Two senior citizens of the cold war are chatting amiably over small cups of thick, sweet Cuban coffee in a Havana hotel. Bob Reynolds, tall and erect in his mid-70s, made clandestine trips to Havana for the CIA in the early years of the Cuban Revolution. And in Miami, as CIA station chief, he was in charge of recruiting thousands of tough young Castro-haters and turning them into a fighting force to invade Cuba. Comandante Ramiro Valdes, shorter, a few years younger than Reynolds, has a gray goatee reminiscent of Trotsky and an iron handshake. One of the most feared and respected men in Cuba, he was at Castro's side at all the major events of the revolution and became chief of state security after the 1959 victory.
Their encounter, counterspy and spy, was one of many head-turning vignettes at a historic meeting here in Havana, March 22-25, in which Americans and Cubans from all sides reconstructed and relived the April 17, 1961, Bay of Pigs invasion. On the Cuban side for three days of intense discussions were Fidel Castro and sixty of his top military leaders; the US delegation included five Cuban veterans of the CIA-trained 2506 Brigade, which carried out the invasion, and White House advisers Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Richard Goodwin.
"We talked as professional to professional," Reynolds said of his first-ever meeting with Valdes. "I congratulated him on the effectiveness of their system." Valdes had only a few months to organize islandwide security before the Bay of Pigs invasion. He rejected the notion that it was a draconian secret police system that doomed the effort. "I told [Reynolds] it was the total support of the people for the revolution," said Valdes.
Valdes disclosed that his security network quickly rounded up 20,000 suspected dissidents in the hours after the invasion began, squelching the US expectation that the invasion would set off mass rebellion and sabotage on the island. Valdes also revealed that Cuba had no intelligence from inside the 2506 Brigade itself. The Cubans knew from secondary sources and partly from US press accounts that an invasion was imminent but did not know the date or landing site. Security on the island, however, was so tight that according to Samuel Halpern, the other CIA official at the meeting, the CIA found it virtually impossible to plant agents anywhere but in rural areas. Halpern was the CIA's point man on Operation Mongoose--the Kennedy Administration special project against Castro that included intelligence collection, sabotage and assassination missions inside Cuba.
Castro sat across from Halpern and Reynolds, showing no sign of lingering hostility to the Americans and Cubans who had plotted his overthrow, even his death. On the contrary, the atmosphere was jovial, respectful. Castro--who missed not one minute of the presentations and himself talked in long half-hour and hour stretches--remarked at one point that it was more than respectful, it was friendly. At a final banquet, Castro used the word "family" to describe the conference participants and the frank, intimate exchanges. Once, José Ramon Fernandez, the Cuban battlefield general at the Bay of Pigs, called the anti-Castro troops mercenarios, and Fidel pointedly corrected him. "They're brigadistas," he said.
During a break, Castro rushed over for a private conversation with CIA official Reynolds after an exchange in which the Cuban side had been adamantly skeptical about Reynolds's denial that the CIA saboteurs had blown up a ship unloading weapons in Havana harbor in 1960. He shook hands and put his hands on Reynolds's shoulders, saying, "I don't want you to think we are trying to settle old scores."
The five members of the 2506 Brigade delegation were also frequently engrossed in deep conversation with Cuban officials, although Castro himself seemed to make a point of keeping them at arm's length. One brigade member, Roberto Carballo, who runs a hotel in Cancun, Mexico, has a long record of anti-Castro activities, including being named in newly declassified US documents as a suspect in terrorist activities in the 1970s.
The strongest disagreements at the meeting were among the members of the US delegation over the actions of President Kennedy and his Administration. Kennedy adviser Schlesinger presented a picture of Kennedy as trapped--inheriting an ill-conceived invasion plan from the previous Administration. There was the implication that CIA officials sold Kennedy a bill of goods: Schlesinger said Kennedy consistently refused to approve the direct use of US soldiers, but the CIA strategy seemed premised on the conviction that Kennedy would change his mind in the heat of battle and send in the Marines rather than allow the invasion to go down to ignominious defeat.
There was no disagreement on the US side that the invasion was ill conceived. Brigade member Alfredo Duran said the United States not only failed to invade but also abandoned the troops on the beach when it was clear that the invasion had failed. Duran said privately later that some of the brigade soldiers were so angry they fired their weapons at the US Navyships waiting offshore.
CIA official Halpern vigorously rebutted Schlesinger's scenario. The Kennedys were not so innocent, he insisted. He described a time shortly after the failed invasion when Richard Bissell Jr. was called to a meeting with Robert and John Kennedy. "Get rid of Castro, the Castro regime," Bissell said he was told. Halpern recounted, "I said what does 'get rid of' mean? And [Richard Bissell] said, 'Use your imagination.'" The result, Operation Mongoose, proposed thirty-two different measures, including assassination, to get rid of the regime.
The National Security Archive, a sponsor of the conference, presented a declassified document that refuted the idea that the CIA led Kennedy to believe that all would not be lost if the invasion failed, because the anti-Castro forces could melt into the mountains and continue guerrilla warfare. The document described a meeting in which a CIA official told Kennedy explicitly that in the event of a failure, the only alternative was to evacuate the invasion force.
Perhaps the most bitter exchange came from brigade member Luis Tornes, who said he became convinced that the United States intentionally sent the soldiers to their death in the hope that world opinion would blame Castro for mass murder. But Castro didn't cooperate, and instead took the surviving invaders prisoner and gave them medical treatment. About 120 of the 1,400 troops were killed in battle. Cuba eventually released all the prisoners after long negotiations.
For Castro and his men, Playa Giron (as they prefer to call the battle) was an unalloyed David and Goliath victory. But in the United States the battle is still construed as just another episode in a dictator's undemocratic survival. It is like much else in the tortured conflict between the United States and Cuba. History and common sense point to ending a standoff that has outlasted nine US Presidents and become an increasingly absurd post-cold war footnote. As they did at the meeting, Castro and his men couldn't proclaim more clearly their desire for respect from, if not friendship with, the United States. But it won't happen--not as long as the US Presidents who control the writing of that final chapter remain tangled in a trap of their own making, as was Kennedy when he launched the invasion forty years ago.
The Senate's passage of McCain-Feingold was welcome if only as a comeuppance to the Trent Lotts and Mitch McConnells who had arrogantly defied popular sentiment by keeping the bill under wraps for six years. There were several factors that made the time right for McFein--including a strategic calculation by the parties that they had reached soft-money parity--but paramount among them was the prevailing climate of popular disgust with the sale of the government to the highest bidder. For this the interest groups that helped raise public consciousness with a steady flow of statistics and gamy anecdotes about the American way of bribery and extortion deserve great credit. Even George Bush has mumbled that he would sign a campaign finance reform bill, which doesn't say much for present legislative efforts but is a tribute to the critical mass reached by pro-reform sentiment in the country.
The fact that the Senate was even able to debate the bill seemed a freshet of democracy released by a spring thaw. Once the threat of filibuster and suppression by the leadership was lifted, a feisty debate bloomed on the floor. During the colloquy ending in the 60-40 rejection of one "compromise" that would have repealed a 1907 law banning direct contributions from corporations, some of the fiercest denunciations of corporate influence were heard since, well, 1907. Although Paul Wellstone's amendment to allow states to apply public financing systems to their own federal office races failed, it drew the support of thirty-six senators and more than seventy major groups--labor,enviro, black, Latino, religious.
But let's not get carried away. The bill that finally passed does little to alter a system pushed to the brink of plutocracy by the obscene power of money (note Bush's tax cut, incorporated in the budget bill the Senate next took up, so blatantly weighted toward his wealthy supporters). And it bore little resemblance to the measure John McCain and Russ Feingold originally proposed, which promised a ban on unregulated soft money and "bundling" (whereby givers maximize their influence by pooling their contributions), limits on spending by candidates and political action committees and provisions for free TV time.
The struggle to win Republican co-sponsors cost the bill all these reforms save the soft-money ban. But coming off a 2000 campaign that saw an unregulated $500 million flush through the political process, the passage of that ban was a meaningful achievement. Not nearly so meaningful, however, as it would have been in combination with the original McCain-Feingold reforms, and even less meaningful after a final round of compromises doubled "hard money" contribution limits for individuals from $1,000 to $2,000, increased the amount individuals can donate to candidates and parties during an election cycle from $25,000 to $37,500 and limited communication between advocacy groups and campaigns so much that the bill could be read to restrict legitimate public-interest lobbying.
These "poison pills" proved too much to swallow for former McCain-Feingold backers at Public Campaign, the US Public Interest Research Group and the Alliance for Justice. Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. complained, "When you talk to people I represent about campaign finance reform, the first thing that comes to mind is not doubling the amount wealthy donors can give to campaigns."
Jackson and others can raise questions about the compromises that warped the Senate bill when the House finally debates its version of McFein, but they'll have a hard time making themselves heard in a body under the iron thumb of Tom DeLay, poster boy for everything that's corrupt about the current system. Also, Democratic leaders are having qualms, fearing that the GOP advantage in hard-money raising may kill their chances of financing a winning take-back-the-House-drive in '02. Even if a bill passes, it could be defanged in conference committee, giving Bush the innocuous bill he really wants to sign. And beyond that stretch inevitable court challenges.
Reformers should keep the heat on Congress with a new focus on the hard money system that constitutes the vast bulk of all campaign dollars. They should also understand that the real action will continue to be in the states, where "clean money" bills, which contain the true and only solution--full public financing of campaigns--are proliferating. Such laws have already been adopted by Arizona, Maine, Massachusetts (though statehouse Dems are shamefully trying to eviscerate the law) and Vermont, and drives to pass them are now under way in Connecticut, Minnesota, North Carolina and Wisconsin--and municipalities like Austin, Texas. Americans are well aware that their system is sick, and the Senate debate over McCain-Feingold has left them more open than ever to the heroic remedies needed to cure it.
HOW THE 'MAESTRO' HAS FALLEN
William Greider writes: While it is not exactly news that Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspanhas fallen from his state of infallible grace, the New York Times headline on April 2 still caused a rush: "Suddenly, Critics Are Taking Aim at Greenspan." When the Times announces this on its front page, it means Icarus is definitely losing altitude in elite opinion. The article itself was quite gentle, given the harsh things Wall Street traders and Main Street investors are saying about the chairman. Nevertheless, the report will perhaps embolden some members of Congress to begin a tougher inquiry. Why exactly did Greenspan launch his campaign against the economy back in 1999, steadily raising interest rates until the expansion faltered, then swooned? If he was slyly attempting to pop the stock-market bubble, he certainly succeeded. But in that case, why did he not use the Federal Reserve's credit-control mechanisms much earlier to contain the speculation before it unhinged economic balance? These and other questions about Fed policy ought to be examined by Congressional investigation, now that the maestro's baton is broken.
HISS & CHAMBERS: TRAFFICKING IN HISTORY
No sooner did "The Alger Hiss Story" premiere on the web (www.nyu.edu/hiss) and at a launch party in the Tamiment Library at New York University recently, than assorted sectarians--Rupert Murdoch's Weekly Standard and other cold warriors who have yet to lay down their arms--leaped into the fray. Why bother with a pro-Hiss website, asked the Standard (pointing out that the Nation Institute was one of its facilitators), when Whittaker Chambers's "monumental" book Witness tells you all you need to know about the case? Hiss's son, Tony, archivist Jeff Kisseloff and assorted scholars who helped build the site made clear at the launch their joint goal: a site that makes the case for the defense but will ultimately be the definitive depository of documents and scholarly research related to the case. One of the peculiarities of the post-cold war period is that those who keep vociferously proclaiming each new archival find the final nail in Hiss's coffin never seem willing to examine the evidence too closely. Truth be told, the Standard would prefer to let the case rest with Chambers, whose farm, his last resting place, was declared, over the objections of the National Park Service, a National Historic Landmark by the Reagan Administration in 1988. Perhaps traffic will decide the matter. When last asked, the Park Service estimated to historian Jon Wiener that two people a year go there. Maybe the Hiss website can do better.
NEWS OF THE WEAK IN REVIEW
What was the story of Dan Rather's accidental appearance at a Democratic fundraiser in Texas doing on the front page of the April 4 Washington Post? If Rather unknowingly appeared at such an event, that's news, though perhaps not as big a story as Fox anchor Tony Snow's knowingly writing for an official GOP website. Rather was drawn into the appearance by an old friend and by his daughter, who appears to be considering a political career. Should he have looked into it more carefully before agreeing to show up? Surely. Should he have left once he discovered the nature of the gathering? That's arguable.What's odd, though, is that the Post believes that in the midst of a crisis with China and a collapse in the stock market, Rather's appearance at a local Texas event was front-page news. Could its front-page treatment of Rather, long a bête noire of the right, be an effort to distance itself from the "liberal media" the Bush people have been shunning recently? Much the same kind of sucking-up by the Post and other papers happened during the Reagan Administration twenty years ago, and believe us, it's no prettier today.
In the words of the old folk song, "When will they ever learn?" David Horowitz, former radical who these days is in the business of promoting (1) neoconservatism and (2) David Horowitz (although not necessarily in that order), has done it again. A few weeks ago he placed an ad in the Brown Daily Herald denouncing--in deliberately offensive terms--the idea that black descendants of slaves should be paid reparations. Instead of ignoring, answering or ridiculing the ad, Brown student activists denounced the Herald and trashed most of its 4,000-copy press run, thus giving the demagogic provocateur undeserved high ground.
As our own Katha Pollitt put it in a cyberconversation, "Publish it and then attack it, mock it, parody it, I say. Use it as a springboard for a teach-in, discuss it in classes.... Shutting down a discussion doesn't change anyone's mind or introduce any new information--and the views Horowitz expresses are held in whole or in part by many people. What message do they get if a paper won't print them? That the real truth is too threatening to publish. It's always better to promote speech than to silence people. Force those views out into the open and have a debate. That's how minds are changed."
As far as advertising policy goes, we believe that it is the prerogative of the Herald and the other college papers targeted by Horowitz to accept or to turn down ads they consider repellent, at their discretion. At The Nation, however, we start with the presumption that we will accept advertising even if the views exposed are repugnant to some of the editors. In fact, we go out of our way to refrain from making a judgment based on our opinions of the views expressed in an advertisement.
We are comfortable with this policy--although it occasionally discomforts some of our subscribers--because our editors are free to attack the views of our advertisers and often do; because for the reasons Katha lists above, we have confidence that our readers are more than capable of determining for themselves what views to accept or reject; and because we accept advertising not to further the views of The Nation but to help pay the costs of publishing.
We recognize that other papers can reasonably come to a different conclusion about which ads go over the line, but in this case our view is that if a right-wing propagandist like Horowitz is foolish enough to put his money at our disposal, then it would be foolish for us to turn it down.
We're pleased to announce that Jamie Lincoln Kitman's special report, "The Secret History of Lead" (March 20, 2000), has been awarded the Investigative Reporters and Editors' highest honor for 2000: the IRE Medal. The IRE, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the quality of investigative reporting, singled out Kitman's revelations of continuing sales of leaded gas to the Third World after it was banned in the United States in 1986 and said that his report "reads like a classic turn-of-the-century muckraking piece.... The research manifested here is nothing short of breathtaking." The article was made possible by a grant from the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute.
The arrest in France of James Kopp, the accused assassin of Buffalo obstetrician Barnett Slepian, could not have come at a more awkward time for the Bush Administration. Bush inaugurates himself by blocking aid to international family planning agencies and by nominating antiabortion fanatics to run the Justice Department. Then fugitive Kopp surfaces to remind the American public of where these bottom-line commitments lead.
In 1994 Bill Clinton's Justice Department initiated a grand jury inquiry into abortion-clinic violence. But FBI agents grumbled that Justice was wasting their time, and the grand jury folded its tent in January of 1996 after finding no evidence of a national conspiracy. Five years later, it's clear that Kopp--accused in three nonfatal shootings in Canada and the United States in addition to the murder of Dr. Slepian--had a lot of help, the kind of help for which "conspiracy" is the operative legal term.
So far, investigators have arrested two antiabortion felons in Brooklyn--Dennis Malvasi, convicted of a 1987 clinic bombing in Manhattan, and Loretta Marra, who blockaded clinics with Kopp. They sent Kopp money and stayed in touch with him through a Yahoo drop box. The circle is almost certainly wider--and transnational. For the past year Kopp lived in Ireland, bunking in hostels and mingling with the fundamentalist breakaway Catholic sect founded by excommunicated Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. Kopp managed to acquire at least two separate Irish identities and passports for himself and a blank Irish passport and birth certificates for his New York friends, and someone in Ireland vouched for his references for an employment agency--all of which makes it obvious that his was not a solo act. Ireland's right-to-life leaders deny any connection to the assassin, and it's entirely possible that his support network was American. In the last half-decade US antiabortion campaigners have moved on Ireland in a big way, introducing a militancy previously unknown there.
Speculation necessarily swirls around the followers of the Rev. Patrick Mahoney of the Washington-based Christian Defense Coalition. In March 1999 Mahoney led a brigade of forty Americans to Dublin, where they occupied the offices of the Irish Family Planning Association and taught their Irish counterparts all-American blockade-and-intimidation techniques. Indeed, only a day before Kopp's arrest, Mahoney was slapped with an Irish court injunction prohibiting him from further harassing the IFPA. Mahoney had tolerant words in 1997 after Slepian's shooting, and responded to Kopp's arrest by warning the Bush Administration not to "harass and intimidate the pro-life movement."
It can't escape notice that the Kopp conspiracy began to unravel just as the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit overturned a jury verdict and injunction on the Nuremberg Files website, which displays photos of abortion providers and a list with a strike through the names of assassinated physicians. On March 28 the Ninth Circuit unanimously found, in the words of presiding Judge Alex Kozinski, that if the website's rhetoric "merely encouraged unrelated terrorists," it is protected by the First Amendment.
Kate Michelman of NARAL called the ruling "a major setback for a woman's right to choice," and along with Planned Parenthood vowed to pursue the case to the Supreme Court. To me, Kopp's overdue arrest suggests a different conclusion. There can be no doubt that the Nuremberg Files website contributed to a climate of fear--that the website is the theory and James Kopp's rifle is the practice. Yet the emerging facts of Kopp's flight make it clear that keeping The Nuremberg Files off the Internet would not have saved Dr. Slepian or brought the shooter to justice. The important thing is to investigate real antichoice gangsterism, real shootings, real escape routes. The important thing is to insist on the continuity between Kopp and the "respectable" antiabortion agenda of the White House. Bush and Ashcroft have been assiduously working to accomplish by executive order what Kopp attempted with a gun: diminishing the availability of abortion and thus undermining a civil right. This, and the climate of fear generated by clinic violence, must be fought with politics, not censorship. And the recent rise of police surveillance aimed at antiglobalization protesters only makes more clear the danger of prosecuting an inflammatory publication as if it were the hand that smashed the windowpane or pulled the trigger.
Kopp's arrest is full of ironies. The most antichoice Attorney General in US history is now stuck prosecuting an antichoice assassin; an Administration wild about the death penalty must forgo capital punishment to secure Kopp's extradition because France opposes it. It would be a final, and tragic, irony if prochoice advocates permit antiabortion thugs like Mahoney to play the martyr--drawing attention away from the very violence they have nurtured.
Remember the term "useful idiots"? Those were the well-meaning leftists who during the cold war couldn't distinguish between the beautiful dream of communism and the murderous reality of Soviet Stalinism. They blinded themselves to tyranny and weakened the democratic left by inviting redbaiting demagogues like Joe McCarthy and Roy Cohn to tar anticommunist socialists and liberals with the same Stalinite brush.
In the case of 28-year-old James Murdoch, chairman and chief executive of Star TV and the scion and possible heir to Rupert's massive media empire, the term "idiot" may be overly generous. Speaking to a Milken Institute gathering in Los Angeles shortly before the Chinese captured a US spy plane and held its crew, the onetime college dropout sang the praises of the Communist oppressors in Beijing in terms that might have made Mao blush. He attacked the global media for its coverage of Chinese human rights abuses, insisting that "destabilizing forces today are very, very dangerous for the Chinese government." He instructed Hong Kong's brave champions of democracy to accept the fact of an "absolutist" government. And he all but endorsed the persecution of what he called the "dangerous" and "apocalyptic" Falun Gong religious movement, which "clearly does not have the success of China at heart." (Some 150 adherents of the group have died in police custody and another 10,000 are currently in prison.)
The reason "idiot" is overly kind is that young Murdoch need only read his own publications to learn the truth about his beloved tyrants. According to the editors of the Murdoch-owned Weekly Standard, "China is the largest and most powerful despotism in the world" and a military threat to the United States, while "Communists, who cannot justify their dictatorial rule except by appeal to 'stability,' must inevitably behave this way: constantly inventing new 'instabilities'--and crushing them."
When I called various journalistic members of the conservative Murdoch fraternity--few of whom are ever at a loss for words--none were available to respond to the comments of young James. Over at Fox News, network president Roger Ailes and talk-show hosts Tony Snow and loudmouth Bill O'Reilly were unavailable. Mum was the word for New York Post editor in chief Ken Chandler as well as for Bob McManus, who edits the paper's editorial page, usually eager to scream at the top of its (metaphorical) lungs at the slightest provocation. Over at the Weekly Standard, editor and publisher William Kristol, executive editor Fred Barnes and senior writer Christopher Caldwell were apparently too busy to return my calls. Opinion editor David Tell was kind enough to point me to the article containing the above quotes but would say nothing about the magazine's proprietors. Senior editor and bestselling swami David Brooks was all charm and no information: "I'm sorry. I'm having some computer problems. At first I thought you were asking me to comment on the son of my employer. Must be some garble."
The issue is not exactly a new one for News Corp. employees. Rupert Murdoch has been the nation's most notorious Communist fellow-traveler for years. In hopes of protecting his considerable investments in China, he has proved willing to kick the BBC off his satellite network, cancel unfavorable books and pay millions to publish unreadable propaganda to curry favor with China's Communist gerontocracy.
Nevertheless, David Tell is correct when he points out that the Standard's editorial independence on the issue speaks for itself--and speaks pretty well. As Michael Kinsley has explained, it's just plain stupid to wait around for Slate "to give Microsoft the skeptical scrutiny it requires as a powerful institution in American society," and so it would be wishful thinking to hope that Standard editors would apply the same nasty epithets they like to trot out for honest liberals to the lying commie-boot-lickers who sign their checks. (Though now might be a good time for the magazine to apologize for the reprehensible slander it published, under Robert Novak's byline, attacking posthumously the good name of I.F. Stone, who denounced Soviet atrocities at considerable personal cost before most of its editors were born and, on his deathbed, defended the democratic dissidents in Tiananmen Square.)
Writing on his vanity website, Andrew Sullivan tsk-tsks the Standard's refusal to condemn the Murdochs, insisting, "A good test of any magazine's editorial integrity is its ability to criticize its proprietor." By that standard, The Nation should be Sullivan's favorite magazine, but I'll buy him dinner at Le Cirque if he can unearth a New Republic editorial attacking owner Marty Peretz's comically obsessive Jewish xenophobia and anti-Arab racism. And of course one doesn't read much about the dangers of cults that prey on confused young teenagers in the pages of Sun Myung Moon's Washington Times. Even Inside.com, which specializes in Talmudic real-time coverage of exactly the kind of deal its parent company, Powerful Media, recently made with Steven Brill, preferred to see its competitors break the news before publishing David Carr's terrifically Talmudic coverage of it.
When it comes to their owners, most publications find silence to be golden. The problem is not so much with the somewhat defensible hypocrisy of the Weekly Standard editors but with the larger picture it paints of the conservative movement. Whatdoes it mean for the right that its most generous patron openly sides not only with Communist totalitarians but also with the regime that these same conservatives have identified as the number-one security threat to the United States? The Wall Street Journal editorial page has acquitted itself honorably in this regard, publishing a blistering attack on the Murdochs by its deputy editorial features editor, Tunku Varadarajan. But where are the Buckleys and Bennetts of yesteryear? Has the fact that Murdoch shells out salaries for virtually the entire Podhoretz family managed to shut them up as apparently no other force in the universe can? Are the rabbis of redbaiting now stamping Communism kosher for Passover? Why is it so hard to find a good right-wing anti-Communist when you finally need one?
To put it all in a nutshell, come the month of May Edward Said won't be traveling to Vienna; Susan Sontag will be traveling to Jerusalem.
It's a backhanded tribute to his effectiveness as a spokesman for the Palestinian cause that the attacks on the Palestinian Said have, across the past couple of years, reached new levels of envenomed absurdity.
The latest uproar over Said concerns a trip to Lebanon he made last summer, in the course of which he and his family took the opportunity to travel to the recently evacuated "security zone" formerly occupied by Israeli forces. First they visited the terrible Khiam prison and torture center, then a deserted border post, abandoned by Israeli troops and now crowded with festive Lebanese exuberantly throwing stones at the heavily fortified border.
In competitive emulation of his son, Said pitched a stone and was photographed in the act. You can scarcely blame the man for being stunned at the consequences. Throw a rock at a border fence, and if you are a Palestinian called Edward Said you'll be the object of sharply hostile articles about the infamous stone toss in the New York Times, face a campaign to be fired from your tenured job at Columbia University and--this is the latest at time of writing--be disinvited by the Freud Society and Museum in Vienna from a longstanding engagement to deliver the annual Freud lecture there in May. (To its credit, Columbia stands by him and says the calls for his removal are preposterous and offensive.)
What, aside from being an articulate Palestinian, is Said's crime? As he himself has written, while "I have always advocated resistance to Zionist occupation, I have never argued for anything but peaceful coexistence between us and the Jews of Israel once Israel's military repression and dispossession of Palestinians has stopped." Perhaps that's the problem. Said makes a reasoned and persuasive case for justice for Palestinians. He doesn't say that the Jews should be driven into the sea. These, not the fanatics, are the dangerous folks.
Let us now contemplate the role of Susan Sontag, another public intellectual of large reputation. You can pretty much gauge a writer's political sedateness and respectability in America by the kind of awards they reap, and it is not unfair to say that the literary and indeed grant-distributing establishment deems Sontag safe. Aside from the 2000 National Book Award for her latest novel, In America, she received in 1990 the liberal imprimatur of a five-year (and richly endowed) "genius" fellowship from the MacArthur Foundation, which once contemplated giving just such a fellowship to Said but retreated after furious protests from one influential Jewish board member, Saul Bellow.
Now Sontag has been named the Jerusalem Prize laureate for 2001, twentieth recipient of the biennial award since its inauguration in 1963. The award, worth $5,000, along with a scroll issued by the mayor of Jerusalem, is proclaimedly given to writers whose works reflect the freedom of the individual in society.
Sontag was selected by a three-member panel of judges, comprising the Labor Party's Shimon Peres (now Ariel Sharon's foreign minister) and two Hebrew University professors, Lena Shiloni and Shimon Sandbank. Peres approvingly cited Sontag's description of herself: "First she's Jewish, then she's a writer, then she's American. She lives Israel with emotion and the world with obligation." When notified of her latest accolade, Sontag's response was, "I trust you have some idea of how honored and moved, deeply moved, I am to have been awarded this year's Jerusalem Prize." Sontag is now scheduled to go to Jerusalem for the May 9 awards ceremony.
Why dwell on the mostly tarnished currency of international literary backslapping? I do so to make a couple of points concerning double standards. American intellectuals can be nobly strident in protesting the travails of East Timorese, Rwandans, Central American peasants, Chechens and other beleaguered groups. But for almost all of them the Palestinians and their troubles have always been invisible.
It can scarcely be said that Sontag is a notably political writer. But there was an issue of the 1990s on which she did raise her voice. Along with her son, David Rieff, Sontag became a passionate advocate of NATO intervention against Yugoslavia, or, if you prefer, Serbia. On May 2, 1999, Sontag wrote an essay in the New York Times Magazine, "Why Are We in Kosovo?" urgently justifying NATO's intervention. "What if the French Government began slaughtering large numbers of Corsicans and driving the rest out of Corsica...or the Italian Government began emptying out Sicily or Sardinia, creating a million refugees...?"
Sontag cannot be entirely unaware of a country at the eastern end of the Mediterranean from which at least 750,000 residents have been expelled. She has always been appreciative of irony. Does she see no irony in the fact that she, assiduous critic of Slobodan Milosevic, is now planning to travel to get a prize in Israel, currently led by a man, Ariel Sharon, whose credentials as a war criminal are robust? Does Sontag see no irony in getting a prize premised on the recipient's sensitivity to issues of human freedom, in a society where the freedom of Palestinians is unrelentingly suppressed? Imagine what bitter words she would have been ready to hurl at a writer voyaging to the Serb portion of Sarajevo to receive money and a fulsome scroll from Radovan Karadzic or Milosevic, praising her commitment to freedom of the individual.
Yet here she is, packing her bags to travel to a city over which Sharon declares Israel's absolute and eternal control--in violation of international law--and whose latest turmoils he personally provoked by insisting on traveling under the protection of a thousand soldiers to provoke Palestinians in their holy places.
When the South African writer Nadine Gordimer was offered the Jerusalem Prize a number of years ago, she declined, saying she did not care to travel from one apartheid society to another. But to take that kind of position in the United States would be a risky course for a prudent intellectual. Said knows he lives in a glass house, yet he had the admirable effrontery to throw his stone.
It's cherry blossom time in Washington, DC, and there's no better place to retreat from the lobbyist feeding ground that is called the US Congress than the Franklin Delano Roosevelt memorial. The stench of the trough recedes, and the optimism of spring is restored as one wanders down the beautiful Cherry Walk along the Tidal Basin to absorb the words of a president who cared so deeply about putting government at the service of all.
At the Capitol, the avarice of the over-represented rich and powerful is on sickening display as their lackeys rush to pass the current President's plans to stuff the pockets of their kith and kin. This is a President who never learned that it's possible to be a leader born of privilege and yet be absorbed with the fate of those in need.
Not so Roosevelt, a true aristocrat whose genuine love of the common man united this country to save it during its most severe time of economic turmoil and devastating world war. At the memorial, his words, cut in granite, are a stark reminder of how far greed has taken us from the simple but eloquent notion of economic justice that sixty-four years ago a President dared embrace:
"The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little."
Does George W. Bush not know there are tens of millions in this country, many of them children, who have too little? Is it conceivable that he believes the best way to serve them is a tax cut whose main purpose is to add to the abundance of the super-rich? We may no longer be the nation that Roosevelt saw as one-third "ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished," but we are uncomfortably close.
Rich people can be progressive, as Roosevelt so admirably demonstrated, but only when they step out of their own too-comfortable skins, a feat Bush the Younger has yet to attempt. Roosevelt, like Bush, was raised by servants, but for FDR they became the constituency he most faithfully served.
Objecting to Bush's feed-the-rich policies is not class warfare, as GOP reactionaries claim, but rather a rational attempt to save capitalism from its worst excesses. That's why more than 800 wealthy Americans, led by Warren Buffet and Bill Gates Sr., have risen to decry the proposed repeal of the estate tax, which would further exacerbate class differences based on accident of birth.
Even more obscene is the Bush administration's attempt to blame environmental safeguards for poverty when it's the poor who are stuck with toxic land and foul water. Roosevelt was ever mindful, as this administration isn't, that it's counterproductive when economic crisis is used as an excuse to rape the environment. In his message to Congress on January 24, 1935, Roosevelt warned: "Men and nature must work hand in hand. The throwing out of balance of the resources of nature throws out of balance also the lives of men."
That was said in the midst of the country's deepest economic depression, yet now we have the sight of our presumed leader smashing environmental safeguards when faced with the prospect of a mild recession.
Finally, what Roosevelt and his saintly wife, Eleanor, brought to Washington, and which Bush seems bent on denigrating, is a respect for government as an indispensable ally to our betterment. At the FDR memorial, one is overwhelmed by the breadth of Roosevelt's achievements in putting the power of the government at the service of the people. Projects that transformed this nation, ranging from the Tennessee Valley Authority, which brought electricity to vast darkened swaths of this nation, to the Works Progress Administration, which treated artists not as a suspect and subversive cadre but rather as an indispensable source of light in the bleakest of times.
There was no rural hovel or city ghetto beyond the reach of FDR's government. When Roosevelt died, I was a young kid living in a Bronx tenement being raised by a family of often unemployed workers, until Roosevelt became our salvation. Millions like us, of all ages, poured into the streets at the news of FDR's death, crying from love but also from fear that the man who had stood between us and the abyss was no longer our President.
Secretary of State Colin Powell, who lived a few subway stops from my neighborhood, and who was in my class at the publicly funded City College of New York, has written in his autobiography that he and his family felt the same way about Roosevelt. Maybe he should take his boss down to the FDR memorial some quiet night to consider a new role model.
Jean Clair, director of the Musée Picasso in Paris and widely respected both as scholar and art critic, has for some years been out of sympathy with contemporary art. When he and I shared a platform in the Netherlands a year ago, he spoke of a new aesthetic marked, in his view, by repulsion, abjection, horror and disgust. I have been brooding on this ever since, and particularly on disgust as an aesthetic category. For disgust, in Jean Clair's view, is a common trait, a family resemblance of the art produced today not only in America and Western Europe but even in the countries of Central Europe recently thrown open to Western modernity. We do not have in English the convenient antonymy between goût (taste) and dégoût (disgust) that licenses his neat aphoristic representation of what has happened in art over the past some decades: From taste...we have passed on to disgust. But inasmuch as taste was the pivotal concept when aesthetics was first systematized in the eighteenth century, it would be a conceptual revolution if it had been replaced by disgust. I have never, I think, heard "disgusting!" used as an idiom of aesthetic approbation, but it would perhaps be enough if art were in general admired when commonly acknowledged to be disgusting. It is certainly the case that beauty has become a ground for critical suspicion, when its production was widely regarded as the point and purpose of art until well into the twentieth century.
Though "disgusting" has a fairly broad use as an all-around pejorative, it also refers to a specific feeling, noticed by Darwin in his masterpiece, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, as excited by anything unusual in the appearance, odor or nature of our food. It has little to do with literal taste. Most of us find the idea of eating cockroaches disgusting, but for just that reason few really know how cockroaches taste. The yogurt that sports a mantle of green fuzz--to cite an example recently mentioned in a New Yorker story--may be delicious and even salubrious if eaten, but it elicits shrieks of disgust when seen. A smear of soup in a man's beard looks disgusting, though there is of course nothing disgusting in the soup itself, to use one of Darwin's examples. There is nothing disgusting in the sight of a baby with food all over its face, though, depending on circumstances, we may find it disgusting that a grown man's face should be smeared with marinara sauce.
Like beauty, disgust is in the mind of the beholder, but it is one of the mechanisms of acculturation, and there is remarkably little variation in our schedules of what disgusts. So disgust is an objective component in the forms of life that people actually live. The baby is very quickly taught to wipe its face lest others find it disgusting, and we hardly can forbear reaching across the table to remove a spot of chocolate from someone's face--not for their sake but for our own. What he speaks of as "core disgust" has become a field of investigation for Jon Haidt, a psychologist at the University of Virginia. He and his associates set out to determine the kinds or domains of experience in which Americans experience disgust. Foods, body products and sex, not unexpectedly, got high scores when people were queried on their most disgusting experiences. Subjects also registered disgust in situations in which the normal exterior envelope of the body is breached or altered. I was philosophically illuminated to learn that of fifty authenticated feral children, none evinced disgust at all. But I am also instructed by the fact that my cultural counterparts are disgusted by what disgusts me, more or less.
This overall consensus encourages me to speculate that most of us would unhesitatingly find the characteristic work of the artist Paul McCarthy, largely live and video performance, disgusting. There may be--there doubtless is--more to McCarthy's art than this, but whatever further it is or does depends, it seems to me, on the fact that it elicits disgust. It may, for example, debunk a false idealism McCarthy regards as rampant in Hollywood films, advertising and folklore, as one commentator writes. But it achieves this just so far as it is disgusting. It may relentlessly and rigorously probe the airbrushed innocence of family entertainment to reveal its seamy psychic underpinnings, to cite another critic. So it may show what really underlies it all, the way the worm-riddled backside of certain Gothic sculptures whose front sides were of attractive men and women were intended to underscore our common mortality. But that does not erase the fact that maggots count as disgusting. So possibly McCarthy is a kind of moralist, and his works are meant to awaken us to awful truths and their disgustingness as a means to edificatory ends. That still leaves intact the revulsion their contemplation evokes. Disgust is not something that can easily be disguised. Beautiful art, Kant wrote, can represent as "beautiful things which may be in nature ugly or displeasing." But the disgusting is the only "kind of ugliness which cannot be represented in accordance with its nature without destroying all aesthetic satisfaction."
"Nothing is so much set against the beautiful as disgust," Kant wrote in an earlier essay. So it is all the more striking that McCarthy's commentators attempt to find his work beautiful after all. I wanted to think about the question of beauty in your work, an interviewer murmured, to move from the manifest to the latent. The New York Times speaks of the "unlikely beauty of the work," adding that it is "not standard beauty, obviously, but a beauty of commitment and absorption." I have to believe that McCarthy's perceptions can be very little different from the rest of ours. He has, indeed, almost perfect pitch for disgust elicitors, and accordingly making the art he does must be something of an ordeal. That may have the moral beauty that undergoing ordeals possesses, especially when undertaken for the larger welfare. But if it is that sort of ordeal, then it has by default to be disgusting. As the Gothic statuary demonstrates--or for that matter, the history of showing the fleshly sufferings of Christ and the martyrs--artists down the ages have had recourse to some pretty disgusting images for the ultimate benefit of their viewers. (Taking on the iconography of Disneyland, as he does, is hardly commensurate with overcoming Satan's power, but I'll give McCarthy the benefit of the doubt.)
Something over three decades of McCarthy's work is on view through May 13 at New York's New Museum of Contemporary Art in SoHo, and since he is widely admired by the art establishment, here and abroad, there are prima facie reasons for those interested in contemporary art to experience it. The disgusting works have mainly to do with food, but--citing Haidt--disgust is, at its core, an oral defense. There is no actual gore, though McCarthy uses food to evoke the images of gore. Similarly, there are no actual envelope violations; no one is actually cut open. But again, various accessories, like dolls and sacks, are enlisted to convey the idea that the exterior envelope of the body is breached or violated. McCarthy makes liberal use of ketchup in his performances, and in interviews speaks of the disagreeable smell of ketchup in large quantities. That is part of what I have in mind in speaking of his art-making in terms of ordeal. There may or may not be actual shit, but chocolate is what one might call the moral equivalent of feces, as you can verify through watching a few minutes of his Santa Chocolate Shop. Karen Finley used only chocolate to cover her body in the performance that landed her in hot water with the National Endowment for the Arts a few years ago--but everyone knew what she was getting at.
The use of foodstuffs distinguishes McCarthy's art from that of the so-called Vienna Actionists of the 1960s--Hermann Nitsch and Otto Mühl are perhaps the best known, though the actor Rudolf Schwarzkogler attained a happily unmerited notoriety through the rumor that he cut bits of his penis off in successive performances of Penis Action. The Actionists made use of real blood and excrement, and excited at least the illusion of humiliation through such happenings as that in which a broken egg was dripped into Mühl's mouth from the vagina of a menstruating woman. They were heavily into desecration. McCarthy is pretty cheery alongside these predecessors. His work refers to nursery rhymes and children's stories, and he makes use of stuffed animals and dolls, often secondhand, and costumes as well as rubber masks from the joke shop. Some writers have described McCarthy as a shaman, but he rightly sees that as something of a stretch: "My work is more about being a clown than a shaman," he has said. As a clown, he fits into the soiled toy lands of his mise en scènes, which kick squalor up a couple of notches, as Emeril Lagasse likes to say when he gives the pepper mill a few extra turns.
The clown persona is central to what within the constraints of McCarthy's corpus might be regarded as his chef-d'oeuvre, Bossy Burger (1991). But he worked his way up to the creation of this role through a sequence of performances. In these, he stuffed food in his pants, covered his head with ketchup, mimicked childbirth using ketchup-covered dolls as props. In one, or so I have read, he placed his penis inside a mustard-covered hot dog bun and then proceeded to fill his mouth to the point of gagging with ketchup-slathered franks. Throughout, food was placed in proximity to parts of the body with which food has no customary contact. But many human beings are reluctant to touch food that has merely been left untouched on the plates of strangers. Disgust is a defensive reflex, connected with fear, even if we know the food that evokes it is perfectly safe and edible. That is why there is so strong a contrast between beauty and disgust: Beauty attracts.
McCarthy got the idea of using food as the medium of his performances in the course of searching for a very basic kind of activity. Inevitably, he had to deal with disgust, which is inseparable from eating as symbolically charged conduct. It is understandable that he would stop performing for live audiences (as he did in 1983) and begin to devise a form of theater to put a distance between himself and his viewers. I would not care to perform Bossy Burger a second time, even if I had the stomach to perform it once. It is perhaps part of the magic of theater that disgust survives as an affect, even through the video screen. It doesn't help to know it is only ketchup.
The action of Bossy Burger transpires in what in fact was a studio set for a children's television program, and the set--a hamburger stand--is exhibited as an installation. It shows the damage inflicted on it by the performance, and looking in through the open wall--or the windows--we see an utterly nauseating interior, with dried splotches and piles of food pretty much everywhere. It has the look of California Grunge, as we encountered it in the work of Ed Kienholz. A double monitor outside the set shows, over and over, McCarthy's character, togged out in chef's uniform and toque--and wearing the Alfred E. Neuman mask that connotes imbecility--grinning his way through fifty-nine minutes of clownishly inept food preparation. Thus he pours far more ketchup into a sort of tortilla than it can possibly hold, folds it over with the ketchup squishing out and moves on to the next demonstrations. These involve milk and some pretty ripe turkey parts. The character is undaunted as his face, garments and hands quickly get covered with what we know is ketchup but looks like blood, so he quickly takes on the lookof a mad butcher. He piles the seat of a chair with food. He makes cheerful noises as he bumbles about the kitchen or moves to other parts of the set, singing, "I love my work, I love my work." Everything bears the mark of his cheerful ineptitude. At one point he uses the swinging door to spank himself, but it is difficult to believe this constitutes self-administered punishment. He looks through an opening at the world outside. McCarthy says he envisioned this chef as a trapped person, but whether that is an external judgment or actually felt by the character is impossible to decide from the work itself. Viewers may find themselves wanting to laugh, but a certain kind of compassion takes over. Perhaps it is a test for tenderness. Whatever the case, even writing about Bossy Burger makes me feel queasy.
You won't get much relief by looking at Family Tyranny, in which the character uses mayonnaise and sings, "Daddy came home from work" as he prepares to do unspeakable things to his children. "They're only dolls" helps about as much as "It's only art" does, which underscores Kant's point about disgust. Painter mercifully turns to other substances in its slapstick comedy about the art world. McCarthy plays the role of art star, wearing a sort of hospital gown, a blond wig and huge rubber hands, and he has a kind of balloon by way of a nose. Everyone else in the action--his dealer and his collectors--wears the same kind of nose, which perhaps caricatures the hypertrophied sensitivity that exposure to art might be thought to bring. At one point, the Painter climbs onto a sort of pedestal as an art-lover kneels to smell his ass. In another action, he chops away at one of his fingers with a cleaver, and crows OK! when it comes off. This belongs to the iconography of self-mutilation that has, since van Gogh--and perhaps Schwarzkogler--become an ingredient in our myth of the true artist. The Painter's studio is filled with huge tubes of paint (one of them labeled shit), and he parodies the Abstract Expressionist address to painting by slapping pigment wildly here and there, rolling it onto a table and then pressing his canvas down onto the paint while pushing it back and forth, all the while singing some version of "Pop Goes the Weasel." Paint, food and blood serve throughout McCarthy's work as symbolic equivalents. I could not suppress the thought that Painter is a kind of self-portrait--there are photographs elsewhere in the show of an early performance in which McCarthy frantically whipped a paint-laden blanket against a wall and window until they were covered with pigment.
It will be apparent that I am a squeamish person, an occupational impediment for an art critic if Jean Clair is right about the new aesthetic (for my response to that contention, see www.toutfait.com/issues/ issue_3/News/Danto/danto.html). I am not, however, disposed to prudery, though I have a strong memory of a certain visceral discomfort when I was first writing on Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs. McCarthy's Spaghetti Man I thought was pretty funny. It is a sculpture, 100 inches tall, of a kind of bunny, wearing a plastic grin of self-approval. It could easily be on sale at F.A.O. Schwarz were it not that the bunny has a fifty-foot penis, which coils like a plastic hose on the floor beneath him. It is a kind of comment, but from an unusual direction, on Dr. Ruth's reassuring mantra for insecure males that Size Doesn't Matter. It really does matter from the perspective of masculine vanity, even if Spaghetti Man's organ would put too great a distance between himself and a partner for any show of tenderness during coitus. So its message may well be that we should be grateful for what we've got.
I don't have anything very good to say about The Garden, an installation of McCarthy's on view at Deitch Projects, 18 Wooster Street. The garden consists of fake trees and plants--it was a movie set--in which one sees--Eek!--two animatronic male figures, one doing the old in-and-out with a knothole in one of the trees, the other with a hole in the ground. Some ill-advised writers have compared the work to Duchamp's strangely magical last work, Étant Donnés, where one sees a pink female nude, legs spread, sharing a landscape with a waterfall and a gas lamp. The masturbations in The Garden are too robotic for mystery, and the meaning of all that effort too jejune to justify the artistic effort. Cultural Gothic, a pendant to The Garden, is in the main body of the show at the New Museum. It is a life-size sculpture of a neatly dressed father and son engaged in a rite de passage in which the son is enjoying sex with a compliant goat. Whether the motor was in its dormant phase or the electricity not working--or the museum inhibited by some failure of nerve--there was no motion when I saw it. I thought that an improvement, but purists might think otherwise.
The conflict in Kargil took place in the summer of 1999. It was the fourth war between India and Pakistan since their emergence as independent nations in 1947, but this was the first that the two had fought as nuclear powers. A few months after the cease-fire, Bill Clinton made a trip, the last official visit of his presidency to the Indian subcontinent. Before leaving the United States, he described the region he was about to visit as "the most dangerous place in the world today."
Around the time of Clinton's visit to India, a small incident took place in a town called Marcel, near Goa. An Indian schoolteacher named Dharmanand Kholkar was assaulted because of a question he had posed on a test. Kholkar had asked his students to imagine a fictional scenario. An Indian soldier, injured during the Kargil war, finds himself in a Pakistani hospital. The soldier is surprised to be alive and asks why he has been shown such consideration. A Pakistani soldier replies that they are both soldiers and human beings. Kholkar asked his students to state the moral of the story.
Angered by this presentation of the Pakistani soldier in a good light, a mob attacked Kholkar and blackened his face. The attackers were members of the Sangh Parivar, the fundamentalist Hindu group close to India's ruling right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, the BJP. This brand of ultranationalism and sectarian politics has taken root in both India and Pakistan, a phenomenon explained thusly by the late Eqbal Ahmad in a book of collected interviews, Confronting Empire: "We are so-and-so because we are not the Other. We are what we are because we are different from the West, or from the Muslims, or from the Hindus, or from the Jews, or from the Christians. It necessarily leads to extreme distortions."
The distortions that Ahmad is speaking of are actually part of the official, sanctioned histories. They claim as casualties not only truth but also the education of youth in the rival nations when they are taught in schools to hate--a theme implicit not just in Ahmad's final work but in books by Indian journalists Praful Bidwai and Achin Vanaik, and the academic Urvashi Butalia as well, albeit from very different approaches.
A Pakistani newspaper reported last year that the objectives enshrined in the federal curriculum for the education of a 12-year-old child include the "ability to: 1. understand the Hinduand Muslim differences and the resultant need for Pakistan; 2. know all about India's evil designs against Pakistan; 3. acknowledge and identify forces that may be working against Pakistan; 4. demonstrate by actions a belief in the fear of Allah; 5. demonstrate the desire to preserve the ideology, integrity and security of Pakistan; 6. make speeches on jihad and shahadat; 7. guard against rumor mongers who spread false news and to stage dramas signifying the evils of rumors; 8. understand the Kashmir problem; 9. collect pictures of policemen, soldiers and National Guards."
Conversely, in Delhi, a BJP minister responsible for education declared that history textbooks in India should be "enthused with national spirit." The minister would no doubt approve of a text on conversation given to students in Rajasthan. Its example: "Student: 'Master, what has India achieved by doing the nuclear tests? Was it a right step?' Teacher: 'Undoubtedly it was correct, India has achieved a huge success.' Student: 'What success? Economic sanctions have been slapped on.' Teacher: 'Economic sanctions do not matter. The country should first become powerful. Only the powerful are listened to. Now we can talk about world peace aggressively.'"
The case of Dharmanand Kholkar and his crowd-blackened face was on my mind when I went to talk to Indian and Pakistani schoolchildren recently. I first went to a school in Bihar, in India, where I had been a student many years ago; then I traveled to Karachi, where my wife, a Pakistani citizen, had gone to school. I asked the students in the schools I visited to write letters to those that they were being taught to think of as enemies.
In Patna, a student wrote, "Please be peaceful and love us." Another student asked, "Why don't you all change the attitude of your mind? Why don't you all think in a positive way?" In this letter, the demand for peace was actually an accusation. It found the Pakistanis solely responsible for war--and for peace. A similar impulse, in reverse, was at work in a letter written some days later by a student in Pakistan. That letter began: "Dear Indians, First of all hello!! I am a Pakistani Muslim and I want to inform you that you are liars."
I laughed when I read some of the letters--in the absence of any opportunities for dialogue, it would seem that Indians and Pakistanis haven't even had a chance to abuse each other properly. There is some official trade between the two countries, as well as illicit trafficking in music and videocassettes. But the common people on both sides have been starved of contact. The result has been ignorance and suspicion as much as hostility. A boy in Karachi Grammar School raised his hand and asked me, "How did you convince your wife that you were not the enemy?" And yet, there is a shared desire for peace. One of the students in Pakistan wrote in her letter: "Once I went to the Lahore border, where I saw so many Sikhs on the other side. I waved to them and they also waved back. They were so friendly."
The border at Wagah, near Lahore, is the only entry point by road for the whole of approximately 1,250 miles that make up the length of the India-Pakistan frontier. What the name Wagah conjures in the minds of many people in the subcontinent is the memory of the partition, arguably the largest migration in human history and certainly the bloodiest. The trains, laden with corpses, crossed the border at Wagah in 1947. It was also past places like Wagah that the sinuous human columns had passed on foot: The longest of these bedraggled columns is said to have consisted of 400,000 people. That procession of the displaced took as many as eight days to cross a given spot.
The partition is the bloody underside of independence. It is the name for the division of British India into two independent nations, one Muslim and the other secular but predominantly Hindu. It is also the name of the riots and rape and slaughter that accompanied that division. It is the story of the people who, just as they were told they were free, also learned that they had lost their homes. They were now living in a country where, on account of their religion, they did not belong. The partition was marked by many tragic ironies. One of them was that the new borders were lines drawn by a hastily summoned British official, Cyril Radcliffe, who, writes one contemporary writer, "knew nothing about India other than the five perspiring weeks he spent there."
The horror of the partition and even its dark ironies have long been the concern of writers in the subcontinent, beginning with names like Saadat Hasan Manto, Ismat Chugtai, Qurratulain Hyder, Khushwant Singh and others. Despite the currency of contemporary Indian writing in the West--fueled by a migration of Indians to cities like London and New York--it is the earlier migration of writers, from India to Pakistan and vice versa, that gave birth to independent India's first wave of vital writing. At their best, the writers of the partition threw into crisis the claims of the nation-state; they raised questions about the relation to the broader world of the men and women living inside the new nations' boundaries. Urvashi Butalia's The Other Side of Silence seeks a place in that older, somewhat forgotten, canon.
About 50,000 Muslim women and an estimated 35,000 Hindu and Sikh women are believed to have been abducted during the partition. Where are their voices in the annals of nationalist historiography? Butalia is a pioneer in feminist publishing in India. She is especially alert to the presence--and absence--of marginal voices. Her book, a collection of oral narratives of the survivors of partition, is supplemented by meditations on the limits of conventional history. Although its more academic sections lack the raw power of many of the oral narratives, and sometimes seem a bit repetitive, the study of popular interpretations of violence as well as the persistence of memory makes this book a critical, self-reflective work. It may seem paradoxical, but the book's freshness comes also from the fact that it examines wounds that have festered for more than fifty years.
"To understand what happened in Kargil you have to go back half a century, to the colossal and premature sundering of the subcontinent known as Partition," writes Suketu Mehta in his essay "A Fatal Love." He adds: "The men who killed each other over Tiger Hill and Drass and Batalik were dealing with the unfinished business of Partition."
The unresolved issues of the past in India are locked in the pain of the partition. In Pakistan, however, the division doesn't loom quite so large. There, despite the upheaval, there was also the creation of a new identity and a new nation. Nevertheless, the past as "unfinished business" in Pakistan can be swiftly conjured with another name. That name is Kashmir.
In one of the letters I brought back with me from Karachi, a student wrote: "Kashmir is a Muslim majority province and India promised that they will occupy Kashmir for some period...but they betrayed. Can't they see the Kashmiri mothers bitterly crying before their children's dead bodies?" There were similar passages in other letters, written in a language borrowed from Pakistani news reports. One letter, although it didn't take into account the wishes of the Kashmiri people themselves, took a creative step toward peace: "I wrote a poem sometime before in which I put forth the idea that just as our parents and teachers have told us that sharing is a very good habit, why can't India and Pakistan share Kashmir and make it a place to visit for everyone?"
One is never far away from the possibility of sharing, and more important, from the struggle for peace, when reading the words of Eqbal Ahmad in Confronting Empire. Like Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky, Ahmad was a great teacher and a luminary of the academic left in the United States. The collected interviews range over all the passions that filled his politics--his voice moves effortlessly from the demands of peace in the Middle East to revolutionary poetry, and from the politics of Islam to offering career advice to V.S. Naipaul.
As a child, Ahmad met Gandhi. In the 1960s, he joined the National Liberation Front and worked with Frantz Fanon in Algeria; later, in America, he opposed the Vietnam War and was indicted with the Berrigan brothers on charges of conspiracy to kidnap Henry Kissinger. (The charges were dismissed.) Ahmad was also engaged in conversations with Yasir Arafat and other members of the PLO; Edward Said, who was responsible for this alliance, describes Ahmad as a "genius at sympathy." When he died in Islamabad in 1999, just days before the Kargil war broke out, he was working to establish an independent, alternative university in Pakistan.
Ahmad was still a boy during the partition in 1947. His family had been living in their ancestral village in Bihar, India, and Ahmad was witness to his father's murder as he lay beside him in bed. In the company of his elder brothers, Ahmad then migrated to Pakistan. Their mother, however, stayed behind in India; Ahmad would not see her again until 1972, when she was on her deathbed, too ill to speak.
I often thought of Ahmad while reading the letters of the Indian and Pakistani schoolchildren. In Confronting Empire, Ahmad, in conversation with well-known radio activist David Barsamian, returns again and again to the divisions erected by nationalism. His critique is against the embrace of Western-style nationalism--often by those who fought so hard against Western imperialism. It is his readiness to distance himself from the nationalist desire for possessing disputed territories that allows him to recommend that Kashmir serve "as the starting point of normalizing relations between India and Pakistan."
Ahmad's proposal is that the part of Kashmir under Pakistani control should be left as it is; Jammu and Ladakh, which do not share the premises of Kashmiri nationalism, should remain a part of India; the valley of Kashmir, where a ten-year-old uprising continues today, should be given independence. More radically, Ahmad envisioned a unified Kashmir with divided sovereignty. There would be no more lines of control and border patrols, and the ruling entities would be jointly responsible for defense. Ahmad concludes by saying, "In fact, the longer we delay normalization of relations between India and Pakistan and the resolution of the Kashmir conflict, the more we are creating an environment for the spread of Islamic and Hindu militancy."
The nuclearization of the subcontinent earns Ahmad's denunciation as well: "We are living in modern times throughout the world and yet are dominated by medieval minds," as he put it. At the same time, he was also able to see very clearly that this is not happening without protest. He pointed out, "In Calcutta, 250,000 people came out against nuclear weapons. In Delhi, 30,000." It is precisely this critical stance--what Gramsci called "the pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will"--that animates the pages of Praful Bidwai and Achin Vanaik's New Nukes, a public account of the real costs of nuclearization. In their powerful book, the authors note that the Kargil conflict cost India $2.5 billion in direct economic expenses. Hundreds of soldiers on both sides came back in body bags. If patrolling is now increased around Kargil, that region will become another Siachen--the Himalayan glacier where India and Pakistan have lost more than 10,000 troops since 1984 and spend more than $10 million on patrolling each day. (All of this, as Bidwai and Vanaik rightly point out, in two of the world's poorest societies.)
Both Bidwai and Vanaik are respected Indian journalists and veteran peace activists; they perceive very clearly the systemic implications of nuclearism, including the growth of religious fundamentalism in both countries. Other heavy social costs include revivified militarism and male supremacy; the growth of media manipulation and intolerance; the suppression of debate and dissent. But while charting in historical detail India's and Pakistan's descent into the nuclear club, Bidwai and Vanaik also note the growth of movements for peace since the mid-1990s. These have been in the main people's movements, with particular contribution by South Asian feminists who have "a strong awareness of the connections between nuclearism and patriarchy, and between militarism and suppression of women's rights." According to Bidwai and Vanaik, only two months after the May 1998 nuclear tests in India, 72.8 percent of the people polled there opposed the manufacture and use of nuclear weapons.
New Nukes is a comprehensive handbook on nuclear deterrence. Using India and Pakistan as its immediate context, it maps a global history of nuclearization. The book is very distinctively a view from the South, with a stringent critique of the cold war era as well as of the role of the United States and Western imperialism. It should also be added that Bidwai and Vanaik represent a departure from the Indian, specifically Gandhian, strains of pacificism. That earlier form of appeal for nonviolence was content to call for peace in the abstract; the programmatic, interconnected plans that are at the heart of the analyses in New Nukes make peace a part of a process that is less spiritual and more political. After all, the authors stress, "Indian and Pakistani leaders exchanged direct or indirect nuclear threats no less than thirteen times in just five weeks during the Kargil crisis." In fact--and this is their crucial assertion--Kargil "dramatically highlighted South Asia as the most likely place in the world for a nuclear exchange to take place."
Once again I return to the students, from across all classes, whom I met in India and Pakistan. How many of them can remain in school in a nuclearized subcontinent? What is the future into which they will grow? According to Bidwai and Vanaik, after the nuclear tests, "India's education ministry quietly decided to slow down the program to universalize primary education, even as the government raised the military spending allocation by fourteen percent." Which make the voices of Ahmad and the writers of the partition collected by Butalia all the more important--and, sadly, plaintive.
As Arundhati Roy writes in her introduction to New Nukes (an essay that appeared in The Nation on September 28, 1998): "Making bombs will only destroy us. It doesn't matter whether we use them or not.... India's nuclear bomb is the final act of betrayal by a ruling class that has failed its people. However many garlands we heap on our scientists, however many medals we pin to their chests, the truth is that it's far easier to make a bomb than to educate 400 million people."
Although it may come as a surprise to the rest of America, people from Hawaii also feel the urge to get away from it all--even the inhabitants of a paradise theme park can get bored. Driven by "rock fever," economic need or ambition, they leave the islands, and one of their favorite destinations is Las Vegas, which receives thousands of Hawaii gamblers on packaged tours each year. Others retire there to escape the prohibitively high cost of living at home, where cereal, milk and other staples cost fully twice as much as on the mainland.
Sonia Kurisu, the wise-talking heroine cruising for a breakdown in Lois-Ann Yamanaka's Father of the Four Passages, has been trying for seven years to complete her bachelor of fine arts at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, while supporting herself as Tiger Lily Wong, the lounge singer. She could perfectly well have done this back home, where there are universities and no lack of opportunities in the sleazy clubs of Waikiki or Hilo, her hometown, where her mother's a hostess in a golf-course bar. But Sonia had dreams of broader horizons, inspired in part by her wandering father, an MIT grad who for twenty years has sent poetic letters to his daughter from Amsterdam, Italy, China and Thailand, about how little girls remind him of Sonia and his love for her. (He just can't be with her!) However, bad boyfriends and a serious drug and alcohol habit have impeded her academic progress, and the book opens with her latest challenge: single motherhood.
It's a terrible shock. Sonia's breasts are engorged and painful, and she's angered by the crying of the baby, Sonny Boy. "I hit his face, squeeze his cheeks inside my closing palms. Distort his cry with my hands on his face and throat, until the sound makes me laugh." His baby bottles and dirty diapers lie strewn around with the adults' mess, "warm beer in tilting bottles, a glass of merlot with lip-gloss rainbows on its surface, Percodan and Prozac strewn on the countertop, glass pipes, amber vials, burnt pieces of tinfoil," with mom's lover, Drake, "passed out on the futon in the arms of a girl/boy drug friend."
Sonia regrets having borne Sonny Boy, excoriates herself for her decision, motivated by religious guilt over past abortions: "I vanished three babies. A hospital's toxic-waste bin, a dirty toilet at Magic Island, and a jelly jar buried outside my bedroom window." At the same time, she feels ashamed and scared by her rages, and desperately wants to be a good mother; she just doesn't know how. For this she blames her own mother, Grace, who "vanished" 12-year-old Sonia and her sister from Hilo to live with their grandmother in a Honolulu slum. Instead of the absolution Sonia hoped for, though, the baby's birth summons the ghosts of her three unborn sons, whom she calls Number One, Number Two (Turtle Boy) and Jar. She sees and hears them everywhere, outside her window, in the laundromat. They want to know who their fathers are. They seem to want to live.
Wallowing in self-pity, abusing drugs, booze and her child, Sonia, a heroine for our times, does not lack appeal. We see, in flashback chapters, where she comes from and what she's been up against, and we root for her as an underdog who's scrabbling for a second chance. Which seems a distant prospect: For a time, all that stands between Sonia, Sonny and disaster is their neighbor Bob, an unemployed black Vietnam veteran who seems to have moved in the day of the baby's birth, and who provides free and loving baby care, and grocery and laundry services, while Sonia works and occasionally goes to school. After she kicks out Drake and his girl/boy friend, Bob keeps watch in her apartment by night. They are joined by her platonic friend Mark, who helped her abort two of the fetuses (not his--he and Sonia weren't lovers) and who also came to Nevada for college. Mark and Bob clean the apartment and try to keep Sonia off the drugs and booze and out of her destructive relationship with Drake.
Yamanaka is one of the most prominent members of the so-called Asian literary mafia of Bamboo Ridge, the Hawaii journal that first published her work and that of others who wrote in pidgin, the language of plantation laborers. Yamanaka's fiction falls short of the beautiful craftsmanship of her peers Gary Pak and Sylvia Watanabe and of the mythical allusiveness of Nora Ojka Keller's work.What sets Yamanaka apart, though, is her lack of cultural nostalgia and her avoidance of gentility, as if she sprang fully formed from the head of Milton Murayama, along with his 1959 classic All I Asking for Is My Body. Her plot moves outward from the small palette to the large: Although devout herself, in her fashion, Sonia also sees through and rails about the pretensions of her religious, self-righteous family, who leave bossy messages on her answering machine. At one point, her whole Hawaii clan converges in Las Vegas for a religious convention, including her yuppie big sister Celeste, a leader of a Hawaii Right to Life Coalition chapter and so much else. The sisters grew up in divergent socioeconomic spheres: Celeste tested into Punahou School, the elite private prep academy founded by New England missionaries in 1841; but "slow-minded" Sonia, who could never make the grade, went to one of the tough public high schools, Farrington. Every day, they'd take the bus with the other "Kalihi Valley working-class poor," and "Celeste would hop off...one block before the manicured school grounds. She didn't want to be seen with Granny Alma, a lowly custodian."
Another friend from home--handsome but troubled Jacob, the father of Number Two--comes through Vegas after his own drug habit derails him from the track to an astronomy degree. Sonia's dad, Joseph, drops in as well, to see his grandson. "Something's wrong," he says when he observes the boy. As Sonny Boy grew, he stopped screaming and Sonia stopped punishing him. But he also grew real quiet, and still isn't talking as his second birthday comes and goes. He repeatedly lines up his toy cars, sorted by color. He pounds his head on the floor. He's fascinated by his fingers. He spins. When he's diagnosed as autistic, Sonia first reacts as if it's all about her--that what she'd seen as her vehicle of redemption for past sins is actually her punishment from God. A visit from Drake precipitates an overdose, and she wakes in the hospital to find her mother by her bed, trying to mother her far too late, in Sonia's opinion. The whole extended family forcesher to move back to Honolulu with Sonny Boy, where Celeste books appointments with autism specialists.
Yamanaka remains a wonderful comic writer, producing perfect-pitch satire of Celeste's cultivated Punahou speechand frequent lapses into local tita tantrums. Continuing the exposé of local prejudices that's run through all of Yamanaka's novels, there are wonderful passages in which the Japanese-American grandma, mother and aunties, based on knowledge gleaned from Oprah, Rain Man and the like, blame Sonia's lifestyle for Sonny Boy's condition. They point to her association with the kuro-chan, or black person. They say it's Sonia's bachi, the evil she's brought on herself for the sin of "murdering" abortion. Still, they begin to cheer up as they litanize the celebrities afflicted with autistic children: Stallone, Father Mulcahy from M*A*S*H, Dan Marino, Doug Flutie, etc. "And I read in Newsweek or maybe Time that Albert Einstein and Bill Gates were autistic," Grace says.
For the most part, Yamanaka continues to pull back from the racism she exposed in Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre and Blu's Hanging (the depiction of a Filipino stereotype in the latter caused her to lose an Asian-American literary award; she nevertheless has won other awards, including one from the Lannan Foundation), though she continues to confront class issues head-on. Many of the themes in Father of the Four Passages extend those in her previous work: sibling rivalry; silent and traumatized little children; struggling and battling parents; tough, compulsive sex; loud, bad Japanese girls spurning the cultural mores of modesty, education, respect for elders and upward mobility. After essentially rewriting the same story in many ways, in this book she's busted out--and leaving the island venue seems to have refreshed Yamanaka's work. It's also--remarkably for a writer renowned for her fluency in local argot--her first book not written, or spoken, predominantly in pidgin. Everybody here speaks the King's English, more or less. "Both of you denied your eyes nothing they desired, refused your heart no pleasure. What futility it all was. What chasing after the wind. I've just quoted Ecclesiastes, mind you," says Celeste. Some of the stiltedness of the dialogue can be attributed to her characters' pretensions, but Yamanaka often stumbles as well, particularly during climactic scenes, as when Sonia unearths Jar from their Hilo backyard in order to cremate the fetus. Her father says, "Three babies. Oh, Sonia, what have you done?" And she replies with words he's said to her before: "Daddy, you were right. True freedom is holding on and seizing--" "Seizing what?" "Love--no matter the cost or ferocity of that love." There are too many such maudlin, confrontational speeches, a tendency toward in-your-face summarizing that has encumbered this author's earlier books as well. There's also some over-the-top sentimentalism: a confusion of Bob with some kind of angel as Sonia communicates with him telepathically, and a misguided flirtation with magic realism, including one fetus mailing her a gift of blue silk cloth.
The occasional overexplicitness and unevenness in dialogue are themselves outweighed, however, by several moving aspects of the novel. There's the fine portrayal of Sonny Boy and his autism, which rings true, and the ways different members of the family, from his little cousin to his grandfather and Jacob, tenderly relate to him; we observe how he helps them heal themselves. In Heads by Harry, a baby's birth solves all the problems in an easy, obvious way, bonding the jolly family; in Father of the Four Passages it happens with far more struggle, ambiguity and risk.
Yamanaka pulls back from the shallow, sitcom surfaces of Heads and dives deep. More than in her other books, images--the remembered Hilo rain on hot pavement, the thousand gilded-paper origami good-luck cranes that hover around Number One--link throughout, building into metaphors and registering emotional impact. Images spring from her father's childhood stories and his effete but often beautiful letters--he plants flowers and sends her descriptions of them from all over the world. With a description of the window boxes of Amsterdam, he once sent a copy of Anne Frank's diary, which motivated 8-year-old Sonia to finally learn to read, saving her from special ed. A story he told his children about hatching sea turtles and a Hawaiian fisherman gives Turtle Boy his name. The color blue in the midnight sky above Las Vegas is also a theme in her father's letters, as is the color of the liquid that surrounds the fetus Jar. In Heads by Harry, the daughter of a Hilo taxidermist and hunter falls in love with the rainforests along the flank of the volcano; in Father, Sonia is drawn to the sea and to the barren, pure moonscape of the volcano's top. In both books, nature provides the absolution and calm that Yamanaka's troubled urban characters yearn for.
For a social critic, which is what Yamanaka really is, the choice of Las Vegas is fitting in many ways; the place is an apt metaphor for the yearning and frustration of Hawaii's working poor. It gives them a chance to be tourists in a desert Waikiki. The biggest lure, of course, is gambling, the chance to be a high roller, to actually win for a change. Many Kanaka Maoli, or Native Hawaiians, have immigrated to Nevada as well as California, Oregon and Washington; the 2000 census shows that populations of Pacific Islanders and Asians in Nevada has climbed to 98,692 from 38,127 in 1990. And back home, gambling has long been a subtext in the ongoing debate over Kanaka Maoli sovereignty; as has been reported, lobbyist Tommy Boggs has been helping the Office of Hawaiian Affairs plan to get gambling on Hawaiian lands. First, of course, Hawaiians have to get their lands--a process set back by the recent Supreme Court holding in Rice v. Cayetano, which has put all Hawaiian blood entitlements on the defensive. And many Hawaiian leaders are leery of the social ills that gambling would bring. If Hawaii, or a Hawaiian nation within a nation, gets legalized gambling, then girls like Sonia will be able to find plenty of bachi at home.
At the other end of the spectrum from Las Vegas sits another powerful metaphor: snowcapped Mauna Kea, the highest mountain in the world, if you're measuring from the bottom of the blue Pacific, which rings the Big Island that its eruptions made. The extinct volcano is iconographic in Hawaiian culture, a symbol in songs and chants of motherhood, purity and home. It's here that Sonia climbs with her father, Jacob and her son to scatter the ashes of Jar and bring him, and his aborted brothers, peace. In this last scene, above the treeline and in the rare Hawaiian snow, the sentiment works. For the rest, Yamanaka's cold-eyed realism is enough, and readers should revel in her unsparing view of lowlife in contemporary Hawaii, a side the Hawaii Visitors Bureau doesn't want shown. You've got to give Yamanaka, and her characters, credit for their compulsion to go straight where no one wants to go, and fight their way back out.
A postscript to Frances Fox Piven's excellent "Thompson's Easy Ride" [Feb. 26], on the elevation of Wisconsin Governor (and die-hard welfare reformer) Tommy Thompson to Health and Human Services Secretary: Wisconsin's independent Legislative Audit Bureau recently released a report showing that Employment Solutions, one of the "nonprofit" private agencies running the Milwaukee welfare program, spent more than $370,000 of Wisconsin's TANF [Temporary Assistance to Needy Families] money on things like staff time and expenses trying to get welfare contracts in Arizona, and legal fees to determine whether its lobbying would jeopardize its nonprofit status and staff parties.
Employment Solutions also made "incentive payments" averaging more than $9,600 each to eighty-four staff members in 1999 (a total of more than $800,000). Its director, a former Thompson aide, got bonuses of nearly $100,000 from 1997 to '99. As has been its pattern, the state never bothered to set standards for private contractors' use of incentives--even though the bonuses came out of welfare funds, not the contractors' multimillion-dollar profits.
The response of Wisconsin's Department of Workforce Development? No further investigation necessary. Meanwhile, Employment Solutions claims to be out of money to fund portions of the current TANF system, like a loan program for families in crisis situations. The state itself is running out of money to fund its childcare subsidy program. It's clear who's benefited from Thompson's welfare reform.
I must respond to Frances Fox Piven's inaccuracies and bold misinterpretations of the Wisconsin Works (W-2) program. There is a reason former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson was easily confirmed as HHS Secretary with no opposition by Republicans or Democrats. He has made the necessary investments in people who are making the transition from welfare to work.
Piven makes a big mistake saying benefits were cut under the W-2 program, when in fact they have increased dramatically. In 1996 the state spent $141 million on childcare, transportation and other employment services for people participating in work programs under AFDC. In 2001 the state is budgeted to spend well over $350 million.
Is it true that the amount spent on cash benefits has been reduced? Certainly. That is the whole premise behind W-2, to help people make the transition from cash assistance to independence while providing them with the necessary supportive services to make that change. These investments in supportive services have paid off. A recent study indicates that 76 percent of people who left welfare since the inception of W-2 did so because they got a job or had other income that allowed them to leave public assistance. The department was also able to obtain the earnings for just over 13,000 of those 22,000 families and determined that 69 percent were receiving between $34,000 and $38,000 in income and benefits, based on monthly, annualized earnings.
All indications are that children in Wisconsin are better off since W-2 began. Infant mortality rates have dropped and the rate of child abuse and neglect has decreased, along with juvenile crime rates and domestic abuse incidents. And in contrast to Piven's statement, foster care placements have remained stable since W-2 was implemented. She also fails to point out that Wisconsin consistently ranks among the top ten states for having the lowest number of children living in poverty.
W-2 is all about hope--hope for the future and hope for a better life. And it has succeeded beyond even the most optimistic expectations.
Wisconsin Department of
New York City
Fuzzy math and funny numbers. Jennifer Reinert, secretary of the Wisconsin department that runs TANF, claims that families formerly on welfare in that state now earn $34,000 to $38,000 a year. What planet is she living on? Indeed, if we pause over Reinert's misleading sentences, we can figure out that her numbers apply to less than one-fourth of these families. Even for this minority, she appears to be adding in the cash value of such benefits as Medicaid, which certainly can't buy food or pay the rent (and maybe adding in their share of missile defense too). More soberly, we know from other studies, and in particular a study undertaken by researchers at the University of Wisconsin, that on average families lose income when they leave welfare, even without taking into account their added costs in work-related expenses.
As for all that money spent on work-related services for welfare recipients, only a fraction of eligible families are actually receiving help for childcare, for example, and much of the money is soaked up by the private companies Wisconsin is relying on to administer its programs.
The bad news about Wisconsin, and similar "welfare reform" programs elsewhere, is only beginning to trickle in. The deluge of supplicants for help from food pantries and shelters is part of the bad news. And in Wisconsin, there is the alarming reversal in black and Hispanic infant mortality trends. The state has gone from having one of the best records in the country to one of the worst. And since Wisconsin was a pioneer of the new welfare regime, these statistics should be taken as a grim warning for other states.
I thank Karyn Rotker for the added information in her letter.
FRANCES FOX PIVEN
A significant part of Mark Cromer's "Porn's Compassionate Conservatism" [Feb. 26] is based on incorrect information. While the industry list of no-no's Cromer refers to does exist, its contents were never meant as a basis for self-censorship of adult videos. As one prominent producer (Christian Mann of Video Team) explained to me for my article in the March Adult Video News, the list came about after a group of XXX producers asked their attorney what sort of material on video box covers had caused legal problems in the past, and the list was the result.
Mann told me (since confirmed by several other producers) that most of what is on the list will continue to appear in the videos--including the much-discussed "no black men, white women"--and most consider the idea that such material would disappear to be ludicrous. The logic behind the list was that police rarely bring VCRs when they raid adult video stores; they look at the box covers before seizing the tape(s) and preparing a prosecution.
The reason for not censoring the videos themselves is simple: Just about every item on the list has appeared in videos from every company for the past twenty years, and they make much of their income by selling those "catalogue" videos. While one or two companies have announced plans to recall and edit certain titles, the vast majority have no plans to do so. However, when the government comes after the companies with obscenity charges, it is by no means limited to seizing new releases. As long as a video is still being sold, it is ripe to be busted. Whether it's a 2001 release or a 1981 release, it can be the subject of prosecution.
Mann pointed out that the list, by its very nature, cannot be enforced. Video companies are free to ignore it, and several have announced plans to do so, while others plan to follow some of it. My sources within the Larry Flynt organization tell me that Flynt intends to follow the list's recommendations with some of his magazines and videos but not others, which my source assumed would then become test cases for the new enforcement measures.
There is little consensus among producers on what to do to protect themselves from possible federal prosecutions, just as thevideo stores have no strategies for the much more common prosecutions at the local level. They simply rely on their attorneys and all too often fail to take the attorney's advice. Sorry to throw a wet blanket on what seems a very juicy story--Porn Censors Itself--but the facts simply don't fit the theory.
MARK KERNES, senior editor
Adult Video News--AVN Publications
To state, as AVN's Mark Kernes does, that the production guidelines recently issued by some of the biggest porn companies in the nation "were never meant as a basis for self-censorship of adult videos" is both illogical and simply wrong. The fact is, producers from a variety of major companies (myself included) were instructed specifically to stop shooting various sex acts and were provided with guidelines to use when making adult videos. I don't know what Kernes calls that, but it smacks of self-censorship to me.
Kernes claims that self-censoring videos is pointless because of the huge number of older videos already on the market, many of which feature the same acts now being cut. The fact is, some companies have been butchering their old, classic titles for years now, in a sad effort to ward off prosecutions, well before Bush/Ashcroft. A concrete example of this would be the films Honeypie and Vanessa: Maid in Manhattan, both re-edited and released back into the market with entire "offending" dialogue tracks cut out--thus in some scenes the performer's mouth is moving in eerie (and pathetic) silence.
Porn has indeed been censoring itself for years, particularly after the Meese Commission opened fire and highlighted some of its more fringe elements. Thus, scenes depicting adult-age incest, rape scenes and other fantasy fare have all been wiped from the adult filmmaker's palette. One major company--as the election began to shape up for Bush--cut a scene featuring a pregnant white female and a black male out of a tape altogether. That's self-censorship, a pure reaction to fear of being busted.
The president of another major video company known for its softer, more mainstream fare openly speculated that he may fold his firm's line of explicit videos rather than risk legal problems. That's extreme self-censorship. Kernes is correct when he notes that some companies will not follow the guidelines and that the guidelines themselves are being revised even now. That doesn't change the cold, hard fact--which my article detailed--that the industry has recoiled with the swearing-in of Bush and the confirmation of Ashcroft and is scrambling to avoid prosecution. Artistic and sexual freedom are clearly taking a back seat to financial considerations.
While Kernes may feel he has thrown a wet blanket on a juicy story--he has not. He does, however, seem to have that blanket draped rather snugly over his head, blinding him to the facts.