What would the government have to do to convince you to get married when you otherwise wouldn't? More than pay you $80 a month, I'll bet, the amount Wisconsin's much-ballyhooed "Bridefare" pilot program offered unwed teen welfare mothers beginning in the early nineties, which is perhaps why then-Governor Tommy Thompson, now Health and Human Services Secretary, was uninterested in having it properly evaluated and why you don't hear much about Bridefare today. OK, how about $100 a month? That's what West Virginia is currently offering to add to a couple's welfare benefits if they wed. But even though the state has simultaneously cut by 25 percent the checks of recipients living with adults to whom they are not married (including, in some cases, their own grown children, if you can believe that!), results have been modest: Only around 1,600 couples have applied for the bonus and presumably some of these would have married anyway. With the state's welfare budget expected to show a $90 million shortfall by 2003, the marriage bonus is likely to be quietly abolished.
Although welfare reform was sold to the public as promoting work, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of l996 actually opens with the declaration that "marriage is the foundation of a successful society." According to Charles Murray, Robert Rector and other right-wing ideologues, welfare enabled poor women to rely on the state instead of husbands; forcing them off the dole and into the rigors of low-wage employment would push them into marriage, restore "the family" and lift children out of poverty. That was always a silly idea. For one thing, as any single woman could have told them, it wrongly assumed that whether a woman married was only up to her; for another, it has been well documented that the men available to poor women are also poor and often (like the women) have other problems as well: In one study, 30 percent of poor single fathers were unemployed in the week before the survey and almost 40 percent had been incarcerated; drugs, drink, violence, poor health and bad attitudes were not uncommon. Would Murray want his daughter to marry a guy with even one of those strikes against him? Not surprisingly, there has been no upsurge of marriage among former welfare recipients since 1996. Of all births, the proportion that are to unwed mothers has stayed roughly where it was, at 33 percent.
Since the stick of work and the carrot of cash have both proved ineffective in herding women to the altar, family values conservatives are calling for more lectures. Marriage promotion will be a hot item when welfare reform comes up for reauthorization later this year. At the federal level conservatives are calling for 10 percent of all TANF money to be set aside for promoting marriage; Utah, Arizona and Oklahoma have already raided TANF to fund such ventures as a "healthy marriage" handbook for couples seeking a marriage license. And it's not just Republicans: Senator Joe Lieberman and Representative Ben Cardin, the ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, are also interested in funding "family formation." In place of cash bonuses to individuals, which at least put money in the pockets of poor people, look for massive funding of faith-based marriage preparation courses (and never you mind that pesky separation of church and state), for fatherhood intervention programs, classes to instruct poor single moms in the benefits of marriage (as if they didn't know!), for self-help groups like Marriage Savers, abstinence education for kids and grownups alike and, of course, ingenious pilot projects by the dozen. There's even been a proposal to endow pro-marriage professorships at state universities--and don't forget millions of dollars for evaluation, follow-up, filing and forgetting.
There's nothing wrong with programs that aim to raise people's marital IQ--I love that journalistic evergreen about the engaged couple who take a quiz in order to qualify for a church wedding and call it off when they discover he wants seven kids and she wants to live in a tree. But remember when it was conservatives who argued against social engineering and micromanaging people's private lives and "throwing money at the problem"?
Domestic violence experts have warned that poor women may find themselves pushed into marrying their abusers and staying with them--in a disturbing bit of Senate testimony, Mike McManus of Marriage Savers said domestic violence could usually be overcome with faith-based help. Is that the message women in danger should be getting? But there are even larger issues: Marriage is a deeply personal, intimate matter, involving our most private, barely articulated selves. Why should the government try to maneuver reluctant women into dubious choices just because they are poor? Even as a meal ticket wedlock is no panacea--that marriage is a cure for poverty is only true if you marry someone who isn't poor, who will share his income with you and your children, who won't divorce you later and leave you worse off than ever. The relation between poverty and marriage is virtually the opposite of what pro-marriage ideologues claim: It isn't that getting married gives feckless poor people middle-class values and stability, it's that stable middle-class people are the ones who can "afford" to be married. However marriage functioned a half-century ago, today it is a class marker. Instead of marketing marriage as a poverty program, how much better to invest in poor women--and poor men--as human beings in their own right: with education, training for high-paying jobs, housing, mental health services, really good childcare for their kids. Every TANF dollar spent on marital propaganda means a dollar less for programs that really help people.
The very fact that welfare reformers are reduced to bribing, cajoling and guilt-tripping people into marriage should tell us something. Or have they just not hit on the right incentive? As a divorced single mother, I've given some thought to what it would take for me to marry against my own inclination in order to make America great again. Here's my offer: If the government brings Otis Redding back to life and books him to sing at my wedding, I will marry the Devil himself. And if the Devil is unavailable, my ex-husband says he's ready.
As fate would have it, the very first holiday card to show up in my mailbox was from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, of which I am a devoted member and fan. It carried the witty and timely message, "Reason's Greetings." Now more than ever! Just think of the damage religious mania (combined, as it tends to be, with nationalism and patriarchy) has wrought around the globe this year, the first of the new millennium--the World Trade Center attack, the Taliban, suicide bombers in Israel versus yet more settlements on the West Bank. And that's not even mentioning our own home-grown fanatics, like the recently apprehended fugitive Clayton Lee Waagner, who threatened to murder forty-two abortion clinic workers and who is the main suspect in some 550 anthrax-hoax letters to clinics, or the mainstreaming of conservative religious views, as in the explosion of abstinence-only sex education and theologically motivated restrictions on stem-cell research.
I've never been one for the hundred-dollar Christmas promoted by Bill McKibben--gee, thanks for the socks! and is that genuine New York City tap water in that cleverly decorated old Thunderbird bottle? Too depressing. Norah Vincent, the right-wing columnist, took McKibben to task in Salon a few years ago for advocating holiday frugality: Why, the whole economy would collapse, she argued, if Americans didn't get out there and buy buy buy. This year everyone from George W. Bush on down is urging us to shop till we drop, or the terrorists will have won. But you can please both Bill and Norah, enjoy the contrasting pleasures of spending and self-denial, do good and still get that holiday buzz from standing in long lines in a too-hot coat while carrying too many things: Simply buy stuff for needy organizations that help people instead of for your overindulged relatives, friends and yourself. For example, visit your local independent bookstore while it still exists and pick up a few paperbacks for Books Through Bars (see www.booksthroughbars.org for a drop-off location near you; or send donations to Books Through Bars NYC, c/o Bluestockings Books, 172 Allen Street, New York, NY 10002). No travel guides or romances please, and no hardcovers--choose dictionaries, fiction by people of color, science, non-US history. Or help battered New York City, where the mayor proposes deep budget cuts for schools and libraries, by giving new children's books to public schools through PENCIL (c/o Ben Iglesias, New York City Board of Education, 44-36 Vernon Blvd., Long Island City, NY 11101).
Shopping aside, this is the year to use your holiday donations to take a stand for secularism and against all churches (and synagogues and mosques) militant. If you don't already belong to the the aforementioned Freedom From Religion Foundation (PO Box 750, Madison, WI 53701; www.ffrf.org), now's the moment to sign up: The foundation is fearless, tireless and clever in supporting separation of church and state and opposing the increasingly bold power moves of the godly. If it sticks in your craw that evangelical seminarians are teaching the Bible as "truth" in Tennessee public schools, support the group that's trying to stop them.
With Christian fundamentalist churches on a jihad against reproductive freedom for women, don't forget The National Network of Abortion Funds (c/o CLPP, Hampshire College, Amherst MA 01002; www.nnaf.org), an umbrella organization of state and local funds that finance abortions for poor women. Help from the NNAF can mean the difference between sickness and health, unemployment and college, staying in an abusive relationship or starting a new life--or even life and death.
And remember Patricia Hussey and Barbara Ferraro, the two Sisters of Notre Dame who resigned from their order after the Vatican came down hard on them for signing an ad in 1984 affirming that Catholics had many different positions on abortion? They're alive and well and living in Charleston, West Virginia, where they've been running the ecumenically based Covenant House (1109 Quarrier Street, Charleston, WV 25301; www.wvcovenanthouse.org), which helps people with AIDS, the homeless and the poor and works for public school reform and other progressive campaigns in Appalachia.
With the economy officially in recession, joblessness up and tens of thousands of welfare recipients about to hit their five-year lifetime limit on benefits, there's no time like the present to support poor people's activism. The National Campaign for Jobs and Income Support is the coalition of grassroots groups that is leading the fight around the reauthorization of welfare reform coming up in 2002 (1000 Wisconsin Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20007; www.nationalcampaign.org).
Finally, the World Trade Center tragedy has fallen particularly hard on the service workers and undocumented immigrants who toiled in the towers: They or their survivors have gotten little out of the millions collected by the World Trade Center Relief Fund and the Red Cross. Thanks to welfare reform, which bars even legal immigrants from most federal safety-net programs, noncitizen mothers now suddenly sole heads of families find themselves ineligible for many essential benefits. To help now-jobless workers from Windows on the World restaurant and the families of those who perished there, you can make a tax-deductible donation to the HERE NY Assistance Fund (Judson Memorial Church, 55 Washington Square South, New York, NY 10012; www.helprestaurantworkers.org).
Checkbook running on empty? If you have e-mail, you can sign yourself and friends up with ProgressiveSecretary.org and finally keep that New Year's resolution to stay in touch with your Congressperson. Founder Jim Harris and crew research and produce dozens of e-mails each month on issues from Arctic drilling to racial profiling. If you approve the contents, they'll send them to the appropriate authority in your name. There is no easier way to make your opinion known--one cynic of my acquaintance compared it to spinning a prayer wheel. Hey, right-wingers out-e-mail progressives many times over, and look at the way the country's going--maybe they're on to something.
It was a terrible year, but it's almost over. Reason's greetings!
What if Hillary Clinton, not Laura Bush, had taken to the airwaves during her husband's first year in office and become the first First Lady to deliver the entire weekly presidential radio address--about women's rights, no less? Dragon lady! Castrating feminist man-hating bitch! All together now: Who Elected Her? The Republicans would have started impeachment proceedings that very day. In fact, the down-to-earth and nonthreatening Laura Bush spoke so eloquently in support of Afghan women's rights I actually found myself not wanting to believe the Democratic Party accusation that this was a cynical attempt to appeal to women and narrow the eleven-point gender gap that bedeviled Bush in the 2000 election--not that a shortage of votes turned out to matter, but that's another story. Perhaps Mrs. Bush--and Cherie Blair, who gave a similar speech on November 19--was sending a message to the sorry collection of warlords and criminals, power-grabbers and back-stabbers vying for power in the new Afghanistan: This time around, women must have a seat at the table. As I write, Afghan women are swinging into action, with a major conference planned for early December in Brussels to insist on equality and political power in their post-Taliban nation.
Wouldn't it be wonderful if the defeat of the Taliban also marked the end of the cultural-relativist pooh-poohing of women's rights? Only a few weeks ago, a Bush Administration spokesperson was refusing to promise that women would play a role in a new Afghan government: "We have to be careful not to look like we are imposing our values on them." A week before it began, no women had been mentioned as participants in the UN-sponsored Bonn conference to plan for a postwar Afghanistan. As it turned out, there are three among the twenty-eight delegates: two in the delegation of the former King and one in that of the Northern Alliance, plus at least two more attending as advisers. Whether it means anything, who knows--of the four factions gathered in Bonn, only the Northern Alliance controls any actual territory, and its record with regard to women's rights and dignity is nothing to cheer about. While some alliance leaders speak encouragingly of girls' education and women's right to work, early signs are mixed: In Kabul, women can once more freely walk the streets, but the newly reopened movie theater is off-limits and a women's rights march was halted by authorities; in late November, according to the Los Angeles Times, women were banned from voting for mayor in Herat, whose de facto ruler, Ismail Khan, has presented himself as sympathetic to women's rights.
Still, whatever government takes shape in Afghanistan will probably be better for women than the Taliban--how could it be worse?--as long as the country does not degenerate into civil war, as happened the last time the Northern Alliance was in power. But let's not kid ourselves: This war is not about freeing women from government-mandated burqas, or teaching girls to read, or improving Afghan women's ghastly maternal mortality rate of 17 in 1,000 births--the second highest in the world. Those things may happen as a byproduct of realpolitik, or they may not. But if women's rights and well-being were aims of US Afghan policy, the Carter, Reagan and Bush administrations would never have financed the mujahedeen, whose neanderthal treatment of women, including throwing acid at unveiled women, was well documented from the start; the Clinton Administration would not have initially accepted the Taliban even after they closed the girls' schools in Herat; and the current Bush Administration would have inundated the millions of Afghan women and girls in Pakistan's refugee camps with teachers, nurses, doctors and food.
As other commentators have pointed out, if Laura Bush wants to make women's rights a US foreign policy goal, she's got her work cut out for her. Saudi Arabia, our best friend, is positively Talibanesque: Women are rigidly segregated by law, cannot drive, cannot travel without written permission from a male relative; top-to-toe veiling is mandated by law and enforced by a brutal religious police force. In a particularly insulting twist, US women soldiers stationed there are compelled to wear the veil and refrain from driving when off base; so far the Bush Administration has refused to act on soldiers' objections to these conditions.
One can go on and on about the situation of women in Muslim countries--unable to vote in Kuwait; genitally mutilated in Egypt and Sudan; flogged, jailed, murdered with impunity and even stoned to death for sexual infractions in a number of countries--and Muslim women everywhere are fighting back (for a serious, nonsensationalist approach, check out the website of Women Living Under Muslim Laws, www.wluml.org). But the Islamic world is hardly the only place where women are denied their human rights: How would you like to have to get a divorce in an Israeli rabbinical court or need an abortion in Chile, where it's illegal even to save your life? The United States makes no bones about using its economic and political might against illegal drugs--in fact, the Administration rewarded the Taliban for banning opium production by making a $43 million donation to the World Food Program and humanitarian NGOs (not, as is usually reported, to the Taliban proper). If it cared to do so, the United States could back the global women's movement with the same zeal.
Instead, it does the opposite. In order to curry favor with conservative Catholics at home, Laura Bush's husband has shown callous disregard for women's rights and health abroad: He reinstated the Mexico City policy, which bars family-planning groups receiving US funds from discussing abortion; he sent anti-choice delegations to wreck the consensus at international conferences on children's rights and public health; he tried to nominate John Klink, former adviser to the Holy See, to head the State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, which would have thrown the United States behind the Pope's call to deny emergency contraception to raped women in refugee camps.
That the Taliban are gone is cause for joy. A world that cared about women's rights would never have let them come to power in the first place.
'Don't hold your mail so close to your face," my neighbor warned me sharply in the elevator. I assured her no anonymous anthraxer could have any interest in me. "Well, sure," she agreed, rather readily I must say, "but it could be cross-contaminated." Right. Planes and people are falling out of the sky, the World Trade Center is sixteen acres of smoldering rubble and twisted girders, a hospital worker living quietly in the Bronx dies mysteriously of inhalation anthrax for which every possible origin seems to be ruled out, the air downtown has a smell no one wants to give a name to. This crispest, clearest, most beautiful New York City autumn ever is a paranoid's dream come true.
"Unbelievable" was the entire text of the first e-mail to cross my screen on the morning the city woke to find it had elected the bumptious billionaire Michael Bloomberg Mayor by a narrow 30,000 votes. By midday, the incredible had become the inevitable: In retrospect, it seems, nothing was more obvious than that Mark Green would slide to humiliating defeat from a double-digit lead a mere two weeks before Election Day. Suddenly, it turned out to matter that Bloomberg, who refused to participate in the campaign finance system, spent a rumored $60 million of his own immense fortune on the race, although his free spending on everything from ads and mailings to hats and high-placed academics was widely mocked as a textbook demonstration of what happens to a fool and his money. Suddenly, too, personality turned out to count: Green was arrogant, obnoxious, cold and full of hubris. Against an ordinary opponent his missteps might not have mattered, but Bloomberg's millions bought him an echo chamber in which they could resonate endlessly, while his own considerable vanity--not to mention accusations of sexual harassment--went unexplored by a preoccupied press.
Mostly, though, postelection analyses focused on race. I still don't understand why it was racist for Green supporters to make hay--in fliers the Green campaign denied any connection with--out of the fact that the Rev. Al Sharpton endorsed Freddy Ferrer, Green's chief opponent in the Democratic Party primary, or for Green to produce ads quoting the New York Times calling Ferrer "borderline irresponsible" in his approach to fiscal policy post-9/11, with the tagline "We can't afford to take a chance." Sharpton's an opportunistic if sometimes entertaining scoundrel who has had prominent roles in several notorious episodes--the Tawana Brawley hoax, the picketing of Korean grocers, the lethal violence at Freddy's Fashion Mart in Harlem in 1995. Why was it out of bounds to publicize Ferrer's alliance with Sharpton, any more than it is anti-Christian, or anti-Southern white for progressives to attack George W. Bush for accepting the support of the anti-Semitic lunatic Pat Robertson?
Resentful Green supporters spin their man's defeat as the overwhelming of class politics (good) by identity politics (bad). "The American left has been beating itself up about race since the 1960s," Craig Kaplan, prominent lawyer about town and passionate Green supporter, told me by phone. "To me, that's narrow nationalistic claptrap." Maybe--and maybe it's politically manipulated claptrap, too; interestingly, Ferrer made nothing of Bloomberg's history of membership in all-white clubs. Still, after Green's defeat it's hard to maintain, as the self-styled "economic left" likes to do, that identity politics have a narrow appeal and can be safely ignored in favor of universal issues like campaign finance reform, healthcare, public transportation, schools. We New Yorkers may feel united by the season's tragedies and horrors, but we still live in a largely segregated city, in which those universal issues are bound to be filtered through a racial and ethnic prism. Ferrer was no Harold Washington, and I doubt he would have done much to improve life in the "other New York" he claimed to represent. But at least he acknowledged its existence.
Another problem with the "economic left" analysis is that it assumes Green pitched his candidacy to the economic left of Bloomberg. In fact, both candidates hurled themselves squarely toward the middle, and some of the issues on which they differed--Bloomberg, for example, said kind words about private sector solutions to public school problems--played out in a funny cross-class way: Many poor black and Hispanic parents long to extract their children from the terrible public schools to which they are consigned. From their perspective, it's not so obvious that the teachers' union, which supported Green, is on the side of the angels. Activist liberals who had worked with Green for years knew, or thought they knew, that his politics were progressive, even as he distanced himself from old allies like Ralph Nader, called for the abolition of parole and vowed he'd be "tight as a tick" when it came to social spending. Rightly or wrongly, Green's progressive supporters tended to assume his centrism came with a wink wink, nudge nudge in their direction, but what if you were out of the loop? What if all your information about the race came from television in October? By choosing a moderate campaign, Green couldn't make an argument for the politics progressives thought he had, while opening himself to charges that he was a chameleon.
If you put Green's campaign together with Mark Warner's victory in the Virginia governor's race and Jim McGreevey's in New Jersey--both touted as showing the Democratic Party making a comeback--it's hard to feel there's much room in the electoral field for standard-issue Democratic progressive politics. Warner ran as a moderate Republican with a healthy fear of the National Rifle Association; McGreevey, as a normal suburbanite against a far-right ideologue. Would Green have done better if he had moved left and not right, had he embraced the other New York instead of lecturing it on the need for unity--around him? We'll never know. Meanwhile, since politics seems to be the only line of work for which lack of experience is a qualification, it's not so surprising--in retrospect!--that in the end New Yorkers chose to write a comic-opera ending to the autumn's tragedies and put into Gracie Mansion a bon vivant too rich to want to live there.
We've been at war "against terrorism" for a month now. Do you feel unified, patriotic, full of eager collective purpose? Writing on the New York Times Op-Ed page ("A Better Society in a Time of War," October 19) Robert "Bowling Alone" Putnam hopes Americans will say goodbye to lonely nights dropping gutter balls down the lanes of life and come together in "civic community" as they did during World War II. (World War II? Uh-oh. Wasn't this supposed to be one of those little quickie mini-wars?) He writes nostalgically of "victory gardens in nearly everyone's backyard, the Boy Scouts at filling stations collecting floor mats for scrap rubber, the affordable war bonds, the practice of giving rides to hitchhiking soldiers and war workers." Those would be certified heterosexual, Supreme-Being-believing scouts, I suppose, and certified harmless and chivalrous hitchhiking GIs, too--not some weirdo in uniform who cuts you to bits on a dark road.
Putnam quotes approvingly a passage from an oral history of the war: "You just felt that the stranger sitting next to you in a restaurant, or someplace, felt the same way you did about the basic issues." Like the importance of keeping black people out of that very restaurant, perhaps, and of putting Japanese-Americans in internment camps. As for war bonds, give me a break! You'd have to be a true masochist to buy war bonds today, given that President Bush has just engineered, under the guise of economic stimulus, another gigantic tax cut for wealthy corporations and the rich, and an airline-bailout package that underwrites the multimillion-dollar salaries of industry executives while offering nothing to the nearly 100,000 who've lost their airline jobs.
Whatever the war may do for, or to, the miserable Afghan people, it's certainly putting lots of fiber in the breakfast cereal of the liberal intellectual classes. This is a popular war with the pundits and talking heads and recovering Vietnam protesters--even more so than the Gulf War, which featured such hard-to-ignore drawbacks as the fact that the United States was defending a feudal monarchy (did women ever get that pesky vote in Kuwait? Not so far--maybe next century). This war has much grander ideological themes: West vs. East, modern vs. medieval, forward vs. backward, good vs. evil, us vs. them. You can spend so much time defending the moral legitimacy of bombing Afghanistan and damning Noam Chomsky to hell that you never need to get around, really, to the question of what the real-world consequences of this war are likely to be. Five and a half million Afghans starving, as predicted by Oxfam, if the military campaign prevents delivery of humanitarian relief? Thousands of new Taliban fans and recruits for anti-American suicide missions? A protracted war with a determined, hardy foe that draws in Central Asia, enrages the Muslim masses and destabilizes Pakistan or Indonesia or another country to be named later? Is World War III worth it if it gets people planting victory gardens and giving blood?
These are the questions we need to be thinking about, not celebrating the potential of war to give "us" a renewed sense of national purpose, as in different ways five historians, including Doris Kearns Goodwin and Roger Wilkins, did on a recent Lehrer NewsHour segment. Many--Graydon Carter, Roger Rosenblatt, Maureen Dowd--have welcomed the post-9/11 era as putting an end to materialism and frivolity and boomer self-absorption, but what could be more self-absorbed, more boomerish, than to see war as an occasion for self-improvement and growth? There's a gendered element, too, as Philip Weiss noted in the New York Observer: Whether or not more men than women support the war, as Weiss claims, 9/11 and its sequelae have definitely rehabilitated such traditional masculine values as physical courage, upper-body strength, toughness, resolve. The WTC attack is men vs. men--firefighters v. fanatics. (It would seem positively ungrateful to ask why, in a city half black and brown, the "heroes" were still mostly white, and, for that matter, still mostly male.) You can see the gender skew everywhere--in the absence of female bylines in Op-Eds about the war, in the booing of Hillary Clinton during the Concert for New York at Madison Square Garden, in the slavish eagerness of the media to promote the callow and inadequate Dubya as a strong leader whose "cockiness" (interesting word) and swagger are just what Americans need in the hour of crisis. And Dubya's a boomer too: "Bush has told advisors," writes Judy Keen in a USA Today puff piece, "that he believes confronting the enemy is a chance for him and his fellow baby boomers to refocus their lives and prove they have the same kind of valor and commitment their fathers showed in WWII."
Refocus your life, bomb a village. Maybe we should bring back the draft--for 50somethings sorry they missed out on Vietnam.
Flagwatch. Readers may remember that in the wake of September 11, my 14-year-old daughter, Sophie, wanted to fly a flag (although not enough to buy one herself), and I didn't. Those soft touches at The Weekly Standard called on their readers to deluge her with Old Glories, care of this magazine, and the New York Post reprinted their appeal--for a combined 600,000 readers. The preliminary results of the "Flags for Miss Pollitt" campaign are in. Total so far: One actual cloth flag; one paper flag on a toothpick, suitable for decorating a frozen daiquiri; one newsprint flag cut out of a daily paper; one flag-themed mailing sticker; one flag refrigerator magnet; one check for one dollar; and one ten-dollar bill, with instructions to "buy your mom some red, white and blue flowers and give her a big hug." I suspect the flowers for me will metamorphose into makeup for her, but I did get the hug. There were also three or four unsigned misspelled letters urging me to go back to Afghanistan, where I obviously belong. I could not have made the connection between flag-waving and jingoism clearer myself, and the point was not lost on Sophie, who's rethinking her position. So thanks, Weekly Standard readers, keep those cards and letters coming!
How depressing was the October 13 peace rally in Washington Square? Well, the Bread and Puppet Theater performed--that should give you an idea. "It's the sixties all over again," murmured the portly graybeard standing next to me as the funereal drum thudded and the players, holding their papier mâché body masks, paraded glumly through the crowd of perhaps 500 people--most, by the look of them, veterans of either the peace and justice or sectarian left. Look on the bright side, I thought: At least we don't have to sing "Down by the Riverside," as happened at the peace rally in Union Square on October 7, a few hours after bombs started falling on Afghanistan.
I don't like to criticize the activists who put together what little resistance to the bombing there is. But the 2000s aren't the 1960s, and whatever else Afghanistan is, it isn't Vietnam, any more than international terrorism or Islamic extremism is the new communism. Essential to the movement against the war in Vietnam was the pointlessness of our involvement: What had Ho Chi Minh ever done to us? The Vietcong never blew up American office buildings and murdered 5,000 ordinary American working people. You didn't have to be a pacifist or an opponent of all intervention everywhere to favor getting out of Vietnam--there were dozens of reasons, principled, pragmatic, humanitarian, self-serving, to be against the war. This time, our own country has been attacked, and the enemies are deranged fanatics. No amount of military force short of nuclear weapons would have defeated the North Vietnamese and Vietcong, who really did swim like fish in the sea of the people and had plenty of help from the Soviet Union besides; the Taliban, by contrast, are widely, although not universally, hated in Afghanistan, and Osama bin Laden's men, known as the Arab-Afghans, are viewed there by many as a hostile foreign presence.
Faced with a popular air war conducted, at least on paper, in such a way as to minimize civilian casualties, the peace movement falls back on boilerplate: All war everywhere is wrong, no matter what evils pertain; any use of force merely perpetuates the "cycle of violence"; the war is "racist," whatever that means; it's a corporate plot. The most rousing and focused speech at Washington Square was physicist Michio Kaku's denunciation of Star Wars--but no one I heard (I missed the noted foreign policy experts Al Sharpton and Patti Smith) grappled with the central question: If not war, what? Realistically, some of the alternatives that have been proposed would also involve military action. Osama bin Laden is not likely to mail himself to the International Criminal Court to be tried for crimes against humanity; the disarming of both the Taliban and the Northern Alliance by United Nations peacekeepers, followed by free and democratic elections--the course favored by the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan--is not likely to happen peacefully either.
The attack on the World Trade Center, an unspeakable and unjustifiable crime, created a sense of urgency and feelings of fear and anger that do not easily accord with calls for a deeper understanding of America's role in the Muslim world. It's hard to care that the US government armed and bankrolled the fundamentalist mujahedeen in Afghanistan to fight the Soviets, or that it supports clerical-fascist Islamic governments like the one in Saudi Arabia, when you're afraid to fly in an airplane or open your mail. Say for the sake of argument that the "chickens" of American foreign policy "are coming home to roost": You can see why many would answer, Well, so what? Why not just kill the chickens and be done with it? That may prove much more difficult than today's pro-war pundits acknowledge--what if one only hatches more chickens?--but it's not totally off the wall, like Alice Walker's embarrassing and oft-cited proposal that bin Laden be showered with love and "reminded of all the good, nonviolent things he has done."
Right now, the argument that the war will have unforeseen and disastrous consequences may sound like handwringing, but it is doubtless true. Given the millions who are starving in Afghanistan, the 37,500 mini-meals that have fallen from the sky are a cruel joke. And even if the Al Qaeda network is destroyed and the Taliban overthrown, the circumstances that created them will remain. This is the case whether one sees the attack on the WTC as inspired by religiously motivated hatred of modernity and Enlightenment values, like Christopher Hitchens, or as a response to particular American policies in Israel, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, as Noam Chomsky argues. Experts can debate the precise amount of motivation this or that factor contributes to terrorism--but unless the Muslim world is transformed on many levels, it is hard to see how the bombing of Afghanistan will keep Americans safe or prevent new Al Qaedas and Talibans from forming. For that, we would have to be able to look down the road ten years and see a peaceful, well-governed, rebuilt Afghanistan; a Pakistan in which the best chance for a poor boy or girl is public school, not a madrassah for him and nothing for her; a Saudi Arabia with a democratic, secular government; an Egypt without millions living in abject poverty and a hugely frustrated middle class. This is all the more true if militant Islam is relatively independent of concrete grievances like Israel and Iraq.
Unfortunately, anyone who tries to talk about the WTC attack in this way--as Susan Sontag did in her entirely reasonable but now infamous New Yorker piece--is likely to find themselves labeled a traitor, a coward, anti-American or worse. (I found this out myself when I made the mistake of going on the radio with mad Andrew Sullivan, who has said the "decadent left...may well mount a fifth column," and who accused me of objectively supporting the Taliban and likened me to someone who refuses to help a rape victim and blames her for wearing a short skirt.) But a war can be "just" in the sense that it is a response to aggression--as Vietnam was not--and also be the wrong way to solve a problem.
Are there any people
on earth more wretched than the women of Afghanistan? As if poverty,
hunger, disease, drought, ruined cities and a huge refugee crisis
weren't bad enough, under Taliban rule they can't work, they can't go
to school, they have virtually no healthcare, they can't leave their
houses without a male escort, they are beaten in the streets if they
lift the mandatory burqa even to relieve a coughing fit. The
Taliban's crazier requirements have some of the obsessive
particularity of the Nazis' statutes against the Jews: no high heels
(that lust-inducing click-click!), no white socks (white is the color
of the flag), windows must be painted over so that no male passerby
can see the dreaded female form lurking in the house. (This
particular stricture, combined with the burqa, has led to an outbreak
of osteomalacia, a bone disease caused by malnutrition and lack of
Until September 11, this situation received only
modest attention in the West--much less than the destruction of the
giant Buddha statues of Bamiyan. The "left" is often accused of
"moral relativism" and a "postmodern" unwillingness to judge, but the
notion that the plight of Afghan women is a matter of culture and
tradition, and not for Westerners to judge, was widespread across the
Now, finally, the world is paying
attention to the Taliban, whose days may indeed be numbered now that
their foreign supporters--Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates,
Pakistan--are backing off. The connections between religious
fanaticism and the suppression of women are plain to see (and not
just applicable to Islam--show me a major religion in which the
inferiority of women, and God's wish to place them and their
dangerous polluting sexuality under male control, is not a central
original theme). So is the connection of both with terrorism, war and
atrocity. It's no accident that so many of the young men who are foot
soldiers of Islamic fundamentalism are reared in womanless religious
schools, or that Osama bin Laden's recruiting video features bikinied
Western women as symbols of the enemy.
fundamentalism requires the suppression of women, offering desperate,
futureless men the psychological and practical satisfaction of
instant superiority to half the human race, the emancipation of women
could be the key to overcoming it. Where women have education,
healthcare and personal rights, where they have social and political
and economic power--where they can choose what to wear, whom to
marry, how to live--there's a powerful constituency for secularism,
democracy and human rights: What educated mother engaged in public
life would want her daughter to be an illiterate baby machine
confined to the four walls of her husband's house with no one to talk
to but his other wives?
Women's rights are crucial for
everything the West supposedly cares about: infant mortality (one in
four Afghan children dies before age 5), political democracy,
personal freedom, equality under the law--not to mention its own
security. But where are the women in the discussion of Afghanistan,
the Middle East, the rest of the Muslim world? We don't hear much
about how policy decisions will affect women, or what they want. Men
have the guns and the governments. Who asks the women of Saudi
Arabia, our ally, how they feel about the Taliban-like restrictions
on their freedom? In the case of Afghanistan, the Northern
Alliance presents itself now to the West as women's friend. A story
in the New York Times marveled at the very limited permission
given to women in NA-held territory to study and work and wear a less
restrictive covering than the burqa. Brushed aside was the fact that
many warlords of the Northern Alliance are themselves religious
fighters who not only restricted women considerably when they held
power from 1992 to '96 but plunged the country into civil war,
compiling a record of ethnically motivated mass murder, rape and
other atrocities and leaving the population so exhausted that the
Taliban's promise of law and order came as a relief. It's all
documented on the Human Rights Watch website
Now more than ever, the Revolutionary
Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), which opposes both
the Taliban and the Northern Alliance as violent, lawless,
misogynistic and antidemocratic, deserves attention and support.
"What Afghanistan needs is not more war," Tahmeena Faryel, a RAWA
representative currently visiting the United States, told me, but
massive amounts of humanitarian aid and the disarming of both the
Taliban and the Northern Alliance, followed by democratic elections.
"We don't need another religious government," she said. "We've had
that!" The women of RAWA are a different model of heroism than a
warlord with a Kalashnikov: In Afghanistan, they risk their lives by
running secret schools for girls, delivering medical aid, documenting
and filming Taliban atrocities. In Pakistan, they demonstrate against
fundamentalism in the "Talibanized" cities of Peshawar and Quetta.
Much as the victims of the WTC attack need our support, so too do
Afghans who are trying to bring reason and peace to their miserable
country. To make a donation to RAWA, see www.rawa.org.
* * *
I got more negative comment on my
last column, in which I described a discussion with my daughter about
whether to fly an American flag in the wake of the WTC attack, than
on anything I've ever written. Many people pitied my commonsensical,
public-spirited child for being raised by an antisocial naysayer like
me. And if The Weekly Standard has its way--it's urging
readers to send young "Miss Pollitt" flags c/o The Nation--she
will soon have enough flags to redecorate her entire bedroom in red,
white and blue, without having to forgo a single Green Day CD to buy
one for herself. (See this issue's Letters column for some of the
mail on the flag question.)
Fortunately, for those who want
to hang something a bit more global out their window, there are
alternatives. The peace flag (www.peaceflags.org) reshapes Old
Glory's stars into the peace sign; the Earth flag (www.earthflag.net)
displays the Apollo photo of the Earth on a blue background.
My daughter, who goes to Stuyvesant High School only blocks from the World Trade Center, thinks we should fly an American flag out our window. Definitely not, I say: The flag stands for jingoism and vengeance and war. She tells me I'm wrong--the flag means standing together and honoring the dead and saying no to terrorism. In a way we're both right: The Stars and Stripes is the only available symbol right now. In New York City, it decorates taxicabs driven by Indians and Pakistanis, the impromptu memorials of candles and flowers that have sprung up in front of every firehouse, the chi-chi art galleries and boutiques of SoHo. It has to bear a wide range of meanings, from simple, dignified sorrow to the violent anti-Arab and anti-Muslim bigotry that has already resulted in murder, vandalism and arson around the country and harassment on New York City streets and campuses. It seems impossible to explain to a 13-year-old, for whom the war in Vietnam might as well be the War of Jenkins's Ear, the connection between waving the flag and bombing ordinary people half a world away back to the proverbial stone age. I tell her she can buy a flag with her own money and fly it out her bedroom window, because that's hers, but the living room is off-limits.
There are no symbolic representations right now for the things the world really needs--equality and justice and humanity and solidarity and intelligence. The red flag is too bloodied by history; the peace sign is a retro fashion accessory. In much of the world, including parts of this country, the cross and crescent and Star of David are logos for nationalistic and sectarian hatred. Ann Coulter, fulminating in her syndicated column, called for carpet-bombing of any country where people "smiled" at news of the disaster: "We should invade their countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity." What is this, the Crusades? The Rev. Jerry Falwell issued a belated mealy-mouthed apology for his astonishing remarks immediately after the attacks, but does anyone doubt that he meant them? The disaster was God's judgment on secular America, he observed, as famously secular New Yorkers were rushing to volunteer to dig out survivors, to give blood, food, money, anything--it was all the fault of "the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians...the ACLU, People for the American Way." That's what the Taliban think too.
As I write, the war talk revolves around Afghanistan, home of the vicious Taliban and hideaway of Osama bin Laden. I've never been one to blame the United States for every bad thing that happens in the Third World, but it is a fact that our government supported militant Islamic fundamentalism in Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion in 1979. The mujahedeen were freedom fighters against Communism, backed by more than $3 billion in US aid--more money and expertise than for any other cause in CIA history--and hailed as heroes by tag-along journalists from Dan Rather to William T. Vollmann, who saw these lawless fanatics as manly primitives untainted by the West. (There's a story in here about the attraction Afghan hypermasculinity holds for desk-bound modern men. How lovely not to pay lip service to women's equality! It's cowboys and Indians, with harems thrown in.) And if, with the Soviets gone, the vying warlords turned against one another, raped and pillaged and murdered the civilian population and destroyed what still remained of normal Afghan life, who could have predicted that? These people! The Taliban, who rose out of this period of devastation, were boys, many of them orphans, from the wretched refugee camps of Pakistan, raised in the unnatural womanless hothouses of fundamentalist boarding schools. Even leaving aside their ignorance and provincialism and lack of modern skills, they could no more be expected to lead Afghanistan back to normalcy than an army made up of kids raised from birth in Romanian orphanages.
Feminists and human-rights groups have been sounding the alarm about the Taliban since they took over Afghanistan in 1996. That's why interested Americans know that Afghan women are forced to wear the total shroud of the burqa and are banned from work and from leaving their homes unless accompanied by a male relative; that girls are barred from school; and that the Taliban--far from being their nation's saviors, enforcing civic peace with their terrible swift Kalashnikovs--are just the latest oppressors of the miserable population. What has been the response of the West to this news? Unless you count the absurd infatuation of European intellectuals with the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance of fundamentalist warlords (here we go again!), not much.
What would happen if the West took seriously the forces in the Muslim world who call for education, social justice, women's rights, democracy, civil liberties and secularism? Why does our foreign policy underwrite the clerical fascist government of Saudi Arabia--and a host of nondemocratic regimes besides? What is the point of the continuing sanctions on Iraq, which have brought untold misery to ordinary people and awakened the most backward tendencies of Iraqi society while doing nothing to undermine Saddam Hussein? And why on earth are fundamentalist Jews from Brooklyn and Philadelphia allowed to turn Palestinians out of their homes on the West Bank? Because God gave them the land? Does any sane person really believe that?
Bombing Afghanistan to "fight terrorism" is to punish not the Taliban but the victims of the Taliban, the people we should be supporting. At the same time, war would reinforce the worst elements in our own society--the flag-wavers and bigots and militarists. It's heartening that there have been peace vigils and rallies in many cities, and antiwar actions are planned in Washington, DC, for September 29-30, but look what even the threat of war has already done to Congress, where only a single representative, Barbara Lee, Democrat from California, voted against giving the President virtual carte blanche.
A friend has taken to wearing her rusty old women's Pentagon Action buttons--at least they have a picture of the globe on them. The globe, not the flag, is the symbol that's wanted now.