MIA: WOMEN FIGHTING STATE TERROR
We would like to thank Alexander Cockburn for his excellent March 25 "Beat the Devil" column, "The Nightmare in Israel." As activists in Ta'ayush (Arab-Jewish Partnership), we commend his giving voice to the courageous Jewish Israelis who are fighting against Sharon's state terror. However, we were disappointed that Cockburn did not mention any women. Ruchama Marton, for example, as founder and president of Physicians for Human Rights Israel, has been struggling against Israel's occupation and draconian policies in the territories for over a decade. Gila Svirsky is one of the leading activists in the Coalition of Women for a Just Peace; this group has been instrumental in raising public awareness and organizing protests and vigils over the past year and a half. Yehudith Keshet is one of the organizers of Machsom Watch, a group of women who stand witness at the various Israeli checkpoints around the country. These are just three of the many Jewish women who deserve recognition for speaking and acting out against the evil being perpetuated by the Israeli government. And while it is crucial at times like these to heed the voices of all progressive Jewish opposition, it is equally vital to recognize the participation of Palestinian citizens of Israel in the same struggles. Often forgotten in a conflict purportedly between "Arabs" and "Jews," Palestinians in Israel continue to play a foundational role in anti-occupation groups like Ta'ayush, PHR and Bat Shalom. We must insure that women and minorities are not, once again, elided from the historical record.
DENMARK VESEY'S SLAVE REBELLION
We encourage readers interested in the debate about black abolitionist Denmark Vesey to turn to the October 2001 and January 2002 William and Mary Quarterly (WMQ) rather than rely on Jon Wiener's misleading and error-ridden recapitulation of it ["Denmark Vesey: A New Verdict," March 11]. Wiener applauds the "stunning piece of historical detective work" by Michael Johnson, who contends that the Vesey plot in Charleston in 1822 was "not a plan by blacks to kill whites but rather a conspiracy by whites to kill blacks." In pinning superlatives on Johnson, however, Wiener neglects to disclose that he and Johnson have been close friends for almost thirty years, dating back at least to the 1970s when both worked together at the University of California, Irvine. With the ethics of historians currently under a great deal of public scrutiny, we find this omission disingenuous at best.
We will have more to say about Johnson's novel interpretation in future publications. We do agree with Wiener that Johnson relies on the manuscript court records, although Wiener errs in implying that scholars writing prior to Johnson neglected to examine those documents. We also agree with Wiener that the coerced testimony of Carolina bondmen in the court records, like virtually all documents pertaining to slavery, should not "be taken at face value." Thus, we do not agree with him (or Johnson) that the manuscript court record "is the only authoritative contemporary source." As with any other surviving document about slave resistance, the court record must be evaluated in the context of other relevant sources. We do not believe that Johnson has adequately responded to our criticism in the WMQ. Indeed, given his energetic investment in denying black agency, we wonder what sort of evidence short of the second coming of Vesey himself with an admission of guilt on his lips would persuade Johnson that at least some of the slaves in Charleston in 1822 were planning to liberate themselves by force.
Johnson responded to his critics by concluding that Vesey and his followers were really the victims of a Machiavellian hoax perpetrated by James Hamilton Jr., the politically ambitious Charleston mayor. For the moment, we will merely say that the principals of 1822, white as well as black, were far more complicated than Johnson, or Wiener, seems to think.
DOUGLAS R. EGERTON, ROBERT L. PAQUETTE
Did Denmark Vesey plan what would have been the biggest slave uprising in US history? Or was he framed because of a rivalry between political factions of the slaveholding elite? For decades historians--including myself--have been teaching the former. Now there's important evidence that we may have been wrong. The evidence comes from Michael Johnson. It's true that he was my colleague at UC Irvine until he left for Johns Hopkins eight years ago and that we remain friends. But Southern history is a small field in which people tend to know one another, and I'm friends with those on both sides of this debate. These friendships are less significant for readers than the quality of the evidence about Vesey's trial and execution. Egerton and Paquette promise they'll tell us what they think about that "complicated" issue in "future publications." It's too bad they didn't give us more substance in this one. Meanwhile, Johnson's piece has just been honored by the board of editors of the William and Mary Quarterly, the leading journal of early American history, as its best article of 2001.
TULSA'S (AND AMERICA'S) SHAME
Adrian Brune's insightful and informative article "Tulsa's Shame" [March 18] shines light on a subject once cloaked in a conspiracy of silence. But Tulsa's shame--a horrible act of ethnic cleansing of blacks by the institutions of white power--is not solely Tulsa's or Oklahoma's but America's shame as well. After World War I white mob violence, often tacitly supported by local governments, flared up across the country. Chicago, Omaha and St. Louis were just some of the cities that experienced race riots similar to Tulsa's. The systematic violence and disfranchisement of blacks in Tulsa is not unique to this little oil town on the plains, even though its remoteness from national centers of political and cultural power make it an easy target.
Tulsa may indeed be a conservative town on the buckle of the Bible Belt, but it is the only city, as far as I know, that has been courageous enough to take a good hard look in the mirror in its attempt to seek justice and reconciliation for its almost forgotten victims of racial violence during the pre-civil rights movement era. And it wasn't the legions of cosmopolitan journalists now swooping over the story that broke the silence but the voices of a few brave souls who cared enough about the riot's legacy to keep its history alive.
I am of Native American descent and have lived in Tulsa my whole life, except for a tour in the Navy. The US government took the Oklahoma Territory, gave it away to whoever wanted it and drove Native Americans out of our lands and onto reservations with poor living conditions, then and now. The people who should be upset are the Native Americans, but you don't see Native Americans fighting or complaining that "you took my land." We were here first, but you don't see us wanting a memorial for something that happened long ago. So as far as I am concerned on the race riot, yes, it was a tragedy, the Oklahoma City bombing was a tragedy, September 11 was a tragedy, and I am, with the rest of the country, sorry for those people's losses. Life goes on. Always remember, never forget, but move on.
Adrian Brune mentions that at the end of the Civil War blacks flocked to Oklahoma looking for a state to "call their own." But Tulsa was, as a part of Indian Territory, not a place for either blacks or whites to call their own--unless they were stealing it. Tulsa was part of the Creek Nation, given to the displaced Creeks for "as long as grass grows and water flows." I support reparations for the victims of the Tulsa race riot but find it appalling that there is no recognition that the entire eastern part of the state was created in an orgy of racism unparalleled in the history of our country.
To clarify a statement toward the end of the article that "the Tulsa Metropolitan Ministries has raised about $20,000 toward reparations privately": The Unitarian Universalist Association contributed that $20,000 to the TMM, an interfaith coalition, to initiate a fund for the direct payment of reparations to riot survivors. The UUA has also contributed another $5,000 to help TMM set up antiracism programs.
THE REV. WILLIAM G. SINKFORD
As one who has discussed this history with students, colleagues and fellow residents, I know that the riot remains highly controversial. The question is who, if anyone, is going to pay? The city? state? federal government? Tulsa is undergoing significant demographic change with the influx of immigrants from Latin America and Asia. Might it not be more effective to "correct" for past injustices by investing in public services and providing grants to innovative community groups, businesses and individuals to facilitate positive, progressive cultural relations across not just black-white but a number of racial and ethnic lines?
The plan backed by many Tulsans, a museum in the old Vernon AME church in Greenwood, and memorial and educational resources funded through the Greenwood Cultural Center, would do more than reparations could ever do. Why feed a few when you can teach a city's population to fish?
NEVER DROPPED THE WELFARE BALL
Barbara Ehrenreich and Frances Fox Piven charge that think tanks, including the Economic Policy Institute, failed to look "ahead to the prospect of rising unemployment" in the context of welfare reform ["Who's Utopian Now?" Feb. 4]. That erroneous critique from people we respect and we hoped would be more familiar with our work was disappointing. EPI researchers have published many papers and developed mountains of data on the need to address welfare reform with labor market conditions in mind. We've highlighted the problems of unemployment and underemployment for low-wage workers. We've also shown that falling wages among low-wage workers reflected these problems, which are only worsened by forcing people into the labor market without any corresponding job creation programs.
When welfare reform was first debated, we produced a widely cited report that examined the potential for increased labor supply to outstrip demand and therefore lower wages (by 12 percent!) among low-wage workers. We provided statistics on wages, unemployment and underemployment among workers likely to have left welfare, to illustrate the weaknesses in the job market for former welfare recipients. We published frequent analyses on the labor market experiences of young minority women. We even added staff to try to insure that this work reached a large network of advocates and activists.
To accuse us of not noticing the relationship between the labor market and welfare reform is inaccurate and unfair. We have continued to examine the job prospects of former welfare recipients, even during the boom years. Our current work focuses on how the downturn is affecting former welfare recipients. We haven't once dropped the ball.
On the one-month anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, the tobacco industry took aim at Congress's first effort to respond to the crisis with a major piece of new legislation-what wou
The battlefield death on February 22 of Jonas Savimbi marked the end of an era. With undiluted ambition, consistent ruthlessness and extraordinary skill in manipulating both friend and foe, he repeatedly dashed Angolan hopes for peace. Today almost 4 million Angolans have been displaced by war, and although Angola is potentially one of the richest countries in Africa, infant mortality is the second highest in the world. The United States must now help Angolans rebuild. That means both paying our fair share of the bill for reconstruction and insisting on transparency in the use of revenues Angola gains from US oil companies.
The United States has a particular obligation because it intervened decisively for war in the key period just before Angola's independence in 1975. As has been long known to specialists and conclusively documented in a new book by historian Piero Gleijeses, US covert military action in Angola preceded rather than followed the arrival of Cuban troops. In the 1980s the United States again joined South Africa to build up Savimbi's war machine.
Savimbi's death removed the single greatest obstacle to peace. Three weeks later, the Angolan government declared a unilateral halt to offensive military actions, and a formal ceasefire was agreed to in early April. But the war has left generalized insecurity in the countryside that may well continue. The decades of conflict have also entrenched a climate of distrust throughout Angolan society.
These results come in part from Savimbi's military strategy, which was to make Angola ungovernable. His forces systematically targeted civilians and cut the economic links between city and countryside. He also eliminated internal rivals he regarded as too open to peace. But Savimbi did not create the cleavages in Angolan society that he exploited. There is a profound gap between those who profit from Angola's links to the world economy and those with little chance to do so. This division, more accurately described as regional and structural than ethnic in character, dates back to the colonial era. Since independence, Angola's oil wealth combined with war has further reinforced inequality.
Paradoxically, the Angolan government has served as an unwitting ally of Savimbi. Relying on income from oil to feed the cities and to buy arms while leaving the interior to neglect, Luanda sealed the success of Savimbi's strategy of dividing city from countryside. At the same time, Savimbi's intransigence raised the credibility of the Luanda government. In the 1992 election campaign, for example, the ruling party won support from many Angolans who recoiled from Savimbi's threats more than they resented the government's failures.
The Angolan government has taken the first step with its unilateral truce, but more fundamental changes are also essential. Speaking in Washington on February 27 after he and Angolan President Eduardo dos Santos met George W. Bush, Mozambican President Joaquim Chissano listed some lessons learned from Mozambique's experience. He stressed the need for a comprehensive peace-building process, including greater openness to dissent and to the connection between social and economic development and peace. President dos Santos's peace plan acknowledges these points; however, acceptance of the need for voices from civil society and independent media has been slow and inconsistent.
The hardest tests will be outside Luanda. Delivering material benefits to these long-neglected areas will be critical, but humanitarian operations are stretched to the limit and badly underfunded. Here Angola's international partners--governments, multilateral agencies, oil companies and nongovernmental organizations--have a role to play. The United States and others should quickly provide the remainder of the UN consolidated appeal for Angola for 2002, which as of mid-March had received only 10 percent of the $233 million required. They should also join Angolan civil society in insisting that the government commit its resources to schools, clinics and rebuilding the infrastructure, as well as to immediate humanitarian needs. Angola earns at least $3 billion each year from oil exports, but as much as a third disappears into a complex web of transactions among foreign companies and the Angolan elite.
It would be wrong to punish Angolans by holding up humanitarian relief, but there are other ways to exert pressure. Currently, the World Bank and the IMF are conducting a review of the oil sector with the stated goal of promoting transparency and accountability of oil revenues; this study should be concluded rapidly and made public both in Washington and Luanda. The issue of where the money goes and how to use it must be debated openly. Angolans will quickly be able to see whether the dividends of peace begin to flow. If that happens, this time peace will have a chance.
o, my momma called, "Why are they letting them gouge us like this?" she wanted to know. "They" are our so-called political leaders in Washington, and "them" are the drugmakers now costing her $500 a month. Nearing 87, Lillie Mabel Hightower has to take two medicines regularly, including a heart pill to keep the old ticker ticking. She tells me her pill bill goes up just about every time she refills her two prescriptions, having soared 40 percent in only two years. For someone on Social Security, the difference between $3,600 a year and $6,000 a year is a serious piece of change. "Of course I know why," she quickly added in answer to her own question: "It's the big money they give the politicians. But can't we do something? Who do I write?"
Like my mom's, the blood pressure of millions of seniors and others has reached the political boiling point because of price-gouging by big drug companies. Americans pay the highest prices in the world for prescriptions--an average of 30 percent more, for example, than Canadians pay for the exact same drugs. The companies jacked up our prices by another 17.1 percent last year while they went laughing to the bank with the highest profit margins of any industry, more than triple the average of all Fortune 500 corporations.
Political consultants in Washington recognize the explosiveness of this issue, so there has been a flurry of bills, press conferences and photo-ops by both parties, with each claiming that it cares more than the other about the problem. But, as Hemingway once advised, never mistake motion for action. No lobbying group is as well financed and well connected as the drug industry is in our capital city. It has 625 registered lobbyists on its payroll--ninety more lobbyists than there are members of Congress! The industry also liberally greases the skids of the legislative process with huge campaign donations, topping $26 million in the last election cycle. The result is that Washington postures, drug prices keep going up and seniors continue to seethe.
Still, my mother asks, "Can't we do something?" Yes.
Look to the states where citizens' groups have teamed up with legislative leaders who not only are in motion but have taken action. While Washington fiddles and faddles, twenty-six states now have some sort of program to cut drug costs, at least for the low-income elderly, and several are leading the way toward programs to take the gouge out of prescription prices for everyone.
Chellie Pingree led the charge in Maine. A small businesswoman, she was elected to the State Senate, where she took up the cause of seniors being pounded by drug prices so high that some were forced to choose between paying for essential medications or the heating bill. With the leadership of grassroots groups like the Maine People's Alliance, Consumers for Affordable Health Care and the Maine State Council of Senior Citizens, she led busloads of seniors on well-publicized trips across the Canadian border to buy their medicines; on just one trip, twenty-five seniors got prescriptions filled for $16,000 less than in the United States. Why should people have to take a six-hour bus ride to get fair prices, she asked? She answered by sponsoring the Fairer Prescription Drug Prices Act, which empowered a state pricing board to set retail prices in Maine.
Pingree's bill allowed seniors to go into any pharmacy in Maine and get the prescriptions they need at the same discounted price that Canada's government negotiates with drugmakers for its citizens. Her bill was simple, comprehensive, nonbureaucratic, effective...and it drove the big drugmakers bonkers. They dispatched their own buses to Augusta, loaded with lobbyists and money, in a frantic effort to kill the bill. In a blitz of TV and newspaper ads, the industry labeled the bill "a crazy idea" that would force the drug industry to abandon Maine. But the grassroots groups went to work, and Pingree, by now the Senate majority leader, took her bill directly to the people, holding public meetings from Madawaska to Biddeford. On April 12, 2000, her bill passed in both houses of the legislature by veto-proof margins, and the governor signed it.
Of course, the industry immediately hitched up a twenty-mule team of lawyers and rushed to federal court, but Maine's price-control law has been upheld all the way through the appeals court level and now awaits judgment at the US Supreme Court. Meanwhile, twenty-three other states, from Arizona to Wisconsin, are considering Maine's fair-pricing law, and public pressure from people like my momma is turning up the heat for national legislation.
Pingree, who is now running for the US Senate, has put the issue at the center of her campaign, vowing to bring the populist coalition behind the Maine Solution into play nationally. "There's such a disconnect between Washington and people's reality," she says. "This is more than an issue to people, it's personal outrage. Walk into any room, and it doesn't matter if the people are in overalls or suits; they've all got a story."
USAction, a network of state and local citizens' coalitions, has been a leader in developing the state proposals, and it's now working with other groups to move this public grievance from the low, slow backburner of Congress to the forefront of the progressive agenda (202-624-1730 or www.usaction.org). "This is a case where the people are miles ahead of the politicians," points out USAction's executive director, Jeff Blum, urging that progressives in Congress put forth a "fair pricing" plan that would give every senior the lowest price available on every drug. The key is not merely to provide universal coverage but to connect this to effective controls over the industry's ripoff prices. US citizens should pay no more than the average price that the drugmakers charge foreign customers in Canada, Japan, Italy and elsewhere.
If Congressional Democrats have a strategic bone left in their bodies, they'll grab this proposal and run with it, for the Lillie Mabel Hightowers are desperately looking for someone who'll stand with them against the drug profiteers. As pollster Celinda Lake reports, "This is the most powerful and intense issue of the 2002 elections, and Democrats should take the lead." If the party won't even stand up for our mommas, who'll stand up for the party?
On April 11, as John Anderson notes in this issue, the International Criminal Court was scheduled to go into effect after being ratified by the required sixty nations. Although Bill Clinton signed the treaty, conservatives in Congress have opposed ratification. Now the Bush Administration is reportedly considering "unsigning" the treaty. Such an action would be but one more instance of this Administration's commitment to a reckless, destructive unilateralism.
Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright liked to say that America was "the indispensable nation." That formulation, however arrogant, at least implied a web of international obligations of which the United States was a part, even if it was sometimes AWOL (e.g., when it failed to support UN intervention in Rwanda). Bush Administration conservatives support a US policy aptly summed up by Joseph Cirincione of the Carnegie Endowment: "Distrust treaties, increase defenses and assert American authority." State Department planner Richard Haass puts it less crudely: "à la carte multilateralism." National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice set guidelines in the 2000 election: We should "proceed from the firm ground of national interest and not from the interest of an illusory international community."
But the "community" of Arab and European nations that demanded that the Administration intervene in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict before it engulfed the entire region was hardly "illusory"--witness Bush's sudden about-face in sending Colin Powell there. Voices from overseas (along with the specter of rising oil prices and falling regimes in Jordan and Egypt) got his attention.
Unilaterally focused on the domestically popular war on terrorism, the Administration had averted its eyes from the pustulating Israel-Palestine sore. As a result, as Richard Falk writes on page 11, Bush overplayed the "antiterrorist card," not only greatly broadening "the scope of needed response" but giving "governments around the planet a green light to increase the level of violence directed at their longtime internal adversaries." None ran with that ball harder than Israel's Ariel Sharon.
Israel-Palestine aside, the Administration's Pentagon-geared, campaign-donor-friendly brand of American unilateralism has had harmful consequences for both national and international "interests." We walk away from the Kyoto Protocol, increasing the danger that oceans swollen by global warming will inundate our coasts. We abandon the ABM treaty, opening the door to a renewed nuclear arms race that makes us less secure. We threaten "rogue states," in the recent Nuclear Posture Review, with tactical nuclear bombs if they misbehave, thus erasing the threshold that confined the use of nukes to self-defense. We claim a military victory over terrorism in Afghanistan but fail to support adequately a multinational effort to provide food and security, protect women's rights and rebuild the nation (see Jan Goodwin on page 21).
The British scholar Timothy Garton Ash complained recently in a New York Times Op-Ed that the United States simply has too much unwonted power and needs a counterweight--a stronger Europe. That may be, but we believe that the American future lies in supporting international norms and treaties and cooperation with other nations--not in projecting military power in pursuit of "interests" while building a garrison state at home.
Israel's latest military offensive in the West Bank, code-named Defensive Wall, was met with fierce armed resistance, as Palestinians fought house to house and sometimes hand to hand to repulse the reconquest of their towns, villages and refugee camps. Some of the young defenders are guerrillas from new Palestinian militias forged by the intifada, others are Palestinian Authority police officers and many are both.
"This is our Karameh," said one in Jenin. Karameh, a village on the East Bank of the Jordan River, is the site of a battle fought between the Israeli army and Palestinian guerrillas in March 1968. Although the army took the village, the heroic resistance put up by the Palestinians consecrated Yasir Arafat and his Fatah movement as the undisputed leadership of the Palestinian cause. One year later Arafat was elected chairman of the PLO. He converted the movement from a front for Arab regimes into an authentic representative of Palestinian nationalism.
Many believe a similar changing of the guard has occurred during the eighteen months of the latest uprising, with leadership gradually passing from a Palestinian Authority that once ruled over the Palestinian areas to armed and cross-factional militias that now, alone, defend them. Formed in the uprising's first months as a defense against army and settler incursions, Fatah-led militias like the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC) in Gaza and the Al Aqsa Brigades in the West Bank have seen their power and legitimacy soar in inverse ratio to the collapse of the PA's governing and military institutions after a wave of Israeli assaults. As a result, former officers in PA police forces have swelled the militias' ranks.
This transformation has accelerated during Ariel Sharon's premiership. Following his election in February last year--and with Arafat's oblique blessing--the Palestinian armed factions united behind one policy: to destroy Sharon by creating a "balance of terror" with the occupation, a phrase borrowed from Hezbollah's triumphant resistance to Israel's occupation in south Lebanon. "We have to convince Israelis that whatever else Sharon brings them, it won't be security," says Jamal Abu Samhandanah, a PRC leader.
The strategy has exacted a brutal toll. Nearly 2,000 Palestinians and 400 Israelis have been killed in the current conflict, as Sharon's exclusively military solutions went from bombardment to reoccupation, and Palestinian resistance went from guerrilla warfare in the occupied territories to suicide bombings in Israel, executed recently as much by Fatah as by the Islamists of Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
The politics of Palestine's new young guard is as inchoate as the local militias that it comprises. But it opposes the PA-Israeli security cooperation and US-led diplomacy of the Oslo peace process, favoring instead armed struggle and alliances with the Arab world, including the million or so Palestinian citizens of Israel. One militia leader in Bethlehem said the most suitable response to Israel's current assault would be "resistance in Israel's cities and mayhem from the Galilee to Cairo."
Overwhelmingly from village and refugee backgrounds, the young guard is critical of PA mismanagement and corruption and of an Oslo leadership they believe reaped the spoils of the peace process without delivering on Palestinian aspirations to statehood, independence and Israeli withdrawal. But they are loyal to Arafat, and rarely more so than now: The army's siege on the Palestinian leader's compound in Ramallah is seen as a symbol of the plight of every Palestinian. "We think Arafat and all the leaders around him compromised too much in the negotiations. But as long as Sharon acts against him, we will be with Arafat. We will not let Israel decide the Palestinian leadership," says Samhandanah.
The young fighters are positioning for leadership in the post-Arafat era, whether this comes through his natural demise or through forced removal by Israel. The contours of the contest are already clear: between the historic Oslo leadership that seeks a negotiated settlement courtesy of US and international intervention, and a resistance vowing that the intifada will end only with independence, even if that means the destruction of what is left of the PA. Arafat has maintained his leadership by balancing between the two wings; he will side with the winner, say Palestinian analysts.
If Sharon succeeds in reimposing military rule throughout the occupied territories, the Palestinian national leadership will revert to what it was after Karameh, this time laced with a strong Islamist current. It will be young, underground, armed, refugee-based, perhaps more democratic and certainly more radical. It will take the Palestinian-Israeli conflict back three decades, and perhaps further.
On April 3, a high-octane collection of thirty-three conservatives sent George W. Bush a letter urging him to lend Washington's "full support to Israel as it seeks to root out the [Palestinian] terrorist network." These hawks--including William Kristol, William Bennett, Rich Lowry, Martin Peretz and Richard Perle--called on Bush not to force Israel to negotiate with Yasir Arafat and to "accelerate plans for removing Saddam Hussein." They wanted Bush to adopt Israel's offensive as part of his war on terrorism and let Ariel Sharon roll. The next day, Bush replied, sort of, by declaring that Israel should withdraw from the West Bank. He slammed Arafat, but his aides noted that negotiations should resume, perhaps before a complete cease-fire has been achieved.
The hawks were not pleased. Bush's actions were "a show of weakness," says Marshall Wittmann, a signatory to the crush-them-now letter. Other parts of the hard-line pro-Israel coalition were disheartened. The Anti-Defamation League complained, and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee protested, "It is no more appropriate to place a time limit on Israel's acts of self-defense than on America's acts in its own defense." Christian right supporters of Israel--many of whom believe that God granted Israel to the Jews and that Jewish control of Israel is a prelude to the Second Coming--had reason to be disappointed. The Rev. Jerry Falwell stated, "I believe Israel must aggressively defend its borders." Americans for Peace Now, however, praised Bush's new stance.
So Bush frustrated key elements of his support base and won huzzahs from peaceniks (even as he winked at Sharon's continuing operations). How did this come to pass? It was not because of domestic pressure. Democrats criticized Bush for not addressing the crisis, but that didn't mean they wanted Bush to lean on Israel. Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, for example, said, "I don't know that the Israeli government has any choice but to be as aggressive as they are." Senator Joe Lieberman remarked, "I believe strongly we should not ask Israelis to stop their war against terrorists until they have achieved greater homeland security." As Bush was pondering what to do, I contacted the Progressive Caucus of the House--no Bush friends there--and asked a spokeswoman if the group was responding to the crisis. "No," she said. Why not? "I don't know." Few if any Democrats were deviating from an Israel-first line. Before heading to the Middle East, Secretary of State Colin Powell remarked that he cared as much about Palestinian rights as Israel's security--a sentiment not echoed by lawmakers, Democratic or Republican.
"All the political pressure is on the side of the pro-Israel lobby," says Hussein Ibish of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. A staffer to a Congressman who occasionally voices concern for Palestinians notes, "There are not many of us in Congress." In fact, there are almost none, hardly enough for Bush to worry about. Kristol and neocon writer Robert Kagan claim that Bush caved because he "could not withstand a few days of heckling from the European Union and the New York Times." But once pressure from home and abroad forced a reluctant Bush into action, it could well be that he saw little choice but to press for Israeli restraint and negotiations, for the other option was to back Sharon's offensive. That would have risked rifts between Washington and its allies in Europe and the Middle East, undermining Bush's war on terrorism (and his designs on Saddam Hussein).
Hawkish backers of Israel are nervously watching how far Bush will go to rein in Sharon and restart negotiations. They vividly recall that Bush I opposed $10 billion in loan guarantees to Israel in an effort to force Israel to halt settlements in the West Bank. "There is a division within my camp," says Wittmann. "One school wants to cut the President slack for now, and the other believes Bush is already down the road of policy incoherence." Wittmann is hoping Bush's current stance is "ad-hocism, that his actions come from a desire to impose order upon chaos and out of a fear of destabilization in the Arab world. I'm not divining a long-term foreign policy message out of his handling of the current crisis--not yet."
Bush has not threatened to reconsider the fundamentals of US-Israel relations--such as $3 billion in annual assistance to Israel. The various groups that lobby for the Israeli hard-core retain influence in and out of the Administration. "There will be more Congressional involvement in the Middle East in the coming weeks," says the House staffer. That means further opportunity for pro-Israel hawks to shape the debate and Bush's decisions. Still, against the odds--and campaign donations and political clout--Bush spurned the Israel-all-the-way forces this round. A significant shift or a short-term plan? Bush himself probably doesn't know.
Now that the recommendations of George W. Bush's Social Security task force have been quietly shelved, it's time to recall that there are simple and equitable solutions available to deal with Social Security's potential future problems resulting from the retirement of millions of baby boomers.
Five years ago, four former senators--Alan Simpson of Wyoming, John Danforth of Missouri, David Pryor of Arkansas and I (two Democrats and two Republicans)--met on the campus of Southern Illinois University with the deputy chief actuary for Social Security. After looking at many possibilities, we recommended two changes:
First, all income should be taxed for payments into the Social Security Retirement Trust Fund. Today income up to only $84,900 is taxed. While the benefit payments are mildly progressive, the taxes are regressive. Most Americans pay more into Social Security than to the IRS. Covering all income would not only help Social Security, it would reduce the growing gap between those more fortunate and those less fortunate. If you earn $1 million a year, your increased tax would be less than $57,000. You could afford that. And you would pay it knowing that you are helping insure a more secure old age for your children and grandchildren.
Second, the Consumer Price Index, which is used to measure inflation for the purpose of determining cost-of-living increases in Social Security benefits, should be corrected. If the price of beef goes up, more people buy chicken, but the cost of food in the index reflects the price of beef--substitution is not considered. Similarly, although drug costs have shot up, boosting the inflation rate, the index does not reflect that generic drugs can be substituted, lowering the cost of prescriptions slightly. If adjustments in the CPI are made, Social Security benefits could continue to rise with inflation, but the rate of increase would be slightly reduced.
Adopting just the first of our proposals would bring in most of the funds needed to meet increased Social Security costs. Adopting both of them, according to the actuaries, would keep the retirement fund solvent for seventy-five years, barring an economic disaster. Neither of these proposals is popular. Political parties don't like to do unpopular things, but a bipartisan Congressional commission could reverse this. It should be created. The longer we wait, the more difficult it will become.
The alternative advocated by George W. Bush and his carefully rigged commission--that a portion of Social Security payments be designated for investments in the stock market--should be a nonstarter. It would be a bonanza for stockbrokers but could hurt most retirees. Has anyone tabulated the cost of auditing millions of private accounts? Does the performance of the stock market during the past two years argue for subjecting people already living on the margin to greater risk? And not simply the experience of the past two years. From December 31, 1964, to December 31, 1981, the Dow Jones average went up less than 1 percent for all those seventeen years. The inflation increase for that period was 95 percent. Interest on government bonds looks good compared with that performance.
The wildest scenario came from a former Reagan Administration economist, Martin Feldstein, who suggested that the federal government should guarantee these investments. I would love to have the government guarantee my investments, but the S&L bailout would look tiny compared with what that idea could cost.
Social Security has a problem. Let's face up to it and deal with it in a way that makes our tax system slightly more progressive.
History will record April 11, 2002, as a day of enormous significance in the effort to achieve the rule of law in the conduct of international affairs. It marks the day the Treaty of Rome, establishing an International Criminal Court, was to be ratified by sixty nations, thus triggering the establishment of the global tribunal with jurisdiction over those who commit war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide. Tragically, instead of submitting the treaty to the Senate for ratification, George W. Bush would strike our name from the treaty altogether. In a press conference two weeks before the sixtieth nation deposited its ratification, the Administration's ambassador-at-large for war crimes, Pierre Prosper, made it clear that the President is still a hostage to the reactionary sponsors of the misnamed American Servicemembers Protection Act. This act would allow the United States to invade The Hague, presumed seat of the new tribunal, to "free" any American brought before the bar of international justice. In addition, any existing military assistance program to a non-NATO country that is "a party to" the ICC would be suspended.
The ambassador refused to deny that the idea of unsigning the treaty is under active consideration and review. Mere contemplation of such a course of action is bad enough, but active consideration at a time of war is almost beyond belief. We were isolated from virtually every democratic nation with our vote against the ICC on July 17, 1998, when the ICC treaty was adopted by a vote of 120 to 7. Since then it has been signed by our closest allies, including every NATO country but Turkey and all members of the European Union.
The twentieth century was the bloodiest in human history, with a total of 174 million people killed in genocide and mass murders. If there was ever a moment when a US President should demonstrate his fealty to the abiding principles of law and justice, now is that moment. No President has ever revoked the signature of a former chief executive on a treaty by unsigning it. If Bush carries out this unprecedented action, prodded by the right wing of his party, his capitulation will not only dismay our friends and delight our enemies but also strip us of any ability to negotiate changes to the treaty we might validly seek to make. And as we mute our response to the call for a worldwide embrace of the rule of law, we traduce one of the most important principles of American democracy.
Do Not Employ Arabs, Enemies Should Not Be Offered a Livelihood and We Will Assist Those Who Do Not Provide Work For Arabs are just a few of the slogans covering billboards throughout Jerusalem. These placards refer to Palestinian citizens of Israel. One poster even provides a detailed list of taxi companies that employ Arab citizens and companies that don't. Jewish history, it seems, has been forgotten.
This kind of blatant racism is now common in Israel; it feeds off the widespread fear of suicide bombings, which have also managed to change the Jerusalem landscape. Downtown streets are almost empty, and most businesses have been seriously hurt because of the dramatic decline in clientele. A recent poll suggests that 67 percent of Israelis have reduced the number of times they leave their homes. The only companies that have been thriving in the past months are security firms. Every supermarket, bank, theater and cafe now employs private guards whose duty is to search customers as they enter the building.
One of the effects of this new practice is that profiling has become ubiquitous. Arab-looking residents refrain from using public transportation and from going to all-Jewish neighborhoods and shopping centers. It is not unusual in the city to see groups of Arab men searched at gunpoint by Israeli police, their faces against the wall and their hands in the air.
On the national level, politicians have been exploiting the pervasive fear, using it to foment a form of fervent nationalism tinged with racism. Effi Eitam, the new leader of the National Religious Party, recently approved to become a minister in Sharon's government, has characterized all Palestinian citizens of Israel as "a cancer." "Arabs," he claims, "will never have political rule in the land of Israel," which in Eitam's opinion includes the West Bank and Gaza. Support for Sharon has also risen from 45 to 62 percent following the latest Israeli offensive. The fact that Palestinian citizens, who make up almost 20 percent of the population, adamantly oppose Israel's military assault suggests that only one in five Jewish citizens is against Sharon's war. Most Jews consider themselves victims in this conflict, not aggressors.
The deeply rooted victim syndrome has been manipulated over the past year by the mainstream media in order to rally the public around the flag. For television viewers, Palestinian suffering is virtually nonexistent, while attacks on Jews are graphically portrayed, replayed time and again, thus rendering victimhood the existential condition of Israeli Jews. Radio and television have practically turned into government organs, allowing almost no criticism of Israel's policies to be aired.
It is within this stifling atmosphere that one must understand the slow resurgence of the Israeli peace camp. There are now about 400 new combat reservists who refuse to serve in the occupied territories, joining a similar number of refuseniks from Yesh Gvul ("There Is a Limit"). "We will not go on fighting beyond the 'green line' for the purposes of domination, expulsion, starvation and humiliation of an entire people," the soldiers wrote in an open letter. Since the eruption of the second intifada, eighty-seven conscientious objectors have been incarcerated; thirty-five are currently sitting in jail, more than in any other period in Israel's history.
On April 3, 4,000 Jewish and Arab protesters marched together from Jerusalem toward Kalandia checkpoint, located on the outskirts of Ramallah. The procession was led by women and included four truckloads of humanitarian aid. The demonstrators were stopped by a police blockade only minutes after they set out. As a member of the negotiation team, I was on the police side of the blockade when scores of tear gas canisters and stun grenades were thrown into the crowd. Policemen immediately pursued the protesters, trampling and violently beating them with their clubs. Among the injured were three Arab Knesset members. Later, while waiting for the trucks to return from Ramallah, a police officer explained that a woman precipitated the outburst: "She spat on one of the officers."
The next day, protesters gathered in front of the American Embassy in Tel Aviv to call on the US government to stop Israel's military incursion. The group was mostly composed of Palestinian citizens of Israel, although there were quite a few Jews. Again, the police assaulted the demonstrators, this time because one of them was carrying a Palestinian flag.
Two days later, on April 6, 15,000 people marched from Rabin Square to the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, calling on Sharon to immediately withdraw all military forces from the occupied territories and to restart negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. "The occupation is killing us all!" the demonstrators shouted. Channel 2 spent twenty seconds covering the event; Channel 1, Israel's public station, ignored it.
Not everyone disregarded the protest. Likud Knesset Member Gideon Ezra called upon the secret services to begin monitoring more carefully the activities of leftist organizations and blamed the only two journalists who continue to document what is happening on the Palestinian side--Amira Hass and Gideon Levy--for encouraging the campaign against Israel. Given the increasingly repressive atmosphere inside Israel, it appears that without massive pressure from abroad--not unlike the sanctions imposed on South Africa--Israel will not withdraw from the occupied territories, nor will it cease to oppress and subjugate the Palestinian people.
What is the fundamental difference between Slobodan Milosevic and Ariel Sharon? The former is on trial for war crimes, while the latter still leads an occupying army.
Get set again for Liddy Dole.
She's back, to let the good times roll.
She's entering another race,
Her hair and diction all in place.
(Her hair is even more precise
Than that of Condoleezza Rice.)
Her problem is that she's been cast
As someone with a Beltway past.
Although she's Carolina bred,
She left her home to get ahead.
And now they say her luggage tag
Says DC--on a carpetbag.
"But ahm from heah," she'll say to all.
She'll say it in a Tarheel drawl.
The drawl alone should do the trick,
Unless she lays it on too thick--
Unless the voters say, in candor,
"We simply cannot understand her."
Having a hard time finding a new apartment to fit your budget? Consider a move to the blocks around Ground Zero. The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, the body set up by former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Governor George Pataki to oversee the rebuilding of downtown post-September 11, will pay you up to $12,000 to relocate south of Chambers and west of Broadway for two years, or stay there should you live there already. I know--I couldn't believe it either. This bounty to adventurous tenants is federal money and comes even as area rents are already down by as much as 30 percent since 9/11. Think of it as a mini-version of the millions ladled out to keep corporations from abandoning lower Manhattan for New Jersey. I figured out that I could sublet my apartment on the Upper West Side, move downtown and actually be able to live on my Nation salary (well, almost).
It's true downtown is a mess right now--depending on whom you talk to, the air quality's somewhere between itchy and lethal, a lot of little shops and restaurants have folded, and Ground Zero is not everyone's idea of a view. Still, whatever happened to the survival of the fittest? To the market and its omnipotent invisible hand? Why shouldn't downtown apartments fall to their "natural" price--the rent at which sufficient numbers of people will want to take out a lease despite the angst and aggravation? And if that figure turns out to be so low that the current landlords can't make a go of it, isn't it the capitalist theory that other, cleverer landlords will step into the breach, with the consumer the winner? Why should the federal government pay middle-class professionals to live in one neighborhood rather than another? The answer is, to keep downtown a great place for those same middle-class professionals to live and for real estate interests to invest in.
Public subsidy is certainly not the principle animating housing policy for low-income people and homeless families like the ones whose tribulations were superbly, unforgettably chronicled by Jennifer Egan in The New York Times Magazine ("The Hidden Lives of Homeless Children," March 24). Five hundred dollars a month to brighten a scruffy and underpopulated district with their presence? The housing allowance for a family of three on welfare is $286. It's one thing to herd women and kids into filthy motels at the city's edge, miles from grocery stores and hours away from schools and jobs--at daily rates for which they could be happily ensconced in their own apartments. It would be quite another matter to treat low-income New Yorkers as members of society with contributions to make that are equal to (or greater than) those of bond traders or publicity agents, and to see their children as no less deserving of a safe and stable place to live than any other kids.
As Egan points out, homeless families--now 75 percent of the city's shelter population, including 13,000 children this past winter--are caught between falling or stagnant wages and skyrocketing housing costs. The housing market is just too tight, no public housing is being built and the waiting list for section 8 vouchers, which poor families can use toward private-market rents, has more than 200,000 names. Homelessness is a civic emergency, an affront to human dignity and a threat to the city's future, affecting everything from public health to public schools to public safety. But can you imagine Mayor Bloomberg, inspired by Egan's crusading journalism, proposing that we move homeless families--virtuous, sober, quiet homeless families, to be sure--into those hard-to-rent vacancies downtown? Middle-class New Yorkers would lie down in traffic to prevent it.
As society polarizes between rich and poor, differential treatment becomes ever more blatant and punitive. Thus, George W. Bush, seconded by Congressional Republicans and the Democratic Leadership Council, proposes forcing welfare mothers to work forty hours a week--nearly double the national norm for working moms. Thus, the Supreme Court, in a staggering 8-to-0 verdict (Justice Breyer recused himself), decides that public housing authorities can evict tenants if someone in the household uses drugs--including pot, which Mayor Bloomberg himself has acknowledged enjoying in his flaming youth. The rule applies even if they don't know about the drug use or do all in their power to prevent it, and even if it takes place outside the apartment. The plaintiffs? Two grandmothers whose grandsons smoked pot, one mother whose mentally disabled daughter was found thirty blocks away using cocaine, and one elderly disabled man whose health attendant had a crack pipe. Patricia Williams and others have wondered out loud why Jeb and Columba Bush didn't have to vacate the Florida governor's mansion because of their daughter's drug problems. Is it only poor grandmothers who are expected to have perfect control of the young?
The same law of punishing all for the crimes of one, which HUD has titled "One Strike and You're Out," is being used against battered women who seek help from the police, only to find themselves threatened with eviction from public housing because the household was the site of "criminal activity"--the assault. Can you imagine the headlines if the management at Battery Park City tried to evict a woman because her husband beat her up?
In the words of that noted social theorist Jesus Christ: "For unto everyone that hath shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath." He was speaking of spiritual riches, but these days his words seem to apply to material ones as well.
* * *
My apologies to Tricycle, which did indeed cover strife in Sri Lanka, contrary to my reckless assertion ("God Changes Everything," April 1). No apologies, however, for failing to include Billy Graham's thirty-year-old anti-Semitic remarks in my catalogue of sins of the cloth. Why do I suspect that had I given to that ancient evangelist the space I allotted to West Bank settlers, priestly molesters, Islamic fanatics, Hindu arsonists and murderers or other contemporary religious rampagers, Christopher Hitchens would have suggested I was ignoring current crises in favor of musty Nixoniana?
I really must come to England more often. The last time I was here, in mid-February, Princess Margaret gave up the ghost. And now, even as I step off the wondrous train that connects Paris to London, the flags are hauled halfway down to mark the passing of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, last Empress of India. This was supposed to be a Jubilee year, marking half a century of the present sovereign's rule. But it has been a series of black-draped obsequies so far. And I plan to come back in early June...
Afghan women are free of the Taliban, but liberation is still a distant dream.
With McCain-Feingold finally passed, it's time to focus again on public funding.
Israel and Palestine will not find peace until both have security and sovereignty.
Filmmakers in sub-Saharan Africa tend to divide their attention between city life today and village life once upon a time. This rule has its exceptions, of course; but if you're searching for an African film that truly overcomes the split, deftly merging the contemporary with the folkloric, I doubt you'll find
anything more ingenious than Joseph Gaï Ramaka's retelling of Carmen. Set along the coast of modern-day Dakar, this Karmen Geï drapes current Senegalese costumes upon the now-mythic figures of Mérimée and Bizet, puts old-style songs and African pop into their mouths and has its characters dance till they threaten to burst the frame.
The film's American distributor, California Newsreel, suggests that Karmen Geï is Africa's first movie musical--that is, an all-singing, all-dancing story, rather than a story with song and dance added on. If so, that breakthrough would count as another major achievement for Ramaka. But nothing can matter in any Carmen without Carmen herself; and so I propose that Ramaka's true claim to fame is to have put Djeïnaba Diop Gaï on the screen.
Practically the first thing you see of her--the first thing you see at all in Karmen Geï--is the heart-stopping vision of her two thighs slapping together, while a full battery of drummers pounds away. We discover Karmen in the sand-covered arena of a prison courtyard, where she is dancing so exuberantly, lustily, violently that you'd think this was a bullring and she'd just trampled the matador; and at this point, she hasn't even risen from her seat. Wait till she gets up and really starts to move, shaking and swerving and swiveling a body that's all curves and pure muscle, topped by a hairdo that rises like a mantilla and then spills down in ass-length braids. A rebel, an outlaw, a force of nature, an irresistible object of desire: Gaï's Karmen embodies all of these, and embodies them in motion. The only part of her that seems fixed is her smile, shining in unshakable confidence from just above an out-thrust chin.
Is it just the memory of other Carmens that brings a bullring to mind? Not at all. There really is a contest going on in this opening scene, and Karmen is winning it, effortlessly. She is dancing, before a full assembly of the jail's female prisoners, in an attempt to seduce the warden, Angélique (Stéphanie Biddle). Pensive and lighter-skinned than Karmen, dressed in a khaki uniform with her hair pulled back tight, Angélique yields to her prisoner's invitation to dance and soon after is stretched out in bed, sated, while Karmen dashes through the hallways and out to freedom.
From that rousing start, Ramaka goes on to rethink Carmen in ways that vary from plausible to very, very clever. It's no surprise that the Don José figure (Magaye Niang) is a police officer; the twist is that Karmen snares him by breaking into his wedding, denouncing all of respectable Senegalese society and challenging his bride-to-be to a dance contest. The chief smuggler (Thierno Ndiaye Dos) is a courtly older man who keeps the lighthouse; and Escamillo, the only person in the movie big enough to look Karmen in the eye, is a pop singer, played with smooth assurance by pop star El Hadj Ndiaye.
Ramaka's best invention, though, is Angélique, a previously unknown character who is both a lovesick, uniformed miscreant and a doomed woman--that is, a merger of Don José and Carmen. By adding her to the plot, the film gives Karmen someone worth dying for. The details of how she arrives at that death are a little muddled--the direction is elliptical at best, herky-jerky at worst--but thanks to Angélique's presence in the story, the climax feels more tender than usual, and more deliberate. Karmen shows up for her final scene decked out in a red sheath, as if to insure the blood won't spoil her dress.
Karmen Geï has recently been shown in the eighth New York African Film Festival, at Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater. It is now having a two-week run downtown at Film Forum.
The title of Fabián Bielinsky's briskly intriguing Nine Queens would seem to refer to a sheet of rare stamps--or, rather, to a forgery of the stamps, which two Buenos Aires con artists hope to sell to a rich businessman. But then, the businessman is himself a crook, the con artists don't actually know one another and the sale just might involve real stamps. You begin to see how complicated things can be in this movie; and I haven't yet mentioned the sister.
The action, which stretches across one long day, begins in the convenience store of a gas station, where fresh-faced Juan (Gastón Pauls) draws the attention of Marcos (Ricardo Darín), an older, more aggressive swindler. Teamed up impromptu, just for the day, the two stumble into the con of a lifetime when Marcos's beautiful, prim, angry sister (Leticia Brédice) summons them to the luxury hotel where she works. She just happens to need Marcos to cart away one of his ailing buddies; and the buddy just happens to know of a guest who might buy some stamps.
No, nothing is as it seems. But Bielinsky's storytelling is so adept, his pace so fleet, his actors so much in love with every nuance of their dishonesty that you will probably laugh with delight, even as you're being dealt a losing hand of three-card monte.
And if you want social relevance, Nine Queens will give you that, too. As if Juan (or was it Marcos?) had scripted the whole country, this release swept the critics' awards for 2001 just in time for Argentina's economy to crash. Enjoy!
I hadn't intended to review this last film; but since it's become a critical success, here goes:
The Piano Teacher is a pan-European remake of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, with French stars Isabelle Huppert and Annie Girardot playing the sacred-monster roles and Austrian director Michael Haneke fastidiously avoiding the camp humor that alone could have saved the movie. Set in Vienna and cast (except for the leads) with German-speaking actors, whose lips flop like dying fish around their dubbed French syllables, The Piano Teacher is a combination of immaculately composed shots and solemnly absurd dialogue, much of it about the music of Franz Schubert. "That note is the sound of conscience, hammering at the complacency of the bourgeoisie." Sure it is. Add a sequence in which Huppert humps Girardot (her own mother!) in the bed they share, throw in an extended sex scene where the characters grandly ignore any risk of interruption (though they're grappling in a public toilet), and you've got a movie that ought to have made classical music dirty again.
But to judge from critics' reactions, Schubert remains the touchstone of respectability, and The Piano Teacher is somehow to be taken seriously.
The aura of high-mindedness that cloaks the action (at least for some viewers) emanates mostly from Huppert. No matter what her character stoops to--doggie posture, for the most part--Huppert seems never to lower herself. She maintains her dignity because she is being brave. She is acting. She is allowing herself to be shown as sexually abject before an athletic younger man, Benoît Magimel, who has a cleft chin and peekaboo blond hair. Huppert has been similarly abject in recent years, in Benoît Jacquot's The School of Flesh, for example. I wonder what hope other women may nurture for themselves after 40, when this wealthy, celebrated, greatly accomplished and famously beautiful woman has no better prospects. I know we're expected to give prizes to Huppert for such ostentatious self-abnegation. (Last year, at Cannes, she collected a big award.) But what pleasure are we supposed to get from seeing the character humiliated?
A dishonest pleasure, I'd say; the same kind that's proposed in The Piano Teacher's now-notorious scene of genital mutilation. The meaning of the scene, for those who are pleased to give it one, is of course transgressive, subversive and otherwise big word-like. See how (women) (the Viennese) (the middle class) (fill in the blank) are repressed, how they turn against themselves, how they make themselves and everyone around them suffer. Then again, if you subtract all that guff about the complacent bourgeoisie, maybe the scene means nothing more than "Ew, gross!"
I have admired Haneke's films in the past, beginning with the antiseptically grim The Seventh Continent and going on to the tough, much-maligned Benny's Video. When Haneke has proposed that clean, affluent, educated people may do horrible things, I have agreed, as of course I must, accepting what would have been a mere platitude for the sake of the films' clear vision and genuine sense of dread. But as I watched Huppert's preposterous impersonation of a music teacher, I began to wonder if Haneke knows that characters can be something other than horrid.
The dynamics of Schubert's music represent emotional "anarchy," says Huppert at one point, in a pronouncement that would get a pedagogue sacked from any self-respecting conservatory. Listen to Rudolf Serkin play the great B-flat piano sonata, varying his touch with every breath, and you will hear not anarchy but imagination. It's the quality most lacking in The Piano Teacher--followed closely by warmth, humor, realism and purpose.
Fun at Home: Nation readers will want to know that Zeitgeist Video has just brought out a DVD of Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick's fine documentary Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media. All the original fun is there, plus added features such as Chomsky's own commentary on the picture. The film is now ten years old. You will probably find it's more to the point than ever.
Perhaps time is our invention
To make things seem to move
Like the uncovering tail of the blue jay
As it lights its feet on the wet
Perhaps the seasons are really not
More than a single space with walls inside, disconnected
While fall and winter, and spring
Which we always anticipate, are only
Expansions of our own longings.
Perhaps there is only the now
Neither age nor youth, not even the vertigo of memories stilettoed
Except wounded into this present second
Shorter than the birth of a cell, or the nest dropped
With the sun and the rain always out together.
This center is absolute, it needs no endlessness
For heaven or hell. Or for creation, our own illusion of ourselves.
The minor variations we unfold are all the same
Inherently permutating at once
Repeating one design. Obscure. Lit at the edges of our time.
There is an overall disposition to approach each Whitney Biennial as a State of the Art World Address in the form of an exhibition, organized by a curatorial directorate, presenting us with a reading, more or less objective, of what visual culture has been up to in the preceding two years. It is widely appreciated that on any given occasion, the directorate will be driven by enthusiasms and agendas that compromise objectivity. So there has sprung up a genre of what we might call Biennial Criticism, in which the organizers are taken to task for various distortions, and when these have been flagrant, as in the 1993 or, to a lesser degree, the 1995 Biennial, the critics almost speak as one. Everyone knew, in 1993, that a lot of art was being made that took the form of aggressively politicized cultural criticism, but the Biennial made it appear that there was very little else, and it had the effect of alienating the viewers by treating them as enemies. Again, everyone recognized in 1995 that artists were exploring issues of gender identity--but there was a question of whether these preoccupations were not overrepresented in what was shown. Anticipating the barrage of critical dissent, the Whitney pre-emptively advertised the 2000 Biennial as the exhibition you love to hate, making a virtue of adversity. But Biennials and Biennial Criticism must be taken as a single complex, which together provide, in the best way that has so far evolved, as adequate a picture as we are likely to get of where American artistic culture is at the moment. The Whitney deserves considerable credit for exposing itself to critical onslaughts from various directions in this periodic effort to bring the present art world to consciousness. Art really is a mirror in which the culture gets to see itself reflected, but it requires a fair amount of risk and bickering to get that image to emerge with any degree of clarity.
As it happens, my own sense of the state of the art world is reasonably congruent with that of Lawrence Rinder, who bears chief responsibility for Biennial 2002, though I have to admit that I was unfamiliar with a good many of the artists whose work has been selected. This unfamiliarity can even be taken as evidence that Rinder's selection corresponds to the general profile of art-making today.
It is almost as though any sample drawn from the art world would yield much the same profile of artistic production, so long as it consisted mainly of artists in their 30s and early 40s who have been formed in one or another of the main art schools and keep up with the main art periodicals. A great Biennial could have been put together using older artists with international reputations, but somehow emphasizing the young does not seem a curatorial caprice. It is increasingly an art-world premise that what is really happening is to be found among the young or very young, whose reputations have not as yet emerged. A painter who taught in California told me that he was constantly pressed, by dealers and collectors, to tell them who among the students was hot. So as long as it resembles a fairly large show of MFA students graduating from a major art school--as Biennial 2002 mostly does--a quite representative Biennial can be put together of artists whose work is hardly known at all. Somehow, if it were widely known, it would not have been representative.
Art today is pretty largely conceptual. It is not Conceptual Art in the narrow sense the term acquired when it designated one of the last true movements of late Modernism, in which the objects were often negligible or even nonexistent, but rather in the sense that being an artist today consists in having an idea and then using whatever means are necessary to realize it. Advanced art schools do not primarily teach skills but serve as institutes through which students are given critical support in finding their own way to whatever it takes to make their ideas come to something. This has been the case since the early 1970s.
It is amazing how many young people want to be artists today. I was told that there are about 600 art majors in a state university in Utah--and there will be at least that many applicants for perhaps twenty places in any one of the major MFA programs, despite a tuition equal to that for law or business school. Few will find teaching positions, but their main impulse is to make art, taking advantage of today's extreme pluralism, which entails that there are no antecedent prohibitions on how their art has to be. Every artist can use any technology or every technology at once--photography, video, sound, language, imagery in all possible media, not to mention that indeterminate range of activities that constitute performances, working alone or in collaboratives on subjects that can be extremely arcane.
Omer Fast shows a two-channel video installation with surround sound about Glendive, Montana, selected because it is the nation's smallest self-contained television market. Who would know about this? Or about Sarah Winchester, who kept changing the architecture of her house in San Jose, California, because she felt she was being pursued by victims of the Winchester rifle, which her late husband manufactured, which Jeremy Blake chose as the subject of a 16-millimeter film, augmented by drawings and digital artworks transferred to DVD? I pick these out not as criticism but as observations. They exemplify where visual culture is today.
Initially I felt that painting was somewhat underrepresented, but on reflection I realize that there is not much of the kind of easel painting done now that makes up one's composite memory of Biennials past. What I had to accept was that artists today appropriate vernacular styles and images--graffiti, cartoons, circus posters and crude demotic drawing. Artists use whatever kinds of images they like. Much as one dog tells another in a New Yorker cartoon that once you're online, no one can tell you're a dog, it is less and less easy to infer much about an artist's identity from the work.
At least three graduate students in a leading art school I visited not long ago choose to paint like self-taught artists. The self-taught artist Thornton Dial Senior appeared in Biennial 2000, but his contribution did not look like anyone's paradigm of outsider art, so no one could have known that it was not by an MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design or CalArts. There are some quilts in Biennial 2002 by Rosie Lee Tomkins, who is Afro-American, as we can tell from items in her bibliography (Redesigning Cultural Roots: Diversity in African-American Quilts). Since this year's catalogue does not identify artists with reference to their education, we don't know--nor does it matter--whether Tomkins is self-taught. But it is entirely open to white male graduate students to practice quilt-making as their art if they choose to.
Whether someone can paint or draw is no more relevant than whether they can sew or cook. Everything is available to everyone--the distinctions between insider and outsider, art and craft, fine art and illustration, have altogether vanished. I have not yet seen a Biennial with the work of Sophie Matisse or George Deem in it, both of whom appropriate the painting styles of Vermeer and other Old Masters, but they express the contemporary moment as well as would an artist who drew Superman or The Silver Surfer. Mike Bidlo--also not included--has been painting Jackson Pollocks over the past few years. In a way I rather admire, Biennial 2002 presents us with a picture not just of the art world but of American society today, in an ideal form in which identities are as fluid and boundaries as permeable as lifestyles in general.
The openness to media outside the traditional ones of painting, drawing, printmaking, photography and sculpture has made it increasingly difficult to see everything on a single visit in the recent Biennials, and this is particularly so in Biennial 2002. But just seeing the things that can be taken in on such a visit may not give the best idea of what is really happening in the art world. Biennial 2002 includes the work of eight performance artists or teams of performance artists, for example, and theirs may be among the most revealing work being done today; but you will have to read about their work in the catalogue, since the performances themselves do not take place on the premises of the museum. I'll describe three artists whose most striking work is performance, since together they give a deeper sense of visual culture than we might easily get by looking at the objects and installations in the museum's galleries.
Let's begin with Praxis--a performance collaborative formed in 1999 that consists of a young married couple, Delia Bajo and Brainard Carey. On any given Saturday afternoon, Praxis opens the East Village storefront that is its studio and home to passers-by. The ongoing performance, which they title The New Economy, consists in offering visitors any of four meaningful but undemanding services from the artists: a hug, a footbath, a dollar or a Band-Aid, which comes with the kind of kiss a mommy gives to make it all better. Praxis draws upon a fairly rich art history. Its services are good examples of what were considered actions by Fluxus, an art movement that has frequently figured in this column. Fluxus originated in the early 1960s as a loose collective of artists-performers-composers who were dedicated, among other things, to overcoming the gap between art and life. The movement drew its inspiration from Marcel Duchamp, John Cage and Zen--and from the visionary figure George Maciunas, who gave it its name. It is a matter for philosophers to determine when giving someone a hug is a piece of art--but an important consideration is that as art it has no particular connection to the art market, nor is it the sort of thing that is easily collected. And it requires no special training to know how to do it.
There is something tender and affecting in Praxis's ministrations, which connects it to a second art-historical tradition. It has, for example, a certain affinity to Felix Gonzales-Torres, who piled up candies in the corner of a gallery for people to help themselves to, or to the art of Rirkrit Tiravanija, which largely consists in feeding people fairly simple dishes, which he cooks for whoever comes along. Praxis's art is comforting, in much the way that Tiravanija's work is nurturing. The people who enter Praxis's storefront are not necessarily, as the artists explain, seeking an art experience. Neither are those who eat Tiravanija's green curry in quest of gastronomic excitement. The artists set themselves up as healers or comfort-givers, and the art aims at infusing an increment of human warmth into daily life. There was not a lot of that in Fluxus, but it has become very much a part of art today, especially among younger artists. The moral quality of Praxis belongs to the overall spirit of the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, which recently emerged as an art scene. On one of my visits there, a gallerist asked me what I thought of the scene and I told him I found it "lite," not intending that as a criticism. "We want to remain children," he told me. The artists there could not have been nicer, and this seems generally the feeling evoked by Biennial 2002. It is the least confrontational Biennial of recent years.
There is, for example, not much by way of nudity, though that is integral to the performances of the remarkable artist Zhang Huan, which stands at the opposite end of the spectrum from Praxis. Zhang Huan was expelled from China in 1998. His work fuses certain Asiatic disciplines laced with appropriations from various Western avant-gardes. In each of his performances, Zhang Huan's shaved head and bare, wiry body is put through trials in which, like a saint or shaman, the performer displays his indifference to injury. His nakedness becomes a universal emblem of human vulnerability. There is a remarkable, even stunning, poetry in these performances, and they feel in fact like religious ordeals, like fasting or mortification, undertaken for the larger welfare. I have seen the film of an amazing performance, Dream of the Dragon, in which Zhang Huan is carried by assistants into the performance space on a large forked branch of a tree, like an improvised cross. The assistants cover his body with a kind of soup they coat with flour. A number of leashed family dogs are then allowed to lick this off with sometimes snarling canine voracity.
The performances of William Pope.L, which involve great physical and, I imagine, psychological stress, stand to Zhang Huan's as West stands to East. His crawl pieces, of which he has done perhaps forty since 1978, perform social struggle, as he puts it. His contribution to Biennial 2002, titled The Great White Way, will involve a twenty-two-mile crawl up Broadway, from the Statue of Liberty to the Bronx, and will take five years. In a film excerpt, Pope.L is seen in a padded Superman suit and ski hat, a skateboard strapped to his back, negotiating a segment of the crawl. Sometimes he uses the skateboard as a dolly, but that seems hardly less strenuous than actual crawling. Pope.L is African-American, and somehow one feels that crawling up the Great White Way has to be seen as a symbolic as well as an actual struggle. But it also has the aura of certain ritual enactments that require worshipers to climb some sacred stairway on their knees, or to achieve a required pilgrimage by crawling great distances to a shrine.
Since foot-washing, which is one of Praxis's actions, is widely recognized as a gesture of humility as well as hospitality in many religious cultures, the three performance pieces bear out one of Rinder's observations that a great many artists today are interested in religious subjects. He and I participated in a conversation organized by Simona Vendrame, the editor of Tema Celeste, and published in that magazine under the title New York, November 8, 2001. We were to discuss the impact of September 11 on American art. With few exceptions, the art in Biennial 2002 was selected before the horror, though it is inevitable that it colors how we look at the exhibits.
In a wonderful departure, five commissioned Biennial works are on view in Central Park, including an assemblage of sculptures in darkly patinated bronze by Kiki Smith, of harpies and sirens. These figures have human heads on birds' bodies, and as they are exhibited near the Central Park zoo, they suggest evolutionary possibilities that were never realized. When I saw pictures of them, however, I could not help thinking they memorialized those who threw themselves out of the upper windows of the World Trade Center rather than endure incineration. I had read that one of the nearby schoolchildren pointed to the falling bodies and said, "Look, the birds are on fire!"
I don't really yet know what effect on art September 11 actually had, and it might not be obvious even when one sees it. The artist Audrey Flack, whose work is in the Biennial, told me that as soon as she could get away from the television screen, she wanted only to paint fishing boats at Montauk. A good bit of what Rinder has selected could as easily as not have been done in response to the terrible events, but he said that he had sensed some sort of change taking place in artists' attitudes well before September 11: "What I was finding over and over again was artists saying things to me like 'Well, to be honest, what I'm really doing is searching for the truth' or 'What matters the most to me is to make the most honest statement I possibly can.'" I don't think one can easily tell from looking at the art that it embodies these virtues, any more than one could tell from Flack's watercolors that they constituted acts of healing for her. But that is what they mean and are.
One consequence of art's having taken the direction it has is that there is not always a lot to be gained from what one sees without benefit of a fair amount of explanation. Biennial 2002 has been very generous in supplying interpretive help. Some people have complained that the wall labels go too far in inflecting the way one is supposed to react to the work, but I am grateful for any help I can get; I found the wall texts, like the catalogue, indispensable. And beyond that, you can hear what the artists thought they were doing by listening to recorded comments on the rented electronic guides. I cannot see enough of the work of Kim Sooja, a Korean artist who works with traditional fabrics from her culture. But her statements contribute to the metaphysics of fabric--to what Kierkegaard calls the meaning of the cloth--and are worth thinking about in their own right.
You will encounter Kim Sooja's Deductive Object, consisting of Korean bedcovers placed over tables at the zoo cafe in Central Park, just north of Kiki Smith's mythological animals and just south of a towering steel tree by Roxy Paine. Since Central Park has been opened up to temporary exhibitions, I would like to urge a longstanding agenda of my own. I cannot think of anything better capable of raising the spirits of New York than installing a beautiful projected piece by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, which, as always with their work, will not cost the city a nickel. They envision a series of tall gates, posted at regular intervals all along the main walkway of the park. Hanging from each will be saffron-colored strips of cloth that will float above us as we follow the path for as long as we care to--an undulating roof, since the strips are just long enough to cover the distance between the gates. The whole world will look with exaltation upon this work, which will express the same spirituality and truth that today's artists, if Lawrence Rinder is right, have aspired to in their work. And billions of dollars will flow into our economy as they pilgrim to our city.
I think the art world is going to be the way it is now for a very long time, even if it is strictly unimaginable how artworks themselves will look in 2004. Meanwhile, I think well of Biennial 2002, though I can have written of only a few of the 113 artists that make it up. You'll have to find your own way, like the artists themselves. Take my word that it is worth the effort. That's the best Biennial Criticism is able do in the present state of things.
"It's a great mistake not to feel pleased when you have the chance," a rich, disfigured spinster advises a frail, well-mannered boy in The Shrimp and the Anemone, the first novel in L.P. Hartley's Eustace and Hilda trilogy. The boy has won a hand of piquet, and the spinster has noticed that he has difficulty
enjoying triumphs. Miss Fothergill (like many of Hartley's characters, the spinster has an outlandishly characteristic name) foresees that her 10-year-old friend may not have ahead of him many occasions of pleasure to waste.
Rather than disobey Miss Fothergill, I will readily admit that I have felt pleased while reading Eustace and Hilda, and very pleased while reading Hartley's masterpiece, The Go-Between. It was a spice to my pleasure that even though the Eustace and Hilda trilogy was first published between 1944 and 1947, and The Go-Between in 1953, I had not even heard of L.P. Hartley before the novels were reissued recently as New York Review Books Classics.
I blame my ignorance on an academic education. Hartley is not the sort of author discussed in schools. He is in no way postmodern. He is modern only in his frugality with sentiment and his somewhat sheepish awareness that the ideas of Marx and Freud are abroad in the world, rendering it slightly more tricky than it used to be to write unself-consciously about unathletic middle-class English boys who have been led by their fantasies and spontaneously refined tastes into the country homes of the aristocracy. If Hartley belongs to any academic canon, it would be to the gay novel, whose true history must remain unwritten until the theorists have been driven from the temple and pleasure-loving empiricists loosed upon the literary critical world.
Hartley belongs with Denton Welch and J.R. Ackerley. The three have different strengths: Welch is sensuous, Ackerley is funny and Hartley is a delicate observer of social machinery. But all are sly and precise writers, challenged by a subject inconvenient for novelizing: the emotional life of gay men.
They met the challenge with unassuming resourcefulness, writing what might be called fairy tales. Hans Christian Andersen was their pioneer, as the first modern writer to discover that emotions considered freakish and repellent in adults could win sympathy when expressed by animals and children. Andersen also discovered that a plain style was the best disguise for this kind of trickery and that the disgust of even the most intolerant readers could be charmed away by an invitation to learn how queer characters came to be the way they are. Thus in Ackerley, Welch and Hartley one finds gentle transpositions--from human to animal, from adulthood to childhood, from health to illness--disarmingly exact language and just-so stories about strange desires. Once upon a time, a man fell in love with another man's dog. Once upon a time, a boy on a bicycle was hit by a car and could not find pleasure again except in broken things. Once upon a time, a boy was made to have tea with a crooked-faced, dying woman, and to his surprise he liked her. The effect is a mood of tenderness; the stories are sweet and a bit mournful.
Hartley loved Hans Christian Andersen, but it was another writer who provided him with a defense of gentle transposition as a novelistic practice: Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose daguerreotype by Mathew Brady is the disconcertingly austere frontispiece of The Novelist's Responsibility, Hartley's 1967 collection of literary criticism. In the preface to The Blithedale Romance, Hawthorne had described the novelist's need for a "Faery Land, so like the real world, that in a suitable remoteness one cannot well tell the difference, but with an atmosphere of strange enchantment, beheld through which the inhabitants have a propriety of their own." Hartley quoted the passage with approval.
Lost time was Hartley's fairyland. "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there," he wrote in the first, and most famous, sentence of The Go-Between. (He may have been echoing the first sentence of A Sentimental Journey, where Laurence Sterne had written, "They order...this matter better in France," which was Sterne's fairyland.) The remembered world could be as rich and vivid as the real one and yet would always stand at a remove. One could visit but not live there. As Hawthorne explained in his introduction to The Scarlet Letter, in another passage quoted by Hartley, there is something romantic about "the attempt to connect a bygone time with the very present which is flitting away from us."
The Go-Between opens with such an attempt. Leo Colston, a bachelor librarian in his 60s, has begun to sort his papers--apparently in preparation for his death, since he seems to have nothing else to look forward to. He starts by opening "a rather battered red cardboard collar-box." It is full of childhood treasures: "two dry, empty sea-urchins; two rusty magnets, a large one and a small one, which had almost lost their magnetism; some negatives rolled up in a tight coil; some stumps of sealing-wax; a small combination lock with three rows of letters; a twist of very fine whipcord; and one or two ambiguous objects, pieces of things, of which the use was not at once apparent: I could not even tell what they had belonged to." At the bottom of the box is a diary, and at first Colston cannot remember what the diary contains. Then he remembers why he does not want to remember it.
My secret--the explanation of me--lay there. I take myself much too seriously, of course. What does it matter to anyone what I was like, then or now? But every man is important to himself at one time or another; my problem had been to reduce the importance, and spread it out as thinly as I could over half a century. Thanks to my interment policy, I had come to terms with life...
A secret naturally arouses the reader's curiosity, but Colston's attitude toward his secret is a further provocation. The events in the diary, he implies, were both inconsequential and traumatic. He preferred a lifelong effort of forgetting over any attempt to come to terms; only by burying "the explanation of me" could he find a way to live. "Was it true...that my best energies had been given to the undertaker's art? If it was, what did it matter?" An unacknowledged wound, a buried definition of the self... The penumbra around Colston's secret is typical of a closeted homosexual, and yet what follows is neither a same-sex love story nor a coming-out narrative.
In the course of the novel, Colston does discover the facts of life and has at least an intuition of his oblique relation to them, but in The Go-Between Hartley was most intensely concerned with his hero's first experiences of sin and grace. This second, more surprising parallel with Hawthorne is the crucial one. Hartley once wrote that "Hawthorne thought that human nature was good, but was convinced in his heart that it was evil." Hartley was in a similar predicament.
Who would have guessed that the Edwardian sexual awakening of a delicate, precociously snobbish 13-year-old would have anything in common with the Puritan crimes and penitence that fascinated Hawthorne? Yet for Hartley, as for Hawthorne, the awareness of sin is a vital stage of education and a condition of maturity. At first young Leo Colston resists it. "It was like a cricket match played in a drizzle, where everyone had an excuse--and what a dull excuse!--for playing badly."
His moral code at the outset is the pagan one of schoolboys; he believes in curses and spells, and in triumphing over enemies by any means except adult intervention. But at the invitation of a classmate, Leo spends his summer vacation at Brandham Hall, a well-appointed Georgian mansion in Norfolk, and there his world is softened by love, in the person of the classmate's older sister, Marian. She is beautiful, musical and headstrong. Leo brings her messages from her fiancé, Hugh Winlove, Lord Trimingham, and billets from her lover, a local farmer named Ted Burgess. With her love comes sin--not because sexuality is evil, though it may be, but because after he has felt its touch, Leo can no longer think of the people he struggles with as enemies. The lovers make a terrible use of him, but he cares most about those who use him worst. In their triangle, he is incapable of taking a side; he is, after all, their go-between.
If you map Hartley onto Hawthorne too methodically, you arrive at the odd conclusion that Leo is part Chillingworth, part Pearl. This is not quite as silly as it sounds. Like them, Leo is jealous of the lovers he observes and is trapped in their orbit; nothing is lost on him, and he is unable to make emotional sense of what he knows. (His apprehension without comprehension is a boon for the reader, who through him sees the social fabric in fine focus.) But unlike Hawthorne's characters, Leo is a boy starting his adolescence, and that process, which he fears will defeat him, is at the heart of The Go-Between. Leo knows that the end of his childhood ought to be "like a death, but with a resurrection in prospect." His resurrection, however, is in doubt.
Like most fairy tales, the tale of how Leo becomes a fairy will not be fully credible to worldly readers. The Oedipal struggle will seem too bald, the catastrophe too absolute. Hartley was aware of this shortcoming. He knew that he found sexuality more awful than other people did, and in The Novelist's Responsibility, he wrote about his attempt to compensate for it while writing the Eustace and Hilda trilogy: "I remember telling a woman novelist, a friend of mine, about a story I was writing, and I said, perhaps with too much awe in my voice, 'Hilda is going to be seduced,' and I inferred that this would be a tragedy. I shall never forget how my friend laughed. She laughed and laughed and could not stop: and I decided that my heroine must be not only seduced, but paralysed into the bargain, if she was to expect any sympathy from the public."
Hartley's friend would probably have laughed at Hilda's paralysis, too. In the trilogy, Hilda is the older, stronger-willed sister of the exquisitely polite Eustace, who grows up in her shadow, a little too fond of its darkness. Their symbiosis in the first volume is brilliant and chilling, but her paralysis in the third is unconvincing. It is implausible that the demise of a love affair would literally immobilize an adult woman. Fortunately, it happens offstage, and a few of the book's characters do wonder if she is malingering.
However, the lack of perspective may be inextricable from Hartley's gifts. His writing is so mournful and sweet because he is willing to consider seriously terrors that only children ought to have, and perhaps only a man who never quite figured manhood out could still consider them that way. The second and third volumes of Eustace and Hilda are as elegant as the first, but not as satisfying, because Eustace's life becomes too vicarious to hold the reader's attention--and because the characters have grown up. Hartley's understanding of children is sophisticated, but he seems to have imagined adults as emotionally limited versions of them--as children who have become skilled at not thinking unpleasant thoughts. As a writer, his best moments are in describing terror at age 13 and the realization at 60-odd that one need not have been so terrified after all. In The Go-Between, artfully, the intervening years are compressed into the act of recollection, and the novel's structure fits the novelist's talents like a glove.
In the last days of March, at the end of a five-day voyage with seven fellow members of the International Parliament of Writers (IPW) through the battered archipelago of reservations that make up the Palestinian territories, I met for breakfast at the King David Inter-Continental Hotel in Tel Aviv with two young
leaders of the so-called refuseniks, the members of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) who have publicly declared their refusal to serve in the occupied territories. These men are not peaceniks or pacifists; they're not of the left or veterans of the now-demoralized Israeli peace movement; and they are certainly not cowards. They are Zionists, university-educated, articulate, patriotic sons of Israel, and their stand has become in these terrible dark days the most serious challenge that anyone has put to Israel's moral credibility from inside the family.
We met alone and at their request. They wished to meet with me, they said, because of my role as president of the IPW and leader of the delegation, but mainly because they had learned from the Internet that I was an American who had been involved in the anti-Vietnam War movement in the 1960s and '70s. They wanted avuncular advice from someone who, in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, was thought likely to identify with their decision to stand apart from their nation's oppressive policy against the Palestinian people. This conversation took place two days after the sickening suicide bombing of the Passover celebration in Netanya, north of Tel Aviv, and a day before Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon declared PLO chairman Yasir Arafat his "enemy" and launched Operation Defensive Shield with a brutal assault on Ramallah. The young men knew that everything was now about to get much worse for both the Palestinians and the Israelis, and they needed to decide what to do next. My advice was simple: Make it a single-issue movement; broaden your base to include women and men from every rank and Israelis of every type; and keep it in the family. Then speak truth to power.
At this writing, there are 404 refuseniks, with ten or more joining their ranks every week. Events of early April may accelerate that rate, or they may have the opposite effect. We cannot know. I asked them what had moved them to separate themselves from their brothers and sisters in the IDF and invite rage and confusion from their fathers and mothers and prison sentences from their government. What had made them willing to be called at best naïve and at worst cowards and self-hating Jews? For this is indeed what these young men face daily in the Israeli press and in their homes. Their eyes were opened, and their minds were changed, they said, when they were assigned to duty in the West Bank and the other Palestinian territories. There they saw everything that I and my fellow writers in the IPW delegation had seen in the preceding five days as we traveled from Tel Aviv to Ramallah, passed through the cities and towns of the West Bank and descended into Gaza, where we visited the refugee camps, gazed mournfully on the violent destruction of whole neighborhoods and villages, witnessed the deliberate, calculated humiliation of the checkpoints and saw for the first time the appalling scale, dominance and encroachment of the Jewish settlements.
Our delegation had traveled to the Middle East from four continents: From Africa came the Nigerian Nobelist Wole Soyinka and the South African poet and memoirist Breyten Breytenbach; from China, the dissident poet Bei Dao; from Europe, the Spanish novelist Juan Goytisolo, Portugal's Nobelist José Saramago, Italian novelist Vincenzo Consolo and the French writer and secretary general of the IPW, Christian Salmon; and from North America, myself, a novelist of the United States. We came in response to a plea from one of IPW's founding members, the great Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, to express our solidarity with him and his fellow Palestinian poets and writers whose living and working conditions have increasingly come to resemble house arrest. The International Parliament of Writers is not a human rights organization or an NGO; it is simply a loose collective of poets and storytellers committed to aiding in as concrete a way as possible our fellow writers who find themselves under physical threat or political control because of their work as writers. Darwish and his colleagues, most of them based in Ramallah and elsewhere in the Palestinian territories, have for a year and half been enduring conditions that we believe are intolerable, conditions that must be condemned by those of us who are free.
By the same token, in expressing our solidarity with Darwish and his colleagues and in bearing witness to their intolerable circumstances, we were expressing solidarity with the people whose daily lives and history are celebrated in the poetry and stories of the Palestinian artists. To stand beside Neruda is to stand beside the Chilean people; to celebrate Whitman is to celebrate the American people. Governments and politicians, I'm sorry to say, usually have to look out for themselves. We came to the Palestinian territories, therefore, to see with our own eyes and hear with our own ears what was happening to the Palestinian people.
And so we passed with them through the checkpoints, alongside old women with groceries; pregnant women and mothers with babies; somber, frightened schoolchildren; men and women going to work or coming home from their jobs in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and all of us forced to walk a half-mile in the hot sun by heavily armed, stone-faced Israeli soldiers. We entered the narrow streets and open-sewer alleys of Ramallah, and viewed dumbstruck the wantonly destroyed homes and public buildings in the refugee camps of the West Bank and Gaza. We listened to students and faculty sustaining against nearly overwhelming opposition their beloved university at Bir Zeit, and saw, with dismay, the looming, rapidly expanding settlements. We witnessed firsthand the abject poverty and powerlessness of the majority of Palestinians. Grim statistics gained a human face. Hopelessness and suicidal desperation exposed its roots.
One evening in Ramallah, after a dinner hosted by Darwish and other members of the city's intellectual and artistic community, I strolled with the Palestinian novelist Izzat Algazawi to a high ridge behind our hotel and looked out on the broad, moonlit valley below. My companion pointed out Jerusalem, barely seven miles in the distance, glowing like the center of the universe, the glittering capital of all the world's religious dreams, it seemed. Closer to hand was a Jewish settlement, looking like a suburb of Denver. With its smartly laid-out streets and mini-malls, multistory dwellings and apartment complexes, its postmodern infrastructure up and running, all of it brightly illuminated by a grid of streetlights, it seemed to have been placed intact and overnight onto the rocky hillside by a flotilla of gigantic spaceships. Below the settlement, not quite adjoining it, an Israeli military encampment was laid out with geometric precision like a game board, observation towers at the corners, barracks and storage depots placed strategically between the towers, searchlight beams sweeping the grounds inside the compound and patrolling the rugged, rock-strewn, moonlit terrain beyond. And further down, in the shadows adjacent to the city of Ramallah, was a cluster of darkened, mostly cinderblock cubes, a refugee camp, and the only light coming from down there was the pale moonlight reflected off the corrugated iron roofs. Jerusalem, the settlement, the military post and the refugee camp--all four washed by the same moonlight, all four visible from the same point on a nearby ridge in Ramallah, but none of them visible to each other.
At his request, we met with Arafat in his now-shattered compound, knowing that to some at home we would look like a bunch of Jane Fondas hugging Ho Chi Minh. Even so, we were not concerned with public relations and felt no particular need to appear "evenhanded" in our inquiry. Nonetheless, we also met with Israeli writers and peace activists. Wole Soyinka and I sat with Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, at his invitation also, and listened to his version of the events in the Middle East since 1947. This is a perspective, however, the Israeli perspective from right to left, that we in Europe and the United States have no difficulty obtaining daily from our popular media. The Palestinian perspective is not so easily accessible.
Each of the eight writers brought his own experience, temperament and political inclination to bear on what he saw and heard, naturally. We had no party line, no official stance or position. In order to imagine the nature of reality for the Palestinians, we needed the quotidian details, the daily particularities of their situation; but we did not need to hear yet another litany of interrupted peace processes, broken treaties, deceptions and rejections in order to get the picture. Analogies and comparisons drawn from what we already knew provided us with insights and gateways to understanding. Soyinka and Breytenbach could see obvious parallels to apartheid in South Africa, as well as the differences. I could make comparisons to the English "settlements" in seventeenth-century Ireland, and note that in North America, after the Europeans militarily overwhelmed the Native Americans, their policy of relocation and containment corresponded in certain distressingly familiar ways to Israel's policy in the occupied territories since 1967. We spoke of parallels to the Balkan conflict and the strategies of ethnic cleansing, to China's treatment of the Tibetans, and so on. One of us, Saramago, even made a comparison to the Nazis' treatment of the Jews (a comparison, incidentally, quickly rejected for obvious reasons by the other members of the delegation).Yet nothing really compared.
And that, of course, is a big part of the problem for every one of us who wishes for nothing more than peace, freedom and security for all Israelis and Palestinians. Nothing really compares. Consequently, peace activists on both sides, intellectuals, academics, poets and storytellers from every nation, and especially those men and women holding the power to make policy for the Israeli government and for the Palestinian Authority--all of us have to go deeper into our imaginations than we have ever gone before. Before anything else, the mindless brutality of Sharon's assault against the people living in the occupied territories and the mind-numbing attacks by Palestinian suicide bombers against the Israelis must be ended. We can't, as usual, turn to the United Nations or the United States or to any other third party--although almost everyone we met on our journey, whether Palestinian or Israeli, believed that a third party was necessary to end the conflict. But that's been tried and has failed too many times.
This is why I felt ever-so-slightly uplifted on my last day in the Middle East, when I met in Tel Aviv with the two young Israeli men who are called refuseniks. Here, I thought, is the only possible way out of this horror. The men and women who make up the occupying army must refuse to serve. Only then will their tragically desperate opposites, the suicidal young Palestinians who believe that they have no meaningful future except as human bombs, begin to believe that their lives might be worth living instead. Only then can the negotiations begin.