After two decades of visiting political nightmares on the state--from the infamous Prop 13 to the immigrant-bashing Prop 187--California's notorious initiative and referendum system finally promises to deliver a welcome gift this November. Enough signatures have been gathered to qualify the Election Day Voter Registration initiative (EDR) for this fall's ballot. The measure, which would allow citizens to both register and vote on Election Day, is seen by many as the most significant election reform possible at this time.
Since the 2000 presidential debacle in Florida, reformers have mostly concentrated on improving the logistics of balloting. "But that isn't the problem," says Cal Tech Professor Mike Alvarez, co-author of a new report analyzing EDR. "The problem in American elections isn't voting machines. The biggest problem is voter registration."
Voter participation both across the United States and within California has plummeted steadily over the past three decades, constantly setting new records of anemic turnout. "Worse, the higher your income and the older you are, the more likely you are one of those left voting," says former Connecticut Secretary of State Miles Rapoport, now the head of the Demos organization, which commissioned Alvarez's study.
Supporters of EDR say it's the perfect prescription for reversing the downward trend. In most states voters must register some weeks or even months in advance of actual balloting, and the process is often cumbersome and confusing. There are currently six states that have moved to EDR, and the increase in turnout has been an immediate 3-6 percent. Voting among young people and those who have moved in the previous six months runs some 15 percent higher in states that have adopted EDR. Similar reforms, like "motor voter," which allows registration at the time of driver's-license renewal, have not been as effective. Motor-voter does bring in a lot of registrations, but many of the new potential voters don't show up on Election Day.
Perhaps the most dramatic use of EDR was in Minnesota's 1998 gubernatorial election. More than 330,000 last-minute, previously unregistered voters were swept to the polls by the enthusiasm around independent candidate Jesse Ventura and were the decisive margin in his victory over the two traditional parties. EDR is also credited with boosting liberal Senator Paul Wellstone into office during his first run, in 1990.
Alvarez thinks that if EDR is adopted in California--where the electorate has been disproportionately white, suburban and elderly--an increase of up to 9 percent in turnout can be anticipated. "That's something like 1.9 million additional voters in a presidential election," he says. And that increase would contribute to greater ethnic, class and age equity. Increases in voters aged 18-25 would increase by a projected 12 percent, Latino voters by 11 percent and African-American voters by 7 percent. A 10 percent increase could be expected from those with a grade-school education or less, an equal increase from those who have lived at their address for less than six months and a 12 percent increase from new-citizen voters.
The measure is endorsed by a plethora of nonprofit activist groups and has also gotten support from top moderate Republicans, including former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan and former US Representative Tom Campbell. No organized opposition to EDR has yet emerged, though nativist groups are expected to charge that it opens the door to fraudulent voting by undocumented aliens.
But backers of the measure are taking no chances. The gathering of about 700,000 signatures was financed with $1 million from California businessman and philanthropist Rob McKay, whose McKay Foundation has an established track record in backing social justice issues. And plans are to spend another $7 million to see the initiative through to victory in November. During the 2001-02 legislative session, a dozen other states are expected to take up EDR-like proposals.
"We have to lower the barriers to voting every way we can," says McKay. "We are no longer dealing with just voter apathy. Now we are dealing with outright voter alienation. With this measure we are trying to draw the line in the sand."
One bubble burst, then another and another. Enron, Global Crossing, WorldCom. The rectitude of auditors--pop. Faith in corporate CEOs and stock market analysts--pop, pop. The self-righteous prestige of Citigroup and J.P. Morgan Chase--pop and pop again. The largest bubble is the stock market's, and it may not yet be fully deflated. These dizzying events are not an occasion for champagne music because the bursting bubbles have cast millions of Americans into deep personal losses, destroyed trillions of dollars in capital, especially retirement savings, and littered the economic landscape with corporate wreckage. Ex-drinker George W. Bush explained that a "binge" is always followed by the inevitable "hangover." What he did not say is that the "binge" that has just ended with so much pain for the country was the conservative binge.
Economic liberalism prevailed from the New Deal forward but broke down in the late 1960s when it was unable to resolve doctrinal failures including an inability to confront persistent inflation. Now market orthodoxy is coming apart as a result of its own distinctive failures. It can neither explain the economic disorders before us nor remedy them because, in fact, its doctrine of reckless laissez-faire produced them. The bursting bubbles are not accidents or the work of a few larceny-prone executives. They are the consequence of everything the conservative ascendancy sought to achieve--the savagery and injustice of unregulated markets, the blind willfulness of unaccountable corporations.
We will be a long time getting over the conservative "hangover." It may even take some years before politicians and policy thinkers grasp that the old order is fallen. But this season marks a dramatic starting point for thinking anew. Left-liberal progressives have been pinned down in rearguard defensive actions for nearly thirty years, but now they have to learn how to play offense again. Though still marginalized and ignored, progressives will determine how fast the governing ethos can be changed, because the pace will be set largely by the strength of their ideas, their strategic shrewdness and, above all, the depth of their convictions. That may sound fanciful to perennial pessimists, but if you look back at the rise of the conservative orthodoxy, it was not driven by mainstream conservatives or the Republican Party but by those dedicated right-wingers who knew what they believed and believed, most improbably, that their ideas would prevail.
The new agenda falls roughly into three parts, and the first might be described as "restoring the New Deal." That is, the first round of necessary reforms, like the Sarbanes bill already enacted, must basically restore principles and economic assurances that Americans used to enjoy--the protections inherited from the liberal era that were destroyed or severely damaged by right-wing deregulation and corporate corruption of government. Pension funds, for instance, lost horrendously in the stock market collapse and face a potentially explosive crisis because corporate managers gamed the pension savings to inflate company profits. Employees of all kinds deserve a supervisory voice in managing this wealth, but Congress should also ask why corporations are allowed such privileged control over other people's money. Broader reform will confront the disgraceful fact that only half the work force has any pension at all beyond Social Security and set out to create tax incentives and penalties to change this.
Another major reconstruction is needed in antitrust law, to restore and modernize the legal doctrine systematically gutted by the Reagan era (and only marginally repaired under Clinton). The financial debacle includes scores of companies concocted by endless mergers that pumped up the stock price but added no real economic value. Others sought to build the dominance of oligopoly and have succeeded across many sectors. Spectacular failures include AOL Time Warner and the airline industry. Skepticism of unlimited bigness needs to be renewed and should start with the banking industry--reining in those conflicted conglomerates, like Citigroup and J.P. Morgan Chase, created with repeal of the New Deal's wise separation of commercial and investment banking.
New Dealers got a lot of things right, but the second dimension of new progressive thinking requires a recognition that returning to the New Deal framework is essentially a retrograde option (and not only because the country is a different place now). Liberals ought to ask why so many New Deal reforms proved to be quite perishable or why some of its greatest triumphs, like the law establishing the rights of working people to organize, have been perverted into obstacles for the very people supposedly protected. In short, this new era requires self-scrutiny and the willingness to ask big, radical, seemingly impossible questions about how to confront enduring social discontents and economic injustice.
Who really owns the corporation (clearly it's not the shareholders), and how might corporations be reorganized to reduce the social injuries? Is the government itself implicated in fostering, through subsidy and tax-code favoritism, the very corporate antisocial behavior its regulations are supposed to prevent? Congress, aroused by scandal, is considering penalizing those companies that moved to Caribbean tax havens yet still enjoy US privileges and protection. That's a good starting point for rethinking the nature of government's corporatized indulgences (old habits first formed in the New Deal) and perhaps turning them into leverage for public objectives. To explore this new terrain, we need lots of earnest inquiry, noisy debate and re-education by a reinvigorated labor movement, environmental and social reformers and ordinary citizens who yearn for serious politics, significant change.
A third dimension for new thinking is the economic order itself. During the past two decades, a profound inversion has occurred in the governing values of US economic life and, in turn, captured politics and elite discourse--the triumph of finance over the real economy. In the natural order of capitalism, the financial system is supposed to serve the economy of production--goods and services, jobs and incomes--but the narrow values of Wall Street have become the master. The Federal Reserve and other governing institutions are implicated, but so are the media and other institutions of society.
The political system is, of course, not ready to consider any of these or other big matters. One of the first chores is to bang on the Democratic Party, which, despite some advances, has expressed its fealty to corporate money by clearing the fast-track trade bill and bankers' bankruptcy bill for passage. This amounts to selling out principle and loyal constituencies before the election, instead of afterward. Of course the politicians are hostile--what else is new?--but now it's the left that can say, They just don't get it.
Reversing the nation's deformed priorities will be a hard struggle but has renewed promise now that the stock market bubble and other New Economy delusions have been demolished. People do not live and work in order to buy stocks. People exist in complex webs of relationships with family, work, community and many other rewarding adventures and obligations. The larger purpose of the economic order, including Wall Street, is to support the material conditions for human existence, not to undermine and destabilize them. If that observation sounds quaint, it's what most Americans, regardless of ideology, happen to believe. If our progressive objectives are deeply aligned with what people truly seek and need in their lives, the ideas will prevail.
The American Constitution at the very beginning of the Republic sought above all to guard the country against reckless, ill-considered recourse to war. It required a declaration of war by the legislative branch, and gave Congress the power over appropriations even during wartime. Such caution existed before the great effort of the twentieth century to erect stronger barriers to war by way of international law and public morality, and to make this resistance to war the central feature of the United Nations charter. Consistent with this undertaking, German and Japanese leaders who engaged in aggressive war were punished after World War II as war criminals. The most prominent Americans at the time declared their support for such a framework of restraint as applicable in the future to all states, not just to the losers in a war. We all realize that the effort to avoid war has been far from successful, but it remains a goal widely shared by the peoples of the world and still endorsed by every government on the planet.
And yet, here we are, poised on the slippery precipice of a pre-emptive war, without even the benefit of meaningful public debate. The constitutional crisis is so deep that it is not even noticed. The unilateralism of the Bush White House is an affront to the rest of the world, which is unanimously opposed to such an action. The Democratic Party, even in its role as loyal opposition, should be doing its utmost to raise the difficult questions. Instead, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, under the chairmanship of Democratic Senator Biden, organized two days of hearings, notable for the absence of critical voices. Such hearings are worse than nothing, creating a forum for advocates of war, fostering the illusion that no sensible dissent exists and thus serving mainly to raise the war fever a degree or two. How different might the impact of such hearings be if respected and informed critics of a pre-emptive war, such as Hans von Sponeck and Denis Halliday, both former UN coordinators of humanitarian assistance to Iraq who resigned in protest a few years back, were given the opportunity to appear before the senators. The media, too, have failed miserably in presenting to the American people the downside of war with Iraq. And the citizenry has been content to follow the White House on the warpath without demanding to know why the lives of young Americans should be put at risk, much less why the United States should go to war against a distant foreign country that has never attacked us and whose people have endured the most punishing sanctions in all of history for more than a decade.
This is not just a procedural demand that we respect the Constitution as we decide upon recourse to war--the most serious decision any society can make, not only for itself but for its adversary. It is also, in this instance, a substantive matter of the greatest weight. The United States is without doubt the world leader at this point, and its behavior with respect to war and law is likely to cast a long shadow across the future. To go legitimately to war in the world that currently exists can be based on three types of considerations: international law (self-defense as set forth in Article 51 backed by a UN mandate, as in the Gulf War), international morality (humanitarian intervention to prevent genocide or ethnic cleansing) and necessity (the survival and fundamental interests of a state are genuinely threatened and not really covered by international law, as arguably was the case in the war in Afghanistan).
With respect to Iraq, there is no pretense that international law supports such a war and little claim that the brutality of the Iraqi regime creates a foundation for humanitarian intervention. The Administration's argument for war rests on the necessity argument, the alleged risk posed by Iraqi acquisition of weapons of mass destruction, and the prospect that such weapons would be made available to Al Qaeda for future use against the United States. Such a risk, to the scant extent that it exists, can be addressed much more successfully by relying on deterrence and containment (which worked against the far more menacing Soviet Union for decades) than by aggressive warmaking. All the evidence going back to the Iran/Iraq War and the Gulf War shows that Saddam Hussein responds to pressure and threat and is not inclined to risk self-destruction. Indeed, if America attacks and if Iraq truly possesses weapons of mass destruction, the feared risks are likely to materialize as Iraq and Saddam confront defeat and humiliation, and have little left to lose.
A real public debate is needed not only to revitalize representative democracy but to head off an unnecessary war likely to bring widespread death and destruction as well as heighten regional dangers of economic and political instability, encourage future anti-American terrorism and give rise to a US isolationism that this time is not of its own choosing!
We must ask why the open American system is so closed in this instance. How can we explain this unsavory rush to judgment, when so many lives are at stake? What is now wrong with our system, with the vigilance of our citizenry, that such a course of action can be embarked upon without even evoking criticism in high places, much less mass opposition in the streets?
Who says the good guys never win? California's new global warming law is a bona fide big deal. Signed into law by Governor Gray Davis on July 22, the global warming bill requires that the greenhouse gas emissions of all passenger vehicles sold in the state be reduced to the "maximum" economically feasible extent starting in model year 2009. It doesn't ban sport utility vehicles, but it does the next best thing: It forces automakers to design them as efficiently as possible. Hybrids and hydrogen, here we come!
If the bill survives a promised legal challenge from the auto industry, it will rank as the most significant official action against global warming yet taken in the United States. It also ranks as the biggest environmental victory of any sort scored during George W. Bush's presidency. What's more, the behind-the-scenes story of the bill offers valuable lessons for how environmentalists and progressives in general can win more such victories in the future.
§ Lesson 1: Pick a target that matters. "Once the election was decided and Bush and [Chief of Staff] Andrew Card were in the White House, it was clear Washington was a dead end for progress on auto fuel efficiency or global warming," says Russell Long, executive director of the Bluewater Network, which initiated the California bill. "But California is the fifth-biggest economy in the world." California is also the single most important automotive market. It not only accounts for 10 percent of all US new-auto sales, it has historically led the nation in auto regulation. Unleaded gasoline, catalytic converters, hybrid cars--all appeared first in the Golden State.
How so? In 1967 California's air quality was so noxious it was granted the right to set its own air standards; other states have had the option to choose California's (tougher) standards or the federal government's. In short, change the law in California and you can tip the entire national market. "You can't make one car for California and another car for Washington, DC," explains Eron Shosteck, a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. Since transportation accounts for 33 percent of America's greenhouse gas emissions, the ultimate impact of California's example could be huge.
§ Lesson 2: Embrace radical ends but flexible means. Corporate lobbyists love to portray all environmental regulations as a "command and control" form of economic dictatorship, as in the old Soviet Union. That's a canard, of course, but the authors of the California bill defanged that argument by omitting any specific directions for how automakers are to achieve these unprecedented greenhouse gas reductions. The bill empowers the California Air Resources Board to decide what is feasible (by 2005, subject to the legislature's review), but it explicitly prohibits such political nonstarters as banning SUVs or raising gas or vehicle taxes. How to get there from here will be left to the auto industry's engineers.
§ Lesson 3: Unite grassroots pressure with insider muscle and celebrity clout. This part was tricky. Early backers of the bill included the Bluewater Network and the Coalition for Clean Air, but support from the larger national environmental groups only came later. "They saw this bill as too extreme for their agenda, and they had other things on their plate," said one legislative aide in Sacramento who insisted on anonymity. "But once they saw it had traction, they got on board and helped a lot." That traction came from dogged lobbying by the bill's sponsor, freshman Assemblywoman Fran Pavley. A Democrat and longtime activist from the Los Angeles area, Pavley apparently didn't care that the bill was a long shot. Her aide Anne Baker says, "I've worked in Sacramento a long time. If we hadn't had an outside group and a freshman member, this [bill] probably wouldn't have been tried in the first place."
What the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council eventually brought to the fight was lobbying experience, vast membership rolls and contacts with luminaries like Robert Redford and John McCain, who telephoned wavering legislators at crucial moments. "The Latino caucus also was a strong supporter," recalls NRDC lobbyist Ann Notthoff. "We have cooperated with them on toxics and air pollution issues before, and that gave us credibility on this issue."
§ Lesson 4: Remember, the bad guys make mistakes too. In the end, the bill passed the Assembly without a single vote to spare, and only because the industry overplayed its hand with a wildly misleading million-dollar-plus advertising blitz. "They didn't think they could lose," explains V. John White, a consultant who lobbies for the Sierra Club. "We ended up splitting the business caucus, largely because the auto industry was so shrill and arrogant. They wouldn't negotiate, wouldn't compromise--they were just against the bill. So that left members with a simple choice between the industry and us." Since polls showed that 81 percent of Californians favored the bill, even traditionally probusiness members felt safe bucking the auto industry. It also didn't hurt that the bill was backed by a wide range of groups, from city governments and water agencies to church leaders and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.
What's next? The automakers will sue, claiming that federal fuel-efficiency law pre-empts the California measure. But that's the lawyers. In their design and marketing departments most companies are already accelerating their pursuit of green technologies. Thanks to California, the writing is on the wall.
With the drumbeat for war on Iraq growing louder in Washington by the day, the latest United States-backed Iraqi opposition group--the Iraqi Military Alliance--was established with great fanfare in London in mid-July by some eighty former Iraqi officers. If this was an attempt at priming the Iraqi opposition pump as a prelude to overthrowing the regime of Saddam Hussein, holding a much-hyped press conference seemed an odd way to proceed.
An incisive comment came from an independent-minded Iraqi lawyer. "The American policy-makers believe that if you scare Saddam and threaten him, he will yield," he said. "They think this high profile meeting in London will ruffle his feathers. Also, it gives a military dimension to the predominantly civilian Iraqi National Congress." But Saddam does not scare so easily. In his televised address to the nation on July 17, he asserted that "evil tyrants and oppressors" would not be able to overthrow him and his regime. "You will never defeat me this time," he declared.
Behind this bravado lies Iraq's well-tailored policy of reconciliation with its neighbors, which its foreign minister, Naji Sabri, has been following doggedly for the past several months. A Christian and former professor of English literature at Baghdad University, the smooth and sophisticated Sabri started the year with a groundbreaking trip to Teheran to resolve the prisoners-of-war exchange issue with Iran. The following month he flew to Ankara, where he expressed flexibility on renewed UN inspections. At the Arab summit in Beirut in March, Iraq recognized Kuwait's border and promised to discuss the issue of Kuwaiti POWs. "We have instructed our media to avoid any references which may annoy the State of Kuwait," said Sabri after the summit. Since then he has sought the assistance of his Qatari and Omani counterparts to improve Baghdad's relations with Kuwait.
The strategy seems to be paying off. Sheikh Jaber Mubarak al Sabah, the Kuwaiti defense minister, said in late July that his country would approve a US attack on Iraq only if it is done under the auspices of the United Nations. "Kuwait does not support threats to strike or launch an attack against Iraq." Baghdad's relations with Saudi Arabia have improved, too. Riyadh has reopened its border with Iraq at Arar, and Saudi companies are doing business in Iraq within the framework of the UN oil-for-food scheme. The desert kingdom has refused to allow the Pentagon use of the Prince Sultan air base at Al Kharj in case of war against Iraq.
Hence the US pressure on Jordan to allow its air bases to be used instead--a prospect that sent a tearful King Abdullah rushing to a European leader to complain about the US plan to attack Iraq from his kingdom at a time when Arab frustration with the stalemate on the Israeli-Palestinian front is rising by the day. (That was before Israel's widely condemned dropping of a one-ton bomb in Gaza, killing fifteen and injuring 160.)
King Abdullah's European interlocutor was certainly sympathetic to the monarch's plight. All the European countries except Britain are urging Washington to construct a coalition for Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, not for warmaking in Iraq. In this effort they have the backing of Turkey, a neighbor of Iraq and a NATO member that allows the use of its Incirlik air base by US and British warplanes monitoring the northern Iraqi no-fly zone.
In his July 21 interview on state television, Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit said the United States should consider alternatives to military action against Baghdad. "There are other measures to deter the Iraqi regime from being a threat to the region," he said. "Iraq is...so developed technologically and economically despite the embargo that it cannot be compared to Afghanistan or Vietnam." What is more, Ecevit warned that it would not be possible for America to "get out easily" from Iraq. Such a prospect was outlined by Sir Peter de la Billiere, who commanded the British troops in the 1991 Gulf War. Discussing the prospect of US, British and French troops capturing Baghdad, he wrote in his Storm Command: A Personal Account of the Gulf War, "Saddam Hussein...would have slipped away into the desert and organized a guerrilla movement.... We would then have found ourselves with the task of trying to run a country shattered by war, which at the best of times is deeply split into factions.... Either we would have to set up a puppet government or withdraw ignominiously without a proper regime in power."
Little wonder that among the questions European and Turkish leaders are asking the Bush Administration now is: Is America willing to stay in Iraq for ten years to safeguard the post-Saddam regime from subversion--and possibly an attack--by an alliance of Iran and Syria, which have been strategic allies since 1980?
On July 23 Iran's President, Muhammad Khatami, declared that Washington did not have the right to choose the leadership for the Iraqi people. Noting that war against Iraq was being promoted in Washington on an unprecedented scale, he warned that military action against Iraq by the Pentagon could seriously threaten regional stability. Iranian leaders reckon that once the Bush Administration has overthrown Saddam, it will target Iran for regime change--fears fueled by its late-July announcement that it is officially ending its policy of "playing factions" in Iran in favor of direct appeals to the Iranian people. Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of lawmakers in Congress called for a resolution in favor of regime change in Iran. Mainstream Iranian politicians would rather forge an alliance with Baghdad now than wait for the ax to fall on them in the post-Saddam period.
US war plans clearly pose numerous dangers to the region. But whether that will deter the hawks in Washington from pressing home their strategy of ousting Saddam by force remains to be seen.
The story made the front page of the New York Times and other papers. The director of admissions at Princeton was caught sneaking into a special website set up to let Yale applicants know whether they'd been accepted. Although the Princeton official's motives were not revealed, the break-in was thought to be an academic Watergate, an illicit attempt to filch information on what the competition was up to. It touched off furrowed-brow effusions on "heightened craziness about admissions decisions" and "frantic" competitiveness. The fuss about two elite Ivy League colleges drew national press, but another story on higher education was far more disturbing to those who care about democracy in America. This was a report issued by the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance, which found that nearly 170,000 high school graduates who were the brightest in their classes would have to forgo college next fall because they can't afford rising tuitions and fees. A major reason they can't is a lack of adequate financial aid because of stagnation or cutbacks in need-based state aid programs and federal Pell grants.
FRIENDS OF BOSCH
Jane Franklin writes: Governor Jeb Bush has appointed an open supporter of terrorism to the Florida Supreme Court. His choice, Raoul Cantero III, is a right-wing Cuban-American of impeccable lineage--grandson of dictator Fulgencio Batista and son of an intelligence officer in Batista's Bureau for the Repression of Communist Activities. Not that he should be judged by his father and grandfather; rather, his own record shows he continues to support terrorism against the Cuban people. This was evident in the way he allied himself with Orlando Bosch, a notorious anti-Castro terrorist, who was cited in FBI and CIA reports for his "willingness to cause indiscriminate injury and death," including thirty acts of sabotage here and in Cuba, Puerto Rico and Panama from 1961 through 1968. He was charged with the 1976 bombing of a Cuban passenger jet that exploded in midair, killing seventy-three people. In 1989 he was ordered deported, but George Bush Sr. endorsed a campaign to reverse the order, and Bosch was soon out on the streets of Miami. Cantero III was one of Bosch's lawyers and a prominent defender of his actions. The St. Petersburg Times found a radio-show tape on which he calls Bosch a "Cuban patriot" and describes one of Bosch's capers--firing a bazooka at a Polish ship docked in Miami--as a "political statement" that "didn't hurt anybody and it didn't cause any damage." Is Cantero going to condone terrorist acts of Bosch and others who come before him? And are the Democratic candidates currently vying to run against Jeb Bush in the gubernatorial election going to ask the Governor about his own prominent role in the campaign to free Bosch?
BIG PHARMA GREASES PALMS
Ouch!, a bulletin (www.ouch.org) issued by Public Campaign, the finance reform group, notes that George W. Bush ostentatiously thanked Robert Ingram for his fine work chairing a fundraising dinner that garnered $30 million for the Republican Congressional Committee. Ouch! further notes that Ingram is CEO of GlaxoSmithKline, which markets Lanoxin, a drug widely used by seniors to avert congestive heart failure. Lanoxin's price has risen 58.1 percent since 1997, or almost five times the rate of inflation. The rising cost of drugs is the reason a prescription drug benefit should be added to Medicare, yet the Bush Administration opposes such legislation. So do Glaxo and the other big pharmaceutical companies, and they've contributed $11.3 million to the 2002 election--three-fourths of that to the Republicans--to make sure it doesn't happen. Follow the $$$.
PEACENIK ADDRESS CORRECTION
The correct web address for Brit Tzedek v'Shalom (Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace) is www.brittzedek.org.
THE YEARS WITH HITCH
Twenty years ago this month there appeared in this magazine a column called "Minority Report," by Christopher Hitchens. At that time our stable of columnists numbered exactly one--Calvin Trillin. Already a frequent Nation contributor from Britain, Christopher moved to the United States and, after a short stint in New York, settled in Washington to launch his new column. Salud, comrade!--valued contributor and burr under the nation's (and The Nation's) saddle.
New York lefties of a certain age may remember Camp Wo-Chi-Ca, a progressive, interracial children's camp in New Jersey from 1935 through 1954. Some may even have enjoyed a summer there and listened to Claude McKay read poems or danced with Pearl Primus or heard Paul Robeson boom out "Shenandoah." In the fifties, McCarthyite thugs attacked the camp as communistic. Now June Levine and Gene Gordon have written a history of Camp Wo-Chi-Ca (stands for Workers Children's Camp), which is a delight (e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org for info).
NEWS OF THE WEAK IN REVIEW
While the market was seriously tanking, Treasury Secretary O'Neill was tracked down in Kyrgyzstan. Asked why he wasn't at his post in Washington, O'Neill said, "I'm constantly amazed that anybody cares what I do."
Refugee camp invasions. Suicide bombers. House demolitions. Suicide bombers. Arrests of children, curfews, roadblocks, collective punishments, dropping one-ton bombs on densely populated streets. Suicide bombers.
Only two years ago, a Syrian-American friend laid out for me a vision for the Middle East. Both Israelis and Palestinians, she said, were modern, entrepreneurial people who valued education and technology. She foresaw a kind of Middle Eastern co-prosperity sphere that would gradually draw the two closer as their economies meshed and bygones became bygones. That would have been a happy ending, but what are its chances now?
The Sharon government seems bent on beating, bombing, demolishing, humiliating and starving the West Bank and Gaza into submission, while appropriating more and more land for settlers (forty-five new settlements have gone up in the year and a half since Sharon's election). Unemployment in the occupied territories stands at 75 percent. According to a report about to be released by USAID, malnutrition among Palestinian children under 6 has risen from 7 percent to 30 percent over the past two years. In the current issue of Tikkun, Jessica Montell, executive director of B'Tselem, the Israeli human rights organization, details the damage wrought by the Israel Defense Forces in their siege of Jenin and other West Bank areas this past spring: the flattening of whole streets and the trashing and looting of homes, civic centers, Palestinian Authority offices and those of numerous human rights organizations; gross violations of human rights, including the use of civilians as human shields; and denial of access to food, water and medical care, resulting in the deaths of three children and an elderly woman.
Is this what "defending Israel" necessarily involves? So you might think from the hefty numbers who turn out for pro-Sharon rallies in this country, like the 100,000 who gathered on the Washington Mall in April. Not everyone agrees: Opposition to Sharon's policies was a major theme of the 75,000-strong antiwar demonstration on April 20; petitions and open letters opposing Sharon are flying around the Internet, and new groups are forming by the minute--Not in My Name, Jewish Voices Against the Occupation, the Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace. But the big, well-organized and well-connected Jewish American numbers are still on the side of using military force to crush the Palestinians. I signed the open letter organized by Alan Sokal and Bruce Robbins calling for the evacuation of settlements and Palestinian self-determination and felt I knew half the people on it. Nonetheless, there is enough criticism, from enough quarters, to puncture the old accusations (in which there was sometimes a grain of truth) that US critics of Israeli policies are anti-Semites, "self-hating Jews" or Third World-infatuated America-hating leftists. None of those terms could conceivably describe the neoliberal (and Jewish) historian Tony Judt, whose trenchant and bitter critique of recent developments in The New York Review of Books ("The Road to Nowhere," April 11) did not stop short of describing Israel as a thoroughly militarized colonial power. Nor is it easy to see recent New York Times coverage in this light--although the paper is currently being bombarded with mail and protests for its imaginary pro-Palestinian tilt, and the Zionist women's group Hadassah has even called for a boycott of the paper (just for three months, though, because you can't ask too much of people).
What we need in the United States is the broadest, most open discussion of what's going on, in search of some kind of realistic solution to a crisis that's becoming less soluble by the day. Every American is implicated in Israeli politics, because without the $3 billion in aid we send each year, Israel could not exist in anything like its present form. Perhaps Americans really do want to subsidize Caterpillar bulldozers, Apache attack helicopters, F-16 jets--but perhaps they would prefer that some of that money go to relocate Jewish settlers, to integrate Israeli social institutions, to rebuild the infrastructure of Palestinian civil society and government, to strengthen the groups on both sides who are most interested in bringing about the happy end my friend saw just around the corner.
Unfortunately, people will have to do this work themselves. Politicians are too frightened, and no wonder: In June, five-term Democratic Congressman Earl Hilliard of Alabama lost his primary race at least in part because the fiercely pro-Israel American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) supported his opponent. On August 20 five-term Georgia Democratic Representative Cynthia McKinney faces a tough primary, mostly due to organized opposition to her criticism of Israel (she also suggested that George W. Bush knew in advance about September 11, and after Mayor Giuliani rejected a $10 million gift for New York City from Saudi prince Alwaleed bin Talal because he called for a re-examination of US Middle East policy, she tactlessly suggested that he give the money to black charities instead).
The problem is not so much that American Jews exercise the proverbial "too much influence"; every ethnic group in America organizes to affect US policy in the old country (think of Cuban-, Irish- or, for that matter, African-Americans). Nor is it wrong to inject national issues into a contest that locals would prefer to be about other things. The problem is that the other side--anti-Sharon, pro-peace, call it what you will--is weak and unorganized. It doesn't have to be that way. One can be overwhelmed with horror at suicide bombers, think Arafat is a corrupt and preening tinpot dictator, believe that the real agenda of the Islamists is to be the Taliban of the Middle East--all just and appropriate sentiments--and still realize that the current path of the Israeli government is a disaster in the making, if not already made.
* * *
McKinney may have foot-in-mouth disease, but she has the support of NOW, NARAL and her state AFL-CIO. She deserves yours too. Cynthia McKinney for Congress, Box 371125, Decatur, GA 30037; (404) 243-5574; www.cynthia2002.com.
"Creative accounting" is something we hate.
From now on your numbers will have to be straight.
No taking of options for stock you contrive
To dump when insiders can tell it will dive.
And loans? If you want one, then go to the bank.
These sweetheart loans stink! They're disgusting! They're rank!
This type of behavior we strictly forbid.
Just do as we say now, and not as we did.
Like Pop-Up Video--one of the many things the movie-industry left never anticipated--ancillary factoids keep imposing themselves on Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner's Radical Hollywood:
1. When the oft-dubbed "revolutionary" Lew Wasserman (longtime MCA mogul) died this past June 3, obit writers made the old archcapitalist sound like he'd been the happy end of a Bolshevik dream--the man who finally took the power away from the studios and gave it to the people (OK, very rich, well-placed people).
2. Wasn't it Ronald Reagan--"FBI collaborator," the man deemed "too dumb" for membership in Hollywood's CP of the 1930s and the star of the blacklisted screenwriter Val Burton's last movie (Bedtime for Bonzo)--who helped decontrol the studios' ownership of movie theaters, i.e., the means of distribution?
3. Showing that memory is fleeting even among the most progressive-minded people, the Stockholm International Film Festival of 1997 jumped the gun on the Academy Awards and hosted a retrospective of work by friendly witness Elia Kazan--its organizers claiming, quite convincingly, that they were completely unaware of the then-raging (sort of) Kazan Kontroversy.
4. Showing that memory is as tenacious as the ego it's attached to, Hollywood Ten member Ring Lardner Jr., honoree of the screenwriter-centric Nantucket Film Festival of 1998, still had the energy to rail against the system--although the preponderance of his outrage was not over his HUAC-imposed prison time but the liberties Joseph Mankiewicz and Louis B. Mayer had taken fifty-odd years before with his script for Woman of the Year.
If there are unwritten messages within Radical Hollywood, one might be that artistic vanity and general cupidity are neither exclusive nor native to a particular political persuasion, nor even the movie industry itself. And that nothing ever changes. Current cinephiles fear and loathe the fact that in today's movie business, "business" takes precedence over "movies." But by 1933, after the bankruptcies of Fox, Paramount and RKO, the money men had already taken over. (As the authors write, "Bankers were good at firing studio workers...but were notably untalented at making films." Make it "lawyers" and it might be 2002.) Back in 1919, Charles Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, D.W. Griffith and Mary Pickford organized the first independent-of-the-studios Hollywood movie company, United Artists--the DreamWorks of its time. Last year's threatened strike by the Writers Guild--which, together with the strike threat by the Screen Actors Guild, is still affecting studio production schedules--was largely about credits, because they translate into salaries; in 1933, meeting secretly, Hollywood's leading screenwriters (including such leftist lights as John Howard Lawson, John Bright, Samuel Ornitz and Lester Cole) gathered to organize, largely over the issue of credits, and for the same reason. Variety, Hollywood "bible" and noted mangler of the English language, played the game with the mobbed-up craft union IATSE (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees) back in Depression-era Hollywood. It plays plenty of games today.
And then (sigh) there's that oh-so-predictable outcry over pop cinema's influence on/instigation of sociocriminal behavior--the knee-jerk finger-pointing at Hollywood every time a Columbine happens (but never, you may notice, a 9/11). This is hardly a newsflash either: The release of such hard-nosed gangster thrillers as The Public Enemy, Scarface and Little Caesar in the early 1930s helped lead to the establishment of the Legion of Decency, the Production Code, the Hays Office, the bluenosed rule of in-house censor Joseph Breen and decades-long cultural prosperity for those who preferred their movie sex infantilized and their view of America strained through fine mesh. How the Christian right does long for those thrilling days of yesteryear.
The story of the left in Hollywood, in other words, is the story of today in Hollywood; but if you're looking for correlations and parallels you won't find many in Radical Hollywood. Not that parallels are always what you need: As the blacklisted writer/director Abraham Polonsky (Force of Evil, Body and Soul, Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here) told interviewer David Walsh a few months before his death in 1999, "In the old days, if something like this [the Kazan Oscar] was going on, you'd make a few telephone calls, you'd have a thousand people there. No more. Nobody believes in anything, except in the finance capitalist." Did anyone in the whole of Hollywood--or the entire United States Congress, for that matter--make a peep of support for the recent and quite reasonable California appellate court decision on the Pledge of Allegiance? If they did, it was drowned out by the sound of scuttling feet, heading for the political lifeboats.
This last episode was certainly too late for inclusion or comment in Radical Hollywood, but it points up both the stasis and mutation in what we have to recognize, however reluctantly, as the cultural capital of the country--and whose history is far more alive than this book would imply. Encyclopedic in the most frightening sense, RH is thorough and wide-ranging, and fairly exhaustive in ferreting out every possible leftist association in any vaguely relevant movie produced by Hollywood from the New Deal through the postwar Red Scare. But the authors are also straitjacketed by their own theses: One, that there was a leftist subtext imposed on many of the movies that the right held in fear and contempt. (Who knew?) And two, that the movies were simply superior during the more or less lefty days of Hollywood.
They may be right. "The content of films was better in 1943 than it is in 1953," Hollywood Ten-ster Dalton Trumbo is quoted as saying, and the authors contend that "any reasonable calculation" would confirm what Trumbo says. But reasonable calculation has nothing to do with the very subjective business of judging art. One might as well reduce the entire argument to a single question: What do you prefer? Movies with the left-leaning Humphrey Bogart? Or movies with Ronald Reagan? It may not seem to be a contest. But it wouldn't be an example of the scientific process, either.
Despite their tabloidy subtitle--"the untold story behind America's favorite movies"--Buhle and Wagner don't dabble much in the anecdote, gossip or movie-set story that would have lubricated their prose or perhaps even parted their sea of subordinate clauses. Still, famous names abound. "As FBI reports suggested," Lucille Ball, Katharine Hepburn, Olivia de Havilland, Rita Hayworth, Humphrey Bogart, Danny Kaye, Fredric March, Bette Davis, Lloyd Bridges, John Garfield, Anne Revere, Larry Parks (The Jolson Story), the wives of March and Gene Kelly, and Gregory Peck's fiancée--to say nothing of the scores of writers Buhle and Wagner profile and analyze, or their more loosely affiliated or merely sympathetic directors and stars--were all in or close to the Communist Party. Why? For one thing, the authors say, because these were the people of 1930s and '40s Los Angeles who were smarter, consequently more liberal, and enjoying a more egalitarian and humanistic worldview than their constipatedly conservative counterparts. But it was, they point out, also a result of Hollywood's (and America's) bigotry and its effect on social life: The comically titled West Side Writing and Asthma Club, an ostensibly nonpolitical alternative for Jews barred from Los Angeles's beach clubs and marginalized in the better restaurants, became a hotbed of anti-Nazi sentiment (which, of course, made it politically suspect). Eventually, through the Asthma Club, even one of the world's leading, albeit largely apolitical, Marxists (Groucho) could channel donations to the Popular Front.
That the Communist Party in Hollywood was largely a "social agency," as the authors call it, was what helped make the McCarthy-era hearings and HUAC roundups so wide-ranging and terrifying, even if, after the Hitler-Stalin Pact, the LA branch of the party "had died...but simply not known it," as the exiled Carl Foreman (High Noon) put it. How such screenwriters, who are Buhle and Wagner's principal subjects, maintained their political principles while clawing their way up the studio ladders is something left amorphous. Lardner, ever aware of the contradictions in being a high-priced proletarian, said in his autobiography I'd Hate Myself in the Morning (his famous response to J. Parnell Thomas about why he wouldn't name names) that he picketed Warner Bros. when Mussolini's son came calling, and told David O. Selznick not to make Gone With the Wind because it was pro-Klan. But he was an artist, too, a hungry one, and a man who knew the siren song of fame and fortune never quite harmonized with "The Internationale."
The authors exhibit a weakness for locating leftist content and associations where they need to and and shoehorning certain movies into their theses (their view of Universal's horror catalogue as anti-Wall Street seems particularly windy). But by the time Radical Hollywood gets to the era of film noir--which they call "arguably the only fully realized American 'art film' genre"--it feels as if the rest of the book has been prologue. Clearly, the authors know and love the period and what it did to American cinema in the aftermath of World War II--countering the forced fairy tale of Hollywood with a new, frank, sexually liberated, sexually sophisticated, sexually metaphorical take on the dark view of postwar, postnuclear existence (although, strangely, Radical Hollywood never analyzes noir via the A-bomb, despite the celebrated apocalyptic imagery of such genre classics as Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly). That noir also refashioned the traditional portrayals of the sexes--at a time when, the authors point out, the country's postwar recovery and strength were being propagandized as dependent on the American male and his renewed sense of self--made it one of the most important cultural developments of the twentieth century, if not the nation's entire cultural history. No wonder it fell victim to the strangling effects of creeping McCarthyism.
Radical Hollywood, whether or not it's "the untold story behind America's favorite movies," certainly puts a new spin on those films, especially for those already familiar with them--readers who, unfortunately, will be those most distracted by the authors' rather habitual way with the errant fact. Some are trivial: Edward G. Robinson didn't say "Mother of God..." at the end of Little Caesar; he said "Mother of Mercy," as any schoolchild knows (any schoolchild, granted, with an unnatural obsession with movies). William Randolph Hearst may have "attributed the 'subversive' label to anything that smacked of egalitarian liberalism," but he didn't do it in the pages of the Los Angeles Times, because he never owned the Los Angeles Times. In assessing the populist perspective of Destry Rides Again, Buhle and Wagner seem oblivious to the fact that James Stewart's character is the son of the more famous Destry. The famously Hungarian-born director Michael Curtiz (director of the leftist-written Casablanca, among many others) is identified at one point as a "German refugee." John Wayne's "first major screen role" wasn't in 1938's Pals of the Saddle, but Raoul Walsh's 1930 The Big Trail. Warner Bros.' "self-serving prologue" at the beginning of The Public Enemy may have been self-serving--it mentions the social impact of the studio's own PE and Little Caesar while omitting UA's Scarface--but it wasn't on the original 1931 print; it was added for a re-release several years later.
Jean Renoir's The Southerner marked William Faulkner's "only notable screenplay contribution"? How about The Big Sleep? Mildred Pierce? And let's not forget To Have and Have Not, in which he rewrote Hemingway, by all reports to their mutual delight. And Katharine Hepburn didn't lose the "box-office poison" appellation after Holiday but after The Philadelphia Story, whose film rights she bought because she knew it would remake her career.
But let's imagine this litany of errors is itself a metaphor for the intrinsic unreality of the left in Hollywood. It's a subject that Buhle and Wagner have attacked with energy and all the right intentions; the reader may wish that he or she were given a bit more reason to stick with the book through its thicker moments, but there's no denying the authors' enthusiasm, erudition and engaging way of summarizing plot lines and associations. Still, it's a weird tale they're telling. As they relate early on, Polonsky recounted in his later years that one of the oft-discussed issues among the Hollywood left wing was what, in fact, they were all doing there. Should they be in Hollywood, making pap and trying to inject it with a social conscience? Or secede from the union and create film art independently? As Polonsky put it, the answer was simple: "Filmmaking in the major studios is the prime way that film art exists." And so it was. And is. And unfortunately--thanks to an American indie movement that has lost its lure for youth, a dissipated market for the once-hip foreign film and a general tendency toward divorce between American art and American politics--so it is likely to remain.
I don't know if it's some childhood image left over from Victory at Sea or from a book of pictures my uncle brought back from the service, but when I think about the war in the Pacific, I see pink cumulus clouds piled high, one upon another, on the decks of aircraft carriers. It's not the iconic image of violent battle that usually represents the war, but my imagination seems to be telling me that the iconic images aren't the whole story, that serenity and beauty coexisted alongside the bloodshed and were a large part of the day-to-day reality of the war.
It's for similar reasons that I think the nitty-gritty details of life near Ground Zero as presented in one of the first theatrical responses to 9/11, comic monologist Reno's Rebel Without a Pause, appeal to me so. They provide relief from the media's iconic packaging, which has been beamed at us ever since the attack on the Trade Towers and the (rarely mentioned) Pentagon attack.
With a deluge of energy, Reno, who lived near the towers from 1981, relates what it was like in lower Manhattan "that gorgeous day." She recreates the clicking sound, like the noise an old machine gun would make, that was the sound of the floors collapsing into one another. She exhibits dismay at the total absence of Conelrad and the Emergency Defense System. ("Maybe this wasn't enough of an emergency.") She tells a story about finding her ATM emptied out at 9 am and the bank refusing to open its doors so customers could get their money.
But mostly it's the human reactions to catastrophe that are so wonderful, so wildly hilarious. The rumors that the terrorists are holed up with machetes in a macrobiotic restaurant on Prince Street; people rushing home to have their televisions validate what they'd just seen with their own eyes; and what Reno calls the "hierarchical bragging rights of pain and knowledge"--New Yorkers one-upping each other over what they knew and what they'd suffered.
Reno's warnings about changes in constitutional protections make for a very disturbing second half of her monologue, though she herself doesn't seem to fear the new spy agency powers: She gives voice to her every political thought, no matter how out there it is. She points out how cheaply reporters have been won over by chummy Don Rumsfeld, and she contemplates Henry Kissinger being arrested for war crimes. Reno even suggests that Florida be allowed to float down to Uruguay, "where all the other fascists are."
She also reveals some interesting facts, like ones you find in this magazine but not in the major media. For instance, Hamid Karzai, the new president of Afghanistan, used to work for Unocal. And this from Frank Lindh, who saw the show the night before I did: FBI agents treated his son kindly because even they knew "he was a hapless kid."
After a while, I began feeling the tingle of what I hope was just my own paranoia (although as I learned the last time--when Watergate lanced the Nixonian pustule--paranoia can be a very accurate predictor of reality). Reno talks about what is being done to our civil liberties in the context of Christian fundamentalist influence on this Administration. At 342 pages, the USA Patriot Act, she suggests, wasn't written in the days after 9/11, and the Padilla case has clearly crossed the line of innocent until proven guilty. She builds a picture of how really extremist the Bush people are and how far to the right the President has taken the country. So far, in fact, that Colin Powell is the "Communist of this Administration."
Such points may be made with laughter, but Reno brings a fierceness to her criticisms and an urgency to her concerns about the current Administration that we are only beginning to see in the big world, and then over financial wheeler-dealering and privilege, not civil liberties and constitutional guarantees.
You will walk away from Reno with a clear sense that the changes aren't minor, and they won't fall only on bad guys and enemies. It's a real turning point: Democracy is up for grabs.
The San Francisco Mime Troupe's free summer show, Mr. Smith Goes to Obscuristan, likewise treats the aftermath of 9/11. In it, Condoleezza Rice (Velina Brown) and Dick Cheney (Cheney lookalike Ed Holmes) seek to sell the Bush presidency as an Administration that cares about democracy, not profits, and so devise a plan to send 9/11 firefighter Jeff Smith (the always wonderful Michael Gene Sullivan) to oversee the first free election in the Central Asian, formerly Soviet, republic of Obscuristan. The winner of this contest is certain to be warlord and privatizer Automaht Regurgitov (Victor Toman), since he is the only candidate. That is, until the oppositionist Ralif Nadir (Amos Glick) throws his hat into the ring, arguing that "people should vote their hearts, not their fears." (Of course, had one or two percent of Florida's Nader voters forsworn that advice, the Mime Troupe wouldn't have a Bush Administration to satirize.)
(Or would they?)
Smith, who has been kept ignorant by outfits like SNN, the Selective News Network, believes America wants freedom for everyone. He is, however, disillusioned when it becomes clear that there is oil in Obscuristan and that the Administration's real interest is that Regurgitov win, since he will insure the atmosphere necessary for US investment. Smith then sets out to prove that the ordinary American doesn't want to screw Obscuristan over, and by the end of the day rescues Nadir, who was kidnapped and branded a terrorist. He also helps bring an SNN reporter and the US ambassador over to the side of a fair shake for Obscuristan.
The Mime Troupe hits many of the right points: that energy sources are a major factor in our involvement in Central Asia, for instance, and that much of the weaponry in the area was originally supplied by the CIA. And they raise questions about just how free our own elections are. Given that, I was left pondering why Mr. Smith seemed so tepid and not particularly funny compared with Rebel Without a Pause. It's doubly strange given that the Mime Troupe brought in the usually very funny monologist, independent filmmaker and former Nation intern Josh Kornbluth (Red Diaper Baby and Haiku Tunnel) to help write the script.
The difference is, I think, that Reno articulates things you hadn't thought about, or says things you may have thought a lot about, but in ways that create the old shock of recognition. As when she says, "The people of Missouri were so worried about Ashcroft making decisions, they voted for the dead guy."
There are moments like that in Mr. Smith. Barbara Bush (Ed Holmes again, this time in a gray wig and pearls) explains the rules of the oil game to George W., and the whole facade of her Betty Crockerdom smacks right up against her tough capitalist intelligence. This is a Barbara Bush who says, "Never send a member of the working class to do an aristocrat's job." But such moments are rare. For the most part, the Mime Troupe's most incisive statements, such as "Only an American would confuse a fixed election with a real one" or "Welcome to democratic nations like Saudi Arabia who protect human rights," simply restate our perceptions or are so bitterly ironic that a lot of the laughter I heard was sniggering.
Given that the source of the satire is Capra's populist classic, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, I think the Mime Troupe missed a real opportunity to have us question ourselves by asking, Who is Mr. Smith and what is he about? In the mythos of Mime Troupe plays, the ordinary American is decent and fair, and in every respect there's a lot of daylight between him and the ruling class, and therefore between us and what our government does in our name. The Mime Troupe believes that like Jeff Smith, the ordinary American has been kept in ignorance by the media, and that if he only knew what was really going on, he would rise up and change things.
That conveniently ignores the fact that ordinary Americans are of many minds, and that many of us do understand that our comfort is based on the deprivation (and worse) of people in other parts of the world. So then, you have to ask whether we feel we can't do anything about it or whether we don't want to. How much is the ordinary American willing to give up to see people elsewhere get a larger slice of the pie?
And what is the usefulness of a mythos of unquestioned fairness and decency, and in this play, as in other Mime Troupe efforts, of a sellout who regains her soul and of a decisive victory over the people's enemies? It's positive, but does it send us out of the park feeling hopeful and intent on action? Or do we feel that a lot of what we witnessed was too simple and fantastic?
The appeal in Mr. Smith is ultimately to idealism, to looking out for the other guy and doing the right thing. Reno, on the other hand, talks about self-interest: that we are losing our rights and that some of us were slaughtered. "The [US] government," she says, "created the mujahedeen that came to my town and killed us." That seems a much stronger motive for action.
Mr. Smith Goes to Obscuristan will be performed through Labor Day in various Northern California locales (415-285-1717 or www.sfmt.org). Rebel Without a Pause played a week at the Brava Theater Center in San Francisco in June and went on to an extended run at the Lion Theater on 42nd Street in New York City.
If Canadian writer Yann Martel were a preacher, he'd be charismatic, funny and convert all the nonbelievers. He baits his readers with serious themes and trawls them through a sea of questions and confusion, but he makes one laugh so much, and at times feel so awed and chilled, that even thrashing around in bewilderment or disagreement one can't help but be captured by his prose.
That's largely why I took such pleasure in Life of Pi, Martel's wonderful second novel, which playfully reworks the ancient sea voyage, castaway themes of classics like Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, Swift's Gulliver's Travels, Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Melville's Moby-Dick and (in some of its more fantastical aspects) Homer's The Odyssey, to explore the role of religion in a highly physical world. What's more, it's a religious book that makes sense to a nonreligious person. Although its themes are serious and there are moments of awful graphic violence and bleak despair, it is above all a book about life's absurdities that makes one laugh out loud on almost every page, with its quirky juxtapositions, comparisons, metaphors, Borgesian puzzles, postmodern games and a sense of fun that reflects the hero's sensual enjoyment of the world. Although Martel pays tribute to the past by using the typical castaway format (episodic narrative, focus on details of survival, moments of shocking violence and reflections on God and nature), his voice, and the fact that his work is more fantastic, more scientifically sound and funnier than that of his predecessors, infuses the genre with brilliant new life. If this century produces a classic work of survival literature, Martel's novel is surely a contender.
Life of Pi is the unlikely story of a 16-year-old Indian boy, Pi Patel, adrift in a boat with a hungry tiger after the ship carrying his zookeeper father, mother, brother and many animals sinks in the middle of their journey from India to Canada. (It's the mid-1970s and Pi's father decides to emigrate after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi starts jailing her enemies and suspending civil liberties.) Pi is at once a Hindu, Christian and Muslim (echoes of the pacific Mahatma Gandhi here) who believes that all religions are about "love." But having grown up among animals, he's also practical and grounded. Early in the book, his three religious teachers meet, and Pi gets his "introduction to interfaith dialogue," a big argument that ends only when he is asked for his opinion. He quotes Gandhi, "All religions are true," adding, "I just want to love God," which floors them all. Then he goes out with his parents for ice cream. Most of the rest of the book is a challenge to Pi's simple faith, as this sweet yet unsentimental hero experiences a situation where, it would seem, survival is everything. Aside from the detailed descriptions of hands-on survival techniques that almost rival Ishmael's whaling lore in Moby-Dick, the book poses the questions: Can faith survive in the face of doubt and suffering? Can the love of God and one's fellows remain pure in an angry, violent world?
Despair sets in from the beginning. Not only does Pi lose his parents, but he is facing life on the ocean wave with a tiger (named Richard Parker), a zebra, an orangutan and a hyena. Pi watches them kill each other, with Richard Parker finishing off the hyena. The boat is littered with animal carcasses. As the days go by, Pi, a vegetarian, learns how to kill with his bare hands, batter turtles to death and eat uncooked flesh. He weeps. He is "dumb with pain and horror." But he survives, marking his territory with his urine, as animals do, to keep Richard Parker at bay, feeding him and finally teaching the tiger (by using a whistle) that he, Pi, is master here.
It's true that his three faiths recede to a whisper on the boat. He confesses that it is Richard Parker, and the practical matter of avoiding being eaten by him, that gives him "purpose," even "peace" and perhaps "wholeness," and thus keeps him alive. "If he died, I would be left alone with despair, a foe even more formidable than a tiger.... He pushed me to go on living." Pi keeps up with his religious rituals, but he finds his faith wavering. In one funny scene, he yells out his beliefs to make them more real. "I would touch the turban I had made with the remnants of my shirt and I would say aloud, 'THIS IS GOD'S HAT!'" Then he points at Richard Parker and says, "THIS IS GOD'S CAT!" The boat is "GOD'S ARK!" The sea, "GOD'S WIDE ACRES!" The sky, "GOD'S EAR!" But, he says, "God's hat was always unravelling," and "God's ear didn't seem to be listening."
You might say he's trying to persuade himself. But it's clear that he continues to appreciate the beauty of the sea and sky, and the sparse life around him, in which, as a Hindu, he sees his connection to God. There are wonderful poetic descriptions of the fish around the boat as a little city, of Richard Parker's beauty and of a dorado fish that, as it dies, begins to "flash all kinds of colours in rapid succession. Blue, green, red, gold and violet flickered and shimmered neon-like on its surface as it struggled. I felt I was beating a rainbow to death." Even when his journey is "nothing but grief, ache and endurance," it is "natural," he says, that he "should turn to God."
But religion is only one element of the book's exploration of faith. Martel is also interested in the faith of his readers. He wants them to believe his story. He has his narrator pose a larger, Keatsian "beauty is truth" argument against the glorification of reason, "that fool's gold for the bright." It's as if he were suggesting that storytelling is a kind of religious experience because it helps us understand the world in a more profound way than a just-the-facts approach (or by implication, dogma, fundamentalism and literalism). Two passages that some reviewers have picked out as the least convincing (for their lack of literal accuracy!), I find illustrate Martel's attempt to show the power of storytelling at its best. Fantastic, yes, but utterly convincing. The first is Pi's encounter with a blind, cannibalistic Frenchman whom Pi runs into at the exact moment he too has gone blind for lack of nourishment. Their obsessive conversation about food is one of the funniest and most farcical moments in the book. The second is Pi's sojourn on a flesh-eating island, which is one of the most chilling symbolic illustrations of evil I have read. (If the pious Swiss Family Robinson finds utopia, the religious Pi finds dystopia!)
Good postmodernist that he is, Martel wants to use the very telling of the tale--multiple narrators, a playful fairytale quality ("once upon a time" and "happy ending" are mentioned in passing), realistically presented events that may be hallucinations or simply made up--to push at the limits of what's believable, yet still convince the reader of his literary, not literal, veracity. He wants to prove that it's possible to remain curious about and connected to the world, yet to accept that there are always going to be aspects of life (and literature) that remain mysterious.
Pi's doubts about his faith are mirrored by the seeds of doubt Martel sows in the mind of the reader throughout the narrative. Every moment of certainty is undercut by the potential for disbelief, and that's when Martel seems to ask: Am I convincing you now? He sifts the story through various narrators, beginning with an author-narrator that at first one thinks is Martel himself but is only Martel-like, introducing the story as if it were true. Martel has said in interviews that some of this information is factually accurate. Like his narrator, he was trying to write a novel about Portugal that wouldn't come alive when he got the idea for Life of Pi on a trip to India. Martel also briefly acknowledges his special debt to Brazilian Jewish writer Moacyr Scliar, whose novella Max and the Cats also has a hero who survives the sinking of a ship filled with zoo animals and spends days at sea in a boat with a large cat, in this case a jaguar. Scliar's is the mini-version that Martel fleshes out with more lyrical language and the fruits of zoological research.
But there reality stops. There's the whiff of an old-fashioned quest or allegorical tale in the introduction, for the Martel-like narrator first learns the story from Francis Adirubasamy, a family friend of Pi's, who tells him that Pi's story will make him "believe in God." And he plays with the reader's sense of reality when he has Adirubasamy talk about Pi as "the main character" whom the narrator proceeds to track down in Canada. And just how believable is Pi? Now in his 40s, Pi apologizes for his memory and tells the story as a series of out-of-sequence events--jumping back and forth between his early childhood, his teenage years and his time at sea. He can barely remember what his mother looks like, but he appears able to recall whole conversations from his childhood. He even asks the narrator to "tell my jumbled story in exactly one hundred chapters, not one more, not one less." (He does.) One begins to wonder if Pi made up Richard Parker. Despite his knowledge that people anthropomorphize animals because of their "obsession" with putting themselves "at the centre of everything," Pi seems disproportionately haunted by the fact that when the boat hits Mexico, Richard Parker takes off without a backward glance. Perhaps the loss of the tiger symbolizes the greater loss of his family, or of his own innocence. Perhaps Pi invented the tiger to keep himself sane. The reader is left to decide.
In a final test of the reader's faith in the narrative, Martel has Pi tell an alternate, allegedly more believable version of the story at the end--lacking not only Richard Parker but also the humor, poetry and detail of the tiger story--to please a couple of doubting Japanese shipping officials. He asks them which they think is the "better" story. Of course, the tiger story is the finer, more thoughtful literary creation and therefore (Martel suggests) has a truth more lasting than the second, more journalistic version, with its "dry, yeastless factuality."
Even if one accepts the twists and turns of the narrative, one faces the further challenge of tracking down clues hidden in a warren of allusions for more definitive answers to questions about Pi's religious faith, and whether the narrator (and the reader) will be persuaded of the story's original premise that it will make one believe in God. That symbolism is important in this book is made clear at first by the most obvious symbol of Pi's name, self-chosen because it's the short version of his real name Piscine (after a family friend's favorite Parisian swimming pool), and he is inevitably called "Pissing" by classmates. Nothing could be grittier. In contrast, Pi is like ¼, what mathematicians call an "irrational number," that is, 3.14 if rounded off, but with endlessly unfolding decimal places if carried out. Martel couples this mysterious abstraction with a concrete image--"And so, in that Greek letter that looks like a shack with a corrugated tin roof, in that elusive, irrational number with which scientists try to understand the universe, I found refuge"--to show that, as a boy, Pi is in harmony with things as they are as well as with his sense of the unknowable.
That Pi's attitude to religion may have changed after his ordeal is buried in the hidden symbolism hinted at by Pi's college studies in religion and zoology, described on the opening page as if to emphasize their importance as a key to the story. (This is after the lifeboat comes to shore in Mexico, and Pi goes to Canada to start a new life.) His specialties are the sixteenth-century Jewish mystic Isaac Luria and the sluggish three-toed sloth (symbol of the Trinity?) whose miraculous capacity to stay alive, he says, "reminded me of God." (An echo of his own survival, perhaps? A hint that God seems more elusive these days?) More important, Luria's cabalistic ideas may hold the key to Pi's experience at sea. His philosophy (Luria thought the secrets of the universe lay in numbers) echoes the symbolism of ¼, and the formula for figuring out the dimension of a circle and its radius (connecting perimeter and center). Luria believed that God's light contracted from the center of the universe, purging itself of evil elements, leaving an empty space (a circle) in which human life developed. But God also sent down a ray of light (like a radius) so that the few remaining divine sparks could reconnect with Him. To achieve this fusion with God, and by implication eliminate evil from the world, Luria believed, people must live an ethical life. The original divine contraction is called variously tzimtzum, zimzum or simsum. It's no coincidence that Martel called the sinking ship Tsimtsum. Thus Pi at sea was experiencing his own void (or withdrawal of God), in which elements of evil fight with the instinct to do good. Richard Parker saved his sanity, and Pi's goodness kept Richard Parker (and perhaps his own faith) alive. By introducing this strain of mystical Jewish thought, Martel not only further illustrates Pi's contention that all religions are essentially the same in that they stem from love but he also uses mysticism to underscore the profound ways in which literature can present life's truths. Skeptics, however, might see Pi's study of Luria as a move away from his earlier, purer faith toward a more structured mysticism. That would explain his comment at the end of the book, when he confesses his need for "the harmony of order."
Though one can read Life of Pi just for fun, trying to figure out Pi's relationship to God makes one feel a bit like the castaway hero wrestling slippery fish into his lifeboat for dinner. An idea twists and turns, glittering and gleaming, slaps you in the face with its tail and slips away. Did the story really happen? Does it make one believe in God? What kind of God? Early on the narrator says, "This story has a happy ending." But Pi also tells his interviewer, "I have nothing to say of my working life, only that a tie is a noose, and inverted though it is, it will hang a man nonetheless if he's not careful," which suggests a man with at least some conflict on his mind. On the other hand, Martel may also be suggesting that work is less important to Pi than God and family--the narrator gives us glimpses of Pi's shrine-filled house and his loving relationship with his wife, son and daughter. However, when Pi is showing him family pictures, the narrator notes, "A smile every time, but his eyes tell another story." I believe Martel's point is that doubt inevitably accompanies faith. But the opposite explanation, that after Pi's life-threatening experiences his faith is a mere prop for his anxiety, might work just as well.
Does it matter that the answer to all questions in this novel is both yes and no? One answer comes in the form of Pi's question moments after the ship has sunk and he's sitting in the lifeboat, bewailing the loss of his family and God's silence on the topic: "Why can't reason give greater answers? Why can we throw a question further than we can pull in an answer? Why such a vast net if there's so little fish to catch?" And that, of course, is the nature of faith. One can't argue it through, one just believes. Faith in God (as the younger Pi sees it) "is an opening up, a letting go, a deep trust, a free act of love." It's also "hard to love," Pi adds, when faced with adversity. The same might be true of a good novel, as readers are taken to the edge of their understanding by something new. If the reader lets go of preconceptions, the experience can be liberating and exciting. Martel may be sowing seeds of uncertainty about God, but there's no doubt that he restores one's faith in literature.
More than thirty years ago, in an essay called "Uncle Tom and Tiny Tim: Some Reflections on the Cripple as Negro," I suggested that cripples emulate the civil rights movement by focusing on political solutions to the problems of living under difficult physical conditions. (It's a lost battle, but I continue to prefer the term "cripple" to the bland "disabled.") The problems cripples faced seemed as much the result of our inability to define our needs as they were the fault of a society quite willing to live with its ignorance of those problems and quite willing not to see us at all unless absolutely forced to. It wasn't until the late 1960s that cripples began to believe that they had the right to demand that America meet their needs.
Anyone who has spent significant time living with a serious physical condition probably has had an experience similar to the following: entering a restaurant with another person, he (or she) finds that the waiter is addressing not him but the person he is with. He is a category, and categories are simply assumed to be unable to take responsibility even for something as minor as placing an order. Yet even such infantilization can seem liberating if the cripple realizes that the problem it bespeaks is political rather than psychological: One infantilizes the other by assuming attitudes held by society at large. And this process is something that the cripple, too, is encouraged to do. Even Randolph Bourne, as tough a social critic as America ever produced, looks inward in his famous essay "The Handicapped," published back in 1911. Writing about other issues, Bourne understands that political problems demand political solutions. But when it concerns the cripple, among whose ranks he was numbered, he was curiously inner-directed and soft.
The demand for the rights of cripples was already under way as I was writing "Uncle Tom and Tiny Tim." And while I would be happier without much of the rhetoric of the Disability Rights Movement, to its credit, it has helped change the consciousness of those who must confront the world with physical disabilities. Both its success and its burgeoning political potential seemed wishful thinking in 1969, when I still dismissed its prospects. But that success was confirmed with the enactment of the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990. Despite its admitted weaknesses, few Congressional acts more deserve the term "landmark legislation." The Americans With Disabilities Act promised those forced to live with severe physical impairments the possibility of legal if not functional equality. Its most profound accomplishment, even allowing for the vagueness of definition that has come to haunt it, was to accept the idea that cripples have the right to specific accommodations that meet their employment needs. For a population battling the indignities of permanent illness, its promise was comparable to that of the Civil Rights Act for African-Americans in 1964.
Twelve years after its passage, that promise seems about to be swamped by a legal system in which what constitutes a workplace disability is undefined and perhaps undefinable. The confusion about what would seem to be the most elementary of definitions--what is meant when we speak of a disability--threatens to weaken if not make the act virtually useless. The cripple's demand for rights still commands a good deal of public interest and a degree of public sympathy. Yet the Americans With Disabilities Act has not led to widespread political activity on behalf of the nation's cripples. Their quest for equality is not only threatened with that most severe of American sins, being relegated to political unfashionability, but the question of what a disability is shows few signs of being resolved in favor of those whom the act was supposed to help. Recent Supreme Court rulings in which disability was ill defined must be seen as setbacks for those who look to the judiciary to enforce what the act called for, a policy of accessibility and inclusiveness. The Court ruled in April by a 5-to-4 majority in US Airways v. Barnett that US Airways' seniority system took precedence over the right of a disabled worker to transfer to a more suitable job. In Toyota Motor Manufacturing v. Williams, the Court ruled unanimously that the definition of disability must mean substantial limitations on abilities "central to daily life," not just the job. And the Court also unanimously held, in mid-June in Chevron U.S.A. v. Echazabal, that employers had the right to refuse to hire a worker whose health they believed might be impaired by performing a particular job.
For this alone Ruth O'Brien's Crippled Justice is a welcome addition to the literature on living with disability. A professor of political science at the City University of New York, O'Brien approaches her subject armed with an analytical perspective nurtured by her earlier work. Her first book, Workers' Paradox: The Republican Origins of New Deal Labor Policy, 1886-1935, already reflected her interest in the subject of workers' rights. Yet even academic inquiries can be rooted in personal experience. "Had I not sustained what is now a ubiquitous workplace injury," she writes, "a debilitating case of bilateral tendinitis in my hands and forearms, I might never have explored the development and implementation of...disability policy." Yet the focus of Crippled Justice is neither personal nor anecdotal. It is a serious inquiry into the history of public policy as that policy has affected large numbers of men and women crippled by illness, accident or birth. As serious scholarship is expected to be, it is factual and analytical. The past few decades have witnessed a rich expansion of memoirs and essays by writers forced to struggle with their own physical or mental deterioration, books that depict what life is like for those who must live it with severe illness. But the kind of political analysis O'Brien offers in Crippled Justice is what, I believe, cripples need now.
Analysis demands perspective, particularly when it begins in personal experience. While bilateral tendinitis may not have the same sort of consequences as, say, pushing through life in a wheelchair or trying to earn a living as a blind person, the experience limited O'Brien's normal ability to function. It turned her temporarily from normal to cripple. And however temporary an experience, it was also sufficiently dehumanizing to give her a strong sense of what life is like for those forced to live with more severe conditions. The first discovery one makes on entering the shadowy world of cripples is that one no longer defines need, ability and ambition for oneself. The experience of living with disability forced Ruth O'Brien to recognize that the cripple must "struggle over the same issues that women and minorities battle." But she also saw that the problems cripples faced were in some ways less soluble and in others more mechanical than the problems of other groups. Nothing would be more beneficial to cripples as a group than a fantasy I've held for the past decade--a law that would make it mandatory for every elected official in the country to live a single week each year as a cripple.
If nothing else, that would show that the problems involved are as political as they are psychological. And that is why I am grateful that Crippled Justice restricts itself to the conditions cripples confront in the workplace. To the writer, physical disability offers a personal confrontation. And as is the case with writers, that confrontation is about language. But what the cripple confronts in the workplace, as O'Brien shows, are confrontations that have solutions. And those solutions are political. What she tells us about the history of disability policy in the workplace may not be as powerful or as dramatic as, say, Andre Dubus writing about the changes that were imposed upon his life by the sudden transition he underwent from being a normal man to being wheelchair-bound. Nor does Crippled Justice offer us the savage honesty of Harold Brodkey writing about his own impending death from AIDS. O'Brien's focus is more mundane, which is to say that it is more political: She is interested in the possibility of a meaningful work life for those who lack the talent of a Dubus or a Brodkey.
We do not, of course, read memoirs and essays to create public policy but to recreate individual lives. Yet if the experience of being forced to live as a cripple is invariably personal, the reality of how one lives that life is invariably political. I have no choice but to accept being in a wheelchair. On the other hand, the New York through which I push myself has any number of choices in how it reacts to my need for that wheelchair. It is able to define how I live, what is now subsumed under that horrendous phrase "quality of life," through the public policy decisions it makes. Such seemingly trivial items as the condition of the streets through which I push speak less eloquently but more truthfully of what is or isn't possible for me than Dubus's essays or my own essays or Nancy Mairs's essays. Public policy defines the boundaries of the cripple's life. Mundane issues such as the condition of the streets and the accessibility of restaurants and stores and theaters (and how the Court defines disability) speak to the cripple's ability to live with dignity.
The first half of Crippled Justice offers a historical overview of the rehabilitation of the cripple in America. The ideas dominating medical and social policy after the end of the Second World War in 1945 were largely formulated by two physicians, Dr. Howard Rusk and Dr. Henry Kessler. (War may be unhealthy for children and other living things, but it has done wonders for the fields of prosthetics and rehabilitation medicine.) Rusk and Kessler are among the villains of the book, since, along with Mary Switzer, the federal bureaucrat responsible for the Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1954, they created models of rehabilitation still largely followed today. From Freud and even more from William Menninger, rehabilitation medicine was inspired to shift its focus from the need to treat the cripple's physical symptoms to the need to treat the whole person. And the models were psychological. O'Brien describes "the deep strain of individualism in American liberalism" as the source of the mistaken path rehabilitation medicine took. Yet I am not convinced that individualism is so negative in the life of the cripple. No one can overcome the effects of disability through mere willpower or a well-developed work ethic--but a well-developed sense of self helps if one is to be a "success" as a cripple. One might even suggest that the successful cripple must combine a free-market head with a socialist soul. Perhaps more than others do, he needs to see himself as singular. After all, what else can account for all those memoirs about the singularity of the experience of disability? The best passage I know about living as a cripple--as moving to me as Shylock's "Hath not a Jew" speech--wasn't written by a cripple but by a healthy Saul Bellow at the height of his powers. Put into the mouth of the poolroom entrepreneur in The Adventures of Augie March, its power derives from how it speaks for us cripples as it speaks about Einhorn's aching sense of his individual quandary.
O'Brien is on more solid ground when writing about how Rusk and Kessler expected the "sick" individual to "adjust" to what they viewed as a "healthy" society. The cripple unable to make the adjustment was a social and psychological problem. Even so, one can argue that the individualism O'Brien finds irritating is the cripple's best chance to find salvation. Ambition should be made of sterner stuff than turning all problems into psychological barriers. At the same time, the desire to get even with an unjust fate shouldn't be dismissed lightly. Liberalism may have a lot to answer for where attitudes toward the cripple are concerned, but excessive concern with individualism is not the biggest item on that bill. Still, the psychologizing of disability was a mistake for which we continue to pay a price. And it remains, I believe, the source of the Court's restricted vision of workplace disability.
The conditions cripples face in the workplace cannot be conquered by their adjusting to normal society but by society making certain minor but necessary adjustments to their problems. By the 1970s the psychological definition of the cripple had already shown how limited it was. But is it better to define the cripple legally? Despite its immense promise, the Americans With Disabilities Act is, as O'Brien writes, "an idiosyncratic body of law." Where once cripples had to convince the world of their ability to meet standards set by normals, they are now expected to meet thresholds of disability set by a Court that seems oblivious to the obvious. When the issue is as clear-cut as it was in the case of the golfer on the PGA Tour, Casey Martin, whose bone deterioration made it impossible for him to walk the links although it didn't prevent him from playing golf, the courts seem willing to allow the spirit of the original act to serve as its definition. But even that makes the judiciary our "modern-day experts of vocational rehabilitation because of the idiosyncratic nature of disability." The Court has not yet claimed the right to define whether an individual is or is not a cripple. But by insisting on its right to define what constitutes disability in the workplace, it has assumed the power of defining what the consequences of being a cripple are. As far as work is concerned, cripples "have gone from being subjects of medicine to subjects of law." Whether this is an improvement over the psychologizing of disability is certainly open to question. The conclusion of Crippled Justice is not despairing but it is skeptical. And for good reason. In a valuable study of workplace disability as both a political and social issue, O'Brien has performed a service to anyone interested in social justice. Unfortunately, recent Supreme Court decisions threaten to make her skepticism the book's lasting legacy. Whether defined by the judges or doctors, it seems to be the cripple's fate to be defined as the other.
It seems a long time ago that I stocked my pantry (pantry is a concept in Manhattan, not a reality) with two weeks' worth of emergency food (including powdered milk, an oddly comforting substance when faced with the potential collapse of infrastructure) and other items like duct tape and three five-gallon bottles of water. Now I discover that a good friend and an expert on terrorist threats has three 125-gallon drums of bleach-processed water in his children's bedroom, as well as military-grade surgical masks, potassium iodide (against radiation poisoning) and Cipro--the anthrax antibiotic--as well as rolls of plastic sheeting to cover the windows.
What does one make of all this? My personal response has been to flee to a place in the country, and hope that the attack comes on the weekend.
My kids' room doesn't have space for both them and the water drums. Maybe if I could do something about clutter, as the shelter magazines call life's detritus, I could find a floor area for adequate emergency supplies; but I just can't bring myself to buy Real Simple, nice as it is.
So instead, I've secured a copy of the upcoming Summer 2002 issue of World Policy Journal, published by the World Policy Institute at The New School, and may I say that after reading it, I am seriously thinking of running back out to get Real Simple and, with a few easy organizational steps, squeezing the three 125-gallon water barrels into a corner of our living room.
The most sobering article--in a very sober, well-written, intelligently conceived publication--is called "The Threats America Faces." In it, John Newhouse, a senior fellow at the Center for Defense Information in Washington, enumerates the many kinds of attack to which we are incapable of responding. The most shocking for its cruelty, its understanding of human vulnerability and its supertechno cartoonishness, is the potential for terrorist infiltration (they've already done it!) of computers that control major operating systems, like electricity, air traffic control, banking or communications. (My friend with the water drums says Al Qaeda wants to interrupt communications at the precise time of a physical attack; mayhem as well as massacre.) Newhouse points out that before September 11, the defense community was obsessed with the possible threat from long-range missiles by rogue states, as a 2001 State Department guidance memorandum stated it. He and other experts, though not necessarily Rumsfeld's Defense Department, are now more concerned about missiles that could be launched from an offshore location by a third party against, say, Moscow, triggering an all-out nuclear attack on America--or vice versa. Newhouse also raises the specter of the inadequately secured former Soviet nuclear arsenal, and notes that the only way to deal with such phenomena is through bi- and multinational agreements of the kind the Bush Administration has to be dragged to by its short hairs.
It's all about blowback, but Newhouse believes that concerted multilateral diplomacy, agreements and shared intelligence can, with a little luck, forestall an act of terror that would provoke what he calls a "hidden-hand war," a war against an unknown adversary. It's a hope, if Bush and his boys and girl can be pushed in that direction.
World Policy Journal's issue is almost all of a piece, very artfully structured around a common theme that is, modestly stated, the future of the world. Martin Walker contributed to the discussion with his piece on "America's Virtual Empire," in which he compares the United States to, among others, Britain under Victoria, and comments on how much weaker Victoria's armies were than ours is today, and yet how much more willing she was to deploy her nation's military. Walker has a nice aside on the meetings that take place at Ditchley, a country house in Oxfordshire celebrated to its initiates as the spiritual home of the Anglo-Saxon alliance since Churchill's day. The way Walker describes Ditchley, it's like Hogwarts for NATO leaders: They don black tie for a splendid dinner in a stately hall on Saturday nights before gathering around the piano in song. (One does wonder what exactly they sing.)
Also do not miss David Unger's fair-minded essay on the Middle East crisis, "Maps of War, Maps of Peace," which provides a real idea of the labyrinthine impasse, and hope that there is some way out.
With all this in mind, I decided to escape to that house in the country, and I lugged some shelter magazines along (it's much easier to read about nuclear holocaust when you are at least an hour and a half from Targettown). Oddly, nothing in Metropolitan Life looked like our house. Hmmm. This Old House was more like it, but the people in This Old House actually know how to deal with things. Like floors. Or mice and mildew.
Yet the magazines, including Design NJ and House & Garden--with their empty stylish, upscale interiors--do give you an idea of what it is the average person thinks we are upholding and defending from what Newhouse tells us has been called a low-probability, high-consequence attack. Shelter magazines, with their largely fantastic scenarios, superbly condense the American dream. In House & Garden, led by the edgy middle-American-design thinker Dominique Browning, there is a piece about designers making children's playspaces (there's an interior climbing wall for your 10-year-old); one about filling rooms with (how shall I say?) things based on Roy Lichtenstein's interiors; and yet another on an impossibly perfect house and garden on a Nantucket shore, which almost no one can afford. What all this says (and it is repeated in dozens of other similar magazines, reaching its bizarre zenith of impossibility in Architectural Digest) is that there is always a better mousetrap (I wish), that your future and your family's future holds promise and rewards, and that one day, you too may have a beach. Given the vision of collapsing real estate with which we were presented on September 11, the shelter magazines seem more dreamlike and escapist than ever. In a way, this makes them even more pleasurable, like a guilty fantasy you shouldn't be indulging. Like porn.
It was quite a surprise reading Richard Goldstein's latest attack on me and other non-leftist gay writers ["Attack of the Homocons," July 1]. The surprise was not that he disagrees with me but that he so relentlessly misrepresented my work. Here's the most egregious example. Goldstein wrote: "Marriage, Sullivan has written, is the only alternative to 'a life of meaningless promiscuity followed by eternal damnation.'" This "quote" is from a passage in which I criticize the formula of some Christians with regard to homosexuals that they should "hate the sin, love the sinner":
So the sexual pathologies which plague homosexuals are not relieved by this formula; they are merely made more poignant, and intense. And it is no mystery why they are. If you teach people that something as deep inside them as their very personality is either a source of unimaginable shame or unmentionable sin, and if you tell them that their only ethical direction is either the suppression of that self in a life of suffering or a life of meaningless promiscuity followed by eternal damnation, then it is perhaps not surprising that their moral and sexual behavior becomes wildly dichotic; that it veers from compulsive activity to shame and withdrawal; or that it becomes anesthetized by drugs or alcohol or fatally distorted by the false, crude ideology of easy prophets.
It will be apparent to any reader that I actually wrote the opposite of Goldstein's claim. His excuse is that other ideologues had wrested these words out of context and he hadn't checked the original. That is not an excuse.
You might forgive Goldstein for sloppy journalism. What he can't be forgiven for is simple lying. His article was premised on my alleged "revulsion at gay styles that depart from the norms of male presentation. He's appalled by camping, prancing or any expression of effeminacy," as he puts it in his book The Attack Queers, from which his Nation article was adapted. He has no evidence for this from my writing, except some affectionate ribbing of some gay guys in San Francisco with back hair. But in a lecture that Goldstein actually attended, after discussing the conflicts between biological gender and "gender presentation," I said the following:
There are some people's natures that are naturally, biologically androgynous, or more geared to being queer or effeminate or masculine or up-ending certain social roles, because that's how they feel their nature is. And, my God, do I defend their right and would I defend their right to be who they want to be; and nothing I say about the importance of encouraging most gay men and most gay women to embrace their own gender means that we should therefore exclude people who do not feel that way. There is an absolute central part in our community for the drag queen as well as the leather bar. And my own commitment to the First Amendment and to true diversity means I will defend them too.
It's possible to differ with me on the role of biology in gender without asserting that I am intolerant of or hostile to many subversive aspects of gay culture. That is simply untrue. Goldstein knows that, because he was there. But he chose to lie about it. This isn't debate--it's smearing. If you want to know why the gay left is effectively dead, or why writers like Goldstein cannot get published outside a ghetto of like-minded ideologues, you need look no further than the rank intellectual dishonesty of this article.
Richard Goldstein betrays an extremely shallow understanding of the appeal of Pim Fortuyn's campaign in Holland. Fortuyn hammered away at a contradiction that many Dutch felt but were embarrassed to express: that liberal Dutch values have allowed the immigration to Holland of socially conservative Muslim groups that are essentially opposed to liberal Dutch values. Specifically, they tend to be homophobic in a society generally accepting of gays. To further complicate matters, liberal Dutch people who would have no trouble criticizing one of their own for this homophobia are reluctant to criticize Muslim immigrants for the same attitudes for fear of displaying "cultural imperialism." It is here that Fortuyn's being an openly gay man became quite relevant. Whatever one feels about his position on immigration, he raised a genuinely troubling issue that resonated with many Dutch people. To dismiss him as just another trendy homocon does nothing to illuminate the issues Fortuyn raised.
Richard Goldstein resents homosexuals who succeed, socially and economically, on the terms of mainstream society. This seems to validate the right's argument that the left really wants to keep minorities marginalized and victimized and deeply resents anyone who escapes that particular plantation.
There is also an attitude that any "behavior," regardless of how unhealthy or deviant, has to be accepted, but any dissent from leftist orthodoxy is treason. Goldstein appears to be less troubled by homosexuals who deliberately seek HIV infection (such a fetish exists), imparting social and economic costs to society, than he is by homosexuals who believe society is better saved by lower taxes, less government intrusion and free-market economics.
Is it possible that what homocons want to escape is the cult of victimhood and a stifling leftist orthodoxy?
MATT J. KURLANDER
It seems to me that most conservative gays are conservative for the same reason most straight conservatives are. They care about little or nothing but their pocketbooks. Many of the more thoughtful conservative gays will admit, after some arm-twisting, that, yes, the Shrub/Ashcroft Administration may well put them in a death camp someday, but until then, by God, their taxes will be lower, their property rights will be maximized and their businesses will be free to plunder whom they please with no fear of government regulation.
Your "Homocon" cover is as eye-catching as it is relevant. However, the pink triangle on the "femme" lesbian is upside down. The gay rights logo (borrowed from Hitler concentration camp days, when gays were identified with pink triangles) as used today has the point down. It symbolizes the opposite of a hierarchical structure, as in a grassroots movement, which has many people at the top.
So when people are just "born gay," it seems they're supposed to be "born liberal" too? Queer conservatives represent the ultimate in gay liberation. When the Republican Party recognizes the validity of the gay lifestyle, gay liberation has been achieved. Homosexuality is the way people fuck--not the way people vote.
And Paglia, a homocon? Simply because she doesn't share the Dworkin belief that masculinity is the scourge of human existence? Read up: Paglia's views on every variety of sexual nonconformity are gleefully supportive. It is dishonest to lump her together with people like Andrew Sullivan and Norah Vincent.
While I agree with Richard Goldstein on the many scary aspects of the rise of the gay right, I had to laugh when he lumps Camille Paglia in with the likes of Andrew Sullivan. Indeed, she labels her own ideas "drag queen feminism." She even describes herself as a "bisexual lesbian who's also monastic, celibate, pervert, deviant, voyeur." Not exactly a friend of George W.'s, unless he's not telling us something.
Goldstein calls for "acceptance." Why do we queers have to be accepted? Why can't we just live like who we are? Some of us are into leather and enjoy getting our nipples tortured and whipped, some of us like to dress up in women's clothing and be fabulous, some of us (like me) like to listen to Sleater-Kinney and Coltrane and read and drink beer, some of us go to clubs too often and have sex with too many people, some of us don't have any sex at all and prefer to stay home, and some of us are CEOs who hate Bill Clinton and think there are too many immigrants in this country. Just like those damn heterosexuals!
San Antonio, Tex.
Richard Goldstein may regard Sullivan/Paglia/Vincent as significant gay voices, but this silly trio doesn't mean spit out here in the boonies. Neither does/did Fortuyn, because we don't live in The Netherlands. Amsterdam's bathhouse schedule means more to us heartland homos than does Dutch politics!
What is important to those of us in the trenches is actual political movement, especially on local issues of job protection and equality in the courts. In a state like Texas, that means doing bidness with some very conservative vested interests, whether we like it or not.
In San Antonio, the so-called progressive homos are so fragmented, the local power structure considers them irrelevant. The Stonewallers are so committed to assimilation, they hand out endorsements to any Democrats who merely show up for political forums, even if the candidates have demonstrated anti-queer records. I guess "progressives" don't like to make their political enemies squirm.
It's true that many homocons are white males, but race, gender and social class do not alone explain the rightward drift. Goldstein should consider desperation as a major factor in the rise of homocon groups, at least at the grassroots. "Progressives" have consistently exploited us while relegating our issues to the margins. Where else does Goldstein suggest we go? The Netherlands, perhaps.
In this very scary state, the Log Cabin boys and girls have attracted attention and support by directly challenging the Christian right in ways that "progressives" just talk about. And queer Republicans have influenced several local elections, especially judicial races, for the better. When a single-parent lesbian Latina can get treated fairly in a South Texas courtroom, that's progress.
HARRY W. HAINES
New York City
I place Camille Paglia on the gay right because of her devotion to masculinism, which I regard as a central tenet of social conservatism. I don't condone "bug chasing," but it's possible to be promiscuous and safe, and in gay liberation that's an important right.
I've responded ad nauseam to Sullivan's allegation (you can check out my reply at www.thenation.com//doc.mhtml?i=special&s=goldstein20020625). Clearly his aim is to deflect attention from my argument. If you attack Sullivan, he will turn it into a scandal if he can. It's no surprise that he refers to me on his website as a Communist and a Marxist. Redbaiting and scandalizing go hand in hand for Sullivan's kind of conservative, and they always have.
Sullivan's work is replete with nasty comments about sluts and gender benders. Take that remark he mentions about men with back hair. The actual quote refers to a hairy man "dressed from head to toe in flamingo motifs." Sullivan's omission of this phrase is telling, as is his very selective account of the lecture he gave. He doesn't say that it was called "The Emasculation of Gay Politics" or that it featured an attack on the gay movement for placing women in positions of power. In this talk, Sullivan asserted that drag queens are "at war with their essential nature." This prompted a brief outburst from the audience, to which Sullivan replied with a desperate attempt to cover his tracks. Now he would like this addendum to stand for his actual statement. I would no more honor his evasion than I would support Sullivan's contention that he is a liberal, even though he terms abortion "illicit," refers slyly to a leftist "fifth column" and calls antigay discrimination "a red herring."
A slippery character like Sullivan can get very far in a community whose history is never taught and whose connection with progressive politics is constantly maligned. That's why it's so important for the left to engage the gay community--and to fight the gay right.