Commenting on the German film Run Lola Run two years ago, The Nation's redoubtable film critic, Stuart Klawans, quoted a character speaking nominally of soccer: "The ball is round. The game lasts ninety minutes." He went on to write, "That's a good answer, if your head's filled with the same stuff as the ball.... Just don't forget which part of you is getting booted." Vintage Klawans, who gibed his fellow critics as well for decrying "the demise of movie culture--laments that have been sighed, paradoxically, over the living bodies of any number of vital but less fashionable films." Holiday moviegoers have doubtless missed Stuart's insight, grace and humor in recent weeks; we here report that after a dozen years spent in the dark so that the rest of us might see some light, he has decided to take a sabbatical. We'll miss his presence. In the interim, we hope you'll find the occasional film commentary by others in these pages to be very much in his spirit.
TROOPS IN THE STREETS
Nation contributing editor and radio host Marc Cooper was tossed out of the California State University system for antiwar activities in 1971 by executive order of Governor Ronald Reagan--and ended up in Chile, working as a translator for Salvador Allende. What footnote could be more oddly appropriate in Cooper's memoir Pinochet and Me? The book is part diaristic reconstruction of the 1973 coup against Allende, part chronicle of return trips Cooper has made since to Chile and part consideration of that country's--and Pinochet's--fate at century's turn.
Chile "briefly shined as a beacon of inspiration," Cooper laments, the culmination of fifty years of massive campaigning for democratic socialism and the notion that "perhaps, radical social change and resulting improvements in the lives of common people were possible through democratic, peaceful and legal means." His firsthand reporting on the twists and turns of the following quarter-century is by turns chilling and poignant.
Cooper could easily have met the fate of Charles Horman (whom he knew slightly), subject of the film Missing; his account of the coup and its aftermath is fraught with chaos, luck and what he calls the "moment of greatest naivety in my adult life"--assuming the US Embassy would be of help. The American consul told Cooper and a few others that "the armed forces are restoring order but there's still a danger of scattered left-wing snipers." Cooper may be the journalistic equivalent of the latter, but the only danger he poses is that he fosters understanding of the social forces at work in the country he has, in more than one sense, married into. His account of returns to Chile first under an assumed name and, years later, under his own, are compelling: an arrest for photographing an army bus that civilians had tied to random shootings; an encounter with youths who say they are hungry and beg for guns; the effects neoliberal economics have wrought on everyday life; the feelings of Chileans on Pinochet's arrest in London. Cooper ends with the inscription on a Chilean memorial to the disappeared: "The forgotten past is full of memory."
"What we saw in Seattle across those tumultuous days stretching from November 28 through December 3, 1999, and then in Davos, Switzerland, Washington DC, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Prague was the flowering of a new radical movement in America and across the world, rambunctious, anarchic, internationalist, well informed and in some ways more imaginative and supple than kindred popular eruptions in recent decades," write Nation columnist Alexander Cockburn and his co-authors in this eyewitness chronicle of protests against the WTO and other institutions of the new global economic order. The authors have keen eyes for the social ironies surrounding the events: Jeffrey St. Clair's Seattle diary observes not just the segregation of the city's high-tech opulence from south Seattle's old-economy piers and pulp and chemical factories but an account of an officer frisking a woman whose boyfriend was walking her home from work. Just before unloading his pepper spray on her escort, the policeman tells her, "You've no idea what we've been through today." Protest experience at the Democratic National Convention left the authors concluding as well that "America is moving toward the normalization of paramilitary forces in law enforcement." Winking at the old journalistic saw of quoting taxi drivers to get the street pulse, Nation contributor and former senior editor JoAnn Wypijewski, whose DC diary of World Bank and IMF protests is included, quotes an Ethiopian driver: "What is going on is simply the recolonization of the so-called developing world." Adds another: "This is why we are taxi drivers."
Let the chattering classes focus on chads and undervotes and Florida recounts and what the courts--state and federal, all the way up to the Supreme Court--would or wouldn't do. Let us not forget that the candidate who won the national popular vote falls only three votes short of a clear Electoral College majority even without Florida. If on December 18, the day the Electoral College convenes to cast its ballot, three Republican electors decide on their own to vote for him, all the speculation is moot.
Our purpose is to argue that our three hypothetical electors should so decide and that American democracy would be the better for it. And that this particular election, because it is so close and because it has raised fundamental issues of voting rights, provides the right historic moment for such a gesture. In 1960, another close election, Ted Lewis argued in The Nation that there was such revulsion against the Electoral College that it "would certainly now be on its way out" if it hadn't "functioned on November 8 in accordance with the national will."
Election 2000's clouded outcome has highlighted some glaring flaws in our electoral system--uncounted votes, confused voters, voters rejected (see David Corn, on page 5)--which has stimulated a growing sentiment for reform. And so while the country's mood is hospitable to reform, why not abolish the most undemocratic institution of all--the Electoral College?
That's where our hypothetical three electors come in. By casting their votes for the popular-vote winner, in the short run they would guarantee the election of the man who won the popular vote; but more important, in the long run such a gesture might break the antidemocratic stranglehold of the Electoral College on American politics. Let's be clear: We are not urging them to vote for the popular-vote winner because we support Al Gore. We are urging them to cast such a vote because it would be the right thing to do--legally, morally and politically.
It will immediately be objected that what we are proposing is an invitation to electoral anarchy, that history has rightly stigmatized the thirteen electors who switched their votes in previous presidential elections as "faithless electors." Besides, Vice President Gore himself has said he would "not accept" Republican electors. But the Vice President has no say about the matter, any more than he has a say about not accepting the vote of those whose party affiliations or (political) motives he finds repugnant. Even a Gore concession speech doesn't bind the electors.
As for those faithless electors, we would argue that if you have a system of electors instead of direct democracy, the possibility of defection goes with the package. What is more, if three or more Republican electors decide to cross over, far from creating electoral anarchy, their actions would be legally defensible, morally beneficial and politically desirable.
Legally, because under the Electoral College electors are not bound by the Constitution to follow the popular vote, and in twenty-four states they remain free to vote their conscience. In twenty-six others they are required by state law to follow the popular vote. Scholars like Akhil Reed Amar and Mark Tushnet argue that electors are totally free agents.
Morally, because their action would prevent the presidency of a man who lost the popular vote. It also brings us a step closer to the democratic ideal of one person, one vote. The Electoral College was created by the Framers under a deal with the slaveholding states to give those states added clout in the new Union. The Framers distrusted the popular will. As Alexander Hamilton wrote in The Federalist Papers, "A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations" to choose the "Chief Magistrate." They did not anticipate political parties or the current practice of electors pledging to vote in accordance with the popular vote in their state.
Politically, because ultimately the fortunes of both parties--and minority parties as well--would be strengthened by a more democratic government. The smaller states now wield disproportionate influence in elections. And without the need to troll for electoral votes, candidates would be motivated to campaign in all fifty states, not merely the big contested ones.
Passing a constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College will not be easy. But the dramatic gesture of three electors or more defying the Electoral College could concentrate the nation's attention wonderfully and help jump-start a movement for reform. It might at least stimulate collateral reforms in the states, along the lines of the present systems of appointing electors in Maine and Nebraska, only carrying it further.
In the past, faithless electors were eccentric loners. This year they could be electors of conscience--the people's electors. Their action would cause a firestorm in the House. But such high constitutional drama would open a national debate on the legitimacy of the Electoral College. It's time to start that debate.
Any last hope former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet may have harbored that history would judge him kindly was dashed recently when a Santiago judge formally charged him with kidnapping and murder. At press time an appellate court was reviewing the indictment. But whether or not the 85-year-old former general goes into the dock, the noose is tightening. An Argentine court is now demanding Pinochet's extradition for his role in the Buenos Aires murder of Chile's former army commander. And word is that the US Justice Department is considering its own indictment of the ex-dictator for masterminding the 1976 Washington car-bomb murder of Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt. The big question is how to bring the same sort of accountability to US officials who fully supported Pinochet during Chile's darkest days. As Peter Kornbluh reported in these pages (Dec. 18), there is new evidence that US officials from Henry Kissinger on down were fully apprised of the general's barbarities, even as they pledged full support. The other question is whether the civilian Chilean government will finally move ahead with much-needed reform as the dead weight of Pinochet's legacy is finally being lifted. The Nation's Marc Cooper will soon head for Chile to report on developments.
PERILS OF PACIFICA (CONT.)
Jordan Green writes: New York's WBAI general manager Valerie Van Isler has been notified by the Pacifica Foundation that she will be replaced immediately. On the heels of a successful fund drive that balanced WBAI's budget and left the station with a $700,000 surplus, Pacifica executive director Bessie Wash informed Van Isler that she would be reassigned to a newly created position in Washington. When Van Isler rejected that, Wash told her she was out of a job. On December 4, hundreds of WBAI listeners and producers assembled at a meeting called by the station's local advisory board. Program director Bernard White describes the dispute as an issue of "home rule." A November 30 memo to Wash from the WBAI management team reads, "Valerie Van Isler is--and we expect her to remain in the foreseeable future--our station's manager." Anticipating a forced removal of Van Isler reminiscent of the Berkeley KPFA standoff last year, listeners are holding an ongoing vigil at the station's Wall Street studios. On December 7 they picketed the Park Avenue law offices of board member John Murdock, whose firm, Epstein Becker & Green, advises corporate clients on "maintaining a union-free workplace." Dissident Pacifica board member Leslie Cagan endorsed the action, stating, "He has emerged as part of a leadership team that seems to be making the decisions."
From Benjamin Kunkel: The election's most exciting conjunction of rock and roll and politics involves a brand-new song about an old election. On November 13 the Brooklyn-based band Oneida released "Power Animals," a song about the bitter 1876 contest between Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel J. Tilden. Like today's Bush/Gore battle, that contest centered on three disputed states and the conflict between the popular vote and the Electoral College. Although Tilden (S.J.T.) had won South Carolina and the popular vote, his fellow Democrats were willing to get behind Hayes (Old Rud) if it meant ending Reconstruction and the federal troop presence in the South. As the lyrics of "Power Animals" have it: "Old Rud's disruption,/S.J.T.'s corruption,/Congressional fat cats in tow/Sold out Reconstruction/And harbinged destruction/With Jim Crow./History's showed/That goddamned crooked road/From which no one has ever returned,/And we're burned...." This song makes a more appropriate anthem during these days of unprincipled battle than chestnuts from the classic-rock songbook. On the day of the election, Oneida's van broke down in a GOP stronghold in Florida. Republicans--happy enough with the legacy of 1876--deny sabotage.
NEWS OF THE WEAK IN REVIEW
Al Gore was faced with the dilemma of how to reconcile his "every vote counts" fight with throwing out Seminole and Martin County absentee GOP ballots. His spin: "More than enough votes were potentially taken away from Democrats because they were not given the same access as Republicans were."
STILL LOSING RUSSIA
"As a result of the Yeltsin era, all the fundamental sectors of our state, economic, cultural and moral life have been destroyed or looted," lamented Alexander Solzhenitsyn earlier this year--quoted, with no doubt a great sense of historical irony, by Stephen F. Cohen in his latest book, Failed Crusade. Some of former "Sovieticus" columnist and frequent Nation contributor Cohen's reportage will be familiar to readers of the magazine, reprising pieces that appeared here and elsewhere, with new chapters bringing the perspectives up to the minute. He traces the history of the impulse to remake Russia in the US image and its resurgence in mainstream thinking by 1992, the first post-Soviet year and last gasp of the Bush Administration. Cohen then proceeds to chronicle how both Russia specialists and the press badly mischaracterized events, to the point of malpractice. In "Transition or Tragedy?" for instance, the most widely reprinted of his articles in the 1990s, Cohen warned that a national tragedy was unfolding about which Westerners would be told little but instead be assured that the transition to a free market "has progressed remarkably." No wonder, he writes, "few readers of the American press were prepared for Russia's economic collapse and financial scandals of the late 1990s." After a catalogue of how the picture has been distorted, the ensuing portions of the book present Cohen's analysis of developments from 1992 to 2000, arranged chronologically, and then his recommendations in working toward a new Russia policy.
In his bracingly corrective view, Cohen concludes that "the missionary crusade of the 1990s was not only the worst American foreign policy disaster since Vietnam; its consequences have contributed to new and unprecedented dangers." Among the necessary remedies: much new thinking in US circles, an openness to Russian-derived solutions and extension of substantial financial aid. His warning is dire, but so is the situation: "For the first time in history, a fully nuclearized country has already been perilously destabilized, but still there is no sufficient American understanding."