OH CHADS, POOR CHADS...
I share William Greider's glee about the election stalemate ["Stupefied Democracy," Dec. 4] and the opportunity it provides for the voting public to discover the underpinnings and inadequate mechanisms of the electoral process. However, there is a disturbing tendency in this article and most other observations of the state of US "democracy" to refer to some earlier time (usually unspecified, as in Greider's piece) when the situation was better or even pure and perfect. In using terms like our current "decayed democracy" and a "shriveled meaning of citizenship," Greider falls into the old trap of what I call the "origin myth" of US democracy. I think it is an important issue because we really must look to ideas that will lead us to constructing democracy, rather than reviving a mythical democracy.
Your postelection editorial "Indecision 2000" [Nov. 27] asserted, "Union families were more than one-fourth of the popular vote and voted nearly 2 to 1 for Gore; African-Americans came out in large numbers and voted 10 to 1 for Gore; pro-choice women helped give Gore an 11-point lead among female voters. These numbers make it hard to take Nader's suggestion that it was his presence in the race...that will make Democrats take progressives in their own party more seriously." It's not clear why these numbers alone would get Democrats to take progressives more seriously--since the numbers were virtually the same in 1996. That year, union families provided almost one-fourth of all voters and chose Clinton over Dole by an even bigger margin than they chose Gore over Bush. And Clinton had a wider gender gap over Dole, a 16-point lead with female voters.
You went on to say: "The strength of the base vote now makes it harder for the DLC to persuade nervous Democrats that rebuilding the party requires further moves to the right." Since the base vote today is similar to that in 1996, some new vehicle of power and persuasion is needed to move the Democrats in a progressive direction. Otherwise, we'll keep watching a rerun every four years in which liberal leaders and journals mobilize their constituencies with increasing frenzy on behalf of decreasingly appetizing DLC candidates from Clinton to Gore to Lieberman. If Nader has the wrong approach, your editorial is fuzzy about who has the right one.
Cedar Rapids, Iowa
I as well as some fellow Metro high school students registered 200 new voters, then called them up on Election Day and reminded them to vote for a new leader for this nation. Because we did this, our teacher let us dye his hair bright pink. But this election has disappointed me. I propose instant runoff voting [Robert Richie and Steven Hill, "If Politics Got Real...," Oct. 16] so this kind of thing doesn't happen again.
As long as we do not have proportional representation and a complete ban on private financing of political campaigns, our elections will not be representative of anyone but the business class. The will of the people should not be usurped. Changing those two aspects of the electoral process is where our time, money and energy should be spent--not in worrying about which member of the ruling class wins a meaningless election.
The following is a reply to Norman Finkelstein's letter in last week's issue. --The Editors
New York City
Norman Finkelstein calls my work on the Swiss bank Holocaust case an exercise in blackmail. But the $1.25 billion Swiss bank settlement on behalf of Holocaust victims cannot possibly be characterized as blackmail unless that term is distorted to include any payment made by a defendant who is afraid to go to trial. Did the lawyers put pressure on the Swiss banks? You bet we did. We threatened them with justice.
Finkelstein's principal claim is that I misstated the documentary record when I charged that Swiss banks systematically destroyed records of Holocaust deposits. Let's look at the document Finkelstein cites--the report of the Volcker committee, which conducted an intensive audit of the banks. The Volcker report finds that records for 2.8 million accounts opened during the Holocaust era had been completely destroyed by the Swiss banks (Volcker report, para. 20). The Volcker report calls the destruction of those records an "unfillable gap." Moreover, the Volcker report finds that almost all of the transaction records for the remaining 4.1 million accounts were also destroyed, leaving a record of an account's opening and closing, but no information about the account's size, or whether it had been plundered (Volcker report, para. 21). I call that a pretty good job of systematically destroying records, especially since, in the absence of records, the banks get to keep the money because Switzerland has no escheat law. It is true that under Swiss law, the banks were required to keep records for only ten years. But, having accepted deposits from Holocaust victims, and knowing that most Jewish depositors had failed to survive the Nazis, how can anyone defend the Swiss banks' widespread destruction of the records needed to trace the true ownership of the Holocaust funds?
Despite the immense hurdles created by the destruction of records, the Volcker report identified 46,000 Swiss bank accounts with a "probable or possible" connection with Holocaust victims. The names of 26,000 of the accounts are about to be published, and the federal court has set aside $800 million to pay the owners of those funds. Neve Gordon, in his review of Finkelstein's book, suggests that the sum is exaggerated, but his figures dovetail closely with mine. The $800 million for bank deposits includes an interest/inflation factor of 10 that the Volcker committee found was necessary to permit payment of current value. Everyone, including Raul Hilberg, agrees that Jewish deposits into Swiss banks on the eve of the Holocaust were at least $80 million. Surely, the Swiss banks should not have the use of that money for sixty years without paying interest to the accounts' true owners. $800 million is, therefore, a very conservative estimate of what the banks really owe.
Finally, in a characteristically venomous charge, Finkelstein accuses me of "making a mockery of Jewish suffering during World War II," because I have estimated that 1 million victims of the Holocaust are still alive. In order to reach such a figure, Finkelstein argues that I must be diluting what it meant to suffer during the Holocaust. But, as usual, Finkelstein's obsession with criticizing anyone who acts on behalf of Holocaust survivors blinds him to the facts. My figure of 1 million victims was intended to include all surviving victims, not merely Jewish survivors. The German foundation Remembrance, Responsibility and the Future estimates that more than 1 million former slave and forced laborers are still alive and qualify for compensation. The fact is that the Holocaust did not affect only Jews. The Swiss settlement includes Sinti-Roma, Jehovah's Witnesses, the disabled and gays. The German foundation will distribute most of the slave/forced labor funds to non-Jews. About 130,000 Jewish survivors and about 900,000 non-Jewish victims are still alive. Norman Finkelstein accuses me of being a "main party" to seeking compensation for them. Thank you, Norman. I could not be prouder.
HE FELL ON HIS ASP
New York City
In his brilliant review of the work of Damien Hirst ["Art," Nov. 20], Arthur Danto offers up a useful if inadvertent example of the difficulty both sides continue to have in talking across the fence that separates Science from Art. He wonders at the connection made by Hirst in the title of a painting between a small molecule--argininosuccinic acid--and the bite of the asp. Danto's explanation builds up to a notion of painting as a form of pharmacology. Perhaps. But there is a simpler link between the asp and argininosuccinic acid, a link that goes deeper than the toxicity of the former or the pharmacology of the latter. ASP is the standard abbreviation for the common amino acid aspartic acid, also called aspartate. So the reason Hirst had for linking the title of his work to this snake may have been a simple pun.
But perhaps he had more in mind. When an excess of the four-carbon amino acid ASP must be gotten rid of--after one eats a fleshy meal, for instance--it is dropped into a set of enzymatic reactions called the urea cycle. There, the ASP is grabbed by the enzyme argininosuccinate synthetase and hooked onto the five-carbon amino-acid derivative citrulline to form Hirst's compound, argininosuccinate. This is then broken down into a set of compounds including urea and citrulline, which closes the cycle that dumps urea into urine. So beyond the pun, we have been given the notion of pissing as an antidote to poisoning. Not quite pharmacology, but clearly Hirst knows his biochemistry!
US HEALTHCARE--HOW NOT TO DO IT
According to Trudy Lieberman ["Unhealthy Politics," Nov. 6], the uninsured in the United States wait four months for an MRI. In Canada, the (universally) insured routinely wait six months for an MRI. Women with proven breast cancer have treatment delayed for months, unless they are lucky enough to live in a province where they are transferred to a US center. (In Ontario, they go to Buffalo.) And Canadians are not guaranteed stabilization in emergency rooms even if acutely ill--certainly there are no laws to that effect. Nonetheless, our universal healthcare system has overwhelming support from the Canadian public and virtually no one looks to the US system as a model.
REPORTS OF ITS DEATH EXAGGERATED
New York City
I am glad Stuart Klawans recognizes the extraordinary gifts of Anna Deavere Smith, but he writes a premature obituary for the Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue that she founded at Harvard in 1998 ["Films," Oct. 16]. I had the good fortune of participating in and seeing several institute events. It did set up innovative connections among artists and between artists and audiences. Because of this accomplishment, and others, I hope the institute will keep on in some form. Whatever this might be, the institute has established a model that can and surely will be adopted elsewhere.
CATHARINE R. STIMPSON
COULD THEY GO 9 ROUNDS?
It's a damn shame we can't lock Lynne Cheney [Jon Wiener, "'Hard to Muzzle': The Return of Lynne Cheney," Oct. 2] in a room with Diane Ravitch [Peter Schrag, "The Education of Diane Ravitch," Oct. 2] and make them discuss Ravitch's comment that "it is a fundamental truth that children need well-educated teachers who are eclectic in their methods and willing to use different strategies, depending on what works best for which children."
Of course, it's entirely possible that Ravitch would wind up providing Cheney more historically acontextual and one-sided ammunition for her "liberals have destroyed our schools" jihad. Never mind that smaller classes are better learning environments (and, barring a mass infusion of nuns, will necessarily cost more money), that the vast majority of teachers are underpaid, that no immigration crackdown can make the nation's children all learn English this year, and that parents who are both undereducated and overworked understandably have trouble participating in their children's education.
THERE GOES THE NEIGHBORHOOD
Bravo! to Patricia Williams's June 19 "Mad Professor" column, titled "Little House in the 'Hood," about what's happening in Harlem. While Harlem is certainly special because of its rich history, I fear that the same thing is happening all over the country as whites, with a growing appreciation for the beautiful woodwork and craftsmanship with which many older houses in the near-downtown areas were constructed, are buying them at very low cost. Once these neighborhoods "come back," the housing costs increase to the extent that long-term residents, especially the elderly, can no longer afford to live where they have lived most of their lives. Property values rise, which is good, but the other side of the coin is that some people get taxed out of their homes.
I was raised in, and have always lived in, integrated neighborhoods where everyone genuinely got along and looked out for and enjoyed being with one another. While I certainly would not want to see segregation rear its ugly head again, I do think that something gets lost from the fabric of a community when it's "taken over" and commercialized to the extent that it is no longer recognizable. My parents too, though living in integrated neighborhoods when they moved north, speak longingly of the time when blacks had their own businesses in their own communities. There was the neighborhood movie theater, dry cleaner, corner grocer and pharmacy complete with soda shop, and the like. We can all live, work and play together, but why do the character, the flavor and the fabric of communities that make them special have to be sacrificed in the process? Unfortunately there are some blacks who only see "green" when it comes to development, and I say they do so to their own (and the communities that they're supposed to serve) harm.
As a real estate professional interested in housing and social issues, I would like to engage in dialogue with others who share my thoughts and passions on this matter. Any takers? (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CYNTHIA D. JONES
READ HIS LIPS
Christopher Hitchens's October 9 "Minority Report," "Why Dubya Can't Read," cleared up a mystery for me. I've been deeply puzzled by Dubya's claim to be a leader. I now realize that Dubya was trying to tell us that he's a dealer.
If I had been so bold as to have wagered that Al Gore would succeed in the latest Supreme Court round, I would have quickly called my bookie this morning after breakfasting in the Court's cafeteri
The US Supreme Court's stunning 5-4 stay Saturday of the Florida
undervote count--less than 24 hours after the equally stunning Florida
Supreme Court decision ordering that same count--illuminat
Death came as a release for Daniel Singer on December 2, but we feel like protesting its rude intrusion.
Any last hope former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet may have harbored that history would judge him kindly was dashed recently when a Santiago judge formally charged him with kidnapping and murder. At press time an appellate court was reviewing the indictment. But whether or not the 85-year-old former general goes into the dock, the noose is tightening. An Argentine court is now demanding Pinochet's extradition for his role in the Buenos Aires murder of Chile's former army commander. And word is that the US Justice Department is considering its own indictment of the ex-dictator for masterminding the 1976 Washington car-bomb murder of Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt. The big question is how to bring the same sort of accountability to US officials who fully supported Pinochet during Chile's darkest days. As Peter Kornbluh reported in these pages (Dec. 18), there is new evidence that US officials from Henry Kissinger on down were fully apprised of the general's barbarities, even as they pledged full support. The other question is whether the civilian Chilean government will finally move ahead with much-needed reform as the dead weight of Pinochet's legacy is finally being lifted. The Nation's Marc Cooper will soon head for Chile to report on developments.
PERILS OF PACIFICA (CONT.)
Jordan Green writes: New York's WBAI general manager Valerie Van Isler has been notified by the Pacifica Foundation that she will be replaced immediately. On the heels of a successful fund drive that balanced WBAI's budget and left the station with a $700,000 surplus, Pacifica executive director Bessie Wash informed Van Isler that she would be reassigned to a newly created position in Washington. When Van Isler rejected that, Wash told her she was out of a job. On December 4, hundreds of WBAI listeners and producers assembled at a meeting called by the station's local advisory board. Program director Bernard White describes the dispute as an issue of "home rule." A November 30 memo to Wash from the WBAI management team reads, "Valerie Van Isler is--and we expect her to remain in the foreseeable future--our station's manager." Anticipating a forced removal of Van Isler reminiscent of the Berkeley KPFA standoff last year, listeners are holding an ongoing vigil at the station's Wall Street studios. On December 7 they picketed the Park Avenue law offices of board member John Murdock, whose firm, Epstein Becker & Green, advises corporate clients on "maintaining a union-free workplace." Dissident Pacifica board member Leslie Cagan endorsed the action, stating, "He has emerged as part of a leadership team that seems to be making the decisions."
From Benjamin Kunkel: The election's most exciting conjunction of rock and roll and politics involves a brand-new song about an old election. On November 13 the Brooklyn-based band Oneida released "Power Animals," a song about the bitter 1876 contest between Rutherford B. Hayes and Samuel J. Tilden. Like today's Bush/Gore battle, that contest centered on three disputed states and the conflict between the popular vote and the Electoral College. Although Tilden (S.J.T.) had won South Carolina and the popular vote, his fellow Democrats were willing to get behind Hayes (Old Rud) if it meant ending Reconstruction and the federal troop presence in the South. As the lyrics of "Power Animals" have it: "Old Rud's disruption,/S.J.T.'s corruption,/Congressional fat cats in tow/Sold out Reconstruction/And harbinged destruction/With Jim Crow./History's showed/That goddamned crooked road/From which no one has ever returned,/And we're burned...." This song makes a more appropriate anthem during these days of unprincipled battle than chestnuts from the classic-rock songbook. On the day of the election, Oneida's van broke down in a GOP stronghold in Florida. Republicans--happy enough with the legacy of 1876--deny sabotage.
NEWS OF THE WEAK IN REVIEW
Al Gore was faced with the dilemma of how to reconcile his "every vote counts" fight with throwing out Seminole and Martin County absentee GOP ballots. His spin: "More than enough votes were potentially taken away from Democrats because they were not given the same access as Republicans were."
On November 7, voters in Alabama erased from that state's Constitution a provision dating from 1901 that declared that "the legislature shall never pass any law to authorize or legalize any marriage between any white person and a Negro, or descendant of a Negro." This declaration represented in part a desire by white supremacists to express as fully as possible their intention to expunge the racially egalitarian symbols, hopes and reforms of Reconstruction. Although Alabama had never enacted a law expressly authorizing interracial marriage, in 1872 the state's Supreme Court did invalidate the law that prohibited such unions. But it promptly reversed itself in 1877 when white supremacists regained power. The Alabama Constitution's disapproval of interracial marriage, however, had still deeper roots. It stemmed from the presumption that white men had the authority to dictate whom, in racial terms, a person could and could not marry. It was also rooted in the belief that certain segments of the population were simply too degraded to be eligible as partners in marriage with whites. At one point or another, forty states prohibited marriage across racial lines. In all of them blacks were stigmatized as matrimonial untouchables. In several, "Mongolians" (people of Japanese or Chinese ancestry), "Malays" (Filipinos) and Native Americans were also placed beyond the pale of acceptability.
Rationales for barring interracial marriage are useful to consider, especially since some of them echo so resonantly justifications voiced today by defenders of prohibitions against same-sex marriage. One rationale for barring interracial marriages was that the progeny of such matches would be incapable of procreating. Another was that God did not intend for the races to mix. Another was that colored people, especially blacks, are irredeemably inferior to whites and pose a terrible risk of contamination. The Negrophobic Thomas Dixon spoke for many white supremacists when he warned in his novel The Leopard's Spots that "this Republic can have no future if racial lines are broken and its proud citizenry sinks to the level of a mongrel breed." A single drop of Negro blood, he maintained apocalyptically, "kinks the hair, flattens the nose, then the lip, puts out the light of intellect, and lights the fires of brutal passions."
Although opponents of prohibitions on interracial marriage have waged struggles in many forums (e.g., academia, the churches, journalism), two in particular have been decisive. One is the courtroom. In 1967 in the most aptly titled case in American history--Loving v. The Commonwealth of Virginia--the United States Supreme Court ruled that prohibitions against interracial marriage violated the equal protection and due process clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. (Although much credit is lavished on the Court's decision, it bears noting that nineteen years earlier, in 1948, the Supreme Court of California had reached the same conclusion in an extraordinary, albeit neglected, opinion by Justice Roger Traynor.) When the federal Supreme Court struck down Jim Crow laws at the marriage altar, it relied on the massive change in public attitudes reflected and nourished by Brown v. Board of Education (1954), Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" address (1963), the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965). The Court also relied on the fact that by 1967, only sixteen states, in one region of the country, continued to retain laws prohibiting interracial marriage. This highlights the importance of the second major forum in which opponents of racial bars pressed their struggle: state legislatures. Between World War II and the Civil Rights Revolution, scores of state legislatures repealed bans against interracial marriage, thereby laying the moral, social and political groundwork for the Loving decision. Rarely will any court truly be a pioneer. Much more typically judges act in support of a development that is already well under way.
Unlike opponents of Brown v. Board of Education, antagonists of Loving were unable to mount anything like "massive resistance." They neither rioted, nor promulgated Congressional manifestoes condemning the Court, nor closed down marriage bureaus to prevent the desegregation of matrimony. There was, however, some opposition. In 1970, for example, a judge near Fort McClellan, Alabama, denied on racial grounds a marriage license to a white soldier and his black fiancée. This prompted a lawsuit initiated by the US Justice Department that led to the invalidation of Alabama's statute prohibiting interracial marriage. Yet the Alabama constitutional provision prohibiting the enactment of any law expressly authorizing black-white interracial marriage remained intact until the recent referendum.
That an expression of official opposition to interracial marriage remained a part of the Alabama Constitution for so long reflects the fear and loathing of black-white intimacy that remains a potent force in American culture. Sobering, too, was the closeness of the vote; 40 percent of the Alabama electorate voted against removing the obnoxious prohibition. Still, given the rootedness of segregation at the marriage altar, the ultimate outcome of the referendum should be applauded. The complete erasure of state-sponsored stigmatization of interracial marriage is an important achievement in our struggle for racial justice and harmony.
One of the many casualties of the Palestinian intifada in the occupied territories, now entering its third month, is the alliance between the Palestinian national movement and many members of the Israeli "peace camp." These links were forged in the first intifada between 1987 and 1992, when Israeli peace activists defied army curfews imposed on Palestinian villages and Israel's Peace Now movement called publicly for negotiations with the then-outlawed PLO--a call eventually adopted by the Israeli government in the 1993 Oslo accords.
But the initial response of the Israeli peace camp to the present uprising was "silence, recrimination, even a sense of betrayal," admits Arie Arnon, a leader of Peace Now. As for the Palestinians, they have looked instead for solidarity with the million or so Palestinian citizens of Israel and with the rest of the Arab world.
One reason for the breach has been the increasingly military cast of the conflict. The Israeli Army has sought to quell the revolt since its outbreak on September 28 through blockades on Palestinian Authority-controlled areas and aerial bombardments of Palestinian cities, villages and refugee camps. It has also deployed snipers, using live ammunition and sometimes silencers, against what remain overwhelmingly unarmed demonstrations.
In response, Palestinians--especially the cadre from Yasir Arafat's Fatah movement--have resorted to guerrilla warfare, targeting army bases, Jewish settlements and the roads that connect them. These have been joined by attacks on civilians inside Israel proper, with bomb blasts in West Jerusalem on November 2 and the Israeli town of Hadera on November 21, the first claimed by the Islamic Jihad movement.
The character of the war is reflected in the body count. According to the Palestinian Red Crescent Society, by the end of November 247 Palestinians had been killed by army or settler fire and 9,640 wounded. The Israeli toll was thirty-three, with 230 wounded. Overall, this amounts to 80 percent of the total fatalities from the 1987-92 intifada. The difference is, that revolt lasted almost six years; this one, two months.
But a second reason for the breach between Israeli and Palestinian peace activists is that, to a large swath of the Israeli left, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's Camp David proposals of this past July "were a huge step forward in the direction of peace," says Arnon. Because of this perception many on the Israeli left bought the Israeli government's line--voiced most eloquently by acting Foreign Minister and former peace activist Shlomo Ben-Ami--that Arafat had orchestrated the uprising to evade the "difficult historical decisions" placed before him at the summit.
It was a charge that outraged the Palestinians, including those secular leftist intellectuals who had been the Israeli peace camp's natural allies during the first intifada. But they were not surprised by it. "It was the culmination of a process we had been witnessing for a long time," says Rema Hammami, a Palestinian feminist researcher at Birzeit University in the West Bank.
That process was called Oslo, which the Israeli peace camp embraced as a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. "The Israeli left was preoccupied with defining themselves vis-à-vis the anti-Oslo right," she says. "They never bothered to look at what Oslo meant on the ground for the Palestinians, which was not peace but a new form of Palestinian dispossession."
The clearest instance of that dispossession was Israel's ongoing settlement policies throughout the Oslo era, whether by pro-Oslo Labor or anti-Oslo Likud governments. The scale of colonization has been "amazing," admits Arnon of Peace Now, which has tracked Israel's settlement construction in the occupied territories. According to Peace Now, such construction has increased 52 percent since September 1993, including 17 percent (some 2,830 housing units) during the eighteen-month tenure of Barak's "One Israel" government. The expansion has swelled the settler population in the West Bank and Gaza by 72 percent, from 115,000 in 1993 to 195,000 today and a projected 200,000 by the end of the year. In addition, 180,000 Jewish settlers reside in occupied East Jerusalem, making an overall settler population of 380,000 amid 3.4 million Palestinians.
The settlers live in 145 official settlements and fifty-five unofficial outposts scattered throughout the territories and connected by a web of settlers-only bypass roads, totaling nearly 300 kilometers in length. During periods of quiet, the roads and settlements prevent any contiguous urban or rural development of the 700 Palestinian areas in the West Bank and Gaza. During periods of war--such as now--they effectively become Israel's new military borders in the occupied territories, not only severing Gaza and the West Bank from each other, and both from East Jerusalem, but also each Palestinian conurbation from others within the West Bank and Gaza.
For Palestinians it was these apartheid realities that caused the intifada, far more than the "very generous offers" Barak allegedly made at Camp David. And it was to address them that on November 10 Hammami and more than 120 other Palestinian intellectuals dispatched an "Urgent Statement to the Israeli Public."
As "firm believers in a just and equitable negotiated peace between Palestinians and Israelis," the signatories warned their Israeli peers that the "critical situation that confronts us now" will be "revisited again and again." The only lasting exit is for Israel finally to recognize Palestinian national rights as granted by international law. This would mean Israel's withdrawal from the territories it occupied in the 1967 war, Palestinian sovereignty over East Jerusalem and a "just and lasting resolution of the refugee problem in accordance with relevant UN resolutions."
It is a message that appears at last to be hitting home. On November 17, twenty-four Israeli academics--including the writer Amos Oz and the former army general Shlomo Gazit--called on the Israeli government to "freeze its settlement policy and recognise the border of 4 June 1967 as the basis for the border between Israel and Palestine." And on December 1, Peace Now made perhaps its clearest call yet for the dismantling of the settlements and the "establishment of a Palestinian state next to Israel along the 1967 borders."
Arnon admits that the armed dimension of this intifada has brought a "reality check" to the Israeli public. "Above all, it has destroyed perhaps the greatest of all Oslo's illusions: that the historical reality of the Green Line could somehow be erased and a solution could be achieved based on a new division of the West Bank rather than on Israel's withdrawal from it."
But he also believes it essential that a renewed dialogue be attempted between the Israeli peace camp and the Palestinian national movement. This is not only because "the two sides have never been closer in their positions," he says, but because "it is vital for the left to demonstrate to the wider Israeli public that there is still a partner."
Hammami is less sanguine. "How can you have alliances with people who fundamentally misunderstand you?" she asks. "Throughout the Oslo years, the Israeli left acted as though all that was needed for 'peace' was to use Israel's balance of power to impose an agreement on Arafat. It never accepted that there was such a thing as a Palestinian public opinion, a Palestinian national consensus--which is a pretty sad commentary on a constituency that prides itself on its progressive and democratic credentials. We can have shared interests, not political alliances," she concludes.
One of those shared interests appears to lie in restoring the borders of June 4, 1967. There is no longer any alternative, says Arnon, "acceptable to both the Israeli and Palestinian peoples."
Let the chattering classes focus on chads and undervotes and Florida recounts and what the courts--state and federal, all the way up to the Supreme Court--would or wouldn't do. Let us not forget that the candidate who won the national popular vote falls only three votes short of a clear Electoral College majority even without Florida. If on December 18, the day the Electoral College convenes to cast its ballot, three Republican electors decide on their own to vote for him, all the speculation is moot.
Our purpose is to argue that our three hypothetical electors should so decide and that American democracy would be the better for it. And that this particular election, because it is so close and because it has raised fundamental issues of voting rights, provides the right historic moment for such a gesture. In 1960, another close election, Ted Lewis argued in The Nation that there was such revulsion against the Electoral College that it "would certainly now be on its way out" if it hadn't "functioned on November 8 in accordance with the national will."
Election 2000's clouded outcome has highlighted some glaring flaws in our electoral system--uncounted votes, confused voters, voters rejected (see David Corn, on page 5)--which has stimulated a growing sentiment for reform. And so while the country's mood is hospitable to reform, why not abolish the most undemocratic institution of all--the Electoral College?
That's where our hypothetical three electors come in. By casting their votes for the popular-vote winner, in the short run they would guarantee the election of the man who won the popular vote; but more important, in the long run such a gesture might break the antidemocratic stranglehold of the Electoral College on American politics. Let's be clear: We are not urging them to vote for the popular-vote winner because we support Al Gore. We are urging them to cast such a vote because it would be the right thing to do--legally, morally and politically.
It will immediately be objected that what we are proposing is an invitation to electoral anarchy, that history has rightly stigmatized the thirteen electors who switched their votes in previous presidential elections as "faithless electors." Besides, Vice President Gore himself has said he would "not accept" Republican electors. But the Vice President has no say about the matter, any more than he has a say about not accepting the vote of those whose party affiliations or (political) motives he finds repugnant. Even a Gore concession speech doesn't bind the electors.
As for those faithless electors, we would argue that if you have a system of electors instead of direct democracy, the possibility of defection goes with the package. What is more, if three or more Republican electors decide to cross over, far from creating electoral anarchy, their actions would be legally defensible, morally beneficial and politically desirable.
Legally, because under the Electoral College electors are not bound by the Constitution to follow the popular vote, and in twenty-four states they remain free to vote their conscience. In twenty-six others they are required by state law to follow the popular vote. Scholars like Akhil Reed Amar and Mark Tushnet argue that electors are totally free agents.
Morally, because their action would prevent the presidency of a man who lost the popular vote. It also brings us a step closer to the democratic ideal of one person, one vote. The Electoral College was created by the Framers under a deal with the slaveholding states to give those states added clout in the new Union. The Framers distrusted the popular will. As Alexander Hamilton wrote in The Federalist Papers, "A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations" to choose the "Chief Magistrate." They did not anticipate political parties or the current practice of electors pledging to vote in accordance with the popular vote in their state.
Politically, because ultimately the fortunes of both parties--and minority parties as well--would be strengthened by a more democratic government. The smaller states now wield disproportionate influence in elections. And without the need to troll for electoral votes, candidates would be motivated to campaign in all fifty states, not merely the big contested ones.
Passing a constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College will not be easy. But the dramatic gesture of three electors or more defying the Electoral College could concentrate the nation's attention wonderfully and help jump-start a movement for reform. It might at least stimulate collateral reforms in the states, along the lines of the present systems of appointing electors in Maine and Nebraska, only carrying it further.
In the past, faithless electors were eccentric loners. This year they could be electors of conscience--the people's electors. Their action would cause a firestorm in the House. But such high constitutional drama would open a national debate on the legitimacy of the Electoral College. It's time to start that debate.
Amid all the partisan sniping, talking-head screeching and judicial decisions, there are two indisputable facts that go far toward explaining the true tragedy of the Florida recount.
Fact one: In this election, punch-card voting machines recorded five times as many ballots with no presidential vote as did the more modern optical-scanning systems. A New York Times analysis of forty-eight of the state's sixty-eight counties found that 1.5 percent of the ballots tallied under the punch-card method showed no vote at the top of the ticket, while only 0.3 percent of the ballots counted by the newer machines registered no vote for the President. An Orlando Sun-Sentinel examination concluded that counties using the best optical-scanning method recorded presidential votes on more than 99 percent of the ballots, and counties using the old punch-card devices counted presidential votes on only 96.1 percent of the ballots.
Fact two: Punch-card machines were more widely used in areas where low-income and African-American citizens vote. Two-thirds of the state's black voters reside in counties using punch cards, while 56 percent of white voters do.
Put these two undeniable facts together and the conclusion is inescapable: A statistically significant slice of the Florida electorate was disfranchised by voting technology. That is, a disproportionate number of voters done in by the error-prone punch-card machines were low-income and black Floridians, who generally favored Al Gore over George W. Bush. Presumably, some no-vote ballots actually did not include a vote for President. But given the closeness of the election--decided by .008 percent--it is likely that presidential votes missed by the punch-card machines would have decisively affected the contest. Bush "won"--among other reasons--because of voting-machine discrimination.
This crucial part of the tale has been overwhelmed by dimple-mania and the usual campaign back-and-forth. But ten days after the election, the Sun-Sentinel reported that "Florida's different vote-counting machines resulted in more GOP votes." For example, Brevard County, the home of space-shuttle launches, spent $1 million on more advanced machines in 1999, moving from punch-card tabulators to optical scanning machines that read pen-marked ballots (and that immediately return to the voter a ballot with a problem). Under the new system, the voting machines in this Bush-leaning county found presidential votes on 99.7 percent of the ballots. In 1996 the county's punch-card machines read presidential votes on 97.2 percent. Which means Bush, thanks to the upgrade, likely banked an additional 453 votes for his statewide total--practically his post-recount victory margin. The paper noted that the twenty-five counties that used the punch-card machines went for Gore over Bush 51.8 percent to 46 percent and produced 144,985 ballots with unrecorded presidential votes. Had the people who cast these ballots entered voting booths equipped with the more efficient machines, Gore no doubt would have collected hundreds--if not thousands--more votes than Bush.
There have been allegations that black Floridians encountered racial intimidation at voting sites. (The Justice Department has initiated an informal assessment, not an investigation.) And Bush benefited from the all-too-routine bias by which minority areas receive poorer government services. Unfortunately not just for Gore but for the victims of this quiet bias in Florida, this inequity was unaddressed by the Florida circuit court and the US Supreme Court, partly because the Gore campaign didn't raise it.
The Gore legal challenge focused on 14,000 or so supposedly no-vote punch-card ballots in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties, not the statewide problem, and called for a manual review only of those ballots. The Veep's lawyer did not argue that the county-by-county patchwork voting system operated less effectively for blacks, a constituency that Democrats rely on to win elections. In his ruling against Gore, Circuit Judge N. Sanders Sauls noted that the record "shows error and/or less than total accuracy in regard to the punch-card voting devices utilized in Dade and Palm Beach Counties." But Sauls declared that Gore's legal team had not established "a reasonable probability" that the statewide results would turn out differently if those ballots were counted in a better fashion. Either Gore's attorneys screwed up big by not making this point more obvious--which they might have done had they filed contests based on the wider issue--or Sauls misread the math. As for the US Supreme Court, it displayed no eagerness to adjudicate such a touchy and fundamental voting-rights matter as systematic disfranchisement through technology. Its decision--in which it told the state Supreme Court to try again--indicates that the Court wanted to approach the Florida case narrowly, at least in the first go-round.
If a system is decisively skewed to one group's advantage, does that amount to theft? Or is that just the way it is? Clearly, a more equitable vote-counting system in the state--punch-cards for all or optical-scanners for all--would have yielded a different final count. This is an injustice that no court has confronted, on which Bush may well ride into the White House, and that should not be forgotten.
Wait until next season. I've already started practicing my
chad-punching, and I suggest the same as therapy for all who feel ripped
off by the collusion between the US Supreme Court's right-wing
ideologues and George W. Bush's lawyers to prevent an accurate Florida
vote count. The electoral process will survive and Bush may even learn to
do the job, but the price of his victory is the court's denigration.
It took a non-ideological Republican appointee, a near-extinct breed
in the GOP, to puncture the outrageous hypocrisy of the Antonin
Scalia-led majority that defined a fair recount by the singular standard
that would leave Bush the winner.
In his dissent, John Paul Stevens wrote the indelible postscript to
this judicial farce: "Although we may never know with complete certainty
the identity of the winner of this year's presidential election, the
identity of the loser is perfectly clear. It is the nation's confidence
in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law."
The so-called court conservatives simply had no sense of shame or even
proportion. Think of the conflicts of interest we learned about only in
the last few days: Clarence Thomas's wife is helping the conservative
Heritage Foundation recruit workers for a Bush administration, and Scalia
has two sons associated with key law firms representing Bush--one a
partner of Theodore Olson, who argued Bush's case before the high court.
It's also common knowledge that Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor indicated a desire to retire, but only if
Bush won and could replace them. In that event, Bush would likely appoint
Scalia as chief justice.
Common decency, let alone judicial integrity, should have left the
court's majority more hesitant in acting as agent for selecting the next
President. Instead of taking the high road and leaving the matter where
it belonged with the Florida Supreme Court--according to the federal high
court's own oft-avowed states' rights precepts--Scalia and company
insisted on halting the recount. Why? Because there wasn't time to do it
right. But whose fault was that? Bush's and the US Supreme Court's.
Had the statewide count of disputed ballots been allowed to fairly
conclude, it would have shored up our next President's legitimacy. If
Bush had won the electoral vote after a fair count in Florida, it would
have taken the sting out of his ascending to the presidency despite
losing the national popular vote.
The US Supreme Court's heavy-handed intrusion was as destructive of
confidence in our political system as it was unnecessary. As Justice
Stephen G. Breyer wrote in dissent, the majority ruling represented "a
self-inflicted wound--a wound that may harm not just the court but the
Never again will a President's appointment of a federal judge be
viewed by the public--and more important the Senate, which must confirm
it--as a neutral, nonpolitical act. Recall that even such hard-line
ideologues as Justices Thomas and Scalia were confirmed with votes from
Democratic senators who thought it important to give the President the
benefit of the doubt. Next time anyone of discernible ideological bias is
nominated, there will be unprecedented senatorial gridlock. For that
reason, the real test of the Bush presidency will be his appointments to
the federal courts.
It is the same test faced by his father: Will they be true moderates,
such as Justice David H. Souter, a man capable of complex legal thought,
or another Thomas, whose most sentient act is to look to Scalia, then
vote? What a sad comment that the man who replaced Thurgood Marshall as
the only African-American on the court should now, in helping to block
the recount, so brazenly mock Marshall's lifelong crusade to insure the
sanctity of the black vote.
In any event, the court has handed the nation George Bush as
President, and we can live with that and even entertain hopes that he
will rise to the occasion, despite an obvious lack of preparation. Deep
down, if one can presume such a thing, he seems a decent sort. If he just
keeps in mind that most of the voters rejected him, he might resist Tom
DeLay's ultra-rightists in the House and pursue a moderate legislative
course. In any case, now that Joseph Lieberman will retain his seat, the
Senate will be evenly divided, and centrists of both parties will be
calling the shots.
But what we cannot live with is an even more politicized judiciary
dominated by right-wing ideologues. The GOP's far right will want strong
proof that its aggressive campaigning for Bush is rewarded, and its prime
goal is complete control of the federal judiciary, which is why Senate
Republicans blocked scores of Bill Clinton's judicial appointments.
However, if Bush attempts to reward his rabidly conservative backers by
placing their favorites in high positions in the federal judiciary, he
will tear this country apart. And next time, his opponent's chads will be
punched so forcefully that even the Supreme Court won't be able to save
We know what they're afraid of. Cut through the Republican verbiage
that has clogged the airwaves and courts and you find one simple but
disturbing point: They fear an accurate vote count because it might prove
that Al Gore has the votes to be fairly elected President.
That's been their concern since election night, when they began their
drawn-out process of obstruction, and if they succeed in once again
killing the manual count through their US Supreme Court appeal, George
W. Bush's victory will stand as a low point in the annals of American
The indelible impression left on our history will be that Gore won
both the popular and electoral vote and that he and the voters were
cheated out of that victory by a US Supreme Court dominated by
political ideologues appointed by Republican Presidents. If the Justices
cared a whit about the sanctity of the vote, they would have let the
manual-counting process decreed Friday by the Florida Supreme Court
continue. If that had resulted in a Bush win, we should all have
gracefully acknowledged his victory.
Bush, who lost by more than 330,000 in the popular vote--what most of
us grew up thinking of as the real election--may now squeak by with an
electoral college win resulting from a ruling by the right-wing-led US
Supreme Court. During the campaign, Bush cited Antonin Scalia and
Clarence Thomas as his judicial role models, and he has been amply
rewarded. Legal gobbledygook has replaced reason when the mere act of
fairly counting the votes of the citizens is halted to suit the political
agenda of the party that appointed the majority of the Justices.
In a close election, a manual count of all votes not counted by the
antiquated voting machines is a statutory mandate in many states,
including Florida and Texas, and should have been the common-sense demand
of both candidates in Florida. If that simple standard--accurately and
fairly counting all of the votes to ascertain the intent of each
voter--had been asserted in a bipartisan manner, there would have been no
reason for the subsequent confusion and the never-to-end questioning of
the legitimacy of our next President.
Instead, unprecedented rancor will mark the next years of our
politics, mocking all efforts at bipartisan cooperation. This will be
particularly true in battles over the judiciary, which, more than ever,
will come to be viewed widely as a partisan tool.
The Florida election will always be too close to call in a manner that
would leave partisans of both sides totally satisfied. Whoever loses will
feel ripped off, but the denigration of the Florida Supreme Court and of
Gore's legal challenges by top Bush Republican spokesperson James Baker
has gone too far. Twice now he has smeared the motives of Florida Supreme
Court justices for daring to come to conclusions not to Baker's liking.
Yet he reached a new low Friday in disparaging the right of a
presidential candidate--who has won the national popular vote and is only
three electoral votes from victory--to ask for a judicial review of the
obviously deeply flawed Florida election results.
Get real. Both Baker and Bush know they would do the same had the
results gone the other way. Yet they self-righteously abandoned civility
when the nation most needed it. There are no villains in this election,
only imperfect machines and people, but the Bush camp has vilified the
Gore camp for daring to seek a fair adjudication of such matters.
We are still a nation of laws, and it was unconscionable for Baker to
blast Gore for appealing to the Florida state high court at the very time
Bush's lawyers raced to the federal courts in an unseemly departure from
the GOP's commitment to states' rights. In Baker's view, the problem is
not that we have a razor-close election and flawed voting procedures, but
rather that Gore dares to assert his legal rights: "This is what happens
when, for the first time in modern history, a candidate resorts to
lawsuits to overturn the outcome of an election for President. It is very
sad. It is sad for Florida. It is sad for the nation, and it is sad for
Hogwash! What is sad is that tens of thousands of African-American and
Jewish voters in Florida were systematically denied their right to vote
by poorly drawn ballots, malfunctioning voting machines and unhelpful
voting officials. What is sad is that election officials in two counties
turned over flawed Republican absentee ballot applications for
corrections by Republican Party officials but did no such favors for
What would be most sad--indeed, alarming--is if a partisan US
Supreme Court proves to be an enemy of representative democracy.
I write from shipboard, on the Nation cruise. The boat has just pulled away from port and chugs toward the horizon, leaving land behind. We are fourth in a line of cruise ships departing the harbor at sunset, all glittering in a blaze of orange and pink and turquoise. I look back at the shore and think: America. What a beautiful, rich, blessed land we live in. What more than the land itself could Coronado and Ponce de León have been seeking? Why gold? Why youth? Why even piña coladas? The pure pleasure of this place ought to have been enough.
And yet... it is a mixed sensation, for I am also relieved to see the land receding just now, suspended as we are in the tense limbo of this, the first week of December 2000. It is good to leave behind Rush Limbaugh's meanspirited radio transmissions, the foaming attacks on Jesse Jackson, the use of insulting stereotypes of black people to attack Al Gore and Bill Clinton. It is a relief to take a break from the contemptuous public disrespect for the function of courts, the role of lawyers, the intentions of voters, the requirements of process. As Florida slips beneath the horizon, and CNN's signal crackles and grows fuzzy, I feel like a black-single-mother version of Henry David Thoreau, only standing at the brink of a much bigger and much deeper pond: "To me, away there in my bean-field at the other end of the town, the big guns sounded as if a puffball had burst; and when there was a military turnout...I have sometimes had a vague sense all the day of some sort of itching and disease in the horizon."
What a time we live in. On November 7, I stayed up late like everyone else, listening to National Public Radio on my Walkman. I fell asleep with the headphones on sometime in the wee hours of November 8, exhausted by the flummoxed newscasters' frantic flips and flops. Gore was winning when I lost consciousness. When I awoke hours later, the tinny sound in my ears had changed: A sneering, gleeful voice was making fun of Florida's elderly and "NEEE-gro" voters. I lay frozen. What I didn't know was that NPR is only a hair's bandwidth away from The Howard Stern Show and that in my sleep I had apparently flipped and flopped as much as the results, enough to move the dial a fraction. So it was that my first waking thought was: "Dear God, George Bush won, and they've taken over NPR. The revolution has begun."
It's been all downhill from there. Over the days and weeks since, we have witnessed an eerily exact re-enactment of the tie that led up to the Hayes-Tilden compromise of 1876, as a result of which the federal government pulled troops out of the post-Civil War South. This in turn led directly to the collapse of Reconstruction and the vengeful reassertion of that brand of separatist white supremacy so vividly depicted in D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation.
In the weeks since, we have heard George Bush say that it's the executive's job to interpret the law, an idea that Augusto Pinochet surely would endorse. We have watched another Ryder truck (remember Timothy McVeigh?) make its way into the annals of American history. We have shared yet one more "O.J. moment," as Floridians lined the streets to watch the truck speed by, cheering, hooting and taking photos. And given that America's most precious natural resource turns out not to have been gold but rather the entertainment industry, we have been graced with enough material from which to spin conspiracy plots for years and years to come. I see blockbusters like Elián's Revenge, Jeb Jimmies the Lockbox, and of course, The South Shall Rise Again.
In the weeks since November 8, my cruel British friends have had a field day. So soon after the last fiasco, so soon after the spectacle of the Inquisition-style moralists who tried to impeach Bill Clinton, I find myself explaining American peculiarities yet again to the exceedingly upbeat English. They twitter on in the most condescending way about former colonies that simply aren't ready to govern themselves. I try to be serious and explain the Electoral College. They say they are quite informed about American history, thank you very much, and could I please explain why only three-fifths of Florida's electorate was counted while at the same time three-fifths of the people who have declared George Bush a winner are related to him? Is it fuzzy math or fuzzy brain that keeps Americans from noticing that Bush's margin of victory is about the same as the number of people he has executed in Texas?
"You lot got your knickers in quite a knot this time, eh?" gloat the Cruel British Friends.
"A real atomic wedgie," I concede.
In the postelection weeks, my sleep has been troubled by strange visions. I dream that Al Gore and George Bush are standing in the ring at Madison Square Garden, Gore bouncing up and down in his Harvard boxing shorts and nice new leather gloves, Bush trying to look presidential while wearing a Hell's Angels vest, swinging a chain and hiding a switchblade.
Another night I dream that Bush is President, and, first thing, the neural pathways for Croatians and Koreans get crossed in his brain. He ends up thinking they're all "Corians" and while his advisers are out finding floor samples, he drops bombs on the nearest thing he can find on a map--which would be those poor doomed Grecians. World War III breaks out, world markets plunge and the sublimina-limina-lominable hordes sweep down from the north, south, east and west.
Other times I dream I am arguing before the Supreme Court, and Bush appointee Kenneth Starr is our new Chief Justice. The United States Constitution is a jewel, I say, whose multifaceted brilliance takes time, polishing and the infinite honing of years of courtroom argumentation by the finest minds dressed in Brooks Brothers suits, blah, blah, blah. The dream always ends with just that: blah, blah, blah.
Anyway, back onboard the Nation cruise, I turn my attention to preparing my remarks for the first morning's panel, titled--I restrain myself from comment--"The Nation At Sea: Where Are We Headed?" I furrow my brow and chew my pencil. I stare at the blank white paper. "Paris," I write at last.
All I want is the truth. Just gimme some truth.
Florida's electoral mishegoss lends itself to the exploration of an issue that receives no attention in the media and yet underlies virtually everything its members do. I speak to you, dear reader, of the Meaning of Truth.
Ever since Fox's John Ellis began the mistaken media stampede for his cousin George W. Bush's victory on election night, reporters, producers and executives have spun themselves silly trying to describe a situation that is ultimately an epistemological bottomless pit. There is no single "truth" about who won Florida. From the point of view of "institutional truth," we began without clear rules or precedents for measuring the vote, whether they include dimple-counting, partially punched chads or butterfly ballots. I am convinced Gore carried the will of the people, but I'm guessing that Lady Katherine Harris Macbeth would rather contract rabies than accept my admittedly subjective interpretation. From the perspective of "brute truth," however, the difference between the Bush/Gore numbers turns out to be so small that it will never exceed the count's margin of error. What we are seeing, therefore, is not a process of objective measurement but a contest of raw power. The Democrats use the courts and the law. The Republicans rely on rent-a-mobs, partisan hacks and power-hungry allies in the state legislature and Congress. Guess which side is bound to win?
Our media coverage admits none of this, because it is committed to a fairy-tale version of truth and objectivity that separates "fact" and "opinion" but cannot fathom anything in between. When Tim Russert declared on November 26 that George Bush "has now been declared the official winner of the Florida election...and therefore he is the 43rd President of the United States," he was making a statement that could not have been true when he made it. (Even Bush understood that he was only playing a President-elect on TV.) But the feared and celebrated Russert knew that his words were bound by only the narrowest definition of "truth." He could always take it back later.
The attachment to the idea of attainable objective "truth" on the part of American journalism is partially responsible for its frequent brainlessness. As NYU's Jay Rosen points out, "objectivity as a theory of how to arrive at the truth is bankrupt intellectually.... Everything we've learned about the pursuit of truth tells us that in one way or another the knower is incorporated into the known." (Remember Heisenberg? Remember Einstein?) The famous 1920s debate between Walter Lippmann and John Dewey shed considerable light on this problem, with Lippmann arguing for a "spectator" theory of reality and Dewey arguing for a more consensual one, arrived at through discourse and debate.
The notion of a verifiable objective truth received what many intellectuals considered its final coffin nail in the form of Richard Rorty's classic 1979 work, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. While the word true may have absolute correlations in reality, Rorty later argued, "its conditions of application will always be relative." What was "true" in ancient Athens--that slavery and pederasty were positive goods--is hardly "true" to us today. As Rorty explains it, we call our beliefs "true" for the purposes of self-justification and little more. The point is not accuracy but pragmatism. Moreover, Ludwig Wittgenstein has taught us that the gulf between what "is" and the language we use to describe it is so large as to be unbridgeable. "Truth" may be out there, but there is no answer to a redescription, Rorty observes, "save a re-re-redescription." Truth is what works.
Now, it's possible to contest Rorty on any number of counts. I personally find him overly generous to the extreme relativism of antifoundationalists like Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. (The antifoundationalist perspective can be simplistically summarized by the famous Surrealist painting of a pipe by René Magritte beneath the words, Ce n'est pas une pipe.) But the argument itself cannot be avoided. Truth, as Lippmann never understood but Dewey did, is a lot more complicated than a baseball box score or a Johnny Apple New York Times news analysis. What is needed to evaluate whether a report is ultimately credible is not an endless parade of "facts" that may or may not be true but a subjective marshaling of evidence. Yet because the entire media establishment treats these questions as just so much mental masturbation, the standard definition of "fact" often turns out to be any given statement that cannot be easily disproved at the moment it is made. Hence, we frequently see journalistic accounts of the mood of an entire country or even a whole continent based on little more than the taxi ride from the airport.
A second byproduct of American journalism's childish belief in attainable objective truth, Rosen notes, is the alienation it causes between journalists and intellectuals. In Europe the public profits from a two-way transmission belt between the world of ideas and that of reported "fact." But here such exchanges are nearly impossible because, as Rosen puts it, "intellectuals familiar with the currents in twentieth-century thought just can't deal with some of the things that come out of journalists' mouths." Such people, he notes, believe it "useless to try to talk with journalists" owing to their "naïve empiricism." Still, the academy is also at fault, owing to its recent retreat into a Derrida/Foucault-inspired debate that admits almost no reality at all outside the text and does not even pretend to speak intelligibly to the nonspecialist.
In any case, George W. Bush may be our next President. But it won't be because he outpolled Al Gore in Florida in any remotely objective sense. It will merely be because he might have, and we decided to call it "true."
* * *
Congratulations to Ralph Nader on George W. Bush's decision to appoint Andrew Card, formerly the auto industry's top antienvironmental lobbyist, to be his Chief of Staff. Just a few more appointments like this one, I suppose, and the revolution can begin in earnest.
They'd rather die than admit it, but environmental organizations thrive on disaster. They remember well enough what happened when Ronald Reagan installed James Watt as Secretary of the Interior. Hardly had Watt hung an elk head on his office wall before the big green outfits were churning out mailers painting doomsday scenarios of national parks handed over to the oil companies, the Rocky Mountains stripped for oil shale, the national forests clearcut from end to end.
By the time the incompetent Watt was forced to resign, the Sierra Club, the National Audubon Society, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Wilderness Society and the National Wildlife Federation had raised tens of millions of dollars and recruited hundreds of thousands of new members. All this money transformed the environmental movement from a largely grassroots network into an inside-the-Beltway operation powered by political operators in Washington, DC.
Then came the Clinton/Gore era. Because the mainstream green groups had anointed Gore as nature's savior and had become so politically intertwined with the Democrats, they had no way to disengage and adopt an independent critical posture when the inevitable sellouts began.
Thus it was that the big green groups let Clinton and Gore off the hook when the new administration put forward a plan to end "gridlock" and commence orderly logging in the ancient forests of California and the Pacific Northwest. Similarly, they held their peace when Gore reneged on his pledge to shut down the WTI hazardous-waste incinerator in Ohio. Year after year they stuck to their basic game plan: Don't offend the White House; preserve "access" at all costs.
One consequence of this greenwashing of the Clinton Administration was a sharp decline in the green-group memberships. But by now the big green outfits had grown comfortable on fat salaries, inflated staffs and fine new offices.
To maintain the standard of living to which they had now become accustomed, the big green groups sought to offset their dwindling membership revenues by applying for help from big foundations like Rockefeller, the Pew Charitable Trusts and W. Alton Jones. But charity rarely comes without strings. All the above-mentioned foundations derive their endowments from oil, and along with the money they inherited an instinct for manipulation and monopoly.
By the mid-1990s executives of the Pew Charitable Trusts were openly declaring their ambition to set the agenda for the environmental movement during Clinton time, using as leverage their grant-making power. Let a small green group step out of line, and in the next funding cycle that group would find its grant application rejected not just by Pew but by most of the other green-oriented foundations that were operating like the oil cartel of old.
So now, with the shadow of a Republican administration across the White House, the green groups see a chance to recoup, using the sort of alarmism that served them so well in the Reagan-Watt years. Already during the campaign they painted George W. Bush as a nature-raper, and then, only days after the election on November 7, e-mail alerts began to flicker across the Internet, warning that the incoming Congress will be the "most environmentally hostile ever."
But how can this be, if we are to believe the premise of the big green groups, backed by regular "dirty-dozen lists" from the League of Conservation Voters, that Democrats are by definition kinder to nature than Republicans? Democrats gained seats in the House of Representatives and now split the Senate with the Republicans 50/50. By this measure the e-mails rushing across the Net should be modestly optimistic instead of presaging doom.
In fact, one of the natural kingdom's greatest enemies in the US Senate, Slade Gorton of Washington, has gone down to defeat. Another nature-raper, Representative Don Young of Alaska, is being forced to vacate his chairmanship of the House Resources Committee, victim of a term-limits agreement by House Republicans a few years ago.
Good news doesn't raise dollars or boost membership. So the big green groups will go on painting an unremittingly bleak picture of what lies in store. But the likelihood is that a Bush administration won't be nearly as bad as advertised by alarmists.
Indeed, there are some causes for optimism. The model here is Richard Nixon, our greenest President, who oversaw the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and smiled upon our single greatest piece of environmental legislation, the Endangered Species Act. Nixon was trying to divide the left and worked to develop an environmental constituency. Bush, if he makes it to the White House, will be similarly eager to garner green support.
Bush will also be keen to undercut attacks on the question of his legitimacy as President, and a kinder, gentler policy on the environment would be one way to do it. The current betting is that his nominee for Interior Secretary will be Montana Governor Marc Racicot, a Republican version of the present incumbent of the post, Bruce Babbitt. If the speculation about Racicot is borne out, this would be a severe blow to the expectations of the Republican hard-liners, who yearn for Don Young to supervise the dismantling of whatever frail environmental protections America still enjoys.
Of course there will be savage environmental struggles over the next four years. Oil leasing will be one battlefield. Salvage logging will be another. But if you receive a hysterical mailer from one of the big green organizations, set it aside and give your support to one of the small groups that have been fighting doughtily on the same issues through Clinton time, when the big groups were toeing the party line and keeping their mouths shut. Why not, for example, send a check to Earth Island Institute in San Francisco, thus honoring its founder, the late David Brower?
(Another Republican sea chantey)
They all went down to stop Miami-Dade
From making counts the judges had OK'd.
Unlikely toughs, with ties and crisp white shirts,
They went to hand Al Gore his just deserts.
So, noisily, they jammed into the hall.
Then Sweeney, from the House, began to call.
Shut it down, shut it down, shut it down.
The first machine vote's truly holy.
Shut it down, shut it down, shut it down,
With a heave-ho-ho and a bottle of Stoly.
One congressman by whom they had been sent:
DeLay in name, and also in intent.
Prepared to knock a head or bust a snout
To show what our democracy's about,
They bumped some chests and maybe pulled some hair,
And Sweeney's martial call stayed in the air:
Shut it down, shut it down, shut it down.
The rule of law is holy, too.
Shut it down, shut it down, shut it down.
With a heave-ho-ho and some microbrew.
BEYOND SEATTLE The one-year anniversary of the "Battle in Seattle" saw embattled World Trade Organization chief Michael Moore peddling the argument that the WTO had weathered the storm of protest that derailed its "millennium round" session in Seattle. But the word from the streets was that the resistance continues. At least 2,000 people joined anniversary demonstrations in Seattle, where a day of peaceful protest--including a march that saw Sea Turtles dancing with Santa Claus and the Lesbian Avengers--gave way to a tense evening in which Seattle police fired pepper spray and pellets at crowds of demonstrators before arresting 140.... Many anniversary celebrations featured a pair of documentaries on the Seattle protests: This Is What Democracy Looks Like, with footage from more than 100 Independent Media Center activists, narration by Susan Sarandon and music from Rage Against the Machine; and Shaya Mercer's Trade Off, which won best documentary honors at the 2000 Seattle International Film Festival and has been selected for inclusion in the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival. A Washington, DC, reception honoring Trade Off drew together Public Citizen, the United Steelworkers of America and other key players in the "Seattle Coalition," which was badly shaken by this fall's split between backers of Democrat Al Gore and Green Ralph Nader. "I'm glad to see the Seattle Coalition is still together," said Teamsters president James Hoffa. Notably absent from the sponsor list for the event, however, were the AFL-CIO and the Sierra Club, which released a joint statement recognizing the anniversary and announcing plans to hold town meetings on globalization.
NORTHERN EXPOSURE Canada got an introduction to American-style right-wing politics with the candidacy of Alliance Party chief Stockwell Day in the country's November 27 parliamentary elections. But after a strong start, Day, a flashy populist whose antiabortion, antigay and antigovernment views earned him the title "Canada's Jesse Helms," fell far short of his US contemporaries, with the Alliance winning only sixty-six parliamentary seats to 172 for Prime Minister Jean Chrétien's Liberal Party. Activists who weren't necessarily pro-Chrétien mobilized across Canada to stop Day, while Day's plan to allow citizens to force national referendums on issues like abortion led Canada's satirical television news program This Hour Has 22 Minutes to launch a petition demanding a national referendum on the question of whether Day should change his first name to Doris.... Canada's New Democratic Party, a democratic socialist group, won 8.5 percent of the vote. But the party, which moved toward the political center prior to the election, lost six seats, provoking calls from top backers for a leftward shift. "We have a crisis, and it's going to require the rebirth of a democratic socialist left party," says Buzz Hargrove, president of the powerful Canadian Auto Workers union.
COMING OUT GREEN After the November 7 election, not many Democrats were embracing the Green Party banner. But San Francisco Board of Supervisors candidate Matt Gonzalez has done just that, announcing his decision in the midst of an intense campaign leading up to a December 12 runoff election. Gonzalez, who ran a strong race for district attorney last year, said he was angered by Democratic candidates' refusal to debate Greens running at the state and national levels, and he expressed his distaste for the support by top Democrats of the death penalty and anti-gay marriage rules. "Many in my campaign urged me not to change parties or at least to wait until I had won the election,'' explains Gonzalez, who as a result of his announcement drew rebukes from local Democrats and saw a fundraiser that had been scheduled on his behalf canceled. "But why should I? What kind of impression would I be making on voters when I'm asking them to trust me if I can't even be honest about my party affiliation?'' Gonzalez has the support of tenant groups, local unions (which announced their support after his party switch), the Bay Guardian newspaper and Board of Supervisors President Tom Ammiano. He's running as part of a loose-knit slate of candidates challenging the pro-business policies of Mayor Willie Brown.
BACK TO THE BADLANDS In the bleak midwinter of 1981-82, Bruce Springsteen read Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States and reflected on hard times in Ronald Reagan's land of plenty. Retreating to a rented house with only a tape deck and a guitar, Springsteen recorded Nebraska, an album critic Patrick Humphries called "as compelling and poignant a comment on the Reagan years as any in print or on film.'' Said Springsteen, "A bunch of people wrote about it as a response to the Reagan era, and it obviously had that connection.'' Now, with another Republican poised to assume the presidency, Chrissie Hynde, Ben Harper, Ani DiFranco, Johnny Cash and other artists have contributed tracks to Badlands: A Tribute to Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska (Sub Pop), sales of which aid Doctors Without Borders. Dar Williams's gender-twirling take on "Highway Patrolman" is brilliant, as is her new solo album, The Green World, which includes a moving tribute to Daniel and Philip Berrigan.
John Nichols's e-mail is email@example.com.
Montgomery's transit system isn't segregated anymore. It barely exists.
STILL LOSING RUSSIA
"As a result of the Yeltsin era, all the fundamental sectors of our state, economic, cultural and moral life have been destroyed or looted," lamented Alexander Solzhenitsyn earlier this year--quoted, with no doubt a great sense of historical irony, by Stephen F. Cohen in his latest book, Failed Crusade. Some of former "Sovieticus" columnist and frequent Nation contributor Cohen's reportage will be familiar to readers of the magazine, reprising pieces that appeared here and elsewhere, with new chapters bringing the perspectives up to the minute. He traces the history of the impulse to remake Russia in the US image and its resurgence in mainstream thinking by 1992, the first post-Soviet year and last gasp of the Bush Administration. Cohen then proceeds to chronicle how both Russia specialists and the press badly mischaracterized events, to the point of malpractice. In "Transition or Tragedy?" for instance, the most widely reprinted of his articles in the 1990s, Cohen warned that a national tragedy was unfolding about which Westerners would be told little but instead be assured that the transition to a free market "has progressed remarkably." No wonder, he writes, "few readers of the American press were prepared for Russia's economic collapse and financial scandals of the late 1990s." After a catalogue of how the picture has been distorted, the ensuing portions of the book present Cohen's analysis of developments from 1992 to 2000, arranged chronologically, and then his recommendations in working toward a new Russia policy.
In his bracingly corrective view, Cohen concludes that "the missionary crusade of the 1990s was not only the worst American foreign policy disaster since Vietnam; its consequences have contributed to new and unprecedented dangers." Among the necessary remedies: much new thinking in US circles, an openness to Russian-derived solutions and extension of substantial financial aid. His warning is dire, but so is the situation: "For the first time in history, a fully nuclearized country has already been perilously destabilized, but still there is no sufficient American understanding."
O Marvel, that one can give to another what one does not possess. O Miracle of our empty hands.
--George Bernanos, Diary of a Country Priest
The integrity of book publishing in the past half-century often relied on the outsized personalities at the helms of the independent houses. The very diminutiveness of their operations helped empower these small businessmen and -women to place the imagination first and shape their companies around literature, social issues and ideas. The "profit incentive" among them had more to do with survival and pleasure than money-making. When they survived and--more rarely--made money, it was with a sense of surprise, even embarrassment, which endeared them to their authors, since it was clearly not what they were in business for. They were talent magnets, because the publishing life is colorful and the work meaningful. Perhaps most important, the best among them sought out and encouraged the humanity and intelligence in those around them--writers, editors, salespeople. That humanism is a rare quality but a necessary one for publishers.
One thinks of George Braziller, publisher of Australian novelist Janet Frame and Matisse's cutouts, and hundreds of other important books; Barney Rosset, formerly of Grove, successful defendant of free speech in court cases involving Lady Chatterley's Lover and Tropic of Cancer, publisher and friend of Samuel Beckett and Kenzaburo Oe; Stanley Moss, poet and owner of the Sheep Meadow Press, where he publishes Stanley Kunitz, Yehuda Amichai, David Ignatow and many others; Marion Boyars, the eponymous British publisher (who died this year) of Julian Green, Ivan Illich, Ken Kesey and other lights; Glenn Thompson of Writers and Readers, publisher of the "For Beginners" series, which recasts the most difficult subjects into documentary comic books; Florence Howe of the Feminist Press, with its signature anthologies and reprints of womanist classics like The Yellow Wallpaper; and André Schiffrin of Pantheon, and now the New Press, publisher of Studs Terkel, Matt Groening and Art Spiegelman's Maus; to name just a few--soldiers from the publishing wars, and innovators all.
There was James Laughlin, publisher of New Directions, where Delmore Schwartz, Ezra Pound and H.D., not to mention extraordinary translations by Louise Varèse and others of Baudelaire and Rimbaud, found shelter; Nicolás Kanellos of Arté Publico in the Southwest, publisher of a whole generation of Latino authors whose voices might otherwise not have been heard; John Martin of Black Sparrow, who managed a stationery store when he came across Charles Bukowski in the early 1960s and decided he would publish him, since Bukowski "didn't hide behind metaphor" and he could print the books on the store's offset press; of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, poet and publisher, at City Lights, of Ginsberg's Howl and other masterpieces.
On the shelves we find works from Curbstone, the Permanent Press, Coffee House, Copper Canyon, Graywolf, Walker, Soho, Steerforth, my own Seven Stories, Verso, Overlook, Arcade, Seal, Sun and Moon; there are probably dozens of worthy, committed houses you could name. And even this would be a sampling; the entire list would be not endless, but surprisingly long, suggesting that these smaller houses are a kind of grassroots force, without which America might have suffocated in the dust of the long march of the fifty-five years since the end of the Second World War.
Lives spent in book publishing don't tend to turn out men and women of perfect virtue. Years fighting on the battlefield between art and commerce make for wily, poker-faced, hard-boiled characters. If those I name above are to me worthy heroes nonetheless, it may be because, almost like dancers whose every performance is life and death, they are people for whom each book is utterly important, for whom words are paramount, who are creations, as much as creators, of their lives as publishers--and who became better human beings for having spent their adult lives reading and fighting for shelf space for the books they published. In the end, they are seekers following a light. "We're fools," Thompson says, "or we wouldn't be doing what we do." But what human being battling for something isn't part fool?
Then there is the other side of the book publishing business, the corporate sector, mostly based in midtown Manhattan, which accounts for the overwhelming majority of the vast number of books--over 120,000 titles--published each year in the United States. And it is here that the pace of change is like a runaway train, not only with merger upon merger but with a not-so-gradual shift from editorial (with complementary sales-centered) philosophies to financial-growth and marketing-centered ones. At times in recent decades the struggle between the editorial-minded and the fiscal-minded has seemed like trench warfare.
In the period just past, the battle reached, one hopes, its bloodiest point. One after another, following an accelerating consolidation of publishing houses into fewer than a handful of conglomerate entities, wonderful imprints closed or were blended into the corporate edifice in ways that left their unique character forever lost (Dial, Schocken, Atheneum, the Free Press, Owl, Morrow...). Hundreds of independent bookstores across the country failed as well (in Manhattan alone, this included Endicott, Books & Co., Spring Street Books, Verso Bookstore, Eighth Street Books, Paperback Booksmith's, Brentano's). Repackaged actors-turned-authors (who rarely wrote their own books) were emblematic of the historical moment, with first printings of their "works" sometimes approaching a million copies, while those of Nobel Prize-winners or future Nobel Prize-winners could be published nearly invisibly. Esteemed and gifted editors (Elisabeth Sifton, David Stanford, Tom Engelhardt, Allen Peacock, Mark Chimsky, Mary Cunnane, to name just a few) were pushed out by the "new thinking" or simply walked away in disgust.
The air in the corridors of corporate publishing houses developed a pall, slightly stagnant, that was not just people's fear of losing their jobs but also a fear of new ideas and new kinds of voices. And while the editors named above would find work as writers, contributing editors and freelancers, and while a good number of great independent bookstores survived (Three Lives, Shakespeare & Co., Coliseum, St. Mark's, among the Manhattan establishments) and new ones were born (Labyrinth), the axis of power in book publishing nonetheless shifted toward devotees of a pure business model that has never been shown to apply to books, causing a new and now fundamental instability that has not been good for readers or writers.
And what will be the effect in years to come of Bertelsmann's ownership of Random House and Doubleday? Or of the just-announced acquisition of Harcourt Brace by Reed Elsevier? Are Holt, Farrar, Straus & Giroux and St. Martin's marginally better off for being among the eighty or so companies owned by Verlagsgruppe Georg von Holtzbrinck, a massive publishing conglomerate, rather than by an entertainment or information empire? Perhaps. But to think that Norton, the smaller Grove/Atlantic and the up-and-coming, larger, Perseus Group may be the only remaining American independent houses with critical mass is disturbing. Is the American future to be that we are in effect recolonized, an increasingly important market for culture but less and less creators of culture?
In the middle of this stew, one of our worthy heroes has brought us a book that demands we acknowledge what has happened: reduced to crude basics, that a world built upon respect for the written word has been replaced by one dominated by a bottom-line sensibility (which may be an oxymoron, but I prefer it to the even less descriptive bottom-line "reality"). André Schiffrin asks, Has the torch that is our literature and our collective intellectual output been taken out of our hands?
That the publishing profession is under siege has of course been the stuff of panels and lunches and some newspaper reporting; but not, ironically, of books. So the appearance of the pioneering independent publisher Schiffrin's The Business of Books is newsworthy and important, to be followed close on its heels by a similarly titled work (Book Business) due out in January by Random House editor Jason Epstein (still working, and still working there), a volume expanded from an initial essay last April in The New York Review of Books and a more recent follow-up in those same pages.
America can be an extremely hostile environment for serious cultural endeavor. There seems an overriding confusion and ignorance regarding the tremendous significance of our First Amendment freedoms, the necessity of literature to national life (except perhaps as entertainment) and why we should care in the first place. Fame and fortune we understand, but literature? The funny thing is, hostile environment or not, it has also been a splendidly rich environment for culture producers in all the arts, especially in literature. Is that now changing?
One result of our cultural myopia--it borders on blindness--is that instead of operating with an implicit national consensus about the importance of literature, say, or even the role of investigative reporting in protecting our civic rights, the independent press community often stands as the sole advocate of those causes. As the pervasiveness of corporate culture grows daily, being a good publisher, in either an independent or a conglomerate setting, means learning how to survive while at the same time resisting, even defying, standard business-model values.
The apparent naïveté of the corporate sector when faced with our First Amendment responsibilities has been striking. Large publishing houses have sometimes been quick to call on their corporate prerogative, saying, in effect, We're just a business. They can try it, but we should not let them get away with it so glibly. Remember how lightly HarperCollins let go of former Governor of Hong Kong Chris Patten's book because, up the corporate ladder, Rupert Murdoch wanted to protect his satellite TV deal with China; or when Penguin/Putnam declined to publish Carol Felsenthal's S.I. Newhouse biography; or how St. Martin's turned against its author (the imprint's editor resigned in the controversy) when it canceled its biography of George W.
The last two titles were picked up by independent houses, Seven Stories and Soft Skull. But the actual cancellation of publishable, contracted manuscripts for reasons of corporate comfort suggests that executives often fail to acknowledge any responsibilities to the Word beyond packaging it and selling it for profit.
Smart people are doing good and important work within corporate structures--this too must be said. But the challenges facing those individuals are imposing when they work for parent companies that may be primarily concerned with other types of businesses, be it music (Bertelsmann), television and movies (TimeWarner and Viacom) or textbooks and professional publishing (Pearson and Reed Elsevier), and may be beholden to shareholder concerns over and above other considerations. Independent publishers represent as little as 5 percent of overall book sales in this country, but we are responsible for a disproportionately large share of our country's cultural life, First Amendment responsibilities and writers' hopes.
What the writer's role is in society, and what constitutes good writing, are two underlying questions that hang in the balance. Today, the notions of writer as voice of conscience, writer as critic, writer as visionary are understood to be part of the covenant between author and reader. But it is not hard to imagine a future in which the balance is tipped differently, and writers are routinely seen more as prettifiers and apologists for the status quo. A trend in that direction is implicit in the whole idea of the celebrity author, as books depend more on television tie-ins or exposure to sell them.
Well into Schiffrin's eloquent and anguished account of the book biz, you'll read about a recent meeting of the Freedom to Read Committee of the American Association of Publishers. Addressing the group were a number of top attorneys in the publishing field. Juries are starting to be less sympathetic to publishers than they once were, the attorneys advised: Judgments against publishers are on the rise, and it needs to be made more apparent that publishers are defenders of the First Amendment. About forty book-publishing executives were present, representing, according to Schiffrin, most of the major New York houses. When the attorneys asked, "Can we assure jurors in the future that if an important book comes along you will publish it?" Schiffrin writes, "Not a hand was raised. No one seemed aware of the irony that the publishing industry's own anti-censorship committee was itself part of the new market censorship."
It is just such obeisance to market values, Schiffrin suggests convincingly, that has led corporate owners to strip down publishing imprints on the grounds that they weren't profitable enough, only to replace them with bland and bloodless versions that are no more able to generate the desired profits than were their predecessors. In the late 1990s, HarperCollins folded Basic Books, its serious nonfiction imprint, into its trade division, although Basic had never lost money. Later, HarperCollins made news headlines when it canceled more than a hundred contracts in an attempt to stem the flow of red ink. Apparently, Basic had not been the big problem! Likewise, Simon & Schuster eviscerated its serious nonfiction imprint, the Free Press, keeping its name alive but skewing it toward finance-related titles. Today, S&S is rumored to be on the block. The Free Press may not have been its biggest problem either, though it was the one that management chose to fix.
Most movingly, Schiffrin describes--for the first time, I believe, and in intricate detail--some of what went on at his own former imprint, Pantheon, when its overseers at Random House decided it was too left-leaning, too independent, oh and yes, not profitable enough. In the end Schiffrin and his staff had to choose between overseeing what they saw as the house's destruction or leaving, which practically all of them did. Was Pantheon a cash cow after Schiffrin and his colleagues were gotten rid of? Hardly. It became and still is a shell of its former self, doing some good books, some less good, but beyond that just another name in the galaxy of names under what is now a German-owned multimedia conglomerate.
Writing about the purchase of Random House (America's premier book-publishing venture) by Bertelsmann two years ago, Schiffrin reminds us how, just one year earlier, Random had written off $80 million in unearned advances, which he interprets as proof that "the policy of risking more and more money on [large advances for] books had been an enormous failure." And how, when the New York Times reported Random's profit margin of 0.1 percent, the figure was so low that many thought it a typographical error. And further, that soon after the takeover, Bertelsmann "issued a press release saying they expected Random House to make a 15% profit in the next few years. That [would have] meant a change in profit from $1 million to $150 million (on their annual sales of a billion or so)." Schiffrin sees that as a laughably implausible goal. (Historically, return in book publishing runs around 5 percent.)
What is the alternative? I believe the best among us expect to lose money on at least some of the books we publish. This allows other sets of values to cohabit with more commercial ones, as would be true also at magazines like The Nation and Harper's. At Seven Stories, for example, we look to have profit on one-third of the list to cover losses on the other two-thirds. If, at the large corporate houses, the expectation is for virtually every title to turn a profit, then their "bottom-line sensibility" is indeed a threat to any literary aspirations they may have, since I believe that literature simply requires a longer look.
Missing from the merger fever of recent years has been the sense of a publishing mission to go with the obvious corporate one (it's cheaper to buy a backlist than to build one). One notable exception to this may be the Perseus Group, which appears to have a purposeful plan in place to buy serious nonfiction imprints in order to restore them to the project of publishing serious nonfiction. Fancy that.
Jason Epstein suggests that it may well come to pass that the newest wave of corporate owners will lose interest in book publishing just as previous ones did, once they learn that it "is not a conventional business...[but] more closely resembles... an amateur sport in which the primary goal is the activity itself, not its financial outcome." (Lest the reader come away with the impression that Epstein is just a snob, he also says this: "Guerrilla armies live amid the people who sustain them and for whom they fight. So do book publishers.")
Both Schiffrin and Epstein seem to believe that the publishing behemoths that have emerged are fundamentally unsound creations. Schiffrin takes it a step further in suggesting that structural instability has enormous social implications: "We cannot speak of open competition or a free market in American publishing today. We are faced with a classic situation of oligopoly, approaching monopoly." Others, like Soho publisher Juris Jurjevics, believe that Bertelsmann has built "a juggernaut" whose very size will sustain it. Whether or not the financial-return-led model is workable, I'm troubled by what appears to happen to authentic voices in the corporate environment, be they authors or editors or managers: Too often they seem to lose their way as it becomes clear that their employers don't necessarily place a high value on what they have to offer.
Schiffrin's indictment is impassioned and filled with righteous, if quiet, indignation. He has gone to the trouble of studying the catalogues of the major houses for the past forty years, finding that in the sixties and seventies there was still an unspoken understanding that books deemed important were to be published regardless of their commercial prospects. Publishers recognized, in other words, that theirs was a balancing act with cultural and political, not just financial, imperatives. Did such a Golden Age really exist? Yes, certainly, although many would point out that it was also characterized by an asphyxiating elitism--that it created little space for African-American titles, say, or Latino or overtly gay and lesbian works.
Here's how financial pressures can distort the publishing process at the large houses: Minimum projected sales thresholds frequently prevent editors from signing up the "little" books that would include many of the most important books ever published. At some of the larger paperback imprints, that threshold number is 20,000 copies; few serious new works will generate that level of sales. So a misbegotten rule holds sway: Serious works need not apply. But the less serious books that are acquired in their place don't necessarily meet the 20,000-copy quota with numbing regularity either. Dumbing down can work, but it tends to be a very short-term approach; in the long term it actually destroys the two most valuable assets of any publishing house, the intellectual curiosity and commitment of the people working there and the good will of writers and readers for whom you're producing books.
Not just across the country but around the world, colorful personalities at the established corporate houses have left or been replaced by management professionals better equipped to head divisions within huge entertainment conglomerates. In Europe they call this "centralization." Last year at this time, at the Frankfurt Book Fair, I met with a legendary German head of a wonderful publishing house. "I'll be here until January," he said. And indeed, his house is now an imprint of a larger corporate entity, still with his name on it, in unintended mockery.
Far from feeding on crumbs that fall from the tables of the larger houses, we at the independent houses find ourselves approaching the whole process of publishing differently from the way they do. University presses do as well, though often they operate with a specific institutional mandate to publish regional titles or to focus on specific academic areas. And publishers of conscience such as Beacon, South End and Common Courage represent in some ways the most impressive alternative model when it comes to nonfiction.
The decision-making process at independent houses involves the author and the book more closely; the promotion curve is usually a much longer one than at the larger houses; and books tend to grow and change more during their development time, as a manuscript is read by several people, the author is introduced into our community and a conversation ensues. And there are often more people in decision-making positions, creating a genuine community of voices in-house, generating and putting into effect fresh ideas. Perhaps most important, authors influence us and can be influenced by us, as would be true in any relationship.
In the corporate publishing sector, with the big houses now so much bigger than ever, editors are expected to produce three or four times the sales volume and number of new titles as in the past. It is not unusual for a book to have four editors at a large house, not all of whom may have actually read the book, as people leave or are reshuffled. The differences between the corporate houses and the independent publishing community have never been this stark.
Two recent exceptions to that rule are Metropolitan Books (at Holt) and Riverhead (at Penguin), where an independent-press model is nested inside a corporate parent. In each case the imprint's first-generation leadership, Michael Naumann (who left to become Germany's Minister of Culture) at Metropolitan and Susan Petersen at Riverhead, passed on the reins to editorial-minded successors, Sara Bershtel at Metropolitan and Julie Grau and Cindy Spiegel at Riverhead. The number of titles the editors take on is far smaller than elsewhere, a most promising sign (since volume of "product" is probably our greatest nemesis in the fight for quality publishing), and editors seem to stay put.
Oprah's Book Club has been hugely positive in this environment, too--and not just because she sells hundreds of thousands of copies of any title selected. Winfrey is a smart reader with a profound respect for literature. She understands that books exist to challenge and teach, provoke and disturb, and consistently chooses works that live up to that.
Companies such as Schiffrin's publisher, Verso, and its compatriots are able to be far more competitive now than in the past. In the eight years since founding the New Press, Schiffrin has created a list at his not-for-profit house that ranges from bestsellers to publishing for teachers in the schools; his house is recognized throughout Europe as an important US repository for culture and one that has been a pioneer in bringing minorities into publishing.
Publishing important books well requires enormous energy and commitment and a long attention span; large corporations, with their bulky overheads and profit pressures, deliver those commodities only through special exertions. So, increasingly, books of great import are falling to the independent houses to do. We're helped by the Internet, by excellent independent distribution, by the large companies' common failure to read around, and by the serious interest of book-review editors, reviewers, college professors and the bookselling community (both independent and chain stores), who recognize the significance of what we do.
The electronic book may change publishing forever, though, and soon, with e-books that are not just convenient but beautiful to look at and enjoyable to read. A few months ago, I met a novelist whose last book had been brought out by a good independent house, but her new novel is being released by a British e-publisher, Online Originals, which she tells me reviews hundreds of manuscripts for every one it accepts, and which really edits their books, too. Perhaps this time she simply couldn't find the right traditional publishing house; but the time may come when the choice to go with an online publisher instead of a traditional one mirrors what is now the writer's decision to go with an independent rather than a corporate house.
But here again, knowledgeable insiders disagree, with a good number already likening e-books to 8-track tapes--a momentary blip that may not be sustained. I find it hard to imagine a future in which electronic transmission isn't a fundamental and transformative factor in how we read, and hence how we publish. This sort of repositioning has not occurred in many lifetimes, perhaps not since Gutenberg, as Epstein suggested in his New York Review articles.
Will the nature of storytelling itself change? And if so, will it be technology that will have made whatever transformation occurs possible? Some, including the novelist Stephen King, are entering the new areas in a spirit of wonderment and openness, motivated by curiosity as much as anything, not to find quick answers but just to travel along the road wherever it leads. (Success and failure--he's had a lot of both--seem secondary to the main project of being at the forefront of change; King calls his efforts "goofin'.") As ever, the technocrats and financiers will follow people of imagination, not vice versa.
Will the new technologies also provide opportunities to undo some retrograde publishing tendencies? Can we imagine a future in which copyright law is as concerned with rights of speech as it is of ownership of speech? Or where authorship is about the freedom and responsibility to write as much as it is about the privilege to write?
On the retail side, the stock of the brick-and-mortar giants Barnes and Noble and Borders has wilted over the past few years, and the rate at which Barnes and Noble opens new stores has slowed from 1997 levels. This means that growth now has to come from actual robust sales, in a retail environment where Internet retailers like Amazon.com are appealing to many book buyers--the independent-bookseller version, BookSense, will soon open and stands to appeal to many more. The stubbornness of the book trade to resist standard business practices must be maddening to the largest corporate owners. A mood of mutual antagonism can sometimes surface among the retailers, distributors and wholesalers, and publishers--each trying to find its elusive profit at the expense of the others. At the same time, the retail sector overall may be learning new respect for more traditional bookselling approaches. Recently, both the major chains and Internet retailers eliminated their heavy discounting policies. This is a positive development, since it levels the playing field for small independent booksellers and may encourage publishers to maintain somewhat lower pricing on their titles to begin with.
Schiffrin's book and Epstein's pronouncements share a certain tone of voice, patrician and authoritative. But there are no authorities right now. And these two, if asked, might be among the first to confess, in Socratic fashion, their ignorance in the face of what is happening. Is the sorry state of affairs they describe already behind us? It may be. Certainly, the future for publishing has never been so filled with possibilities and opportunities as now.
I once bumped into George Braziller near Union Square in Manhattan. He asked me, excitedly, if I had read that morning's paper. There was some good writing in it that had gotten him started at around 8 am. Six hours later he was still going on about it, and able to get me going. I went back and reread the piece he mentioned, and he was right, there was something marvelous there. George was being a publisher--seeing, perhaps before anyone else, that someone is thinking, feeling, saying something important. And then he looked to find a way to make sure others found out about it. Shareholder value notwithstanding. Electronic whatzit notwithstanding, too.
At the other extreme, my friend Glenn Thompson spoke to me not long ago about fearing for his "publishing soul" in the current climate. Without bespectacled outlaws like Schiffrin, Braziller and Thompson, there is the real risk that the publishing process will operate only too smoothly. As Schiffrin writes, "If the domain of ideas is surrendered to those who want to make the most money, then the debate that is so essential for a functioning democracy will not take place."
I believe it was with this danger in mind that Schiffrin wrote The Business of Books--with some bitterness, out of deep concern, with robust faith in his own restorative powers and that of the kinds of books he knows best, and a need to tell what he knows. The book is smart, thoughtful and well presented. News told truthfully and with loving care always brings some hope.
You've got to understand what Sam Shepard meant to us.
There are those who know Shepard as a movie star and those who discovered him, earlier on, when he won the Pulitzer Prize for Buried Child; but for those of us who first watched his plays in tiny studio theaters above a bar or in converted churches when there was still a counterculture, he was our playwright.
Shepard's plays were like no others--fresh, hip, antiheroic, free from the tired old psychology of Tennessee Williams and the Actors Studio. By no means political, they nevertheless made us aware of the myths that shaped our behavior as Americans. And if you knew where playwriting had been, with all those precious attempts to repoeticize the drama, and knew what was happening with psychedelics--people beginning to listen to those half-heard perceptions passing through their heads--you knew he had created an inevitably right form of drama.
He also meant a lot to people in the Bay Area, where, in the waning days of the counterculture, he settled for the better part of a decade. That was about the same amount of time Eugene O'Neill lived here, and like O'Neill, Shepard wrote many of his best plays here. He's been quoted as saying his years as playwright-in-residence at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco, where he premiered Angel City, Buried Child, Fool for Love and True West, were "the most productive time of my theater life."
But then, having given by his presence a certain validation to regional theater in the forever insecure "world class" city of San Francisco, he pulled up stakes and went to work as an actor in Hollywood movies. This at about the same time he was criticizing the hell out of the corruption of the creative process in La-La Land, in True West. And not only did he abandon our ever so artistically pure Bay Area for Hollywood, but he ended up making a long line of godawful movies, like Dash and Lilly, Purgatory and Baby Boom, pictures you wouldn't have thought a man of his literary sophistication and discrimination would touch.
In the past decade, Shepard seems to have returned to theater, though these have largely been years of successful revivals and very mixed and often not very warm responses to his recent work. The result is a lingering fear that Shepard, once the Wunderkind of American drama, has treated his tremendous gift far too carelessly.
Which brings us to The Late Henry Moss, the first premiere of a Shepard play by the Magic Theatre in seventeen years (at Theatre on the Square in San Francisco). The very best playwright of his generation was able to interest Nick Nolte and Sean Penn in the play--two of the very best actors in America, actors who time and time again have shown seriousness in their choice of material. That heightened expectations of the old exhilaration: a return of the real Sam Shepard, the poet, sure-footed, bringing you face to face with perceptions only half-acknowledged. And not only might Shepard be back at the top of his form, but this was an older and, one hoped, more deeply seeing Shepard, writing about the ultimate subject, death.
Shepard had left the Bay Area saying he was "no longer young," and now here we were so much further along. (Seventeen years; is it possible?) The golden boy is 57 and has lost both his mother and the father who was the source of so much of the anger and unhappiness in his plays. As he says at the end of Cruising Paradise, his 1996 collection of tales containing versions of both those deaths, "Everything was in place."
In The Late Henry Moss, the father's death is a mystery. One son, Ray (Sean Penn), seeks the truth about it and about his father and the family's past. The other, Earl (Nick Nolte), his opposite, seeks to hide the truth from himself and others. But from a cab driver (Woody Harrelson) and a concerned neighbor, Esteban (the delightful Cheech Marin), and in flashbacks, we discover that the father (James Gammon) went on a drunken fishing trip with a mysterious Native American woman (a very strong Sheila Tousey). Psychically tougher and more powerfully vital than any man in the play, she constantly throws it in the old man's face that he is dead in life. Ultimately she helps him really die. As she does, we discover Earl's part in that evening and his earlier act of betrayal when the family broke apart.
As the brothers, Nolte and Penn do what they do. Nolte drags on a cigarette, the tip just emerging from his fist, knocks down a shot, passes a hand through his hair and plays ravaged, weighed-down inner suffering with great naturalness. Equally real for the most part, Penn is intense, like a cat about to spring, and is ace, as you might expect, with Shepard's insolent threats and threatening silences. Both know to goose the energy with dynamic gestures, but both can also be a little small at times, as if they're expecting a camera to magnify the drama of facial nuances.
Unlike Woody Harrelson, who turns in a hugely inventive performance as the cab driver, finding fifty different ways to physicalize essentially the same action, what Nolte and Penn do ultimately begins to seem like more of the same. But here I think the problem is the writing, and with great disappointment I report that Shepard hasn't returned to his former powers with this play. He simply hasn't given Penn and Nolte sufficient material to work with. There's not a whole lot to the characters, and their relationship lacks the continuously rich evolution of True West. I suspect this underwriting is part of what makes the ending seem inflated and overwrought. The fact that what is revealed about the family's past isn't all that compelling doesn't help.
There are of course many joyously perverse, off-the-wall Shepard lines like "Every death has to be reported these days--unless you kill someone" and (to bumbling funeral attendants) "That's my father you just dropped." His typically audacious choices as writer and director are also very much in evidence, as when he leaves a giant, unsettling, unfurnished empty space in the set, stage right, or when Sheila Tousey picks Marin up and swings him back and forth like a doll, or when Harrelson leaps on top of a refrigerator, a meat cleaver in hand for protection.
Where most directors move actors about the stage to articulate relationships and tell the story of the play and create an overall mood with lights and textures, it's as though Shepard does all that and, with the help of designers Andy Stacklin (set), Anne Militello (lights) and Christine Dougherty (costumes), also creates pictures on stage that have the strange beauty of Edward Hopper's--only with a palette more like Wayne Thiebaud's. Shepard also moves into a more overt and equally beautiful surrealism, as when Tousey's head and arms appear otherwise disembodied over the edge of a bathtub.
In fact, Shepard seems to be trying to move into new territory. If Buried Child was Shepard's Ibsen play (and Ibsen parody) and Fool for Love his Strindberg, The Late Henry Moss may be a kind of Long Day's Journey Into Night, an attempt at closure with his father and his death.
The way he manages that attempt shows Shepard still of a countercultural bent, embracing the counterculture's characteristic antidote, inclusion of the Other. The setting is no longer a desert wasteland but the Southwest, the Latin/Native American West, New Mexico, where Shepard first moved when he left the Bay Area, and where a brooding primitivism makes you feel you've crossed into a foreign country.
After years of delineating the underside of macho, in Henry Moss Shepard brings onto his stage a Native woman, sensuous, with a mythic dimension and definitely Other. She brings with her clear vision, reverence for the dead, ritual, dance and a nonstereotypical way of being female. And it is she who--not maternally, but with great hardness--brings Henry to his death and closure to his suffering and macho failings.
Ultimately, however, this closure doesn't bring about a sense of reconciliation. The account of Shepard's father's funeral in Cruising Paradise is tender, full of pity and acceptance, and in it Shepard captures a very real sense of the grief that sneaks up unexpectedly (even when you harbor great anger toward the deceased). He chokes up reading the Bible over his father's grave and can't go on.
Henry Moss is a different work, and there's no reason Shepard should re-create the same emotional landscape, but given the subject matter there's a surprising lack of those feelings. Esteban is upset by Henry's death; Ray stands mutely by the corpse for a moment. In the final analysis, though, Shepard is extremely hard on his characters, father and sons. You might say, unforgiving. The failings and betrayals are a barrier he can't seem to get past. And in the end, the play never deals with the grief and pity that must be dealt with if reconciliation is to come from an encounter with the dead.
On the occasion of its fiftieth anniversary, the so-called forgotten war was finally remembered. With the Associated Press's Pulitzer Prize-winning "revelation" a year ago that hundreds of civilians were massacred under a concrete bridge outside the village of Nogun-ri, and the recent "uncovering" of the execution of dozens of leftists by the South Korean Army before the battle of Taejon, the horrors of the Korean War are beginning to come to light.
To the survivors and witnesses of these tragedies, however, the truth of their experiences was never in question. Their remembrances were repressed in a variety of ways--by government authorities, who denied these events ever happened; by society at large, which wanted to forget the past and move on; by family members and friends, who did not want to hear about such painful things; or even by themselves, who held these memories inside for almost fifty years. As a result, many have never spoken of what they witnessed during the three-year conflict, in which more than a million Koreans and tens of thousands of US troops died. The Korean War continues--in the lives of survivors and in reality; no peace treaty was ever signed, only an armistice agreement in 1953. Hence the enormity of headlines this past June when leaders from the two Koreas held a summit meeting for the first time since the Korean War.
In her memoir, Ten Thousand Sorrows: The Extraordinary Journey of a Korean War Orphan, Elizabeth Kim tells of another forgotten legacy of the war. The daughter of a Korean mother and an American GI, Kim's curly hair and hazel eyes branded her as an outcast in Korean society, a honhyol--"a despicable name that meant nonperson, mixed race, animal." In a culture where patriarchal bloodlines form the basis of the most important structure in society--the family--mixed-race children were (and still are, in many cases) not tolerated. Kim writes, "National pride is deeply ingrained, and in Korea the intense love for the country's heritage and traditions has its darker side of hatred for anything that taints the purity of that heritage."
Kim begins her moving yet vague memoir with the horrific "honor killing" of her beloved Omma (mother) by her own grandfather and uncle, an act she claims to have witnessed as a young child while hiding in a basket. Omma had brought great shame to her family, many of whom were village elders, by producing a honhyol. She also had the audacity to refuse the generous offer of another family to allow her child to work in their home as a servant--a higher status than that of a half-breed. In her relatives' eyes, the family's honor could only be saved by Omma's death.
A sympathetic aunt leaves Kim, somewhere between the age of 4 and 6 at the time (or maybe even younger), at a Christian orphanage without any components of her identity: "In a Korean's view, it would be better to be dead than to be the embodiment of shame such as I was: a honhyol, a female, nameless, without a birth date." Behind the bars of a crib, she is sustained by memories of her mother's love. "Omma told me that somewhere in the world it would be possible for me to become a person. She explained her Buddhist belief that life was made up of ten thousand joys and ten thousand sorrows, and all of them were stepping-stones to ultimate peace."
Kim relays her litany of sorrow in spare, poetic prose and never succumbs to self-pity or sentimentality. Her hellish existence as a nonperson continues in the squalid orphanage and even after her adoption by a white fundamentalist pastor and his dutiful wife from central California. Like many Korean adoptees of the time, Kim found herself in a community without any other Asians or people of color. Instead of being stigmatized by her Caucasian features, as she was in Korea, she was tormented because of her Asian ones in the rural desert community where she grew up. Her ultra-Christian parents reared her according to the edict of assimilation, never allowing Kim to speak of Korea or her birth mother. Instead, they openly disparaged the only person who showed her love: "My parents told me she was something very bad and sinful called a prostitute. She didn't love me, they said; it didn't matter to her whether I lived or died."
Kim carries the stigma of the honhyol well into her adult life, as her sorrows multiply. A loveless arranged marriage to a deacon in her parents' church follows her traumatic childhood, as do years of physical and psychological abuse. Mercifully, joy does make an appearance in this wrenching memoir, in the form of her daughter, Leigh. Kim finds the strength to spirit away the newborn from her schizophrenic husband before her daughter witnesses the abuse her mother has endured for years.
In the book's most affecting sections, the author describes her brief yet loving relationship with Omma, in which the two outcasts create a private world of their own in a shack just outside their village (a portion of this was excerpted in the first issue of Oprah Winfrey's magazine, O). Decades later, the next generation of mother and daughter also live in poverty on the outskirts of a small town and find happiness through stories and fantasy. "Whether in Korea or in America, the make-believe tapestry made life bearable."
But if fantasy was responsible for Kim's happiness, was it for her despair, as well? Just as the sources for the AP's story have come under question--in particular, one US soldier who originally admitted to getting the order to shoot civilians was not even in the vicinity of Nogun-ri at the time--Kim's story has come under scrutiny as well.
In September the Korea Herald, an English-language newspaper based in Seoul, published a letter to the editor titled "'Memoir' defames Korean culture." The author, Brian Myers, a Korean studies scholar in the United States, sharply criticized Ten Thousand Sorrows as "wildly inaccurate" in its descriptions of "Korean life, language and custom." He went on to write that Kim's "account of the Confucian 'honor killing' is so improbable, that the only question for me is whether she herself believes what she has written." Some in Korean studies have pointed out that it would have been more common in Korean culture at the time for a mother to have committed suicide than to have been murdered by members of her own family.
Answering such criticisms, Kim's publisher recently issued a carefully worded press release stating that "there are not sufficient studies for Ms. Kim and Doubleday to have stated as an established fact that there is a tradition of honor killings in Korea." Doubleday subsequently promised to delete the offending term in future paperback editions of Ten Thousand Sorrows. Kim, a longtime journalist, admitted to Associated Press reporter Hillel Italie that she was "careless" both in using the term "honor killing" (which is found primarily in Muslim cultures) and in stating in an admittedly "bad bit of writing" that Korea was divided by the Korean War, when in fact it was split years earlier, in 1945, after the country's liberation from Japan.
Considering Kim's background (she was most recently an editor at the Marin Independent Journal), her "bad bits of writing" are inexcusable and regrettable. In short, she should have known better. But as she has stated, her book "is not intended to be representative of Korean adoption or anything else. It's just my life." Kim's critics are quick to dismiss her account because of errors and inconsistencies; they point to her six-figure advance as motivation for sensationalizing the truth. But as any seasoned reader of memoirs knows, the genre tends toward self-reflection rather than historicity or definitiveness in describing a specific culture or experience.
Kim's critics forget, too, that the basis of any memoir is memory, which is by its very nature slippery, fragmented and often unreliable. What Kim is most guilty of in Ten Thousand Sorrows is not misrepresentation but neglecting to describe adequately the state and processes of her own memory. As a result, the book feels unfinished, like a work in progress, especially in the last sections, where it devolves into shards of self-help homilies. The book would have benefited greatly from a discussion of how the author's early-childhood recollections coalesced in her brain over time and why she chose to believe the version of what happened to her that she devoted to print. The book's unsatisfying ending suggests that perhaps the author hadn't quite achieved the distance necessary to deal with such questions when she wrote the book.
In his letter to the Korea Herald, Myers questioned whether Kim believes what she has written, implying that the author might be guilty of willful misrepresentation. The same charge has been leveled at the civilians and US servicemen who witnessed what happened at Nogun-ri. Is the inherent haziness of memory (especially that of the Korean War, half a century ago) enough reason to deny the actuality of events? If one thinks so--even in the afterglow of Kim Dae Jung and Kim Jong Il's first summit meeting--the wounds of the last battle of the cold war will never heal.