catholic
priest crashed his car into an Illinois abortion clinic and hacked at
the building with an ax.
But in the long run, Mifeprex will make abortion more acceptable. In
poll after poll Americans have said that when it comes to terminating a
pregnancy, the earlier the better. Mifeprex, which has been approved for
the first forty-nine days after a woman's last menstrual period--when
the embryo's size varies from a pencil point to a grain of rice--may
well prove not to arouse the same kinds of anxieties and moral qualms as
surgical abortion. Then, too, Americans are used to taking pills. That,
of course, is what the antichoicers are afraid of.
Certainly...get him hanged! Why not? Anything--anything can be done
in this country. --Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
So here we are, barely into the next century, and the indications
couldn't be better. Peace and prosperity rule. Forget World Wars I and
II, the Nazi death camps, the gulag, Hiroshima, even Vietnam. Forget
that whole last benighted century of ours, that charnel house of
darkness in the heart of the West, or the Free World as we called it,
until, ever so recently, the whole world was freed. That's old news. It
was old even before the "short Twentieth Century," which began amid
nationalist cheers in August 1914, ended early as that wall in Berlin
came down. It's hard to believe now that in 1945, after Europe's second
Thirty Years' War, the civilization that had experienced a proud peace,
while dominating two-thirds of the planet, lay in ruins; that it had
become a site of genocide, its cities reduced to rubble, its fields laid
waste, its lands littered with civilian dead, its streets flooded by
refugees: a description that today would be recognizable only of a place
like Kosovo, Chechnya or Sierra Leone.
What a relief, when you think about it; more so if you don't: Mass death,
massacre (every acre of it), the cleansing of civilian populations, the
whole bloody business has finally been handed back to the savages in
countries nobody who counts really gives a damn about anyway. After all
these years, we face a world in which genocide happens in Rwanda or East
Timor, slaughter and mass rape in the cesspool of the Balkans, which
hardly qualifies as Europe anyway, or in African countries like
Congo--and most important of all, they're doing it to one another. Even
when it comes to nuclear matters, the MAD policies of the two
superpowers have been deposited in the ever-fuller dustbin of history
(though most of the weapons linger by the thousands in the same hands),
and the second team, the subs, have been called in. Now, Indians and
Pakistanis have an equal-opportunity chance to Hiroshimate each other
without (at least initially) involving us at all.
We always knew that violence was the natural state of life out there;
that left to their own devices they would dismember one another without
pity. We've more or less washed our hands of mass death, the only
remaining question being: If they slaughter each other for too long (or
too many gruesome images appear on our TVs), do we have a moral
obligation to intervene for their own good?
With history largely relegated to the History Channel and hosannas to
the Greatest Generation, the disconnect between the exterminatory
devastation of 1945 and our postmillennial world of prosperity seems
complete. So it's hard to know whether to respond with a spark of
elation or with pity on discovering that a few intrepid writers--Mark
Cocker, Adam Hochschild, Jonathan Schell and Sven Lindqvist--have begun
an important remapping of the exterminatory landscape of the last
centuries. (As an editor, I should add, I have been associated with
Hochschild and Schell.) Interestingly, none of them are professional
historians; and I hesitate to call them a grouping, for they seem
largely ignorant of one another's work. Yet their solitary efforts have
much in common.
They have taken remarkably complementary journeys into the West's now
largely forgotten colonial past. Considered as a whole, their work
represents a rudimentary act of reconstructive surgery on our collective
near-unconscious. They are attempting to re-suture the history of the
West to that of the Third World--especially to Africa, that continent
where for so long whites knew that "anything" could be done with
impunity, and where much of the horror later to be visited upon Europe
might have been previewed.
Worried by present exterminatory possibilities, each of these writers
has been driven back to stories once told but now largely ignored. Three
of the four returned to a specific figure, a Polish
seaman-turned-novelist who, as a steamboat pilot in the Congo, witnessed
one exterminatory moment in Africa and on the eve of a new century
published a short novel, Heart of Darkness, based on it. Of the
four, only Hochschild has done original historical research. But that,
in a way, is the point. They are not telling us new stories but
reclaiming older ones that have dropped from sight, and so
re-establishing a paper trail on extermination without which our modern
moment conveniently makes no sense.
The old politics of oil has resurfaced to add a nervous flutter to Election 2000 and also to revive an enduring question of modern industrial life--what is the right price for oil? The media's New Economy cheerleaders scolded Clinton/Gore for tampering with the answer, but those pundits are under an illusion that the market, not governments and international politics, determines the price of crude oil. Their rage at Clinton for unleashing a little extra crude from the government's strategic reserve is an amusing non sequitur. For the past thirty years, the world price of oil has been "managed" by governments, albeit with haphazard results. The price was maintained by the OPEC cartel of oil-producing nations, with discreet consultations from the United States and other industrial powers. Before OPEC, the world price of oil had been managed since the thirties by the fabled Seven Sisters, global oil corporations that still have an influential voice in the conversations. Oil-price diplomacy, for obvious reasons, is mostly done in deep privacy.
Indeed, Riyadh and Washington are at this moment attempting once again to get the price right, that is, to steer crude oil back down to a mutually acceptable zone, centered on $25 a barrel. That's what Saudi Arabia, the largest producer, says it wants--a target range between $22 and $28 a barrel--and what Bill Clinton has called "a reasonable range" acceptable to Washington. Oil at $25 a barrel would be a lot cheaper than the recent peak of $38, but also a lot higher than the $10 bottom that oil hit in 1998, when prices were severely depressed by collapsing demand triggered by the Asian financial crisis the year before. Splitting the difference is a better solution than continued crisis, especially for Europe, because stability helps sustain everyone's economic growth.
So is $25 the right price? Maybe not. Because $25 is still cheap oil--too cheap to allow the producer nations to recapture their massive revenue losses and possibly too cheap to force US consumers and companies to undertake serious, self-interested industrial conversions away from petroleum. Since oil is traded worldwide in dollars, its real price declines automatically from US inflation. Thus, measured in constant dollars, $25 oil is really only about $13 in historical terms--right where it was in the mid-seventies. This level would be modestly above the average real price of the past fifteen years but still far below what OPEC initially gained after its two dramatic spikes in the seventies. Because of the interaction of currency values, Europe is taking a much more severe hit this time. The euro is down and the dollar is strong, so the real price of imported oil is much higher for European economies.
Texas oil guy George W. Bush is making the same retrograde noises Republicans always make--Drill for more oil! Open up the Alaskan wilderness! Drill offshore! Whatever! Bush's nostalgic notion that the United States can drill its way out of its petroleum problem is out of touch by about twenty-five years. The world isn't running out of oil--the undiscovered reserves are probably good for another century--but the United States is running out of its own oil. The proposition that we should pump and burn our remaining reserves first is completely backward, both as energy policy and for long-term national security. Al Gore, in his best moments, understands all this and has long championed a fundamental shift to alternative fuels, but he has lacked the courage to force the issue. The Clinton Administration provided gorgeous subsidies to the Big Three auto companies to develop electric cars and then allowed the industry to backslide by not increasing the government's fuel-efficiency requirements. Maybe the price crisis will prompt Gore to reread Earth in the Balance.
Oil politics is many-layered and so paradoxical that public opinion is not only confused but frequently led in the wrong direction. "Bad news" may actually be good news; the "villains" are sometimes actually victims. In real terms, OPEC's oil revenues peaked two decades ago--$493 billion in 1980 (in 1990 dollars)--and have declined unevenly since then. OPEC's oil income hit bottom in 1998, at $80 billion in real terms. So they regard the recent price run-up as a justifiable attempt to get well, to recover some of their losses. It's hard to muster much sympathy for oil potentates, but their national budgets have been severely squeezed--especially Saudi Arabia's, which absorbs more than its share of the production cutbacks because that country is the biggest and least aggressive player.
OPEC, on the other hand, has been a clumsy, hapless manager of world oil prices. Twice, it wrong-footed emerging economic conditions by increasing production just as global demand was about to swoon--inadvertently feeding the severe price collapses in 1986 and 1997. This time, they overshot again but on the upside --cutting oil supply just as the world's economies were gaining momentum. With the rising demand, prices were driven higher than the Saudis, at least, intended. Among the present dangers, the tight supply still threatens to stall out economic growth, especially for Europe, and it also gives temporary leverage to Iraq. If Iraq were to halt its exports, prices might soar again, just as Saudi Arabia and the United States are pulling in the opposite direction.
But here's some good news. Extreme price gyrations in oil promote fundamental change in US industrial structure. The seventies stimulated major shifts toward energy conservation and persuaded some sectors, like electrical generation, to decouple entirely from the vulnerability of unpredictable price shocks. Electric companies converted to natural gas and other fuels so that a major US user of petroleum was permanently lost as a market for OPEC exporters. Some authorities think this new mini-crisis is likely to encourage similar movements, especially in transportation. The auto industry, for instance, has toyed for years with available technologies like fuel cells, which liberate cars from oil, but they never moved seriously. Now Japanese manufacturers are making electric hybrids with far greater fuel efficiency. In other words, if high oil prices linger awhile, the permanent market for oil might shrink. Detroit could once again lose market share to Japan, but Americans and the environment would benefit enormously.
Sheik Ahmed Zaki Yamani, Saudi Arabia's former oil minister and a founding architect of OPEC, already fears this--another round of innovations that drastically reduce gasoline and oil consumption. "Technology is a real enemy for OPEC," Yamani warned in a Reuters interview. "Technology will reduce consumption and increase production from areas outside OPEC. The real victims will be countries like Saudi Arabia with huge reserves which they can do nothing with--the oil will stay in the ground forever."
OPEC, the sheik predicted, "will pay a very heavy price for not acting in 1999 to control oil prices. Now it is too late. The Stone Age came to an end not for a lack of stones, and the oil age will end, but not for a lack of oil." His forecast may be a bit premature, but it's a lot more cheerful than the oil chatter in American politics.
During the Kosovo crisis of last year, it was commonplace if not routine to hear two mantras being intoned by those who had decided that "never" would be about the right time to resist ethnic cleansing with a show of force. We were incessantly told (were we not?) that NATO's action would drive the Serbs into the arms of Slobodan Milosevic. And we were incessantly told (were we not?) that the same NATO action would intensify, not alleviate, the plight of the Kosovar refugees. Now there has been an election that was boycotted by almost all Kosovars and by the government of Montenegro. And even with the subtraction of these two important blocs of opposition voters, it is obvious that Milosevic has been humiliated, exposed, unmasked, disgraced.
I have two films to tell you about in this column, one of which I recommend to your attention because it's beautiful, absorbing, touching and droll. It will involve you in the choices its characters make, and it will probably make you think about how you live, too. I'm speaking about Yi Yi (also known as A One and a Two), written and directed by Edward Yang. As for the other film--Dancer in the Dark by Lars von Trier--I had to watch the thing, and now you're damn well going to read about it.
While you're getting braced, I will point out that I'm not the first to link these pictures. This past spring, at the Cannes festival, Dancer in the Dark won the top prize, while Yi Yi earned Edward Yang the award for best director. Now it's autumn, and the New York Film Festival is launching both movies in the United States. You might say the festival is showing us two major possibilities for film. You might also say that Martin Luther King Jr. and Huey Long represent two options in politics.
Of course, to some eyes, Yi Yi appears soft and safe--as does Dr. King, to people who don't look beyond that nice, chubby man who talked about dreams. I can understand the criticism. Yang has put a wedding at the beginning of Yi Yi, a funeral at the end and a birth right in the middle. That's enough in itself to set off a life-affirmation warning--and the alarm really starts to clang once you realize that the main characters, members of a single middle-class family in Taipei, span the ages from childhood through senescence.
Before you bolt, though, I'd like to mention the seating arrangement at that concluding funeral, where characters who ought to clump together prefer to be separated by a few crucial inches. Look from one side of the aisle to the other, and you understand that for all its buoyancy, Yi Yi dramatizes the breakup of a family and the withering of illusions, as experienced in a society where everyone's supposed to be rich and everybody's going broke.
At the film's heart is the paterfamilias, known as NJ (Wu Nienjen), a partner in a rapidly failing computer company. A slight man with the solemn, baggy look of a Taiwanese Buster Keaton, NJ quietly accepts every duty that arises, retreats into music when he can (using the portable disc player that's his favorite possession) and stares deadpan into the face of a hundred indignities. These begin at the wedding of his brother-in-law (Chen Xisheng), where the bride's advanced state of pregnancy is only the first of many breaches of decorum and escalating disasters. Among the others: NJ's first love, Sherry (Ke Suyun), suddenly materializes in the hotel lobby, after thirty years' absence; and his mother-in-law (Tang Ruyun) is rushed to the hospital in a coma. "Don't worry," cries the newlywed brother-in-law, arriving at the hospital roaring drunk. "Today is the luckiest day in the year. Nothing bad can happen."
But for NJ, a lot has happened. It's only a matter of time before he gives Sherry a late-night phone call from his darkened office--an innocent call, of course (she lives in Chicago), made just as a gesture of reconciliation, just to feel the thrill of connection. Then it's back to his highrise apartment, full of new life, to find his wife, Min-Min (Elaine Jin), weeping in the bedroom. She's been trying to speak to her comatose mother, as the doctors recommend, and has found she has nothing to say. Every day is the same; every day is nothing. "How can I have so little?" Min-Min sobs, opening and closing her hands as if her life had flown out of them. NJ shuts the door--he doesn't want to wake the children--and then makes a practical, well-meaning, thoroughly off-the-mark response: Hire a nurse, who will read the newspaper to Mother.
With that, the camera retreats to the balcony, to view NJ and Min-Min through a sheet of glass that's frantic with reflections from a nearby expressway. Lights skitter over the dumbstruck couple. From the next apartment come hideous shrieks and curses: the new neighbor, fighting with one of
Not every sequence in Yi Yi is similarly wrenching; but each has this startling degree of emotional and cinematic fluidity, which I thoroughly fail to convey. Scenes that focus on the 8-year-old son (Jonathan Chang) tend to serve as comic relief; but they also sketch out a kind of artist's manifesto, expressed in terms of a kid's candor and curiosity. Scenes centered on the teenage daughter (Kelly Lee) tend to be darker, since she blames herself for her grandmother's illness; but they also draw her into a romantic triangle of which she, quite miraculously, turns out to be the strongest leg.
I have heard a few people complain that Yi Yi is long. So it is; it runs almost three hours. And for me, those were three hours of deep pleasure: more time to watch a large and brilliant ensemble live and breathe on screen; more time to follow the intricate rhythms of a faultlessly constructed story. "I want to show people things they haven't seen," says the young son, as the tale comes to its inconclusive and satisfying close. I take that to be a statement of artistic purpose--though not, perhaps, of Yang's. The glory of what he's achieved in Yi Yi is to show us things that we've all seen, many times, and to make us feel how extraordinary they are.
Lars von Trier pretends to be interested in the everyday, particularly in its struggle with the visionary. So, to take pretense at face value, I will initially describe Dancer in the Dark as the story of Selma (played by the Icelandic pop star Björk), a single mother who works in a factory and is losing her sight. A Czech immigrant to the United States, Selma labors tirelessly for the sake of her young son, accepts her trials with sweet resignation and finds strength in imagination. A passionate fan of musicals, she makes up songs based on the rhythms and events of her life and visualizes them as big dance numbers. From time to time, life's muted colors intensify, the shooting style changes from hand-held tracking to quick montage and one of Selma's inner movies erupts before us on the screen.
Now, to take a second run at the description: Dancer in the Dark takes place in 1964 in Washington State, a heavily wooded area of Sweden populated by Scandinavian performers and Catherine Deneuve. As the film begins, the pop star Björk is pretending to be incompetent at singing and dancing, in the hope of fitting into a community-theater production of The Sound of Music. The seriously overqualified community-theater director Vincent Paterson (fresh from choreographing dance routines for Madonna and Michael Jackson) pretends not to notice that this young woman is awful--or that she's Björk, I'm not sure which--and casts her anyway. Then Björk and her best friend, Catherine Deneuve, go to work in a factory, where they break into a number presumably inspired by the 1997 documentary East Side Story, Dana Ranga's delightful compilation film about Soviet-bloc musicals.
But I'm forgetting about the blind shtick. It seems that Björk has passed on a degenerative eye condition to her son, who will surely lose his sight unless Udo Kier operates on him before the age of 13. That's why she's such a Stakhanovite (unless it's the influence of all those Soviet-bloc musicals). When the local American sheriff tries to steal her money--just like an American!--she sweetly and innocently shoots him dead, then insists on being hanged to death for the big finale.
Real life? No. Lars von Trier is interested in the preposterous--or rather in seeing how much of the preposterous he can get you to swallow without gagging. He admitted as much in The Idiots, a film that might be said to serve as his self-portrait. That picture was about a kind of avant-garde theater director, who goes about mocking people by feigning simplicity. In Dancer in the Dark (as in Breaking the Waves), it's the heroine who is simple and vulnerable (and long-suffering and self-sacrificing), and you, as viewer, are the one who is mocked.
Do you believe you're in the midst of reality, when the camera is darting back and forth and poking actors in the face? Then von Trier has the laugh on you. He's persuaded you to ignore his very obvious jump-cuts and swift changes of point-of-view, visible evidence that the scene was assembled from multiple takes. And are you a filmoid, eagerly following the doings of today's star directors? You will surely be grateful for von Trier's publicity machine, which has put out the claim that he shot his musical numbers using 100 digital video cameras. What a magical figure--100! Repeat it to yourself, and you can almost forget that von Trier's pop montage is outdone ten times each hour on MTV.
For what it's worth, Björk is a truly remarkable performer--if "remarkable" is the right word for a woman in her mid-30s who can make herself seem like a teenager, bubbling over with naïve, sexless joy. Call it fun, if you like. But when I think about the overture to Dancer in the Dark--a long sequence in which colored patterns dissolve into one another, to the accompaniment of a slow, rising brass chorale--the name of Wagner comes to mind, and I think of what's behind that show of vulnerable simplicity. This film is about power, and its victim is meant to be you.
To watch the pair of house finches
that frequent the neighbor's feeder,
I leave the charcoal blinds pulled up.
The berry-splashed chest of the male--
each morning--makes me pause.
He flits away when full, or troubled
by the cat behind the window pane.
But he's back again within the hour.
Evenings, we owe our different debts
to the woman who fills the feeder tray,
who also chooses open blinds
and wanders room to room, past
the long blue light of the aquarium.
(She caught me watching yesterday.)
The fish, from here, are almost still,
a drifting string of colored lights.
Her boyfriend's echoes of her name
reverberate and scare the cat;
bird seed scatters with the flight
of startled finches. Sunflower seeds,
far from the flower they once composed,
lie like black collapsed stars.
Every five years the psychologist Judith Wallerstein updates her ongoing
study of 131 children whose parents were going through divorce in Marin
County, California, in 1971, and every five years her warnings about the
dire effects of divorce on children make the headlines, the covers and
the talk shows. Her new book, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce,
ups the ante: She now believes that parents should grit their teeth and
stay together, so traumatized were her interviewees even into their 20s,
contending with drugs and drink, bad boy-friends, unsatisfactory jobs,
low self-esteem and lack of trust in relationships. Before you young
cynics out there say welcome to the club, remember: This is not a
moralistic sermon dreamed up by Dr. Laura, the Pope, your relatives or
even Judith Wallerstein. This is science.
But what if it isn't? Scholars have long been critical of Wallerstein's
methods: She had no control group--kids just like the ones in her study
but whose unhappily married parents stayed together. (In her new book
she has attempted to get around this flaw by interviewing a "comparison
sample" of people from intact families who went to high school with her
subjects, but the two groups are not carefully matched.) She generalizes
too quickly: Can sixty Marin County families really stand in for all
America? Are the seventies us? Doesn't it make a difference that fathers
today are more involved with their kids both before and after divorce,
that mothers are better educated and better able to support themselves,
that divorce is no longer a badge of immorality and failure? It never
occurs to Wallerstein, either, that the very process of being
interviewed and reinterviewed about the effects of parental divorce for
a quarter-century by a warm, empathetic and kindly professional would
encourage her subjects to see their lives through that lens. "Karen" may
really believe divorce explains why she spent her early 20s living with
a layabout--blaming your parents is never a hard sell in America--but
that doesn't mean it's true.
The media tend to treat such objections rather lightly. Wallerstein's
critics "don't want to hear the bad news," wrote Walter Kirn in
Time's recent cover story. The real bad news, though, is the way
Wallerstein has come to omit from her writings crucial information she
herself presented in her first book about her research, Surviving the
Breakup, published in 1980.
How did Wallerstein find her divorcing couples, and what sort of people
were they? In her new book, she writes that they were referred by their
lawyers "on the basis of their willingness to participate." Surviving
the Breakup gives quite a different picture: "The sixty families who
participated in this study came initially for a six-week divorce
counseling service. The service was conceptualized and advertised as a
preventive program and was offered free of charge to all families in the
midst of divorce. Parents learned of the service through attorneys,
school teachers, counselors, social agencies, ministers, friends, and
newspaper articles." In other words, Wallerstein was not just offering
people a chance to advance the cause of knowledge, she was offering free
therapy--something she today vehemently denies ("Naturally I wanted to
be sure that any problem we saw did not predate the divorce. Neither
they [the kids] nor their parents were ever my patients"). Obviously,
people who sign up for therapy, not to mention volunteering their kids
for continuing contact, have problems; by choosing only therapy-seekers,
Wallerstein essentially excluded divorcing couples who were coping well.
Today, Wallerstein provides no information about the psychological
well-being of the parents before divorce, but in her 1980 book, she is
very clear about how troubled they were. Only one-third displayed
"generally adequate psychological functioning." Fifty percent of the men
and almost as many women were "moderately troubled"--"chronically
depressed, sometimes suicidal individuals...with severe neurotic
difficulties or with handicaps in relating to another person, or those
with longstanding problems in controlling their rage or sexual
impulses." Fifteen percent of the men and 20 percent of the women "had
histories of mental illness, including paranoid thinking, bizarre
behavior, manic-depressive illnesses, and generally fragile or
unsuccessful attempts to cope with the demands of life, marriage, and
family." Some underwent "hospitalization for severe mental illness,
suicide attempts, severe psychosomatic illnesses, work histories ridden
with unsatisfactory performance, or arrests for assault." It's not for
me to say whether a sample in which two-thirds of the participants range
from chronically depressed to outright insane represents the general
public--but attributing all their children's struggles to divorce is
The way Wallerstein describes her sample has changed also. In a table in
her 1980 book, she places 28 percent of the families in the two lowest
of five social-class rankings, as defined by the Hollingshead index, and
23 percent in the highest. In the new book, these figures are mentioned
in passing, but at the same time she calls all the families "middle
class"--including a famous wife-beating TV executive and his former
spouse, a wealthy travel agent who spent her life globe-trotting. All
are now "educated," as well, including the substantial percentage of
parents (24 percent of the mothers and 18 percent of the fathers at
initial contact in 1971) who hadn't been to college. Gone too are such
relevant facts from the earlier book as that one-third of the couples
had "rushed into a precipitous marriage because of an unplanned
pregnancy" and that half the wives, "because of their age and lack of
job experience, were viewed realistically as unemployable."
In short, what we have here are not generic white suburbanites who threw
away workable marriages in order to actualize their human potential in a
Marin County hot tub. We have sixty disastrous families, featuring crazy
parents, economic insecurity, trapped wives and, as Wallerstein does
discuss, lots of violence (one-quarter of the fathers beat their wives;
out of the 131 children, thirty-two had witnessed such attacks). How on
earth can she claim that divorce is what made her young people's lives
difficult? The wonder is that they are doing as well as they are.
Call it the Prague Fall: a season not only to test the democratic progress of Central Europe's most favored post-Communist nation but to find out whether a nonhierarchical, nonviolent movement of fair traders, environmentalists, debt-relief activists, socialist workers and revolutionaries can--by applying public pressure to the world's most powerful economic institutions--force real change. Prague proved, if nothing else, that the issues of corporate reform and increased social services have worldwide appeal. Red-sashed Catalonian Marxists marched alongside white-clad Italian Zapatista sympathizers. Nervous Czech environmentalists rubbed shoulders with black-hooded German anarchists. Activists from Greece and Turkey--yes, Greece and Turkey, together--commanded the front line of a march blockaded by police and kept it calm. This was not the globalization of multinationals, but in the words of Scott Codey, a US activist, "globalization of human rights, workers' rights and economic justice."
As Day One of the Initiative Against Economic Globalization in Prague began, all was quiet and orderly. Leaders of nonprofit organizations held thinly attended public discussions. Fourteen thousand dark-suited bankers and politicians yawned through World Bank and the International Monetary Fund meetings with titles like "Building the Bottom Line Through Corporate Citizenship" in a Stalin-era convention hall. Meanwhile, the police looked on benevolently--I saw one Czech lieutenant blithely pop a ball into the air with the inscription Liquidate the IMF.
By late morning, however, activists had begun a three-pronged assault on the heavily guarded Congress Center. One group of mostly anarchists and communists managed to snake its way through police barricades and get within yards of the bankers' meeting hall. It remains unclear how the violence escalated so quickly, but fifty Czech police were injured in a bombardment of sticks, stones and Molotov cocktails. By nightfall, after activists had smashed the windows of a McDonald's on Wenceslas Square, cops were again beaten back, this time by protesters wielding the policemen's own batons. The day ended in a cloud of tear gas, with thousands of World Bank delegates being shuttled in buses, searching for the four-star hotels not besieged by young radicals.
By Day Two, to no one's surprise, the Czech police had abandoned their restraint. I saw officers round up protesters for no apparent reason and cart them off to jail, where things got decidedly worse. Many of the 859 arrested were denied food, water and phone calls. And in numerous cases, they were severely beaten. "The jails here are a place of no control, a place of complete darkness," said Marek Vesely, an observer with Citizens Legal Watch, a Czech nonprofit. "A lot of people who didn't have anything to do with the violence got arrested." In addition to investigating a range of human rights violations, Citizens Legal Watch is trying to determine whether police provocateurs urged on the crowds and whether--as was widely rumored--some activists were turned away at the Czech border based on information provided by the FBI.
But amid the apparent chaos, there were signs of accomplishments. For one, pressure from the streets, building ever since Seattle, finally forced two traditionally secretive institutions to let some critics in the door. Representatives of Transparency International, which is calling for public access to World Bank and IMF documents, along with 350 representatives of nongovernmental organizations, were admitted to meetings in Prague (five years ago, only two NGOs were allowed in). World Bank president James Wolfensohn and IMF managing director Horst Köhler even met with NGO leaders in a public meeting presided over by Czech President Vaclav Havel.
Still, the substance of the new dialogue left much to be desired. "Understand that we are not a world government," Wolfensohn told NGO leaders. "Very often people blame us for the politics in a country when they should really blame themselves." Such defensiveness makes it hard to take seriously the World Bank and IMF claim that they want "to make globalization work for the benefit of all." As Liane Schalatek of the Heinrich Böll Foundation said, "NGOs have pointed out for more than three decades that growth is not just economic growth. We have heard the rhetoric." (Wolfensohn did manage to win over rock star Bono of U2, who left Prague calling him "the Elvis of economics.")
The Italian Zapatistas and Catalonian Marxists have now returned home. Czechs have reoccupied their city. And the jails are mostly empty (as of this writing, only twenty protesters remain in custody). But the Prague Fall is not over. The movement is globalized; critics have been admitted into the tent. And perhaps most important, politicians, central bankers and multinational chiefs are beginning to understand that corporate globalization faces truly global antipathy.
Momentum for the euro wanes.
The krone is preferred by Danes.
And recent surveys all have found
That British voters love their pound.
But, seeing this through New World eyes,
Why is it such a big surprise?
Imagine how we Yanks would holler
If someone tried to take our dollar!
You'd see a war like Vietnam,
But this time we would use the bomb.
'THE HOLOCAUST INDUSTRY'
New York City
Christopher Hitchens is correct to point out that Norman Finkelstein's book The Holocaust Industry has enjoyed a great deal of success in Europe, particularly in Germany, while it has been given short shrift in the United States ["Minority Report," Sept. 18/25]. What he fails to note, however, is that as a work of scholarship, Finkelstein's book is all but worthless. Finkelstein sees Holocaust reparations as part of an ideological apparatus by which avaricious Jews oppress American blacks, Palestinians and others. This lunatic thesis does indeed appear to have struck a chord in certain right-wing quarters in Germany and Switzerland and also in certain left-wing quarters in the United States and England. It is also why his book has been harshly dismissed by reviewers in this country and why, in my article in the September issue of Commentary, "Holocaust Reparations--A Growing Scandal," I was right to lump him with the Holocaust deniers and others on the far fringes of intellectual life.
New York City
Christopher Hitchens is mistaken in his criticism of recent litigation aimed at forcing Swiss banks and German corporations to return property stolen from victims of Nazi persecution. I fear that his view of the Holocaust litigation has been distorted by the unfortunate antics of a single lawyer, Edward Fagan, whose blatant self-promotion and single-minded pursuit of fees obscure a remarkable judicial achievement. Since I am serving as court-appointed lead counsel in the Swiss banks case, and as one of the principal lawyers in the cases against German industry, let me try to set the record straight.
First, the Holocaust cases cannot fairly be described, in Hitchens's words, as efforts to use "dubious methods" to "reap vast sums from an already penitent state." In each of the cases, corporate defendants knowingly exploited Holocaust victims in order to reap unjust profits. For example, drawn by a 1934 statute promising Swiss bank secrecy, thousands of frightened depositors poured money into Swiss banks from all over Europe to shield their property from the Nazis. When World War II ended with vast numbers of the depositors dead at the hands of the Nazis, most Swiss banks, in what must be the greatest double-cross in banking history, declined to provide information to surviving family members about the possible existence of Holocaust-era accounts, claiming that the 1934 secrecy law forbade discussing the accounts without the permission of the depositor. The Swiss banks simply kept the Holocaust deposits for sixty years, while they systematically destroyed the deposit records. After several years of fiercely contested litigation, Crédit Suisse and UBS, the two largest surviving Swiss banks, finally agreed to a settlement of $1.25 billion, an amount that, in my opinion, barely scratches the surface of the stolen funds. But, with the passage of time and the destruction of the records relating to more than 2 million wartime accounts, it was the best we could do. Given his usual sensitivity to corporate double-dealing, I hope Hitchens reconsiders the Swiss bank cases. Would he really prefer that the banks get away scot-free?
Similarly, the cases against German industrial giants like Ford, Volkswagen, Siemens and Degussa sought to require German corporations that earned huge profits by employing slave labor during the war to disgorge those unjust profits to the forced workers. The corporate defendants in the German industry cases freely admit that they employed huge numbers of slave laborers under horrific conditions. But until the filing of the litigation, the companies refused to compensate slave laborers, arguing that it was the German government's duty to pay compensation. The government, however, argued that since the companies had reaped vast profits from the use of slaves, it was German industry's duty to pay. While the two sides played "Alphonse, Gaston" for sixty years, nothing was done for the forced workers. As a direct result of the negotiations aimed at settling the litigation, German industry and government have finally agreed to establish a German Foundation, with assets of $5.2 billion, to compensate the slave laborers. Again, would Hitchens rather see the German companies get away with profiting from slave labor?
Hitchens's second major error is to assume that the recent Holocaust litigation was exclusively, or even primarily, designed to benefit Jews. Recognizing that the Holocaust is not exclusively a Jewish tragedy, the lawyers (most of whom are Jewish) sought to assure that the litigation benefited all victims. The leading cases against Ford, Siemens, VW and Degussa that led to the formation of the German Foundation were brought on behalf of non-Jewish Polish and Russian forced laborers. In fact, Jews will receive only 23 percent of the payments from the foundation, with more than three-quarters of the funds going to non-Jewish Holocaust victims. Similarly, the Swiss bank litigation is designed to benefit not only Jews but other victims or targets of Nazi persecution, including Jehovah's Witnesses, Sinti-Roma (Gypsies), gays and the disabled. The fact that Hitchens, ordinarily a careful writer, seems to believe that the litigation is designed to benefit Jews and only Jews speaks volumes about the need for clear discussion.
Finally, it's long past time to put the canard to rest that these cases seek to benefit from the agony of Holocaust victims without providing any real benefits to them. Every penny in the $1.25 billion Swiss bank case will go to Holocaust victims. The bulk of the money will go to the heirs of the original depositors, unless the destruction of records makes it impossible to locate them. The names of 26,000 account holders deemed probably linked to the Holocaust will be published this year. Significant distributions will also be made to surviving slave laborers and to the heirs of refugees barred from entering Switzerland because they were Jews. I only wish a similar sanction could be imposed on the United States for its identical refusal to accept desperate refugees from Nazi persecution. Substantial funds, in the form of food and medicine, will be distributed to the poorest survivors, especially the so-called double victims, who suffered under both Hitler and Stalin and who have been left out of reparations programs. In short, contrary to Hitchens's implication, there simply are no "Holocaust memorials" or payments to institutions. It all goes to people, with the exception of a modest grant to researchers to compile a complete, publicly available list of victims for posterity. Similarly, $4 billion will be distributed from the foundation to surviving slave and forced laborers. The remaining $1.2 billion will go to victims whose property was stolen or whose insurance policies were ignored. A Future Fund of $350 million will be set aside to support the principle of toleration.
It is neither fair nor accurate to characterize the lawyers as greedy. Lawyers worked extremely hard for years to develop novel legal theories and to uncover the facts sixty years after the events. Despite their enormous effort, more than half the lawyers in the Swiss bank cases have waived all fees. Those lawyers who are seeking fees, with the conspicuous and unfortunate exception of Edward Fagan, have filed modest requests. When the dust clears, I predict that the fees to all lawyers in the Swiss case will total less than 1 percent of the settlement figure and that Fagan will get just what he deserves--a small fraction of his absurd $4 million request. Similarly, the parties in the litigation leading to the formation of the German Foundation have agreed that the attorneys' fees in the more than fifty cases will total 1 to 1.25 percent of the settlement figure. That is, I believe, the lowest fee structure in history for comparable levels of success.
So, corporate malefactors have been forced to disgorge almost $6.5 billion to a wide range of Holocaust victims--Jew and non-Jew alike. Lawyers are charging about 1 percent, a mere fraction of their normal fee. Victims will get everything else under a scrupulously fair set of allocations and distributions. I'm happy to leave Hitchens to his concerns about the Holocaust. Reasonable people can differ passionately over how best to come to terms with Nazi barbarity. I ask only that he not allow his political beliefs to cloud his perception of efforts to provide a modicum of delayed justice to proven Holocaust victims who were the targets of corporate exploitation by real Holocaust profiteers.
Finally, the less said about Norman Finkelstein, the better. There has for years been an unfortunate strain of radical left-wing thought that has equated Israel with colonialism and has viewed the Israeli state as a pretext for the Western theft of Palestinian land. Since the memory of the Holocaust provides moral justification for the establishment of a Jewish homeland, even at the expense of the Palestinians, people like Finkelstein find the Holocaust an obstacle to their political views. Consequently, they seek to understate its horror, especially as applied to Jews. Unfortunately, their efforts to minimize the Holocaust are occasionally mirrored by an extremely small number of Jewish fanatics who view the Holocaust as an exclusively Jewish event and who seek to use the memory of the tragedy for short-term political and financial goals. When peace is achieved between a sovereign Palestinian state and a sovereign Israel, the political motives for minimizing the Holocaust will disappear. We can then get on with the necessity of seeking to understand a universal human tragedy of unimaginable dimensions that fell with particular severity on Jews.
GOD BLESS JOHN...
God bless John Leonard ["How a Caged Bird Learns to Sing," June 26]. God bless his tenacity in the service of talent and integrity and simple human intelligence. God bless his unsparing appreciation and defense of what is truthful and healing in art and science and that strange beast we humans call culture. God bless his outrage and his indignation and his unwavering horseshit-detector. Thank God for his painful awareness of just what's at stake in the midst of this swirl of pop and dot-com celebrity drool. Honor to his name for having the matchless courage to stand up for what anyone with an electrical charge on their brain knows is of immense importance to us all. Would that all men and women who aspire to the writing craft had such sand. Honor to the name of John Leonard. Honor and blessings on his name.
...AND GOD BLESS SEPARATION
Readers interested in learning more about church-state separation issues [Katha Pollitt, "Subject to Debate," Sept. 18/25] can contact the Freedom From Religion Foundation at PO Box 750, Madison, WI 53701; (608) 256-8900; www.ffrf.org.
Let's give up some applause for Dick Cheney for affirming in deed, if not words, that homosexuality is perfectly consistent with traditional family values. The decision for a Republican candidate for the vice presidency to have an avowed homosexual at his side through virtually every hour of his campaign is a bit risky. It means taking on the forces of intolerance on the right wing of his party, a wing that at one time included Cheney and, more prominently, his wife.
However, now that Cheney has granted his lesbian daughter a major role in his campaign, is it not time for the candidate to distance himself from a Republican platform that would deny equal rights protection to all homosexuals? Evidently homosexuals can be reliable workers, and it should be illegal to discriminate against folks like Mary Cheney simply because of their sexual orientation.
"I think of her as sort of my aide-de-camp," candidate Cheney said in paying tribute to his daughter Mary in an interview last week with the New York Times: "She keeps all the paper flow coming to me; everything sort of funnels through her. More than that, she knows me. She has no qualms about telling me when she thinks I'm wrong, or when I need to do something. Mary will always come in and lay it right on me. My experience over the years is that's invaluable in a campaign. Everybody wants a good relationship with the candidate--not everybody will level with you. Mary levels with you."
One would accept such excellent skills to be valuable to any employer not biased by prejudice against gays. Yet anti-discriminatory laws are needed precisely because not all employers have had the opportunity to learn from their own offspring that homosexuals are indeed normal people.
Given that Mary Cheney is proving so valuable in the campaign, would Cheney, the person who'd be next in line to become commander in chief of the armed forces if George Bush wins, still stick to his oft-expressed view that homosexuals not be allowed to serve in the military? Would his daughter be more inclined than heterosexuals in the military to undermine morale by acting in indecorous ways?
The Republican platform declares that homosexuality is "incompatible" with military service and even stands "united" with the Boy Scouts in that organization's avowed policy of excluding gays. Does Dick Cheney believe that the Girl Scouts are amiss in not following the example of the Boy Scouts, and would he be in favor of excluding his own daughter from playing a role in that organization?
These questions are not intended to be cute or to pull the candidate's chain. They go directly to the hypocrisy in which we treat homosexuals as dangerous freaks unless we happen to be friends with, or related to, one.
Ignorance is the essential ingredient in hate. Dick Cheney probably didn't know his daughter was gay when he compiled one of the most viscously anti-gay voting records in Congress. He was one of only 13 representatives in 1988 who voted against funding for AIDS testing and research at a time when that was conveniently thought to be an exclusively gay disease, and one of only 29 that same year to vote against a Hate Crimes Statistics Act.
Perhaps he would vote differently now that his daughter, whose judgment he trusts in all important matters, has determined that she is indeed a homosexual. Should a woman of such sound thought and strong moral principles not be the best judge of her essential sexual nature? Or should we continue to be guided by the bigotry of legislators and religious proselytizers? It is still against the law in Texas to perform homosexual acts; does Mary Cheney have to retreat to Colorado to legally make love?
Yes, it would be best if such decisions could be left in the private realm, as the Cheneys now ask in refusing to discuss their daughter's sexuality. But it's too late for such niceties because the hate-mongers and their respectable allies in the Republican Party have for decades exploited homosexuality as a hot political issue. It is they who have thwarted every legislative effort to grant to homosexuals the same rights afforded all other citizens.
One can understand why Mary Cheney does not now want to become a poster woman for gay rights. But she is, by her father's witness, living proof that being gay is perfectly compatible with leading a moral, public-spirited and fully enriched family values life. She is a role model that even the political right might be forced to respect.
Neoconservatives are serial grave-robbers. Back in the early eighties, Norman Podhoretz tried to claim both Ronald Reagan and George Orwell as part of his meshuggeneh mishpocheh. Now, say what you will about the dimwitted defender of right-wing terrorism and the scrupulously honest symbol of the Anglo-American democratic left, they do not belong in the same political movement. Honest admirers of both men pointed out the fallacy in this transparent tactic, but two decades later, no cure has been found. Last seen in the neocons' trunk leaving the literary graveyard were the intellectual remains of the liberals' liberal, the critic Lionel Trilling.
Trilling never uttered so much as a sympathetic syllable about the neocon/Reaganite worldview to which his would-be inheritors became so attached after his death in 1975. Yet there he was, sitting atop a pyramid of Reagan-worshipers--people whose politics he never endorsed and whose style of argument he abhorred--in a chart accompanying a Sam Tanenhaus-authored encomium to the neocons in the New York Times a few Saturdays ago. The trick with Trilling is really no different from that with the refashioned Orwell. (Ironically, as John Rodden notes in his 1989 study, The Politics of Literary Reputation, it was Trilling's introduction to a 1952 reissue of Homage to Catalonia that was almost singularly responsible for securing the writer's reputation in the United States as a kind of secular saint.) Both men wrote witheringly of those intellectuals who gave their hearts and minds over to Stalinism, prescribing tough-minded scrutiny in the face of emotional appeals. In a foreword to a 1974 edition of The Liberal Imagination, Trilling pointed out that his early essays were inspired by "a particular political-cultural situation" he identified as "the commitment that a large segment of the intelligentsia of the West gave to the degraded version of Marxism known as Stalinism." With Trilling safely unable to respond, the neocons twist these words in order to apply them to liberalism itself.
Podhoretz has long been critical of his ex-teacher for what he termed his "failure of nerve" that was part of "an epidemic of cowardice" he detected in anyone who failed to agree with him. Writing in The Atlantic Monthly, Nathan Glick notes that "besides being a disloyal deprecation of a former friend and mentor," these claims "have the scent of ideological self-serving. They come with particular ill grace from a writer who treats his own seven-year flirtation with the New Left as not only easily forgivable but also proof of his editorial flair for riding the tide of political fashion." In fact, as Glick points out, Trilling viewed liberalism as "a political position which affirmed the value of individual existence in all its variousness, complexity, and difficulty." Nothing, however, could be further from the neoconservatives' creed--one that has served, in the view of Leon Wieseltier, editor of a generous new collection of Trilling essays called The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent, as "the anti-intellectualism of the intellectuals." By inventing a genealogy that goes back to Trilling, Wieseltier notes, "They enhance their intellectual self-esteem. They have this view that everyone to the right of the left is Neoconservative, or a Neoconservative who dares not speak its name."
In fact, the critics of the counterculture whose writings have held up best during the past thirty years are those who never gave themselves over to the neocon temptation--who never became apologists for Reagan and Bush, much less Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. Liberal and socialist anticommunists like Daniel Bell, Nathan Glazer, Irving Howe, Michael Harrington, Alfred Kazin and Garry Wills led a relatively lonely intellectual life in the eighties, as Podhoretz, Irving Kristol, Elliott Abrams and Jeane Kirkpatrick were all toasting themselves at the Reagan White House. But contrary to Tanenhaus's apologia, it is their works--together with Updike's Rabbit and Roth's Zuckerman extravaganzas--to which historians will one day turn to comprehend the combination of ignorant arrogance and small-minded self-delusion that captured both American extremes in the final decades of the twentieth century.
Another oddity of Tanenhaus's article was the news that the forever-ricocheting Michael Lind, who mimicked Podhoretz recently with his own McCarthyite tract on the Vietnam era, is writing a manifesto to try to revive the neoconservative creed he once savaged. His co-author is Ted Halstead, president of the New America Foundation. Here history repeats itself as farce. First-generation neocons hijacked liberal institutions like Commentary and Partisan Review (and, sadly, much of The New Republic) and gave them over to conservative purposes. Halstead's organization (with which I was briefly associated) now takes precious funds from progressive donors and redistributes them to the likes of the right-wing Lind and the conservative, isolationist, foreign-policy writer Robert Kaplan. Halstead has even boasted of trying to hire George W. Bush's chief speechwriter. "Fool me once, and shame on you," explained the sage engineer of the Star Ship Enterprise, Mr. Scott. "Fool me twice, and shame on me."
* * *
Babs in Toyland: The famously sensitive liberal icon Barbra Streisand recently played the first in a long series of "farewell performances" in New York and LA, gouging fans to the tune of $2,500 per ticket. The worthy cause? Another twenty million or so for the greater glory of Barbra Streisand Inc. Streisand herself destroyed the political economy of concert-going in the mid-nineties by charging in the hundreds for tickets. Today the Eagles and Billy Joel jack up prices to $1,000 apiece. The Stones routinely charge $350; the Who, $250. Both bands were a hell of a lot better in the pre-Streisandified seventies, when I saw them for about two-weeks' allowance. Yes, I know, markets, supply and demand, blah, blah, blah. But could we please put an end to the deification of multimillionaire rock stars who shake down their own fans? (Rock critics rarely make this point, because they get free tickets.)
Ben Katchor had been a bit of a cultural phenomenon for nearly a decade before he became a MacArthur fellow--a first for a cartoonist--this summer; is this the beginning of comic-strip artists being recognized as "real" artists?
What an odd presidential race! So long as George W. Bush keeps his mouth shut and remains in seclusion he floats up in the polls. His best strategy would be to bag the debates, take Laura on an extended vacation and come back a couple of days before the election. Meanwhile, Gore reinvents himself on an almost daily basis. Nothing has been more comical than his "populist" posturings about the Republicans being the ticket of Big Oil and himself and Lieberman being the champions of the little people.
This is the man whose education and Tennessee homestead came to him in part via the patronage of Armand Hammer, one of the great oil bandits of the twentieth century, in whose Occidental oil company the Gore family still has investments valued between $500,000 and $1 million.
At the LA convention the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee was on the 42nd floor of the Arco building, and the symbolism was apt. In 1992 Arco (recently merged with BP Amoco) loaned the Clinton/Gore inaugural committee $100,000. In that same year it gave the DNC $268,000. In the 1993-94 election cycle it gave the DNC $274,000. In the 1995-96 cycle it ponied up $496,000 and has kept up the same tempo ever since.
Was there a quid for the quo? You bet there was. Early in Clinton-time, the President overturned the longstanding ban on the export of Alaskan crude oil. Why that ban? When Congress OK'd the building of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline in the seventies, the legislation triumphed by a single vote only after solemn pledges were made that the North Slope oil would always be reserved for domestic markets, available to hold prices down. Congress had on its mind precisely such emergencies as this year's hike in prices and consequent suffering of poor people, soon to be trembling with cold for lack of cheap home-heating oil.
With the help of Commerce Secretary Ron Brown and Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary, Arco was also, at the start of the Clinton era, in the process of building refineries in China. Hence Clinton's overturn of the export ban was an immense boon to the company, whose CEO at the time, Lodwrick Cook, was given a White House birthday party in 1994. The birthday presents to the favorite oil company of the Clinton/Gore era have continued ever since.
While the Democrats and mainstream Greens fulminate about Bush and Cheney's threat to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, nary a word has been mentioned about one of the biggest giveaways in the nation's history, the opening of the 23-million-acre National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. Back at the start of the nineties Arco's Prudhoe Bay reserves on Alaska's North Slope were dwindling. Now Arco will be foremost among the oil companies exploiting a potential $36 billion worth of crude oil.
Gore's "populism" is comical, yet one more facet of a larger mendacity. What suppressed psychic tumult drives him to those stretchers that litter his career, the lies large and small about his life and achievements? You'd think that a man exposed to as much public derision as was Gore after claiming he and Tipper were the model for the couple in Love Story, or after saying he'd invented the Internet, would by now be more prudent in his vauntings. But no. Just as a klepto's fingers inevitably stray toward the cash register, so too does Gore persist in his fabrications.
Recently he's claimed to have been at the center of the action when the strategic oil reserve, in Texas and Louisiana, was established. In fact, the reserve's tanks were filling in 1977, when Gore was barely in Congress, a very junior member of the relevant energy committee. The legislation creating the reserve had been passed in 1975. At around the same time as this pretense, the VP claimed to have heard his mother crooning "Look for the union label" over his cradle. It rapidly emerged that this jingle was made up by an ad man in the seventies, when Al was in his late 20s.
As a clue to why Al misremembers and exaggerates, the lullaby story has its relevance as a sad little essay in wish fulfillment. Gore's mother, Pauline, was a tough character, far more interested in advancing Albert Sr.'s career than in warbling over Gore's cot. Both parents were demanding. Gore is brittle, often the mark of the overly well-behaved, perfect child. Who can forget the panicked performance when his image of moral rectitude shattered at the impact of the fundraising scandals associated with the Buddhist temple in Los Angeles?
"He was an easy child; he always wanted to please us," Pauline once said of him. The child's desire to please, to get the attention of often-absent parents, is probably what sparked Gore's penchant for tall tales about himself.
Gore's official CV is sprinkled with "epiphanies" and claims to having achieved a higher level of moral awareness. In interviews, in his book Earth in the Balance and, famously, in his acceptance speech at the 1992 Democratic convention, Gore has shamelessly milked the accident in which his 6-year-old son was badly hurt after being struck by a car. Gore described how, amid his anguish beside the boy's hospital bed, he peered into his own soul and reproached himself for being an absentee dad. He narrated his entry into family therapy. But Tipper and the children didn't see more of him as a consequence. Despite that dark night of the soul beside Al III's bed, Gore plunged even deeper into Senate business and spent his hours of leisure away from the family, writing Earth in the Balance while holed up in his parents' old penthouse in the Fairfax Hotel. Soon after, he accepted Clinton's invitation to run for Vice President.
Gore's a fibber through and through, just like Bill. A sad experience in the closing weeks of the campaign is to encounter liberals desperately trying delude themselves that there is some political decency or promise in the Democratic ticket. There isn't. Why talk about the lesser of two evils, when Gore is easily as bad as Bush and in many ways worse? The "lesser of two evils" is by definition a matter of restricted choice, like a man on a raft facing the decision of whether to drink seawater or his own urine. But in this election there are other choices, starting with Nader and the Greens. It isn't just a matter of facing seawater or piss.
It has become fashionable of late to deny the relative importance of politics, on the one hand, and the fact of any important differences between Democrats and Republicans, on the other. Elections, therefore, are said to be merely another form of entertainment--on a par with, say, professional wrestling, but only marginally more consequential. ("Show business for ugly people" is the common phrase, cited recently by Dee Dee Meyers in the Washington Post.) This is not to say that people do not recognize the reality of conflicts between the two sides. But these are sliced and diced almost exclusively in terms of personality rather than genuine political difference. The result is that the only election events that engage the masses--primarily conventions and debates--are reviewed in the media no differently than if they were opening-night performances on Broadway. (Pay attention to the commentary following the upcoming Bush/Gore debates. Just for fun, count how many times network and print pundits talk about each candidate's "comfort level" and style of presentation compared with the number of times they attempt to delineate a significant substantive disagreement.)
Still, one can hardly deny the truth of many of the assumptions that underlie these twin notions. Much of what pretends to be "politics" today is undertaken exclusively for show. Politicians lie, posture and pretend to care about things in public they happily give away in private. They always have, of course, but the rise of cable TV and the subsequent explosion of the punditocracy leads them to embrace show-business production values that leave less and less public space for genuine discourse and debate. Moreover, owing to the legalized system of bribery that has sprung up, thanks in part to Supreme Court decisions that equate spending with free speech, the Democrats are only slightly less beholden to multinational corporations than are the Republicans. Throw in the triangulating tendencies of the Clinton/Gore Administration--the self-conscious and ultimately successful strategy of eliminating your side's political weakness by adopting portions of the other side's positions--and you have what looks to be a pretty convincing case for despair. Who cares who wins a presidential election between two nearly identical candidates to govern a system that has ceased to matter except to all but a few crazies who watch cable TV 24/7?
For many on the left, the response to this quandary has been to support Ralph Nader's protest candidacy. He has no hope of winning, of course, but a vote for Nader is at least a vote for an honest man of progressive principle. Should these votes throw the election to Bush rather than Gore, well, tough luck. It would serve the Democrats right. And anyway, who cares? "The White House," as Nader says, "is a corporate prison." It hardly makes any difference who the prisoner is.
The problem with this perspective is that it views the political forest at so great a distance that it misses almost every one of its proverbial trees. While both major candidates use much the same rhetoric to offer feel-good appeals to centrist and undecided voters, beneath this veneer lie important political and philosophical distinctions with crucial implications for social, economic, environmental and even foreign policy. Examined carefully, the similarities between the two political parties do not hold a candle to their deep-seated differences. And because of the remarkable power of the office of the presidency, these differences in politics and philosophy have the potential to affect our society--particularly the most vulnerable among us--in matters that just about all of us would consider critical, if we only paused long enough to consider them.
An examination of the Clinton record illustrates the fallacy of the "pox on both their houses" worldview. As President, Bill Clinton has done more to deflate the postimperial status of his office--and blur the differences between himself and his opponents--than any President in the past century. Yet he has still been able to use his constitutional powers to catalyze broad changes in our society and to prevent others from taking place.
Consider the President's veto power. Had Clinton lost in 1992 or 1996, today the following would most likely be the law of the land:
§ the abolition of all taxes on estates larger than $675,000.
§ the reform of our bankruptcy laws to the detriment of the poor and middle classes on behalf of their corporate creditors.
§ the outlawing of so-called "partial birth" abortions.
§ a Tom DeLay-sponsored moratorium on all new government regulations, particularly those enforcing clean air, clean water and the rights of both union and nonunion workers.
§ an amendment to the National Labor Relations Act encouraging corporations to bypass collective bargaining in favor of so-called "labor-management cooperative efforts."
§ a bill restricting the Secretary of the Interior's power to protect environmentally sensitive land, including wetlands and other fragile ecosystems, from destruction by private commercial interests.
§ a $270 billion cut in Medicare funding, coupled with a $240 billion tax windfall to be enjoyed almost exclusively by the wealthiest Americans.
Despite the various constitutional restrictions on his power, a US President retains an awesome ability to make things happen just by saying so. The constitutional mechanism for this is the executive order, and historically, these actions have been known to transform millions of people's lives with a stroke of the presidential pen. FDR all but saved the pre-Pearl Harbor British war effort against the Nazis with his "Destroyer Deal," and Harry Truman desegregated the military virtually overnight, both on their own say-so, alone. Following the Freedom Rides in 1961, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, acting for his brother, petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission to desegregate all facilities, including bus terminals, railroad stations and airports, instituting federal lawsuits when localities resisted. Bill Clinton outlawed discrimination against gays and lesbians seeking security clearances--something all of his predecessors since Dwight Eisenhower refused to do. (As a result, "if you are a lesbian, you are no longer automatically a spy," notes Barney Frank, in a piece of good news for Mary Cheney.) Clinton also acted unilaterally to protect millions of acres of federal land from development. Just this year, he created the Grand Canyon-Parashant, Giant Sequoia, Agua Fria and California Coastal national monuments. He is expected to ban new road construction on approximately 40 million acres, roughly a fifth of all of the Forest Service's 192 million acres.
On the other side of the ledger, a President can also cause immeasurable harm purely on his own authority. Lyndon Johnson took us into Vietnam on the basis of an executive order, though he augmented it with the dishonestly obtained Gulf of Tonkin resolution. Ronald Reagan signed executive orders that sold public lands to private industry, allowed increased CIA spying on citizens, expanded the government's censorship and secrecy powers over its employees, instituted random drug-testing for all federal employees, reprogrammed foreign aid to send it to the murderous government of El Salvador and created a new government office for the express purpose of making an end run around Congressional restrictions on aid to the Nicaraguan contras.
Then there are the courts [see last week's special issue of The Nation, "The Supreme Court and the Election"]. The President nominates not only Supreme Court judges whenever a vacancy arises but also every one of the 852 judges on the federal bench. Few, if any, of the 374 judges Clinton has appointed have been cutting-edge, left-of-center scholars, but just about all of them are well to the left of the reactionary bunch nominated by Presidents Reagan and Bush. I don't like to judge the world this way myself, but since a lot of people do, here are some relevant numbers: 48 percent of Clinton's judicial nominees have been women or minorities, compared with just 28 percent for Bush and a mere 14 percent for Reagan. And Clinton's Supreme Court appointees, Ruth Bader Ginsburg--whom the University of Chicago's Cass Sunstein calls "the Thurgood Marshall of feminism"--and Stephen Breyer, have been on the progressive side of virtually every Court decision since their appointments.
The President also makes as many as 3,000 political appointments to the federal government, not including temporary appointments. More often than not, Bill Clinton's political appointments have been as safe and mainstream as those for the courts. He has ducked innumerable fights, most egregiously after he appointed his friend, voting-rights pioneer Lani Guinier, to the civil rights division of the Justice Department. Even so, the Administration included any number of leading progressives in positions of genuine power and influence, and these people have been able to use these positions to increase the degree of social justice under which millions of Americans live their lives. Such appointments are important in ways that never make the nightly news reports and hence slip under the radar of all but the most politically obsessed. For instance, Robert Reich told me that during his four-year term as Labor Secretary, he issued hundreds if not thousands of rules on how to implement laws and was generally given considerable discretion in how he chose to do so. Reich was able, on his own authority, to force employers to make their pension-fund contributions within forty-five days, he recalls, "as many had been using them as revolving credit funds." Under Reich, the department also cracked down on sweatshops, and through OSHA, on unsafe plants where workers had been getting their arms mangled and their heads crushed. While Reich lost the main battle to Lloyd Bentsen and Robert Rubin to wage an Administration-led crusade against corporate welfare, he succeeded in opening up the discussion and hence in encouraging progressive groups to challenge corporate giveaways, sometimes successfully. Reich's replacement, Alexis Herman, is one of the most progressive members of the current Administration. Like Reich, she has made behind-the-scenes efforts and frequently consulted with John Sweeney in ways that have helped give unions the time and tools they need to start winning strikes again. Suffice it to say that insuring a fair fight for labor unions on strike was not high on the agenda of past Republican administrations.
Even the President's purely symbolic acts can have powerful, though hardly obvious, effects on the life of the nation. While his commission on race may be fairly judged a failure, for instance, Clinton's willingness to confront the issue of affirmative action head-on in his speeches and town meetings almost certainly saved the program--no longer is it the far right's favorite target for whipping up social resentment against liberals, minorities and other alleged deviants. His choice of Jesse Jackson as a special envoy to Africa and as an adviser on many domestic issues has also had meaningful if unmeasurable effects on the cause of racial inclusion. And the Clinton/Gore embrace of the gay community has created massive ripples in what were, until recently, stagnant waters. Ronald Reagan, perhaps the twentieth century's most effective hypocrite, privately invited gay men to sleep together under the White House roof, yet it took him 2,258 days in office to utter the word "AIDS" in public. In welcoming gays and lesbians at the White House with open arms, Clinton advanced their acceptance into mainstream society to a degree that was unthinkable when he was first elected. The openly gay financial writer Andrew Tobias, national treasurer of the Democratic National Committee, calls gays and lesbians "an explicit part of the Democratic vision, a welcome member of the team." And surely it makes a difference in the character and flavor of our public life that the President has picked progressive heroes like John Kenneth Galbraith and George McGovern for the nation's highest official honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Recent Republican choices have included Milton Friedman and Whittaker Chambers.
Finally, the cliché that "the President proposes and Congress disposes" is dead-on, although it underestimates the office's power of persuasion. Some members of Congress may not like the Microsoft antitrust suit, but there isn't a damn thing they can do about it. And they may resist re-raising the federal minimum wage or doubling the earned-income tax credit for low-wage workers, but they must deal with these issues if a President insists on raising them. Under Reagan and Bush, these proposals languished. Under Clinton, the GOP Congress has been forced to act repeatedly--against the wishes of its own constituency--to help increase the purchasing power of the working poor.
Though he appears to have modified his views in recent weeks, Ralph Nader has spent much of the year traversing the country, insisting that the choice between Al Gore and George W. Bush is nothing more than a pick between "Tweedledee and Tweedledum." Unfortunately, on a number of key issues, Nader has a strong argument. Gore, like Clinton, is first and foremost a pragmatic politician who will betray progressive hopes whenever it suits his larger purposes. The corporate-friendly Vice President has been nowhere near as strong as he claims on environmental issues. ("On the issue of the environment, I've never given up. I've never backed down, and I never will," he lies.) Like Clinton, Gore will continue to back wasteful increases in military spending and the expansion of the failed bipartisan drug war in Colombia. On civil liberties, he will most likely prove just as insensitive, sacrificing important privacy rights to fight exaggerated threats from terrorism and drug trafficking. On trade and globalization issues, a Democratic President can turn out to be even worse than a Republican one. A Democrat carries sufficient clout to pass most agreements against both public opinion and the public interest but lacks the power to force Republicans to accept the kinds of restrictions that genuinely protect the environment and workers' rights. The result in the Clinton presidency has been a series of business-dictated agreements that make it easier for corporations to pursue beggar-thy-neighbor policies. A Democratic defeat might--emphasis on the word "might"--result in a more unified opposition party that would successfully demand powerful protections for workers and communities as the price of expanding free trade and investment agreements.
If the trade/globalization issue were the Vietnam War or World War II, it would be easier to argue that dumping the Democrats is a risk worth taking. As important as trade policy is, however, it remains an uncomfortable stretch to insist that it somehow trumps everything else put together. For while Al Gore, like Bill Clinton, is certain to disappoint anyone naïve enough to believe that he will always "fight for the people against the powerful," as he continually promises, the policies of his presidency would be preferable to Bush's in almost every conceivable way. The Texas governor has sought to minimize the two candidates' political differences by giving his conservatism what he terms "a compassionate face." But the unhappy fact is that, despite his rhetoric, Bush, together with Tom DeLay, Dick Armey and Trent Lott, is the de facto leader of a party and a movement that seeks to reverse decades of social progress as it simultaneously emasculates the federal government's ability to defend the interests of its poor and middle-class citizens. He could not oppose these policies and maintain his power base even if he wanted to--and there is no evidence that he does.
Even on issues where Gore's record is at its weakest, the potential costs of a Bush presidency are enormous. Take campaign finance. We all know of Gore's many transgressions in the mad chase for corporate dollars in the 1996 campaign. His foolishly legalistic "no controlling legal authority" explanations for his unseemly actions have made him something of a national joke on the subject. But owing to this very embarrassment, Gore now professes to have been reborn on this issue. He wants to ban soft money, force outside groups to disclose what issue advertisements they have bought before an election and require broadcasters to give candidates free airtime to answer those outside ads. Gore promises that the McCain/Feingold reform bill, consistently filibustered by Senate Republicans, will be the first law he sends to Congress as President.
Now, even if Gore succeeds in forcing the next Congress to pass McCain/Feingold--an enormous "if"--he is still clearly not willing to go far enough. Until this country institutes a system of public finance like the one currently in operation in Maine, corporations will continue to use their financial power to strangle any number of badly needed reforms. But any way one views the problem, Bush is almost certain to be worse. He opposed John McCain's plan during the Republican primaries because, he explained, the current system works to Republican advantage. Why give it up? Even Bush is not that stupid. As of last spring, business was outspending labor 15 to 1 in this election cycle. Should the Republicans win, that will be the end of campaign finance reform for another four years.
Another area where Gore and company look like Republicans from afar is on foreign policy. A New Democrat through and through, Gore (together with Joe Lieberman) has been on the hawkish side of virtually every intra-Democratic Party argument. Like his gutless boss, but without the excuse of being a "draft dodger," he supports the showering of the military with mountains of unneeded funds as well as a truly idiotic missile defense program that can only do untold harm to the nation's security along with its budget. Gore favors the immoral starvation policies directed at the Cuban and Iraqi people, and the further militarization of our ruinous drug policies, here and in Colombia. Too bad, therefore, that on every one of these issues, Bush is considerably worse.
An almost total novice (and frequent nitwit) when it comes to foreign affairs, Bush is dependent on his father's national security advisers, including Dick Cheney, Richard Perle, Richard Armitage, Paul Wolfowitz, Brent Scowcroft, George Shultz and Condoleeza Rice. All remain intellectually imprisoned inside a manichean cold war paradigm that was already out of date when they first came into power in the early eighties. Bush's team believes in an aggressive US foreign policy backed by a strong military, but it couldn't care less about promoting human rights, labor rights or environmental protection. (Dick Cheney's vote against freedom for Nelson Mandela is entirely consistent with this worldview.) Bush's advisers do not understand, much less embrace, the emerging view of foreign policy professionals that issues like the depletion of the ozone layer, Third World debt reduction, the global AIDS epidemic, increasing depopulation of ocean fisheries and biochemical threats to the world's agriculture qualify as foreign policy issues. "Global social work" is what Armitage calls these causes. Though not as isolationist-minded as the GOP Congress, this crew has little more use for the United Nations than does Jesse Helms. What's more, in Cheney, Bush has signed off on a politician who publicly endorsed the thuggish extraconstitutional adventurism undertaken by Oliver North during the Iran/contra scandal.
On missile defense, perhaps Gore's most appalling cave-in to right-wing hysteria, the Vice President cravenly favors "developing the technology for a national missile defense system to protect against ballistic-missile attacks from rogue states." But Bush says he would deploy a much more extensive defense right away, whether it works or not. ("Now is the time not to defend outdated treaties but to defend the American people," he told the GOP convention.) As former Reagan Pentagon official Larry Korb has observed, "With President Gore, it would be very limited, and it would go a long way toward accommodating the Russian desires. Bush is willing to do the whole nine yards," and damn the consequences for the budget, the ABM treaty, the arms race and US relations with allies and potential adversaries.
On most issues, the differences are even more pronounced. Take the question of the courts. Critics of the Democrats often point out that some of the more liberal Justices on the Supreme Court have historically been appointed by Republicans. That would be comforting if Gore were running against Dwight Eisenhower or Gerald Ford. George W. Bush's judicial heroes, however, are not Earl Warren or John Paul Stevens. They are Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, and there is no reason to think his appointments would be any less reactionary. The conservatives currently enjoy a 5-to-4 majority on most decisions and have been winning their arguments by a single vote in recent years to an unprecedented degree. Because the next President is likely to pick at least two and possibly three new Justices, this slim conservative majority will become a decades-long right-wing hegemony should Bush win the election. The "strict constructionists" favored by Bush would most likely overturn Roe v. Wade and destroy women's right to a safe and legal abortion. (The Constitution does not mention abortion, after all.) They would strike down federal protections against discrimination for disabled people, for people of varying sexual orientation and for people benefiting from almost any form of affirmative action. Privacy rights would also be considerably truncated, while the rights of corporate and commercial speech would be expanded--thereby dooming any future campaign finance reform. Laws on gun control and tobacco regulation would be weakened, as would laws that allow such agencies as the EPA and OSHA to protect workers, consumers and local communities from corporate rapacity. The entire body of US law, according to Cass Sunstein, would be pushed closer to its pre-New Deal status, implying "significant and possibly historic changes in the meaning of the Constitution." And given the Supreme Court's power of judicial review, there wouldn't be a thing Congress or the President could do about it.
In a Bush presidency, minority rights would suffer from far more than just Court decisions. Like his father, "W" appears motivated less by animus than by cowardice. But even the most compassionate conservative Republican has no incentive to upset his core Christian constituency by extending--or even accepting--many of the gains of the past decade for gays and lesbians. (Barney Frank quips that the gay "Log Cabin" Republican group, with whom Bush declined even to meet, is so named "because they're all Uncle Toms.")
Meanwhile, to argue that there is no significant difference between the two candidates on racial matters is to argue that blacks, Latinos and others are the victims of a grand hoax to which white leftists are somehow immune, since minority support for both Clinton and Gore has been rock solid. Speaking at The Nation's forum on the eve of the Democratic convention in LA, Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. explained that while "some of us are making decisions from the perspective of philosophy and the luxury of our comfortableness, and how we are personally situated in the economy...there are other members of our coalition, who are not here, who have everything at stake." To take one small example of the issues in question, California State Senator Tom Hayden observes that a Gore presidency could lead to effective Justice Department measures to curb crimes committed on a systematic basis by law enforcement officers, while George W. Bush has complained of the Justice Department's "overaggressive" police brutality investigations. This is, notes Hayden, "the kind of difference you just can't responsibly forget."
Consider also the twin scourges of gun violence and tobacco peddling to minors. Gore supports a plan that would force gun owners to take a course and get a photo license, just as they must now to drive a car. Using language and imagery borrowed from the NRA, Bush likens such a plan to a Big Brother-like first step to taking all guns away from law-abiding citizens. Gore wants to close a loophole that exempts buyers at gun shows from required background checks. Bush does not. Gore says he would like to ban so-called Saturday night special handguns, limit purchasers to one gun a month and re-impose the Brady Law's waiting period for gun purchases. Bush would do none of this. In the event of a Bush victory, NRA leaders have said they may seek a national law permitting concealed weapons similar to the one the governor signed in Texas. Charlton Heston and company would also go after a Texas-style "lawsuit protection" bill for gun makers. Both are inconceivable under a Gore presidency.
Regarding tobacco, Gore vowed in his convention speech to "crack down on the marketing of tobacco to our children." And indeed, since the $250 billion settlement pursued by the states with the industry, the Justice Department has been pursuing a racketeering lawsuit, seeking to recoup hundreds of billions of tax dollars spent on treating sick smokers. Bush, heavily funded by tobacco companies, failed to support his state's participation in its antitobacco lawsuit, which eventually added $17 billion to the Texas treasury. As Ralph Reed proudly bragged in National Review, Bush "filed a brief to deny a group of trial lawyers a multibillion-dollar payoff as part of the state's tobacco settlement," even after the companies conceded.
On environmental issues, for all of Gore's well-documented failings, the two candidates speak and act as if they come from different planets. Again, Gore is both an environmentalist and a political pragmatist. Judged by the demanding standards that Gore himself laid out in his book Earth in the Balance, he is a sham and a sellout. To take just one example, the Clinton/Gore Administration opened up Alaska's precious National Petroleum Reserve, selling the first oil-drilling leases in May 1999. Compared with George Bush, however, Gore is Mother Nature herself. If elected, he will arguably be the most environmentally sensitive and sophisticated politician ever to occupy the Oval Office.
Gore strongly supported EPA Administrator Carol Browner's improved clean-air regulations. The Clinton/Gore Administration reduced logging on federal lands by 80 percent from 1990 levels, and the Forest Service is now taking public comment on plans to keep 60 million acres of roadless national forests undeveloped. It has created nine new national monuments, including what is now the largest national monument outside of Alaska. A Gore administration would likely take favorable action on any number of environmental initiatives that will face the next President. These include: a proposed ban on development of a fifth of the Forest Service's 192 million acres; the implementation of a new set of extensive regulations on diesel pollution; the regulation of mercury emissions from coal-burning power plants, which are understood to pose a significant threat to pregnant women and children who consume them; a ban on dangerous pesticides; and long-overdue compensation for US workers whose health has been harmed by dangerous government-certified work on nuclear weapons.
George Bush, it is safe to predict, would ignore those aspects of environmental protection that he did not reverse. The former oilman has one of the worst environmental records of any governor in the entire fifty states. Every year since Bush took office, Texas has been the most polluted state in the nation. Houston recently accomplished what many believed to be impossible: It passed Los Angeles to achieve the honorific of being the city with the worst air quality in the nation. This is no accident. In 1997 Bush replaced state regulations with a self-policing plan, drawn up by the polluters themselves, that called for strictly voluntary compliance with the standards of the 1971 Clean Air Act for companies that had been grandfathered into the old system. The results were predictable. Of the 160 biggest, a grand total of three have actually cut their emissions. Bush's policies with regard to auto emissions evince a similar pro-pollution bias. Not until the EPA threatened to withhold millions in highway funding did Bush even begin to try to control emissions. In 1999 federal regulators demanded that emissions be cut in Houston by 90 percent or the state would lose billions in highway funds. Things had been allowed to deteriorate so seriously that if every car were taken off the road in Houston, the city would still fail to meet federal safe-ozone levels. The two oilmen at the top of the Republican ticket also have no use whatsoever for the Kyoto Protocol, designed to reduce the threat of global warming, which Al Gore championed inside the Clinton Administration. Bush has said he does not support the treaty, and in 1996 Dick Cheney led a group of fifty-four oil executives in attacking the proposed Kyoto agreement because it advocated "the forced reduction of fossil fuel use." (Well, yes, that's the point.)
And what of the future of organized labor? Without a vibrant, powerful labor movement, there is simply no hope for the revival of the US left. Again, absent an upsurge in the numbers of pro-labor representatives, Gore is likely to disappoint on issues of labor rights, trade and globalization, just as Clinton did. Making progress will take more muscle than labor has so far been able to amass. But on a panoply of other questions, from the Court's rulings on labor law and the composition of the National Labor Relations Board to the Labor Department's role in strike support (and/or opposition), a Gore presidency would be far better for unions. Gore has called organizing a "fundamental American right that should never be blocked, stopped, and never, ever taken away." Bush, in contrast, governs a "right to work" state and even opposed raising the federal minimum wage, to which the Republican Congress recently acquiesced. Backed by business billions, he (quite logically) supports so-called paycheck-protection laws, designed to silence labor's voice in the political process. Does anyone believe that it truly makes no difference for working people who wins the next election?
And here we finally reach the differences between the two parties that strike this writer, anyway, as by far the most compelling. I refer to what Senator Paul Wellstone calls "bread and butter, workday family economic issues." The problem is not just how much money Bush wants to give to the extremely wealthy at the expense of the rest of us. Rather, it is that the Republican Party, at this moment in history, is politically and ideologically dedicated to the destruction of the very foundations of social solidarity in this country. Bush and company threaten to work toward the ultimate privatization not only of Social Security, Medicare and public education but nearly all of the sustained, generous and democratically grounded social programs the US political system has enacted since the dawn of the New Deal. These are the signal socioeconomic achievements of the left, going back more than seven decades. And they need to be defended if the word "left" is to have any meaning in America at all.
The numbers alone would be worrisome enough. The Bush tax plan offers 100 times more tax relief to the richest 1 percent of Americans than to most middle-income families, and 1,000 times more relief than to low-income families. Added together, Bush's tax cuts could cost at least $1.3 trillion over nine years. Gore's far more frugal plan of targeted tax cuts is aimed at these middle- and lower-income people, allowing them to pay for health, education and job-training needs.
Bush also wants to begin draining funds from the public education system through a system of vouchers. Gore has vowed to fight this. "I will not go along with any plan that would drain taxpayer money away from our public schools and give it to private schools in the form of vouchers," he promises. Given the power of the NEA inside the Democratic Party (for better or worse), he will have no choice but to keep that promise. The Bush budget calls for an increase of $48 billion in public education funding over the next decade; the Gore plan, $170 billion.
For Social Security, our most important instrument of collective, intergenerational solidarity and the single most effective antipoverty program in US history, a Bush presidency could mean the beginning of the end. He proposes to allow workers to place a portion of their payroll tax into a private retirement account for the purposes of private investment, thereby creating an enormous windfall for the securities industry. This diversion would cost the system an estimated trillion dollars in its first decade, but it makes no provisions for the losses to workers that might be incurred during a sustained downturn in the market. As Bush has ruled out raising payroll taxes and would not dare cut benefits without the (politically unimaginable) fig leaf of Democratic cooperation, the system itself will be at risk. Gore, like Clinton, proposes to use today's surpluses to pay off government debt, and then to deploy the savings in the government's interest payments down the road for Social Security.
Regarding healthcare for those who need it most--seniors, children and families tied to HMOs--the case for political equivalence is nonexistent. Medicare is second only to Social Security as an instrument of camaraderie in our public lives. Bush does not explicitly say he wants to repeal it, but as Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne points out, he "wants to create strong incentives to push the elderly into HMOs and away from" Medicare. "And he takes a small but significant step toward shipping Medicare off to the states by making his short-term prescription-drug plan a federally supported but state-run program." Gore plans to buttress the system with about one of every six dollars in budget surpluses over the next fifteen years, along with $250 billion for prescription drugs. Unlike Bush, he backs a patients' bill of rights that would allow patients to sue insurance plans when they make costly--or deadly--mistakes. For the uninsured, Gore hopes to expand the Clinton Administration's Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) to cover more poor children and, for the first time, their working parents.
It is on the subject of children's healthcare that the Man from Compassion is at his most hypocritical. In Texas Bush fought tooth and nail to limit his state's participation in CHIP, which combines a generous federal payment with a much less costly state obligation, because "in times of plenty, the government must not overcommit." But such prudence was nowhere evident when it came time to offer up $1.8 billion in state money for tax cuts and another $45 million in new tax breaks for the oil and gas industry. As a result, Texas is one of the few states that showed a net increase in the number of uninsured children, placing it number forty-five in the nation in this "compassionate" category.
Finally, it is a mistake to view the presidency as merely an executive office somewhere on the southern tip of the Metroliner corridor. It's the most potent political symbol in America, and it empowers others to act with greater force and authority than they would otherwise enjoy. The fortunes of left movements in the United States, as historians Michael Kazin and Maurice Isserman pointed out in these pages six years ago, have always been closely linked with those of liberals in general, and liberal Presidents in particular--from the Progressive Era to the Popular Front radicalism of the thirties through the civil rights and antiwar and feminist activism of the sixties and early seventies. "In each of these periods," they wrote, "the left found legitimacy as part of a continuum of reform-to-radical sentiment, contributing to the widespread belief of the day that social change was both possible and positive."
Nearly twenty years ago, I was in the audience of a speech the British socialist Tony Benn was giving at the London School of Economics, where I was a visiting student. Ronald Reagan had been elected President a few days earlier, and this confused first-semester junior asked Benn his opinion on why voters found politicians of the genuine left, like himself and Ted Kennedy, so frightening but loved right-wing radicals like Thatcher and Reagan. The former Lord Wedgwood refused even to entertain the question, so deeply offended was he by my implicit comparison of himself, an authentic homme de gauche, to Kennedy, whom he believed to be nothing more than a mealy-mouthed front man for capital. "You Americans," he grumbled, "are always going around the world complaining about 'one-party states.' America itself is a one-party state. But with typical American extravagance, you have two of them."
Benn's retort remains the cleverest real-time response any politician has ever uttered in my presence. Too bad it was also almost entirely wrong. Would a President Ted Kennedy have hired drug runners to conduct an illegal war against the Nicaraguan government? Would he have brushed off massacres in El Salvador, defended genocide in Guatemala and invaded Grenada? Would he have busted the air-traffic controllers' union and declared war on organized labor? Would he have attempted to destroy the progressive income tax? Would he have supported tax exemptions for Bob Jones University? Would he have appointed a string of reactionaries to the Supreme Court? Would he have unleashed an insane nuclear and conventional arms race with the Soviet Union? Are these somehow trivial issues? Even the more conservative Jimmy Carter would have governed with an infinitely higher quotient of wisdom and mercy than his successor, had America's center-left majority demonstrated the patience to stick with him. The Democratic Party is certainly more conservative than it was a generation ago, but Republicans have been speeding rightward with the velocity of a Bob Feller fastball.
Unfortunately, progressives have an unhappy history in recent times of failing to make important distinctions between candidates to their right. In 1968 many sat on their hands and allowed the criminal Richard Nixon to defeat Hubert Humphrey. Eight years earlier Arthur Schlesinger Jr. felt he had to write a book called Kennedy or Nixon: Does It Make Any Difference? No such book should be necessary this year. Despite Al Gore and the Democrats' countless flaws as progressive political vessels, the differences between the two primary presidential candidates remain as substantial as those in any close election in modern American history. And while this election may not offer an ideal choice, it recalls the famous response attributed to George Burns. Asked how he felt about celebrating yet another birthday, the ancient comic responded, "Well, it sure beats the alternative.
A new poll has found that strong majorities of Americans have high
levels of interest and concern about a range of issues that are rarely
being discussed in the current political campaign. And on several key
issues where candidates George W. Bush and Al Gore basically agree--the
benefits of international trade and increased military spending relative to
other priorities, for instance--the public does not.
The poll, commissioned by The Nation magazine and the Institute for Policy
Studies, a Washington-based think tank, found that:
§ Despite the booming economy many Americans worry about the
disenfranchised: they show concern for the many Americans without health
insurance (91%) and the gaps between rich and poor (74%). An overwhelming
majority (81%) supports an increase in the minimum wage.
§ While both candidates express enthusiasm for the growth of international
trade, a huge majority of voters (83%) wants to see this growth moderated
by other goals--protecting workers, the environment and human rights--even if
this means slowing the growth of the economy.
§ While both candidates are speaking in favor of increases in defense
spending, a strong majority (63%) is interested in the possibility of
redirecting defense funds to education and other priorities.
§ A clear majority considers it "very important"
or "somewhat important" for the candidates to debate some of the foreign
policy issues that are rarely being discussed, such as the comprehensive
test ban treaty (80%) and contributing to international peacekeeping
operations (86%). An equally strong majority (81%) wants the United States
to work with other countries through the United Nations.
"These results suggest a disconnect between the rhetoric of the political
campaign and the reality of public concerns," says Katrina vanden Heuvel,
editor of The Nation.
The poll was conducted in late September by the Center on Public Attitudes
(COPA), an independent social science research center closely associated
with the University of Maryland. It asked questions that had been asked in
previous polls over the last several years by the Pew Research Center; ABC
News; the Center's own Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA, a
joint program with the Center on Strategicl and Internationa Studies at
the University of Maryland); Newsweek; and CBS News/New York Times.
These questions were asked again to see if the current political campaign
has made much difference in public attitudes. Surprisingly, The Nation/IPS
poll found that voter views and levels of interest on these issues are
generally about as strong as they were in mid-1999--even though many of the
issues tested received scant attention during the last 12 months of
"Despite the assurances of politicians that times have never been better at
home and that globally we're in a new era of Pax Americana, we see that a
majority of voters are, in poll after poll, worried by unfettered free
trade, growing inequality at home and abroad, and U.S. unilateralism. They
are out ahead of one or both of candidates Bush and Gore in believing fair
trade is more important than free trade, supporting cuts in military
spending and reinvesting in other programs, and wanting the U.S. to play by
the rules through the United Nations," says John Cavanagh, Director of the
Institute for Policy Studies.
On the eve of the first presidential debate, a new poll has found that strong majorities of Americans have high levels of interest and concern about a range of issues that are rarely being discussed in the current campaign. And on several key issues where candidates George W. Bush and Al Gore basically agree--the benefits of international trade and increased military spending relative to other priorities, for instance--the public does not. The poll, commissioned by The Nation and the Institute for Policy Studies, found that:
§ Americans are concerned about the disfranchised, including the many without health insurance (91 percent) and gaps between rich and poor (74 percent). A large majority (81 percent) supports an increase in the minimum wage.
§ Both candidates express enthusiasm for the growth of international trade, but 83 percent of the public wants trade combined with other goals--protecting workers, the environment and human rights--even if it means a slowing economy.
§ Both candidates favor increases in military spending, but a strong majority of the public (63 percent) is interested in redirecting some military funds to education and other needs.
§ A clear majority (80 percent) wants debate on foreign policy issues like the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty; 81 percent say they want the United States to work with other countries through the United Nations.
Majority views and levels of interest on these issues are generally about as strong as they were in mid-1999, even though many of the issues tested have been out of the spotlight over the past twelve months of campaigning.
The poll was conducted by the Center on Policy Attitudes, an independent social science research center. For full results: www.thenation.com, www.foreignpolicy-infocus.org or www.ips-dc.org. Or call IPS: (202) 234-9382, ext. 258.
Only months after a major victory on China trade, Big Business is again scavenging for cheap labor. This time, the high-tech industry is pressuring Congress to allow additional foreign technicians--particularly computer programmers and engineers--to work temporarily for US corporations. Congress, with the President's blessing, is poised to deliver a sweet deal to the industry, at the expense of US and foreign workers.
The 1990 Immigration Act set aside 65,000 H-1B visas each year to allow "the best and the brightest" from around the world to work in the United States for up to six years. In 1998, when the high-tech industry complained about an unbearable shortage of skilled US workers, Congress raised the annual H-1B ceiling to 115,000. The industry promised it was a one-time solution. But tech companies devoured the visas. Now their Washington lobbyists claim they are still starving for qualified workers.
Such evidence as exists, however, casts doubt on the alleged labor shortage. A recent study by the IT Workforce Data Project concluded that over the past fifty years, "there is no evidence that any serious shortages of technical professionals--engineers in the past, information technology specialists now--have ever occurred." If the industry faces a tight labor market, it's self-imposed. The industry has largely ignored its vast underrepresentation of women and minorities. Few tech firms recruit at African-American job fairs, and less than 1 percent of blacks with high-tech degrees have Silicon Valley jobs. The corporations also often shun older workers, who might require retraining or better pay.
The tech industry craves cheap labor, not skilled workers. H-1Bs, which are temporary and prohibit the holder from switching employers, fill the bill. H-1B workers cannot unionize, are likely to accept uncompetitive wages and do not receive the employment benefits that similarly skilled Americans would demand. Many companies reportedly force their foreign employees to work in factorylike conditions and routinely withhold wages and violate contracts. Foreign workers, dependent on their jobs for legal residence in the United States, are defenseless: If they complain, they risk being fired; if they quit, their employer can sue them. Their only legal remedy is a bureaucratic federal complaint process with few enforcement options. These foreign temps--indentured servants of the new economy--can either put up or go home.
Nonetheless, Bill Clinton, Congress, Al Gore and George W. Bush support raising the H-1B ceiling to approximately 200,000. Why? The computer industry alone has pumped more than $72 million into federal campaigns. Orrin Hatch and Spencer Abraham, sponsors of the Senate's leading H-1B bill, have received nearly $1 million in high-tech campaign contributions. David Dreier and Zoe Lofgren, authors of the industry-endorsed House legislation, each enjoy tens of thousands in Silicon Valley funding. Other powerful legislators have also profited handsomely from cooperating with Big Technology.
The industry is reminding its political welfare recipients that expanding the H-1B program is a top priority for the nation's tech firms. Their lobbyists are meeting one-on-one with politicians and are barraging Capitol Hill with daily "fact sheets." Chairmen of House and Senate campaign committees have received letters explicitly warning that tech companies will not support legislators who dawdle on H-1B. With control of Congress up for grabs, opposing the industry hardly seems worth the risk.
Representative Tom Davis, who chairs a GOP campaign committee and supports raising the H-1B ceiling, acknowledged, "This is not a popular bill with the public. It's popular with the CEOs." Once again, powerful corporations and unprincipled politicians are preparing to take advantage of vulnerable foreign labor, while many US workers are left out in the cold.