While Stephen Schwartz does a good job of tearing apart the Venona book by Herbert Romerstein and Eric Breindel, he praises the Venona book by John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr ["A Tale of Two Venonas," Jan. 8/15]. But neither book questions the accuracy of the decryptions. All the authors take for granted that the National Security Agency has published a true decryption of the Soviet cables. This assumption is quite remarkable in view of the past history of the NSA, which has not given scholars the opportunity to check the decryptions' accuracy.
The NSA's identification of the individuals with cover names is another questionable area. For example: The cover names Antenna and Liberal, which the NSA said identified Julius Rosenberg, were initially assigned to one Joseph Weichbrod, and it was only after David Greenglass, Julius's brother-in-law, was arrested, that the NSA said, Oops, we made a slight mistake. Strangely, I, a bona fide convicted spy, could not be found anywhere among the hundreds of identified spies, but this was not for lack of their trying.
In a very candid May 13, 1950, memo, which the FBI never thought would see the light of day, it writes of Venona: "The fragmentary nature of the messages themselves, the assumptions made by the cryptographers, in breaking the messages themselves, and the questionable interpretations and translations involved, plus the extensive use of cover names for persons and places, make the problem of positive identification extremely difficult." One would never know this from the way all the authors write about the decrypted Venona cables.
The important question of why the NSA brought the FBI into the project must be examined. Certainly the FBI did not have decryption expertise beyond that of the NSA. The FBI's role was to try to match their files against "the fragmentary nature of the messages." And as an example of their expertise in this game one need look no further than the Weichbrod case cited above. I have tried to obtain some decryptions relating to my case that were available before the FBI entered the arena, but without success. A half-century later the NSA maintains that allowing me to see these files would expose their decryption methods.
It is the fundamental questions relating to the NSA's decryptions that seem to be off-limits to those who write about Venona.
To flog one untrustworthy book about Venona with another, as Stephen Schwartz did, raises doubts about his entire discussion. Of course the Herbert Romerstein book, given its authorship, is not credible. But Schwartz's chosen weapon against it, a book by John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, has likewise failed the test of probity and accuracy.
Consider, for example, how Haynes and Klehr treat the cases of three New Dealers: Lauchlin Currie, Harry Dexter White and Alger Hiss. Currie, a Canadian and a graduate of the London School of Economics and Harvard, was the first professional economist to serve in the White House. Haynes and Klehr use Venona decrypts of Soviet World War II cablegrams to traduce Currie as a spy for the Soviet Union. In the process, Haynes and Klehr get their facts wrong, withhold relevant facts and weigh evidence from one side only. They suggest that Currie tried to kill the Venona project before it revealed Soviet cable traffic, but they withhold the facts that expose their claim as incredible, if not absurd. They falsely assert that Currie fled the United States and renounced his citizenship, when actually he returned to Colombia on a two-year contract to advise the government on implementing the recommendations of a World Bank mission, married a Colombian and was unable to renew his passport because he was residing mainly in Colombia (a basis for nonrenewal for a naturalized US citizen at that time). For more, see Roger Sandilands, "Guilt by Association? Lauchlin Currie's Alleged Involvement with Washington Economists in Soviet Espionage," History of Political Economy (Fall 2000).
Harry Dexter White was an assistant secretary of the Treasury under FDR and Truman. In 1941, when Russia was hard pressed on its western front against Nazi Germany, KGB Gen. Vitaly Pavlov met White for lunch in a Washington restaurant to ask for increased US pressure on Japan to deter it from attacking Russia's Far Eastern borders. Recounting the event in Operation Snow (1995-96), Pavlov describes White as a patriotic American and "never one of our agents." Haynes and Klehr characterize White's meeting with Pavlov (whose first name they get wrong) as "clandestine" and, based on dozens of Venona documents they misconstrue out of context, name White "A Most Highly Placed Spy." For further details, see James Boughton, "The Case Against Harry Dexter White: Still Not Proven," forthcoming in History of Political Economy (Summer 2001).
As for Alger Hiss, Haynes and Klehr assert that Venona confirms his guilt because he was "Ales," the cover name of a spy described in a Venona cablegram. Facts that virtually preclude such an identity (among others, that Ales was a military-intelligence group leader and obtained only military information, whereas Hiss was charged with acting alone and obtaining only nonmilitary State Department information) Haynes and Klehr simply ignore. They also assert that Alger's brother Donald spied with him, but they do not disclose that even Alger's accuser, Whittaker Chambers, denied that Donald was a spy, nor is there a shred of evidence that he was. For more in point, see my article "Venona and Alger Hiss" in Intelligence and National Security (Autumn 2000) and on the website of British Universities Film & Video Council, www.bufvc.ac.uk, under "publications" and "viewfinder."
Haynes and Klehr did not originate the practice of misconstruing Venona documents to support faulty conclusions. The practice was begun by the FBI after it joined the Venona team in 1948, and it was subsequently used on countless targets. In the early 1960s, for instance, Venona documents helped convince the CIA's own Venona head man and mole-hunter, James Jesus Angleton, that former governor of New York and ambassador to Russia Averell Harriman was a Soviet agent. Haynes and Klehr merely jumped on the bandwagon thirty years later.
If Schwartz had applied the same critical faculties to the book by Haynes and Klehr that he brought to bear on Romerstein, he would have discovered that both books are thoroughly unreliable.
My review did not address the guilt of Lauchlin Currie, Harry Dexter White or Alger Hiss, aside from saying that the Venona evidence on the last person could not be dismissed. The evidence to which I referred drew a parallel between the movements of Hiss and the agent Ales in Russia.
I am much less interested in the fates of these three bourgeois careerists than I am in those of such dissident revolutionists as Ignacy Porecki-Reiss, Andreu Nin and Leon Trotsky. I have never understood the moral compass of certain US intellectuals who consider the sufferings of White and Hiss, or of the heirs of Currie, to be more compellingly tragic than the assassination of Reiss, the death by torture of Nin or the smashing of Trotsky's brain by an ice ax.
Indeed, there is evidence that the infiltration of Soviet agents into the highest levels of the US government involved something much worse than mere spying; rather, an intent to manipulate the US authorities in support of these terror operations. We see a possible example of this in the interest of Hiss, while at State, in the Robinson-Rubens case.
Lowenthal refers to "the practice of misconstruing Venona documents to support faulty conclusions.... subsequently used on countless targets." I have no idea who the "countless targets" might be, but I know and can sustain the following points on the basis of unchallengeable documentation, witnesses of the time and fully established memoirs by such persons as the Russo-Belgian writer Victor Serge, the Trotskyists Pierre Naville and Gerard Rosenthal, my co-author, the Catalan historian Víctor Alba, and others:
(1) Mark Zborowski, the NKVD mole who infiltrated the Trotskyist movement and murdered Trotsky's son Leon Sedov, while also facilitating the murders of Ignacy Porecki-Reiss, Andreu Nin, Kurt Landau, Erwin Wolf, Hans Freund ("Moulin") and Rudolf Klement, was identified and brought to partial justice in the United States on the basis of Venona.
(2) The related unmasking of the infamous Sobolevicius brothers, Jack Soble and Robert Soblen/Roman Well, who had penetrated the Trotskyist movement before Zborowski, was made possible by Venona.
(3) The positive identification of Jaime Ramón Mercader del Río as the assassin of Trotsky, first made by Víctor Alba (then working as a crime reporter for the Mexican daily Excelsior) was confirmed by Venona.
(4) The extensive infiltration of the US Trotskyist movement by such agents of the Stalinist secret police as Floyd Miller was first revealed in Venona.
(5) The NKVD employment of Spanish Stalinists like Victori Salà, a key figure in the attempted frameup of the POUM, while they were in exile in Mexico during World War II, was exposed by Venona.
(6) The recruitment of US maritime workers--seamen and longshoremen--as Soviet spies is documented in Venona.
(7) The manipulation of important Yugoslav politicians by the Soviet secret police during World War II was disclosed through Venona.
(8) The suspicions of the Moscow secret police center regarding a lead agent, Otto Katz, resulting in his public trial and execution with several others in Prague after World War II, may be traced in Venona.
I independently researched these cases before I'd even heard of the existence of Venona. In addition, all of them involve numerous additional people who figure in Venona. Venona merely corroborated evidence I had amassed and thoroughly analyzed on my own. Using these cases as controls, I have little or no doubt about the decryption and analysis put forward by the National Security Agency and by Klehr and Haynes. I am the first to admit the apparent irony that investigation of these matters was in most cases of virtually no importance to the vital interests of the US government.
CAMPAIGN FINANCE UPDATE
As the Senate geared up for a debate on the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill (McFein for short), which bans soft money, Democratic Senator Robert Torricelli was again grumbling about how the bill is flawed because it doesn't close down the issue-ad loophole. He's essentially right, but that's no reason to vote against McFein, which does close another big loophole. If McFein passes, some soft money might be diverted to issue ads, but some would not, its sponsors believe. Sparking more valid concerns is a provision in the bill that bars corporations and unions from spending money on issue ads within sixty days of an election. That worries labor because the plan does nothing to curb individual spending on such ads. There are plenty of wealthy people with pro-corporate axes to grind. So even if corporate funding of issue ads is banned, the pro-business message will flood out in ads paid for by well-heeled individuals. Labor has few individual supporters with such deep pockets. The unions also oppose raising the $1,000 cap on hard money. Campaign reform groups are wobbling on this one, with some risking a compromise that would index hard-money limits to inflation. But any increase in the hard-money limit makes it easier for wealthy special interests to buy influence and access and does nothing to open up the system to ordinary Americans.
EXTRA! GORE WINS FLORIDA! HELLO?
The Palm Beach Post's recount of undervotes--hanging, dimpled, pinhole chads--gave Al Gore 784 additional votes in Palm Beach County. If the same recount method were followed statewide, Gore would win overwhelmingly. The butterfly ballots, on which confused voters marked both Gore and Pat Buchanan, cost Gore some 6,600 votes, the Post estimated; another 2,908 voted for Gore and Socialist David McReynolds.
RUN JEB RUN
There has been speculation recently that Jeb Bush may not run in 2002 because of "family concerns." We hope he stays the course. It would be democracy's loss if he didn't give African-Americans and other Floridians a chance to register a protest against the electoral shenanigans last fall.
YOU CAN ALWAYS TELL A HARVARD MAN...
Former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, named as Harvard's new president, is on record as saying that Africa is "under-polluted." This phrase, Jon Wiener reminds us, appeared in a 1991 memo Summers wrote while he was chief economist for the World Bank. In it he recommended that the bank encourage "more migration of the dirty industries to the LDCs" (less developed countries). He went on to give three reasons: (1) The cost of sickness caused by pollution--in terms of lost wages--is lower in the LDCs, since their average wages are so low, (2) LDCs are "under-polluted" by industry and (3) demand for a clean environment for health and aesthetic reasons is small in countries with high mortality rates. After the memo became public, Brazil's secretary of the environment wrote Summers, "Your reasoning is perfectly logical but totally insane."
BUSHISM OF THE WEEK
In a talk to Treasury Department workers: "The way I like to put it is this: There's no bigger issue for the President to remind the moms and dads of America, if you happen to have a child,
be fortunate to have a child."
THE CREDITORS' BALL
The bankruptcy bill passed by the House denies bankruptcy protection to small borrowers who get in over their heads. The bill contains a special provision exempting American partners in Lloyd's of London from having to pay their share of the insurer's added costs from payouts on recent disasters. The bill also protects wealthy deadbeats' real estate holdings in Florida, Texas and other states that local laws have made into bankruptcy havens. Those laws allow the wealthiest debtors to convert their hidden assets into lavish homes, immune from seizure.
NEWS OF THE WEAK IN REVIEW
Another of Bush's conflict-of-interest Cabinet members can join Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, the man from Alcoa, and the boys from Big Oil. Say hi to Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, who served on the board of directors of Northwest Airlines. Nothing to do with the untimely sixty-day cooling-off period Bush slapped on the mechanics' union at Northwest.
Ariel Sharon's election as Israeli Prime Minister insures a prolonged pause in progress toward Israeli-Palestinian peace. While awaiting his successor, politicians and commentators could occupy their time constructively by adopting a new "language of peace." Dangerously misleading terminology remains a major obstacle to a resolution of the conflict.
It is normal practice for parties to a dispute to use language that favors them. In this regard, Israel has been spectacularly successful in imposing its terminology not simply on Israeli and American consciousness but even on many Arab parties and commentators. It has done so not simply in obvious ways like use of the terms "terrorism," "security" and "Judea and Samaria" but also in more subtle ways.
There is much talk of "concessions" being demanded from and offered by Israel. This word suggests the surrender of some legitimate right or position. In fact, while Israel demands numerous concessions from Palestine, Palestine is not seeking any concessions from Israel. What it is insisting upon is "compliance"--compliance with agreements already signed, compliance with international law and compliance with relevant UN resolutions--nothing more and nothing less. Compliance is not a concession. It is an obligation, both legally and morally.
The concept of "compliance" is well entrenched in Iraq's case. Partial Iraqi compliance with UN resolutions is rarely hailed as a "concession"--"painful," "far-reaching," "unprecedented" or otherwise. In Iraq's case, anything less than full compliance is deemed "defiance"--at least by the United States. Notwithstanding Israel's eventual full compliance on its Egyptian, Jordanian and Lebanese borders, most Israelis still believe, with the encouragement of successive US administrations, that peace with Palestine can be achieved without compliance. This is most unlikely--but how many more, on both sides, will die before the logic of "compliance" replaces the false generosity of "concessions"?
The Palestinian territories conquered by Israel in 1967 are frequently referred to as "disputed." They are not. They are "occupied," illegally so. While sovereignty over expanded East Jerusalem is explicitly contested, none of the world's other 192 sovereign states have recognized Israel's sovereignty claim, and Palestinian sovereignty over the Gaza Strip and the rest of the West Bank is, in both literal and legal senses, uncontested.
Israel has never even purported to annex these territories. Since November 15, 1988, when Palestinian independence and statehood were formally proclaimed, the only state asserting sovereignty over those portions of historical Palestine that Israel occupied in 1967 (aside from expanded East Jerusalem) has been the State of Palestine.
Commentators on all sides speak of Israel "ceding" territory to Palestine or to "the Palestinians." This word suggests a transfer of land by its legitimate owner. Israel can withdraw from occupied Palestinian lands, but the only land it could legitimately cede would be land inside its internationally recognized, pre-1967 borders (a possibility discussed in pre-election peace negotiations). Indeed, Israel continues to insist that Palestine cede to Israel indisputably Palestinian lands forming part of the meager 22 percent of historical Palestine that Israel did not conquer until 1967. How fair, reasonable and genuinely peace-seeking is this?
Misleading language has been particularly destructive with respect to Jerusalem. For years, Israeli politicians have repeated like a mantra that "Jerusalem must remain united under Israeli sovereignty." Understandably, most Israelis believe that Israel currently possesses sovereignty over Jerusalem. It does not. It possesses only administrative control. While a country can acquire administrative control by force of arms, it can acquire sovereignty (the state-level equivalent of title or ownership) only with the consent of the international community.
The position of the international community is clear and categorical: Israel is in military occupation of East Jerusalem (including the Old City, site of the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount) and has only de facto authority over West Jerusalem. The refusal of virtually all countries (even including the United States) to recognize West Jerusalem as Israel's capital vividly demonstrates the refusal of the international community to concede, yet, that any part of the city is Israel's sovereign territory.
There can thus be no question of Israel "relinquishing" or "transferring" sovereignty over any part of Jerusalem. Indeed, the only way that Israel will ever acquire sovereignty over any part of the city is by agreeing with Palestine on a basis for either sharing or dividing it (or doing a bit of both) that is recognized as fair and accepted by the international community.
This distinction is of fundamental intellectual and psychological importance for Israeli public opinion. There is a world of difference between being perceived as the Israeli leader who achieved Jewish sovereignty over Jerusalem for the first time in 2,000 years and being perceived as the one who relinquished some degree of Jewish sovereignty over the city.
One word that has been too rarely used in connection with the "peace process" is "justice." For obvious reasons, it is never used by Israeli or American politicians as a component of the "peace" they envision. Yet a true and lasting peace, as opposed to a mere temporary cessation of hostilities, is inconceivable unless some measure of justice is achieved. It is high time for all involved to recognize and speak clearly about these fundamental realities. Peace may depend on it.
Educators have long known the rap sheet on the SAT, the college entrance exam that millions of young people have taken as a rite of passage for some seventy-five years. Since its inception, the SAT has become among the most scrutinized and controversial of standardized tests. And yet, the exam--and the mental testing culture that has sustained it in the United States--has been remarkably impervious to the attacks on it over the years.
Recently, however, the SAT suffered a body blow when the president of the University of California system proposed dumping the exam. Don't expect colleges and universities to defect from the SAT en masse--it's too deeply entrenched for that. But in announcing his far-reaching proposal in February, UC president Richard Atkinson legitimized open discussion of a heretofore taboo subject for large and selective universities: whether they (and society) would be better off without the test.
Atkinson, an eminent cognitive psychologist, knows well the list of particulars against the exam in question, the so-called SAT I "reasoning test." As the progeny of the first intelligence test commercialized in the United States, the SAT has proven to be a weak predictor of a student's actual performance in the first year of college; after that, its usefulness vanishes completely. Moreover, the SAT has proven to be a vicious sorter of young people by class and race, and even gender--and has served to sustain the very upper-middle-class privilege that many of the exam's supporters claim to oppose. The latest figures from the College Board, the SAT's sponsor, show that a test taker can expect an extra shot of fifteen to fifty points on his or her total SAT I score for every $10,000 that Mom and Dad bring home. Call it the Volvo Effect: a boost that peaks out at the highest levels of family income. Being white, on average, confers an extra 200-point advantage over a black test-taker. Atkinson hopes that replacing the SAT I with the SAT II subject tests will lessen such disparities and more accurately reflect what students study in high school. In fact, scores on both exams are powerfully correlated with each other, and UC's own data show that the SAT II also sorts harshly by class, race and gender. More helpful, Atkinson intends to revamp the entire UC admissions process by requiring campuses to evaluate applicants more comprehensively than under the old numerical formulas, judging a high school student's achievements in light of his or her social and economic circumstances.
The SAT's shortcomings have become especially vivid in recent years, as courts, voters and policy-makers in several states, including the UC Board of Regents in 1995, have ordered public universities to dismantle their affirmative action programs. Post-affirmative action, UC's most selective campuses have seen freshman acceptance rates wane for blacks and Hispanics. Meanwhile, the state's Hispanic population is forecast to skyrocket from about 11 million in 2000 to 18 million over the next two decades. Hispanic high school graduates will surge 74 percent over the next decade, while numbers of white graduates are expected to grow just 2 percent.
In light of these trends, the usual justifications for the SAT's continued dominance as a gatekeeper to UC would no longer wash. Yes, since 1968 the admissions test has been a bureaucratically convenient way to sort and weed large numbers of college aspirants. Yes, UC's relatively high SAT scores made it look good in the test-score fashion show put out by US News & World Report. Yes, the test was a common yardstick. But it was also a crooked one, inflicting enormous social costs.
Of course, there will be complaints that Atkinson's tossing the SAT will lead to the ruination of a great university: As UC opens the floodgates to hordes of the academically unfit, standards will plummet. We've heard it before, as when the University of Texas system enacted its "top 10 percent" law after the 1996 federal appeals court ruling in the Hopwood case, which ordered the state's universities to end their affirmative action programs. Beginning in 1997, any Texas high school senior graduating in the top 10 percent of her class earned automatic admission to Texas public universities--regardless of SAT scores. Did this produce the collapse of a great university? Hardly. At the flagship University of Texas, at Austin, SAT scores of students admitted under the top 10 percent law, as expected, fell markedly compared with their peers from pre-Hopwood days. And yet, their classroom performance actually bettered their pre-Hopwood counterparts (that is, those in the top 10 percent who did meet the SAT threshold), holding steady even in engineering, business and science. To top it off, by 2000, enrollments of Hispanics and African-Americans had been restored to their pre-Hopwood levels.
Ultimately, UC's faculty senate and the Regents could dash Atkinson's hopes for a new era in the university's approach to college admissions. Nevertheless, he has accomplished something of unquantifiable benefit by helping to pry open a badly needed debate about the meaning of merit in American higher education. Will we be a nation that judges young people based on what they have accomplished and what they've overcome to do so, or by how well they fill in bubbles on a standardized test that is itself of questionable merit?
Twenty years ago this season, when another new Republican President arrived in Washington to push for massive income-tax reductions, I was having breakfast every other Saturday morning with David Stockman, the brainy young budget director, and collecting his insider account of the Reagan revolution. Stockman was the enfant terrible who implemented the supply-side agenda and promised to achieve the improbable--reduce taxes dramatically and double defense spending, while cutting other federal programs sufficiently to produce a balanced budget. It didn't work out that way. Ronald Reagan's great legislative triumph of 1981 destabilized federal fiscal policy for nearly two decades, creating the massive structural deficits that were not finally extinguished until a few years ago. Washington seems about to replay history as farce, albeit on a less threatening scale. It prompts me to reflect on what, if anything, was learned from the revolution.
My private sessions with Stockman stretched over nine months and led to a controversial magazine article, "The Education of David Stockman," in which I disclosed the contradictions and internal swordplay behind Reaganomics, but the real sensation was Stockman's own growing doubts and disillusionment with the doctrine. Both of us were excoriated in the aftermath. The Gipper likened me to his would-be assassin John Hinckley. Stockman was roasted for duplicity and cynical manipulations; for concealing the truth about the looming deficits while Congress plunged forward in fateful error. Stockman was guileful, yes, but it was his intellectual honesty that shocked Washington. That brief moment of truth-telling resonates with the current delusions and deceptions. A lot of what he said twenty years ago seems painfully relevant.
"None of us really understands what's going on with all these numbers," the budget director confided during intense budget-cutting battles in the spring of 1981. That admission should be engraved over the door at the Treasury, the Capitol and the White House. Projections of fabulous budget surpluses that provide the premise for this year's political action are no less airy-fairy. Nonetheless, official fantasy becomes the operating truth, so long as everyone bows to it. Stockman's wishful forecasts on economic growth were nicknamed Rosy Scenario by his colleagues, but now the Congressional Budget Office has matched his rosiness. The economy is expanding this year by 2.4 percent and faster next year, according to the CBO. Actually, right now it's headed into the zero-minus territory known as recession.
Stockman's boldest accounting gimmick--reporting $40 billion in budget cuts but declining to identify them--was dubbed by insiders "the magic asterisk." Bush has already topped him with his "magic blueprint" and the miraculous "trillion-dollar reserve" he saves and spends at the same time. The new President has not actually issued a real budget, only a "blueprint" that leaves out the grisly, painful details of what spending will get whacked. Dubya sounds like the Queen of Hearts: Tax cuts first, punishment later! Congressional nerds protest, but Bush intends to ram through his tax cuts before anyone has been given an honest picture of the fiscal consequences.
"Do you realize the greed that came to the forefront?" Stockman exclaimed to me twenty years ago. "The hogs were really feeding." As the Reagan White House lost control of the action, Democrats and Republicans engaged in a furious bidding war to see which party could deliver more tax breaks and other boodle to the special-interest hogs (Republicans won, but the Dems gave it a good try). The Bushies recognize this danger and are trying to wall off the usual business greedheads from exploiting the same opening this year. The deal-making may still begin, however, if the White House is a few votes shy and needs to seduce a few hungry senators with special favors. As Stockman learned, if you buy one senator, you might have to buy them all.
Another of Stockman's vivid metaphors is the centerpiece for 2001--the "Trojan horse" approach to rewarding the rich. Giving everyone the same percentage rate cut sounds fair, but actually delivers most of the money to the very wealthy, who pay the top rate. Supply-side doctrine "was always a Trojan horse to bring down the top rate," Stockman revealed. "It's kind of hard to sell trickle-down economics, so the supply-side formula was the only way to get a tax policy that was really trickle down." This year's new wrinkle is a Keynesian twist. Instead of talking about rich investors who need a little encouragement to invest in America, Bush talks about the waitresses who need a little cash to pay off their credit-card debts.
The most disturbing difference I see in 2001 is political--the role reversal between the two major parties. What Republicans learned from the revolution is this: Deficit spending doesn't really count for that much in politics--not among average voters--and a party will not be punished for creating fiscal disorder as long as other good things seem to happen. Democrats used to understand this as a visceral matter but have forgotten the street-smarts their party knew in olden days. On fiscal discipline, the two have swapped positions. Republicans, once the scolds, are now the reckless feel-good party, willing to risk big deficits in order to deliver goodies to main constituencies. Democrats, perhaps wishing for respectability, have become the party of rectitude, preaching forbearance of pleasure. Republicans want voters to have a little fun. Democrats sound like nervous bookkeepers.
Leaving aside economic consequences, Democrats have dealt themselves a very weak position, even though they're largely right about the budget accounting. Most Americans are not fiscal experts and cannot be expected to absorb all the fine-print arguments about cause and effect. Think of the old Far Side cartoon with a dog listening to his master. All the dog hears is: "Fido, blah, blah, blah, Fido, blah, blah, blah." What voters hear from Republicans is: "Want to cut your taxes, blah, blah, blah, want to cut your taxes, blah, blah, blah." What voters hear from Democrats is: "Must pay down the debt first, blah, blah, blah, must pay down the debt first, blah, blah, blah." For skeptical voters with already low expectations of government, this is not a tough choice.
The great accomplishment of Reagan and the supply-siders was to persuade the old-guard Republican Party that its root- canal approach to fiscal policy was a loser--and that recklessness can be a win-win proposition for their side. If the Trojan horse approach succeeds in winning regressive tax-cuts, the GOP delivers huge rewards to its favorite clients. If this also creates a big hole in the federal budget, that's OK too, since runaway deficits will throw another collar around the size of the federal government and provide yet another reason to slash the liberals' social spending. With clever marketing, the GOP may even persuade voters it was spendthrift Democrats who created the red ink. Even recession is OK if the timing is as lucky as the Gipper's. When this recession ends, Bush will credit his tax cuts for the recovery and claim vindication in time for re-election.
Democrats, meanwhile, are the "responsibles," telling the people to save their allowance for a rainy day. They were led into this cul-de-sac by the champion of artful deception, Bill Clinton. Two years ago, when the prospect of burgeoning federal surpluses arose, Clinton devised a very clever ploy to hold off Republican tax-cutters. We will not spend the extra trillions, he announced, we will pay off the national debt. Democrats felt exceedingly virtuous about this position, although they understood that the subtext was quite different: The surpluses would allow government to do big things again for people--someday, but not yet. A different kind of leader might have recognized that politics doesn't wait for ten-year budget projections. If Democrats wished to accomplish big things like universal healthcare or helping debt-soaked families, they should have gone for it right then while the resources were available. Instead, Clinton's stratagem actually adopted the old-time religion that Reagan had shed--a loss of nerve that is the opposite of activist government. Some Dems are agitating to change that, proposing a genuine commitment to healthcare reform and other measures, but others have internalized the bookkeeper politics and are preaching hair-shirt economics: Cancel any tax cuts if a severe recession wipes out our sacred surplus. That's a righteous recipe for more pain.
One more point: Both parties are playing with a phony deck of cards. No matter what unfolds this season, the government is not going to reduce the "national debt." On the contrary, the government's total indebtedness is going to keep growing steadily, from $5.6 trillion right now to $6.7 trillion by 2011. Despite what you read in the newspapers, that occurs with or without tax cuts and even if all the outstanding Treasury bonds are paid off (if you still don't believe it, check the CBO's latest budget forecast with its chart on page 17). The awkward fact neither party brings up is that federal financing has depended crucially on collecting more money than it needs from working people since 1983, when both parties collaborated in a great crime of bait and switch. After Reagan cut taxes for the wealthy and business in 1981, he turned around two years later and raised Social Security payroll taxes dramatically on workers (earnings above $76,000 are exempted from Social Security taxes). Ever since, workers have been paying in extra money toward their future retirement--trillions more than needed now by Social Security--and the government simply borrows the surplus revenue to spend on other things: upper-income tax cuts or paying off Treasury bonds or reducing the fiscal damage from deficits in the operating budget.
Taxing one class of citizens--the broad ranks of working people--so government can devote the money to other people and purposes is not only wrong but profoundly deceptive, bait and switch on a grand scale. Government still owes workers the money, of course, and someday will have to find the borrowed trillions somewhere, either by raising taxes or borrowing the money or possibly by cutting Social Security benefits. When FICA taxes were raised in 1983, Reagan at first objected and reminded aides that he was opposed to raising taxes--of any kind. David Stockman reassured him. If the rising payroll-tax burden was imposed on young working people, they would eventually revolt and Social Security would self-destruct of its own weight. The Gipper liked that and gave his OK. The same objective, now called privatization, shows up again this year on George W. Bush's agenda. He proposes to "save" Social Security by destroying it.
The corporate class is flying high in Washington. With George W. Bush--CEO style and all--in the White House and the Republicans controlling Congress, the business community has been exploiting its enhanced clout. Workplace safety rules, ten years in the making and designed to prevent a million or so injuries a year, were scrapped in a few hours of Congressional action. A signal was sent: We Are Business. Hear Us Roar. At the same time, House Republicans rammed through the central provision of Bush's tax cut for the rich. And in another early action, the House approved a bankruptcy bill that favors creditors, among them MBNA America Bank, one of the largest issuers of credit cards and--coincidence? ha!--one of the largest corporate donors to Bush and the GOP in the election. But surely the most egregious display of corporate power was Bush's decision to reverse a campaign pledge to seek reductions in the carbon dioxide emissions of the nation's power plants after the coal and oil industries objected. Congressman Henry Waxman rightly called the move a "breathtaking betrayal" of Bush's promise to fight global warming.
All this activity has emboldened corporate lobbyists to plan other assaults. They want to rewrite privacy rules regarding medical records, beat back environmental and land-use regulations, open Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, limit corporate liability for dangerous products, deep-six the federal lawsuit against the tobacco industry and undo the Clinton ban on road-building in 60 million acres of national forest. And don't forget tax breaks. Bush told the K Streeters who eyed the Bush tax package for special-interest tax breaks to keep their mitts off. But there's a tacit deal in the air. If the corporate crowd helps Bush win his tax cut this year, next year he'll help them get theirs.
None of this is a surprise. Bush and the Republicans are merely following the law of supply and demand: Donors supply campaign money, then they demand. Bush set records in terms of pocketing corporate donations, and Congressional Republicans--particularly those in the House under the leadership of majority whip Tom DeLay--have perfected the pay-to-play, in which they hit up the business community for campaign cash and then allow its representatives to participate in drafting legislation.
Which brings us to campaign finance reform. The Senate is poised to consider the McCain-Feingold bill, a modest initiative that would ban federal soft-money contributions and at least inconvenience the high rollers. Yet some Democrats are skittish, realizing that their party has become as dependent on soft money as the GOP. And labor is nervous about a provision that would limit issue ads. Regardless of the outcome of this debate, we need extensive reform going beyond McCain-Feingold, along with a fight-back on the GOP initiatives. Opposition to those initiatives does exist, including a coalition of 500 organizations working to combat the Bush tax cut. That, plus a spirited grassroots effort, could stop the Bush agenda while pushing progressive alternatives.
In many instances, those who fetishize holy objects or sacred places are the very ones who exhibit the most depraved indifference to human life.
In the near future we plan to expand our faith-based initiative, Holy Terror Sandblasting and Demolition Corp. New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani finds much merit in our proposal for a workfare program in which homeless people (men only, naturellement!) would be trained in medieval theology, art criticism and the use of explosives. Please send dollars and the floor plan of the Brooklyn Museum. Or else.
Dear Professor DiIulio,
With medical costs going through the roof, you'd think there'd be a better way. And now, with the Lord's help, there is! Our idea is to buy up struggling inner-city hospitals and turn them into profit centers--no doctors, no nurses, no fancy-shmancy machines and best of all, no messy malpractice suits. Just the blessed healing power of prayer, provided 24 hours a day at bedside by recovering drug addicts as part of their therapy. It's total win-win--the government saves, the patient is saved--if not in this world, the next. And that's the world that counts, right?
Rev. Tommy Johnson
Pentecostal Holiness Church, Memphis, TN
People say communism is just another religion, and they're right! We have everything the other faiths have--an all-encompassing worldview, sacred texts, meetings (and how!), schisms, excommunications and declining numbers and influence. We'd like to reverse that last item with funding for our workfare proposal: First, we provide welfare mothers a crash course in job readiness, parenting skills and the works of Karl Marx. Then, we get them jobs in daycare centers, where they pass their new "faith" on to the next generation, hopefully in time for the stock market crash. Don't count us out--a god that failed is still a god.
The Communist Party, USA
Dear Brother in Christ,
Did you know the Chicago Archdiocese has an exorcist on staff? Our faith-based initiative, The Exercist, would get this superbly trained but underutilized man out of the apse and into the community, where he'd help the so-called mentally ill get their sillies out with a carefully graduated low-impact aerobic workout that goes beyond head swiveling and projectile vomiting to get at the real nitty-gritty of diabolical possession! Then, everyone cools down with a sharing session, novena and group hug: because admitting you're possessed by the Devil is half the cure!
Hope to hear from you soon,
Msgr. George O'Reilly
Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago
Dear Prof. DiIulio,
For ten years we've been trying to get our own public school district so our kids wouldn't have to go to school with goyim. The courts keep turning us down. Then we wanted buses with only male drivers and sex-segregated seating, and the self-hating Jewish liberals said no to that too. So we would like to become a Faith-Based Initiative with ourselves as clients. Our project is, we stay in our own town and only talk to each other. Because that's what G-d wants. Eventually we hope to get NEA funding as a conceptual art project ("The Choice: Chosen People Choose Themselves"), but a starter grant from your office would really put us on track.
Let us know,
Rabbi Shlomo Greenblatt, Kiryas Joel, NY
Ever wonder what's really behind that weird weather of recent years ? Hint: It's a long time between burnt offerings. How about paying some deadbeat dads to slaughter a herd of oxen and throw those fabulous thighbones on the barbie? Everybody benefits: They learn the meat business, you get fruitful harvests, favorable winds and calm winedark seas, and we get a decent meal. Reply soonest--the wife is pushing me to zap you with a thunderbolt.
Death Row Dad is a moving story of one father's embrace of capital punishment--despite his own imminent execution! While his ACLU lawyer tries frantically to turn up new evidence even as his own marriage unravels, and beautiful crusading nun Helen Prejean pleads with the governor for a stay, Leroy, who is in fact innocent, wants only that his son renounce his homosexual lifestyle and accept Christ as his personal savior. Soon the whole prison--even the crusty warden and a pair of racist guards--is praying for Leroy to get his wish. Jack, I promise you, when Leroy looks up from the gurney just before the lethal injection, sees his son standing there with his new girlfriend, and rejects the last-minute stay of execution ("I reckon the Lord is waitin' for my sorry self"), the audience won't know whether to cheer or go down on its knees. Morgan's people think yes for the lead, Julia's very interested in doing the nun. A major studio is ready to greenlight the minute your office comes through with co-financing.
Talk to you after the prayer meeting,
How about a grant where I become a lay minister and practice laying on of hands? There's a whole heck of a lot of lonely women out there with big spiritual needs. I mean, really big.
The President's demanding proper dress--
A tie, a coat, a shine on shoes or boots.
Some citizens may find this a relief:
We've now returned to government by suits.
If only George W. Bush were content to merely market nights in the
Lincoln Bedroom or issue some questionable pardons, the public would be
much better off. But no, the new President has taken the art of selling
White House access to an unprecedented level, with disastrous
consequences for millions of Americans.
While the media remain obsessed with trying to prove that the Clinton
Administration was on the take from corrupt fat cats, the Republicans
have unashamedly turned over the federal government to the very
corporations that purchased the dubious Bush electoral victory.
MBNA, the world's biggest credit card dispenser, which hooks your kids
with teaser rates that can quickly balloon to usurious proportions, is
about to get the bill ending bankruptcy protection for little people that
it had in mind when it led the Bush campaign contributor list.
The big corporate givers are all lined up with wish lists in hand.
"There is no longer any countervailing power in Washington; business is
in complete control of the machinery of government," former Labor
Secretary Robert Reich concluded recently.
In less than two months, the Administration has reversed workplace
protection for repetitive stress injury, betrayed Bush's campaign promise
to curtail industry carbon dioxide emissions that cause global warming
and revved up plans for Arctic drilling. For all of his belief in a free
market, the President used the club of the state to force mechanics at
Northwest Airlines back to work.
Not that congressional Democrats are without blame. As the bipartisan
support for the bankruptcy bill demonstrated, corporate contributions are
as compelling as they are pervasive.
Bush has indicated he's eager to sign this atrocious bill--an
identical measure was vetoed by President Clinton--which strips away a
century of protection for small debtors. No longer will holders of
unsecured debt, who average $22,000 a year in income, be given a fresh
start. Under this bill, such debtors who file for bankruptcy will not
have their debt eliminated under the easy-to-use Chapter 7 protection of
the Bankruptcy Code but will be forced to file a repayment plan under the
more rigorous Chapter 13. That places this unsecured debt on the same
level as all other claims requiring payment, such as child support and
alimony, leaving divorced spouses and their children competing with banks
for a claimant's paycheck.
At the same time, Congressional Republicans refused to accept any
amendments restraining the marketing of credit cards or the regulating of
usurious interests rates charged. These largely unscrupulous banking
practices that prey upon the young and gullible, with billions of mailed
solicitations a year, is what often leads people into bankruptcy.
What in God's name is going on? The Bible warns against these money
handler who charge usurious rates: "Let the exacting of usury stop" is
commanded in Nehemiah, where the word "usury" is applied to loans among
Israelites bearing a mere 1 percent interest. On a more secular note, the
California Constitution had placed a 10 percent limit on interest, but that has
been watered down by court decisions.
By those historical standards, the current average charge of 18 percent on
credit cards, often rising more than 24 percent, certainly qualifies as
"exorbitant," to use Webster's definition of usury. Indeed, the common
practice of the banks would seem to fall under the category of criminal
loan-sharking, but just try to find a prosecutor with the guts to
classify a leading bank as organized crime.
The analogy with loan-sharking is valid, given that both credit card
companies and gangsters loan money to people who have no means of
repayment. The gangsters compel repayment with the threat of physical
force, and banks will now have the legal intimidation of the courts.
Because Clinton vetoed this legislation, the banking industry weighed
in heavily for Bush in the last election. MBNA employees accounted for
$240,000 in donations to Bush, compared to $1,500 to Al Gore. The bank's
chairman hosted a $1,000-a-plate dinner for Bush, and the bank
contributed a nifty $100,000 to the Bush inaugural festivities.
Financial institutions, which gave Republicans $26 million in the last
election, have been rewarded with quick passage of the bankruptcy bill
that Clinton rejected. The big difference this time around is that Bush
has already stated that he will sign the bill, so there is no pressure on
Congress to build in even the most minor consumer protections.
This year alone, a million Americans, many of them young people
suckered into financing their education by maxing out their credit cards,
will attempt to use the bankruptcy court as a second chance, only to find
the door closed. They should thank Bush the next time an election rolls
Farai Chideya, Christopher Hitchens, Barney Frank, Susan Brownmiller, Alexander Cockburn, Katha Pollitt, Slavoj Zizek and Arthur Danto on their favorite screen stars.
THIS IS THE THIRD of what now threatens to become The Nation's annual Hollywood issue. Following in the footsteps of the catholic Mr. Soderbergh, whose Y2K output ran the gamut from Erin Brockovich to Traffic, this time around there is not even the shadow of a theme. But a little eclecticism never hurt anyone. In the forum, GENE SEYMOUR engages black filmmakers, who, as a group, appear to be enjoying unprecedented success, although he finds clouds within the silver lining. ELLEN WILLIS puts The Sopranos on her couch with a dazzling appreciation-slash-deconstruction of the East Coast's favorite soap (interestingly, the West Coast appears to be more taken with Gladiator), while MARC COOPER does the same for Hollywood's version of the labor movement, giving us an eye-opening glimpse into the internal politics of the guilds on the eve of what at this point seems to be an inevitable strike.
GEOFFREY GILMORE, who has run the Sundance Film Festival for eleven years, takes on "purists" and "ideologues" in a spirited assessment of the current state of independent film. Also in the not-so-pure department, AMY WALLACE reports that Jodie Foster is looking to make a feature out of the life of infamous filmmaker-cum-Hitler- groupie Leni Riefenstahl. The byzantine Oscar documentary process gets put under the microscope by CARL BROMLEY, who notes that the academy's snub of Wim Wenders's Buena Vista Social Club last year was only the most recent in a long history of mind-boggling misjudgments. We've tossed some candy throughout the issue in the form of reflections--both visual and verbal, from some names you'll recognize--on the allure of certain matinee idols. Finally, there is a real treat: an excerpt of newly published letters that present RAYMOND CHANDLER in a wholly unexpected light.
With negotiations between the Writers Guild and some of Hollywood's major film studios and TV networks at an impasse as the May 1 deadline nears, putting the panic of a strike in the usually gilded air, we're reminded of the often uneasy relationships between writers and the film industry--which Raymond Chandler amply described in writings outside his famous novels. The following are portions excerpted from The Raymond Chandler Papers: Selected Letters and Non-Fiction, 1909-1959, edited by Tom Hiney and Frank MacShane and published in April by Atlantic Monthly Press.
Letter to Erle Stanley Gardner, January 29, 1946. Chandler was working steadily on a fifth Marlowe novel. The cheap editions of all four earlier Marlowes were now selling in the hundreds of thousands, and Newsweek had reported in 1945 that "Chandlerism, a select cult a year ago, is about to engulf the nation."
Most of what you write is a complete surprise to me--including the idea that you are a lousy writer.... As I speak I have two solid rows of Gardners in front of me, and am still trying to shop around to complete the collection. I probably know as much about the essential qualities of good writing as anybody now discussing it. I do not discuss these things professionally for the simple reason that I do not consider it worthwhile. I am not interested in pleasing the intellectuals by writing literary criticism, because literary criticism as an art has in these days too narrow a scope and too limited a public, just as has poetry. I do not believe it is a writer's function to talk to a dead generation of leisured people who once had time to relish the niceties of critical thought. The critics of today are tired Bostonians like Van Wyck Brooks or smart-alecks like Fadiman or honest men confused by the futility of their job, like Edmund Wilson. The reading public is intellectually adolescent at best, and it is obvious that what is called "significant literature" will only be sold to this public by exactly the same methods as are used to sell it toothpaste, cathartics and automobiles. It is equally obvious that since this public has been taught to read by brute force it will, in between its bouts with the latest "significant" bestseller, want to read books that are fun and excitement. So like all half-educated publics in all ages it turns with relief to the man who tells a story and nothing else. To say that what this man writes is not literature is just like saying that a book can't be any good if it makes you want to read it. When a book, any sort of book, reaches a certain intensity of artistic performance, it becomes literature. That intensity may be a matter of style, situation, character, emotional tone, or idea, or half a dozen other things. It may also be a perfection of control over the movement of a story similar to the control a great pitcher has over the ball. That is to me what you have more than anything else and more than anyone else. Dumas Père had it. Dickens, allowing for his Victorian muddle, had it; begging your pardon I don't think Edgar Wallace approached it. His stories died all along the line and had to be revived. Yours don't. Every page throws the hook for the next. I call this a kind of genius. I regard myself as a pretty exacting reader; detective stories as such don't mean a thing to me. But it must be obvious that if I have half a dozen unread books beside my chair and one of them is a Perry Mason, and I reach for the Perry Mason and let the others wait, that book must have a quality.
As to me, I am not busy and I am not successful in any important way. I don't get written what I want to write and I get balled up in what I write. I made a lot of money last year, but the government took half of it and expenses took half of the rest. I'm not poor, but neither am I in anything like your condition, or ever will be. My wife has been under the weather with the flu for ten days, but she wants to come down to your place as much as I do. I'm working at home because I refused to report to Paramount and took a suspension. They refused to tear up my contract. A writer has no real chance in pictures unless he is willing to become a producer, and that is too tough for me. The last picture I worked on was just one long row.
Letter to Alfred Knopf, January 12, 1946. Though Knopf was no longer Chandler's publisher, he and Chandler had buried the hatchet and were to remain in touch for the rest of Chandler's life. Knopf had written in response to reading Chandler's article in The Atlantic Monthly about screenwriting.
One of the troubles is that it seems quite impossible in Hollywood to convince anyone that a man would turn his back on a whopping salary--whopping by the standards of normal living--for any reason but a tactical manoeuvre through which he hopes to acquire a still more whopping salary. What I want is something quite different: a freedom from datelines and unnatural pressures, and a right to find and work with those few people in Hollywood whose purpose is to make the best pictures possible within the limitations of a popular art, not merely to repeat the old and vulgar formulae. And only a little of that.
The ethics of this industry may be judged by the fact that late last night a very important independent producer called me up and asked me to do a screenplay of one of the most advertised projects of the year, do it on the quiet, secretly, with full knowledge that it would be a violation of my contract. That meant nothing to him; it never occurred to him that he was insulting me. Perhaps, in spite of my faults, I still have a sense of honor. I may quarrel, but at least I put the point at issue down on the table in front of me. I am perfectly willing to let them examine my sleeves for hidden cards. But I don't think they really want to. They would be horrified to find them empty. They do not like to deal with honest men.
From the beginning, from the first pulp story, it was always with me a question (first of course of how to write a story at all) of putting into the stuff something they would not shy off from, perhaps even not know was there as a conscious realization, but which would somehow distill through their minds and leave an afterglow. A man with a realistic habit of thought can no longer write for intellectuals. There are too few of them and they are too specious. Neither can he deliberately write for people he despises, or for the slick magazines (Hollywood is less degrading than that), or for money alone. There must be idealism but there must also be contempt. This kind of talk may seem a little ridiculous coming from me. It is possibly that like Max Beerbohm I was born half a century too late, and that I too belong to an age of grace. I could so easily have become everything our world has no use for. So I wrote for the Black Mask. What a wry joke.
No doubt I have learned a lot from Hollywood. Please do not think I completely despise it, because I don't. The best proof of that may be that every producer I have worked for I would work for again, and every one of them, in spite of my tantrums, would be glad to have me. But the overall picture, as the boys say, is of a degraded community whose idealism even is largely fake. The pretentiousness, the bogus enthusiasm, the constant drinking and drabbing, the incessant squabbling over money, the all-pervasive agent, the strutting of the big shots (and their usually utter incompetence to achieve anything they start out to do), the constant fear of losing all this fairy gold and being the nothing they have really never ceased to be, the snide tricks, the whole damn mess is out of this world. It is a great subject for a novel--probably the greatest still untouched. But how to do it with a level mind, that's the thing that baffles me. It is like one of these South American palace revolutions conducted by officers in comic opera uniforms--only when the thing is over the ragged dead men lie in rows against the wall, and you suddenly know that this is not funny, this is the Roman circus, and damn near the end of civilization.
Chandler having decided to stop studio work and move permanently to La Jolla, The Atlantic Monthly persuaded him to report on the 1946 Oscar ceremony for them.
If you think most motion pictures are bad, which they are (including the foreign), find out from some initiate how they are made, and you will be astonished that any of them could be good. Making a fine motion picture is like painting "The Laughing Cavalier" in Macy's basement, with a floorwalker to mix your colours for you. Of course most motion pictures are bad. Why wouldn't they be? Apart from its own intrinsic handicaps of excessive cost, hypercritical bluenosed censorship, and the lack of any single-minded controlling force in the making, the motion picture is bad because 90 per cent of its source material is tripe, and the other 10 per cent is a little too virile and plain-spoken for the petty-minded clerics, the elderly ingénues of the women's clubs, and the tender guardians of that godawful mixture of boredom and bad manners known more eloquently as the Impressionable Age.
The point is not whether there are bad motion pictures or even whether the average motion picture is bad, but whether the motion picture is an artistic medium of sufficient dignity and accomplishment to be treated with respect by the people who control its destinies. Those who deride the motion picture usually are satisfied that they have thrown the book at it by declaring it to be a form of mass entertainment. As if that meant anything. Greek drama, which is still considered quite respectable by most intellectuals, was mass entertainment to the Athenian freeman. So, within its economic and topographical limits, was the Elizabethan drama. The great cathedrals of Europe, although not exactly built to while away an afternoon, certainly had an aesthetic and spiritual effect on the ordinary man. Today, if not always, the fugues and chorales of Bach, the symphonies of Mozart, Borodin, and Brahms, the violin concertos of Vivaldi, the piano sonatas of Scarlatti, and a great deal of what was once rather recondite music are mass entertainment by virtue of radio. Not all fools love it, but not all fools love anything more literate than a comic strip. It might reasonably be said that all art at some time and in some manner becomes mass entertainment, and that if it does not it dies and is forgotten.
The motion picture admittedly is faced with too large a mass; it must please too many people and offend too few, the second of these restrictions being infinitely more damaging to it artistically than the first. The people who sneer at the motion picture as an art form are furthermore seldom willing to consider it at its best. They insist upon judging it by the picture they saw last week or yesterday; which is even more absurd (in view of the sheer quantity or production) than to judge literature by last week's ten bestsellers, or the dramatic art by even the best of the current Broadway hits. In a novel you can still say what you like, and the stage is free almost to the point of obscenity, but the motion picture made in Hollywood, if it is to create art at all, must do so within such strangling limitations of subject and treatment that it is a blind wonder it ever achieves any distinction beyond the purely mechanical slickness of a glass and chromium bathroom. If it were merely a transplanted literary or dramatic art, it certainly would not. The hucksters and the bluenoses would between them see to that.
But the motion picture is not a transplanted literary or dramatic art, any more than it is a plastic art. It has elements of all these, but in its essential structure it is much closer to music, the sense that its finest effects can be independent of precise meaning, that its transitions can be more eloquent than its high-lit scenes, and that its dissolves and camera movements, which cannot be censored, are often far more emotionally effective than its plots, which can. Not only is the motion picture an art, but it is the one entirely new art that has been evolved on this planet for hundreds of years. It is the only art at which we of this generation have any possible chance to greatly excel.
In painting, music and architecture we are not even second-rate by comparison with the best work of the past. In sculpture we are just funny. In prose literature we not only lack style but we lack the educational and historical background to know what style is. Our fiction and drama are adept, empty, often intriguing, and so mechanical that in another fifty years at most they will be produced by machines with rows of push buttons. We have no popular poetry in the grand style, merely delicate or witty or bitter or obscure verses. Our novels are transient propaganda when they are what is called "significant," and bedtime reading when they are not.
But in the motion picture we possess an art medium whose glories are not all behind us. It has already produced great work, and if, comparatively and proportionately, far too little of that great work has been achieved in Hollywood, I think that is all the more reason why in its annual tribal dance of the stars and the big-shot producers Hollywood should contrive a little quiet awareness of the fact. Of course it won't. I'm just daydreaming.
Show business has always been a little overnoisy, overdressed, overbrash. Actors are threatened people. Before films came along to make them rich they often had need of a desperate gaiety. Some of these qualities prolonged beyond a strict necessity have passed into the Hollywood mores and produced that very exhausting thing, the Hollywood manner, which is a chronic case of spurious excitement over absolutely nothing. Nevertheless, and for once in a lifetime, I have to admit that Academy Awards night is a good show and quite funny in spots, although I'll admire you if you can laugh at all of it.
If you can go past those awful idiot faces on the bleachers outside the theater without a sense of the collapse of the human intelligence; if you can stand the hailstorm of flash bulbs popping at the poor patient actors who, like kings and queens, have never the right to look bored; if you can glance out over this gathered assemblage of what is supposed to be the elite of Hollywood and say to yourself without a sinking feeling, "In these hands lie the destinies of the only original art the modern world has conceived"; if you can laugh, and you probably will, at the cast-off jokes from the comedians on the stage, stuff that wasn't good enough to use on their radio shows; if you can stand the fake sentimentality and the platitudes of the officials and the mincing elocution of the glamour queens (you ought to hear them with four martinis down the hatch); if you can do all these things with grace and pleasure, and not have a wild and forsaken horror at the thought that most of these people actually take this shoddy performance seriously; and if you can then go out into the night to see half the police force of Los Angeles gathered to protect the golden ones from the mob in the free seats but not from that awful moaning sound they give out, like destiny whistling through a hollow shell; if you can do all these things and still feel next morning that the picture business is worth the attention of one single intelligent, artistic mind, then in the picture business you certainly belong.
Letter to Charles Morton, November 22, 1950.
Television is really what we've been looking for all our lives. It took a certain amount of effort to go to the movies. Somebody had to stay with the kids. You had to get the car out of the garage. That was hard work. And you had to drive and park. Sometimes you had to walk as far as half a block to the theater. Then people with big fat heads would sit in front of you and make you nervous... Radio was a lot better, but there wasn't anything to look at. Your gaze wandered around the room and you might start thinking of other things--things you didn't want to think about. You had to use a little imagination to build yourself a picture of what was going on just by the sound. But television's perfect. You turn a few knobs and lean back and drain your mind of all thought. And there you are watching the bubbles in the primeval ooze. You don't have to concentrate. You don't have to react. You don't have to remember. You don't miss your brain because you don't need it. Your heart and liver and lungs continue to function normally. Apart from that, all is peace and quiet. You are in poor man's nirvana. And if some nasty-minded person comes along and says you look more like a fly on a can of garbage, pay him no mind...just who should one be mad at anyway? Did you think the advertising agencies created vulgarity and the moronic mind that accepts it? To me television is just one more facet of that considerable segment of our civilization that never had any standard but the soft buck.
Letter to Gene Levitt, who had been adapting Marlowe for the radio show, November 22, 1950.
I am only a very recent possessor of a television set. It is a very dangerous medium. And as for the commercials--well, I understand that the concoction of these is a business in itself, a business that makes prostitution or the drug traffic seem quite respectable. It was bad enough to have the sub-human hucksters controlling radio, but television does something to you which radio never did. It prevents you from forming any kind of a mental picture and forces you to look at a caricature instead.
Letter to Dale Warren, November 7, 1951.
You ask me how anybody can survive Hollywood? Well, I must say that I personally had a lot of fun there. But how long you can survive depends a great deal on what sort of people you have to work with. You meet a lot of bastards, but they usually have some saving grace. A writer who can get himself teamed up with a director or a producer who will give him a square deal, a really square deal, can get a lot of satisfaction out of his work. Unfortunately that doesn't happen often. If you go to Hollywood just to make money, you have to be pretty cynical about it and not care too much what you do. And if you really believe in the art of the film, it's a long job and you really should forget about any other kind of writing. A preoccupation with words for their own sake is fatal to good film making. It's not what films are for. It's not my cup of tea, but it could have been if I'd started it twenty years earlier. But twenty years earlier of course I could never have got there, and that is true of a great many people. They don't want you until you have made a name, and you have developed some kind of talent which they can't use. The best scenes I ever wrote were practically monosyllabic. And the best short scene I ever wrote, by my own judgement, was one in which a girl said "uh-huh" three times with three different intonations, and that's all there was to it. The hell of good film writing is that the most important part is what is left out. It's left out because the camera and the actors can do it better and quicker, above all quicker. But it had to be there in the beginning.
Letter to Carl Brandt, regarding television, November 15, 1951.
However toplofty and idealistic a man may be, he can always rationalize his right to earn money. After all the public is entitled to what it wants. The Romans knew that and even they lasted four hundred years after they started to putrefy.