A LAUGH, A CRY...
To Tony Kushner: Thank you so much for your words, for the heart and
soul behind them, for your humor and for bringing tears to my eyes each
time (so far twice) I have read "A Word to Graduates: Organize!" [July
1] I hope to organize more.
PUSHING PILLS FOR PROFIT
I applaud Marc Siegel for exposing the hazards of direct-to-consumer
drug advertising in "Fighting the Drug (Ad) Wars" [June 17]. You might
think that as a women's health advocate I'd welcome direct-to-patient
appeals and an emphasis on prevention. But ads are not unbiased. Their
promises to cure and prevent everything from allergies and depression to
cancer and heart disease downplay--or leave out altogether--the serious,
sometimes life-threatening side effects of the pills they push.
AstraZeneca, the manufacturer of tamoxifen, has urged healthy women to
ask their doctors to prescribe a heavy-duty drug to reduce breast cancer
risk, despite a wide array of dangerous side effects, from endometrial
cancer to deep-vein blood clots. Because the Food and Drug
Administration, still leaderless, is turning its back, new consumer
health coalitions like Prevention First, whose members accept no funds
from pharmaceutical firms, are calling for a ban on these ads. Lowering
the risk of breast cancer, indeed good health generally, is much more
likely to result from clean air and water, healthy food and unbiased
information than from popping pills with life-threatening potential.
BARBARA BRENNER, executive director,
Breast Cancer Action
'THE [UNEXPURGATED] HOUSE I LIVE IN'
I was pleased to see Dick Flacks and Peter Dreier highlight my
grandfather and Earl Robinson's song "The House I Live In"
["Patriotism's Secret History," June 3]. In the wake of the September 11
attacks, the song is making a significant comeback. When I noticed in
November that it had been played on Entertainment Tonight, I
wrote a piece about the song and my grandfather's politics, which
appeared in the February issue of O. Meanwhile, the short 1944
movie by the same name starring Frank Sinatra appears regularly on the
Turner Classic Movie channel, and Michael Feinstein has recorded the
song, the proceeds of which he is donating to the September 11 fund.
One important fact about "The House I Live In" will not be apparent to
those who only see the Sinatra movie or hear his recording. My
grandfather wrote the following lines in one of the verses: "The house I
live in/My neighbors white and black." Flacks and Dreier correctly note
that "the song evokes America as a place where all races can live
freely"--however, that particular line was omitted from the Sinatra
versions, recorded and onscreen. I believe only Paul Robeson's recording
includes those lines.
Readers who want to learn more about my grandfather should see, in the
Spring issue of American Music, a scholarly article by Dr. Nancy
Kovaleff Baker, "Abel Meeropol (a k a Lewis Allan): Political
Commentator and Social Conscience."
New York City
Jack Newfield's June 17 lead article "The Full Rudy" called Rudy
Giuliani "a C-plus Mayor who has become an A-plus myth." What would it
have taken to give him a failing grade?
You might re-examine the pluses you award him (e.g., for the drop in
crime, which began under Dinkins and was pretty much nationwide) and two
minuses the article didn't mention: Giuliani's heartless treatment of
Haitian refugees as a federal officer during the 1980s and the vicious
racism that marked his successful campaign to oust New York's first
black mayor. Newfield could have shed some light on why he and a few
other white liberal journalists supported Giuliani in that campaign.
JOHN L. HESS
Jack Newfield's comment about the former mayor of New York, "They
don't allow this kind of behavior in trailer parks!" is inappropriate
and deeply disappointing in a progressive magazine. Replace "trailer
parks" with "public housing" or "Indian reservations," and you'll see
what I mean. The Trailer Trash stereotype is an expression of bigotry
based on socioeconomic class. That residents of mobile homes are largely
white and rural should not make working-class people fair game for
WHICH WAY TO THE POOL?
In a letter in the July 8 issue, John Bradley presents the appealingly
egalitarian notion that women might "have it all" by following the
strategy of high-achieving men: choosing a man "younger, poorer and less
educated than themselves." I would be much obliged if Bradley could
identify that pool of men who would even consider a date with a woman
older, richer and more educated than themselves, let alone be willing to
marry one, raise her children and tend to her emotional well-being.
AIPAC--SHOW US THE MONEY!
Michael Massing's June 10 piece, "The Israel Lobby," is the first
article I've read in a US publication that even mentions the power of
the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). In England, I
listened to a show on BBC radio that dealt with the same subject. It
amazed me that I had to go to another country to get an in-depth
analysis of the relationship between this powerful lobbying group and
Washington. It seems that since 9/11 one has to do this more and more to
get the real story--or any story at all.
Port Matilda, Pa.
While it isn't news that AIPAC is so influential in Washington, it is
noteworthy that the organization and its effect on policy is so
underreported. I can't imagine a story on guns without mention of the
NRA or one on workplace safety without mention of the influence of the
AFL-CIO. And when did an abortion story last appear without position
statements from NARAL and/or Right to Life?
MARK J. STEVENSON
San Rafael, Calif.
Michael Massing is correct: "AIPAC is widely regarded as the most
powerful foreign-policy lobby in Washington." Much of its power lies in
the concealment from the media and therefore from public scrutiny of the
degree of its financial dealings and the political use of this wealth.
Unlike other lobbies, AIPAC keeps its cards close to its chest. Despite
the Federal Election Commission rules requiring lobbies to register with
the FEC and open their books to the public, this behemoth has managed to
do neither. It rules in secret and is so massively involved in
Washington politics that few senators or congressmen will vote on an
issue without ringing up AIPAC to determine which way to vote.
AIPAC, collecting money from over a hundred Jewish PACs, directs just
how it will be spent, pouring millions into the campaigns of candidates
who vote the AIPAC way while funneling millions to the opponents of
those seen as voting out of step with AIPAC.
In an attempt to bring this monster under public scrutiny, in January
1989 then-Under Secretary of State George Ball, then-Ambassador to Saudi
Arabia James Atkins and then-Illinois Congressman Paul Findley filed a complaint with the FEC,
charging AIPAC with failing to register as a political action committee.
After almost nine years, as AIPAC fought this through the courts, the
plaintiffs received a favorable 8-2 decision in circuit court, only to
have the Supreme Court toss the too-hot issue back to the FEC, asking it
to review its decision.
In December 1999 the FEC waffled, citing insufficient evidence. The
surviving plaintiffs have appealed that decision. I refer readers to two
books: Paul Findley's They Dare to Speak Out and The
Passionate Attachment, by George and Douglas Ball.
EDWARD W. MILLER
NOW--HAPPY TO HEAR IT...
New York City
Your April 8 "In Fact..." column carried the following item: "Some
thirty public television stations suspended Bill Moyers's NOW
during pledge drives, apparently on the theory that the program's
controversial stories might offend donors." While we appreciate The
Nation's interest in public television's programming, the
implication of this story is wrong.
We at PBS do not know of any member station that has pre-empted
NOW during pledge drives out of concern that the show might
offend donors. Just the opposite, station and viewer feedback on NOW
has been overwhelmingly positive. Stations frequently alter their
schedules during pledge drives. Such long-running shows as American
Experience, Masterpiece Theatre and NOVA have all been
pre-empted to accommodate the specific formats and objectives of pledge
drives, so it would not be at all unusual for the same to happen with
Senior vice president
Co-chief program executive, PBS
DAVE DOES DAVIS
Thank you, thank you, thank you for Gene Santoro's "Folk's Missing
Link" [April 22]. I first heard Dave Van Ronk at The Catacombs or the
Second Fret in Philadelphia in the early sixties. When I moved to
northern California in 1971 I despaired of enjoying him in person
again--I knew he didn't like to fly--but then I discovered that he,
somehow, had a special relationship with a little club in Davis,
California, called The Palms, in a rundown barn south of the freeway. I
got my semiannual Van Ronk fix there. Now he's gone and the barn is to
be torn down, but I will keep the faith by teaching still more
generations of field-trippers in my ecology courses the tune and lyrics
of "Rompin' in the Swamp." Ave atque vale, Dave.
ARTHUR M. SHAPIRO
THE INCLINED PLANE OF HIS HEAD
Sierra Madre, Calif.
Calvin Trillin is quite right in observing that Dick Cheney has
perfected the art of the tilted head ["Cheney's Head: An Explanation,"
June 24], but I don't think Cheney invented the maneuver. A perusal of
1988 campaign footage will reveal that Michael Dukakis often assumed the
slanted-head position. He was preceded by the master of that maneuver,
the late Rod Serling, who frequently appeared with his head at an angle
in his opening segments for The Twilight Zone.
This past weekend, the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) convened a national conversation in New York City.
Robert I. Friedman, whose uncompromising investigative stories appeared
in The Nation from the early 1980s onward, died July 2 in
Manhattan at the age of 51. In an era of timid, corporatized journalism,
Robbie was the real thing: a courageous reporter who, operating
freelance, made headlines exposing how the thuggish and the greedy, in
all their guises as politicians, bankers, revolutionaries and mobsters,
were preying on the weak.
Robbie came to prominence reporting from the Middle East, starting with
a gutsy scoop from Beirut revealing Israel's relationship with the
fascist Christian Phalange, a harbinger of its Lebanon invasion. Then
came hard-edged portraits of Jewish fanatics like Moshe Levinger, leader
of the militant Gush Emunim settlers, and Meir Kahane, founder of the
Jewish Defense League. Detailing the support those fringe elements were
getting from US Jews and predicting they'd drive Israel far to the
right, Robbie's reporting provoked a barrage of attacks. The
Anti-Defamation League (which he called the Jewish thought police)
maligned him, death threats poured in and he was once beaten up by West
Bank settlers. To Robbie the worst was being called a self-hating Jew,
since it was the humanistic tradition of Judaism that inspired him, and
he feared, as he said in his last Nation article ("And Darkness
Covered the Land," December 24, 2001), that Israel was dangerously close
to becoming a right-wing apartheid state--something, he wrote, "Israel
did not set out to be." Although his sympathies were with the
Palestinian people, he reported on the duplicity of PLO leaders and
described how Islamic extremism oppressed Palestinian women. He followed
the truth, wherever it took him. Branching out, he presciently warned
that the FBI was ignoring the broader threat posed by the first World
Trade Center bombers and delivered cutting-edge reports on the
international reach of the Russian mafia (which put a $100,000 contract
on his life); it was the subject of his last book, Red Mafiya.
Robbie was proudest of his Nation story "India's Shame" (April 8,
1996), which detailed how sexual slavery and political corruption in
Bombay had created an AIDS catastrophe. Alas, while reporting it, Robbie
contracted the rare blood disease that ultimately took his life.
The Fund for Investigative Journalism has established an award in his
name: Box 60184, Washington, DC 20039-0184.
"How do you feel, being there?" my friend asked on the phone from
America. I thought a minute, looking out of my Haifa hotel window at the
moon rising over the sea. "Relaxed. I feel relaxed." This seemed to my
friend an improbable way to feel in Israel on May 28, 2002. And in one
sense, it obviously was. Many people urged me not to go--some out of
fear for my safety, some with a moralistic doubt as to whether I should
accept an honor associated with the state of Israel (an honorary degree
from the University of Haifa). About the first, I felt probably I was as
safe in Haifa as in Chicago. About the second, I was determined to
affirm the worth of scholarly cooperation in the face of the ugly
campaign, waged mostly in Europe, to boycott Israeli scholars and refuse
cooperation with them. (The campaign has led to the dismissal of Israeli
scholars from the editorial board of at least one major journal, and to
a general call to boycott Israeli scholars in publications and
conference invitations.) I was also planning to deliver a speech, with
the advance approval of the rector, that said the things I wanted to say
about the situation, in a polite, detached, but unequivocal way.
But relaxed, certainly, is not how I had expected to feel. On my one
previous trip to Israel, in the relatively good times of December 1995,
I had felt edgy all the time, skeptical as I am about muscular Zionism.
I converted to Judaism at the age of 21, and I felt then, as I do now,
that Judaism is above all a moral identity, connected to the love of
justice. I felt that I was dedicating myself to a program of moral
action aimed at realizing justice in the here-and-now rather than in
some dim Christian afterlife--that, as Moses Mendelssohn once wrote,
"The highest stage of wisdom is incontrovertibly doing that which is
good." More viscerally, I felt I was leaving an elitist WASP culture
that cared not one whit for social justice to join a liberal, socially
alert Jewish family that read I.F. Stone and The Nation.
For the sort of Jew I have ever since felt myself to be, Israel was a
source of much embarrassment. Reform Jews traditionally were
anti-Zionist on the ground that Israel is a moral idea, like Kant's
Kingdom of Ends, not a place. And even if the Holocaust has caused
Reform to moderate that position, it still explains a lot of the unease
many of us have with the idea that Jews would attach themselves to a
kind of nationalism that seems in tension, at least, with the
cosmopolitan goals of justice for all that (so I think) ought to be the
goal of a good Jewish life.
But in Haifa I felt relaxed. And the reason was not just the beauty of
the silvery beach, with the large moon above, or the high quality of the
philosophy department and the philosopher-rector, a man whose work on
emotions I have long admired. It was deeper, connected to the
ambivalence I have described. Haifa, and especially its university, were
simply a different Israel from any I had seen, an Israel that still
makes justice and peaceful cooperation its central goals and, to a
surprising degree, realizes those goals. The university enrolls about 20
percent Arab students (Muslim, Christian and Druse), and the faculty,
too, has many Arab members. The first priority of the philosophy
department, I was told, was to raise funds for an endowed chair for an
Arab faculty member to teach Islamic philosophy. We like to see
ourselves as an outpost of peace and reciprocity, people kept telling
me. And the rector, the dean of the law school and the board of
governors, holding their annual meeting the day of the ceremony, made me
feel that my own sentiments about peace and respect for all humanity
were theirs also, and real pragmatic goals of university policy rather
than just slogans. Campus life seemed remarkably peaceful, as Arab and
Jewish students continued to learn side by side and interact without
One great sorrow I heard repeatedly expressed: their feeling that as
Israelis they are being demonized by the world community, and their
efforts toward justice are simply not being recognized, their story not
being told. (Would the American Philosophical Association pass a
resolution opposing intellectual cooperation with Israeli philosophers?
I was asked, as a past president of the association and past chair of
its Committee on International Cooperation. I said I hoped not, and that
I thought it most unlikely, though I know that things are otherwise in
The city, too, seemed bent on something like peace. Its economy is
clearly suffering, and the Druse villages, dependent on tourism, are
particularly hard hit. (I had to get a jeweler's young daughter to go
find him so that he could open his shop--he had gone home because there
were no customers. I concluded that the purchase of a beautiful necklace
was a virtuous deed.) But once again, there is cooperation and even
amity. The Arab-owned restaurant that had been hit by a suicide bomber
has been rebuilt and is ready to reopen. Walkers stroll along the Louis
Promenade with their dogs, as if daily life still brings joy. Flowers
abound in the Bahai gardens below; perhaps Haifa was not such an
unreasonable choice for the worldwide headquarters of a religion
committed to peace and internationalism.
So, relaxed in my moralistic heart, I put on the academic gown for the
ceremony, and I added to it the little silver Star of David from
Tiffany's that a graduating PhD student gave me but that in my
anti-Zionistic frame of mind I never wear. I gave my speech about global
justice and the limits of nationalism, and then I sang "Hatikvah" like
everyone else. And for the first time that sort of speech and that song
did not seem to be so ill suited to each other.
In a brief filed in connection with an appeal to the Supreme Court in a
gun possession case, the Bush Justice Department, breaking with sixty
years of jurisprudence, asserts that individuals have a constitutionally
protected right to own firearms. Seeking to quiet ghosts of gun debates
past as the November elections approach, the Administration tries to
reassure us that this proposed sea change in American law would, if
realized, leave law enforcement and gun laws unaffected. But in doing
so, it elevates sophistry and doublespeak to a new art form.
In the case in question, a lower court held that a provision of the 1994
amendment to the gun control act prohibited one Timothy Emerson from
possessing a Beretta pistol, since he was under a domestic-violence
restraining order obtained by his wife. Even after a court issued the
restraining order, Emerson used the pistol to threaten his wife and
daughter as they entered his office to retrieve the daughter's shoes. In
his appeal, Emerson claimed that the restriction abridged his Second
Amendment rights. The Justice Department, in its brief to the High
Court, departed from its historical position and agreed that Emerson did
possess an individualized Second Amendment right. But in a legal
high-wire act, it argued that this right was nonetheless trumped by his
misconduct and that, therefore, the indictment should stand.
Gun control advocates criticized the inclusion of the constitutional
assertion in the department's brief as gratuitous. But on this they miss
the point. The real goal of Justice's new strategy is not to throw a
bone to the gun lobby but to mount a backdoor attack on the very
legitimacy of gun laws it doesn't like but doesn't have the guts, in the
current political climate, to try to repeal legislatively. For as the
Administration knows, elevating gun rights into the rarefied sphere of
constitutional rights would create new, perhaps insurmountable, legal
hurdles for existing gun violence statutes.
Individual rights, such as freedom of speech and religion, to which the
Attorney General claims gun rights are analogous, occupy a unique area
of American law. The Court has repeatedly held that legislative
encroachments in these areas are presumptively invalid unless narrowly
tailored to meet compelling government interests. On this basis, the
Court has invalidated laws in the areas of affirmative action, free
exercise of religion and freedom of speech. Recently, in Ashcroft v.
Free Speech Coalition, it held that a law prohibiting virtual child
pornography was too broadly drafted, and the putative harm it sought to
prevent too speculative to pass constitutional muster. Were the Court to
embrace the Bush view on the Second Amendment, the likely result would
be to invalidate many federal and state gun laws, like the popular Brady
law and the ban on assault weapons.
In passing the 1993 Brady Act, which is applied to the general
population to screen out felons and other miscreants from buying
firearms, the House and Senate judiciary committees did not consciously
undertake the exactingly narrow drafting requirements necessary to
overcome the constitutional hurdles placed on such rights as speech or
religion. Rather, they acted under the authority of the Constitution's
commerce clause, which gives Congress broad legislative discretion. And
while Justice's brief, arguing that the prohibition on gun possession by
those with domestic-violence restraining orders could pass the "narrow
tailoring" constitutional test it seeks generally for gun laws, may be
correct, it is unclear, even improbable, that the broader purpose of
laws like the Brady Act (background checks for everyone) could survive
Similarly, because the ban on military-style assault weapons, intended
to remove the tools of many gang-type street massacres, was broadly
drafted to apply to everyone, that law could be invalidated on the
grounds that it is not sufficiently tailored to prohibit access by those
with criminal records. So, too, could scores of state and local laws,
such as the ban on handgun possession in the District of Columbia. The
new proposal by Senators John McCain and Joseph Lieberman to apply
background checks at gun shows could also be constitutionally dead on
arrival should the Administration view of gun rights become law.
Indeed, this is not the first time since September 11 that the Attorney
General has catered to gun owners. In October, responding to gun lobby
paranoia about gun registries, he refused to give the FBI access to
records that could help it determine if post-September 11 detainees had attempted to purchase weapons.
Each year we lose roughly 28,000 people at the wrong end of a gun
barrel, nearly ten times the number of people who perished on September
11. As the Violence Policy Center has documented, Al Qaeda terrorist
training manuals note the ease with which one can obtain firearms in the
United States--like the .50-caliber rifles that can with precision blow
a nine-inch hole in a concrete wall from 100 yards. At a minimum,
criminals and terrorists will benefit from new defenses that gun
prosecutions violate constitutional rights as envisioned by the Bush
Justice Department. Prior to his plea agreement, attorneys for the
so-called American Taliban, John Walker Lindh, had already indicated his
intention to invoke such a defense on his behalf.
If, when the Attorney General is proclaiming about the need to restrict
Americans' civil liberties, he seeks to expand constitutional liberties
for gun owners, he should at least be straight with the American people
about the likely legal consequences and what it could mean for safety on
Now that a freedom of information bill has been passed, Mexico faces its real battle: convincing the public to use it.
At the fourteenth international AIDS conference, the gulf between the
United States and the rest of the world widened as US officials touted
policies that world health experts agree are ineffective strategies for
stemming the pandemic. Without stepped-up prevention efforts, 45 million
more people will become infected with HIV by 2010, according to the
Global HIV Prevention Working Group. Yet 29 million of these people
would never contract the virus if leaders ratcheted up preventive
strategies--most crucially teaching the use of condoms.
In European countries, including the Netherlands and Sweden, the
promotion of a variety of safe sex practices--abstinence, monogamy and
condom use--has reduced teen pregnancies and sexually transmitted
diseases. In Senegal and Uganda, it has cut the rate of new HIV
infections in half. In all these countries and in others, national
governments have supported such programs both rhetorically and
The White House, however, wants to expand programs enacted under the
Clinton Administration that tie federal funding of sex education to the
promotion of abstinence-only curriculums. While the vast majority of US
schools provide information about what HIV is and how it is transmitted,
less than half give students information about what condoms are or how
to use them, according to Centers for Disease Control surveys.
In a speech drowned out by angry protesters in Barcelona, US Secretary
of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson touted the Administration's
$500 million drug initiative to prevent babies in Africa and the
Caribbean from becoming infected with HIV during birth or through
breastfeeding. He seemed confused when reporters later suggested that
preventing women, girls and their partners from becoming infected in the
first place might be a more productive strategy.
The evidence is clear: Campaigns that rely only on abstinence and drugs
to protect babies from AIDS won't slow the world pandemic. HIV
prevention does work when it is part of reproductive health programs
that recognize that sex is an integral component of human behavior.
Events in Washington are potentially momentous, but hold the applause.
In late May, the Dow was at 10,300, but by mid-July it had dropped
almost 2,000 points. The Nasdaq and S&P indexes are at zero gain for
the past five years, as if the bubble never occurred. This slow-motion
crash induced even the most obedient right-wing lapdogs to scurry aboard
the Sarbanes reform bill, and the Senate passed it, 97-0. The President
made two malaprop-laced pep talks to recast himself as Mr. Reformer Guy
(and knocked another 500 points off the Dow). But W. is a lagging
political indicator these days. Even Federal Reserve Chairman Alan
Greenspan has lost his touch. For years he celebrated the new economy
and refused to take any action that might have worked to curb its
excesses; a bit late he tells us "irrational exuberance" was actually
"infectious greed." Now, with fear overtaking that greed in the markets
and thus in Washington, the ingredients are present for an ideological
sea change in American politics. But not yet.
Democrats, newly awakened to the potency of Enron-like financial
scandals, are throwing smart punches at the business-friendly White
House, but they are six months late to the cause (and still sound less
convinced than Republican maverick John McCain). The passage of Senator
Sarbanes's legislation is meaningful, but Democratic leaders choked on
the hard part--reforming stock options and giving workers a voice in
managing their own pension savings. Why mess up fundraising with those
high-tech companies dumping "New Dem" millions on the party of working
people? Majority leader Tom Daschle, who lamely promised a vote
(someday) on the stock-option issue, will be revealed as another limp
corporate shmoozer if he fails to deliver. So far, the Coca-Cola
directors have more courage than he. Likewise, Senator Joseph Lieberman
can doubtless raise millions from Silicon Valley for his presidential
ambitions by defending the corporate hogs but, if so, he should rethink
which party will have him.
The Republicans are in a deeper hole, of course. If Bush wants to bring
his much-touted "moral clarity" to the reform cause, he'll have to drop
the weepy speeches and dump Harvey Pitt as SEC chairman and Tom White,
the Enronized Army Secretary. Then Bush should take his own medicine and
come clean, open the secret SEC records of his insider cashout as a
director of Harken, and do the same for the SEC investigation of Vice
President Cheney's stewardship as CEO of Halliburton. Republican zealots
and their attack-dog newspaper, the Wall Street Journal,
exhausted the nation with their pursuit of the Clintons on Whitewater.
Stonewalling by the Bush White House promises to make these far more
serious financial matters a permanent theme of the Bush presidency.
The reforms currently in motion are a good start, but no more, as
William Greider notes on page 11. We know what to expect from the
Republicans--stubborn maneuvering and guile designed to stall real
change until (they hope) the stock market turns around and public anger
subsides. But Democrats have a historic opening far greater than this
fall's elections--the opportunity to revive their role as trustworthy
defenders of the folks who have always been the bone and sinew of the
party, the people who do not get stock options and who deserve a much
larger voice in Washington. If Democrats take a pass on the facts before
them, they deserve our scorn. If they find the courage to break out of
the corporate-money straitjacket and once again speak for the public,
this could be the beginning of something big.
Thou hast taken usury and increase, and thou hast greedily gained of thy neighbor by extortion, and hast forgotten me, saith the Lord God.
The public's love affair with the Bush Administration is souring. Polls show that voters are deeply worried about its handling of the economy, although they still claim to like George W.
Speaking on NPR recently, Cokie Roberts, the soon-to-retire co-host of
ABC's This Week, falsely informed her listeners that "the
President was exonerated by the Securities and Exchange Commission." In
fact, even though his daddy was the President of the United States
during the incident in question, after a remarkably relaxed
investigation the SEC informed Bush's lawyer that its decision "must in
no way be construed as indicating that [George W. Bush] has been
Call me sentimental, but I'm going to miss the old gal. With no
discernible politics save an attachment to her class, no reporting and
frequently no clue, she was the perfect source for a progressive media
critic: a perpetual font of Beltway conventional wisdom uncomplicated by
any collision with messy reality.
Lippmann/Dewey fans will remember that the very idea of a watchdog press
breaks down when the watchdog starts acting like--and more important,
sympathizing with--the folks upon whom he or she has been hired to keep
an eye. With Cokie, this was never much of an issue. Her dad was a
Congressman. Her mom was a Congresswoman. Her brother is one of the
slickest and wealthiest lobbyists in the city. Her husband, Steve
Roberts, holds the dubious honor of being perhaps the only person to
give up a plum New York Times job because it interfered with his
television career. And together they form a tag-team buck-raking/book-writing enterprise offering up corporate speeches and dime-store
"Dear Abby"-style marriage advice to those unfortunates who do not enjoy
his-and-her television contracts.
Cokie came to public attention at NPR, where she developed some street
cred as a Capitol Hill gumshoe, but apparently grew tired of the hassle
of actual reporting, which only helped her career. With no concern for
the niceties of conflicts of interest, she and her husband accepted
together as much as $45,000 in speaking fees from the very corporations
that were affected by the legislation she was allegedly covering in
Congress. Moreover, she claimed something akin to a royal prerogative in
refusing to address the ethical quandary it obviously raised. (A
spokesman responding to a journalist's inquiry said that Queen Cokie's
corporate speaking fees were "not something that in any way, shape or
form should be discussed in public.")
Apparently, nobody ever told Cokie that the job of the insider pundit is
to at least pretend to be conversant with the major political, economic
and intellectual issues in question before putting these in the service
of a consensually derived story line. The pedantic George Will and the
peripatetic Sam Donaldson at least give the impression of having
considered their remarks ahead of time, either by memorizing from
Bartlett's or pestering politicians. Not Cokie. Once, when a
reporting gig interfered with one of her many social and/or speaking
engagements, she donned a trench coat in front of a photo of the Capitol
in the ABC studios in the hopes of fooling her viewers. She was not a
real journalist; she just played one on TV.
Still, her commentary was invaluable, if inadvertently so. As a pundit,
she was a windup Conventional Wisdom doll. The problem with Bill
Clinton, for instance, was that he was the wrong sort for Cokie and her
kind. "This is a community in all kinds of ways," she told Sally Quinn
during the impeachment crisis. "When something happens everybody gathers
around.... It's a community of good people involved in a worthwhile
pursuit." Here was her analysis of the complicated constitutional
questions impeachment raised: "People who act immorally and lie get
punished," she proclaimed, noting that she "approach[ed] this as a
mother." (Her own children are fully grown, but perhaps they're real
sensitive...) "This ought to be something that outrages us, makes us
ashamed of him." When the country refused to go along with the ironclad
Broder/Cokester consensus, she supported impeachment anyway, because
"then people can lead public opinion rather than just follow it through
the process." These same "people," meaning Ken Starr, Newt Gingrich and
Cokie's friends, made a return appearance in Cokieworld when the Supreme
Court handed Al Gore's victory to George W. Bush following the Florida
2000 election crisis. "People do think it's political, but they think
that's OK," she averred. "They expect the court to be political, and
they wanted the election to be over."
All this is relevant to those of you who are not dewy-eyed about Cokie's
departure--or Dewey-eyed about democracy, for that matter--because
Cokie's inadvertent honesty helps us understand how George W. Bush ever
made it to the White House in the first place. Why are we hearing about
Harken Oil only today? Why did the press ignore the evidence of Bush's
personal and professional dishonesty back in 2000, when it still
mattered? Meanwhile, these same reporters concocted stupid stories about
Al Gore's penchant for "exaggeration," misreporting the simplest facts
on his (essentially accurate) claims about the Internet, Love Canal and
Love Story. It's not as if evidence of Bush's unsavory past was
unavailable. I wrote about it twice on MSNBC.com, in the fall of 2000,
following a damning Talk magazine exposé of Bush's
suspicious business ethics, written by Bill Minutaglio and Nancy Beiles,
and based on documents made public by the Center for Public Integrity.
But nobody cared. The Times, the Post, the Journal,
CBS, ABC et al.--who had all championed Ken Starr's $70 million
investigation of a $30,000 unprofitable land deal--did not think Bush's
fortune-making sweetheart deals were worth more than the most cursory of
investigations. (Let's not even bring up the dubious Texas Rangers deal
or the missing years in his National Guard record.)
How did the media--and hence the nation--manage to miss these stories?
Just ask Cokie: As she explained back then in defense of herself
and her colleagues, "The story line is Bush isn't smart enough and Gore
isn't straight enough. In Bush's case, you know he's just misstating as
opposed to it playing into a story line about him being a serial
exaggerator." Thus spake Cokathustra.
For more, check out www.altercation.msnbc.com during The Nation's
summer lull. We never take vacations at Altercation.
He says he had no clue the stock would tank.
About the details he is still evasive.
Though "on the board but clueless" could sound lame,
With Bush, a clueless claim sounds quite persuasive.
When did the great executive stock option hog wallow really start? You
can go back to the deregulatory push under Carter in the late 1970s,
then move into the Reagan '80s, when corporate purchases of shares
really took off with the leveraged buyouts and mergermania, assisted by
tax laws that favored capital gains over stockholder dividends and
allowed corporations to write off interest payments entirely.
Between 1983 and 1990, 72.5 percent of net US equity purchases were
bought by nonfinancial corporations. At the end of this spree the
debt-laden corporations withdrew to their tents for three years of
necessary restraint and repose, until in 1994 they roared into action
once more, plunging themselves into debt to finance their share
purchases. This was the start of the options game.
Between 1994 and 1998 nonfinancial companies began to load themselves up
with yet more debt. The annual value of the repurchases quadrupled,
testimony to the most hectic sustained orgy of self-aggrandizement by an
executive class in the history of capitalism.
For these and ensuing reflections and specific figures, I'm mostly
indebted to Robert Brenner's prescient The Boom and the Bubble,
published this spring with impeccable timing by Verso; also Robin
Blackburn's long-awaited book (now being released by Verso) on the past
and future of pensions, Banking on Death.
Why did these chief executive officers, chief financial officers and
boards of directors choose to burden their companies with debt? Since
stock prices were going up, companies needing money could have raised
funds by issuing shares rather than borrowing money to buy shares back.
Top corporate officers stood to make vast killings on their options, and
by the unstinting efforts of legislators such as Senator Joe Lieberman,
they were spared the inconvenience of having to report to stockholders
the cost of these same options. Enlightened legislators had also been
thoughtful enough to rewrite the tax laws in such a manner that the cost
of issuing stock options could be deducted from company income.
It's fun these days to read all the jubilant punditeers who favor the
Democrats now lashing Bush and Cheney for the way they made their
fortunes while repining the glories of the Clinton boom, when the dollar
was mighty and the middle classes gazed into their 401(k) nest eggs with
the devotion of Volpone eyeing his trove. "Good morning to the day; and,
next, my gold:/Open the shrine, that I may see my saint."
Bush and Cheney deserve the punishment. But when it comes to political
parties, the seaminess is seamless. The Clinton boom was lofted in large
part by the helium of bubble accountancy.
By the end of 1999 average annual pay of CEOs at 362 of America's
largest corporations had swollen to $12.4 million, six times more than
what it was in 1990. The top option payout was to Charles Wang, boss of
Computer Associates International, who got $650 million in restricted
shares, towering far above Ken Lay's scrawny salary of $5.4 million and
shares worth $49 million. As the 1990s blew themselves out, the
corporate culture, applauded on a weekly basis by such bullfrogs of the
bubble as Thomas Friedman, saw average CEO pay at those same 362
corporations rise to a level 475 times larger than that of the average
The executive suites of America's largest companies became a vast hog
wallow. CEOs and finance officers would borrow millions from some
complicit bank, using the money to drive up company stock prices,
thereby inflating the value of their options. Brenner offers us the
memorable figure of $1.22 trillion as the total of borrowing by
nonfinancial corporations between 1994 and 1999, inclusive. Of that sum,
corporations used just 15.3 percent for capital expenditures. They used
57 percent of it, or $697.4 billion, to buy back stock and thus enrich
themselves. Surely the wildest smash and grab in the annals of corporate
When the bubble burst, the parachutes opened, golden in a darkening sky.
Blackburn cites the packages of two departing Lucent executives, Richard
McGinn and Deborah Hopkins, a CFO. Whereas the laying off of 10,500
employees was dealt with in less than a page of Lucent's quarterly
report in August 2001, it took a fifteen-page attachment to outline the
treasures allotted to McGinn (just under $13 million, after running
Lucent for barely three years) and to Hopkins (at Lucent for less than a
year, departing with almost $5 million).
Makes your blood boil, doesn't it? Isn't it time we had a "New Covenant
for economic change that empowers people"? Aye to that! "Never again
should Washington reward those who speculate in paper, instead of those
who put people first." Hurrah! Whistle the tune and memorize the words
(Bill Clinton's in 1992).
There are villains in this story, an entire piranha-elite. And there are
victims, the people whose pension funds were pumped dry to flood the hog
wallow with loot. Here in the United States privatization of Social
Security has been staved off only because Clinton couldn't keep his hand
from his zipper, and now again because Bush's credentials as a voucher
for the ethics of private enterprise have taken a fierce beating.
But the wolves will be back, and popgun populism (a brawnier SEC, etc.,
etc.) won't hold them off. The Democrats will no more defend the people
from the predations of capital than they will protect the Bill of Rights
(in the most recent snoop bill pushed through the House, only three
voted against a measure that allows life sentences for "malicious
hacking": Dennis Kucinich and two Republicans, Jeff Miller of Florida
and the great Texas libertarian, Ron Paul). It was the Senate Democrats
in early July who rallied in defense of accounting "principles" that
permitted the present deceptive treatment of stock options. Not just Joe
Lieberman, the whore of Connecticut, but Tom Daschle of the Northern
Popgun populism is not enough. Socialize accumulation! Details soon.
The US Green Party held its first-ever midterm convention since becoming a full-fledged national party in Philadelphia a week ago, and the gathering of seventy-nine delegates from thirty-nine stat
Close to 3,000 progressive activists from all walks of life joined Jim Hightower for his third "Rolling Thunder/Down-Home Democracy Tour" in Tucson on July 26.
"Tell me about the hash bars."
"OK, what do you want to know?"
"It's legal there, right?"
"It's legal, but it ain't 100 percent legal."
Mount Rushmore, conceived in the 1920s as a tourist attraction, was quickly recast by the sculptor as an icon of democracy, freedom and hope.
In June, the New England Journal of Medicine, one of the most respected medical journals, made a startling announcement.
The Nation reported on Dr. Pendergraft's troubles in
"Abortion on Trial" by Hillary Frey and Miranda Kennedy, June 18, 2001.
These days, it's the media conglomerates who are drunk with power--demanding a larger share of the nation's airwaves and threatening to turn the World Wide Web into an electronic theme park--and
William Lerach's legal crusade against Enron and infectious greed.
John Dingell and Lynn Rivers are locked in a battle caused by
The National Endowment for Democracy has been busy--and far from
On its anniversary, two of its authors assess its relevance for today.
The Ten Habits Of Highly Defective Corporations
William J. Bennett, former Secretary of Education, ex-chairman of the
National Endowment for the Humanities, candidate for President in 2000
in the Republican primaries, has written an intemperate little book
called Why We Fight. Using the horror of 9/11, the book crackles
with protestations of his patriotism as he lobs shells at those who do
not share his views. Apparently Bennett had no moral choice but to write
what he had to say in order to save the Republic. "I sensed in my bones
that if we could not find a way to justify our patriotic instincts, and
to answer the arguments of those who did not share them, we would be
If Bennett had his way, those who did not hold his views would be dealt
with very harshly indeed. He leaves it to the reader to guess what he
would do with those he views as "unpatriotic." But there are ample
clues. Civil liberties are not his concern, neither in this book, as he
makes clear, nor for that matter anywhere else. He states that he is for
military tribunals "and the detention of suspects within our own borders
for questioning." For how long Bennett does not say. Nor does he tell us
whether there is the same standard for a non-American as for an American
citizen. Until recently there were hundreds being held in detention,
sanctioned by an act of Congress that gives the Bush Administration
virtual carte blanche in handling suspects without warrants, and perhaps
even without recourse to the regular court system. (Most of the
detainees have been quietly deported.) This exercise of power is a
complement to Administration foreign policy, as it is apparently
prepared to intervene in or invade nations even if there is no evidence
that they are involved in terrorism or backing terrorists. The domestic
implications are spelled out well by Bennett, but none of it bothers
him. His gravamen against the left and those who disagree with
him--members of the "peace party," as he calls his adversaries--is that
they "have caused damage, and they [you] need to be held to account."
Nation editors and thinkers like Eric Foner, Richard Falk, Katha
Pollitt and Jonathan Schell, take heed. They are not alone as enemies of
Bennett--New York Times editors, Harvard (Bennett is an
ungrateful alum) and assorted scholars, Noam Chomsky, students and the
professoriate generally should watch out. They are targets in Bennett's
campaign for an inquisition, twenty-first-century style. He is concerned
that "the Foners of the United States" have led a minority of Americans
away from being true believers. As Bennett so indelicately puts it, "A vast
relearning has to take place," undertaken by everyone, especially
"educators, and at every level." "The defect" in our education and
morals "can only be redressed by the reinstatement of a thorough and
honest study of our history, undistorted by the lens of political
correctness and pseudosophisticated relativism." In other words, there
has to be a moral cleansing in America.
The word "reinstatement" does not tell us what Bennett is attempting to
reinstate, though. From Why We Fight we learn of Bennett's deep
distress at American education, where his notions of American history
seem less persuasive than they were in the days when nineteenth-century
historians acted as propaganda instruments for war, racism and America's
imperial superiority. Those were the days when "a vast relearning" was
not necessary. He quotes approvingly Professor Donald Kagan, the Yale
historian, who tells us that those who do not hold to their definition
of patriotism and their reading of history suffer from "failures of
character [emphasis added by Bennett], made by privileged people who
enjoy the full benefits offered by the country they deride and detest,
its opportunities, its freedom, its riches, but who lack the basic
decency to pay it the allegiance and respect that honor demands."
Bennett does concede at one point that while it is incumbent on those
who hew to the Kagan version of truth to point out the despicable
behavior of the naysayers, we must also "[respect] their right to be
irresponsible and even subversive of our safety."
There are other views of patriotism, of course. One was promulgated by
the leading American philosopher John Dewey, an independent thinker not
given either to religions or secular religions, namely Communism. He
surely would have been measured for a Soviet gulag. But he would also
have been on Bennett's enemies list for his belief that scoundrels too
often fly the flag of patriotism and nationalist triumphalism:
On the side in which public spirit is popularly known as patriotism this
widening of the area of interest has been accompanied by increased
exclusiveness, by suspicion, fear, jealousy, often hatred, of other
nations.... The self interest of the dynastic and military class
persistently keeps the spark of fear and animosity alive in order that
it may, upon occasion, be fanned into the flames of war. A definite
technique has grown by which the mass of citizens are led to identify
love of one's own country with readiness to regard other nations as
enemies.... And in many cases, it is becoming clear that particular
economic interests hide behind patriotism in order to serve themselves.
So far has this feeling gone that on one side there is a definite
attempt to attach the stigma of "unpatriotic" to everything designated
international; to cultivate that kind of "hundred percent Americanism"
which signifies practically suspicion and jealousy of everything
In other words, Americanism can serve as a code word for "contempt of
other peoples," Dewey concluded.
The disinterested observer must wonder whether it is inaccurate to note
the emergence of dynastic classes whose political power is linked to the
intelligence community, the military and big business. It would be
absurd to deny at this point that there are classes and groups that
profit from war and military preparedness. It is equally naïve to
believe that the constitutional contract of civil liberties is so strong
that prosecutors, local police, freewheeling inquisitors and others will
not spy and inform on and harass the different and the dissident. War
mobilization is the perfect cover story for such abuses. The problem is
made worse because legal and structural changes in governing and
consciousness are legitimized through law, for example in the USA
Patriot Act. That is to say, the legacy of Bush will live long after he
returns to Crawford, Texas.
But what about the doubter? What about today's or next year's or next
decade's "little guy," a man like Winston in Orwell's 1984, who
didn't go along or know how to because the contradictions were so
profound between the stories that were given from one year to the next
that he knew enough not to believe in this year's lies? Suppose he
wondered why Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines was our friend one year
and the next we helped overthrow him, or why the hapless former
Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega, a man once on the CIA payroll, became
the occasion for our invasion of Panama, ostensibly because of his
involvement with drug payoffs? The results were much destruction and the
death of several hundred Panamanians. Bennett's defense of violence
takes on frightening characteristics. Somehow he believes that, quoting
Orwell favorably, "Those who 'abjure' violence can only do so because
others are committing violence on their behalf." He goes on to wrap
himself in the comfort of the armed forces. But surely he can't mean
this about Panama, El Salvador, Colombia, etc. Violence was not being
committed there on behalf of those who objected here. Indeed, it is a
stretch to imply that these actions did anything for the American
Imagine the naïve citizen who doesn't understand hypocrisy and
strategies of evasion, contradiction or double standards. That person
might wonder why we went to war in Afghanistan when the perpetrators of
the 9/11 destruction were for the most part Saudis. Referring to
Augustine and Jean Bethke Elshtain, Bennett claims that "not
resorting to force leads to evils far greater than the one we
oppose." But surely it would be nice to know who the enemy is, and drop
the bombs on the correct culprit. Whether the naïve person who
holds such views and then organizes others to express their doubts
should be held without bail as a suspect is unclear from the Bennett
text. What is clear is that doubters should be shunned and punished.
They are raining on Bennett's "war party" (his term), a parade in which
he is a proud adjutant.
Bennett's animus toward his fellow Americans is unforgiving especially
in reference to those who were part of the movements of the 1960s, which
had the effect of concretizing ideals into practice--and at no small
cost. Perhaps his anger against the movement members was that they
employed nonviolence and used or stumbled into a social method that
broke "facts" open and found values that contradicted the stated
democratic ideals of inclusivity, equality and sheer decency. It is no
wonder that this social method is one that helps ourselves and the young
demystify events, their causes and implications. His disdain for the
peace party goes back to the Vietnam War. At that time, the peace party,
made up of the flaccid and pusillanimous, didn't support the "bomb them
back to the Stone Age" position of Gen. Curtis LeMay. Bennett, the angry
moralist, remains upset that the LeMay position didn't get much of a
hearing, although the general ran for Vice President with George
Wallace, and the tonnage of bombs dropped on Vietnam by the United
States was greater than the amount dropped in World War II. As Bennett
opines, it was the Gandhian nonviolence people of the peace party who
subverted an American victory in Vietnam because "those among us who
espoused the LeMay position were scarcely to be heard from." His
argument is uncomfortably reminiscent of the German generals and the
right during the Weimar Republic who claimed that the Germans lost World
War I because they were "stabbed in the back" by the left.
As a good Republican, Bennett bristles at those who might doubt the
motives and methods of the Bush Administration. After all, how could
anyone doubt those patriots who took power under questionable
circumstances, who had already used every sleazy trick to get one of
their fellow rightists onto the Supreme Court and vault into the White
House a man who'd lost the popular vote, installed as it were, by a
5-to-4 decision of the Supreme Court? Because Bennett is a dogmatic man
he is not burdened with self-doubt but has a surfeit of faith. (Bennett
lets us know that he is a religious man, a Catholic who has no doubts
about his faith and his belief in the Catholic Church, its teaching and
activities. It is his kind of faith, religion itself, which he
understands to be the backbone of America, much the way other believers
throughout the world, such as Osama bin Laden, perhaps, link their faith
to their political judgments.)
To Bennett, 9/11 was a moment of clarity between good and evil. "Good
was distinguished from evil, truth from falsehood." But there was more
to the question. He was concerned that some said the United States
helped bring the disaster about through its foreign and military
policies. After all, the skeptics wondered, didn't the United States
train and militarily assist the radical fundamentalists against the
Soviet Union? And then didn't our assets turn against the United States
when Afghanistan was left a broken nation? And did the United States
overstay its welcome in Saudi Arabia, whose people include chief backers
of the radical fundamentalists? These were not idle questions, nor was
it idle and unpatriotic to analyze from top to bottom the ethos of
American invulnerability. The United States had placed its faith in a
forward defense. But on that terrible day, the idea of fighting wars on
other people's territory was severely damaged. Wouldn't these questions
suggest a comprehensive review of American foreign policy? But Bennett
the purist claims that he is not interested in policy. He is interested
in right and wrong, good and evil. Bennett, the consummate Washington
insider, is not one, apparently, to get his hands dirty with the
realities of policy-making and everyday life--i.e., what to do--although
working through his principles would have horrendous consequences for a
The reader may ask whether there is anything about which Bennett and I
agree. And here the answer is yes. Certainly the assault on American
cities was an atrocious attack by a gang of zealots. On why they thought
to undertake their suicide mission Bennett and I disagree. Perhaps the
perpetrators wanted to give the United States a lesson in cost-benefit
analysis to show that all the high-tech military equipment in the world
does not make the United States invulnerable. (Indeed, because of the
interconnectedness of our communications system, the United States is as
vulnerable as any Third World country.) The zealots may have been imbued
with an anti-Western spirit that has rankled for over a thousand years
and finally erupted against the United States, paradoxically for the
same reason Bennett has had grave questions about American society: its
relativism, sensuality, individuality and lack of religious discipline.
Relativism has acquired a vulgar connotation, and Bennett uses its
burlesqued meaning as a stick against nonbelievers and the peace party.
He compares Stanley Fish, the dean of liberal arts and sciences at the
University of Illinois in Chicago, a leader of the postmodernist school
of literary theory, to mass murderer Charles Manson, who said that he
thought no man could really know and represent another, "to communicate
one reality through another, and into another, reality."
"Stanley Fish himself could hardly have put it better," writes Bennett:
Do we, then, have no independent and objective standard for determining
why Professor Fish should be allowed to teach at a prestigious
institution of higher learning while Charles Manson should languish in
prison just because he followed a doctrine he shares with Professor Fish
to its logical conclusion--the conclusion that since everything is
relative, everything can be justified and all is permitted.
One does not have to be a postmodernist, which I am not, to be deeply
offended by Bennett's comment. Bennett picks up on Leszek Kolakowski's
views that to follow principles to their logical conclusion can lead to
disaster. But Bennett overlooks a fundamental truth. The question is how
to determine an "independent and objective standard," what goes into
that judgment and who decides what that standard is. By analyzing this
set of questions we learn our own weaknesses, that of the standard
setters and those who seek to impute their values into an objective
reality. We can analyze and judge, from our perspective, actions and
behaviors. People can then choose between Fish and Manson.
Right and wrong may come from God or moral sentiments, which the
philosophers Francis Hutcheson and David Hume spoke of. These
sentiments, better stated as capacities that people have, may be
degraded by social roles, institutions, laws, poor upbringing, whatever
causes a person to turn toward the pathological. Obviously, if one
believes in the Enlightenment and historical progress, ways of acting do
emerge that are acceptable as against actions that are no longer
acceptable either as a result of social agreement or because there are
moral sentiments that make their way through historical struggle.
Bennett, who appears to be all over the map philosophically, does hold
as a constant his belief in Plato, who in turn held tightly to the idea
of an antidemocratic society, one based on hierarchy and strict class
lines. Plato, according to Bennett, disposed of the relativism that his
apostle now sees as the cause of our decay. But what exactly is
relativism? Bennett also quotes approvingly Abelard's dialectical idea
of sic and non (the debate surrounding opposite
propositions) as being the probable "basis of all learning itself...of
our very outlook on the world." But Abelard's method can be read two
ways. One is that the questions undertaken invariably lead to the same
question expressed in new ways (aporia), or it is a method that
is supposed to give the right answer expressed by a church that defines
what reason and faith are.
Relativism is really a special form of democratic skepticism that
encourages us to examine and extend our inquiry beyond the appearance of
an event even in the case of recognizable and accepted facts. The
relativist points out that the fact can be seen from different vantage
points, and, more important, that a fact has within itself an entire
story that can and should be explored. Now the question is, how does
this apply to 9/11?
First, there is the fact of its occurrence. In a policy sense it becomes
critical for us to understand how and why the event occurred, what the
implications are, what its immediate causes were. For its various flaws,
relativism is an attempt to move to a coherent, if invariably incomplete
picture of what happened and what lay behind the event. It is the only
way we can learn what to do. It takes a dim view of professed views of
what is "good" and "evil" not because they don't exist but because ideas
of an absolutist nature that are put into practice can lead to the most
horrendous consequences. It is why law, including international law, is
so important, for it imposes boundaries even for the protection of the
evildoer. In policy terms, matters of good and evil are transposed into
causes, consequences and manageable categories for people who cannot
know the whole truth, and for people who seek a means of understanding
rather than mere retaliation or dogma.
This form of analysis leads to certain conclusions. The first is that
9/11 almost immediately became a social and political question of what
to do. It was a moral question for those caught between their pacifist
beliefs and their concern for justice for their fellow citizens. For
Bennett that terrible day was the moment not only to get mad (angry) in
his terms but to get even. Bennett is obsessed with the idea that there
is not enough anger in American society. We are all caught in this
unmanly process of Roger Fisher and William Ury's ideas of "getting to
yes," that is, finding avenues of agreement between people, states and
groups. If this formulation does not have value then humanity cannot
escape the vise of dominator/dominated. Nor can it find ways of controlling and sublimating anger,
violence and rage. Nor will humanity be able to escape forever the
further use of nuclear weapons.
There is a smidgen of truth to Dean Rusk's and Bennett's idea that the
American people have to be pulled kicking and screaming into war. But
this belies the work of a state that has been involved, depending on
one's count, in more than 150 interventions and wars since its founding.
Only someone given to deceiving himself would not recognize the American
state as a warrior state. There are many reasons Bennett chooses not to
see this reality--that is to say, in Bennett's history book there are
many blank pages. Thus, the United States made continuous war on Indians
for the better part of a hundred years, always with its eye on the
prize: to take as much land as it could from them. The Mexican-American
war can hardly be seen in a different light. This is an old story told
well and critically by historians--a story Bennett would sugarcoat for
the young, with claims of an American destiny. Is that what the "vast
relearning" is to be about? Whether the United States had high moral
purpose or crass economic motives in employing violence and deceit does
not change the reality about the means used.
It should go without saying that there is a matter of supreme importance
for Bennett with which I do agree. It is that there is no place for
anti-Semitism in twenty-first-century civilization--whether it comes as
the virulent form that has erupted among too many in Muslim nations or
whether it exists as a residue in American politics (peace to the memory
of Richard Nixon). But it's there, whether in the Middle East, Europe or
in American politics.
This anti-Semitism does not excuse Israel's foreign and military
policies, which put at risk the state of Israel, in my view; but Bennett
is among the staunchest of Israel's supporters. He says there is "an
understanding, almost religious in nature, that to our two nations above
all others has been entrusted the fate of liberty in the world." There
is a consistency in his view. He wants no appeasement toward the
Palestinians, seeking their subjugation and cautioning the Bush
Administration; I suppose that weak fellow General Powell had better
watch his step in his concern to temper this ugly war. Or maybe it's his
Here the prudent analyst might have learned something from Vietnam.
There was much pressure to remove the corrupt and seemingly feckless
Diem from his position. And after he was removed, with American backing,
the leadership structure of South Vietnam ended in turmoil. We may
expect the same to occur if the Israelis, with American concurrence,
manage to force into place among the Palestinians a Middle East version
of a puppet leader. Bennett's view of American foreign policy demands
that we look only at the depredations of Osama, Palestinian terrorists
and certain nations on his enemies list. He claims that he is interested
in objectivity, but he is unprepared or unwilling to look at those
issues that may or may not have salience. This has little to do with
good and evil, except as those words are used to obfuscate. The moral
asymmetry he assumes should be surrendered, so that the universal
standards Bennett says he is for can be applied to the United States as
Another place of agreement between us is in Bennett's recognition that
through enormous struggle, the United States has sought to concretize
its shifting ideals of freedom and racial and economic justice into the
reality of everyday life. There are some exceptions, but there is little
to suggest that those who hold Bennett's views were the ones who were
part of the movements that changed the face of this nation into one that
others throughout the world admire for its freedoms. These struggles
were paid for dearly by the various social movements so the likes of
Bennett and me could live in relative comfort. It was not the
right--whether the ultramontane elements of Catholic hierarchy, Judge
Gary, J. Edgar Hoover, Joe McCarthy, Phyllis Schlafly, Antonin Scalia,
the George Bushes or William F. Buckley--that made this nation one that
championed "intellectual, moral and political freedom," to use the
philosopher A.E. Murphy's phrase.
But back to "why we fight" in international terms: Being a believing
Catholic, Bennett is concerned that "just war" be recognized as a
doctrine that has modern utility; one applicable to American reprisals.
As ironic as it may appear, "just war" is a weak reed to hang from in
order to support a war without end. Just war is predicated on struggles
between nations; it is not a struggle between a gang and a nation. A
just war has a beginning, middle and end, and it is not supposed to do
more damage than the original harm. Bennett argues that the opinions of
others (sometimes good to have) should in no way deter any unilateral
action the United States cares to take--that is to say, those who
control the reins of power. Bennett has thus adopted just war as his
rationalization for militarism.
One last word. An American-initiated alternative must be offered to that
part of the world that is writhing in pain. It is one that gets rid of
weapons of mass destruction through general disarmament. (This includes
our own.) It is one that supports the pacific settlements of disputes.
This does not mean the fashioning of imperial law but of expanding
international law. That the United States does not support the
International Criminal Court and has pulled out of various international
treaties is not a good sign for the United States or the world's future.
The alternative includes international economic rights, the buildup of
regional forces to act under the aegis of the UN Security Council,
massive health and economic assistance, and a system that makes clear
that intelligence is a feature of a free society--it is public property,
not that of the few or of the state. The alternative recognizes and
supports claims of plural cultures without undercutting in any way the
ideals and struggles that have defined human rights in the United
States, namely women's rights, civil liberties, civil rights, labor
rights, gender rights, environmental rights. It recognizes that
education, housing, religion, free inquiry and health are rights to be
expanded and cherished. This charge is not likely to be fulfilled by
calls for wars without end and claims of patriotism meant to mystify,
For readers of this magazine and millions of other Americans, the
initial horror of September 11 was compounded by the sobering
realization that George W. Bush would be at the helm for the aftermath.
With a cabal of fundamentalists, crackpots and fascists whispering in
his ear, Dubya became the world's most dangerous weapon. Perhaps, we hoped, the rather low esteem in which he was held by the American people, the news media and much of Congress might save us.
No such luck. Congress and the mainstream media lined up behind him in
lockstep. Instances of his much-vaunted ignorance wound up on the
cutting-room floor. One cable network ran daily promos of Bush spurring
on World Trade Center rescue workers, declaring that he had "found his
voice" amid the rubble. Pundit Peggy Noonan declared Bush's post-9/11
speech to Congress no less than "God-touched"; he had "metamorphosed
into a gentleman of cool command...[with] a new weight, a new gravity."
Yet, despite the rise in his approval ratings, many harbored lingering
doubts about the extent to which a "new" Bush existed.
Among the many critical viewpoints drowned out in the wake of the
attacks was Mark Crispin Miller's The Bush Dyslexicon, the first
systematic critical examination of the President's mistakes,
misstatements and malapropisms. Fortunately, this clever volume has been
reissued with updated material on Bush's sayings and doings since that
Bush's propensity for mangling the English language is no secret to
anyone. No doubt we all have our favorites, which we've gleefully shared
with friends, family, co-workers and comrades. Miller, a professor of
media ecology at New York University, has compiled what is clearly the
largest collection of Dubya-isms to date, among them these treats:
§ On his qualifications to be President: "I don't feel I've got all
that much too important to say on the kind of big national issues"
(September 2000); and "Nobody needs to tell me what I believe. But I do
need somebody to tell me where Kosovo is" (September 1999).
§ On coping with terrorism and other threats: "[We'll] use our
technology to enhance uncertainties abroad" (March 2000); and "We'll let
our friends be the peacekeepers and the great country called America
will be the pacemakers" (September 2000).
§ On Russia: "And so one of the areas where I think the average
Russian will realize that the stereotypes of America have changed is
that it's a spirit of cooperation, not one-upmanship; that we now
understand one plus one can equal three, as opposed to us, and Russia we
hope to be zero" (November 2001).
Miller vividly illustrates the depth of ignorance--as opposed to
stupidity--that leads this President away from direct contact with
journalists whenever possible. Miller also demonstrates that Bush's
"problem" with language is not easily separated from his "problem" with
policy and politics. If we focus exclusively on his stormy relationship
with proper grammar and logical sentence structure, Miller argues, we
risk underestimating what his presidency means for the United States and
the world. "Our president is not an imbecile but an operator just as
canny as he is hard-hearted.... To smirk at his alleged stupidity is,
therefore, not just to miss the point, but to do this unelected
president a giant favor."
Loosely organized by subject matter-- "That Old Time Religion," "It's
the Economy, Your Excellency"--the book's chapters chronicle several
intertwined aspects of the chief executive: the politics of style that
characterize his behavior and demeanor; the media's role in crafting him
as a valid presidential candidate and, post-9/11, a changed man; the
Bush family's political legacy and troubled public image; and, finally,
the real meaning behind Dubya's flubs and gaffes.
Miller documents in detail how major news outlets have from the
beginning provided a heavily edited public transcript of Bush's
statements and have helped steer viewers away from his lack of policy
knowledge. Even more disturbing are the ways the media have simply
reported Bush's "ideas" without comment. Commenting on a Kansas
school-board vote to end evolution's exclusivity in the state science
curriculum (later overturned), for example, Bush declared, "I personally
believe God created the earth" (September 1999); later, he opined,
"After all, religion has been around a lot longer than Darwinism"
The abundant evidence Miller provides of Dubya getting pass after pass
in the media seems particularly alarming. In addition to general
"cover," Cokie Roberts, Sam Donaldson and other famed "journalists" and
newspeople consistently let Bushisms fly with little or no comment. Note
this flub on the fate of Elián González's potential
citizenship during an airing of ABC's This Week:
Well, I think--I--It--listen, I don't understand the full ramifications
of what they're going to do. But I--I--I--think it'd be a--a--a
wonderful gesture. I guess the man c--the boy could still go back to
Cuba as a citizen of the United States.... I hadn't really thought about
the citizenship issue. It's an interesting idea, but if I were in the
Senate, I'd vote aye.
Roberts gave no response to the nonsensical Bush, nor did Chris Matthews
in this bizarre MSNBC Hardball episode in May 2000:
Matthews: When you hear Al Gore say "reckless, irresponsible," what do
you hear from him, really?...
Bush: I hear a guy who's not confident in his own vision, and,
therefore, wants to take time tearing me down. Actually, I--I--this may
sound a little West Texan to you, but I like it when I'm talking about
what I'm--what I--
Bush:--when I'm talking about myself, and when he's talking about
myself, all of us are talking about me.
Of course, these snippets pale in comparison to the alacrity with which
the media papered over the fact that our current President was not
elected by a majority of the populace.
This is quite a contrast from the dis-ease with which the fourth estate
treated Bush's predecessors. Miller traces the phenomenon back to
Richard Nixon, whom he calls the "godfather" of Bush-era politics. Like
Bush, Nixon was not a man well liked by the television cameras; nor, as
the White House tapes reveal, was he an especially enlightened man, with
his pedestrian literary interpretations, paranoid hatred of Jews,
virulent racism, sexism and homophobia. "You know what happened to the
Greeks!?" Nixon bellowed to Haldeman and Ehrlichman: "Homosexuality
destroyed them. Sure, Aristotle was a homo." Nixon's angry and, as
Miller describes it, "low-born" personality manifested itself throughout
his televisual life, particularly during the scandal that brought down
Inheriting this image problem was Dubya's patriarch, George Bush senior,
who not only worked for Nixon politically but also shared in his
televisually and verbally handicapped style. Whereas Nixon came off as a
classless bully, Bush suffered from sissiness, the infamous Wimp Factor:
"Bush's posh class background was his major TV problem, the cameras
mercilessly outing the big pantywaist within.... In fact, the Bush clan,
although fabulously wealthy, is not aristocratic enough to do well on
TV, if by that modifier we mean elegant and polished. First of all, the
Bushes often have let fly in the most boorish way--as when Barbara Bush
hinted coyly that Geraldine Ferraro was a 'bitch.'"
In an effort to analyze Bush Sr.'s wanna-be aristocratic demeanor,
Miller proceeds to call him a "Yalie faggot" and argues that the Bush
family's privilege put the elder Bush in the toughest of spots relative
to his macho Republican predecessors. On losing a straw poll in Ames,
Iowa, for example, Bush noted, "A lot of people who support me were at
an air show, they were off at their daughter's coming-out party, they
were teeing up at the golf course." Miller makes it abundantly clear how
frequently Bush Sr. not only missed, but miscalculated, the mark.
The point is that on television, class is not an economic issue but a
style issue. Given what Miller terms the Kennedy "savoir-faire," the
Bush family is at a distinct image disadvantage. Unfortunately, Miller
frequently analogizes Bush's moneyed privilege with a certain kind of
homosexuality--offensive behavior in a critic himself trying to "out"
Nixon's ignorance and homophobia. And he contrives that Barbara's
complaining of another woman's bitchiness is somehow anathema to
At root, these strangely aristocratic cheap shots smack of a kind of
backhanded liberal Kennedy worship. It is impossible to miss the
implication that America's royal family is the standard-bearer of
sufficiently presidential (read: aristocratic and classy) demeanor.
Given that JFK was an ethically challenged, commie-hunting political
lightweight, Miller's willingness to engage in macho class snobbery
points to the disturbing presence in the book of a crass partisanship
better suited to a Democratic media flack than a scholar of the left.
Symptomatic of this is the fact that for much of the book Miller seems
to forget the high degree of political convergence between Bush and
neoliberal New Democrats like Al Gore. One cannot help wondering if
Miller thinks a Gore Administration would not have responded to
September 11 with military action, and with legislation that expanded
the already egregious powers given the government in the
Clinton-sponsored Counter Terrorism Initiative of 1995. This see-no-evil
quality of the book is all the more telling because it represents the
very type of amnesia that Miller says afflicts us all after years of
corporate-led media idiocy. When he harps on Clinton's downfall at the
hands of the right without sufficiently stressing Bill's own
never-ending rightward shift throughout his eight years in office, one
wonders if Miller's own political memory lapsed from 1992 to 2000. It is
not until near the end of the book that he turns tail and concedes Al
Gore's rather striking resemblances to a war-happy Republican candidate,
as Gore "spoke more expertly, but just as deferentially, straining to
out-hawk the jut-jawed W, arguing that he would raise the military
budget even higher and retrospectively saluting the preposterous
invasions of Grenada and Panama."
Finally, Miller's critique of the "politics of style" turns in upon
itself. Miller obtains the lion's share of Bushisms from precisely those
style-obsessed media outlets he accuses of bringing down Clinton and
building up Bush: the New York Times, Talk,
Glamour, 20/20 and Larry King Live appear all over
Miller's source citations, and he is just as dependent on, and dedicated
to, the politics of style as they are. At the end of the book, one
cannot help suspecting that Miller's beef with the politics of style is
that it took down his guy while it has yet to take down the other guy.
This hedging makes crucial parts of the book read like sour grapes and
detracts from the moments of sharp observation that Miller offers
elsewhere. He clearly grasps the very real danger of the Bush
Administration--his most intriguing observation is that Bush is not
always a rhetorical bumbler. As Miller conducts his repeated dissections
of various Bushisms, it becomes clear that this man is in fact possessed
of considerable guile. In an interview with Charlie Rose, in August
2000, Bush speaks about Saddam Hussein:
Rose: OK. What if you thought Saddam Hussein, using the absence of
inspectors, was close to acquiring a nuclear weapon?
Bush: He'd pay a price.
Rose: What's the price?
Bush: The price is force, the full force and fury of a reaction.
Rose: Bombs away?
Bush: You can just figure that out after it happens.
Here we see Dubya apparently willing and even eager to bomb a country
with which we are not at war--yet. Two years before the recent
enunciation of a "Hitting First" policy of pre-emption and even more
recent revelations of an existing attack plan from land, sea and air,
Bush's warring language was unambiguous. Likewise, when speaking of
anger and vengeance post-9/11, he is nothing if not clear, and his
dyslexic tendencies are nowhere in evidence. Down-homish and
cringe-inducing though it may be, "evildoers" is a phrase whose meaning
is singular, and Bush's repeated use of it has not been subject to the
usual emendations or "clarifications" of his handlers. Similarly, Bush
famously threatened to "smoke 'em out" of their holes, another
inappropriate, unpresidential, phrase; yet no one was confused about
what it meant for Al Qaeda.
The Bush Dyslexicon makes it clear that even after the 11th of
September, Bush's personality was far from "God-touched" or even
transformed; in fact, provided with the opportunity to inflate his
defense budget, savage Social Security and go after the Taliban as if in
a 'coon hunt, Bush was just this side of gleeful at the prospect for
revenge. Hardly had the mourning American public time to collect itself
before Dubya encouraged the military to "smoke 'em out of their caves,
to get 'em runnin' so we can get 'em" in order, as Bush himself put it,
to "save the world from freedom."
Given the potentially dire consequences of Bush's post-9/11 policy
agenda, though, it seems strangely incongruous that Miller so often goes
for the breezy, snappy rhetoric and eschews a more forthrightly
analytical tone. It may be therapeutic to laugh in the face of danger,
but somehow these do not seem to be particularly funny times.
It used to be a matter of flashing a badge and appealing to patriotism,
but these days federal agents are finding it a little harder to get
librarians to spy. Under an obscure provision of the USA Patriot Act,
federal agents can obtain a warrant to acquire information about library
users. According to a recent survey, agents have been showing up at libraries--a lot--asking librarians for reading
records. Nearly everything about the procedure--from the granting of the
warrants to the search itself--is secret (as an excellent story in the
San Francisco Chronicle pointed out recently). But, unlike in the
cold war years, when the FBI last tried to conduct such library
surveillance, this time around, top librarians are on the warpath to
protect reader privacy. And Congress wants Attorney General John
Ashcroft to account for his agents' library conduct.
It wasn't like this back in George W.'s daddy's day.
Between 1973 and the late 1980s, the FBI operated a secret
counterintelligence operation called the Library Awareness Program. Back
then the Feds were particularly concerned about what Soviet bloc
citizens were reading in the nation's premier science libraries. In the
words of Herbert Foerstel, a science librarian in those years, "Agents
would approach clerical staff at public and university libraries, flash
a badge and appeal to their patriotism in preventing the spread of
'sensitive but unclassified' information."
Today, with Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act in hand, law enforcement
agents are at it again. This time, the stated purpose is to gather
information on people the government suspects of having ties to
terrorists or plotting an attack. The act makes it hard to track just
what's going on. Anyone who receives an FBI request is prohibited, under
threat of prosecution, from revealing the FBI visit to anyone, even to
the patron whose records are subject to search.
On April 3 I interviewed Deborah Caldwell-Stone, deputy director of the
American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom, on
Working Assets Radio, and the interview illustrated the problem. To
paraphrase: Flanders: "How many libraries have received information
requests from the FBI?" Stone: "They are not allowed to tell us, and we
are not allowed to say."
But in February one enterprising library sciences professor sent a
survey to 1,503 libraries around the country. Dr. Leigh Estabrook asked
librarians for answers to a set of questions, to which they did not have
to append their name. According to Estabrook's raw data, presented this
spring at a Public Library Association conference, eighty-five of the
libraries surveyed report that authorities (for example, FBI or police)
requested information about their patrons pursuant to the events of
September 11. More worrisome, about one-fifth of the libraries said
staff had changed their attitude toward or treatment of users in some
way. More than 10 percent (118) reported that they had become more
restrictive of Internet use. Seventy-seven said they had monitored what
patrons were doing.
Librarians on the alert aren't necessarily a bad thing. In Florida, an
attentive Delray Beach librarian reported the use of her library by a
group of Middle Eastern men, and they turned out to have connections to
the attacks of 9/11.
But some of this monitoring may be illegal. Since the abuses of the cold
war, almost every state has passed confidentiality laws to protect the
privacy of personal records. Since passage of the USA Patriot Act, the
American Library Association has been busy reminding librarians of their
abilities to question things like federal search warrants and advising
them of the best practices to undertake to protect confidentiality of
patrons and themselves. In January, the ALA released a set of guidelines
to inform librarians of what search warrants were, what subpoenas were
and how they could react if in fact they were presented with such
documents. Then in June, the ALA's governing council passed a resolution
publicly affirming the privacy rights of patrons and implicitly
instructing library staff to do all they can to protect their clients'
"Privacy is essential to the exercise of free speech, free thought and
free association," says the ALA council statement, in part. It wouldn't
be a bad idea for librarians to post the statement in the stacks.
Concerned library readers should also know that one sure-fire way to
keep your reading records private is to take back your borrowed books on
time. The ALA's Stone told Working Assets Radio that the circulation
software most libraries use today automatically erases a reader's
borrowing record once a book is returned and all fines are paid.
Congress is getting interested as well. On June 13 a bipartisan
committee sent a twelve-page letter to John Ashcroft demanding details
on the implementation of the USA Patriot Act. Representative James
Sensenbrenner, Republican of Wisconsin, the staunch conservative chair
of the House Judiciary Committee, and Michigan Democrat John Conyers,
the progressive, ranking Democrat, want to know, among other things,
just how many subpoenas the Justice Department has issued to libraries,
bookstores and newspapers under Section 215 and what safeguards are in
place to prevent abuse. The letter asked for written answers by July 9,
which at presstime had yet to be received; then Sensenbrenner and
Conyers plan to hold hearings on the response. Are G-men harassing your
librarian? The hearings should make for good, hot summer viewing on
C-Span. Meanwhile, library staff are under a lot of pressure--why not
drop by or write to your librarian and send a message of support?
Dispatches from adolescent territory reach me occasionally through my
niece Michelle, who has moved into her teen years like the
Wehrmacht hitting Belgium. Her most recent posting has taught me
this about contemporary film culture: While visiting a Midwest resort
town with a friend, Michelle was delighted to discover a street of quaint shops, as well as a theater that played old movies. Which old movies, I wanted to know.
"Spider-Man," she said.
In the hope that this column might fall into the hands of teenagers, I
therefore begin with an apology. Some of the movies I am about to
discuss have been running for two weeks, or even longer. That's enough
for them to have earned most of whatever theatrical revenue they can
expect; enough that they are now being pushed into the back reaches of
the public's attention, so that next week's movies can be marketed. I
want to write about these pictures precisely because they were
made to be forgotten (like Men in Black II); or, conversely,
because they are already starting to fade, despite their makers' best
I also want to write about a film that just might stick in the mind:
Langrishe, Go Down, starring Judi Dench and Jeremy Irons. But
there I'm cheating. Although that film is only now being released, it
doesn't really count as current, since it was made in 1978.
To people who dislike movies and attend only films, it might seem
obvious that Men in Black II can't compete against Langrishe,
Go Down (which has not only Dench and Irons to its credit but also a
screenplay by Harold Pinter). But then, to my mind, Langrishe, Go
Down can scarcely compete against the original Men in Black,
which so brightened the summer of 1997. While that picture cheerfully
fulfilled every duty of a sci-fi special-effects comedy, it also won a
permanent place in memory by developing a theme that should interest
thoughtful teenagers and adults alike.
In its portrayals of agents Kay and Jay (Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith)
and of the coroner who stumbled onto their secrets (Linda Fiorentino),
Men in Black proposed that knowledge has to be paid for, and that
the cost is often loneliness. Fiorentino, you may recall, played a
scientist whose zeal for research allowed her no living companions.
Smith played a New York cop who had to choose between satisfying his
curiosity and maintaining relations with his friends and family--not
much of a decision in his case, since he was already thoroughly
alienated. (In a training exercise, Smith shot to death a cute little
blond girl but left unmolested a fanged and tentacled potato from Outer
Space, with which he seemed to empathize.) As for Jones, he strutted and
snapped his way through the movie as if a show of bravado were all that
could keep him going. "We are a gullible species," he sighed at one
point, as if wishing he might lay down his burden and rejoin the
credulous. Everyone except Smith understood this ragged man was on his
Clearly, Jones should have stayed in the retirement he achieved at the
end of Men in Black. Smith should have remained partners with
Fiorentino, and the sequel (if there had to be one) ought to have been
written by Ed Solomon, who so ingeniously handled the original. Maybe he
would have titled the picture Men and Women in Black. Instead, we
get the throwaway Men in Black II, which disposes of Fiorentino
in half a line of dialogue and uses the same method to eliminate the
wife for whom Jones once pined. (It's as if the audience could be purged
of memory, just like the movie's neuralized civilians.) With these
impediments to buddy-movie business cleared away, the screenplay (by
Robert Gordon and Barry Fanaro) can proceed to reunite Smith and Jones
and replay, with slight variations, the simpler gags from the first
Time passes, hope sinks and a theme emerges, unfortunately. Men in
Black II shows that only two kinds of women exist on other planets:
shining saints and snaky monsters. If this is so, then Earth must be
bigger and more varied than the whole rest of the universe--a notion
that runs counter to the spirit I recall with such joy from the first,
the one true, Men in Black.
As you may know, Men in Black was based on a comic book by Lowell
Cunningham; so it has something in common with Road to Perdition,
a gangster picture spawned from a graphic novel by Max Allan Collins and
Richard Piers Rayner. Under the fussy and portentous direction of Sam
Mendes (who previously postured his way through American Beauty),
Road to Perdition is clearly a far more ambitious movie than
Men in Black II. It boasts the very substantial talents of Tom
Hanks and Paul Newman in lead roles, an unnerving performance by Jude
Law in a crucial supporting part and magically dark, dense
cinematography by Conrad L. Hall. The story would seem to be worth
telling (it's about murderous gangster fathers and the sons who are
either loyal or disloyal to them, either willing or unwilling to follow
their path); and the setting is the Depression-era Midwest, which always
helps a movie. And yet very little of Road to Perdition lingers,
except for a feeling that you've been carried along.
Most of the carrying happens when mob hit man Michael Sullivan (Hanks)
is driving around the wintry plains with his 12-year-old son, Mike
(Tyler Hoechlin). The two are both fleeing a killer (Law) and chasing
the men who dispatched him--a situation that allows for a couple of
good, tense confrontations. Since Hanks thinks it would be helpful to
empty Al Capone's bank accounts, there's also a series of jolly
robberies. I would guess these episodes take up about fifteen minutes of
the movie. The rest is murk, forced lyricism and mounting corpses.
Perhaps you won't care when I reveal that almost no one survives, since
the deaths never matter. They just happen, like ticks of a metronome.
Each beat gives Sam Mendes the opportunity to make pretty arrangements:
an image of violence framed by a man's legs, a flash at a nighttime
window, a brightly lit homage to David's Death of Marat, a
tracking shot of men silently collapsing in the rain. Watching these
stage-derived tableaux vivants, I began to think better of the
movie-mad energy of Miller's Crossing, in which the Coen brothers
invested their overcoats-and-hats gangsters with both drive and
character. Maybe Miller's Crossing has also turned out to be
forgettable in large part; but its core moments (such as the scene of
John Turturro begging for his life) dig right into you, as if they were
newly installed neural pathways to the heart.
Road to Perdition? A passing flutter.
John Sayles can't be accused of prettifying his films, and he would
never kill a character for lack of anything better to do. What's more,
he despises the grand simplifications that are so common in comic books,
graphic novels and pop moviemaking. In Sunshine State, he sets up
for ridicule the fabulations of history pageants and real-estate
developers, so he can show off to better advantage his own, more
intricate vision of the social network. It's a strategy he's used in
many earlier films, just as he visited Texas and Alaska before this
excursion into Florida. From Sayles, you get highly specific landscapes,
reliable accounts of politics and commerce, and (more often than not)
actresses to die for--in this case, in alphabetical order, Jane
Alexander, Mary Alice, Angela Bassett and Edie Falco.
All this is admirable. I just wish Sayles would also put a little movie
into the movie.
Sunshine State isn't claptrap, like Divine Secrets of the
Ya-Ya Sisterhood, but it shares that picture's claptrap method of
being almost entirely expository. In scene after scene, Sayles tells you
exactly what he thinks you should know about Florida, often by putting
into the mouth of a character the kind of cliché-twisting
monologue that keeps rational people away from Off Broadway plays. I
think this is a waste of good actors--and the effects are nowhere more
evident than in the parts of Sunshine State you forget, or that
Sayles forgot. Tell me, if you've seen the picture: Can you recall what
finally becomes of Terrell (Alex Lewis), the troubled teenager whose act
of vandalism begins the story? He's hustled away so perfunctorily, once
he's served the purpose of uniting two strands of the plot, that he
might as well be Linda Fiorentino. And can you remember anything the
American Indian construction worker does in the movie, other than wait
around to be an American Indian at a crucial moment? For a filmmaker
with a social conscience, Sayles is awfully quick to use characters as
means, rather than ends.
So, for a dose of something eccentric and memorable, I turn to
Langrishe, Go Down.
David Jones directed this picture in 1978 for the BBC, working from
Harold Pinter's screenplay. New York's Film Forum is now giving the
movie a much-belated theatrical release (July 17-30), no doubt on the
strength of Judi Dench's ascent to stardom. She is, in fact, a wonder in
the role of Imogen Langrishe, one of a household of spinsters living in
ever-more-impoverished gentility on an estate outside Dublin. The period
is the 1930s, when such descents from grandeur were not uncommon for the
Irish gentry; nor would it have been unlikely for a self-styled scholar
from Bavaria (Jeremy Irons) to show up in the neighborhood to do
research, and to assert with sudden, unmotivated violence that he is
indifferent to politics, absolutely indifferent.
Sayles himself could not ask for a more realistic, closely observed
setting. (In this regard, Langrishe, Go Down owes a lot to its
source, the novel of the same title by Aidan Higgins.) But the way the
film's seduction and repulsion play themselves out--you understood,
surely, that Dench and Irons have an affair--is utterly unpredictable.
Irons turns himself into a fun-house mirror version of the
self-important German intellectual, complete with an accent that keeps
migrating toward Transylvania. He never stops talking; whereas Dench,
who is given relatively few lines, speaks volumes with her eyes and the
set of her mouth. You understand, without a word, how she sees through
Irons. She's amused by him; she feels this may be the last amusement
she'll get; and she enjoys it, until the underlying frustration and rage
To all this, David Jones adds a fragmented, time-shuffling montage
that's reminiscent of Alain Resnais. Or is the film's structure also a
Pinter contribution, like the lines of dialogue that continually run
askew? All I know is that this odd little movie has lodged in my brain,
not comfortably, perhaps, but permanently.
Langrishe, Go Down is a keeper.