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April 9, 2001 | The Nation

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April 9, 2001

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Letters



Some Dare Call It Treason...

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.

         
--The Editors


Fredonia, N.Y.

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


Baltimore

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.

CARL SCHULTZ


Anchorage

Did you hear the one about the brave attorney who spoke out against five Supreme Court Justices? He was overruled.

SUSAN BRIGHT


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.)

CHARLES WRIGHT


Dallas, Ore.

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.

CHRISTOPHER DOBSON


Houston

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.

GARY MARKOWITZ


Houston

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.

CHRISTINA PHELEY


Phoenix

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.>

THOMAS J.PHALEN


Ellensburg, Wash.

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?

MITCH TRIPLETT


Seattle

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.

JEFF WOOD


Eugene, Ore.

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


Atlanta, Ga.

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


Laredo, Tex.

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).

SAÚL SÁNCHEZ


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.

ELLEN STEEN

Editorials

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.

'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
associates@thenation.com

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.

Click here to read "Wealth Report," the latest installment of Doug Henwood's quarterly Nation column "Indicators" in PDF format. Acrobat Reader required.

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.

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.

Columns

Yes, W. once took the view
That CO2 is bad for you.
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.

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.

Stop the Presses

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.

scheer

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.

Articles

US Senator Russ Feingold, the Wisconsin Democratic side of the McCain-Feingold juggernaut that is on the verge of winning Senate approval of the most significant campaign finance reform initiative

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.

E-mail: more powerful than corporate ads.

The search for a shared national agenda.

Keeping the lid on the truth about Kosovo.

The reporting was scandalous, too.

Books & the Arts

Book

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.

Film

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.

Poetry

Sounds that twisted
around the room like smoke,
bludgeoning, blossoming,
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
whistling, suddenly,
in the middle of your work,
as if something had cut
away the part of you
that wanted to sing.

Book

"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."

Book

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.
         (Primo Levi)

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
Auschwitz.

         (Primo Levi)

It is not
necessary to accept everything as true, one must only accept it as
necessary.

         (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.