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Beat the Devil | The Nation

Beat the Devil

Alexander Cockburn

The September 11 terrorist attacks are already being spun by Washington to fit into its prearranged playbook—the usual language and the usual suspects are already being bandied about.

The current uproar
over the posture of the Bush Administration on global warming and,
most recently, on power-plant emissions vividly illustrates the
political hypocrisy and opportunism imbuing debates on environmental
issues. Take first global warming. The charge that the current phase
of global warming can be attributed to greenhouse gases generated by
humans and their livestock is an article of faith among liberals as
sturdy as is missile defense among the conservative crowd. The
Democrats have seized on the issue of global warming as indicative of
President Bush's willful refusal to confront a global crisis that
properly agitates all of America's major allies. Almost daily, the
major green groups reap rich political capital (and donations) on the
issue.

Yet the so-called anthropogenic origin of global
warming remains entirely nonproven. Back in the spring of this year,
even the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which now has a
huge stake in arguing the "caused by humans" thesis, admitted in its
summary that there could be a one-in-three chance its multitude of
experts are wrong. A subsequent report, issued under the auspices of
the National Academy of Sciences, is ambivalent to the point of
absurdity. An initial paragraph boldly asserting the caused-by-humans
line is confounded a few pages later by far more cautious paragraphs
admitting that the thesis is speculative and that major uncertainty
rules on the role played in climate equations by water vapor and
aerosols.

It's nothing new to say the earth is getting
warmer. I myself think it is, and has been for a long, long time. On
my shelf is an excellent volume put out in 1941 by the Department of
Agriculture called Climate and Man, which contains a chapter
acknowledging "global warming" (that same phrase) and hailing it as a
benign trend that will return the earth to the normalcy in climate it
enjoyed several hundred thousand years ago.

Anything more
than a glance at the computer models favored by the caused-by-humans
crowd will show that the role of carbon dioxide is grotesquely
exaggerated. Indeed, the models are incapable of handling the role of
the prime greenhouse gas, water vapor (clouds, etc), which accounts
for twenty-five to thirty times as much heat absorption as carbon
dioxide.

Similarly, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate
Change admits to a "very low" level of scientific understanding on an
"aerosol indirect effect" that the panel acknowledges is cooling the
climate system at a hefty rate (aerosols are particles so fine they
float in air).

In a particularly elegant paper published in
May in Chemical Innovation, journal of the American Chemical
Society, Professor Robert Essenhigh of Ohio State reminds us that for
the past 850,000 years, global temperature and carbon dioxide have
been moving up and down in lockstep. Since 849,700 of these years
were ones preceding any possible human effect on carbon dioxide, this
raises the question of whether global warming caused swings in carbon
dioxide or vice versa. Essenhigh argues convincingly that the former
is the case. As global temperatures warm, a huge reservoir of carbon
dioxide absorbed in the oceans is released into the atmosphere.
Clearly, this is a much more potent input than the relatively puny
human contribution to global carbon dioxide. Thus natural warming is
driving the raised level of carbon dioxide, and not the other way
round.

But science can barely squeeze in the door with a
serious debate about what is prompting global warming. Instead, the
Europeans, the greens and the Democrats eagerly seize on the issue as
a club with which to beat President Bush and kindred targets of
opportunity.

Now take the latest brouhaha over emissions
from coal-fired plants. The industry wants what is coyly called
"flexibility" in emissions standards. EPA chief Christine Whitman is
talking about "voluntary incentives" and market-based pollution
credits as the proper way to go. Aware of the political pitfalls, the
Bush Administration has recently been saying that it is not quite
ready to issue new rules.

Now, there's no uncertainty about
the effects of the stuff that comes out of a power-plant chimney.
These heavy metals and fine particles kill people or make them sick.
There are also cleaning devices, some of them expensive, that can
remove these toxic substances. Ever since the 1970s the energy
industry has fought mandatory imposition of such cleaners. If Bush
and Whitman enforce this flexibility they will be condemning people
to death, as have previous foot-dragging administrations, Democratic
as well as Republican.

Both political parties have danced
to the industry's tunes. It was with the propagandizing of Stephen
Breyer (now on the Supreme Court, then a top aide to Senator Ted
Kennedy) that the trend toward pollution credits began. And after the
glorious regulatory laxity of the Reagan/Bush years, the industry was
not seriously discommoded in Clinton Time. Ask the inhabitants of
West Virginia and Tennessee whether they think the coal industry lost
clout in those years.

The sad truth of the matter is that
many "big picture" environmental theses, such as human-caused global
warming, afford marvelously inviting ways of avoiding specific and
mostly difficult political decisions. You can bellow for "global
responsibility" without seriously offending powerful corporate
interests, some of which, for reasons material, cynical or both, now
have a big stake (the nuclear industry, for example) in promoting the
caused-by-humans thesis. Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill loves it,
and so does the aluminum industry, in which he has been a prime
player. On the other side we can soon expect to hear that powerful
Democrat, Senator Robert Byrd, arguing that the coal industry is in
the vanguard of the war on global warming, because the more you shade
the earth, perhaps the more rain you cause. So burn dirty coal and
protect the earth by cooling it.

The logic of the
caused-by-humans models installs the coal industry as the savior of
"global warming"--you want to live by a computer model that does
that?

Joe Pulitzer famously said, "A newspaper should have no friends." Looking at the massed ranks of America's elites attending Katharine Graham's funeral in Washington on July 23, it's maybe churlish to recall that phrase, but it's true. At least in political terms, Mrs. Graham had way too many friends.

The twin decisions, concerning the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, that made Mrs. Graham's name as a courageous publisher came at precisely the moment when, in biographical terms, she was best equipped to handle pressure. She'd had eight years to overcome the timidities that bore down on her after Phil Graham's suicide left her with a newspaper she resolved to run herself. The amiable but essentially conservative bipartisanship that had the notables of each incoming administration (Carter-time excepted) palavering happily in her dining room hadn't yet numbed the Post's spinal nerve.

Mrs. Graham sustained her fatal fall during an annual confab of the nation's biggest media and e-billionaires, organized by the investment banker Herb Allen and held in Sun Valley, Idaho. It was a proper setting for her passing. Sun Valley was developed as a resort by the Harrimans, starting with the nineteenth-century railroad bandit E.H. Harriman. That quintessential insider, Averell Harriman was often to be seen at Mrs. Graham's house in Georgetown.

Mrs. Graham didn't strong-arm her editors and reporters, they say. But editors and reporters aren't slow to pick up hints as to the disposition of the person who pays their wages, and she sent out plenty such clues.

In late 1974, after Nixon had been tumbled, Mrs. Graham addressed the Magazine Publishers' Association and issued a warning: "The press these days should...be rather careful about its role. We may have acquired some tendencies about overinvolvement that we had better overcome. We had better not yield to the temptation to go on refighting the next war and see conspiracy and cover-up where they do not exist." She called for a return to basics. Journalists should stop trying to be sleuths. In other words: The party's over, boys and girls! It's not your business to rock the boat.

Mrs. Graham had plenty of reasons, material and spiritual, to find excessive boat-rocking distasteful. The family fortune, and the capital that bought and nourished the Post, was founded in part on Allied Chemical, the company run by her father, Eugene Meyer. I remember a hard edge in her voice when she deplored "those fucking environmentalists"--perhaps because rabble-rousers had derisively taunted her as "Kepone Kate" after a bad Allied Chemical spill in the James River. Yes, privately her language was agreeably salty.

By the early 1980s the leftish liberal Kay Graham of the late 1930s, who would associate as a tyro reporter with the red longshoreman leader Harry Bridges on the Oakland docks, was long gone. For one thing, there had been the ferocious pressmen's strike in 1975, and the successful lockout. Rhetorically, at least, Mrs. Graham did not later make the gaffe of equating the sabotage of her plant by the Pressmen's Union with the disposition of the AFL-CIO, but I don't think she ever forgave labor; and that strike helped set Mrs. Graham and her newspaper on its sedately conservative course.

In the early 1980s she associated increasingly with Warren Buffett, the Nebraska investor who bought 13 percent of the Post's B stock and who was then riding high as America's most venerated stock player. Mrs. Graham simultaneously became a big-picture mogul, pickling herself in the sonorous platitudes of the Brandt Commission, on which she served.

The best evidence of the Post's decline, symbolic of what Mrs. Graham had overseen, was a seven-part, multi-thousand-word series published in January 1992. The series launching that election year was by two prominent Post reporters, David Broder and Bob Woodward, who "for six months followed the Vice President everywhere" and "spent an unprecedented amount of time interviewing Mr. Quayle," discovering after these labors that the derided veeplet was a much underestimated statesman of discriminating stature.

In the early 1990s I used to get copies of letters sent to the Post's editors and ombudsman by Julian Holmes, a Maryland resident with a career in the Navy Weapons Lab, who read the Post diligently every day, firing off often acute and pithy criticisms. In all, Holmes told me the other day from his Maine home, he sent some 130 such letters to the Post and achieved a perfect record of zero published.

Deploring the Quayle series in a letter sent to ombudsman Richard Harwood on January 22, 1992, Holmes pointed out that nowhere in the "in-depth" exam of Quayle could be found the words crime, public land, population, healthcare, oil, capital punishment, United Nations, Nicaragua, unemployment, homeless or AIDS.

No need to labor the point. The basic mistake is to call the Washington Post a liberal paper, or its late proprietor a liberal in any active sense, unless you want to disfigure the word by applying it to such of her friends as Robert McNamara. When it came to war criminals she was an equal opportunity hostess. In her salons you could meet Kissinger, an old criminal on the way down, or Richard Holbrooke, a younger 'un on the way up. The Post's basic instincts have almost always been bad.

Former Mayor Marion Barry had some pro forma kindly words for Katharine Graham after her death, but I always think that one decisive verdict on the Post's performance in a city with a major black population came with the jury verdict acquitting Barry on the cocaine bust. Those jurors knew that the Post, along with the other Powers That Be, was on the other side from Barry, and I've no doubt that firmed up their assessment of the evidence. In that quarter, for sure, neither the Post nor Mrs. Graham had an excessive number of friends.

Act I

We're on the edge of the twentieth century and Mayor James Phelan of San Francisco concludes that without abundant water and electrical power San Francisco is stymied. He fixes his thirsty gaze upon Hetch-Hetchy 200 miles east, a U-shaped glacial valley in the Sierras, flat-floored and hemmed in by 2,500-foot granite cliffs. Through it flow the abundant waters of the Tuolumne River. Problem: Hetch-Hetchy lies within the bounds of Yosemite National Park, and conservationists led by John Muir vow a fight to the death to save the valley.

After an epic struggle Congress passes the Raker Act in 1913, which OKs the construction of a dam that will inundate Hetch-Hetchy. Muir dies the following year. Representative John Raker, in whose district Yosemite lies, is a progressive, a profound believer in public power. Under the terms of his act the Feds will waive Hetch-Hetchy's protected status to San Francisco. The dam must be used not only to store water but also to generate electric power. This power must be sold directly to the citizens of San Francisco through a municipal power agency at the cheapest possible rates. Publicly owned water and electric energy will free the city from what another progressive Congressman calls "the thralldom...of a remorseless private monopoly." If San Francisco does not honor the terms of the Raker Act, it will lose the federal waiver.

Act II

By the early 1920s San Francisco is watering itself with the Tuolumne, and it has built a powerhouse at Moccasin Creek to use the Tuolumne's pent-up power. It buys hundreds of miles of copper wire to run that power into the city. Pending completion of its own power lines, it agrees to sell the hydro-power to a rapidly growing utility company called Pacific Gas & Electric, which will use its grid to carry the power to San Francisco, at which point PG&E will sell the power back to the citizenry at an outrageous markup.

The camel's nose is under the tent, and there it stays. In the Roosevelt era Interior Secretary Harold Ickes fights a tenacious struggle to force San Francisco to abide by the terms of the Raker Act. PG&E's mayors, newspapers, public utility managers, city supervisors and legislators steadfastly thwart the bonds required to finance a municipally owned utility.

Years go by. The Raker Act is all but forgotten. PG&E rules supreme. In the mid-1960s a young muckraker called Bruce Brugmann comes to San Francisco. He's grown up in Rock Rapids, Iowa, a public-power town. He's gone to school in Nebraska--thanks to George Norris, a public-power state. He founds the Bay Guardian and by the late 1960s is deep into the PG&E wars. By now the utility is trying to build a nuclear power station at Bodega Bay. Joe Neilands and Charlie Smith, respectively a UC biochemist and an organizer, mount a successful battle against PG&E's plan. In the course of this campaign Neilands disinters the hidden history of the Raker Act and Brugmann publishes the story.

Act III

Let Brugmann carry our drama forward:
     "What heated me up and got me increasingly angry over the years was that this was a structural scandal of epic proportions. PG&E had stolen hundreds of millions of dollars down the years. But it was verboten to discuss PG&E publicly. The phrase is, When PG&E spits, City Hall swims. The company had wired the city, put out thousands of dollars to various civic groups. It controlled the grand jury, and to a large extent the judiciary. Then the downtown boys managed to put in at-large elections in San Francisco, meaning candidates had to raise large sums. That slowed us down for a generation.

"Finally we got district elections again. That changed the rules of the game. Now we have a more progressive board of supervisors, beholden to constituents and their districts. Then we won a sunshine ordinance. Our coalition got the 24,000 signatures last year. We dealt with each and every condition the city attorney imposed. Then, in the first district elections in years, our slate won, so we suddenly have a progressive 9-to-2 majority. At the Guardian we tied down every supe to a pledge to put a municipal utility district on the ballot and to support MUD. We finally have a pro-public power and anti-PG&E majority. Of course, we still have to win the election. PG&E is lobbying behind the scenes, putting millions into the fight, even though it's bankrupt. But for the first time in our memory nobody is running on a pro-PG&E platform."

Act III is unfinished at this time, but if ever there was a favorable moment, it's surely now. When PG&E successfully pushed deregulation through the California legislature in the mid-1990s it surely patted itself on the back for a master stroke. The public would pick up the tab for the company's vast losses in nuclear power. Nationally, the Clinton Administration was ushering in a whole new era of energy deregulation. Senator Dianne Feinstein was at PG&E's beck and call. The public-power crowd was hemmed in, and "green" outfits like the Environmental Defense Fund and Natural Resources Defense Council were actually in the vanguard of the dereg movement.

Now we have California State Attorney General Bill Lockyer pushing a criminal investigation into the conspiracy to hike energy prices. Among the big questions: Is PG&E a shark that got chewed by bigger sharks from Houston, like Enron, or did the utility simply shuffle its money elsewhere on the Monopoly board and then declare bankruptcy? Almost a century after Raker sought to write public power into the history of San Francisco, the tide may be turning, and we have long-range populist campaigners like Brugmann and his Bay Guardian to thank for it.

Where's the fashionable rendezvous for the World Secret Government? In the good old days when the Illuminati had a firm grip on things, it was wherever the Bilderbergers decided to pitch their tents. Then Nelson and David Rockefeller horned their way in, and the spotlight moved to the Trilateral Commission. Was there one Secret Government or two? Some said all the big decisions were taken in England, at Ditchley, not so far from the Appeasers' former haunts at Cliveden and only an hour by Learjet from Davos, which is where jumped-up finance ministers and arriviste tycoons merely pretend they rule the world.

Secret World Rulers spend a good deal of time in the air, whisking from Davos to APEC meetings somewhere in Asia, to Ditchley, to Sun Valley, Idaho, though mercifully no longer to the Clinton-favored Renaissance Weekend in Hilton Head, South Carolina. But comes next July 14 and every self-respecting member of the Secret World Government will be in a gloomy grove of redwoods in northern California, preparing to Banish Care for the hundred and twenty-second time, prelude to three weeks hashing out the future of the world.

If the avenging posses mustered by the Bohemian Grove Action Network manage this year to burst through the security gates at the Bohemian Grove, they will (to extrapolate from numerous eyewitness accounts of past sessions) find proofs most convincing to them that here indeed is the ruling crowd in executive session: hundreds of near-dead white men sitting by a lake listening to Henry Kissinger, plus many other near-dead white men in adjacent landscape in a state of intoxication so advanced that many of them have fallen insensible among the ferns, gin fizz glasses gripped firmly till the last.

These same gaping posses would find evidence of bizarre rites, though not perhaps the Satanic sacrifice of children, as proposed in one new documentary. Why so many games of dominoes? Why the evidence that a significant portion of the Secret Government appeared to be involved in some theatrical production involving the use of women's clothes and lavish application of makeup?

Many an empire has, of course, been run by drunken men wearing makeup. But a look at the Bohemian Club, its members and appurtenances, suggests that behind the pretense of Secret Government lies the reality of a summer camp for a bunch of San Francisco businessmen, real estate plungers and lawyers who long ago had the cunning to recruit some outside megawattage--Herbert Hoover, a Rockefeller, Richard Nixon--to turn their mundane frolics into the simulacrum of Secret Government and make the yokels gape.

The Bohemian Club began as a San Francisco institution in 1872, founded by journalists and kindred lowly scriveners as an excuse for late-night boozing. The hacks soon concluded that Bohemianism, in the sense of real poverty, was oppressive. So they pulled in a few wealthy men of commerce to pay for the champagne, and the rot set in. Within a very few years the lowly scriveners were on their way out--except for a few of the more presentable among them to lend a pretense of Boho-dom--and Mammon had seized power.

Near the end of the last century the cult of the redwood grove as Nature's cathedral was in full swing, and the Boho-businessmen yearned to give their outings a tincture of spiritual uplift. The long-range planning committee of the club decided to buy a grove some sixty miles north of the city near the town of Monte Rio. Soon the ancient redwoods rang to the laughter of the disporting men of commerce.

The Bohemian Club is set up along frat house lines. Instead of Deltas and Pi Etas there are camps, some 120 in all, stretching along River Road and Morse Stephens canyon. Their names follow the imaginative arc of American industrialists and financiers over the past hundred years, from Hillbillies (George Bush Sr., Walter Cronkite, William F. Buckley) to Ye Merrie Yowls.

The waiting lists for membership are so long it takes years for the novitiate to be admitted. A friend of mine, big in Reagan's time, has been on the doorstep for fifteen years. He says he likes it that way. He's spared the sign-up fee of around $10,000 and annual membership dues and has to pony up only when he's invited, which is every two years. Particularly in the more sumptuous camps it takes plenty of money too, sharing bills for retinues of uniformed servants, vintage cellars, master chefs and kindred accoutrements of spiritual refreshment.

There are lakeside talks and increasingly popular science chats at the Grove's museum. There's skeet-shooting on the private range. There's endless dominoes--the Grove's boardgame par excellence. There's Not Being at Home With the Wife. But best of all, there are the talent revue and the play. Visit some corporate suite in San Francisco in June or early July, and if you see the CEO brooding thoughtfully before his plate-glass window overlooking the Bay Bridge, the chances are he is not thinking about some impending takeover or merciless downsizing. He is probably worrying about the cut of his tutu for the drag act for which he has been rehearsing keenly for many months.

In the nineties the Grove's reputation as the site of Secret Government was in eclipse. The young Christian zealots of the Newt revolution were scarcely Boho material, and Newt himself--he did give a lakeside talk one year--was a little too tacky in style for the gin fizz set. But here we are in the Bush II era, and the Bush Clan is echt Secret Government, all the way from the old Rockefeller connection to Skull and Bones and the Knights of Malta. Dick Cheney's a Grover.

So spare yourself the expense of traveling from Quebec to the next session of the WTO. Voyage to Sonoma County and muster against the Secret World Government. For details of the rally, call the Bohemian Grove Action Network, whose Mary Moore has been chivying the Grovers for twenty years, at (707) 874-2248 or check out www.sonomacountyfreepress.org.

The leftists organizing in Vermont since the 1970s prepared the ground for James Jeffords's jump, and he never would have done it without them. In the 1970s and 1980s Democrats howled with fury when Vermont's Progressive Party said that no matter what the short-term consequences, the important political task was to build a radical, third-force movement in the state.

In 1988 this progressive coalition backed Bernard Sanders, then the mayor of Burlington, in a run for Vermont's single Congressional seat. Democratic liberals raised the "wrecker" charge, saying the Sanders intervention would cost the Democrats votes and put in a Republican. It did. Then, two years later, Sanders ran again against the incumbent Republican and won. Creative destruction worked.

Without decades of work by radicals, nourishing the propriety of independent politics in Vermont, would Jeffords ever have jumped the Republican ship and handed control of the Senate back to the Democrats? I don't think so.

A couple of weeks ago someone sent me an article by Todd Gitlin and Sean Wilentz, published in an obscure journal called Dissent. Since Gitlin's prime political function for years has been to fortify respectable opinion about the impropriety of independent thinking, I knew what to expect, particularly since he was in harness with Wilentz, a truly hysterical proprietarian.

Sure enough, it was an attack on those who voted for Ralph Nader, tumid with a full-inventory parade of every cliché from the past forty years about the folly of radical hopes. Want a taste?

Numbers aside, there is a deeper force at work, behind the delusion that the masses hanker for radical change that Gore would not give them--a purist approach to politics. This all-or-nothing approach, allergic to democratic contest and compromise, is rooted equally in American self-righteousness and traditional left-wing utopianism. It is as if by venting one's anger, one were free to remake the world by willing it so...

Yup, this pompous cant translates into the single, finger-wagging admonition, "You should have voted for Al Gore," the latest variant on Gitlin's one-note career sermon about voting for Hubert Humphrey in 1968. (What is it about these Humphrey lovers? Vermonter Marty Jezer, another sermonizer about main-chance political propriety, recently lashed out at CBS in his column in the Brattleboro Reformer for what he denounced as excessively hostile and prejudicial interviewing of baby-killer Bob Kerrey! The lust to be respectably "fair," whether to HHH or Kerrey, leads to some astonishingly ridiculous postures.)

In Vermont the Republican Party is pretty much dead. Jeffords should sign up right now as a member of the Progressive Party, with whose political positions he has some things in common. Of course Jeffords, at least in his latest incarnation, is truly an independent, whereas Sanders is effectively a Democrat.

Now let's see how much fortitude the Democrats on the Hill have in contesting Bush and Cheney. They no longer have the alibi of the Republicans' controlling the White House and both chambers. Footnote: The Nation's editor, Katrina vanden Heuvel, wishes it to be on record that she takes exception to the description of Dissent as "obscure." I suggest a poll of the American people.

More on the Gandoo Man

In a recent column I described how the Chicago police have declined the request of a gay Pakistani poet to hit his supposed assailant, Salman Aftab, with a hate-crimes charge. Ifti Nasim claims Aftab called him a faggot bottom and lunged at him with a knife. For some of Chicago's gays it's become a very big issue. The Chicago Anti-Bashing Network prompted the ACLU's Pamela Sumner to write a three-page letter to State's Attorney Dick Devine detailing why she felt he should pursue hate-crimes charges in Nasim's case. Devine has refused to do so.

The cops and Devine are quite right. It turns out that the initial quarrel between Nasim and Aftab wasn't about the former's sexual orientation but about an article he'd written. Aftab never attacked Nasim with a knife (though Nasim insists he'd gone to the kitchen to get one). And Nasim put up Aftab's bail money, though he still wants him hit with a hate-crimes charge for calling him an insulting sexual term. The Chicago Anti-Bashing Network supports this position, which only goes to show how dementedly wrongheaded progressives are on the hate-crimes issue.

The Bush Menu

Poor Jenna Bush's travails with the absurd liquor laws of Texas take me back to my gilded youth at Oxford, when even the appearance of sobriety, at least at Keble, was an object of scandal and reproof from the better element. As it admits elsewhere in this issue, The Nation was a tad unfair relaying the claim that the Bush White House has ordered its chef to prepare genetically modified foods on some state occasions. The source of this claim was a piece by Jennifer Berkshire posted on Alternet. The Nation earnestly commented that "the demonstration smells like a paid political announcement for the agribusiness lobby."

I remember reading Berkshire's Alternet piece as an excellent little satire, and Jennifer confirms that this was indeed the case. Satire is always an uncertain weapon. My father once wrote an update of Swift's "A Modest Proposal," this time about inoculating people with the same sort of lethal strain that wiped out rabbits with myxomatosis. When it appeared in Punch furious letters poured in, denouncing him as an advocate of mass murder. Back in my days at the Village Voice I wrote a parody of conspiracy mongering and awoke to hear it being read out as serious news on WBAI by the late Samori Marksman. Since then I've stayed with the unvarnished truth, which is usually far more incredible than anything a satirist could dream up. For evidence see Marty Jezer's onslaught on CBS, noted above.

Susan Sontag went to Israel and picked up her Jerusalem Prize on May 9. Ori Nir reported in Haaretz the following day that after accepting the prize from Jerusalem's mayor, Ehud Olmert, Sontag told those present at the convention center: "I believe the doctrine of collective responsibility as a rationale for collective punishment is never justified, militarily or ethically. And I mean of course the disproportionate use of firepower against civilians, the demolition of their homes, the destruction of their orchards and groves, the deprivation of their livelihood and access to employment, to schooling, to medical services, or as a punishment for hostile military activities in the vicinity of those civilians."

In her opinion, Sontag said, there will never be peace in the Middle East until Israel first suspends its settlements, and then demolishes them. Some cheered, others left the hall.

Sontag told the Jerusalem Post that there'd been a lot of pressure on her not to attend the Jerusalem Book Fair and accept the prize. Publicly--at least in this country--I think my columns (e.g., here on April 23) constituted the only such pressure. Maybe they helped firm up Sontag to make the remarks noted above. Anyway, I'm glad she did. Out of interest, I asked my colleague Jonathan Shainin to check the record to see if she'd said anything critical about Israeli government policies in the past. He didn't find much, but one document she co-signed as a PEN board member a decade ago signals why it still might have been better for her to decline to accept any prize from Mayor Olmert.

Back on February 18, 1991, amid the war with Iraq, the New York Times published a letter signed by Sontag along with E.L. Doctorow, Allen Ginsberg, Larry McMurtry, Arthur Miller and Edward Said, all executive board members of PEN American Center. It began as follows:

"We are acutely dismayed by the continuing detention of the Palestinian intellectual and activist Sari Nusseibeh in Jerusalem, for what the Israeli Government first called 'subversive activities of collecting security information for Iraqi intelligence.'"

The letter went on to describe how Nusseibeh, professor of philosophy at Bir Zeit University, had been imprisoned, though Israeli authorities were unable to produce any evidence against him. "We are concerned that the Israeli Government is exploiting these difficult days of war against Iraq to crack down on precisely those figures whose moderation and opposition to violence will be essential to the conclusion of a just and secure peace between Israelis and Palestinians in the aftermath of this war."

This May 10, in the same edition that noted Sontag's public remarks on receiving the Jerusalem Prize, Haaretz ran a commentary titled, "What Freedom, What Society?":

Yesterday evening Jerusalem's Mayor conferred the "Jerusalem Prize for the freedom of man and society" to the writer Susan Sontag. At the same hour, a proposal submitted by the Public Security Minister to "shut down for the near future the administration and presidency of Al-Quds University headed by Sari Nusseibeh" was sitting on the desk of the mayor, who serves on the Jerusalem Affairs Committee, which is appointed by the Prime Minister. It can be assumed that only a few of the hundreds of participants in the festive Jerusalem event (all of them committed cultural figures who fight for human liberty) were conscious of the irony.

In a different world, Sari Nusseibeh would be a leading candidate for such a prize, rather than the Jewish-American writer who was involved naively in a celebration of self-righteousness and self-congratulation. A Palestinian prince and cordial, dignified philosopher, Sari Nusseibeh has built a splendid academic research framework. Not the type to surrender to threats, or to physical blows or the temptations of power, he had created bridges of Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, and furnishes original ideas and plans to resolve the dispute. This is the man depicted by Israel's establishment as "a security threat," rather than a culture hero.... In a different world, people of culture and supporters of freedom would have suspended such an awards celebration, waiting for circumstances to arise under which universal meaning to the concept "freedom and society" might crystallize.... One should marvel at the prize givers' ability to compartmentalize and the ability to reconcile the contradiction between "freedom of man and society," and a "plan" designed not only to ruin human freedom, but also a society located just a few hundred meters from where the prizes were conferred.... One of the last, still operating, joint Al-Quds University-Hebrew University projects is a botanical catalogue, an attempt to identify and describe the flora of the shared homeland. When will these botanists be recognized as the ones whose works should be lauded, rather than those of righteous hypocrites?

So Sontag accepts a prize from a group that's trying to boot Nusseibeh out of East Jerusalem--the very same man whose detention she petitioned to end ten years ago, during the first intifada! She deserves credit for condemning the occupation policies, but she could have gone a lot further. For example, she praised the man giving her the prize, Mayor Olmert, as "an extremely persuasive and reasonable person." This is like describing Radovan Karadzic as a moderate in search of multiconfessional tolerance. Olmert is a fanatical ethnic cleanser, one of the roughest of the Likud ultras. During his period in office, he has consistently pushed for the expropriation of Arab property and the revocation of Arab residence permits. Olmert was a principal advocate of the disastrous 1996 tunnel excavation underneath the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. During the ensuing demonstrations, Israeli security forces shot dead about fifty Palestinian civilians. The mayor was also instrumental in the seizure of Palestinian land at the southeastern edge of Jerusalem in order to build the settlement of Har Homa, another link in the encirclement of Arab East Jerusalem. This too led to prolonged rioting.

Such people have no right to award a prize on "freedom."

Charging people with a "hate crime" when their crime is essentially some type of assault is a troubling trend.

Author

Alexander Cockburn
Alexander Cockburn, The Nation's "Beat the Devil" columnist and one...

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