Depleted uranium constitutes one of largest radioactive and toxic-waste byproducts of the nuclear age. Over the past half-century, 700,000 metric tons of DU--more than half of all the uranium ever mined in the world--was produced at three government-owned uranium enrichment plants in Oak Ridge, Tennessee; Paducah, Kentucky; and Portsmouth, Ohio. This DU now sits in some 50,000 steel cylinders, each weighing about thirteen tons, stacked in huge piles outside the enrichment plants. A major leak in one of the cylinders could pose an acute risk to workers and the public. After years of prodding, DOE is starting a multibillion-dollar effort to convert these wastes to a safer form.
DU is less radioactive than other isotopes and is officially considered to be more of a toxic than a radiological hazard. However, whatever the case with the most common form of DU, there are other forms that have been proven highly dangerous. From the early 1950s through the 1970s, some 150,000 tons of uranium, containing plutonium-239 and larger amounts of equally dangerous neptunium-237, were recycled from nuclear-weapons production reactors and processed at the three gaseous-diffusion plants. This material also went throughout the DOE nuclear-weapons production complex in several states, and some apparently found its way to the Persian Gulf and Balkans battlefields.
According to a DOE study released this past January (www.eh.doe.gov/benefits), workers who handled recycled uranium at the Paducah plant between the 1950s and 1970s were heavily exposed. The report noted that some workers were required to strike large cloth-filter bags with metal rods to remove heavy concentrations of uranium laced with neptunium and plutonium. They were given little protection, and no effort was made to measure exposures or inform workers about the dangers of handling this material because the union might have demanded hazard pay.
Workers' exposure risks were revealed in an official review of DOE occupational epidemiological studies, which found that workers at fourteen DOE facilities bore increased death risks from cancer and other diseases following exposure to radiation and other substances. Excess deaths from various cancers and nonmalignant lung and kidney diseases were found among uranium workers at six facilities. This report prompted the Energy Department to concede officially on January 28, 2000, that its employees were harmed by workplace exposures, and it served as an underpinning for a major nuclear-weapons worker-compensation program enacted by Congress last year. Under the new law, workers at the three gaseous-diffusion plants exposed to recycled reactor uranium are eligible to receive compensation for twenty-two listed cancers through a process in which the burden of proof is shifted to the government.
Workers are not the only casualties of the cold war uranium mess. The National Academy of Sciences concluded last year that large areas at DOE nuclear-material production sites cannot be cleaned up to safe levels and will require indefinite, long-term institutional controls. Official cost estimates to deal with this daunting problem are $365 billion and climbing. In effect, the production of depleted uranium and other nuclear materials may have created de facto "national sacrifice zones." Meanwhile, the Pentagon gets DU free of charge, as our nation pays an enormous cost in terms of workers, the environment, public safety and the US Treasury.
Adrian Wilson can't make a lobbying trip to Albany anytime soon: The New York State Department of Corrections does not escort its prisoners to the state capital for teach-ins. But his story--typical of the 22,000 nonviolent drug offenders in New York's cellblocks on any given day--could serve as the centerpiece of the campaign now under way for the long-overdue repeal of the notoriously punitive Rockefeller drug laws. In 1983 Wilson, an African-American, then 29, was arrested for drug possession--his first offense--and prosecutors offered him a plea bargain that would have required him to undergo electroshock treatments and eight months' incarceration. Wilson chose instead to exercise his constitutional right to a trial. Convicted of possessing four ounces of cocaine, instead of eight months he faced a mandatory prison term of fifteen years to life.
No single moment in the history of US criminal justice matches the destructive impact of the New York legislature's 1973 session. That was when Governor Nelson Rockefeller set the tone for a national wave of prison-packing schemes with the drug laws that bear his name. As Wilson's case illustrates, the Rockefeller drug laws combined two regressive criminal justice policies into a new and potent brew: They prescribe imprisonment rather than treatment for drug offenders, and they establish mandatory minimum sentences and give the power to decide sentences to the prosecutors, who choose charges, rather than to the judges hearing cases.
The outcome, repeated thousands of times daily around the country: Nonviolent drug offenders like Wilson get punished not in proportion to any presumed threat to society but for daring to inconvenience prosecutors with a trial. With built-in incentives for police and prosecutors to concentrate on low-level users and with racial discrimination an inevitability, the Rockefeller drug laws are the ancestor of just about every regressive criminal justice policy since enacted--three-strikes laws, federal sentencing guidelines and zero-tolerance police sweeps.
With the cost for imprisoning Rockefeller drug offenders topping $710 million per year, Governor George Pataki has at last proposed a package of reforms reducing minimum drug sentences and expanding treatment. Assembly Democrats--many of whom have dodged the issue for years until Pataki opened the door--have upped the ante, proposing more sweeping discretion for judges and more money for drug treatment. The Correctional Association of New York and a broad array of activist, religious and legal-reform groups have launched a Drop the Rock campaign (kicked off with a March 1 forum in Manhattan co-sponsored by the Nation Institute), which on March 27 will bring thousands to Albany for a day of teach-ins and citizen lobbying. Only a handful of district attorneys, worried about losing their sentencing leverage in plea bargains, are holding out for the Rockefeller status quo.
So the question is not whether New York will reform but if reform will go far enough. Pataki's plan would not give judges any more discretion for Class B felonies, the most commonly charged drug offenses in New York, and would actually increase some minimum sentences. Pataki would allow prosecutors to handpick the offenders tracked into treatment--a certain recipe for abuse and another usurpation of the proper authority of judges. Perhaps most important, Pataki has so far come nowhere near proposing a budget for drug treatment commensurate with the need. Drug-law reform without a commitment to drug treatment is a half-measure, similar to the 1980s deinstitutionalization of psychiatric patients with no system of community mental healthcare in place.
New York, which for years styled itself as a pioneer in criminal justice policy, is now playing catch-up to states like California, whose voters last November overwhelmingly approved a treatment-over-prison referendum for first- and second-time offenders, or Colorado and Nevada, which have passed medical-marijuana measures. But the Rockefeller laws are the founding charter of the failed war on drugs, and their repeal would turn state reform tremors into an American earthquake. In immediate impact on the lives of the poor and people of color, and as a long-term shift in national priorities, there will be no more important campaign this year. It's time to Drop the Rock.
We are pleased to announce that Maria Margaronis and D.D. Guttenplan, who have been contributing editors to the magazine since 1998, will serve as our London bureau. Margaronis, a former Nation associate literary editor, was a senior editor of the Village Voice Literary Supplement and taught for five years at the New School for Social Research. Guttenplan, a former senior editor at the Village Voice and staff writer at New York Newsday, is the author of The Holocaust on Trial, an account of the David Irving-Deborah Lipstadt libel case, to be published in May by Norton.
Augmenting our editorial board is Tony Kushner, already a contributor to our pages and author of one of the quintessential Broadway plays of the nineties, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. This two-part epic won about every major theatrical award, including two Tonys and a Pulitzer Prize.
Joining our masthead as a contributing editor is Robert Dreyfuss, who has written frequently for this journal and for Rolling Stone, Mother Jones and The American Prospect, with particular emphasis on campaign finance, lobbying and money in politics.
This is not about profits and patents; it's about poverty and a devastating disease." That statement did not come from AIDS activists struggling to provide sub-Saharan Africa's 25 million HIV-positive people with access to life-extending medications. It came from the executive vice president of Bristol-Myers Squibb, which recently announced it would slash prices on its two AIDS drugs and forgo patents on one of them. A week earlier, Merck & Co. said it would lower prices on its two AIDS drugs not just in Africa but, pending review, in other heavily affected countries as well.
What's going on is not a change of heart on the part of "Big Pharma"--which John le Carré describes in this issue as a group of "multibillion-dollar multinational corporations that view the exploitation of the world's sick and dying as a sacred duty to their shareholders." Far from being a humanitarian action, the price reductions represent an attempt to preserve patent rights by diffusing international pressure for generic manufacturing. Revealingly, neither BMS nor Merck has withdrawn from a suit against the South African government brought by thirty-nine pharmaceuticals seeking to prohibit importation of generic drugs, which they claim would violate their patents.
The Indian generic manufacturer Cipla announced in February that it would sell the entire AIDS triple-therapy combination at $350 per person, per year, and other generic manufacturers, in Thailand and Brazil, currently offer AIDS drugs at a fraction of multinational prices. By comparison, the Wall Street Journal reported that a combination of AIDS drugs from BMS and Merck would cost between $865 and $965 per person, per year. If those prices were multiplied by the number of AIDS patients in, say, Zimbabwe, a relatively prosperous country by African standards, the total would come to about 20 percent of its GDP. And that sum doesn't include the investments in healthcare infrastructure needed to distribute and monitor the drugs' use.
But even if poor African countries could somehow find the money to pay the high patent-protected prices of the drug giants (the $26.6 billion a year it would cost to provide all Africa with AIDS drugs is no more than about a third of what Bush's tax plan would give to America's wealthiest 1 percent), that would not be the end of their problems. Rather, such a course would lock them into exclusive trade agreements with multinationals and put them at the continual mercy of Western foreign aid budgets. As new treatments are developed, Africa would have to negotiate new price reductions, country by country, company by company.
If the solutions lie with generic manufacturing (not just for AIDS medications but for a slew of vital drugs for malaria and other ills), then circumventing existing international patent regulations is a necessity. The trial in South Africa over compulsory licensing is one crucial test of the viability of this option. Another potential plan would be for the National Institutes of Health to give patents owned by the US government on publicly funded AIDS drugs to the World Health Organization, thereby licensing it to oversee generic manufacturing. Why not, in fact, let governments underwrite the entire cost of drug research--rather than, as now, underwriting substantial amounts of the research, which drug companies then exploit--and do away with patents altogether?
Whatever the recourse, and despite the well-publicized gestures by multinational pharmaceutical companies, the solutions to Africa's AIDS epidemic lie in sustainable competitive drug production, not momentary self-interested charity.
Four days after the press reported that he was about to cut climate-altering carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, George W. Bush caved in to the Neanderthal wing of the fossil fuel lobby--the coal industry and ExxonMobil--and reversed himself. In reneging on his campaign pledge, Bush thumbed his nose at Holland, Germany and Britain, which are planning to cut carbon emissions by 50 to 80 percent over the next fifty years, as well as EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman, who had voiced support for carbon regulation.
By calling the science "still incomplete," Bush also lent new credibility to the tiny handful of industry-sponsored "greenhouse skeptics" who have been thoroughly discredited by the mainstream community of climate researchers--including the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the National Academy of Sciences and other blue-ribbon scientific groups that deem global warming to be real, immediate and ominous.
For most of the 1990s, Western Fuels, a $400 million coal industry propaganda outlet, funded the most visible of the greenhouse skeptics. Now ExxonMobil--the only major oil company to deny the reality of climate change--has joined the coal industry to finance the skeptics, confuse the public and undermine the work of 2,000 scientists from 100 countries on the IPCC.
The most widely quoted skeptic, S. Fred Singer, denied receiving oil industry money in a February letter to the Washington Post. But in 1998 ExxonMobil gave $10,000 to Singer's institute, the Science and Environmental Policy Project, and $65,000 to the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, which shared building space with SEPP. Says Atlas's website, "For those who believe public policy should be based on sound science, Dr. Singer offers a wealth of information, credibility and encouragement."
Singer's denial of oil funding is only the most recent of his many fabrications. In 1997 he declared that Dr. Bert Bolin, then chairman of the IPCC, had changed his position on climate change and denied a connection between global warming and extreme weather, accusations that Bolin called "inaccurate and misleading." While he touts himself as an accomplished scientist, Singer has been unable to publish in the peer-reviewed literature for at least fifteen years, other than one technical comment, according to Congressional testimony.
ExxonMobil states candidly that it "provides support to selected organizations that assess public policy alternatives on issues with direct bearing on the company's business operations and interests." Many of the ExxonMobil grants are relatively small. But given the company's size and reputation, they are useful in leveraging other grants. For example, the company supports the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change, staffed by Sherwood Idso, a longtime coal-sponsored global warming skeptic, and two relatives, Keith and Craig Idso. In 1998 ExxonMobil gave $15,000 to the Cato Institute's Environment and Natural Resources program, which boasts coal-sponsored skeptic Patrick Michaels as its senior fellow. Michaels's "statements on [climate models] are a catalog of misrepresentation and misinterpretation," says Dr. Tom Wigley, a leading climate modeler at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. And ExxonMobil bankrolls the Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy, which published The Heated Debate, a book by greenhouse skeptic Dr. Robert Balling.
ExxonMobil has isolated itself from the community of major oil companies in the area of climate. British Petroleum is now the world's largest producer of solar energy systems, Shell created a $500 million renewable energy company and Texaco has invested substantial resources in hydrogen-powered fuel cells.
Around the world, glaciers are melting, oceans are heating up and infectious diseases are migrating. The buildup of our coal and oil emissions has triggered a wave of violent and chaotic weather. All this has resulted from one degree of warming. During this century, the temperature will rise by up to 10 degrees, according to the IPCC. It's time for journalists to stop quoting Singer and the other global warming skeptics. They might as well go straight to the ExxonMobil public information office for comment.
Many compared it to marching through a dream. After seven years under siege by 70,000 Mexican Army troops in the jungles and highlands of Chiapas, the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) sent twenty-four delegates, including its pipe-smoking writer-spokesman Subcomandante Marcos, on a triumphant two-week motorcade that landed in Mexico City on March 11.
"I don't believe that in any place, in any space in this world--and I have the memory of my own revolution twenty-six years ago--I don't remember a more moving moment than I lived yesterday," declared the septuagenarian Portuguese Nobel Prize-winning author José Saramago the next morning.
The US press coverage of the march, limited though it was, hinted at such an apotheosis: the cheering multitudes that greeted the Zapatistas from the roadsides and at mass rallies in twelve states along the route, the flowery words of peace and civil rights coming to Mexico's mythical newfound democracy. But for the Zapatistas and Mexico's indigenous movement, the struggle now turns into a battle to codify the movement's progress into law.
The caravan came to demand constitutional recognition for Mexico's 10 million indigenous citizens, subjected to generations of repression, poverty, racism and exploitation of their lands and labor. As Mexico's President Vicente Fox passed his hundredth day in office, he reiterated calls to the Zapatistas to negotiate a peace. Not until the government fulfills the promises it has already made, answered the rebels: release of Zapatista political prisoners, closure of seven of the 259 military bases in Chiapas, and congressional passage of the law that would ratify the 1996 San Andrés peace agreements signed by the government [see Jerry W. Sanders, "Two Mexicos and Fox's Quandary," February 26].
The geographical advance was accompanied by a steady rise in the popularity of Marcos and the Zapatistas in opinion polls, an average gain of two percentage points per day, with over 50 percent in support. The implementation of the San Andrés Accords is now the sticking point. Marcos and the Zapatistas, with more than 1,000 delegates from the Indigenous National Congress, encamped at the base of Mexico City's Cuicuilco pyramid--a circular, 370-foot-diameter stone monument that has survived at least 2,600 years of lava flows, earthquakes and urban sprawl.
Underscoring their credo, "We will not sign a false peace," the Zapatistas caused a fierce uproar when, as the caravan was launched from San Cristóbal, Chiapas, they named architect Fernando Yáñez Muñoz as their representative to the federal Congress. Mexican police agencies have long claimed that Yáñez is Comandante Germán, the feared national guerrilla leader of the 1970s and '80s who, they say, helped found the Zapatista army in the jungle in 1983, a charge that Yáñez has denied. The Zapatistas have also, for the first time, called upon other guerrilla movements to protect their journey and remain alert, implying that if the state doesn't keep its word, an armed guerrilla response could explode nationwide.
María Luisa Tomasini, 78, a Chiapas native designated by Marcos as the "grandmother of all the Zapatistas," analyzed his call to the other insurgent groupsas she was returning from the March 7 Zapatista rally in Iguala, Guerrero, a state with at least sixteen armed clandestine guerrilla organizations. "Clearly," she said, "it was a threat to the government that it had better comply."
The powerful sectors that have always gotten their way in Mexico--bankers, chambers of commerce chiefs, right-wing clergy, the TV networks and key legislators--are working furiously to sabotage the road to a genuine peace. Fox's party, the PAN, teamed up with the former ruling party, the PRI, against the left-wing PRD party to propose that the Zapatistas meet with twenty congressional leaders instead of the entire Congress. Marcos, noting that the indigenous of Mexico have always been hidden "in the kitchen, on the back porch," rejected the offer, arguing that the Zapatistas and the Indigenous National Congress deserve to address the whole Congress. Hard-liners continue to seek any roadblock to passage of the full indigenous rights bill with hysterical claims that autonomy would fracture the nation, and they vow radical surgery to the initiative.
On March 19 the Zapatistas announced they will return to the jungle, citing the "close minded" attitude of "cavemen politicians," saying, "Nothing will be able to stop the popular mobilization" that stems from the Congress's failure to act. "We will return with everyone who we are." Immediately, thirteen national peasant-farmer groups pledged nationwide marches, students plotted direct action and five major indigenous groups in Oaxaca vowed to close the Pan American Highway until Congress passes the accords. Congressional leaders begged the Zapatistas to stay, Fox urged the Congress to meet with the rebels and the drama now moves in unpredictable directions.
The guiding principle of the San Andrés Accords is autonomy. The word has galvanized many beyond Mexico's indigenous populations. The battered Mexican left--peasant farmers, urban workers and especially the nation's youth--view themselves, too, under the banner of autonomy. Indeed, the popularity of the Zapatista struggle around the world derives at least in part from the coherent language of opposition to globalized and savage capitalism that they have constructed. French sociologist Alain Torraine, who accompanied the caravan, praised the Zapatistas during a March 12 discussion with Marcos and the comandantes in Mexico City, marveling, "The entire world, and we are speaking of the left, is looking for a new language." Comandante David, a Tzotzil delegate who was a chief negotiator and architect of the San Andrés Accords, acknowledges that the demand for autonomy goes far beyond indigenous rights. "We are going to explain directly to the indigenous and nonindigenous brothers of the country that indigenous rights are for the good of all the peoples," he said while preparing to leave on the caravan.
Autonomy--what might be called "home rule" in other parts of the world--includes local control of land use, a sore point for big business in Mexico, its eyes on natural resources.
Beyond Mexico, US investors and corporate interests, with expectations that Fox will be the most effective deliveryman yet of Mexican resources under NAFTA, are stoking the subterfuge. Former US Ambassador to Mexico James Jones, now a railroad baron and rainmaker for the Manat, Phelps and Phillips law and lobbying firm in Washington, is on the board of directors of TV Azteca, the most notorious manipulator of public opinion among all the Mexican media. TV Azteca joined the other broadcasting giant, Televisa, to present a March 3 Concert for Peace live from Aztec Stadium, featuring a laser light show, a Woodstock-style logo and the usual condescension toward "our indigenous brothers." The prepackaged video aired with the concert didn't mention autonomy, or indigenous political prisoners, or 500 years of conquest--certainly not justice in connection with the 1997 massacre of unarmed indigenous peasants at Acteal. The only proposed solution was to send aid to the poor, barefoot indigenous communities, an approach known in Mexican politics as "clientism." Many analysts saw Fox's fingerprints on the TV peace show, as both stations rely on state permission to broadcast in Mexico. Indeed, one of the demands of the San Andrés Accords is the right of indigenous peoples to break that control by forming their own media, including the use of radio and television frequencies.
The question of indigenous autonomy also has consequences for the US-imposed "war on drugs." The San Andrés Accords would restore indigenous rights to the use of currently illicit sacred plants and codify the pre-eminence of ancient forms of community justice. Luciano, a spokesman for the Zapatista community of Polho, explained to me in 1998 how the autonomous system works without constructing a single prison cell: "If a young man grows marijuana, he goes before a municipal judge to be disciplined and oriented so that he won't ever do it again. If the youth does it again, there is no response whatsoever: He cannot be pardoned a second time. He would then be expelled from the community."
That the Zapatista communities have had far more success in driving out the narcotraffickers and preventing drug and alcohol abuse than any other region of the Americas is of little concern to the big talkers of law and order. Opponents charge that autonomy in matters of criminal justice would "balkanize" the country and subvert the "rule of law."
Indigenous and social movements across Latin America--in Ecuador, Colombia, Bolivia, Peru, Panama, Brazil and other nations--had representatives quietly observing the caravan. In spite of the powers stacked against them, the Zapatistas, newly strengthened, their national support deepened, have many cards yet to play in forcing legislative victory. In the latest of the ironies under NAFTA, autonomy may thus, and soon, become Mexico's leading export product.
'FREELANCE' DOESN'T MEAN FOR FREE
The case of Tasini v. New York Times, which the Supreme Court will hear soon, turns on technical language in copyright law, but it has raised a larger issue between historians and freelance writers, whose work might be said to be the raw material of history. The freelancers, led by Jonathan Tasini, president of the National Writers Union, challenge the Times's and other newspapers' claim that they have the right to post articles on databases like Lexis-Nexis without compensation to the writers. The writers argue that they should be cut a share of the revenue generated by this recycling of their work. The publishers and databases say that Internet or CD-ROM compilations of newspaper articles are simply an extension of the original publication, as permitted by copyright law. If the writers win, the publishers fear they'll be vulnerable to lawsuits by ink-stained wretches and so will be forced to excise freelance articles from their databases. That specter haunts the historians, who bemoan the loss of this material from the historical record. We respect the historians' farseeing dedication to historical truth, but we also believe writers deserve compensation in the here and now. As George Bernard Shaw told Sam Goldwyn, who made an unsatisfactory offer for the screen rights to his plays: "The trouble, Mr. Goldwyn, is that you are only interested in art, and I am only interested in money."
UPDATE: WE'LL ALWAYS HAVE PARIS
Doug Ireland writes: Paris became the first national capital to choose an openly gay candidate for mayor, in the second round of municipal voting on March 18 (see Frédéric Martel, "Retour du Socialisme?" March 19). Socialist Bertrand Delanoë led the "plural left" coalition to a resounding victory, giving the left a sizable governing majority on the municipal council (which actually elects the mayor), carrying two-thirds of the city's arrondissements against a divided right (although the two conservative tickets' scores, if combined, would have given the right a majority of votes cast). About half of the 10,000-plus crowd that celebrated Delanoë's victory in front of the Hotel de Ville were gay. Lyons, France's second city, also fell to the left for the first time since 1957. But where the right was united, it won: Forty cities and towns with incumbent left governments passed to the conservatives. All this spells trouble for Prime Minister Lionel Jospin in next year's presidential and legislative elections. Biggest winner: the Greens, who scored heavily everywhere in the first round of voting, becoming the second-largest force in the left coalition.
PREGNANT WOMEN'S RIGHTS
The Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional a South Carolina public hospital's policy of requiring women in a prenatal care program to take drug tests (see Rachel Roth, "Policing Pregnancy," October 16, 2000). If the women (mostly poor and African-American) tested positive, they were threatened with arrest unless they entered a treatment program. Some thirty women landed in jail. Writing for the 6-to-3 majority, Justice John Paul Stevens ruled that the policy was an unconstitutional search and seizure. It's no secret that the fetal-rights groups inspired the policy. The Supreme Court's decision affirms the proposition that pregnant women do have rights--even if they are poor and black.
Rx FOR THE DRUG COMPANIES
Nation Associates are taking action against Big Pharma (see John le Carré, page 11) by bombarding the CEOs of multinational drug companies with protest letters, signing Internet petitions and supporting legislation to stop sanctions on countries that import or produce generic versions of patented drugs. To find out more about Nation Associates, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
My dictionary defines "myopia" as "a lack of discernment or long-range perspective in thinking or planning." This would have been a pretty good definition of the accusation leveled by Ralph Nader at progressive Gore supporters. The rap, according to Naderites, was that "frightened liberals" had blinded themselves to the opportunity to build a genuine progressive opposition party in exchange for a few pro-choice Supreme Court Justices and the odd rhetorical gesture. That's why, even when it became clear that Nader held the balance between Gore and Bush in key states like Florida and New Hampshire, he refused to release his supporters. Nader actually looked forward to a Bush presidency because it would "galvanize" progressives and teach the Democrats a lesson.
Back then it may have been possible to argue that Nader was simply naïve. He lusted after matching funds for Greens. He fell for Bush's false promises and moderate-sounding rhetoric, failing to pay sufficient attention to the extremist agenda they cloaked. Nader may also have been taken in by the punditocracy argument that Bush would not dare upset the centrist balance of politics, given the narrowness of his likely mandate and the opposition to most of his policies in virtually every election poll.
Tweedledum and Tweedledee, indeed. Just sixty days into the Bush presidency, the myopia is clearly on the other foot. Nader argued that while Gore might have been superior to Bush on social issues like choice, virtually nothing separated the two candidates on issues relating to wealth and corporate power. How unfortunate, therefore, that George W. Bush has already:
§ convinced the House of Representatives to pass a $2 trillion tax cut, of which 43 percent will go to the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans;
§ signed a bankruptcy bill, vetoed by President Clinton, designed to squeeze poor and middle-class people with medical emergencies, childcare payments and the like, but which does nothing to curb banks' predatory lending practices, which target the young and poor;
§ signed a bill overturning Clinton Administration work rules requiring employers to address conditions causing repetitive stress syndrome--affecting more than 1.8 million workers, nearly two-thirds of whom are women--in what looks to be the opening shot in an all-out war against organized labor;
§ torpedoed global efforts to combat planetary warming--breaking a campaign pledge and humiliating his EPA chief--by ruling out regulation of carbon dioxide emissions (after Nader lauded Bush's support for such measures as "historic");
§ proposed the opening of "all public lands [!]," including national monuments, to drilling by his oil company cronies;
§ undermined John McCain and Russell Feingold's efforts to control the abusive, antidemocratic campaign finance system;
§ subverted the South Korean peace process--and humiliated his own Secretary of State--to preserve arguments for the costly Star Wars boondoggle.
Note that I haven't even mentioned the appointment of extremists like John Ashcroft and Theodore Olson, who will be advising Bush about whom to appoint to the federal bench; or Gale Norton, the James Watt protégée now heading the Interior Department, who believes polluters should be trusted to be self-policing; or Andrew Card, the automobile industry's chief lobbyist, now Chief of Staff; or Michael Powell, the new head of the FCC, who has no interest in moderating media mergers. And I haven't said a word about so-called social issues.
When asked today about the destruction his campaign has wrought, Nader replies, "I'm just amazed that people think I should be concerned about this stuff." "We're in a war," he explains. "No one asks the Republicans why they try to take votes from the Democrats." (In an interesting bit of self-contradictory hubris, Nader also likes to take credit for the election of the odd Democrat, like Maria Cantwell in Washington, where no Green candidate was in the race.) To take up Nader's argument, yes, Republicans do "take votes away" from Democrats, but they do so in the interest of electing Republicans. Greens, on the other hand, owing to our winner-take-all system, also take votes away from Democrats to elect Republicans.
Rather than "galvanizing" progressives, Nader's campaign has left them divided and dispirited, struggling to protect past gains now at risk. The Greens have shown that they can win just enough votes to tip a close race to their worst enemies, but not even a twentieth the number they need to win an election. Despite its fundamental incoherence, Nader and the Greens are sticking to their delusional plan. They say they'll run twice as many spoiler candidates in 2002, no doubt hoping to repeat their "success" not only in electing Bush, but also in races like the one in Michigan, where 3,467 Green votes allowed Republican Mike Rogers to beat Democrat Dianne Byrum by a margin of 110.
Pragmatic progressives are of two minds about Nader. All of us respected him enormously going into this past election. Most would have welcomed a Nader primary challenge to Gore that forced the latter to respond to issues of corporate rapaciousness and the debasement of our democratic process. No one looks forward to the prospect of internecine warfare at so unpropitious a political moment.
When a loved one destroys himself with drink or drugs, we stage an intervention in the hope of forcing him to recognize the cost of his behavior to himself and to those who depend on him. If this fails, the only thing left to do is try to limit the damage he causes to others. In Nader's case, George W. Bush has done us the favor of staging the intervention. But it has done no good. Nader's myopia remains unaffected; the kamikaze campaign continues.
Politicians blow with political winds. To force them to blow our way, progressives need leaders who can combine hardheaded realism with the ability to inspire Americans' nascent idealism. Once upon a time nobody understood that better than Ralph Nader.
Drive across the United States, mostly on Interstate 40, and you have plenty of time to listen to the radio. Even more time than usual if, to take my own situation, you're in a 1976 Ford 530 one-ton, plowing along at 50 mph. By day I listen to FM.
Bunked down at night, there's some choice on the motels' cable systems, all the way from C-SPAN to pay-as-you-snooze filth, though there's much less of that than there used to be. Or maybe you have to go to a Marriott or kindred high-end place to get it. By contrast, the choice on daytime radio, FM or AM, is indeed a vast wasteland, far more bleak than the high plains of Texas and New Mexico I've been looking at for the past couple of days. It's awful. Even the religious stuff has gone to the dogs. I remember twenty years ago making the same drive through the Bible Belt and you'd hear crazed preachers raving in tongues. These days hell has gone to love. Christian radio is so warm and fuzzy you'd think you were listening to Terry Gross.
By any measure, and you don't need to drive along I-40 to find this out, radio in this country is in ghastly shape. Since the 1996 Telecommunications "Reform" Act, conceived in darkness and signed in stealth, the situation has got even worse. Twenty, thirty years ago broadcasters could own only a dozen stations nationwide and no more than two in any single market. Clear Channel Communications alone owns and operates almost 1,200 stations pumping out identical muck in all states. Since 1996 there's been a colossal shakeout. Small broadcasters can no longer hack it. Two or three companies, with eight stations each, can control a market. Bob McChesney cites an industry publication as saying that the amount of advertising is up to eighteen minutes an hour, with the commercials separated by the same endless golden oldies. On I-40 in Tennessee alone I listened to "Help!" at least sixteen times.
The new chairman of the FCC, Colin Powell's son Michael, has just made life even easier for Clear Channel and the other big groups. On March 12 he OK'd thirty-two mergers and kindred transactions in twenty-six markets. Three days later, at the instigation of the FCC, cops burst into Radio Free Cascadia in Eugene, Oregon, seized broadcasting equipment and shut RFC down.
Michael Powell--actually installed on the FCC by Clinton in 1997, no doubt eager to stroke Powell Senior at the time--is clearly aiming for higher things than the FCC, and he's certainly increased his own family's resources. His OK of the AOL-Time Warner merger stands to net his father, a man freighted with AOL stock options derived from his recent service on that company's board, many millions of dollars. Michael insists there was a Chinese wall across the family dining table and that he and Dad never chatted about AOL. Why would they need to? If there's a hippo on the hearth rug, you don't need to put a sign on it.
Is there any chink of light amid the darkness of Radioland? Yes, there is. Several, in fact. For one thing, the tide may be turning in the Pacifica fight. In the recent meeting in Houston the national Pacifica board took a beating in its effort to fix the bylaws so as to make it easier to continue its mission of destruction. And recent court decisions in California have favored courtroom challenges to the national board's onslaughts on local control of stations such as KPFA.
Above all, the Pacifica Board is now reaping the consequences of its forcible late-night seizure of WBAI offices last December and the barely credible arrogance and stupidity of WBAI interim station manager Utrice Leid, who on March 5 pulled the plug on Representative Major Owens in the midst of a live broadcast because he dared discuss Pacifica's affairs.
A furious Owens has now raised a stink on the floor of the House about Pacifica's highhanded conduct and has put forward a plan to settle the row. Somewhere down the road we can maybe see a scenario developing in which the Pacifica National Board gets pushed toward the exit. Meanwhile, Juan Gonzalez, who resigned from Democracy Now! recently, recommends: Don't finance the enemy. Put your contributions to Pacifica stations in escrow.
And low-power radio? The commercial broadcasters fought savagely all last year to beat back the FCC's admittedly flawed plan to license more than 1,000 low-power stations. In the end the radio lobby attached a rider to an appropriations bill signed by Clinton late last year, with provisions insuring that low power would never gain a foothold in cities, also insuring that the pirate broadcasters of yesteryear, who created the momentum for low power, could never get licenses. But make no mistake who the real villain was. Listen to Peter Franck of the National Lawyers Guild in San Francisco, who has been a leading force in the push for low-power FM. "From talking to people in DC it is absolutely clear that if NPR had not vigorously joined the National Association of Broadcasters in its attempt to kill microradio, the legislation would not have gone through."
But all would-be low-power broadcasters should know that right now there's opportunity. The FCC has been accepting applications for licenses (in some regions the window has already closed), and mostly it's been conservatives (churches included) jumping in. In many states you can still make applications to the FCC. Jump in! Contact the Lawyers Guild's Center on Democratic Communications at (415) 522-9814 or Aakorn@igc.org, but first take a look at their website (www.nlgcdc.org).
These fights are all essentially the same, against the same enemy, whether in the form of the Pacifica board or the directors of NPR or the NAB or the government: the fight for democracy in communications. Here Franck and others are already contemplating a deeper assault on the 1996 act and the 1934 Communications Act, on constitutional grounds. The purpose of the First Amendment is democracy. Democracy requires a broad range of opinion. After sixty-five years of a commercially based media system we have a narrow range of debate; this abuse of the airwaves is therefore unconstitutional. That's a big fight, but here it comes.
Yes, W. once took the view
He says he's had a turnabout:
We make this stuff when breathing out,
So dangerous is what it's not.
From lobbyists you learn a lot.
But won't our ozone cover scatter?
So? Nader said it wouldn't matter.
Let's see which Bush softball we can hit out of the park this week. Should it be tolerating arsenic in the water supply, cutting funds for abused children or eliminating the historic and nonpartisan evaluation of judicial candidates by the American Bar Assn.?
With the Senate hanging on one vote, this administration acts as if it has only limited time to do as much damage as possible to the environment, consumers, the non-rich and common sense.
One day, President Bush appoints as the government's head regulator a professor who's made a career of milking corporate funding while opposing environmental regulation. The next day, we learn that our new UN ambassador-in-waiting aided Central American death squads. Not to mention earlier Bush Administration appointments, such as turning over the Justice Department to John Ashcroft and other right-wing zealots. As the Washington Post reported, "President Bush is quietly building the most conservative administration in modern times, surpassing even Ronald Reagan in the ideological commitment of his appointments."
Hardly "conservative" in the sense of preserving clean air and water and pristine land in Alaska. To the contrary, the gang in power is out to pillage and rape the environment with an abandon not witnessed since the days when strip-mining was in vogue. The principle seems to be that what's good for a company that gave money to the Bush campaign is good for the country. As a Los Angeles Times front-page headline put it: "With Bush, Happy Days Here Again for Business Lobby."
The Times quoted big business lobbyists claiming they were frozen out during the Clinton years of "over-regulation." Strange, isn't it, that the economic boom that benefited so many of them was hardly stifled by those same regulations. But public interest be damned as lobbyists enjoy a rapid string of successes, from wiping out workplace safety rules to freeing mine owners from having to post bonds to ensure they will clean up their messes. Last week, much to the pleasure of industrial polluters, Bush reversed President Clinton's order to lower the level of arsenic in the nation's drinking water.
This followed on the heels of Bush's betrayal of a campaign pledge to prevent global warming by enforcing cutbacks on carbon monoxide emission from power plants. This is an administration that seems to thrill at high energy prices. It is even gutting federal programs to promote energy efficiency by a devastating 30%.
Bush needs to be locked in a room with Erin Brockovich, either the movie or the person, to be reminded that corporations will lie to the public when profit dictates.
But it's not only business greed that moves this MBA President. He's committed to turning back civil rights gains made through the courts by women and minorities. The theft of the presidential election by the US Supreme Court's right-wing junta is the harbinger of what's to come.
If anyone doubts that, look at what Bush did last week when he ended the practice, used since President Eisenhower, of submitting federal judicial candidates to the ABA for professional evaluation. In doing so, Bush was catering to the far right, which has been unhappy with the bar group since 1987, when Judge Robert H. Bork, though rated "well qualified" by the ABA, received negative reviews from a few on the ABA review committee. Nor is the conservative right happy about the bar's support of the Supreme Court's position in Roe v. Wade.
The rights of the unborn remain paramount to this administration. Too bad it doesn't care more about children once they are born, especially disadvantaged children. Bush trumpets a $1.6-trillion tax cut with 43 percent of the benefits going to the super rich, while his budget slashes funding for child care, for ending child abuse and for training doctors in children's hospitals. Data compiled by the states shows 900,000 children are abused or neglected each year, yet Bush cut $15.7 million a year destined for the states to investigate such cases. Bush seeks to "save" another $200 million by cutting child care funding at a time when limits imposed by welfare reform dramatically increase the number of working mothers who cannot afford caretakers for their children.
A $20 million "early learning fund" to improve preschoolers' child care also was eliminated. When Clinton signed that bill last December, one of its co-authors, Alaskan GOP Sen. Ted Stevens, promised the new administration would be supportive: "I expect our new first lady, Laura Bush, a former librarian, to be a champion of early childhood education." Perhaps she is, but she is not the President.
Unfortunately, neither is John McCain, the one Republican with the guts to buck the Administration's unseemly embrace of big money.
Ralph Nader was wrong: There is a huge difference between the two parties. And for the Bush Administration, it's payback time on every front for his greedy legions.
He jumped, of course. But also he was pushed. And when Primo Levi, on "a sudden violent impulse," threw himself down three flights of stairwell in the Art Nouveau apartment house on the Corso Re Umberto in Turin--where, except for twenty months in World War II as "a dead man on vacation," he had lived his entire life--he killed something else besides a 67-year-old chemist, writer and witness (Auschwitz #174517). For lack of a better way to characterize our complicated investment in everything he stood for, let's just say that on April 11, 1987, he killed our wishful thinking.
I am about to blame Franz Kafka. This is spurious, even hysterical. But why let the Nazis have the last word? From Myriam Anissimov's anguishing biography Primo Levi: Tragedy of an Optimist and a quarter-century of remarkable interviews assembled in The Voice of Memory, I want to cobble up some options.
We could blame instead a Corso Re Umberto family atmosphere that Anissimov describes as "both protective and repressive," with Levi, "the prisoner in Turin," trapped in servitude to a 91-year-old mother ("paralyzed, tyrannical and senile") and a 95-year-old mother-in-law (blind, requiring twenty-four-hour care). Plus which, he'd stopped taking antidepressants because of prostate surgery, he was so immobilized by fear of memory loss that he spent whole days playing chess with his computer, and his adult children, the botanist Lisa and the physicist Renzo, "turned pale and burst into tears" whenever he tried to talk about the death camps, wouldn't admit to reading his books and had always wanted a "normal" father.
We could blame as well the Holocaust deniers, who had made a well-publicized comeback in the mid-1980s. Or Ronald Reagan, who had recently gone to Bitburg to honor the SS dead. Or Commentary magazine, which had published, in October 1985, a shameful essay accusing Levi not only of "denatured pseudo-scientific prose" and "a tin ear for religion," but also of opportunism. Or Jean Améry, the Austrian philosopher who had likewise survived Auschwitz, also wrote about it and, before killing himself, called Levi "the forgiver." Or even Italo Calvino, who on that fateful April Saturday was already two years dead, which meant that instead of telephoning his old friend for help, Levi phoned instead the chief rabbi of Rome, who neglected to tell anybody until ten years later. What the writer said to the rabbi was: "I don't know how to go on. I can't stand this life any longer. My mother has cancer, and each time I look at her face I remember the faces of the men lying dead on the planks of the bunks in Auschwitz."
Anyway, he lost his balance. And balance was what we needed from him, along with what H. Stuart Hughes called his "equanimity" and Irving Howe his "moral poise." Against the odds and the century, we relied on his integrity and even his charm--the Pan-like exuberance Philip Roth notes in an interview in The Voice of Memory, like "some little quicksilver woodland creature empowered by the forest's most astute intelligence." Every word he ever wrote, in a prose as purely Mediterranean as the best Greek poets, opposed the fascist "world of shame," as if the bankrupt moral economy it left behind demanded all our goods and services to square the account, a humanity "commensurate" to the horror. "Commensurate" was a favorite word of his. So was "counterweight." And so was "proportion." He was troubled in The Drowned and the Saved (1986) by the idea that his testimony "could by itself gain for me the privilege of surviving.... I cannot see any proportion between the privilege and its outcome."
Elsewhere in those final essays, through which we scuttle for clues to his secession, the anthropologist, linguist and camera-eye of the Holocaust worried that "reason, art and poetry are no help in deciphering" a place where they are banned. He quoted Améry, his accuser, to agree with him: "Anyone who has been tortured remains tortured.... Anyone who has suffered torture never again will be able to be at ease in the world." But he refused a label of "forgiver": "I demand justice, but I am not able, personally, to trade punches or return blows." He sought redress in law: "I know how badly these mechanisms function, but I am the way I was made." (As The Periodic Table put it: "I am not the Count of Montecristo.") And he disdained "confusions, small-change Freudianism, morbidities, or indulgences. The oppressor remains what he is, and so does the victim. They are not interchangeable. The former is to be punished and execrated (but, if possible, understood), the latter is to be pitied and helped; but both, faced by the indecency of the irrevocable act, need refuge and protection, and instinctively search for them. Not all, but most--and often for their entire lives."
And he also thought about suicide--"an act of man and not of the animal," "a mediated act, a noninstinctive, unnatural choice." While the "enslaved animals" in the Lager (camp) sometimes let themselves die, they did not choose to: "Svevo's remark in The Confessions of Zeno...has the rawness of truth: 'When one is dying, one is much too busy to think about death. All one's organism is devoted to breathing.'" Suicide, he said, "is born from a feeling of guilt that no punishment has attenuated." But in the camps "the harshness of imprisonment was perceived as punishment, and the feeling of guilt (if there is punishment, there must have been guilt) was relegated to the background, only to reemerge after the Liberation." What guilt? That "we had not done anything, or not enough.... And this is a judgment that the survivor believes he sees in the eyes of those (especially the young) who listen to his stories and judge with facile hindsight, or who perhaps feel cruelly repelled." Leading to the worst of introspections:
I might be alive in the place of another, at the expense of another; I might have usurped, that is, in fact, killed. The "saved" of the Lager were not the best, those predestined to do good, the bearers of a message: what I had seen and lived through proved the exact contrary. Preferably the worst survived, the selfish, the violent, the insensitive, the collaborators of the "gray zone," the spies.... I felt innocent, yes, but enrolled among the saved and therefore in permanent search of a justification in my own eyes and those of others. The worst survived, that is, the fittest; the best all died.
Which brings us back, like a black boomerang, to Kafka.
Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K....
(Kafka, The Trial)
It's a pathogenic book. Like an onion, one
layer after another. Each of us could be tried and condemned and
executed, without ever knowing why. It was as if it predicted the
time when it was a crime simply to be a Jew.
(Primo Levi to Germaine Greer)
In the summer of 1982, a publisher asked Levi to translate The Trial, as Calvino and Natalia Ginzburg had been asked to translate Lord Jim and Madame Bovary. For his mother, he needed the money. While he would have preferred Joseph Conrad or Thomas Mann, he sounded at the time almost cheerful about the project:
I like and admire Kafka because he writes in a manner that is totally foreign to me. In my writings, for better or worse, knowingly or unknowingly, I have always made an effort to move from dark to clear, like a filtration pump that sucks in cloudy water and expels it clarified, if not sterile. Kafka takes an opposite path; he pours out an endless stream of the hallucinations dredged up from levels unbelievably deep, and never filters them. The reader feels them swarming with seeds and spores: they are burning with meaning, but he is never helped to tear down or bypass the veil, so as to see things in the place where they are hidden. Kafka never touches ground, he never deigns to offer you the clue to the maze.
His tune would soon change. In a 1983 interview, this dutiful child of the Enlightenment conceded that Kafka had a gift "that went beyond everyday reason...an almost animalesque sensitivity, like snakes that know when earthquakes are coming." But Levi also wondered "if it is a good idea to give a book like this to a fifteen-year-old.... Now this ending is so cruel, so unexpectedly cruel, that if I had a young child I would spare him. I fear it would disturb him, make him suffer, although of course it is the truth. We will die, each of us will die, more or less like that." This is odd enough from a writer whose feelings had been hurt when his own children declined to discuss his books. But, he confessed, "the undertaking disturbed me badly. I went into a deep, deep depression." And: "I felt assaulted by this book." Disappearing into Joseph K., "I accused myself, as he did."
Levi was well-known for his impatience with long-winded, solipsistic or obscurantist prose. (About Beckett: "It is the duty of every human being to communicate." About Pound: "writing in Chinese simply showed a disrespect for the reader." Borges he found "alien and distant," Proust "boring" and Dostoyevsky "rebarbative" and "portentous.") But this was different. Kafka got to him so much that he resolved never to read him again: "I feel a repulsion that is clearly of a psychoanalytic nature."
How so? Let's look at that strange unfinished novel, written shortly after Franz broke off his engagement to Félice, under the influence of Søren Kierkegaard and the "rebarbative" author of Crime and Punishment, with its attic offices and courts of impeachment, its brittle beards and colored badges, its "ostensible acquittals" and "indefinite postponements," its hopelessness, sinfulness and sinister-enigmatic tropes: "It did not follow that the case was lost, by no means, at least there was no decisive evidence for such an assumption; you simply knew nothing more about the case and would never know anything more about it."
Imagine a Primo Levi meditating on, for instance, this creepy middle passage:
One must lie low, no matter how much it went against the grain, and try to understand that this great organization remained, so to speak, in a state of delicate balance, and that if someone took it upon himself to alter the disposition of things around him, he ran the risk of losing his footing and falling to destruction, while the organization would simply right itself by some compensating reaction in another part of its machinery--since everything is interlocked--and remain unchanged, unless, indeed, which was very probable, it became still more rigid, more vigilant, severer, and more ruthless.
Or, at the end of the novel, this impasse:
Were there arguments in his favor that had been overlooked? Of course there must be. Logic is doubtless unshakable, but it cannot withstand a man who wants to go on living. Where was the Judge whom he had never seen? Where was the High Court, to which he had never penetrated? He raised his hands and spread out all his fingers.
Easy enough to say that the survivor read himself into such paranoid cloud shapes, where guilt was nameless, justice faceless, space liquid, time centrifugal, God absent and Law a myth--because everybody does. We all feel something ominous and devouring about corporations and bureaucracies, about banking and religion, even about Prague, that baroque estrangement. But a sentence like this one had to seem personal: "Only our concept of time makes it possible for us to speak of the Day of Judgment by that name; in reality it is a summary court in perpetual session." And still more chilling: "The hunting dogs are playing in the courtyard, but the hare will not escape them, no matter how fast it may be flying already through the woods."
Moreover, Franz K.'s Joseph K. is devoured as well by sexuality--by Elsa, the cabaret waitress, who receives visitors in bed; by Leni, the lawyer's servant, who only sleeps with men who have been accused; by Fräulein Bürstner and the usher's wife; by the half-naked mothers nursing babies in the Lower Court, the prostitute maids and prostitute custodians, and the little girls who molest him in the painter Titorelli's garret, behind the red door--never even mind the mother he hasn't seen for three years. Maybe that butcher's knife wasn't intended, after all, for his self-interrogating heart.
Well, Kafka: He was all about failure. Everything was incomprehensible, nothing could be known, and there were no happy endings. (His three sisters all died in the camps.) Kafka told us: "Balzac carried a cane on which was carved the legend: I smash every obstacle; my legend reads: Every obstacle smashes me." And about this Kafka, Levi, "a puritanical introvert," was crystal clear: "I fear him, like a great machine that crashes in on you, like the prophet who tells you the day you will die."
If there is an
Auschwitz, then there cannot be a God.
For the most part the Levi we meet in The Voice of Memory is the man in his books: "I'm Italian, but I'm also Jewish. It's like having a spare wheel, or an extra gear." He is also an "amphibian, a centaur," split in two--on the one hand, the chemist and technician; on the other, the writer who gives interviews. That he survived, unlike 647 of the 650 Italians who accompanied him to Poland, he attributes again to "sheer luck," "sound instinct," "unsuspected stamina," "knowing German" and "professional background." (Believing in God, which he didn't, and bearing witness, as he would, were irrelevant. He had happened to be a chemist in a concentration camp that was also an I.G. Farben synthetic rubber factory.) That he should have passed through the dark of Survival in Auschwitz to the light of The Reawakening seems a miracle. That he should have married, fathered, worked in a paint shop, made radio programs, won literary prizes--"Paradoxically, my baggage of atrocious memories became a wealth, a seed; it seemed to me that, by writing, I was growing like a plant"--and lectured schoolchildren in the same "calm and reasonable tone" is practically a benediction.
In the Roth interview, we see him in his study, in the room where he was born, with the flowered sofa, easy chair, word processor, color-coded notebooks, a big wire butterfly, a little wire bug and an owl. In the pages that follow, as if from Dr. Gottlieb in The Reawakening, "intelligence and cunning emanated from him like energy from radium, with the same silent and penetrating continuity." Or so we want to believe. He repeats, rethinks, amends, clarifies. We hear again about spoons and shoes; the "healing" in his first book and the "joy" of his second. About socialism and Sophie's Choice. About Rabelais, Dante and Ariosto. About solidarity in the camps (none) and resistance (futile). About James Joyce (whom he likes) and Bruno Bettelheim (whom he doesn't). He describes his chemical work ("at war with the obtuse and malign inertia of matter"), his responsibilities as a writer ("All we can ask of those who create is that they should be neither servile nor false") and what he reads in his spare time ("I prefer to stick to the tried and tested, to make a hole and then nibble away at it, perhaps for an entire lifetime, like woodworms when they find a piece of wood to their taste").
This is who we want him to be. It argues that perhaps something of the best of us, skeptical, ironic and aware, could outlive the worst. Like a Nobel Prize acceptance speech, it answers our secular-humanist need for a secular-humanist grace, a darting and undaunted intelligence capable of suggesting in 1980 that "Auschwitz may be the punishment...of barbarian Germany, of the barbarian Nazis, against Jewish civilization--that is to say, the punishment for daring, just as the shipwreck of Ulysses is the punishment of a barbarian god for human daring. I was thinking of that vein of German anti-Semitism that struck chiefly at the intellectual daring of the Jews, such as Freud, Marx, and all the innovators, in every field. It was that daring that irked a certain German philistinism much more than the fact of blood or race."
So if, in The Reawakening, he asked us to look at a Chagall-like scene in Zhmerinka ("The walls of one of the station latrines were plastered with German banknotes, meticulously stuck there with excrement"), we also saw the Russians dancing, the Gypsy orchestra at Slutsk and the train with a piano car. And if, in The Periodic Table, he recalls "the vilification of the prayer shawl," turned into underwear for Lager Jews, he also explains the political chemistry of Jewishness: "In order for the wheel to turn, for life to be lived, impurities are needed...in the soil, too, as is known, if it is to be fertile. Dissension, diversity, the grain of salt and mustard are needed.... I am the impurity that makes the zinc react, I am the grain of salt or mustard." And if, in The Monkey's Wrench, he had to tell us about the German engineer who went to Bombay's Towers of Silence and informed the Parsees "how German technicians had designed a grille to be placed at the bottom of the towers: a grille of electric resistors that would burn the dead body...without flames, without smell, and without contaminating anything," he also told us what it tastes like to drink a glacier's melting snow: "I couldn't explain it to you, because you know how hard it is to explain tastes and smells, except with examples, like if you say the smell of garlic or the taste of salami. But I would actually say that water tasted like sky, and, in fact, it came straight down from the sky."
But by the time he got to The Drowned and the Saved, the year before he died, it was as if the dogs ate the hare. It tore him apart to consider the pathos, ambiguities and collaborations of the "gray zone" in the camps, the "filtered memories" of victims and the survival strategies of even the bravest: "I come first, second, and third. Then nothing, then again I; and then all the others." This calm man was suddenly furious: "We survivors are not only an exiguous but also an anomalous minority: we are those who by their prevarications or abilities or good luck did not touch bottom. Those who did so, those who saw the Gorgon, have not returned to tell about it or have returned mute, but they are the 'muslims,' the submerged, the complete witnesses, the ones whose deposition would have a general significance. They are the rule, we are the exception." He seemed almost to relish the sleazy story of Chaim Rumkowski, "king of the Jews" of Lodz, who collaborated himself all the way to the gas chamber:
Like Rumkowksi, we too are so dazzled by power and prestige as to forget our essential fragility.... Forgetting that we are all in the ghetto, that the ghetto is walled in, that outside the ghetto reign the lords of death, and that close by the train is waiting.
Of this change of heart, or perhaps a buried shadow, there are passing hints in The Voice of Memory: "My defect is lack of courage, fear for myself and for others." And: "I'm not very balanced at all. I go through long periods of imbalance.... I find it very hard to cope with problems. This side of myself I've never written about"--except perhaps in his angry, oblique poems, "suffused with auras and shadows." But: "I am incapable of analyzing myself. My work is nocturnal, often carried out unconsciously." Was it possible, he was asked, to destroy the humanity in man? "Yes, I'm afraid so."
In Anissimov's biography, however, the shadows hound us from the start. She's done all the busy work; read the report cards; buried the engineer father in 1942; tracked down the real Alberto; explained, on the one wing, Cesare Pavese, Benedetto Croce and Antonio Gramsci and, on the other, the sinister clowns of Italian Futurism and Italian Fascism; looked at the racial laws, the Chemical Institute and the asbestos mine; gone into the beast's belly with all the rage that Levi suppressed (the vertical stripes and brass bands, the Jewish women in the camp orchestra wearing blue hats with polka dots while they play Vienna waltzes, the children burned alive to economize on hydrogen cyanide, tobacco pouches made from tanned scrotums); the engagement to Lucia Morpurgo ("Levi was infinitely grateful to Lucia for having consented to love him--an ex-deportee, a shy and repressed young man"); the suicide of Pavese, after all his friends had left town for the summer; the cigarettes (mentholated); the literary life (smarmy); the Red Brigades (appalling); Israel (get out of Lebanon, get rid of Sharon); Saul Bellow's famous-making praise for The Periodic Table; mother, witness, mother, witness, mother--
But all along--from a childhood fear of spiders dating back to his first glimpse of Doré's sketch of Arachne in Canto XII of Dante's Purgatorio, to a pubescent belief in what he was told by his Christian classmates about circumcision and castration, to his peculiar detestation of rabbits ("like certain human beings, they had nothing in their heads but food and sex") that had somehow extended to the girls around him, none of whom he could bring himself to touch, to the tormenting "dream within a dream" that came to him even after he was married ("I am alone in the center of a grey and turbid nothing, and now, I know what this thing means, and I also know that I have always known it; I am in the Lager once more, and nothing is true outside the Lager. All the rest was a brief pause, a deception of the senses, a dream; my family, nature in flower, my home"), to the obscene absurdity of receiving a signed copy of the Spandau diaries of Albert Speer, who claimed to be reading Levi, which could account for a renewed fever of the poetry-writing he called an "illness" ("dark and morbid themes," "violent feelings of rage," chimneys, shadows) and another downward spiral into depression, which is where he met Joseph K.--all along, it seems, he may have been as buggy and neurotic as Kafka himself, with more reason and less crawl space.
In his last letter to Ruth Feldman, the American translator of his poetry, two months before he died, he told her that "the period he was living through was worse than Auschwitz, because he was no longer young and no longer had the ability to react, and take a grip on himself." His last essay, published two weeks after the stairwell, was called "The Fear of Spiders":
Their hairiness is supposed to have a sexual significance, and the repulsion we feel supposedly reveals our unconscious rejection of sex: this is how we express it and at the same time this is how we try to free ourselves of it.... The spider is the enemy-mother who envelops and encompasses, who wants to make us re-enter the womb from which we have issued, bind us tightly to take us back to the impotence of infancy, subject us again to her power....
Like a great machine that crashes in on you...
I would have reformulated Adorno's remark like
this: After Auschwitz, there can be no more poetry, except about
It is not
necessary to accept everything as true, one must only accept it as
(Kafka, The Trial)
Cynthia Ozick reviewed The Drowned and the Saved as if it were a suicide note. He had at last let loose his rage. She was proud of him for finally giving in to hate. So what if it cost him his life? She only wished that all his books "had been as vehement." And there's the ugly rub. In order to approve of his farewell testament she needed somehow to trash everything else he'd written. Ladling on such inverted comma words and phrases as "curious peacefulness," "famous 'detachment,'" "so transparent, so untainted," "pure spirit," "vessel of clear water," "well-mannered cicerone of hell," "Darwin of the death camps," and (worst of all) purveyor of "uplift," she actually seemed to sneer.
At the time I thought Ozick's essay impudent and maybe even ulterior. Imagine blaming a writer for his blurbs and a witness for his reasonableness. Why not come right out and complain that he was a Sephardic Jew instead of an Ashkenazi, an assimilated Italian instead of a lacerated Pole, a socialist instead of a Zionist, a nonbeliever going into the camps and a nonbeliever coming out, pro-Diaspora and anti-Eretz Israel, who didn't even speak Yiddish?
I'm older now, and ulterior on my own time. And while it still seems that anyone unmoved to tears and scruple by a brilliant book like The Reawakening has become sadly coarsened, somehow tone-deaf, I am also aware of our desperate need to cling to whatever purchase we think we have on the sudden edge and the bloody sleeve and the fiery sign. Reading mirrors, we are horrified by what we see. We abduct and torment our heroes of consciousness as if we were Giacomettis torturing metals and ideas.
"We hate in itself our masters' insane dream of greatness, and their contempt for God and men, and for ourselves, as men," wrote Levi. And: "It is naive, absurd, and historically false to believe that an infernal system such as National Socialism was, sanctifies its victims; on the contrary, it degrades them, it makes them similar to itself, and this all the more when they are available, blank, and lack a political or moral armature." Where to find such armature? To this bonfire, he can't be said to have brought a sword: "We must be democrats first, and Jews or Italians, or anything else, second." But that is who he was, and it would kill him. "I tell you they are just like other people," he said of the Sonderkommandos, "only a lot more unhappy."
He had never wanted to be a writer, or an intellectual, or a victim, or a witness. He had troubles of his own, ordinary spiders, before he met Kafka in the gray zone. And now that we know all about them, there still remains the mystery of his transcendence. For a while, only for a while, but all the more astonishing--water tasted like the sky.
"Ishall never be able to forget," writes Christopher Hitchens of the poems of the slain Wilfred Owen, "the way in which these verses utterly turned over all the furniture of my mind; inverting every conception of order and patriotism and tradition on which I had been brought up." With Owen's war poems in mind, Hitchens observes that the dead soldier "has conclusively outlived all the jingo versifiers, blood-bolted Liberal politicians, garlanded generals and other supposed legislators of the period. He is the most powerful single rebuttal of Auden's mild and sane claim that 'Poetry makes nothing happen.'" Thus does our "Minority Report" columnist introduce the subject of his collected meditations on writers in the public sphere, Unacknowledged Legislation. Rather than setting out to treat overtly political scribes, Hitchens focuses on writers as they encounter public life. He disputes the Stendhalian view of politics in the novel "as a pistol shot in the middle of a concert" or "a stone tied to the neck of literature." While conceding that the directly politicized writer is someone we have come to distrust and the surreptitiously politicized one "is no great improvement" (he offers as example Tom Wolfe), Hitchens contends that when the parties of state agree on a matter, it is the individual pen that creates "the moral space for a true argument"--whether Paine, Douglass and Howells, or Mailer, Lowell and Vidal. This is the extended argument of his own that Hitchens advances over a span of thirty-five essays and reviews, culled from the London Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement, Dissent, Vanity Fair, Harper's, the New York Review of Books, The Nation and elsewhere. We are treated to both insight and anecdote as Hitchens attempts to tease out the Platonic forms, as it were, of Wilde and Orwell and Raymond Williams and Vidal and Rushdie and Bellow and Kipling and Eliot, Isaiah Berlin, Allan Bloom, Martha Nussbaum and Norman Podhoretz, O'Brian (Patrick), O'Brien (Conor Cruise) and others. Along the way he parses the line that "divides pseudo-objectivity from propaganda," tells us how Whittaker Chambers fired the young Bellow as the future Nobelist began working for Time, bemoans the lack of a "Blake or Camus or Koestler to synthesize justice and reason with outrage" and holds up Wilde in firebrand fashion to "encourage us to think that the bores and the bullies and the literal minds need not always win. May he induce us to rise from our semi-recumbent postures."
There is a brief but arresting passage in Primo Levi's 1947 classic memoir Survival in Auschwitz (originally titled If This Is a Man) about a French Jewish inmate he identifies simply as "Henri." Levi, a chemist and an Italian Jew who had been shipped to Auschwitz in 1944, dissected with Darwinian precision
and Dantean lyricism the human types who inhabited Hitler's most lethal death camp. If the cast is all too familiar--SS men and their prisoner-lackeys; Jewish inmates speaking the Babel of a dozen tongues; the "drowned" and the "saved," Levi's terms for victims and survivors--the individual portraitures rise to the level of characters in literature.
One of the more memorable personages was this Henri, said to be 22 at the time, with a soul encased in armor. Fluent in four languages, Henri had the "delicate and subtly perverse body and face" of one of those sado-erotic, arrow-pierced figures you see in Italian Renaissance paintings. Few were his equal at "organizing," camp slang for stealing and trading. None had more patrons and protectors throughout the camp. Henri resembles nothing so much as a postmodern trickster in his facility at conjuring power out of powerlessness. But Levi, always the moralist and stern judge, preferred similes of seduction when characterizing Henri, likening him in one place to a wasp that paralyzes its prey by eliciting their pity, comparing him in another to the biblical serpent.
It is not that Levi disliked talking to his fellow Häftling; they worked together in a chemistry lab operated by the German industrial giant I.G. Farben in Monowitz, also known as Auschwitz III. Henri was engaging. He was intelligent and civilized. Yet Levi never came away from their encounters without tasting defeat. The only time Henri paid him notice was when Levi and his bunkmate showed they could "organize" like veteran prisoners, whose ability to engross the scarce supply of black-market rations spelled fewer calories and shorter life spans for the next shipment of fresh prisoners.
"I know that Henri is living today," Levi concluded. "I would give much to know his life as a free man, but I do not want to see him again." It's a telling admission. Of all the Auschwitz prisoners memorialized by Levi, none drew greater disapproval from him than Henri. It was as though the young Frenchman was his doppelgänger, symbolizing by his very urbanity the ethical compromises Levi himself had been forced to make, with their bitter aftertaste of guilt and remorse. You can't help suspecting Levi had Henri in mind when he wrote in The Drowned and the Saved: "The worst survived--that is, the fittest; the best all died."
It just so happens that Henri, whose real name was Paul Steinberg, did survive, as Levi surmised, returning to Paris after the war, where he raised a family and pursued a business career. And his memoir, Speak You Also, written five decades after the fact and almost ten years following Levi's still mysterious death in 1987 (and beautifully translated from the French last year) is a barely concealed attempt to win clemency in the jury's eyes. Levi's indictment casts a long shadow across the pages of this book. Was I cold and calculating prior to deportation? Steinberg wonders. Or did the sheer awfulness of Auschwitz make me this way?
Steinberg doesn't tackle these questions in the world-must-know tone you find in a lot of recent survivor accounts. He writes with self-deprecatory irony and mordant wit, occasionally revealing the cynicism that bothered Levi. Auschwitz was a "boarding school," and Steinberg inventories the "invisible resources" that allowed him eventually to graduate. There was his aforementioned fluency in several languages, especially German (he was born in Berlin), and the physical and psychological resilience of youth (he was actually only 18 years old when Levi met him). There was his history of displacement and a drab home life. Before being rounded up in Paris and deported to Auschwitz in 1943, Steinberg lived the sporting life, stealing money from his Bolshevik father's pockets to bet at Paris tracks. He barely got by in school. An uncircumcised Jew, he lacked anchorage in religious tradition. But these were advantages in retrospect, he says. A stable and loving family would have ill equipped him for his wartime travails. Looking back from the vantage point of fifty years, he now sees that he possessed "an intuitive and acute understanding of that parallel universe in which we had been stranded. I figured out its antilogic, its laws."
Before he could put that knowledge to use, he had to withstand multiple assaults on his physical well-being: the melting away of his flesh and the loosening of his teeth, the liquefying of his guts due to chronic dysentery. In quick order came hepatitis, scabies and ulcerating leg sores. Roll call in the bitter cold and backbreaking work, sustained only by starvation rations, nearly reduced him to a "muselmann," one of those walking ghosts everyone knew was destined for the smokestacks. Marching back from work to the tune of the camp band, Steinberg would jam his hand between his buttocks, "eyes right and sphincter tight," to hold back the diarrhea. There is a gallows humor in Steinberg that you seldom find in Levi.
It is the climb back from degradation, however, what Steinberg calls his evolution into "extermination-camp man," that gives Speak You Also its special quality. In chaste language, Steinberg anatomizes how he practiced the arts of psychological seduction, searching out the weaknesses of the powerful brutes who ruled the camps as Kapos, inmates, mostly from the criminal class, whom the SS empowered to carry out their orders. One Kapo might be susceptible to flattery, another possessed "a repressed paternal instinct." Steinberg became very close to the powerful dwarf, a former acrobat and professional pimp, who had half-strangled Levi. He won over a hulking camp boss with a box of delicacies received in the mail. Stroking the tiger's whiskers, to use his own metaphor, entailed grave risk. The veteran prisoners were psychologically unstable, friendly one day, violent the next.
And then there is the matter of seduction plain and simple. Camp homosexuality pervades this book. Steinberg admits it was rampant, and that old-timers (the very types he so assiduously courted) were always on the lookout for young flesh. He himself denies ever having been intimate with another man, but the demurral is scarcely persuasive, what with allusions to his "whoring" and the flusterings of "a two-hundred-pound virgin." Of course, what took place in the camps says nothing about same-sex intimacy and everything about sexual power, yet Steinberg skirts the issue. It's the one false note in an otherwise unsparing self-assessment.
All the while, Steinberg economized on human feeling (save with a small coterie of friends). Why waste sympathy on people who were just passing through? Even long after liberation he was never able to show remorse in the face of death. However, Auschwitz's greatest psychological blow was to his dignity. "I lived and am still living in humiliation," he writes. While he never yielded to hate, which would have been tantamount to internalizing the norms of his oppressors, he did learn to repay assaults on his dignity with icy contempt, and the disdainfulness stayed with him after the war. Forever after Steinberg saw civilians bifocally--as both the persons they were under normal circumstances and the prisoners they might have become had fate ruled differently; and he was often coolly dismissive.
This is an anguished book, made all the more so by Steinberg's charting of his emotional swings as he returns to that time and place. He becomes insomniacal, his moods darken. He worries about what he remembers. Sensory memories make the sores on his leg and the chill in his bones as vivid as yesterday. So are the brutes and sadists, but not close friends. The sole glorious deed that he performed--saving bread for a dying inmate--is offset by a terrible memory of slapping another dying Jew. "If only I could get rid of this memory, sweep it away with my hand...," he writes. You can almost feel him relive the original offense, which is how traumatic memory often manifests itself.
And then there is the reckoning with Levi, whom Steinberg doesn't remember at all because, as he sadly admits, he didn't think Levi at the time possessed utilitarian value. Steinberg wants nothing better than to persuade his former fellow Häftling to set aside the verdict by showing him there were extenuating circumstances: "Can one be so guilty for having survived?"
There are unmistakable signs that something approaching Holocaust fatigue is setting in among readers of serious memoirs and histories. That a book like Norman Finkelstein's The Holocaust Industry, with its wild allegations verging on rant, can command widespread attention is one sign of the times. So is Peter Novick's deeply researched and more measured The Holocaust in American Life, which challenges the idea that the Nazi genocide has meaningful lessons to teach and questions whether you can learn much about human nature by looking at it in extremis. After all, the victim literature is replete with contradictions--one survivor highlighting solidarity among inmates, others (like Levi and Steinberg) pointing to a remorseless struggle of all against all. How do you adjudicate the competing claims? Novick rightly asks. The answer is, you can't. Nor should you try, if for no other reason than both conditions obtained even in the infernal regions described by Levi and Steinberg. Anyway, you don't study the Holocaust to learn lessons in the didactic sense of that term (lessons that the reader or viewer usually brings to the subject). You delve into the Holocaust in order to grapple with excruciating moral dilemmas, "choiceless choices," to use Lawrence Langer's apt characterization. That's usually what ends up happening, at least, when you are brought face to face with survivor literature of the quality of Speak You Also. Like the best of the genre, Steinberg's searching self-examination compels one to clarify values and the social and political responsibility one bears toward those values. Which is another way of saying that his is a work of permanent significance. I find it hard to imagine reading Levi's classic work except in tandem with Steinberg's brief for the defense.
Would Levi have softened his judgment of Steinberg had he lived to read Speak You Also? (The title seems to have been drawn from a Paul Celan poem of the same title, with its first stanza admonition, "speak as the last,/have your say.") It is not an easy question to answer. Levi was not a forgiver, even of his own transgressions, which is why those who argue that he committed suicide will always have the stronger argument. But Levi's judgments did soften with age, as he became more and more intrigued with the "gray zone" of Holocaust ethics, even finding mitigating circumstances in the conduct of Chaim Rumkowski, the notorious head of the Lodz Judenrat. Although this is only a hunch, Levi probably would have reopened Steinberg's case, even reconsidered his aversion to seeing him again. (Steinberg himself died in 1999.) That would have been an interesting reunion, two shrewd and anguished students of the human condition sharing notes on how humans like themselves so easily sloughed off the shell of civilization when faced with extreme circumstances.
During the false calm that descends between the announcement of Oscar nominations and the bad-TV night of their awards, the smug nominees are routinely re-released to a presumably eager public in order to boost box-office returns and build a swell of public opinion for their candidacy. Into this big-stakes arena this year ambled a little film, The Gleaners and I (Les Glaneurs et La Glaneuse), which launched its national release at New York's Film Forum. Nothing could be further from the bombast of Oscar contenders. Its director, Agnès Varda, is a veteran whose first film (La Pointe Courte, shot in 1954 when she was 26) predates the French New Wave, a movement she soon joined; today, she's its most tenacious and intrepid survivor.
The Film Forum has used the occasion to mount a retrospective of Varda's films, made over fifty years with considerable charm, occasional sentimentality and, in hindsight, historical acuity. My favorite is her 1961 classic Cleo From Five to Seven, a prescient study of a young woman's wait for test results to determine whether she has breast cancer. For a hint of Varda's current interest, there's her 1985 hit Vagabond, with Sandrine Bonnaire as a homeless drifter whose brushes with society disturb the surface but cannot save her life.
Vagabond and The Gleaners and I both explore society's margins, but whereas Vagabond was an imaginative fiction, Varda's new film has the indelible urgency of documentary. It explores the world of "gleaners," by definition those people who harvest what others reject. In the countryside, that might mean potatoes too large or small for the market or grapes ripening in untended vineyards. In cities and towns, it's a range of trash and discarded objects and leftover market produce, the kind of harvest derisively dismissed as "dumpster diving" on this side of the Atlantic.
No such judgment impedes Varda's research, as she refuses to separate out those who glean for food to survive from those who simply glean for fun: She levels the gleaning field. Varda interviews professional artists who recycle detritus in their studios; inspired amateurs who construct Watts-like towers; rural poor who forage from trailers; urban poor who glean in trash bins; eccentrics who keep tabs on refuse-collection routes; even a celebrated chef who gleans herbs on the hillside. And there's no shortage of ordinary country folk who glean, indulging in a "field day" after the official harvest is done, simply because their grandparents taught them to do so.
Varda has always been very much of her moment, so it comes as no surprise that her film about waste is economical of means: a digital production--shot with a Sony DV CAM DSR 300 and a Sony Mini DV DCR TRV 900 E, if you must know, given how quickly camera names are replacing genres as aesthetic signposts. More noteworthy than the equipment, however, is the response; The Gleaners and I has already spent more than eight months in French theaters. In addition to a clutch of festival awards, in February it was declared the best French film of 2000 by the French Union of Film Critics, which broke with tradition by not choosing a dramatic film.
Why has The Gleaners and I struck such a chord? I suspect it's due in considerable part to Agnès Varda's own presence. Her voice on the soundtrack supplies a kind of thinking motor to propel the audience along the literal roadways of the French countryside, like an erudite travel guide who sees past the surface. She appears frequently in front of the camera, too, interacting with her subjects and whimsically posing with a sheaf of wheat. There are times when she's in front of and behind the camera simultaneously. Varda acknowledges her own habits of gleaning, too: souvenirs carried back from Japan or, well, the footage of this film.
American films about the homeless--Dark Days, for instance, last year's chronicle of a subway-station encampment--tend to emphasize the distance between "us" and "them," usually exoticizing their subjects into another species entirely. Varda tries for the opposite, throwing herself, on screen and soundtrack, into the breach. Indeed, the French title is an explicit recognition of this bond between director and subject, while its English translation creates a rupture. Such directorial presence is a violation, of course, of the "direct cinema" style of documentary that has so dominated US practice since the 1960s, but Varda aligns herself with the "essay film" tradition of French filmmakers like her old pal Chris Marker, or Latin Americans like Patricio Guzman. This kind of film essay, which Varda calls "cinécriture," opens documentary up beyond the limited frame of the quotidian to allow space for analysis as well as emotion.
Varda provides back stories to grant a context to her subjects and their way of life. She also ingeniously and movingly illuminates their stories, enlisting history, poetry and even the Bible to justify the practice of gleaning. Consider Deuteronomy 24:19: "When thou cuttest down thine harvest in thy field, and hast forgot a sheaf in the field, thou shalt not go again to fetch it: it shall be for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow."
To prove that French law agrees with Scripture, Varda shoots French attorneys in formal black robes. Clutching red volumes of the French Penal Code, they are incongruously posted in fields and on street corners. One traces the right of rural gleaning back to a 1554 statute, while another affirms the legality of urban scavenging, for "these objects cannot be stolen since they have no owner." Nonetheless, Varda witnesses gleaning's modern curtailment by property owners' citing it as a violation of private property. Varda not only charts gleaning's legal progression but, in one scene, tries to reverse it: She notifies a food kitchen of potatoes dumped into a field, then accompanies the group to "glean" hundreds of pounds to feed the poor.
Another personal touch is Varda's emphasis on nineteenth-century French paintings that celebrate gleaning as a joyous activity: Jean-François Millet's Les Glaneuses, Jules Breton's La Glaneuse and Le Retour de Glaneuses, among others. One painting, Léon Lhermitte's Les Glaneuses, hangs in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It is tempting to imagine its becoming an emblem for a US pro-gleaning movement inspired by Varda's film. With the Girl Scouts updating their image with hip new commercials, maybe they'll consider instituting a merit badge in gleaning.
Since a few million folks are less likely to see The Gleaners and I than to plunk down hard cash for big-budget movies with platformed releases, perhaps the opportunity to comment on the Oscar nominations should not be, er, wasted. This is one of the better vintages, actually, with less wincing than usual. It's a year in which Hollywood passed over many of its own shiny releases (What Women Want, Cast Away) for Best Picture and Best Director honors, in favor of films and directors who started out looking like independents--Ang Lee and Steven Soderbergh--but ended up right where they wanted to be all along: at the helm of polished big-budget features (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in Lee's case, Traffic and Erin Brockovich in the case of Soderbergh's double header).
Ang Lee has become the great synthesizer, capable of transforming most any genre from melodrama (Sense and Sensibility) to period action movie (Ride the Whirlwind) into a polished evocation of love lost, honor gained and times gone by. With Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, he is happily claiming his success in melding romance with action (the same trick, by the way, James Cameron managed with Titanic). While a recent succession of articles, including one by Lee's longtime collaborator James Schamus, have kept busy by arguing the film's relative success or failure with Asian audiences, its triumph in the West is undisputed.
As for Soderbergh, he is less a synthesizer of genres than the expert devotee of just one: a clear-cut story stripped down to its formulaic essence, then deployed in a contemporary setting, all visceral, fast-paced and consequential. In effect, he's retooled the traditional studio formula to fit contemporary themes, from sexual angst (sex, lies, and videotape) to modern corruption (The Limey) and law enforcement (Out of Sight, sort of). Soderbergh's most appealing quirkiness is his recent emphasis on father-daughter ties, a zone of affection too often left out of movies.
Both Soderbergh and Lee happily place women in the middle of their films, making them central players even in stories that demand combat--with firearms or swordplay. Like all real Hollywood movies (and unlike indies, until recently), they also rely on star power to animate their scripts and draw audiences to the product. With ever-larger budgets, they're drawing bigger names and more freedom in deploying them: In Lee's case, the power to cast Asian stars speaking Mandarin instead of English; in Soderbergh's, the ease of piling star upon star upon star.
Interestingly, the pre-awards commentary on this year's nominations ranged beyond the usual movie writers. In the New York Times, pundit Neal Gabler claimed that the nominations of Gladiator and Traffic as Best Picture constituted a Hollywood endorsement of family values. His article's location in the Week in Review section instead of Arts and Leisure signaled the paper's attachment to his position.
Is he right? With crowd-pleasing spectacles like Gladiator, it's best not to examine the narrative details--or sources--too closely. A cursory reading of history reveals that Marcus Aurelius doted on his son Commodus, who didn't kill him but did succeed him, with eventually dire results. Historical texts note that leaving the throne to his son was the one feat for which Marcus Aurelius remains roundly criticized, and they further point out that Commodus was the first emperor "born in the purple." Hmmm, a ruler who takes power thanks to Daddy but is not up to the task? Sounds uncannily relevant, but more to this nation-state than to any pro-family rhetoric.
Gabler left Erin Brockovich and Crouching Tiger off his family report card, wisely enough, since they don't remotely fit his argument in their shared selection of crime-busters who have grander loyalties than mere blood ties. As for Traffic, well, family man and drug czar Michael Douglas does forsake power to try to "save" his daughter, but he's a failure at both tasks. The film's clearly marked hero is Benicio Del Toro, corrupt cop turned secret crusader. But family? The film's whole point is that Del Toro has none. His cop does what he does (turn mole for the DEA) for the good of community. Traffic's final scene catches him relaxing his long-stoic features at last, as he happily watches kids play baseball on the diamond he's made the DEA build in the Mexican town that drugs once ruled. Kids, yes; family, no.
As for the final Best Picture contender, Chocolat--the fluffy film that Miramax muscle and Juliette Binoche charm propelled onto the slate--it delivers the most resounding slap of all to the sanctity of the family. Binoche's character, an all-knowing chocolatier who happens to be the daughter of a runaway wife and mother of an illegitimate girl, is the only force capable of healing the wounds wrought by church and family in a French provincial town. It's too bad that Robert Nelson Jacobs's screenplay (also nominated) removes the pro-witchcraft and anti-clerical message of the original novel, though it's easy to imagine Miramax's relief at avoiding Catholic rancor at the box office.
Family is an odd grid on which to try to place this year's nominations, actually. Every category was filled with honorees playing outside its bounds. There's Javier Bardem, for instance, in Julian Schnabel's Before Night Falls, brilliantly embodying the spirit, and not incidentally the body, of the notorious Reinaldo Arenas. While he may have been a literary lion and martyr to a cause, Arenas was nobody's idea of a family man. And Ellen Burstyn may indeed play a mother in Requiem for a Dream, but she and her son are hardly on the same page, once the drugs kick in, let alone in the same family unit. Pollock explains family so little that we never learn whether Ed Harris or Marcia Gay Harden, in their scenery-chewing roles as glorious geniuses, even had fathers: we see his monstrous mother and unhappy brothers without ever knowing the first thing about them, while she seems to have dropped from the sky ex utero.
The Gleaners and I did not make an appearance in the still-troubled Foreign Film section, where national politics still dominate the process. Happily, the directing debut of Agnès Jaoui, The Taste of Others, did. It's not incidental that the French nominated a woman, for women directors have played a major role in the remarkable resurgence of the French cinema in recent years. Jaoui is an established actor and screenwriter i n France, not yet well-known in the United States. Other French women directors are, though: Claire Denis and Catherine Breillat, to name two recent favorites. Nor have French male directors been slacking: Olivier Assayas, Laurent Cantet and Bruno Dumont have attracted US fans, and Patrice Chéreau is likely to follow.
The events at the March 25 Oscar Awards won't change the fact that French cinema will continue to demand our attention. Not since the days of the French New Wave have so many exciting films emerged from its industry, and not since the 1960s has it had so much to offer audiences in the way of rethinking our cinematic expectations. Nations go in and out of fashion, not just in terms of tourism or trade agreements but in their cinemas as well. France, it's clear, is back.
Sounds that twisted
around the room like smoke,
where I did not want
to find them, but I find them
over and over. Father,
bless your hair.
Bless your hammer
and your no-song whistle,
your voice, your strange
language--embarrassing to me
once. Too lyrical, too vulgar.
But father, bless your hair:
sculptural, short, black
lamb's wool, steel wool
like your voice--gravel
underfoot when I'd walk
home from school. Bless
your voice, the gravel
underfoot, your hammer,
your strange language twisting
like smoke, biting like a snake
the head of which I wanted
to stroke or crush with my heel.
And your whistle father,
and when you'd stop
in the middle of your work,
as if something had cut
away the part of you
that wanted to sing.
With "None Dare Call It Treason" [Feb. 5], an exposé of the crime committed by the Supreme Court when it appointed George W. Bush as President, Vincent Bugliosi drew the largest outpouring of mail in our 136-year history and tapped a deep reservoir of outrage among our readers: "God bless you for printing this! I'm sending it to everyone I know." "It gave me heart that I am not alone in my outrage." "Bugliosi has made me angry all over again--and I'm glad he did." "One of the most important articles I've ever seen, up there with the Pentagon Papers." "Wish it could be air-dropped to every American city." "One of the most intelligent, bold and straightforward articles I have ever read." "The most important document to come out of the entire farce called an election." "How fitting it is that the lowest point in the history of our Supreme Court is the subject of the best article I've ever read in The Nation." "Thank God for Bugliosi. A voice crying out what needs to be heard." "I cannot express my elation at finding this article." "Bravo, bravo, bravo, bravo, bravo!" "It's because I do hold the Court in such high regard that I want to scream out Treason!" A sample follows.
Highest honors to Vincent Bugliosi for his courageous indictment of the Supreme Court. Sir John Harington's epigram scores a bull's eye on this political crisis: "Treason doth never prosper: what's the reason?/For if it prosper, none dare call it treason." The country should honor such courageous patriots as Bugliosi, who would dare to call the wresting of the presidency from Gore and handing it to Bush an act of the most blatant usurpation.
HENRY F. SALERNO
In case Vincent Bugliosi doesn't get to Washington very often, he might be interested in my observation that some prankster has chiseled a tasteless joke into the pediment of the Supreme Court building. It reads, Equal Justice Under Law.
Did you hear the one about the brave attorney who spoke out against five Supreme Court Justices? He was overruled.
Myrtle Beach, S.C.
Bugliosi has hit the nail on the head. I just wish that his reasoning had hit the heads of the supreme court justices. I am an African-American, and I am embarrassed that Uncle Clarence Thomas is on the supreme court. (I type "supreme court" in lowercase because of the lack of respect I now have for that body.)
Finally someone calls it as it is! I keep telling my friends how furious I am at what happened in the "election," how the fury only ripens with each passing day. This is Boston Tea Party time! People of America, rouse yourselves and rise! Nothing short of sacking the Heinous Five and an immediate national re-election is morally required. This is not about Bush or Gore or Nader: This is purely about who we are as a people.
Vincent Bugliosi's piece was superb. It seems that most of the country is wandering around as if in a mindless fog, filled with media-supplied trivia. Instead of justice being blind, the Justices have blindfolded us and given us, and democracy, a swift kick in the rear.
LINDA S. ANDERSON
West Hollywood, Calif.
Right after the imperial hand of the Supreme Court reached down and slammed the door on the libraries and counting offices across the state of Florida, a bemused Republican election official was interviewed on MSNBC. She pointed out that the best way to get an accurate count was to first run the ballots through the machines several times so they can exfoliate and the count can stabilize. Duh. Instead, those who fear the chad got hysterical when they found the little things in the bottom of counting boxes--you'd think they'd found bugs in the flour. And so we have the final image of Justice Scalia holding up the glimmering ballot...protect its sanctity, keep it safe from harm, defend it against impostors. Don't count it.
I applaud you for not letting us go quietly into that dark night of American democracy to which our own Supreme Court was intent on leading us. Those of us who refuse to accept the Court's outrageous ruling and "just get over it" need a strong voice, and I am thankful that The Nation is there. What the Supreme Court has done is truly frightening. I find equally chilling the apparent ability of so many--including our politicians and judiciary--to passively accept this blatant affront to democracy.
I am a criminal defense attorney who represents capital defendants in federal court. I have toiled in the field of judicial disingenuousness for a long time, in cases in which a person's very life is at stake. Heretofore, I have viewed Vincent Bugliosi somewhat suspiciously, as an adversary, if you will (he is, after all, from the prosecutorial side of the courtroom). I must say, however, that his article took my breath away. His passion and his brutal cut-to-the-chase shook even me--jaded and world-weary--from my cynical malaise over the judicial theft of the election. I found myself shouting and cheering out loud for the pithiness of his metaphors and his "cut the bullshit" on-target analysis. I am heartened that he has put words to the outrage that I have difficulty fully articulating about the shabbiness of the Court's ruling. I am heartened that he has put the lie to the Court's brazen pedantry, which it used to disguise its plain malfeasance.>
Your counterinauguration issue looks like a gift from the heaven where dwell the truly righteous and the just, where abide the eternal spirits of the great liberal and progressive beacons of liberty. (I see the face of Adlai Stevenson smiling benevolent approval. I see Robert La Follette, Wayne Morse, Norman Thomas and Reinhold Niebuhr observing with urgent concern the endangered ship of state thrown crazily about by the storm of singular corruption rampant in this election.) I observe how thinly informed is the American public re what really goes on behind the thin veneer touched upon by our mainstream journalists and commentators. For most of my eighty years my hopes for a Jeffersonian-like informed electorate have been sustained by the courage, dedication and service to high ideals of small minority voices like yours.
CLIFFORD P. WOLFSEHR
Sherman Oaks, Calif.
If we mere citizens were to consider pressing charges, how many of us would stand up and say so? Who would represent "We the People"? And to what judicial body would we plead our case? Most of America has already forgotten about their rights being violated, thanks to an apathetic McMedia. Is there anyone else out there who prefers these matters not be forgotten? who thinks there should be televised hearings? Anyone? Hello?
There are millions of people wanting some remedy to what has happened, although many of us have no idea where to begin. Can no efforts be made to remove these Justices from the bench? I think such a campaign would be a lightning rod for hopes that the possibility of democracy is not entirely dead.
Contrary to what most Americans may believe, bringing the five conservative Supreme Court Justices to the bar of justice is very possible. The Constitution expressly authorizes criminal proceedings against judges if they are found guilty of "bad behavior." Article III, Section 1 states: "The Judges, both of the supreme and inferior Courts, shall hold their offices during good Behavior...." Article II, Section 4 states: "The President, Vice President, and civil officers shall be removed from office on impeachment for conviction of treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors." The five Justices appear to have committed a "high crime." The issue is whether the five Justices are guilty of criminal "bad behavior" in approving a decision that denied Gore his victory and if they are also impeachable for the "high crime" of judicial conspiracy to fix the election.
CHARLES O. PORTER
Member of Congress, 1957-60
On October 20, 1973, Solicitor General Robert Bork executed what came to be known as the Saturday Night Massacre, following orders to fire Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox after both Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus refused to heed White House orders and resigned in protest. Twenty-seven years later, a Saturday Night Massacre of voting rights occurred when a split Supreme Court ruled to stop the count in Florida, a transparently political decision engineered with Machiavellian calculation by the ignominious "Gang of Five." In glaring contrast to this ruling of the Rehnquist Court, in 1974 the Burger Court unanimously voted to uphold a lower court ruling and ordered President Nixon to release the tapes of subpoenaed White House conversations. In that heralded 8-0 decision, the Burger Court ruled definitively in favor of the principle that no person is above the law, a decision that upheld the Constitution and caused Nixon irreparable harm. Is there any doubt that this current Supreme Court would have ruled in Nixon's favor?
BARBARA ALLEN KENNEY
Your article led to remembrance of things past wherein US self-righteousness condemned other countries for choosing their leaders much as the US Supreme Court Five chose George W. Bush. Russia was the "Evil Empire" because a Central Committee rather than the people chose its leader. Central American and Caribbean countries were invaded--sometimes openly, sometimes not--to teach them our "democratic values," since they were governed by "dictators" rather than by popularly elected leaders (of course, Washington wanted to choose the dictator).
We all saw it happen and wondered, How can it be?! Then the mind numb-ers went to work: Sam Donaldson dismissed the recounts with "Get over it!" Not in my lifetime, Sam.