KEEP THE SUN IN THE SUNSHINE STATE
In "The Florida Fog" [March 19], David Corn asks, "Will the fog ever lift?" and concludes that a concrete final tally of Gore vs. Bush is "probably beyond reach." A polite understatement, as a concrete tally is flat-out impossible, because, as Corn notes, "there are just too many ways to count the leftovers from this lousy election."
The sensible approach for maximum fog reduction would be to assemble the hard and soft data in four general categories. (1) The undervote, assembled as hanging chad (1-corner, 2-corner, 3-corner) and dimpled chad. Gore probably has the nod in this category. (2) The overvote, where Gore clearly would be far ahead. It's hard to imagine a large number of double-voters selecting Gore first and then voting for a minor candidate. Even with extreme generosity, giving a half-vote to each, Gore wins easily here. (3) The misvote, where votes intended for one candidate went to another, should be estimated. Corn mentions 1,700 Miami-Dade ballots punched in a place below the one corresponding to a candidate. Another subcategory would include the 3,812 votes for Buchanan in Palm Beach County because of the infamous butterfly ballot--a statistical impossibility, based on votes for Buchanan elsewhere (about 2,500 of these votes were probably intended for Gore--far more than enough to have won the state). (4) The repressed vote, the many reported instances of qualified voters being dropped from the rolls, having polling places changed, being intimidated by officials, etc., will necessarily be counted by anecdote, affidavit and rough estimate. One exotic but interesting subcategory is pardoned felons with restored voting rights from other states who moved to Florida but were denied the right to vote (in that Florida does not restore voting rights to its felons).
Add them all up, and Gore will at least have an overwhelming moral victory. The obfuscators and the statistically challenged will, of course, try to limit attention to only the first category, and selected findings therein, e.g., the Miami-Dade undervotes. A shared goal of maximum fog dispersal will keep at bay the many Bushies who seek to distort and repress the truth of what happened in Florida.
A more accurate title for David Corn's excellent article might have been "The Miami Herald Fog" or "The Miami Herald Farce." Like the networks and cable news channels that fell all over one another to be numero uno to proclaim first Gore and then Bush the Florida winner on election night, it appears that the Herald succumbed to Be-the-First fever. Maybe we do need Fidel to send monitors.
WINNING NOT WHINING
Paul Wellstone is right that "Winning Politics" [Feb. 19] requires galvanizing grassroots activists. But he's neglecting something: A lot of us activists are very, very angry right now, at his party and at the spineless, wrongheaded, unprincipled betrayal by the party leadership, particularly in Congress. Furthermore, George W. Bush was appointed President. He is not due the same deference as an elected leader, and the main goal of Democrats in Congress who claim to have a progressive bone in their body should be containment of, not compromise with, this individual and his Administration.
If there is to be any hope of achieving the organizational success Wellstone refers to, there will have to be a purgative process in the Democratic Party. The anger of progressives is not going to simply disappear. And without the energy of grassroots progressive activists, as Wellstone has himself pointed out, all is meaningless and for naught.
Paul Wellstone hit the mark squarely with his article on progressive politics in the Bush II era. In Minnesota we're especially proud of our senior senator, who has carried the banner for improved lives for working families with increasing vigor every year he has represented us. As the senator remarks, there's an urgent need to see beyond the Bush restoration, that Al Gore's loss of the presidency is a tragic miscarriage but not an irreparable one if we mobilize, organize and stick together to make the progressive (and, yes, liberal) voice heard as the 2002 election draws nearer.
THE COURT JESTERS?
New York City
I fully endorse your Name the President contest, now on your website, but you're being unfair to the Supreme Court. The nine biggies (or at least five of them) deserve their own naming contest. Perhaps the Fawlty Five? the Supreme Mistakes? the Curious Curia? Where do I file my no-friend-of-the-Court brief?
RICE, POWELL & PAIGE
Michael Eric Dyson, in "Bush's Black Faces" [Jan. 29], states that "many blacks" support school vouchers. However, if you analyze the results of voucher referendums in this past election, black support seems pretty paltry. African-American voters overwhelmingly put thumbs down against a voucher proposal in California, 68 to 32 percent. In Michigan a voucher scheme bankrolled by right-wing billionaire Dick DeVos was crushed, assisted by a black vote of nearly 4 to 1 against it, as reported by the Detroit News--this despite vocal backing of Proposal 1 by a number of African-American clergy.
Blacks and other people of color have consistently demonstrated their skepticism toward voucher plans. George W. and Rod Paige had better think long and hard before they mount a crusade to undermine an already underfunded public school system, which still has strong support among most Americans.
New York City
Michael Eric Dyson writes that Colin Powell's beliefs will have "little substantive impact" on the new Administration's domestic policies and that "Powell's value to Bush on race [is] largely symbolic." While I applaud Dyson for questioning how well Powell, Rice and Paige will serve the interests of most black Americans, I think his sense of what those interests are is too narrow. Indeed, the key to assessing Powell's potential impact may lie in the interrelated nature of Bush's likely domestic policies, and their effect on blacks in America, with his likely international policies toward blacks in Africa and other parts of the world. Here, the presence of Powell and Rice could be more than symbolic. It could be dramatic. Powell's vision of foreign policy tends toward the militaristic, and Rice's background seems more suited to the cold war. Neither has had much to say about African nations. Granted, Clinton's record is a mixed bag, but he was the first sitting President to travel to sub-Saharan Africa, both times accompanied by members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Further, the passage of the Trade and Development Act of 2000 to promote commerce with sub-Saharan Africa and Caribbean countries, as well as efforts to press for debt relief, cheaper medicines and conflict resolution were some of the most valuable gains made in the past eight years. The possibility that Bush may return us to a policy of not-so-benign neglect may prove as crucial in the long run as his apparent desire to chip away at affirmative action, public education and welfare. When it comes to assessing racial progress, the interests of black Americans--a diverse group in terms of ethnicity and national origin--are situated not only at home but also abroad.
ANGELA D. DILLARD
Baton Rouge, La.
Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr., in "George Bush's Democrats" [Jan. 22], has expressed what so few wish--or feel that they have the right--to express. If the Green Party is looking for another candidate in 2004, it should not have to look too much further than Jackson's doorstep. If the left wants to resuscitate itself, it needs to speak--and act--with the unashamed ethos, logos and pathos with which Jackson speaks. People like him give me hope and represent an America that is all but lost in this environment of hip fascism (I don't think I'm exaggerating).
I wish Jesse Jackson Jr. the best of luck in building a "progressive bipartisan economic coalition" by reclaiming the Democratic Party from its conservative wing. If he succeeds, he may draw me away from the Green Party. And if any Greens are elected to Congress in the coming years, I hope Jackson's coalition will welcome them warmly.
We had an interesting "town meeting" event at the Boulder Theatre in January, titled "Organizing for Democracy After the Stolen Election," which featured former State Senator Tom Hayden visiting from Los Angeles, Yippie Stew Albert of Oregon, Democratic State Senator from Boulder Ron Tupa, Green Party activist Ron Forthofer, editor Pamela White of the Colorado Daily, diversity activist Sherry Weston as well as yours truly, token poet. I read from a new piece, "Rogue State," and reported on experiences at the Shadow Inauguration in DC the previous weekend, where more than 2,000 people took an oath to uphold the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and surrounded the Supreme Court building. Most chilling had been the taunt from a Bush supporter: "Get back to the back of the bus!" which haunts and propels me with particular urgency to stay involved.
Boulder citizens young and old--after venting their continuing outrage at the New Select Administration--also promised to get more active. The distinguished guest speakers had a lot of cogent analyses and clear-cut advice, which is, of course, the same old stuff: Keep the heat on through media bombardment, letter and Internet campaigns, phone calls, boycotts, actions in the streets; push on voting reform, pro-choice rights, environmental issues and also keep the pressure on the Democratic Party and know who the judicial candidates are on your local ballots! Kick out the jams! Jimi Hendrix's "Star Spangled Banner" was even played. Jeff Milchen's reclaimdemocracy.org is a good resource. I wanted to encourage public forums like ours to start up (if they haven't yet) all over the country. As one of our poets' protest signs in DC said, using Voltaire's celebrated injunction: Ecrasez l' infâme!
The Jack Kerouac School of
In recent months, as a newly elected senator, I have had to decide whether to join the Democratic Leadership Council. I have chosen not to because while I shared its founding purpose, which was to frame a successful response to President Reagan's efforts to portray Democrats as the party of "tax and spend," social engineering and failed personal responsibility, I believe that purpose has been largely accomplished.
Today, I believe that it is vital for Democrats to stand up for a sharply defined progressive agenda--one that is committed to fighting for practical and progressive policies for working families and America's middle class--even when that means challenging powerful interests and the status quo. I am absolutely convinced that, standing on the foundation of fiscal stability that Democrats have built and to which the DLC contributed, we now have to fight for our convictions. If we begin to negotiate from the middle, the end result inevitably takes us to the right of where I believe our nation should be.
Nothing is more relevant to this point than today's debate over the Bush tax cut proposal. Democrats must remain firmly opposed to this budget-busting plan, which provides disproportionate benefits for the richest 1 percent of our population. It is relevant and essential to our argument that this tax cut is not only unfocused and poorly timed but also unfair. In fact, if we yield on fairness before the debate begins, we forfeit our fundamental ground. That is one reason I have proposed a tax cut that gives an immediate break to everyone equally and is targeted toward working families.
Moreover, the DLC has not convinced me that we should turn away from advocating an activist government--one that, for example, sees healthcare as a basic right for all Americans. And while compromise is an acceptable end, too much of it too soon has led to a paralysis on fundamental concerns such as healthcare, gun safety, the environment and educational opportunity.
The critical point to be made by progressives in our national debate is this: While there are programs that have failed and should be reformed or eliminated, proactive government has often succeeded. An activist government was a driving force in the prosperity of the 1990s, as well as in providing our historic safety net, including Social Security, Medicare and Head Start. An activist government invested in the development of the Internet and the space program and spurred today's technological revolution. It was government investment that built our highways, air transit system and much of our communications network. And the list goes on. Without progressive leadership, would segregation have been outlawed? Would women have achieved as much access as they now have to equal rights? The pressure for advancement came from grassroots progressives. That said, reform and progress required our government to respond and lead. We're still far from the ideal, as racial profiling and unequal incomes for women and minorities attest. There are no African-American or Latino senators, but at least there are thirteen women senators--surely not enough, but more than there have ever been before. The lesson of history is clear: Equal rights for all depend on public action and so do equal pay, worker safety and retirement security. The barriers to opportunity for all don't just fall on their own.
Today, the progressive agenda must address the great unfinished challenges--for women, for middle-class families, for minorities and the poor. It's a hopeful agenda rooted in ideas and our ideals. As I put it in my Senate campaign, "Everyone ought to have the same access to the American promise I've had." America must be a society of equal opportunity and equal protection before the law. So I believe the progressive agenda of our party is more important than ever. And the principle that should guide us is clear: While we can't achieve equal outcomes, we can and must assure equal opportunity.
We also have to articulate the truth that advancing social and economic justice advances everyone's prosperity. We need to challenge the special interests that would limit the rights of labor and the opportunities of women and minorities, because we need all the talents of all our people to achieve maximum productivity and growth. We need to challenge the health insurance industry and finally win the battle for universal access to healthcare, because it is morally right and economically rational. Just because conservatives have demonized the term "universal healthcare" we should not walk away from that battle for the sake of a calculated centrism that splits the difference between right and wrong.
When I was a candidate, the polls said that the majority of New Jersey voters disagreed with my opposition to the death penalty. I'm grateful the voters respected that I said what I believed even when it wasn't popular. As progressives, we must be ready to do that. Most of the progressive agenda--healthcare, the environment, gun safety, a progressive tax policy-- reflects the values and the ideals of the majority of our people. They will vote for our agenda if we present it in practical terms and fight for it.
So while I respect the contribution of the DLC and while I respect its leaders, I'm not ready to join. The answer to "compassionate conservatism" isn't timid progressivism. It's a real commitment to equal opportunity, to fiscal responsibility and a fair society. We can and must be a party with the courage to stand tall for our beliefs because that's how we will be able to win as the party of the people.
The prevailing view of the Bush Administration's expulsion of some fifty Russian diplomats in retaliation for the Robert Hanssen spy scandal has been that it was a throwback to cold war days when the great game of tit for tat was the normal way of doing things. But the apparent recrudescence of the cold war mindset should be cause for concern. The only alternative interpretation--that Washington hasn't any better ideas for dealing with Moscow--is equally troubling.
For one thing, the size of the expulsions was excessive. One would have to go back to 1986 to find comparable numbers. Also, they come on the heels of a stream of in-your-face pronouncements by Administration figures--Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, for example, calling Russia an "active proliferator" and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, saying it is "willing to sell anything to anyone for money"--and the loud insistence that the ill-conceived National Missile Defense scheme must go through regardless of Moscow's (or China's or Europe's) objections.
In fact, America does need a new Russia policy after the Clinton Administration's failures. Russia should be our number-one security worry--not because of its strength or aggressiveness but because of its weakness. Its economy has collapsed, its military is demoralized. But it remains a nuclear power equal to the United States. Indeed, the difference between now and cold war times is that the Soviet state was in control of its nuclear devices. Now, it sits atop a crumbling nuclear infrastructure, with poorly maintained reactors, vulnerable stockpiles and a dangerously degraded control system over missiles that remain, like our own, on hair trigger alert. The possibility of an accidental launch triggering a nuclear exchange has never been greater.
The reversion to mindless cold war games obscures these new threats and makes even more difficult the US-Russian cooperation needed to deal with them. That each side will spy on the other is a fact of international life and should not be used as a pretext for further distancing. Washington's priority should be working more closely with Moscow to make the latter's nuclear armaments more secure. The cold war is over. It is frightening that the Bush people show no signs of comprehending this.
Genetically modified food has been the object of extensive criticism by many, including in the pages of this magazine. Here is a different perspective. --The Editors
The technology that creates genetically modified organisms (GMOs)--for example, corn with built-in insecticide--has aroused opposition from much of the left equal in intensity to that induced by sweatshop labor and racism. Does GMO technology warrant this reflexive rejection, or can it make a contribution to human welfare?
Products that contribute little or nothing to improving human welfare do not justify taking even a small risk. Who needed bovine growth hormone? Does anyone really care that engineering an increase in potato starch content makes better potato chips? But GMO technology can also address extremely important issues. For example, the ravages of severe vitamin A deficiency among poor children, especially in Southeast Asia, annually results in the death of several million children and blindness in 250,000, according to UNICEF and the World Health Organization. Work aimed at contributing to amelioration of this nutritional deficiency has resulted in the widely publicized "golden rice." By adding two plant genes and one bacterial gene, this genetically modified variety allows beta carotene to be synthesized in the edible portion of rice, rather than primarily in its leaves. Beta carotene, whose main dietary source is deeply colored fruits and vegetables, is converted by humans to vitamin A. If society were to eliminate poverty so that families could afford a balanced, nutritious diet, there would be less need for attempting to fortify rice. But since that will not happen soon, surely improving the beta carotene content of rice is worth diligent effort.
Despite the apparent altruistic motive in developing golden rice, the anti-GMO movement has vigorously attacked the project and succeeded in influencing public debate. For example, in a March 4 New York Times Magazine essay, Michael Pollan concludes that golden rice is no more than a poster boy for biotech companies. This is ironic since the work was supported entirely by the public sector and philanthropic funds with the commitment that golden rice would, in the words of Ingo Potrykus, a lead scientist on the project, "reach subsistence farmers free of charge and restrictions."
Whether golden rice can make a positive contribution to health depends on the answers to a series of questions. But these involve empirical, not ideological, issues. Among them: Will poor Southeast Asians be able and willing to buy or grow golden rice? How much beta carotene will golden rice supply and with what efficiency can malnourished children convert it to vitamin A? Will the plausible three- to fivefold increase in beta carotene content be realized as the result of further research? And, as important, what impact might a product like golden rice have on the structure of agriculture, and how might those structural changes affect the rural poor?
Instead of indiscriminately rejecting GMO technology, we should direct our ire at corporate control of the research agenda, since under corporate control profitability rather than public need determines which projects are pursued. This results in crops and pharmaceuticals of immense importance in the developing world being "research orphans." With little potential for profit, corporations are not competing to develop virus-resistant cassava, for example, despite cassava's being the third most important source of calories worldwide [see Ken Silverstein, "Millions for Viagra, Pennies for Diseases of the Poor," July 19, 1999].
Most of the potential problems activists have highlighted are the result of racing to market. One such problem is escape of a transgene from an engineered crop to wild relatives. This would be virtually eliminated if the pollen of a transgenic corn plant, for example, were able to fertilize only other identically engineered corn. There are strategies for accomplishing this consistent with current knowledge of plant reproduction. A second example is the presence in many GMO crops of the gene for a protein that degrades antibiotics. Such genes are often inserted into the plant genome to facilitate creation of the genetically modified plant. Using existing techniques, this antibiotic resistance has been eliminated from golden rice. We should insist that genetically modified plants incorporate features like these before any GMO products are approved for marketing. And the more trivial a product's contribution to human welfare, the higher should be the safety bar.
While opposing corporate domination of the research agenda, we should encourage government and philanthropic organizations to support research, development and marketing of products aimed at alleviating the most serious problems afflicting poor people without regard for profit potential. When immense good with little risk is the likely outcome, we should celebrate not only with the people who benefit from the product but also for the success of a project motivated by humane values rather than the pursuit of profit. There are scientists in the forefront of genetic engineering who have a far different agenda from that of the multinationals. Their commitment is to bring modern science to bear on problems of importance to the Third World "free of costs and restrictions on property rights," in the words of Ingo Potrykus (www.rereth.ethz.ch/biol/selb.gruissem/gruissem/pj.01.html). The Center for the Application of Molecular Biology to International Agriculture, in Australia (www.cambia.org.au), operates on a "bottom up" principle. In its words, "CAMBIA develops technologies that enable local researchers and producers to regain an appropriate measure of control over breeding, utilization of genetic diversity and management of agricultural systems."
We need to be talking with such researchers. They can help us identify truly important potential uses of GMO technology, risks associated with it and strategies for minimizing the risks. For our part, we can encourage such researchers to insist on appropriate regulatory vigilance and to resist being co-opted by corporate devotion to the bottom line.
All signs point to an all-out drive by the Bush Administration to slot judicial conservatives into the eighty-nine current vacancies on the federal bench. The recent to-do about ending the American Bar Association's role in screening nominees was a smoke signal to the conservative base that only the "right" kind of judges henceforth need apply. White House counsel Alberto Gonzales grumbled that the ABA, which has been screening nominees since the Eisenhower Administration, "takes public positions on divisive political, legal and social issues." In fact, ABA's screening committees eschew political judgments, instead evaluating the candidates' ethics, competence and judicial temperament.
The real meaning of Gonzales's words is that the Bushites want a free hand to appoint their own ideologues. Conservatives crave revenge for the 1987 Senate rejection of Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork, whom four members of the ABA's fifteen-member standing committee found "not qualified." This split decision by the usually unanimous committee gave ammunition to Bork's opponents. Gonzales let the word go forth that in selecting nominees he and John Ashcroft will heed the Federalist Society and kindred far-right legal groups whose acolytes honeycomb this Administration.
Bush further heartened his right-wing supporters by blocking Clinton nominees for the bench like Roger Gregory, who had been given an interim appointment to the Fourth Circuit. (He's the first African-American to enter Jesse Helms's segregated preserve.) Meanwhile, other solidly qualified Clinton nominees have been left dangling by the Judiciary Committee, including James Klein, the able DC public defender; Helene White (whose nomination was stalled for more than 1,500 days) and a score of others for whom Senator Orrin Hatch refused to hold hearings.
The Bushites' court-packing drive is a grade-A rush job. For one thing, the roll Bush is on is petering out with his tax plan seen by a wider public as too friendly to the rich. Then, too, if an enfeebled Strom Thurmond exits the stage, control of the Judiciary Committee would shift to the Democrats, and then it's a whole new ball game.
If ever there was a time for mobilizing a counteroffensive, this is it. Bush has no mandate to add more weight to an already rightward-tilting federal bench. The Supreme Court's patently political ruling in Bush v. Gore has shaken its credibility. There is a growing constituency for judicial integrity and against a rollback of individual rights. Public-interest groups are tuning up. Some that will be in the thick of the fight: National Women's Law Center, National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, People for the American Way, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (for more information contact Marcia Kuntz at the Alliance for Justice, 202-822-6070; email@example.com).
Progressives must also apply pressure on Democratic senators to stall the Bush drive to stack the bench. Yale law professor Bruce Ackerman's suggestion that no Bush Supreme Court nominees should be approved is on the mark. Democrats should demand the same privilege that Hatch claimed of vetting all lower court nominees before their names become public.
Let's heed the admonition of Nan Aron of the Alliance for Justice: "Fight early, fight often and fight to win."
Survey the political terrain of this, America's second-largest city, on the eve of the April 10 mayoral vote, and the only possible conclusion is: What a Difference a Decade Makes. When deep-pockets Republican businessman Richard Riordan came seemingly out of nowhere to win the 1993 election for mayor, he persuaded a riot-traumatized and recession-battered city that he was "tough enough" to turn things around and that his first priority would be to beef up the LAPD with 3,000 more cops. Meanwhile his opponent, moderate Democrat Mike Woo, found himself pilloried by white-dominated homeowner groups enraged over his opposition to the death penalty, hardly within a mayor's purview.
That was then. This is now. California's anti-immigrant Prop 187 has since come and gone. Latino immigrants (and Asians, too) have continued to arrive, permanently changing the hue of Los Angeles. And with the military contractor-based economy now barely a memory, the city's work force increasingly grapples with lower-wage service jobs while it transforms LA into the union-organizing capital of America. All of a sudden, in the electoral arena, a powerful labor/Latino alliance, unthinkable in 1993, can credibly challenge the homeowner groups for power.
Consequently, the dozens of mayoral forums held these past few months have been marked by an emerging popular agenda: education, low-income housing, mass transit, environmental protection, expansion of the living wage and not just police but police reform. In a field of a half-dozen rivals, progressive Los Angeles even has its own candidate--one who might even win. Antonio Villaraigosa, 48, a former State Assembly speaker, former trade unionist and former president of the Southern California ACLU, has met the challenge of LA's balkanization by successfully creating a citywide, multiracial coalition. Villaraigosa has the support of major Democratic financial backers like Ron Burkle and Eli Broad, and his endorsements range from the Democratic Party itself and politically cautious Governor Gray Davis to the Sierra Club, NOW, the largest gay Democratic club and the powerhouse LA County Federation of Labor. Not only is labor cranking up the phone banks and deploying a street army of canvassers--it's also reportedly putting up as much as $1 million in an independent expenditure campaign on Villaraigosa's behalf. "Finally we have a candidate who not only supports us but is truly one of our own," says a federation official. "We are pulling out all the stops for Antonio."
Villaraigosa can't win this coming election outright--because of the crowded field, no single candidate is in a position to garner 50 percent of the ballots. So the ultimate winner will be chosen in a June runoff. The real contest in this first round is for second place. The top spot seems reserved for Democrat James "Jimmy" Hahn, LA's affable but lackluster city attorney. For four decades, Hahn's father was a popular liberal county supervisor representing much of Central Los Angeles, and he built a granite-solid base among African-Americans. His son has inherited both his enormous name recognition and the lock on the black vote. The campaigns of the two other Democrats in the race have failed to ignite: State Controller Kathleen Connell didn't even win the support of NOW, while liberal US Representative Xavier Becerra has done little except nibble away at Latino support for Villaraigosa.
Even among the two candidates vying for support from the white, wealthier and more suburbanized voters there's a whiff of new politics. Veteran City Councilman Joel Wachs, a former Republican turned Independent, is waging a middle-class populist campaign banking on his record of opposing public subsidies for big private development. Wachs, who would be the first openly gay mayor of a major US city, has also gone the furthest in criticizing embattled LAPD Chief Bernard Parks, saying he would not reappoint him to a second term. Running the most conservative campaign is Steve Soboroff, Mayor Riordan's handpicked successor. Soboroff, a wealthy real estate dealmaker, portrays himself in expensive TV commercials as a "can do" businessman and elsewhere as a moderate, pro-choice Republican. Still, he is the only candidate who has come out against the consent decree recently imposed by the federal government to spur LA police reform. At first lagging in the polls, Soboroff has recently surged.
A few days out from the voting, it's impossible to predict who will take second place to face Hahn in the June runoffs. A Soboroff-Hahn race would polarize the city along conventional partisan, class and color lines. But a Villaraigosa-Hahn matchup would force the city to choose between two Democrats: a moderate liberal and an authentic progressive. Just what the doctor ordered after eight years of Riordan's uninterrupted pro-business administration.
On March 27, a federal district court struck down the University of Michigan Law School's affirmative action admissions plan, ruling that the school's interest in a diverse student body did not justify using racial preferences. This past December another court in the same district reached the exact opposite result, finding the university's parallel affirmative action program for undergraduates was justified by diversity.
These diametrically opposed rulings on a single university's affirmative action programs perfectly mirror the current division in the nation's courts. Affirmative action, a near-universal practice in universities across the nation, is under serious legal attack. Disappointed white applicants have sued universities in Georgia, Washington and Texas as well as Michigan.
As in Michigan, the lower courts in these cases have divided sharply, so it is only a matter of time before the none-too-hospitable Supreme Court takes up the issue. The main point of disagreement concerns whether diversity is a sufficiently "compelling interest" to justify race-conscious admissions. There is a strong case for diversity-based affirmative action. But another justification, not generally pressed by the universities, offers a more cogent and morally persuasive rationale for affirmative action: society's interest in integration itself.
Since 1978 affirmative action in higher education has rested on the slimmest of reeds--a lone opinion from a Justice who could not attract a single other Justice to his views. In Board of Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, a divided Supreme Court struck down a medical school admissions program that set aside a predetermined number of seats for minority applicants. Four Justices deemed any consideration of race illegal under a federal statute that prohibits discrimination by entities receiving federal funds, while another four concluded that the program was a valid response to broad societal discrimination.
The decisive opinion in the Bakke case was that of Justice Lewis Powell. He voted to invalidate the University of California's program, but he also stated that racial preferences are sometimes permissible, citing with approval Harvard's affirmative action program, in which, in the name of diversity, race was considered as one "plus factor" among many, and all applicants competed for all openings. Harvard's program was not even at issue in the case, but Justice Powell's views about it have guided universities ever since.
Subsequent Supreme Court opinions have appeared to diverge from Justice Powell's analysis. For example, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, a critical swing vote, explicitly rejected diversity as a justification for an FCC affirmative action program, stating: "Modern equal protection has recognized only one [compelling state] interest: remedying the effects of racial discrimination." The FCC's interest in broadcast diversity, she reasoned, was "simply too amorphous, too insubstantial, and too unrelated to any legitimate basis for employing racial classifications." Her opinion was in dissent, but would probably garner five votes today. In other opinions, however, Justice O'Connor has cited Justice Powell's Bakke opinion with apparent approval.
One thing is certain: The argument for diversity finds virtually universal acceptance in academe. More than 360 higher education institutions signed on to briefs defending the University of Michigan's affirmative action program. And for good reason: In our increasingly diverse society, the ability to communicate and understand across racial lines is an essential part of citizenship, and teaching that skill requires a diverse setting. Not considering race in the diversity mix would effectively penalize minorities by denying them benefits that Iowans, violinists, potential donors' children and synchronized swimmers receive.
The usual response is that the Fourteenth Amendment treats racial classifications differently. But the equal protection clause does not prohibit all consideration of race. In its recent voting rights cases, for example, the Court held that race may be considered as one factor among many in redistricting, as long as it is not the "predominant motive." The redistricting process necessarily considers all sorts of factors as proxies for likely political allegiances, and adding race to the mix does not raise the same concerns as other kinds of race-conscious decision-making. Similarly, the search for diversity necessarily considers many factors as proxies for intellectual and cultural diversity, and race should be permissible as one among many.
Ultimately, however, integration itself may be a stronger justification for affirmative action than diversity. An integrated student body undoubtedly adds to diversity. But so does admitting violinists, and surely there is a stronger argument for admitting African-Americans than violinists. Higher education is one of the few arenas in modern life where racial integration remains a realistic possibility. Despite the demise of Jim Crow, most of us continue to live, work, socialize and worship in effectively segregated settings. College student bodies, by contrast, can be integrated because they are consciously selected and are not predetermined by geography or class. Integration in higher education in turn teaches us that integrated communities are possible, and that living in such communities can break down the deep barriers that continue to divide the races. At the same time, because a college degree is essential to professional success, integration in higher education is necessary to any measure of integration beyond.
The Court and the country have failed to live up to the promise of Brown v. Board of Education. The last thing we should do is turn the Constitution into a barrier to one of the last remaining arenas of true integration in America.
When the FDA recently released its proposed new rules regarding
genetically engineered foods Greenpeace and the Center for Food
Safety didn't like the taste.
On March 26, PBS carried something that has become increasingly rare in our media-besotted land: genuine journalism. The program was an explosive investigation by Bill Moyers and his staff of a decades-long program by the chemical industry to hide the life-threatening dangers associated with the use and production of their products. People were dying who did not have to die; they were living with debilitating illnesses and receiving no compensation from the companies.
The industry did everything it could to discredit Moyers. It set up a website, wrote angry letters to PBS and accused Moyers of a biased presentation--before having seen the program.
One would think that a story of this magnitude would interest others in the mainstream media. One would be wrong. In the Washington Post, media columnist Howard Kurtz focused on the controversy between Moyers and the companies. The New York Times, however, reviewed the program as if taking orders directly from the chemical industry. "Have we perhaps grown up in a perverse sort of way and now accept that spectacular progress like that of the last half-century cannot be achieved without tradeoffs?" wrote Neil Genzlinger. "Nothing good, be it democracy or more durable house paint, comes without a price."
No one on the program argued against tradeoffs or democracy. The issue Moyers presented was quite simple: Do companies have the right to lie and mislead their workers and the public about the potentially harmful effects of their products? If tradeoffs or democracy were the issue, then the victims of these companies would at least have been given the relevant information about the likelihood that they might contract cancer or other life-threatening diseases as a result of their exposure to toxic chemicals. Yet, as Moyers reported, that information was deliberately withheld or covered up by the companies.
People died or were permanently disfigured as a result of the coverups Bill Moyers exposed. Yet the Times likened acceptance of (slow) murder by corporations for profits to growing up. It's hard to know which is more offensive: the actions of the corporations or the willingness of journalists to act as apologists for them.
"The project of Greater Serbia," I was once told by one of the many pessimistic intellectuals in Skopje, "has within it the incurable tumor of Greater Albania. And this cancer will metastasize in Macedonia." The "logic" of enclosing all contiguous minorities into one state, and mustering them all under one flag, was the essence of the Milosevic scheme until it brought destruction on itself. The urgent question now is whether the large Albanian populations living next to Albania in Kosovo and Macedonia have assimilated this lesson or have decided to try to improve on it.
Yes, arsenic's in what we drink.
That's not as scary as you think.
Sure, hidden in the stroganoff
It's used for knocking people off.
But in your water it's OK.
That's what the mining interests say.
And W. now says so, too.
It mixes well with CO
MILLION-DOLLAR BASH Organizers of the April 20-22 Summit of the Americas in Quebec City were following standard protocol for meetings of trade-pact negotiators when they invited multinational corporations to pay $500,000 Canadian (about $320,000 US) for the right to deliver "welcoming remarks" to US President George W. Bush, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and the representatives of thirty-two other Western Hemisphere nations gathered to promote the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas. But the summit sponsorships have stirred a furor among Canadians over the selling of access to corporations in a position to benefit from a trade scheme that Council of Canadians chair Maude Barlow says "will give unequaled new rights to the transnational corporations of the hemisphere to compete for and even challenge every publicly funded service of its governments, including healthcare, education, social security, culture and environmental protection." Conservative Party leader Joe Clark called the arrangement "insulting to anyone who believes in democracy." Referring to elaborate security precautions being put in place to prevent protesters from getting near the summit, New Democratic Party leader Alexa McDonough says, "Half a million dollars and you are in, no problem, instant access. No money, stay behind the chain-link fence. Is the real reason the Prime Minister is ignoring critics that they do not have half a million dollars to put their message on a tote bag?" Jean-Pierre Charboneau, speaker of Quebec's National Assembly, has called on provincial officials to release 900 pages of secret summit negotiating texts to the media and trade foes. Under pressure from NDP and Bloc Quebecois members, Canada's parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade has scheduled hearings on the summit and FTAA, and "liberate the texts" protests are planned for Ottawa.
PARTY OF PROTEST The controversy surrounding the summit and Canadian participation in the FTAA has given impetus to forces seeking to reshape Canada's democratic socialist New Democratic Party. Battered in recent elections, the NDP has been under pressure from traditionally supportive but increasingly frustrated unions, particularly the militant 220,000-member Canadian Auto Workers, to identify itself as a more explicitly anticorporate and activist political force. All thirteen NDP members of Parliament will be in Quebec City to join mass protests. Rabble-rousing NDP parliamentarian Svend Robinson hailed the new direction as "long overdue" and seized the opportunity to invite Montreal-based protest group SalAMI to Parliament Hill to provide nonviolent civil disobedience training.
BORDER BATTLE Because of Canada's stronger labor protections and broader social safety net, Canadian corporations often look to leap across the US border in the same way that US firms ponder moving operations to Mexico. In Manitoba, 250 striking Canadian Auto Workers members are fighting to prevent a move by Winnipeg's Buhler Versatile tractor plant to Fargo, North Dakota. The union has demanded that federal and provincial governments move to nationalize the plant, which was purchased by current owner John Buhler with substantial government assistance. "We're not going to sit back and allow this factory to be dismantled and moved," says CAW official Hemi Mitic.
NURSING A GRIEVANCE Six years ago the California Nurses Association--a militant union that has become a prime mover in campaigns for national healthcare reform, an ironclad patients' bill of rights and whistleblower protections for nurses--broke with the American Nurses Association. Now, following the CNA's lead, the 20,000-member Massachusetts Nurses Association has voted by a 4-to-1 margin to end a ninety-eight-year affiliation with the ANA. The ANA has come under increasing criticism for being too cautious in challenging the worst excesses of healthcare corporatization: managed-care abuses, staff shortages, mandatory overtime and limits on the ability of nurses to advocate for patients. The Massachusetts nurses' plan to forge links with the CNA and the Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses to create what MNA president Denise Garlick predicts will be a national nurses' "movement for real reform and dramatic change."
TAX TROUBLES George W. Bush's campaign on behalf of his $1.6 trillion tax cut has been running into trouble not only in Washington, where senators are balking at the scheme to make the rich a whole lot richer, but also at the grassroots. Recent Bush barnstorming visits to Chicago and Portland were confronted by protests organized by Citizen Action of Illinois and Maine's Dirigo Alliance, which are aligned with the new Fair Taxes for All Coalition, organized by People for the American Way, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the AFL-CIO, AFSCME and more than 100 other union and civil rights groups. Many of the groups began working together in the fight to block the confirmation of John Ashcroft as Attorney General, says USAction's Jeff Blum. The twist is that the coalition is now stronger on the ground, with organizing continuing in twenty-eight states and April 11 rallies planned to counter Bush's pressure on wavering Democrats.
A woman two months pregnant goes to see her Ob-Gyn for prenatal care. As required by law, her doctor informs her that her condition places her at greater risk for a wide range of medical problems: hypertension and diabetes if she is overweight; complications of surgery if, like one in four women, she has a Caesarean section; permanent weight gain with its attendant problems, including heart disease; urinary tract infections and prolapsed uterus if she has had multiple pregnancies; postpartum depression or psychosis, leading in rare cases to suicide or infanticide; not to mention excruciating childbirth pain, stretch marks and death. There are ominous social possibilities, too, the doctor continues, reading from his state-supplied script: increased vulnerability to domestic violence; being or becoming a single mother, with all the struggles and poverty that entails; job and housing discrimination; the curtailment of education and professional training; and lowered income for life.
No state legislature would compel doctors to confront patients with the statistical risks of childbearing, serious though they are; a doctor who did so on his own would strike many as intrusive, offensive and out of his mind. Should a woman seek abortion, however, anti-choicers are pushing state laws requiring that she be informed of a risk most experts do not believe exists: a link between abortion and breast cancer. Like the supposedly widespread psychological trauma of abortion, which even anti-choice Surgeon General Dr. C. Everett Koop was unable to find evidence of, the abortion-breast cancer connection is being aggressively promoted by the anti-choice movement. (Even Mother Jones, always quick to take feminists down a peg, leapt on this bandwagon, with an April/May 1995 piece entitled "Abortion's Risk.")
"It's yet another example of efforts to encumber this legal choice and make it more difficult and painful for women," says Dr. Wendy Chavkin, professor of public health and clinical obstetrics and gynecology at New York's Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, and editor in chief of the Journal of the American Medical Women's Association. It's also an attempt by anti-choicers to reframe their opposition to abortion as concern for women's health, something not usually high on their list. These are, after all, the same people who fight health exceptions to "partial birth" abortion bans and who have successfully prevented poor women from receiving medically necessary abortions with Medicaid funds.
Nonetheless, such is the power of the anti-choice movement that laws have been passed in Montana and Mississippi, and bills are pending in fifteen other states, mandating a breast cancer warning (and in some cases, a waiting period for it to sink in). Along with laws come lawsuits: In Fargo, North Dakota, the Red River Women's Clinic is being sued for failing to give such a warning; a 19-year-old Pennsylvania woman is suing a New Jersey clinic for her abortion two years ago, which left her, she claims, with an overwhelming fear of contracting breast cancer. In ferociously anti-choice Louisiana, a new law permits women to sue for damages--including damages to the fetus!--up to ten years after their abortion. Given today's high rates of breast cancer, a deluge of litigation is in the making.
Does abortion cause breast cancer? Some studies have appeared to suggest a connection: Dr. Janet Daling, for example, an epidemiologist who says she is pro-choice, compared the abortion histories of 1,800 women with and without breast cancer and found that, among those who had been pregnant at least once, the risk of breast cancer was 50 percent higher for those who had abortions--but her cancer-free sample was obtained through telephone interviews with women chosen at random from the phone book. Not everyone has a phone, of course, which raises questions about the comparability of the samples, and besides, how many women would volunteer information about their abortion history to a voice on the phone? Like other studies showing a link, this one was marred by "recall bias": Cancer patients are more likely to volunteer negative information about themselves than healthy people. They are looking for an explanation for a disease--and one many feel must somehow be their fault. Demographic studies, which are free from recall bias, produce different results: Lindefors Harris, analyzing the national medical database of Swedish women in 1989, found that women did deny their abortions, that breast cancer patients were less likely to do so--and that women who had had abortions were less likely to get breast cancer. The largest study to date, of 1.5 million Danish women, found no correlation.
"The supposed link between breast cancer and abortion is motivated by politics, not medicine," says Dr. David Grimes, clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of North Carolina. "The weight of the evidence at this time indicates no association. To force this on women is just cruel." Indeed, the National Cancer Institute, the American Cancer Society and the World Health Organization, none of which have an ax to grind, reject the notion. The standard medical textbook, Diseases of the Breast, concurs. The main figure advocating the link is Dr. Joel Brind, professor of biology and endocrinology at Baruch College, who has done no original research on this issue but is a tireless anti-choice propagandist--plug "abortion breast cancer" into a search engine and the top half dozen sites are his.
Abortion is just about the only medical procedure in which doctors and patients are hemmed about by lawmakers. No other operation has legally mandated waiting periods, although many are dangerous, life-altering and irreversible; with no other operation are doctors legally required to give specific information--certainly not information that the vast preponderance of medical opinion believes to be false or at best unproven. Good medical practice calls for discussion of the pros and cons of particular courses of treatment, not burdening the patient's choice with unsubstantiated fears. Will we ever see a law requiring doctors to tell pregnant patients that abortion is statistically safer than carrying to term--which it is? Sure, the day state lawmakers put a waiting period on Viagra prescriptions, to let male patients really consider whether an erection is worth a heart attack.
Time to ease up on George W. So what that he tore up the Kyoto
agreement, which had been painstakingly hammered out among 100 nations in
an attempt to control global warming. Bush doesn't know any better, and
why should he, since he never seemed to think that there was a world out
there worth visiting, let alone saving.
Here's a guy born with credit cards in his cradle, enough to take him
anywhere in the world, first class, who nevertheless pointedly refused to
go. Even kids without any money manage to scrape up a few bucks and go
see the world, but not young George, who satiated his curiosity about
foreign lands with a few beer busts down in Mexico.
Heck, this fellow is so partial to sleeping in his own bed that during
the campaign his handlers had to cajole him into making appearances
outside of Texas. A state that is, the then-governor would tell his
out-of-state audiences, the most perfect place in the world. His bold
plan for the nation is to make it "a greater Texas."
What makes Texas perfect for Bush is that they have gas and oil
profits there, which paid for Bush's run for governor and the presidency
and made his Vice President and other key players in his Administration
very, very rich. Nothing can be allowed to cut into those profit margins,
especially those environmental extremists who are always talking about
clean air and harmful emissions.
Sure Bush is for clean air--as long as it doesn't hurt oil company
profits. Why, when the black smoke in his hometown of Odessa got so nasty
that you had to turn on your headlights in the daytime, Gov. Bush went so
far as to politely ask the big oil companies to come up with a plan to
regulate themselves. They're still working on it.
What he would not buy, as he made clear in the presidential campaign,
is that there is some sort of "greenhouse gas" effect already at work
changing the world's climate in ways that all those alarmists say will
prove disastrous. Yes, it's true that as part of his successful campaign
strategy of conning the center and not frightening the Naderites, he did
pledge to enforce limits on carbon dioxide emissions. So he lied. Big
deal. At least it wasn't about something important, like sex.
Greenhouse gases are not important to Bush because all you have is a
bunch of scientific geeks with all their studies, such as the recent one
by the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which
concluded that such emissions have "contributed substantially" to global
warming. But our President still is not convinced, and that's all that
matters now, thanks to a weird and dubious election.
Anyway, no matter what those scientific studies show, Bush is not
about to let other countries tell us--the United States of America!--what
to do. So what that our 5 percent of the world's population accounts for 25 percent of
its greenhouse gases--on a per capita basis twice that of Western Europe.
Evidently the toxic Texan wants us to be No. 1 in everything, including
Bush is impervious to the argument of other industrialized nations,
which recognize that, being the source of most of the damage, they must
take the lead in repairing it while also setting an example for more
impoverished nations. The response to Bush's position from our
traditional allies has been withering, as typified by France's
environment minister, who termed Bush's actions "completely provocative
and irresponsible." The heck with them if they can't take a joke.
Bush's typically fractured response to the torrent of foreign
criticism was breathtakingly insular: "We will not do anything that harms
our economy. Because first things first are the people who live in
America." Bush must believe that some sort of divine intervention will
preserve the United States as the ice cap melts and the seas rise.
Perhaps this is where the corporate greed faction of the GOP finds common
ground with the party's religious right.
It's sad that party moderates, led by Environmental Protection Agency
chief Christie Whitman and Secretary of State Colin Powell, have not been
able to bring Bush the younger up to speed on this issue. And a pity that
Bush doesn't even listen to William K. Reilly, the EPA administrator
during the first Bush presidency, who urged George W. to at least abide
by the 1992 international convention to combat global warming, which his
But Bush the younger is so steeped in the ideology of Big Oil that he
obviously cannot think clearly about environmental issues. The mind,
particularly of a president, is a terrible thing to waste. But when it
comes to saving the environment, George Bush does seem uneducable.
This is going to be yet one more article on the never-ending
recount-a-rama in Florida. But first a flashback to a pre-Election Day
campaign moment: It's October. George W.
While most of the 1,500 people who traveled to Albany from all over New York
State last Tuesday endured freezing winds outside the legislature to tell
stories of families torn apart and chant s
Which Booker Prize-winner could give Hollywood the boot in the arse it needs and secretly craves? Roddy Doyle, that's who. His Barrytown Trilogy (The Commitments, The Snapper, The Van) is somewhat more consistent than the Godfather Trilogy and less dependent on film tradition. His flicks don't exactly blow Coppola's away, but they're at least as good at sparking a family to rampageous life. It's not images that render Doyle's Dublin Rabbitte clan--it's the talk. Doyle's characters are comets of conversation, a bit like Preston Sturges heroes, daredevilishly suspended in thin plots by sheer velocity and nerve.
Doyle was a Dublin schoolteacher who poured his students' joie de vivre into a novel, The Commitments (1991), about scrappy Irish dole kids who become a soul band. When publishers returned it unopened, Doyle published it himself; then Alan Parker's posse buffed it into one of the best music movies ever, realer-seeming than the current exquisite memory film Almost Famous. It succeeds because it celebrates failure with integrity. As they say about soul music in the film, "It grabs you by the balls and lifts you above the shite."
The Commitments is the best Doyle film because it has Hollywood polish and story shape, but what makes it great is Doyle's untutored talent for dialogue in a medium dominated by words overprocessed and extruded by studios in terror of an original syllable. The Snapper (1993), made for BBC peanuts by Stephen Frears, a London genius who flops whenever he tries to go Hollywood, is a haphazard tale of unwed Dublin motherhood. Lost from the novel it's based on is the inside tour of the mother's thoughts, but still, it's a pure jolt of Doyle dialogue, uncut by movie pros.
What a rush! Who cares if the story has no sense of direction when you've got an intense sense of place and a vital ensemble engaged in the verbal equivalent of a food fight? Even the girl's loathsome impregnator Georgie Burgess (sag-eyed Pat Laffan) is so real, so rooted, you could kiss his puff-pastry face. Doyle captures the fractious loyalty and contained chaos that inspired the comic Martin Mull to say that having a family is "like having a bowling alley installed in your brain." While the eloquently exasperated expectant grandpa (Colm Meaney) tries to pry Burgess's identity out of his "up the pole" daughter, his younger girl high-steps past wearing baton-twirler's duds and a shaving-foam beard; a soused son vomits in the kitchen sink; grandpa-to-be says, "You'll do those dishes!" and gets back to interrogating without missing a beat.
The film The Van (1996), about the Dublin dad's fish-and-chip truck venture, was a bigger comedown from Doyle's Booker-shortlisted book--not enough family feeling. Even so, his cult flicks got him a crack at writing a screenplay not derived from a novel; unhappily, it is derived from all too many movies. The trouble starts with the title: When Brendan Met Trudy. If you're going to quote a famous movie title, why pick one whose title is the worst thing about it?
While there's nothing wrong with stealing, Doyle and director Kieron Walsh are thieving magpies who can't weave bits into a nest for new life. The worst thing about When Brendan Met Trudy is its incessant, inconsequential movie references, no substitute for sturdy characters and witty chaff. In their opening-scene reprise of Sunset Boulevard, virginal 28-year-old schoolteacher Brendan (Peter McDonald) lies face-down on a rain-swept Dublin street as his voiceover suggests that we back up a few weeks to find out how he got there.
The original fulfills that promise with a clockwork plot. This scene is just a one-shot gag: We later find that Brendan tripped in the street, fell and took comfort in mumbling lines from an old movie. He's not dead, just dull, there for no reason besides the filmmaker's wish to quote Sunset Boulevard. Random events happen to Brendan. He sings Panis Angelicus with his church choir (a no-soul band). He absently teaches students whose names he can't keep straight (how can Doyle get nothing from this milieu?). He gets picked up in a pub by Trudy (Flora Montgomery), a determinedly spunky Ellen DeGeneres lookalike; takes her to "an important Polish movie" by "Tomaszewski"; has cute sex with her; suspects her of being the castrator who's (cutely) terrorizing Dublin; and helps her bungle a cutesy burglary of his school. The whimsy is wheezy.
We see clips from Once Upon a Time in the West, The Producers and The African Queen, and Brendan and Trudy re-enact scenes from movies. Brendan gets limp in flagrante in a hayloft. Trudy observes, "What's wrong? You were big a minute ago." He replies, "I am big; it's the pictures that got small." Putting Jean Seberg's New York Herald Tribune T-shirt on Trudy fails to make her Seberg in Breathless. When Belmondo apes Bogey in Breathless, he's his own man. Aping Belmondo, Brendan isn't anybody, just a dead cliché walking. He's very good at mimicking John Wayne's walk at the end of The Searchers--but he ain't goin' nowhere, pilgrim. This movie could be called Airless. Or Something Mild.
Doyle's talent glimmers here and there in the hokey-jokey dialogue; you may find bits charming and me grumpy. Maybe I wouldn't be so disappointed if it didn't come off like a tone-deaf imitation of a real Roddy Doyle movie--one with bighearted characters firmly planted in a real place, whipping up a world out of irreverently poetical words, making me feel like family, banishing the real world by sweeping me up in theirs. Doyle's excruciatingly self-conscious and lumbering farce is not quite shite, it's just the usual, when what we expect from him is a kick in the arse.
Looking Back: First-time director/writer Kenneth Lonergan's You Can Count On Me won Best Screenplay and Best Actress from the National Society of Film Critics instead of the Oscars it also deserved, but how can you expect a bunch of Hollywood types to grasp fully an articulately understated, utterly honest work of art? In Lonergan's tale of an orphaned brother and sister's troubled love, every stammer, rant, skittish glance and awkward silence is precisely in character and scored like music.
Anyone could film an opening scene of a car crash that claims a young couple, but look how sensitively Lonergan handles the next: A cop's face materializes in the obscured glass of a front door. Sheriff Darryl (Adam LeFevre) tells the babysitter of the dead couple's kids, "Would you step outside and close the door?" Darryl's cop-speak must work on drunk drivers, but words fail him now and he's struck dumb with grief. The mute moment is searing, it evokes the closeness of their upstate New York town and it introduces two symbols of disconnection Lonergan loves: the door and the glass.
We flash forward to the orphaned girl Sammy (hummingbird-alert Laura Linney) in middle age, still living in her parents' manse with a wraparound porch like a comforting arm, baking plate-sized cookies for the return of her slouching jailbird hobo brother, Terry (Mark Ruffalo, a real find). On the bus home, Terry smokes joints as if they were his sole source of oxygen--the same way wild-child-turned-churchgoer Sammy smokes cigarettes when her 9-year-old son, Rudy (Rory Culkin, very like his brother Macaulay), is safely tucked in bed.
The town still cramps Terry. Sheriff Darryl is still in his face, confiningly benign. Terry literally can't breathe around the guy, because he'll exhale THC. And when Terry and Sammy meet, Lonergan economically conveys how they've coped with orphanhood in opposite ways. Terry became a Five Easy Pieces-style wandering wastrel. Single-mom Sammy stayed put, raising Rudy and working at a bank run by Brian (artfully blank-eyed Matthew Broderick). Brian is a preposterous martinet, ineptly tyrannical (he asks people to use "a more quote unquote normal range of colors" on their PCs), yet with a nonmean streak. So Sammy feels sorry for him and impulsively takes him to bed. She's always trying to save people.
The story's surface simplicity is deceptive. The relationships between Terry, Rudy, Sammy and her lovers grow together slowly, like frost tendrils in a windowpane. Subtext runs deep, and though he's not the world's most bravura visual director, Lonergan composes a tight symbolic structure connecting apparently desultory events. The climactic punchout scene is not contrived; it closes the circle of the lost-parent theme, and squares with Terry's belief in facing bad facts, not fleeing to faith and tradition. Watching him, you'd never know the 1960s myth of self-actualization was all self-deluded jive. (It sure beats the smug, pothead-bashing moralizing of the otherwise superb Wonder Boys.) Listening to him and Sammy and Rudy and a doleful minister (played well by Lonergan) talk about life, you'd think cinema was an art open to ideas. Plus, it's funny.
OK, no Lifelines, no 50-50s, no Audience Participation if you want to be a millionaire: Name the first great African-American sitcom of the New Millennium... Correct! The 2000 presidential election, as perpetrated in Palm Beach and Duval counties.
Imagine, black people actually thinking they could vote. Cue the laugh track. Go to commercial.
If you're already nostalgic for the kind of pure entertainment value offered by the perversely fascinating Florida (bamboozled, indeed), don't fret. There's always the WB (as opposed to the GWB) or the United Plantation Network, to sustain your sense of cultural (dis)equilibrium--as well as a Lester Maddoxian sense of race separation. Ever watch The Steve Harvey Show? Yes? Well, don't be shocked but you may be black: The number-one rated show among African-Americans, it's been all but unknown among the rest of the population.
If the accession of George W. Bush illustrated anything--other than the awesome power of television to stand by and do nothing--it was the cyclical nature of black access to power in this country, on TV or off. In 1876--as we all know now--a rigged election signaled the end of Reconstruction, the rise of Jim Crow, the establishment of the hangman's noose as symbol of Southern recreation and, until the Scottsboro Boys case in 1931, a national coma as regards racial mending.
But only eight years after Scottsboro broke, Ethel Waters was asked to develop a show for a medium that was itself still in development. By the late 1960s, The Brady Bunch had taken the one institutionalized black figure on mainstream TV--the maid--and made her white. By 2001, Jerry Springer was refereeing an on-air fiasco that could only be described as a racist's dream, showcasing, as it does, the dregs of the population, black and white.
That so much of television's black content is currently in syndication--good or bad--is telling. Plenty could argue that Jim Crow is still alive and well on network TV, but it is hard to say that matters aren't better than they were: Many major programs have a major black character; Oprah Winfrey rules the waves. But it's also better than arguable that ever since lynch mobs became more or less unfashionable (except in Texas), television has exercised the kind of social/racial control over our culture that race laws once maintained, and via the same mechanism: Create an artificial universe, with artificial rules; give people little enough to keep them near-starved, but make enough noise about every crumb you do toss their way that the public will think you're a bomb-lobbing revolutionary.
The culture critic Donald Bogle doesn't ascribe so much power, or so much intelligence, to the medium he critiques in Primetime Blues: African Americans on Network Television. But he's certainly cognizant of the power of entertainment to skew one's perception. And oneself. Growing up in the Philadelphia suburbs, Bogle writes, he seldom saw black people he recognized on TV. Or situations, comedic or otherwise, that weren't filtered through a white consciousness. But he watched. And watched.
Early on, it was Beulah, with Waters--and Louise Beavers and Hattie McDaniel--refashioning for an all-new medium the near-mythic character of the wise and/or sardonic black servant. He watched the minstrelized antics of Amos 'n' Andy--which, to its credit, barely acknowledged the white world--as well as the caustic modernism of Eddie "Rochester" Anderson. Later, there were the "events" of Roots and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, programs reeking of network noblesse oblige. But it wasn't until The Cosby Show, he says, that he realized two things: a previously unknown familiarity with people he was watching, via a seemingly benign, but hugely influential--and successful--NBC sitcom. And an accompanying epiphany about the magnitude of network TV's failure to its black audience.
To no one's surprise, Bill Cosby emerges in Bogle's book as one of the three or four most influential black performers/entrepreneurs in the history of black television (along with Waters, the comedian Flip Wilson and the Wayans brothers, because In Living Color helped put Fox TV "on the map"). But Cosby also ties Bogle up. As a performer, Cosby has been averse to playing the race card for either laughs or points, and his silence has been eloquent. Bogle recognizes this, just as he recognizes that Amos 'n' Andy assumed an existential grandeur by existing in its own black world.
But in Primetime Blues--a companion to Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, & Bucks (Continuum), his study of blacks in film--Bogle is torn: There's the sense that every opportunity given, majestically, African-Americans on TV (itself a repugnantly patriarchal concept) should be used to promote a positive image or political message. Conversely, there's the Realpolitik of mass entertainment. It's rather unclear whether he thinks Julia, the landmark series that debuted in turbulent 1968, starring Diahann Carroll as a widowed mother and nurse (working for the crusty-but-benevolent Lloyd Nolan), was rightfully criticized for not having more truthfully represented black people, whatever that means, or was a landmark nonetheless. When he says that the characters in a show like Sanford & Son might have portrayed real anger about their status and thus taken the show in a different and provocative direction, he doesn't say whether he thinks very many viewers would have bothered to follow along.
In this, Bogle skirts the two basic aspects of television's nature: First, that it is craven, soulless and bottom-line fixated. And second, that it is aimed at morons. Sure, Bogle can cite hundreds of examples of African-Americans being portrayed in a patronizing or demeaning fashion, but how many real white people ever show up on the tube? Shows like The Jeffersons and Good Times were cartoons, the latter perpetrating what Bogle dubs neo-"coonery" via comedian Jimmie Walker. But between The Honeymooners and Roseanne, how many regular series represented white America as other than upper-middle-class, Wonder Bread-eating humanoids? Television, in its democratic largesse, has smeared us all.
Some worse than others. If the only place you saw white people was on the evening news--the one slot where blacks were always assured better-than-equal representation--you'd have a pretty warped idea of white people, too. Which is why, Bogle makes plain, it's always been so important to get respectable blacks on network TV.
The history itself is fascinating. Waters, who acquires a quasi-Zelig-like presence in Bogle's account of TV's early age, personified the medium's ability to diminish whatever talent it sucked into its orbit. The original Ethel Waters Show included scenes from Waters's hit play Mamba's Daughters; eleven years later, she'd be back as Beulah. By 1957, she was destitute, dunned by the IRS and had offered herself up as poignant fodder for Edward R. Murrow's Person to Person, talking about Christian faith and a need for money. Finally, television, never sated, asked one more sacrifice and got it, when Waters tried to quiz-show her way out of debt via a show called Break the $250,000 Bank.
Waters remains a towering figure in twentieth-century American culture; after the fanfares of both Bogle and jazz critic Gary Giddins (whose Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams ranks her alongside Crosby and Louis Armstrong in her importance to American pop singing), she may be due for a full-fledged resurrection, replete with boxed sets and beatification by Ken Burns. But she isn't the only one the author resuscitates. In trying to achieve as complete as possible a history of the medium-in-black, Bogle also tells the unsung stories of other pioneering African-American performers--such people as Tim Moore, Ernestine Wade, Juano Hernandez, James Edwards--who more often than not had one hit show then went on hiatus, and from there to oblivion.
Among the encores given by Bogle (author of a first-rate biography of the actress Dorothy Dandridge) are Bob Howard, star of The Bob Howard Show, a fifteen-minute weeknight program of songs that went on the air in 1948 and was the first to feature a black man as host. It lasted only thirteen months. Howard doesn't seem to have stretched his material beyond renditions of "As Time Goes By" or "The Darktown Strutters' Ball." But the most interesting thing, besides his race, was that the network didn't seem to notice it--didn't seem to have a problem with bringing an African-American into white homes. Of course, the networks had yet to hear the five little words that have echoed down through the annals of black TV (and any other progressive programming, for that matter):
What about the Southern affiliates?
Hazel Scott was hardly the 1950s version of Lil' Kim: The elegant, educated and worldly host of the DuMont Network's Hazel Scott Show had already come under fire from both James Agee and Amiri Baraka for allegedly putting phony white airs on earthy black music--so, if anything, she should have been the darling of the powers of early television. But no. Allegations in the communist-watchdog publication Red Channels dried up sponsorship for her show. And even though Scott demanded and got a chance to plead her patriotism before the House Un-American Activities Committee, her show was canceled after just three months. Scott's fate indicated even at this early stage that television would flee from any sign of controversy, especially political controversy, writes Bogle, who is correct--except when money is involved.
Primetime Blues stands as a history of African-American television, but there's more than enough subject matter to fill two books--a sequel could deal solely with the current ghettoization of the evening airwaves--so Bogle steers mostly clear of analyzing white television (you wish he'd at least dug deeper into the influence of black TV on white TV). But he can't ignore All in the Family. Not only did it spin off one of the most successful black sitcoms ever--The Jeffersons--it had a stronger kinship, albeit an ironic one, to black sitcoms than it did to white. It might even have been a black sitcom, sort of the way Bill Clinton was a black President, by the nature and limits of its experience.
Bogle places himself in the rather illustrious camp (Laura Hobson, author of Gentleman's Agreement, was one critic of the show's "dishonesty") contending that Carroll O'Connor's bigoted Archie Bunker, who brought "hebe," "coon" and "spade" into prime time--and ended up one of TV Guide's Fifty Greatest Characters Ever--did nothing to break down racial barriers but in fact reinforced the very racist attitudes the buffoonish Bunker was supposed to make look ridiculous. Cosby hated it; Lucille Ball (who, it is left unsaid, had one of the top-rated Nielsen shows before AITF premiered) weighed in too, comparing Norman Lear's groundbreaking comedy to the days when "the Romans let human beings be eaten by lions, while they laughed and drank."
CBS pooh-bah William Paley, who originally thought the show offensive, became a big supporter once it became a smash--to the point of ordering that a study he'd commissioned, one that confirmed what critics of the show were saying, be destroyed: What can we do with it? Paley asked. If we release it, we'll have to cancel the show.
Bogle is good at comparing Amos 'n' Andy to In Living Color--shows whose humor would never be viewed the same way by black and white audiences. And he appreciates that while early performers like the Randolph sisters--Lillian (It's a Wonderful Life, Amos 'n' Andy, The Great Gildersleeve) and Amanda (The Laytons, Amos 'n' Andy, Make Room for Daddy)--could add nuance and dimension to otherwise cardboard domestic characters, their roles were mostly nonexistent outside the sphere of their white employers. But he misses what I think is the lasting point of All in the Family: Archie Bunker, a furious, frustrated vessel of negative energy, was defined solely by his hate, solely by his proximity to the people he considered inferior or worse. He existed in a parallel zone to the one that had been created as a ghetto for black performers for decades past--a zone that defined him not by what he was, but what he wasn't. America didn't get it, of course, and CBS didn't intend it, but what All in the Family turned out to be was a perverted version of Amos 'n' Andy.
The election this March of an openly gay Mayor of Paris--the Socialist Bertrand Delanoë--would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. That's one reason the American edition of Frédéric Martel's The Pink and the Black (it appeared in France five years ago) is so pertinent: It's the first attempt at a history of the modern French gay movement, without whose achievements the victory of Delanoë would not have been possible. It all began on March 10, 1971. Radio star Ménie Grégoire was moderating her enormously popular chat show before a live audience in Paris's famous Salle Playel. The broadcast's theme that day: "That Painful Problem, Homosexuality," with experts from law, medicine and the Catholic Church. Suddenly interrupting some priestly condescensions, a group of homosexual women rose from the audience, yelling, "It's not true, we're not suffering! Down with the heterocops!" The lesbians stormed the stage, and the control room cut off the microphones and switched to recorded music. The militants' message: "Homosexuals are sick of being a painful problem." The Front Homosexuel d'Action Révolutionnaire (FHAR), and with it the modern French gay movement, had been born.
The youthful activists who formed the FHAR had their political coming-of-age in the turbulent student-left rebellion of May 1968 that turned into a nationwide general strike in all walks of life, a gigantic outpouring of social protest against the suffocating atmosphere of de Gaulle's France. And while the young far-left soixante-huitards ('68ers) were initially hostile to "supposedly bourgeois homosexuality," as Martel writes, the May rebellion "contained, in embryo, all the ingredients of sexual liberation, for which it was a dress rehearsal." While the FHAR was initiated by women, it quickly admitted men as "objective allies."
One of the first men to join the FHAR was Guy Hocquenghem, who rapidly became the nascent movement's undisputed star. Hocquenghem's political itinerary was fairly typical of the soixante-huitards. After an "apprenticeship" in the Union of Communist Students when he was a brilliant philosophy student at the prestigious École Normale Supérieure in Paris, he was a leader of the National Union of French Students and--rejecting the heavy-handed Stalinism of the French Communist Party--became by turns a Trotskyist and then a Maoist. By the time of the FHAR's founding he was a prominent member of Vive la Révolution (VLR), a libertarian split-off from the orthodox Maoists that was led by Roland Castro (later a prominent architect and adviser to French President François Mitterrand on urbanism).
After joining the FHAR, Hocquenghem proposed that it put together a special issue of Tout!, the VLR's newspaper, which he coordinated. In the issue, 50,000 copies of which were published in April 1971, were articles titled "Our Bodies Do Belong to Us," "The Right to Homosexuality and Every Sort of Sexuality," "The Right of Minors to Freedom of Desire and Its Satisfactions" and, most important, "Let's Stop Cowering in the Corner." Martel records that "thus the theme of coming out appeared for the first time in France.... The FHAR, 'a saw for cutting up reality in a different way,' in Hocquenghem's expression, had found its slogan."
All this became a public scandal when the Interior Minister had Jean-Paul Sartre, who had lent his name to Tout! as editorial director, indicted for "public indecency" and "pornography"; police seized 10,000 copies of Tout! and the vice squad raided its offices. In the end Sartre, and the gay liberationists, won in court, a stunning victory against the justice system.
The FHAR's general meetings, held in the amphitheater of the École des Beaux Arts, grew rapidly from fifty people to a hundred, to a thousand, and they "marked a momentous time in the history of the evolution of mores in France. They got homosexuals talking," Martel writes. In this heady atmosphere, its air perfumed by hashish smoke, the "militants put revolution into practice: they invented cruising relieved of its furtiveness, and, moving through [the school's] hallways...or on the upper floors and in the attic, they experimented with Fourier's 36,000 forms of love."
In January 1972 Hocquenghem, by then teaching philosophy at the University of Vincennes and already moving away from VLR, published a historic and much-discussed article--"The Revolution of Homosexuals"--an autobiography-cum-manifesto in Le Nouvel Observateur, the influential mass-circulation left-wing weekly; and by the end of the year he'd produced Homosexual Desire, the first theoretical work by an avowed homosexual in France. The book influenced a whole generation of gay liberationists in Europe (and when brought out in the United States two years later by Schocken Books, many American gay intellectuals as well). The FHAR, which had strong anarchist tendencies, imploded by the end of that year, as its meetings were overwhelmed by those who came only for sex, not debate. But Hocquenghem--with his "angelic beauty," his assured platform performances and his gifted pen--had become, as Martel puts it, "a hero," "for many...the one who had 'liberated homosexuals'" and "the emblem of homosexuality in France."
The FHAR was not the first organization of French queers. Arcadie was an austere "homophile" review founded in 1954 by an ex-seminarian, André Baudry; as it gained subscribers, it gradually became a discreet movement, a kind of secretive homo Freemasonry dominated by ultramontane Catholics. Baudry preached "sublimating one's sexual and emotional orientation into asceticism," and he opened Arcadie's parties and dinners with sermons attacking homosexuals who cruised parks and toilets. It was supported by the likes of Jean Cocteau and the right-wing novelist and diplomat Roger Peyrefitte; its members included lawyers, magistrates, military men and government officials--all deeply closeted. But it did conduct the first dialogue with mainstream politicians on behalf of same-sexers and was not without influence. Martel's chapter on Arcadie, "Down with Daddy's Homosexuality" (a FHAR slogan), is fine gay historiography.
One of the few prominent leftists to join Arcadie was Jean-Louis Bory. A member of the French Resistance who fought in the Orléans forest in World War II, in 1945 Bory won the Prix Goncourt for his first novel at the age of 26. A socialist, Bory signed the famous appeal of the 121 writers and intellectuals calling for resistance to France's repressive war in Algeria in the 1950s. Over the years he published a series of novels in which "the latent homosexuality of his characters became increasingly clear," and in 1973 he wrote an unambiguous confessional autobiography. A year before the FHAR's founding Bory had "participated in the first mass-audience radio broadcast" on homosexuality, on which "he rejected any idea of a 'homosexual movement' but defended the fight for freedom, declaring that he was obviously a homosexual and a 'model citizen,' and that the two were necessarily linked in his mind." Bory mistrusted the radical aggressive visibility championed by Hocquenghem, but as a fixture on radio and TV in the 1970s he championed the homosexuals' "right to indifference." In 1977 Bory and Hocquenghem jointly published a book in which they outlined their differing views, later summed up by the philosopher René Schérer, Hocquenghem's friend and mentor: "[Bory] was living within the logic of Arcadie and was fighting for integration and tolerance, whereas Guy always insisted on marginality: he wanted integration with exceptionality, integration within marginality."
Exhausted by his role as the "responsible left's" gay spokesman, Bory committed suicide in 1979. Hocquenghem left organized politics altogether and became well known as a journalist, essayist, novelist and broadcaster, teaching all the while. Since Martel makes him such a central figure throughout the book, it's unfortunate there is no more than a cursory and often reductionist presentation of his thought (for an overview in English, see Bill Marshall's Guy Hocquenghem: Beyond Gay Identity, from Duke University Press).
I have emphasized the early years of French gay politics because they are so little known here, but there's much more in Martel's book, which--dare I say it?--doesn't miss a trick. There are chapters on the changing loci of gay male cruising and gay nightlife; a rich chapter detailing the history of lesbians, whose struggle for identity was primarily within the women's movement, not the gay movement; on the ultimately successful effort to repeal the various laws criminalizing homosexuality, of which France was free from the French Revolution (as of 1793) until Vichy; on the rise and fall of the weekly Gai Pied and other organs of the political gay press; on the contribution gays made to the victory of François Mitterrand and the Socialists in 1981--and their subsequent disillusionment; on the retreat from militancy in the 1980s, the triumph of gay commercialism, the gay ghetto.
But the most impassioned chapters in the book are devoted to AIDS. Martel writes that in the early '80s, gay intellectuals, militants, organizations and the gay press were largely in denial about the threat of AIDS. Even the association of gay doctors was in denial. After Michel Foucault died of the disease in 1984, his partner of twenty-three years, Daniel Defert, and a group of friends launched the association Aides, with two goals: prevention education and care for the sick. The heroic loneliness of Defert and his colleagues as they battled the epidemic is as moving as the refusals they met with in the gay world are appalling. Why was organized gay life in France virtually last in Western Europe to respond effectively to AIDS? The sociologist Michel Setbon has argued that "AIDS as a problem specific to homosexuals placed [gay] organizations on the horns of a dilemma that was painful, if not impossible, to address," given the state of medical knowledge at the time: "Either adopt the epidemiological definition of AIDS as a 'gay cancer' and risk being stigmatized, or deny its reality and avoid homophobia."
The analytical theses at the end of Martel's book, which were widely criticized in the French gay press, may remind American readers of the attacks on the gay movement emanating from the Independent Gay Forum, the network of conservative gay intellectuals founded by the likes of The New Republic's Andrew Sullivan and the National Journal's Jonathan Rauch. Moreover, a condescending bitterness creeps into Martel's tone when writing about liberationist militants, which his assimilationist and reformist politics do not fully explain. When I raised this with Martel, he told me that one of those to whom he dedicates the book, at the time his 18-year-old lover, had been "infected with HIV by a militant." Pity he didn't tell his readers.
I lived in France for much of the '80s and knew a number of the people in this book--Hocquenghem was a valued friend--and find serious factual errors in Martel's work. He writes that Hocquenghem "refused to be tested" for AIDS and "reportedly learned he was HIV-positive only after he was already ill. He supposedly even refused...to be monitored medically." These unsourced statements are entirely false, as Guy's lover and literary executor, the journalist Roland Surzur (who took the test with him), confirmed to me. Martel attacks Hocquenghem for blindly writing as late as September 1985, "How can we believe in a medical establishment that discourages us, that announces nothing but contagion, that marches only to the tune of fear and despair?" These words appear shocking--unless one knows they were written two months after Hocquenghem tested positive, which gives them an entirely different meaning. The first group to emerge from the gay community to fight the epidemic was not Aides, as Martel writes, but Vaincre le Sida, founded by an ex-FHAR activist, Dr. Patrice Meyer. I've discovered other errors and inexactitudes too numerous to list here. Many of those Martel attacks are no longer here to defend themselves; Hocquenghem died of AIDS in 1988.
I think Setbon's view is the right one: Fear of homophobia was the principal cause of AIDS denial in France. But Martel believes the fault lies elsewhere: with "identity politics." He doubts "the advisability of building a political community of homosexuals" and calls for an abandonment of "communitarianism." Yet he was hired as a counselor on gay issues by two Socialist governments precisely because the community, and the gay vote, had become important. And in a democracy, all electoral politics is, to one degree or another, based on the politics of identity.
In the late 1970s, the legendary Socialist Gaston Defferre--mayor of Marseilles for decades and his party's onetime presidential candidate--took a number of real and symbolic steps in favor of same-sexers. Asked to explain this, the leader of the city's organized gays later said, "Defferre's success came from the fact that he always had his Armenians, his Greeks.... When there got to be queers, he had his queers." To get so big they try to co-opt you is half the battle; the other half, harder, is to resist.
I have long embraced the proposition that homosexuals are different from everyone else except in bed--it is oppression and fear that makes them so. Martel insists that "we must do our best to make 'homosexuality' a meaningless term, a word with no relation to reality. Only ever-changing individuals must remain." A noble sentiment--but I'm afraid I think that day is further away, much further away, than he does.
I was born by a Kerouac stream under Eisenhower skies
The New Folk Movement is now about twenty years old, and John Gorka is one of its leading voices, along with peers like Nanci Griffith and newer arrivals like Ani DiFranco. Over nearly two decades, Gorka has honed his warm baritone and offbeat songwriting skills with 200-days-a-year touring. His fine new album, The Company You Keep (Red House), is a characteristically bittersweet disc, understated but sharpened by deft word usage and a grasp of life's conundrums and paradoxes.
Gorka fits contemporary notions of a folk musician. He was a history and philosophy major in college, and got his performing start at coffeehouses in the late 1970s. His tunes are self-reflective, wry, pungent, pessimistic but unwilling to despair; they have titles like "Joint of No Return" and "Wisheries." In "What Was That," he sings, "Guess I'd better get back up/Get up off the ground again/Guess I'm really not so tough/Up is farther than it's ever been." And up he goes, discarding regret and clearing a space for whatever future he faces.
His country-tinged group has tasty yet simple arrangements, augmented with guest vocals by DiFranco and Lucy Kaplansky and Mary Chapin Carpenter. He's got real range, from on-point satire ("People My Age," which mocks baby-boomer elective plastic surgery) to playful ("Around the House"). And like older generations of folk musicians, he uses found material. The lyrics for "Let Them In" come from an unknown soldier in a World War II military hospital; God tells St. Peter to "Give them things they like/Let them make some noise/Give roadhouse bands, not golden harps/To these our boys."
The Eisenhower years saw the beginnings of the postwar folk revival; it gathered strength and followers in the 1960s. Maria Muldaur was part of it; her funky Greenwich Village apartment at the time often hosted other scene-makers, like John Sebastian. (Check out The Lovin' Spoonful Greatest Hits [BMG/Buddha], a wonderful CD of Sebastian's mid-1960s folk-blues-pop quartet issued last year; its only flaw is incompleteness.) This was the first generation of white kids exploring the folk blues, the language invented by dispossessed rural black America that underpins this country's music. Many went on Kerouac-like journeys in search of the originals, turned some up and then recorded them, resuscitating their careers. Their new audience of white college kids on campuses and in coffeehouses was a far cry from the plantations and street corners and juke joints where the music was created.
The rediscovery of rural blues roughly paralleled the rise of the mass civil rights movement, and reflected it. Blues seemed a true folk music, in the original German sense of the word: a manifestation of something fundamental and authentic about a people. Inevitably, some revivalists had a few misguided notions about authenticity, putting acoustic guitars in the hands of electric-blues masters like Muddy Waters. And yet they also knew what they wanted. Blues material certainly couldn't have been less like Tin Pan Alley's: Love may be a central theme for both, but the blues' gritty realism, with its raw sex and violence and irony and humor, exposed the superficiality of 1950s American pop. It let listeners step outside America's conformity. Not coincidentally, it also let them see black people as cultural heroes--a dramatic reversal of racist stereotypes.
Muldaur has always admired Memphis Minnie, one of the few folk-blues musicians who happened to be a woman. Minnie played mean guitar and wrote lustily double-entendre songs about the life she led. Her "Me and My Chauffeur Blues," with the signature lick that Chuck Berry swiped decades later for "You Can't Catch Me," is among the best moments on Muldaur's twenty-fifth album, Richland Woman Blues (Stony Plain). Age has deepened and coarsened the lilting flutters that shaped Muldaur's girlish voice, but to compensate she's developed heft and power. Maybe it's the spirit she's found in the largely African-American church she attends. Whatever the cause, she both evokes her idols and makes their music her own; her emotional identification with them enriches nearly all of these fourteen songs.
Like Gorka's, this disc gathers like-minded souls, a community joined by music and history. Sebastian's nimble John Hurt-inspired fingerpicking backs Muldaur on the opening cut, and the list spins on from there: Taj Mahal, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Tracy Nelson (whose duet with Muldaur, "Far Away Blues," is riveting and heartbreaking) and Bonnie Raitt. With Angela Strehli, Muldaur reprises the Bessie and Clara Smith classic, "My Man Blues," where two women, discovering they're sharing a man unwittingly, agree to continue the triad "on the cooperation plan," since they like how things are. The fluent piano behind them is courtesy of Dave Matthews.
History has been kind to the Five Blind Boys of Alabama. The original jubilee-style quintet met in 1939, at the Talladega Institute for the Blind, which they snuck out of to sing at a nearby military base. By the 1950s, the peak years of the "gospel highway," the church-based circuit that produced stars like Sam Cooke, they were shouters recording hits for Art Rupe's prestigious Specialty label. These top-tier, soul-rending performances are collected on Oh Lord--Stand by Me (Specialty).
In 1983 they were "rediscovered" in the electrifying remake of Sophocles called The Gospel at Colonnus; the musical hit Broadway in 1988. Now they've opened for rock superstars like Tom Petty and have headlined at the House of Blues chain. It sure ain't church, but in the wondrous way of art, the Blind Boys transform everything they perform into a forum for testifying. Clarence Fountain's massive voice is a monument in motion; few other than bluesmen like Howlin' Wolf match his raw timbre and full-lunged forcefulness.
Spirit of the Century (Real World) deliberately crosses gospel with blues, sacred with profane. It joins the three remaining Blind Boys with 1960s-vintage roots diggers like veteran guitarist David Lindley and blues harp great Charlie Musselwhite, who led one of the earliest and best 1960s electric-blues revival bands. They infuse Tom Waits's off-kilter "Jesus Gonna Be Here" with fearsome fervor, and deepen the resonances of Ben Harper's "Give a Man a Home." And they set "Amazing Grace" to the music of that whorehouse anthem popularized in the 1960s, "House of the Rising Sun." Though he's reimagined himself into something sui generis, Tom Waits has self-evident blues roots. In the early 1970s, he opened for an undersung hero of the 1960s folk-blues revival. Back then, John Hammond was known as John Hammond Jr.; his famous father, the leftist Vanderbilt scion who'd made his name "discovering" and recording black musical talents from Bessie Smith to Charlie Christian, the man who signed Bob Dylan to a major label, was still alive and looming.
The younger Hammond has never reached mass audiences, but some of his students, like an ex-sideman named Jimi Hendrix who worked with him at the seminal Cafe Wha? in the Village, did. Hammond mastered a dizzying variety of folk-blues styles and performed hundreds of old blues, back when the stuff was hard to impossible to find on disc. White kids were scrounging through attics and flea markets and the like searching for old blues records, trying to piece together biographies, compiling oral history and field recordings--work that, along with the Lomax field recordings for the Smithsonian, unearthed most of what we know about blues today.
Long underrated or simply overlooked, Hammond serves up Wicked Grin (Pointblank), and it's a marvelous treat: In a way, it's this year's second Tom Waits disc. That's not a putdown. Old friend Waits produced this edgy album; he also penned and plays on twelve of its thirteen songs. Backed by other roots veterans like keyboardist Augie Meyers, Hammond makes Waits's surreal, character-driven tunes more emphatically bluesy, and Waits endows each song with a sound that evokes different original blues recordings. It's a more creative use of the blues than most have come up with in years. And dig Waits's open-lunged gravel voice dueting with Hammond on the spiritual "I Know I've Been Changed."
Since he joined the Yardbirds, then John Mayall's Bluesbreakers and became the Godhead of the 1960s British blues revival, which paralleled the folk and blues revivals in America, Eric Clapton has changed fairly constantly, yet remained recognizably the same. That, after all, is how superstardom works. One of the biggest shifts came thirty years ago, when he was touring with Delaney and Bonnie and Friends, and they taught him to sing for real. His next album, with Derek and the Dominos (PolyGram), showcased his heartbreak, his suddenly raunchy vocals and his slash-and-burn band featuring slide guitarist Duane Allman.
In the decades since, Clapton has made a few good, even great albums and a pile of slush. Last year's much-heralded outing with B.B. King sounded haphazard and undercooked--a shame, really, given what it could have been. By contrast, Reptile (Reprise) is a keeper, reminiscent in style and pacing to the classic album he made as Derek. During recording, his uncle died. Raised by his grandmother, Clapton had grown up thinking his uncle was his brother. His uncle's favorite term of endearment gave this disc its name. On it, Clapton tours his past with consistent conviction, and his guitar is spry and sharp and ready to slice almost everywhere. He taps oldies like "Got You on My Mind," which gets a nice Jimmy Reed-ish blues treatment, and covers Stevie Wonder and Isley Brothers hits. "Travelin' Light," the latest installment in his ongoing J.J. Cale tributes, is stuffed with rheumy guitars snarling. But "Come Back Baby," his Ray Charles tribute, is the show-stopper. Clapton's overdriven guitar blazes and curdles the clichés of his millions of imitators, and his voice exposes just how rich and craggy it has grown to be. Brother Ray could still outchurch him without too much pain, but Clapton makes us believe he's got us gathered, swaying, in Charles's pews, to the music compounded of the sinful blues and heavenly gospel, the music called soul.
Over a decade ago, Clapton covered Robert Cray's "Bad Influence" and gave the now-multiple Grammy winner an early boost. Cray started mixing blues and soul with touches of jazz in 1974, working the circuit relentlessly; older bluesmen like Albert Collins and Muddy Waters championed his updated sound and lyrics. As time went on, he pumped up his soul-music aspect, deliberately extending the tradition of singer-guitarists like Little Milton and the B.B. King of "The Thrill Is Gone."
On Shoulda Been Home (Rykodisc), Cray's limber voice and spiky guitar once again merge blues and r&b with Memphis soul, with profitable results. Cray is well-known for tackling topics he sees as contemporary versions of the blues. "The 12 Year Old Boy" may even attract the unholy mob of politically correct leftists and Lynne Cheney followers who've climbed on Eminem's back, much as they would have onto Elvis Presley's. In this hard blues, Cray suggests ways to avoid having a preteen rival steal your lover: "If a young boy hangs around you/You should do what I shoulda did/Send him over to your neighbor's/And hope your neighbor likes kids."
Cray writes lyrics that tell stories, and storytelling is one reason I, like Charlie Parker, dig country music as well as blues. Which brings me to Charley Pride. Pride was a black star in country music in the 1960s, at the height of the whitebread "Nashville Sound," and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame last year.
It's often been said that country music is white folks' blues, but that's what Pride always sang. In the midst of sharecropped Mississippi fields, he hugged his radio to listen to the Grand Ole Opry. Not good enough for the ballplayer career he wanted, he went into the Army, became a smelter and moved his family to Montana, where he sang part time and caught the attention of touring Nashville stars. Chet Atkins signed him, released his first album without a picture, and started the hits rolling.
Country Legends (BMG/Buddha) collects them. Some, like "Snakes Crawl at Night," are period curiosities. There are solid genre efforts: the wistful look home ("Wonder Could I Live There Anymore"), infidelity ("Does My Ring Hurt Your Finger"). There's a tribute, a nice version of Hank Williams's classic "Honky Tonk Blues." There's his biggest hit, "Kiss an Angel Good Morning," a tune whose hooky bounce always makes me grin as it offers advice to "kiss an angel good morning/and love her like the devil when you get back home." And there's "I'm Just Me," to which you can add racial inferences, if you like: "Some want more and more's a-getting less/I just want what I got/Some wanna live up on a hill and others down by the sea/Some wanna live behind high walls/I just wanna live free."
The panorama that is American folk music opens in all directions on guitarist Bill Frisell's latest, most far-reaching album, Blues Dream (Nonesuch). For years now, Frisell has been integrating elements of jazz, folk, blues, new music, rock, pop, parlor tunes, you name it, into his musical quest. Unlike too many of his contemporaries, though, he's been trying to distill them into something of his own; he's not trying to slap together yet another postmodern slag heap of influences. With Blues Dream, he's succeeded incredibly.
The album charts many paths across the American landscape. The tremolo-shimmery title track is a brief minor-mode intro, an evocation of post-Kind of Blue Miles Davis. Track two, "Ron Carter," named for the great 1960s Davis bassist, opens with metallic horn squiggles that wind over a brief bass ostinato and off-kilter guitar licks, then builds with horns and overdriven guitar solos. It evokes and updates 1960s experimentalism--no mean feat--as do the rest of the album's tracks.
Music has one big advantage over the real world: Resolution is always possible, if you want it. Take "The Tractor." It kicks off as backporch bluegrass, drummer Kenny Wolleson and bassist David Piltch laying down a shuffle behind Frisell's arpeggiated rhythms, sometimes doubling Greg Leisz's mandolin. Suddenly a snaky, slightly dissonant horn section slices across it. With each chorus, the fine section--trombonist Curtis Fowlkes, saxist Billy Drewes and trumpeter Ron Miles--connects the riffs, filling in until they're almost continuous, a Monkish counterpoint to hillbilly jazz heaven. It's a brilliant work, a wondrous musical portrait of a melting pot or tossed salad or whatever metaphor you prefer for the multiracial, multicultural place America has never, in sad reality, managed to become.