William Greider on the collapse of Enron, Robert Borosage on the "Enron conservatives," Barbara Ehrenreich and Frances Fox Piven on the importance of "welfare-as-we-knew-it" and Edward Said on secularism in Palestine.
New York City
A Trial by Jury, both the book and Carl T. Bogus's review ["A Verdict on the System," Dec. 10, 2001], were interesting and insightful, but I offer the following: Bogus says, "If convicted, Milcray [the defendant] could go to prison for life. They [the jurors] were not supposed to know this because under New York law the jury's only job is to determine whether the defendant is guilty of the charged offenses; it is the judge who decides the sentence" [my emphasis].
Actually, it is not the judge who decides the sentence. The legislature sets the framework, e.g., the options are at least fifteen years to life or at worst twenty-five years to life for a murder conviction, as in this case. The judge cannot deviate from that formula. However, it is the parole board that decides when, if ever, to release the prisoner. (I believe The Nation pointed this out last summer in an article about Kathy Boudin, in whose case the judge imposed a sentence of twenty years to life with a recommendation that she be released after twenty years; however, the parole board disagreed and she remains incarcerated until the parole board--not a judge--decides to release her.)
It is in drug cases that the sentencing has especially frustrated and rendered judges powerless, since only the prosecutor may permit deviation (usually minor) from the mandatory minimums, and almost always in exchange for a guilty plea. The last person to decide the sentence is the judge, regardless of what she finds the equities to be, or the individual and the facts to deserve.
EMILY JANE GOODMAN
Justice, New York State Supreme Court
Carl Bogus wrote, "No one can say whether the jury made the correct decision in this case." The jury did indeed reach the "correct" verdict: Because the prosecution did not prove its case (or disprove self-defense) beyond a reasonable doubt, the proper verdict under the law, as the jury determined, was "not guilty." If Bogus meant that the "correct decision" should reflect what "truly" happened that night, the legally relevant "truth" was that the state did not meet its burden of proof.
What impressed me was that the jurors applied the law properly and managed to set aside their conjectures, hunches and suspicions. When faced with the massive power of the state, a defendant is entitled to the presumption of innocence, and when the state does not meet its heavy burden of overcoming that presumption beyond a reasonable doubt, the defendant should, as a matter of law, continue to enjoy that presumption. Sometimes we don't know the "truth" about what happened, but the rule of law requires recognizing the truth that no one should be punished as a criminal when the state doesn't prove its charges.
L. ROY ZIPRIS
Defender Association of Philadelphia
New York City
I thoroughly enjoyed Russell Neufeld's December 10, 2001, book review, "The Rope and the Law." As I see it, the heart of the matter concerning the correctness of Justice Potter Stewart's rationale for execution in Gregg v. Georgia (the 1976 decision that restored the death penalty) is the proper role of our due process clause. We, in the due process tradition, condemn mob-dominated trials like that of Leo Frank, where the cries for the defendant's blood by the throngs outside the courthouse were heard and felt by the jurors. If Justice Stewart was correct that to avoid vigilantism the law must do in the courtroom what the larger society outside insists on and would do for itself if the law failed to do it on it's behalf, then have we not succumbed to vigilantism right inside the courtroom? Public justice is not private justice. Is it not intolerable for the ministers of the law to ask the larger society concerning the accused, "Do you want a piece of him"? Would the judicial robe or all the pomp, dignity and wood paneling in the world mask the essence of that courtroom transaction from it's bottom-line meaning, "We have ordered that the condemned be put to death, for if we don't, the mob outside will"?
WILLIAM M. ERLBAUM
Acting Justice, New York State Supreme Court
AND HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THAT?
Memo to: Foreign Policy Therapist
From: Your Supervisor
Re: Advice to Patient, The United States of America (December 3, 2001)
Any time you offer therapeutic advice in a public forum, you run the risk of simplifying the therapeutic process and offering a one-dimensional analysis. In this case your patient has suffered a horrible tragedy, is feeling traumatized, anxious and insecure and is struggling to find a way to heal. Yet you provide no empathy nor suggest immediate, realistic things the patient can do to feel better. Instead you tell the patient his/her problem is "denial." This only furthers resistance and does not help the patient collect ego strengths to work toward positive change. Worse, instead of acknowledging that a real problem of loss and death has occurred, you say that the patient's "real problem is simply the way millions and millions of people around the world feel about you." This generality is not helpful, nor is it an accurate way to portray the problem, or any problem for that matter. Your vision of the world as operating as a "unified mechanism" is itself mechanistic and does not allow for the free play of choice.
Yes, it's important that the patient examine the part he/she plays in a hurtful relationship, but your advice sounds like blaming the victim. You refer to some vague way for the patient to change but stop short of saying what kind of change. It is as if you are skeptical that the patient even can change, which smacks of countertransference issues. This is therapy?
FOREIGN POLICY THERAPIST REPLIES
New York City
The patient is armed and dangerous and is killing people between sessions. Compassion must be offered, and helpful suggestions for possible approaches to undeniably reasonable anxieties could be beneficial also, but in this case I felt that a sharply administered declaration of bitter truths was the best way to deal with a very volatile situation.
IMPEACH THE FELONIOUS FIVE
Thank you for revisiting the issue of Bush v. Gore with Vincent Bugliosi ["Still Time to Impeach the Supreme Court Five," Dec. 3, 2001]. I, for one, have not forgotten that Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justices O'Connor, Kennedy, Scalia and Thomas conspired to commit one of the most egregious crimes in the history of our democracy. They turned their back on the Constitution, on the will of the people, on the federal laws granting Congress the power to resolve disputed electoral slates and on 200 years of legal precedent to appoint George W. Bush as President. They deserve no less than impeachment.
BARBARA L. HAMRICK
BLATHER AND BIAS AT TIMES, POST
New York City
In his critique of the Washington Post's hawkish Op-Ed pages ("Word Warriors," Nov. 26), Michael Massing focuses on what he dubs the "Stentorian Seven" (Will, Novak, Krauthammer, Hoagland, Kristol, Kagan and Kelly). He points out that the Post "does feature some alternative voices, like David Broder, E.J. Dionne Jr. and Michael Kinsley, but they tend to focus on domestic affairs." That Broder is considered an "alternative" says more about the bias of the Post Op-Ed pages than the blather coming from the Stentorian Seven. Broder sure wasn't offering much of an alternative on September 13 when he called for a "new realism--and steel--in America's national security policy.... For far too long, we have been queasy about responding to terrorism. Two decades ago, when those with real or imagined grievances against the United States began picking off Americans overseas on military or diplomatic assignments or on business...we delivered pinprick retaliations or none at all."
Massing writes that the Post offers "much less diversity of opinion than, say, the New York Times Op-Ed page." That's not quite what FAIR found when we surveyed the Times and Post Op-Ed pages in the three weeks following September 11. The Times ran not a single column dissenting from a military response, while the Post ran two. Not much of a choice. See FAIR's survey, "Op-Ed Echo Chamber," at www.fair.org.
Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR)
New York City
Steve Rendall seems to equate diversity with "dissenting from a military response." Surely there are other measures, and while I have not sat down to count columns, I do think the Times is far less clogged with national security-type voices demanding that the United States invade Iraq.
SHOCKED BY 'A ROYAL SCANDAL'
New York City
I was shocked to read "A Royal Scandal" by Aram Roston [Dec. 3, 2001], who received his information from Mohammed Al-Khilewi and Saad al-Fagih, both discredited persons and unreliable sources. Roston defames Saudi Arabia, an important friend, ally and economic partner of the United States. During the past thirty years, Saudi Arabia has developed into a major modern state. There is no country in Europe or the Americas that has accomplished as much progress so rapidly during this period.
Saudi Arabia bought the most sophisticated US weapons, and its armed forces and national guard have attained the highest professional standard in the entire region. Prince Sultan, the defense minister, and Prince Abdullah, the crown prince, built up the armed forces and national guard and made Saudi Arabia a very strong state that can defend itself against any enemy. Its armed forces played a very important role against Saddam Hussein in 1990.
Prince Sultan also formed the Prince Sultan Charitable Foundation, which built hospitals and other charitable projects all over the country. He was a great friend and associate of King Faisal, and they both were against any kind of corruption. Prince Sultan is loved and respected by all Saudi citizens and by many foreign states, including the United States.
As the chairman of Artemis Records, the company that released Cornel West's CD, Sketches of My Culture, I considered criticizing Cornel for his association with Lawrence Summers, president of Harvard. Without ever listening to it, Summers attacked West merely for having released a CD, dismissing the entire universe of recorded music as being "unworthy of a Harvard professor." But like most record executives, I'm more tolerant of unorthodox associations than Summers, so I'll continue to judge West by his work and the inspiration it provides.
Among the flurry of press reports sparked by the controversy--most of which alluded to the alleged "rap CD"--quite a few couldn't get the facts straight. The New Republic claimed that West "has spent more time recording a rap CD and stumping for Al Sharpton than doing academic work." In fact, West has canceled only one class in twenty-six years of teaching, and that was several years ago, to deliver a lecture in Ethiopia. West recorded the CD during a leave--a long-established privilege in academia. (Summers himself took a leave from a professorship at Harvard to work for the World Bank.)
A Summers aide has said that the confrontation with West was a "terrible misunderstanding," but it's possible that Summers knew exactly what he was doing, using West the way Bill Clinton used Sister Souljah: to placate conservative elements of his constituency. Not only did Summers harshly criticize West's published work, he acknowledged that he had not read any of it or listened to the CD. Moreover, it's obvious that what disturbs Summers is not the notion of a Harvard professor engaging in political activity but West's particular beliefs: He criticized West's involvement with Bill Bradley, Ralph Nader and Al Sharpton, but Summers himself supported Al Gore (as did West's friend and supporter Henry Louis Gates Jr., head of the Afro-American studies department). Summers has been silent as his supporters have misrepresented West's record and called him names. Two examples: The National Review's Rod Dreher referred to West as a "clownish minstrel" and the New York Daily News's Zev Chafetz called him "a self-promoting lightweight with a militant head of hair."
West's decision to record a CD is in keeping with a commitment to spread his ideals and ideas as far and wide as possible. His book Race Matters has sold more than 350,000 copies and is one of the most influential books on race of the past couple of decades. His other works are used as texts in college classes around the world. There is no other public figure who is welcome in academia, in the media, in both conventional and activist politics and in the religious world.
By the way, Sketches of My Culture is not a "rap" CD. West, like most contemporary music critics, acknowledges that hip-hop is a vital cultural language. But Sketches itself is a concept album that is predominantly spoken word surrounded by r&b music, a montage that includes limited and focused uses of hip-hop language. Like any work of art, it's open to legitimate criticism, but it is clearly a serious attempt to use a modern art form to grapple with the themes that have animated West's career: black history, spirituality and political morality. There is not a word of profanity on it.
The indefatigable West has reached out to poor communities, moderating the crucial final panel at a recent "Rap Summit" and appearing on urban radio shows that had never been graced by the presence of an academic. I have seen the faces of young people inspired by West's linking of their own aspirations to the civil rights struggle and to the great philosophical and religious traditions. He urges them to live up to those examples. It has said something to the broader American community about Harvard that Cornel West is a professor there, and it will say something about Harvard if he is not.
When George W. Bush was first running for governor of Texas, Washington editor David Corn took a look at Bush family activities on behalf of Enron in Argentina--itself now suffering the results of untamed financial markets. We reprint this November 21, 1994, article to show how Enron's connections with the Bushes stretch not just to Washington but around the world.
Several years ago, says Rodolfo Terragno, a former Argentine Cabinet Minister, he received a telephone call from George W. Bush, son of the then-Vice President. When he hung up, Terragno was annoyed, he recalls, for the younger Bush had tried to exploit his family name to pressure Terragno to award a contract worth hundreds of millions of dollars to Enron, an American firm close to the Bush clan.
During this past year, as George W. campaigned across Texas to replace Governor Ann Richards, he portrayed himself as a successful businessman who relied on "individual initiative," not his lineage. Contacted in Buenos Aires, Terragno, now a member of the Chamber of Deputies, offered an account that challenges Bush's campaign image.
In 1988, Terragno was the Minister of Public Works and Services in the government of President Raúl Alfonsín. He oversaw large industrial projects, and his government was considering construction of a pipeline to stretch across Argentina and transport natural gas to Chile. Several US firms were interested, including the Houston-based Enron, the largest natural gas pipeline company in the United States. But Terragno was upset with the corporation's representatives in Argentina. They were pressing Terragno for a deal in which the state-owned gas company would sell Enron natural gas at an extremely low price, and, he recalls, they pitched their project with a half-page proposal--one so insubstantial that Terragno couldn't take it seriously. Terragno let the Enron agents know he was not happy with them.
It was then, Terragno says, that he received the unexpected call from George W. Bush, who introduced himself as the son of the Vice President. (The elder Bush was then campaigning for the presidency.) George W., Terragno maintains, told the minister that he was keen to have Argentina proceed with the pipeline, especially if it signed Enron for the deal. "He tried to exert some influence to get that project for Enron," Terragno asserts. "He assumed that the fact he was the son of the [future] President would exert influence.... I felt pressured. It was not proper for him to make that kind of call."
George W. did not detail his relationship with the pipeline project or with Enron, according to Terragno. The Argentine did not know that Enron and the Bush set are cozy. President Bush is an old friend of Kenneth Lay, Enron head for the past ten years and a major fundraiser for President Bush. After the 1992 election left Secretary of State (and Bush pal) James Baker jobless, he signed as a consultant for Enron. An article by Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker last year disclosed that Neil Bush, another presidential son (the one cited by federal regulators for conflict-of-interest violations regarding a failed savings and loan), had attempted to do business with Enron in Kuwait. The Enron company and the family of its top officers have donated at least $100,000 to George W. Bush's gubernatorial campaign.
Shortly after Terragno's conversation with George W., more Bush-related pressure descended on him, the former minister claims. Terragno says he was paid a visit by the US Ambassador to Argentina, Theodore Gildred. A wealthy California developer appointed ambassador by President Reagan, Gildred was always pushing Terragno to do business with US companies. This occasion, Terragno notes, was slightly different, for Gildred cited George W. Bush's support for the Enron project as one reason Terragno should back it. "It was a subtle, vague message," Terragno says, "that [doing what George W. Bush wanted] could help us with our relationship to the United States."
Terragno did not OK the project, and the Alfonsín administration came to an end in 1989. Enron was luckier with the next one. The pipeline was approved by the administration of President Carlos Saúl Menem, leader of the Peronist Party and a friend of President Bush. (The day after Menem was inaugurated, Neil Bush played a highly publicized game of tennis in Buenos Aires with Menem.) Argentine legislators complained that Menem cleared the pipeline project for development before economic feasibility studies were prepared.
Replying to a list of questions from The Nation asking whether George W. Bush spoke to Terragno about the pipeline project and whether he had any business relationship with Enron, Bush's gubernatorial campaign issued a terse statement: "The answer to your questions are no and none. Your questions are apparently addressed to the wrong person." This blanket denial covered one question that inquired if George W. Bush had ever discussed any oil or natural gas projects with any Argentine official. George W.'s response on this point is contradicted by a 1989 article in the Argentine newspaper La Nacion that reported he met that year with Terragno to discuss oil investments. (The newspaper noted that this meeting took place in Argentina, but Terragno says he saw Bush in Texas.)
Theodore Gildred, a private developer again, is traveling in Argentina; his office says he is unavailable. An Enron spokesperson comments, "Enron has not had any business dealings with George W. Bush, and we don't have any knowledge that he was involved in a pipeline project in Argentina."
In late August, several members of the Chamber of Deputies--Terragno not among them--submitted a request for information, calling on President Menem to answer dozens of questions about the business activities of the Bush family in Argentina. (In 1987, Neil Bush created a subsidiary of his oil company to conduct business there. In early August, a Buenos Aires newspaper reported that on a forthcoming trip to Argentina the former President would lobby the Menem government to allow a US company to build a casino there. The onetime President said this was not true.) One of the deputies' queries was, Does Menem know whether George W. Bush attempted to capitalize in Argentina on his father's position? So far Menem has not responded.
Concerned about potential taint from the metastasizing Enron scandal, George W. Bush met with reporters recently to distance himself from Enron's chairman, Ken Lay (nicknamed "Kenny Boy" by W. before the scandal). It is testament to how indelible that taint may become that Bush found it necessary to lie about his friend. He claimed that Lay supported Ann Richards in 1994 when Bush ran for governor of Texas and that he only got to know him later. In fact, Lay was a leading contributor to Papa Bush's re-election run in 1992, and by his own account was "very close to George W." Enron's PAC and executives pumped $146,500 into W.'s 1994 race (while Richards received all of $12,500 from Enron sources). Bush "was in bed with Enron before he ever held a political office," reports Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice.
W. has good reasons for trying to minimize his relationship with Lay and Enron in the dying days of his father's presidency. After Clinton's 1992 victory, Enron pushed hard to exempt its energy futures contracts from regulatory oversight before the new Administration took office. The lame-duck chairwoman of Bush's Commodity Futures Trading Commission, Wendy Gramm, wife of Texas Republican Senator Phil Gramm, brought the exemption to a final vote on January 14, 1993, six days before Clinton took office. Enron, a leading contributor to Phil Gramm's campaign coffers, then named Wendy Gramm to its board of directors, where she pocketed about $1 million in payments and stock benefits over the next nine years. She served on the company's audit committee and helpfully turned a blind eye to the shady private partnerships Enron set up off the books to hide debt and mislead investors. In 2000, as the Supreme Court was naming Bush President, Senator Phil Gramm slipped a bill exempting energy trading from regulation into Clinton's omnibus appropriations act, avoiding hearings, floor debate and notice. Enron was all set to operate in the dark.
What is the Enron saga about? Enron's bankruptcy, the largest in history, exposes the decay of corporate accountability in the new Gilded Age. No-account accountants, see-no-evil stock analysts, subservient "independent" board members, gelded regulators, purchased politicians--every supposed check on executive plunder and piracy has been shredded. Enron transformed itself from a gas pipeline company to an unregulated financial investment house willing and able to buy and sell anything--energy futures, weather changes, bandwidth, state legislatures, regulators, senators, even Presidents.
It is Enron's rise that lays bare the hypocrisy of modern conservatives--call them Enron conservatives. Enron conservatives fly the flag of free markets but actually use political and financial clout to free themselves from accountability, rig the market and then use their position to ravage consumers, investors and employees. These are not the small-is-beautiful compassionate conservatives George Bush advertised in the election campaign, or the tory conservatives who protect flag, family and honor. Enron conservatives make the rules to benefit themselves. "They have clout and the ability to get the rules written their way," said Stephen Naeve, chief financial officer for Houston Industries, Inc. about Enron in 1997. "They play with sharp elbows."
Ken Lay learned about regulation while working at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). After he created Enron, he lavished millions on lobbyists and campaign contributions to free Enron from regulation and to push energy deregulation. His lobbyist stable has included James Baker, Bush I's Secretary of State; Jack Quinn and Mack McLarty of the Clinton White House; and Marc Racicot, current head of the Republican Party.
Enron's lobbyists played a large role in California deregulation--setting the state up for a hit. Most experts believe that Enron, controlling about a quarter of wholesale trading in electricity with no regulatory oversight, was central to the market gaming that led to last year's "energy crisis," which cost Californians about $50 billion. For six months Pat Wood, Enron's handpicked head of FERC, refused to impose price controls. The White House, led by economic adviser Lawrence Lindsey, a former Enron consultant, ridiculed the very notion. In those six months, Public Citizen reports, Enron posted increased revenues of nearly $70 billion. When the price controls were finally enacted, the "crisis" disappeared. Spencer Abraham, Bush's clueless Energy Secretary, now informs us that this is a triumph of deregulation.
Enron conservatives prefer plunder to production. Enron's twenty-nine top executives cashed in a staggering $1.1 billion in stock in the three years before the firm went belly up. Small investors got soaked, and faithful employees got stiffed. In August, after Lay and CEO Jeffrey Skilling had cashed in more than $160 million in Enron stock, Skilling abruptly resigned. Lay personally e-mailed his employees to assure them that "our growth has never been more certain." Enron then maneuvered to ban its employees from selling the Enron stock in their retirement accounts as its value plummeted, leaving thousands stripped of their life savings.
Enron conservatives aren't limited to the Houston boardrooms. Enron conservatives in the Administration pushed through the $15 billion airlines bailout that included zero for workers. Enron conservatives in the House passed the "stimulus" package that featured tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy while scorning unemployment insurance and healthcare assistance for those losing their jobs. Enron itself was slated to receive $254 million from retroactive repeal of the minimum corporate tax. Enron conservatives in Congress passed the President's tax cut, which showered almost half its benefits on the wealthiest 1 percent. And they even repealed the estate tax, insuring that Lay and his fellow executives could pass along their ill-gotten gains intact to their heirs.
Enron conservatives aren't all Republicans. Enron's deregulation plans, and its contributions, were popular with the Clinton White House. Enron gave $10,000 to the New Democrat Network, the money wing of the Democratic Party. With his employer, Citigroup, owed at least $750 million by Enron, Clinton Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin didn't hesitate to call Treasury to suggest it intervene to forestall the downgrading of Enron's credit rating.
But the leading Enron conservative is W. himself. After all, Bush made his own fortune with inside connections while other investors in his company were getting soaked. Lay and Enron were Bush's leading supporters, contributing $113,800 directly to his campaign and another $888,265 to the Republican National Committee, an arm of the campaign, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Bush repaid Lay and other "Pioneers"--those who raised $100,000 or more for his campaign--with his shameful tax plan. He continues to push for a stimulus plan that benefits corporations over workers. He is pressing Congress to pass the Enron energy plan, which features massive subsidies to energy companies and further deregulation. And while the White House has begrudgingly admitted to six meetings between Enron representatives and the Cheney energy task force, it continues to stonewall efforts by the General Accounting Office to find out who met with Cheney to draw up the plan.
Public Citizen reports that Enron set up a staggering 2,832 subsidiaries, with almost a third located in the Cayman Islands and other tax havens. On taking office, the Bush Administration announced that it was abandoning Clinton efforts for a multilateral crackdown on these havens, saying, in Treasury Secretary O'Neill's words, that the Administration will not "interfere with the internal tax policy decisions of sovereign nations."
The Administration crows that there is no smoking gun vis-à-vis Enron. We'll see. But the real scandal is not what was done illegally but what was done under cover of law. Enron conservatives don't violate the rules; they change the rules to suit themselves.
As Bush was distancing himself from his old friend Kenny Boy, one of the President's first regulatory acts in office went into final effect: the repeal of the Clinton rules that allowed the government to deny contracts to companies that are repeat violators of workplace safety, labor, environmental and other federal laws. Enron conservatives don't see why corporate lawlessness should get in the way of federal largesse. After all, in this Administration Enron's rise and fall are seen, in the words of Treasury Secretary O'Neill, as a "triumph of capitalism."
The rise and fall of the house of Enron should trigger comprehensive investigations--civil, criminal and Congressional. The full scope of relations between Enron and its cronies in the Bush Administration must be dragged out into the sunlight. Miscreants should be prosecuted, and fundamental reforms enacted to bring corporations back to public accountability.
Desperately trying to put a lid on the cascading scandals, White House spokesmen have insisted that since Bush officials did nothing when Enron chairman Ken Lay warned them about its impending collapse, there is no political scandal, only a financial one. Don't fall for that.
The largest scandal, as Robert Borosage suggests on page 4, is not just what was done illegally but what was done legally--for example, the failure of Bush Cabinet members to warn small investors and employees that Enron was going down and that its executives were bailing out. Or the slick way Enron gouged billions from Western energy consumers while its planted head of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Pat Wood, ignored the pleas of Western governors for price controls. Or Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill's torpedoing of the Clinton Administration's attempt to regulate offshore tax havens, a direct benefit to Enron, among others. Or Enron officials' six meetings with Vice President Cheney to help shape Bush's energy plan. What is Cheney hiding by refusing to reveal the names of those FERC met with?
Clearly, the full range of Administration contacts with Enron should be probed. This will reveal how crony capitalism works and what must be done to curb it. Congress must begin the hard task of rebuilding the legal framework for corporate accountability. As William Greider writes on page 11, Enron's demise reveals that all the supposed checks on executive plunder--accountants, stock analysts, independent board members, regulatory agencies--were either short-circuited or inactive. We need bold reform now. And Congress should take a close look at pensions, boosting defined-benefit plans and returning 401(k) plans to the supplement they were intended to be. And of course Enron once again illustrates the corrosive corruption of big-money politics.
With the House and the White House in Republican hands, Democrats in the Senate, sadly, will have to take the lead in ferreting out the facts and defining the necessary reforms. "Sadly" because too many Senate Democrats mirror Republicans in pocketing corporate bucks and parroting the deregulation/privatization line that comes with them. The chairman of the Governmental Affairs Committee, Joseph Lieberman, was leader of the corporate-funded Democratic Leadership Council and a founder of New Democrat Network, the proud recipient of Enron contributions. Last year Lieberman blew off the probe of Enron's connections to the California energy crisis. He now has another chance to show if he stands with his voters or his contributors.
Enron's bankruptcy is the largest in US history, but it is not unique. It is a product of the conservative offensive to unfetter corporations by dismantling hard-won public protections. Given that freedom, Enron's executives--and their brethren--gouged consumers, fleeced investors, even betrayed their own employees. It's time for Congress and the people to put an end to Enronomics and call corporate marauders to account.
On December 10, Marc Herold, a professor of economics at the University of New Hampshire, released a report about civilian casualties in Afghanistan. Relying on news accounts from India, Pakistan and Europe, the study put the number of civilian deaths from US air raids at 3,767. Such a high toll, the report stated, resulted directly from the Pentagon's tactics: the decision to rely on high-altitude air power, the targeting of infrastructure in urban areas and the repeated attacks on heavily populated towns and villages. The report, Herold asserts, documents "how Afghanistan has been subjected to a barbarous air bombardment which has killed an average of 62 civilians per day" since the war began on October 7.
Herold's report has received wide coverage in Europe. An article in the London Times stated that while conservative estimates put the total figure of civilian deaths at around 1,000, "it may be considerably higher. One recent unofficial report by an American academic said that the death toll among civilians could be closer to 4,000." Using Herold's figures, some writers have asserted that more civilians have died in Afghanistan than did in the September 11 attacks, a development, they said, that undermines US claims to be fighting a just war.
In the United States, by contrast, the Herold report has received scant attention. The network newscasts, the newsweeklies and most top dailies have largely ignored it. More generally, they've had little to say about civilian casualties in Afghanistan. The New York Times, which in its "Portraits of Grief" has so carefully memorialized the lives of the victims of the attacks on the World Trade Center, has run little about the innocents who have perished in Afghanistan. Rather, it has applauded the Pentagon's performance in the war. In a front-page article headlined, "Use of pinpoint air power comes of age in new war" Eric Schmitt and James Dao wrote that the conflict in Afghanistan "will be remembered as the smart-bomb war." As they explained it, "Satellites, electronic-eavesdropping planes and human ground spotters worked together more reliably than ever, enabling distant commanders to direct warplanes to targets with stunning speed and accuracy." The "relatively small number of civilian casualties" that resulted, they stated, "helped the United States maintain the support of friendly Islamic nations."
Such an analysis closely follows the Pentagon line. When asked about reports of civilian casualties, Donald Rumsfeld has vigorously denied them. "I can't imagine there's been a conflict in history where there has been less collateral damage, less unintended consequences," he has said.
The US air raids do seem to have been remarkably accurate. But, in even the most precise campaigns, bombs inevitably go astray, and even those that do hit their mark can cause unintended damage. Hamid Karzai, the pro-American head of Afghanistan's interim government, has himself expressed concern about the mounting civilian toll. And in early January, a UN spokeswoman condemned a bombing raid on Qalai Niazi, a village in eastern Afghanistan, in which, she said, fifty-two civilians had died. The Pentagon, citing intelligence reports, insisted that the village was full of Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders. When Edward Cody of the Washington Post went to investigate, he found wads of bloody hair and flesh pounded into the ground and children's shoes scattered about the rubble of blasted-out houses. Based on this as well as eyewitness accounts, Cody concluded in a front-page article that many villagers had indeed been killed in the incident.
In an admirably evenhanded account in the Post (one of the few papers to scrutinize the issue), Karen DeYoung, referring to the Herold study, stated that "many with long experience in such assessments are skeptical of any firm accounting." However, she added, those observers "are equally skeptical of the Pentagon's virtually routine denials, no matter what the source." DeYoung went on to quote a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, who said that the organization had buried "hundreds" of bodies around each of several battle sites, although it sometimes had a hard time distinguishing civilians from combatants. "Unfortunately, I fear that there have been quite a few civilian casualties from all sides," the spokesman said.
Curious about Herold's report, I downloaded it from the Web (pubpages.unh.edu/~mwherold). Its twenty-seven pages include quotes from eyewitnesses, excerpts from news accounts, photos of maimed civilians and charts and tables laying out the day-by-day toll. Interspersed throughout is Herold's own analysis, which immediately made me skeptical (he calls the US bombing "criminal" and accuses the "mainstream corporate media" of "lying"). But what about the substance of his report? In an effort to check it, I chose one incident from his list, an October 11 bombing raid on the village of Karam, west of Jalalabad. The Taliban, Herold relates, claimed that 200 civilians were killed in the attack; the Pentagon dismissed that as vastly exaggerated. Herold, relying on a half-dozen news sources, concluded that 100 to 160 civilians had been killed. Via Nexis, I found several clips on the incident, written by journalists taken to the village. They found convincing evidence that many civilians had been killed; exactly how many, though, no one could say. From this Herold's estimates seem to be on the high side but substantial enough to warrant a closer look.
Why have American reporters been so reluctant to explore so important a matter? No doubt the remoteness of the sites in question has been a factor, but even more important, I believe, have been the Pentagon's aggressive denials, plus the general popularity of the war. Back in October, as images of leveled villages began appearing on American TV screens, CNN chairman Walter Isaacson sent a memo to his staff ordering them to balance clips of civilian destruction in Afghanistan with reminders of the Taliban's harboring of terrorists, saying it "seems perverse to focus too much on the casualties or hardship in Afghanistan." In a period in which a lot of video was coming out of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, Isaacson told the Post's Howard Kurtz, "You want to make sure people understand that when they see civilian suffering there, it's in the context of a terrorist attack that caused enormous suffering in the United States." Clearly, concerns about appearing unpatriotic continue to inhibit the press's efforts on this score.
Even if Herold's figures do turn out to be accurate (and he has since raised the estimated toll to more than 4,000), it could still be argued that given what the United States has accomplished in Afghanistan--the overthrow of the Taliban, the routing of Al Qaeda, the restoration of some freedoms, the start of a long reconstruction campaign--the price paid in terms of civilian casualties has been low. It could also be argued that as part of the rebuilding effort, the families of Afghan victims should receive special assistance, much as have the victims of September 11. At the very least, we need to know how many such victims there are.
Moe Foner, labor activist and member of a well-known left-wing family, who died January 10 at the age of 86, will be remembered with fondness and respect by Nation readers. From an immigrant Jewish family--his father delivered seltzer water, carrying it up New York tenement stairs--Foner was instrumental in building the hospital workers union, 1199, in New York City, and Bread and Roses, a program of art and culture for workers. Bridging the divide between culture and progressive politics, he brought his union to the frontlines wherever there was a battle to be fought. He and his brothers provided comfort, help and troops to The Nation and to progressive causes, helping to maintain the magazine's ties with labor and putting writers and benefactors in touch with us. For years he was a valued board member of the Nation Institute.
Foner often let others take credit, but with his names and telephone numbers he was the man to call--and take a call from. He was a champion of civil rights and civil liberties and an early and strong opponent of the Vietnam War when that was rare among labor. He was also a man of courage, and in his last years valiantly fought the illness that would kill him. He had, as his friend actor Ossie Davis said at a memorial service, the qualities of the best labor leaders and of the best leaders of the struggle--far from complete--to make America a better place.
One of the major falsehoods being bandied about by apologists for the Bush Administration is that while Enron may have bankrolled much of the President's political career it got nothing for those
What would the government have to do to convince you to get married when you otherwise wouldn't? More than pay you $80 a month, I'll bet, the amount Wisconsin's much-ballyhooed "Bridefare" pilot program offered unwed teen welfare mothers beginning in the early nineties, which is perhaps why then-Governor Tommy Thompson, now Health and Human Services Secretary, was uninterested in having it properly evaluated and why you don't hear much about Bridefare today. OK, how about $100 a month? That's what West Virginia is currently offering to add to a couple's welfare benefits if they wed. But even though the state has simultaneously cut by 25 percent the checks of recipients living with adults to whom they are not married (including, in some cases, their own grown children, if you can believe that!), results have been modest: Only around 1,600 couples have applied for the bonus and presumably some of these would have married anyway. With the state's welfare budget expected to show a $90 million shortfall by 2003, the marriage bonus is likely to be quietly abolished.
Although welfare reform was sold to the public as promoting work, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of l996 actually opens with the declaration that "marriage is the foundation of a successful society." According to Charles Murray, Robert Rector and other right-wing ideologues, welfare enabled poor women to rely on the state instead of husbands; forcing them off the dole and into the rigors of low-wage employment would push them into marriage, restore "the family" and lift children out of poverty. That was always a silly idea. For one thing, as any single woman could have told them, it wrongly assumed that whether a woman married was only up to her; for another, it has been well documented that the men available to poor women are also poor and often (like the women) have other problems as well: In one study, 30 percent of poor single fathers were unemployed in the week before the survey and almost 40 percent had been incarcerated; drugs, drink, violence, poor health and bad attitudes were not uncommon. Would Murray want his daughter to marry a guy with even one of those strikes against him? Not surprisingly, there has been no upsurge of marriage among former welfare recipients since 1996. Of all births, the proportion that are to unwed mothers has stayed roughly where it was, at 33 percent.
Since the stick of work and the carrot of cash have both proved ineffective in herding women to the altar, family values conservatives are calling for more lectures. Marriage promotion will be a hot item when welfare reform comes up for reauthorization later this year. At the federal level conservatives are calling for 10 percent of all TANF money to be set aside for promoting marriage; Utah, Arizona and Oklahoma have already raided TANF to fund such ventures as a "healthy marriage" handbook for couples seeking a marriage license. And it's not just Republicans: Senator Joe Lieberman and Representative Ben Cardin, the ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, are also interested in funding "family formation." In place of cash bonuses to individuals, which at least put money in the pockets of poor people, look for massive funding of faith-based marriage preparation courses (and never you mind that pesky separation of church and state), for fatherhood intervention programs, classes to instruct poor single moms in the benefits of marriage (as if they didn't know!), for self-help groups like Marriage Savers, abstinence education for kids and grownups alike and, of course, ingenious pilot projects by the dozen. There's even been a proposal to endow pro-marriage professorships at state universities--and don't forget millions of dollars for evaluation, follow-up, filing and forgetting.
There's nothing wrong with programs that aim to raise people's marital IQ--I love that journalistic evergreen about the engaged couple who take a quiz in order to qualify for a church wedding and call it off when they discover he wants seven kids and she wants to live in a tree. But remember when it was conservatives who argued against social engineering and micromanaging people's private lives and "throwing money at the problem"?
Domestic violence experts have warned that poor women may find themselves pushed into marrying their abusers and staying with them--in a disturbing bit of Senate testimony, Mike McManus of Marriage Savers said domestic violence could usually be overcome with faith-based help. Is that the message women in danger should be getting? But there are even larger issues: Marriage is a deeply personal, intimate matter, involving our most private, barely articulated selves. Why should the government try to maneuver reluctant women into dubious choices just because they are poor? Even as a meal ticket wedlock is no panacea--that marriage is a cure for poverty is only true if you marry someone who isn't poor, who will share his income with you and your children, who won't divorce you later and leave you worse off than ever. The relation between poverty and marriage is virtually the opposite of what pro-marriage ideologues claim: It isn't that getting married gives feckless poor people middle-class values and stability, it's that stable middle-class people are the ones who can "afford" to be married. However marriage functioned a half-century ago, today it is a class marker. Instead of marketing marriage as a poverty program, how much better to invest in poor women--and poor men--as human beings in their own right: with education, training for high-paying jobs, housing, mental health services, really good childcare for their kids. Every TANF dollar spent on marital propaganda means a dollar less for programs that really help people.
The very fact that welfare reformers are reduced to bribing, cajoling and guilt-tripping people into marriage should tell us something. Or have they just not hit on the right incentive? As a divorced single mother, I've given some thought to what it would take for me to marry against my own inclination in order to make America great again. Here's my offer: If the government brings Otis Redding back to life and books him to sing at my wedding, I will marry the Devil himself. And if the Devil is unavailable, my ex-husband says he's ready.
One of the old school of the British colonial service, a man with the irresistible name of Sir Penderel Moon, wrote a book about the end of empire and titled it Divide and Quit. At whose expense was this extremely dry joke? Look around the global scene today, and you will find the landscape pitted with the shards of that very policy.
The pirate ship has sunk beneath the waves.
The swabs who haven't gone to wat'ry graves
Row desperately, though all of them now know
Their water and their food are running low.
They row their wretched boats and curse their lot.
Receding in the distance is a yacht
That carries all their officers, who knew
The ship was doomed but didn't tell the crew.
The officers stand tall. They saw their duty:
Desert the ship by night and take the booty.
The first thing they do is cover your eyes. They make you strip to make sure you're not carrying anything. They replace your clothes with uniforms that are not clothes at all.
For weeks, conservative commentators and Bush White House defenders have been huffing that the Enron matter is a corporate scandal, not a political controversy--that it is an affair of business sku
It was a mistake--and a beaut--in Matt Bivens's piece "The Enron Box" where he confused the Houston Astros and the Texas Rangers. It is hereby duly acknowledged and regretted. But what really astonished us was the way it unleashed a slick triple play by the Right-Wing Conspirators (a Class C club that plays the Washington-New York corridor). You've heard of Tinker to Evers to Chance? Well, this was Wall Street Journal to The Weekly Standard to Fox News's Brit Hume. The WSJ caught Bivens's blooper; then The Weekly Standard grabbed amd waved it long enough to say "Nyah, nyah" before Brit (Mr. Inside) Hume gobbled up the ball and hinted darkly of cover-up (or something) on Fox News. This dazzling play illustrates how the opposing team will seize on a minor miscue and use it to clear George W. Bush of any involvement in the Enron scandal. OK, we admit the error shows we are sometimes sports-challenged; next time we'll check with a baseball expert like George Will. Lest the real issues be lost out in right field, however, we bring you a comment on Bush and baseball posted by the witty sportswriter Charles Pierce, a commentator on NPRs Only a Game and the author of Sports Guy: In Search of Corkball, Warroad Hockey, Hooters Golf, Tiger Woods, and the Big, Big Game. He posted it on Jim Romenesko's Media News (www.poynter.org):
"As to The Nation's unfortunate collision with the national pastime--the passage ought to read:
'When George Bush co-owned the Texas Rangers with a bunch of businessmen who had all the real money, construction began on The Ballpark At Arlington, after the ownership group finagled the eminent domain laws in order to swindle some property owners out of the market price for some valuable land. The property owners sued and won, but The Ballpark arose anyway, enabling Mr. Bush to cash out his original investment several times over without ever having done any actual work. This helped launch the successful portion of his political career, culminating in his becoming President of the United States, a job from which he took an evening off last spring in order to be the guest of Kenneth Lay for the opening of Enron Field in Houston. Mr. Lay was CEO of Enron and a well-known political supporter of the president who, these days, of course, would not recognize him from a box of turnips.'
"The Nation, I am sure, regrets the error."
Indeed we do.
Welfare reform has left America dangerously undefended against hard times.
It's too soon to call it a party, but there's now a popular, independent group.
With the "family cap," the state says to welfare moms: no more babies!
There is a moment at the end of the hourlong monologue that constitutes Act I of Tony Kushner's Homebody/Kabul when I realized I'd be happy to sit and listen to this mentally promiscuous, verbally curious London housewife (played so superbly by Linda Emond) for another two hours. Or more. Like many theatergoers, I was soon to wonder why her thrilling meditation on history, calamity and Afghanistan had to be followed by the events of Acts II and III, when the Homebody has vanished, leaving her husband, daughter, a British aid worker and various Afghans to play out their all too obviously caricatured lives. Kushner wrote the opening monologue as a stand-alone piece for the English stage, after all. Surely it could have been left at that.
Or could it? The problem, if we are to take this theater piece as something more than a dutiful twitch of political concern, is that the Homebody and her monologue require some consequence to her wandering thoughts. For one thing, these thoughts are way too winning, and Kushner, whose writing oozes charm like toothpaste from a tube, knows the dangers of charm. The woman is talking about suffering, after all. She is speaking to us from the security of her living room, safe in her culpable life, dilating on the most hopeless of catastrophes. And we are listening from the comfort of our theater seats. The setting is 1998 and the United States has just bombed supposed terrorist camps in Afghanistan, one more episode inflicted on a place that, as a character later comments, is not so much a country as a populated disaster. The Homebody wants to tell us about buying Afghan pakools as party hats for her guests, for God's sake. She needs to describe finding them on an unnamed London street in a shop run by a man who has had three of his fingers neatly severed by--well, by the mujahedeen, by the Russians, by the Northern Alliance, by, in short, the calamitous history of his country. She is not at all immune to the horrible dislocations that the hats may represent or to the transformation they can effect on her life, or to the corruption of culture into consumerist junk. She reads to us from Nancy Hatch Dupree's heartbreaking 1965 guidebook to Kabul, goes from there to the antidepressants she and her husband take, and on to infant mortality rates and back again to the guidebook. In between she serves up the many cast-off bits of knowledge left by history's losers that she treasures as important clues to understanding whatever it is she needs to understand. She loves the world; she makes all the connections. The act ends. As I say, dangerously charming because the question remains: What exactly does a person do when faced with a calamity of historic proportions? When we are so overwhelmed, she says, we succumb to luxury. Or to words.
Instead, she goes to Kabul. Thus the unlovely Acts II and III begin with the aftermath of this latter-day Clarissa Dalloway's disappearance. She may, following one local account, "have been torn apart to pieces" by an angry mob, or she may have traded places with Mahala, a Muslim woman, so that, according to her hilariously xenophobic husband (the superb Dylan Baker), who has set off with their daughter (Kelly Hutchinson) to find her, "she can spend the rest of her life in what must never have been more than a Himalayan bywater at the best of times, draped in parachute sheeting stirring cracked wheat and cardamom over a propane fire." The point is she's gone, and her family can't mourn her any more than we do. From now on there is nothing for them (or us) but the harshness of history, as daughter Priscilla and her guide (Dariush Kashani) search for her mother's body, while her father moves swiftly from whiskey to heroin holed up with Quango Twistelton (superbly played by Bill Camp), an aid worker left over from the great colonial joke. Even the gruelingly spare sets make you want to leave your seat.
The transition from the lonely housewife's antic mind playing upon the great and tiny themes of the opening to the Brechtian drama of the last two acts asks a lot of an audience, but Kushner is used to waging war on the way things "have to be" in the theater. It's one reason that, even without having a major play produced since 1992's Angels in America, he seems to be among its principal saviors right now. Angels, among other wayward things, ran to something like seven hours on two separate nights; its ambition was huge, and the result was a vast, chaotic kaleidoscope that managed to bring nothing less than an entire zeitgeist into momentary focus. Homebody/Kabul has big ambitions too, so it's not surprising that its author is willing to court our hostility in pursuit of them. One hallowed rule of stagecraft holds that after a play has established its contract with the audience, the rules of the game can't be changed. Homebody violates its contract by abandoning the character, mood, pace and manner of address that have brought us into the evening.
Thematically, the shift makes sense. As the father and daughter struggle to understand the Homebody's act, they are able, by the end, to move from their domestic hurt to the universal disaster of Afghanistan. It is a painful struggle--especially for the audience, who must wait a long time for these thin characters to, so to speak, get out of the house. The daughter, who suffers from the therapeutic malaise of her inarticulate generation, is particularly annoying. This seems a deliberate choice on Kushner's part, but it's hard not to wince whenever she opens her mouth. It surprised me at first that a playwright who rarely uses stereotypes without shedding some light on them, whose plays are literature on the page as well as the stage, has written a character so easy to dismiss. Her father is more appealing because he has the outlandish bigotry of his class; but he too is a stock figure, enlivened by Kushner's willingness to give him better lines than he deserves. These are the sleeping souls of the Homebody's world, unmoved by any pain but their own, so perhaps they need to be thin until the very end, when they are transformed by love and suffering and loss. But their journey is so arduous, and often so irritatingly melodramatic, that by the time the transformation comes, it has too little force. Whether some of this is a matter of the pacing in Declan Donnellan's directing, it's hard to say.
The mullahs, poets, prophets and especially Mahala, the errant Muslim wife (played so well by Rita Wolf), leaven the action even when they are speaking in untranslated Pashto, a risky theatrical device meant to increase our discomfort and confusion. The playwright's insistence that many of the characters speak over each other at crucial moments is less effective, even if we get the point of the Babel. I much preferred two running jokes about universal understanding: Priscilla's guide speaks and writes in Esperanto: "It is a language that has no history, and hence no history of oppression," he says. "A refugee patois. The mad dream of universal peace. So suitable for lamentation." A seller of hats and a former actor (Zai Garshi) speaks in the universal currency of Sinatra: "The Taliban, yes? They go to extremes with impossible dreams, yes? And so my record player is smashed and all each of the LPs of me, Popular Frank Sinatra Sings for Moderns slips through a door a door marked nevermore that was not there before. It is hard you will find to be narrow of mind." Witty lines on serious matters, reminding us that this playwright has not given up on the possibility that mainstream entertainment can address big issues, that serious politics arise out of very basic needs, that theater can be a force for transformation. The issues of Homebody/Kabul may be complex and irresolvable, but the dramatic mission is not. It's as simple as Brecht's response to an interviewer who once asked him what theater should do: "Try to discover the best way for people to live together," he said. How many living dramatists other than Tony Kushner would know how to begin to do that?
The Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize of $10,000, awarded annually for the most outstanding book of poems published in the United States by an American, is administered mutually by the Academy of American Poets and The Nation. In the past decade, winners have been David Ferry (2000), Wanda Coleman (1999), Mark Jarman (1998), Robert Pinsky (1997), Charles Wright (1996), Marilyn Hacker (1995), W.S. Merwin (1994), Thom Gunn (1993), Adrienne Rich (1992), John Haines (1991) and Michael Ryan (1990). This year the award goes to Fanny Howe for her Selected Poems. Jurors were Elaine Equi, Bob Perelman and Ann Lauterbach, who contributed the following essay. Other finalists for the award were Your Name Here, by John Ashbery (Farrar, Straus & Giroux); Republics of Reality 1975-1995, by Charles Bernstein (Sun & Moon); Atmosphere Conditions, by Ed Roberson (Sun & Moon); Plasticville, by David Trinidad (Turtle Point); and The Annotated 'Here' and Selected Poems, by Marjorie Welish (Coffee House).
In the days and weeks following the events of September 11, one poet, one poem by one poet, seemed to come into circulation: W.H. Auden's searing "September 1st, 1939." Set in New York, the poem's narrator, chastened by events into chill eloquence, speaks in slow rhymes, as formally reassuring as they are devastating in content. Like other Modernists, Auden cultivated a poetics of narrative statement that gave public voice to private perception. It is a voice that turned the unruly emotions of sorrow, fear and rage into ideas of order. But just as hot war tactics and cold war rhetoric feel outdated and dangerous in our terrible new world, the pacifying sonorities of Auden seem strangely out of tune.
On the evening of September 10, my colleagues and co-judges, Elaine Equi and Bob Perelman, and I met at my loft on Duane Street in TriBeCa to converse about our choices for finalists for the Lenore Marshall Prize. Over the summer, we had each read more than 200 books, some, but by no means all, of the collections of poetry published in 2000. These books were written by poets of national stature and poets of only local repute; they included hefty life-works and first slim volumes. It was a daunting task, by turns exhilarating and infuriating. To choose from among them the "most outstanding" tested not only our individual judgments but our shared belief in a poetics responsive to the contemporary moment.
The six finalists, John Ashbery, Charles Bernstein, Fanny Howe, Ed Roberson, David Trinidad and Marjorie Welish, are remarkable writers. Together, they have contributed immeasurably to contemporary poetry in America: expanding formal range, resisting reductive subjectivity and its narrative claims, attending to the exigencies of both language and world. To chose one from among them seems arbitrary, but there is only one prize to give. We have awarded the Lenore Marshall Prize for the most outstanding book of 2000 to Fanny Howe for her Selected Poems.
Fanny Howe is the author of more than twenty books (poetry and fiction) published by some of the most adventurous and enduring small presses in America. This beautifully designed and produced book is the third in a series called New California Poetry from the University of California Press, edited by Robert Hass, Calvin Bedient and Brenda Hillman. Until recently, Howe was professor of American writing and American literature at the University of California, San Diego. She has now retired to her native New England.
Howe works in sequences of poems made of minimally punctuated short lines. The individual poems are untitled. This notational, almost diaristic format gives the impression of a seamless intimacy and urgency, as if the reader were present at the act of writing. A spare tonality moves against the density and complexity of her vision, where a classical lyric voice is annealed to a spiritual quest buffeted and embattled by resisting political and social realities. This tension is what gives the poems their power.
Small birds puff their chests and feathers
With the pleasure that they know better
High morning clouds unload themselves
On the world. Blue peeps through
Sunny boys have spacious souls but killers
Build war zones in the sky where they go to die
Blue poems. Blue ozone. A V-sign
Sails into the elements: an old ship
Named Obsolete though Lovely is easier to see
Now visualize heaven as everything around it
(from Introduction to the World)
Howe's diction is not conventionally poetic, not dressed up, not avuncular, not pretty. It is peculiar, compelling and provocative, with moments of absolute clarity adjacent to moments of mere glimpse. This quixotic, pulsating quality lends a sensuous mystery and scale to the landscape of her work, as if the lines were emanating from a lighthouse whose signal is intensely bright one moment and scanning the horizon at the next. There is an asymmetrical oddness and frailty to her cadence that contributes to the dissonance between private and public event:
If goals create content stealth creates form
The air force hits space
with the velocity of a satanic wrist
How to give birth to children under these conditions
Favor the ghost over the father, maternalist
Howe stitches into a single poem materials from diverse, often divergent, experience. Affective language is laid beside statement but is not subsumed by it. The voice is personal, but there are no invitations here to bear witness to the concrete details of a life; or rather, that life's details are drawn through the poem as a thread in a variegated fabric. In a world strewn with bare facts, Howe's reflective meditative lines are consoling, not for their content, which is as charged with pessimism as Auden's, but because they invite us, or remind us, to attend. The poems act on us like pilot lights, igniting the receptive synapse of language. Like all true poetry, her work is difficult to excerpt, impossible to paraphrase. Howe is compelled by the distinction between, and proximity of, History and story; her work brings us to the threshold of accountability.
Laughter--or slaughter--outside the door
And inside she was dying
To join in. So she had to go out
--a physical body
With subjective needs
Wing with the post-Christians. Her brow a headline
Reporting news of weather & mood
From masters of the military & amorous arts
Hide in her little close
Off the runway, or step into their story
(from The Quietist)
On the dust jacket, one person compares Fanny Howe to Emily Dickinson, a comparison all too easily invoked for writings by women. But in this case, there is justification. Like Dickinson, Fanny Howe animates her work with an austere logic, in which aspects of a unique response, spiritual, emotional and intellectual, are held in an uneasy, necessary relation. She makes demands on her readers. If those demands are met, the rewards are as inestimable as they are real.
"Court rise!" begins D.D. Guttenplan's courtroom thriller The Holocaust on Trial. "With the clerk's shout we stop talking and struggle to our feet. David Irving v. Penguin Books Ltd. and Deborah Lipstadt opens on a gray morning at the height of London's flu season." Unlike other courtroom thrillers, in this story the defendants are on trial not for murder but for libel. David Irving, the historian and author of such highly praised works as Hitler's War, took to court when an American academic named Deborah Lipstadt wrote a book terming him "one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial" and charging that he bent historical evidence "until it conforms with his ideological leanings and political agenda." (Among Irving's claims was that no Jews were killed in gas chambers at Auschwitz, which was merely a slave labor camp. It is that thesis that ultimately brought the opponents to court.)
Irving's contention that the label "Holocaust denier" was a professional death sentence and erroneously applied, and Lipstadt's defense of the claims she made in Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory, shape Guttenplan's book. The trial took place over a three-month period in 2000, with Irving representing himself before a judge but no jury. Guttenplan, who with Maria Margaronis heads The Nation's London bureau, not only followed the trial but conducted extensive interviews with the principals, both before and after judgment.
The trial's implications extended far beyond the libel question. "Where does our knowledge of the past come from? How is it transmitted? Do documents deserve greater weight than the testimony of witnesses?" asks Gutttenplan. And politically, "Does a history of persecution create any entitlement--for example, to legal protection from those who would deny that history? What is the proper response to hate speech?... What is the connection between hate speech and racial violence? Is the protection of free speech always a good thing?" The judge, by the way, found for Lipstadt and Penguin, calling Irving "a right-wing pro-Nazi polemicist" and his falsification of the historical record "deliberate."
Murray Tepper, the star of Nation "Deadline Poet" Calvin Trillin's new novel, drives a dark blue Chevy Malibu. Rather, he parks it--in coveted spots all over Manhattan--at nightfall to read the New York Post, "which he still considered an evening paper, even though it had been coming out in the morning for years." Using various signals, including a finger-wag he perfected overseas to ward off prostitutes and beggars, Tepper wordlessly informs hungry parking-spot-searchers that no, he isn't going out.
Sixty-seven-year-old Tepper's got a garage spot, of course. But using it means he's "given up." For years he relished meeting the challenges of alternate-side parking on the Upper West Side: "As he moved down the street, looking for a spot...he'd say 'Tuesday, Tuesday, Tuesday'... He'd listen intently for the sound of an ignition being turned." Now, he looks for good spaces with meters.
One day, while parked outside a Lower East Side deli, Tepper meets a young "sort of reporter" who wants to do a story on him. The article, "Quiet Wisdom in a Chevy Malibu," appears in the East Village Rag, and Tepper becomes a minor celebrity.
A line forms nightly outside his window; strangers want to talk. Asked by one man if he has a few minutes, Tepper replies from his spot on 78th: "I've got more than a few minutes. It's Tuesday, a little after six-thirty, and this place is legal until Thursday at eight." Many "wanted to tell him about something in their lives that they found irritating or even infuriating." Tepper's simple, sage advice: "There's always something."
Control-freak Mayor "Il Duce" Ducavelli, nearing a bid for re-election, does everything he can to stop Tepper, and eventually gets him ticketed. But in a final scene at City Hall, when Tepper shows up for a hearing, it's clear whose side the voters of New York City are on: "Tepper isn't going out, Tepper isn't going out," they chant. Little do they know, their hero is about to sell his car.
When The Majestic was about to be released--it's the movie, you will recall, in which Jim Carrey plays a blacklisted screenwriter who suffers from amnesia--someone asked me to tote up the other films that touch on the Hollywood inquisition. I eliminated the allegories, such as Johnny Guitar, and the pictures that deal with other branches of show business (the music industry in Sweet Smell of Success, television in A King in New York and The Front) and calculated that all of two features--The Way We Were and Guilty by Suspicion--pay attention to the blacklist.
The number is also two with The Majestic included.
Talk about suffering from amnesia! Of course the movie industry feigned ignorance when the witch hunt was on--among its other unmentionable traits, the blacklist was illegal--and you can see how a certain forgetfulness was convenient afterward. But as Hollywood moved into the 1970s and '80s, with new corporate masters taking over the studios and old decision-makers dying off, the subject of the blacklist might have seemed ripe for exploiting. The industry has always loved to dramatize itself; and here, lying unexplored, was an episode that had convulsed all of Hollywood, and much of America with it.
Two films--if you feel generous toward Carrey, three. But now the count has risen significantly with One of the Hollywood Ten, the most honest movie of its very small group and arguably the best. It is not, however, an American picture. To our shame, it has taken a Welsh writer-director, Karl Francis, and producers based in Britain and Spain to film the true story of a blacklisted couple, Herbert Biberman and Gale Sondergaard, and their making of that remarkable movie, Salt of the Earth.
Since even Nation readers might be unaware of these events--and since truthfulness is a large part of Francis's merit--here's a quick synopsis:
Biberman was called before HUAC in 1947, among the committee's first group of unfriendly witnesses. Until that time his work as a writer and director had been so sparse, and so lackluster, that no one could have rationally accused him of transmitting ideology through the movies. That he had an ideology was unquestionable; Biberman was a committed Communist. But his greatest distinction was his marriage to Sondergaard, a hard-working, Oscar-winning actress.
Citing his First Amendment rights, Biberman refused to testify before HUAC, whereupon he was charged with contempt of Congress and sent to prison. When Sondergaard insisted on standing by him, she too was blacklisted. She found herself, upon his release, running a household of the dual unemployed.
It was at this point that their friends and fellow blacklistees Michael Wilson and Paul Jarrico came up with the idea of making an independent film about a labor uprising in New Mexico. The members of Local 890 of the Mine-Mill Workers, most of them Mexican-American, had gone on strike against Empire Zinc, demanding the same pay and conditions as Anglo workers received. The company's response was to get an injunction against the union, forbidding the miners from picketing. But the injunction said nothing about the miners' wives. In a brave and ingenious improvisation, the women came forward to walk the line, and did it so effectively that Empire Zinc finally settled.
Wilson turned this episode into the screenplay for Salt of the Earth. Jarrico took on the producer's duties, and Biberman signed on as director. Sondergaard had expected to play the lead--she was the cooperative's only bankable property--but at Biberman's request she stepped aside in favor of a Mexican actress, Rosaura Revueltas. Most of the other parts, including the male lead, were also cast with an eye for authenticity (and budgetary restraint), with the people of Local 890 playing themselves.
I said that One of the Hollywood Ten is a rare movie. Salt of the Earth is unique. It would have stood alone in its era just for having been made by movie industry veterans, but shot on location and acted by a largely nonprofessional cast. But, even more extraordinary, Salt of the Earth was a story about the problems of Mexican-American workers, as told by a Mexican-American woman. You'd have trouble finding such a movie today, when independent filmmaking is well established in America. Salt of the Earth was released in 1954.
Of course, neither unique nor pioneering is a synonym for good. And though the filmmakers faced extraordinary hardships, those, too, must remain external to any judgment of Salt of the Earth. The government deported Rosaura Revueltas in the midst of production, discouraged labs from processing the film, accused the crew of wanting to spy on atomic secrets at Los Alamos, kept theaters from booking the completed Salt of the Earth and warned projectionists away from showing it. This was an impressive show of force to mount against one little movie; but the harassment, in itself, doesn't justify what you see on the screen.
Biberman and his many collaborators justified Salt of the Earth. They managed to imbue the film with the feelings of a living community: at house parties and on picket lines, in the saloon and the church. Scenes percolate with the natural interplay of friends and neighbors, giving rise to a barely suppressed boisterousness. (The ruckus breaks into the open after the women are arrested for picketing. They mount a protest in their cell, with undisguised glee.) The ease of the group interaction makes up for the occasional awkwardness in individual performances--an awkwardness that at any rate has its own charm. And no excuses are needed for Revueltas, with her finely nuanced movements toward self-assertion; for the pace of the film, which keeps building and building; or for Biberman's eye, which seems to have been delighted with every face, landscape feature and stick of furniture in New Mexico.
To the eyes of present-day viewers, who may be accustomed to strains of neorealism developed everywhere from Italy to Iran, Salt of the Earth looks surprisingly good. It is not a based-on-a-true-story movie but something more valuable: the chief American prototype for those films that are simultaneously fiction and documentary. As for the virtue of its uniqueness: Doesn't a special honor accrue to the one film to have done something that was well worth doing?
I believe One of the Hollywood Ten has earned a similar distinction--though its internal, cinematic merits are entirely different. That's as it should be. The two films take entirely different approaches to their medium.
Biberman and his partners made a movie that barely acknowledges the existence of the entertainment business; the only evidence of pop culture in Salt of the Earth is a radio, bought on the installment plan. One of the Hollywood Ten, by contrast, reminds you at every turn that you're watching a movie, and that movies are (among other things) a business and a site of ideological contest. Francis opens his film with a prologue set in 1937, in which he tosses up two opposing forms of movie politics: the opening in New York City of Triumph of the Will, and the announcement by Gale Sondergaard (in the midst of the Academy Awards broadcast) of the formation of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League. Once Francis jumps into 1947, he continues this theme, showing the HUAC hearings as newsreel fodder (which they were). Everybody in One of the Hollywood Ten is playing for the camera and the microphone.
It's fitting, then, that Francis's movie should feature three star performances. The biggest of them is Jeff Goldblum's, as Biberman. Much of the usual Goldblum shtick is in evidence: the talking with dark eyes unfocused, the bursting forth of little phrases after unpredictable, Miles Davis pauses. But, also as usual, Goldblum feels his way deep into the character. He shows us Biberman as a chronic empathizer, someone who's always draping his big hands reassuringly over anyone he talks to. The voice is low, patient, thoughtful; and then, when Biberman doesn't get his way, he jumps without transition to a full bellow.
Greta Scacchi, as Gale Sondergaard, makes good use of a certain brittleness in her screen personality. Here she's playing a Hollywood star of the old school--a woman with perfectly groomed vowels, who keeps her well-powdered face turned toward the key light in any room--which allows her to find authentic feeling, even gutsiness, within her pose. But the movie's biggest star turn, the one that steals One of the Hollywood Ten, is Angela Molina's performance as Rosaura Revueltas. Molina looks older than Revueltas did in Salt of the Earth; whereas Revueltas had smooth, freckled features, Molina's face is lined and sunken. When Molina begins to play Esperanza, the central character in Salt of the Earth, her eyes take on the outsize look of hunger. And the voice! Molina puts a weariness, and a wariness, all her own into Esperanza's lines, using intonations that cut into your bones.
One of the Hollywood Ten thrives on these performances, and on Francis's fascination with movies themselves--how they're made, how they work on their audiences. (In one of the picture's truest moments, Biberman bubbles over with enthusiasm at his own cleverness, talking about the best way to shoot and edit Salt of the Earth.) Where the movie strays from these strengths, it also falters. Among its several glaring faults, One of the Hollywood Ten gives us an FBI agent who is so monotonally nasty that he seems to have strayed in from a bus-and-truck tour of Les Miz, and a Gale Sondergaard who is indomitably firm, except when she's not. When her husband tells her she won't play the lead in Salt of the Earth--her husband, who wouldn't have gotten to direct the picture without her intervention--she needs only a brief walk on the beach to calm her down. And, of course, there's music on the beach. There's music everywhere in One of the Hollywood Ten, poured out of a can of creamed corn.
This is merely to say that no one has yet made a masterpiece about the Hollywood blacklist. Karl Francis has made a good, intelligent movie about the subject, and a largely truthful one. Let's see somebody try to top him.
One of the Hollywood Ten has just been shown in the New York Jewish Film Festival, presented by The Jewish Museum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
My first memory of Muhammad Ali is from February 1964 in Miami's funky Fifth Street gym, just after the Beatles had departed from a memorable photo shoot.
Ali was still in the ring shouting his pre-rap couplet, "Save your money and don't bet on Sonny!" "Sonny" was Sonny Liston, the surly champion and 7-1 betting favorite, whom I'd heard the day before dismiss his challenger as a "virgin" and a "faggot." Ali had just turned 22.
I am old enough to remember when Ali was underestimated, reviled and exiled, called a coward and a traitor, and referred to as "Clay" by all the best papers, long after he had changed his name, when those same papers had no difficulty calling Robert Zimmerman "Bob Dylan."
When Ali shocked the world and vanquished the invincible monster Sonny Liston, the arena was half empty, because so few fans gave him a chance to survive the first round, much less prevail. Only Ali's front-row faction of American black royalty had faith in him that night--Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, Jim Brown and Sugar Ray Robinson.
But today Ali is universally beloved as he turns 60 (January 17), basks in the glow of Michael Mann's superb new movie about his life and sees rapper Will Smith impersonate him to perfection, down to the shoulder dip in the ring and the lower register of his voice in repose.
The once-reviled Cassius Clay has come to be perceived as America's Buddha, our Dalai Lama, who personifies peace and harmony. Ali at 60 is the most famous face on the planet, and probably the most loved person, if a democratic election were held that included Africa, the Islamic world, America and Vietnam.
His trembling hands and muted speech from Parkinson's disease only make him seem more revered, vulnerable and heroic; he is not afraid to display his impairment to the world. He has a serenity that allows him not to hide.
What happened is that America has changed more than Ali since the 1960s.
Like all mortals, Muhammad Ali has made his mistakes and said his share of stupid things, to which I will return. He did have a mean streak of venom he used against his best black opponents. And he did betray and abandon his teacher, Malcolm X, out of blind loyalty to the cult racketeer Elijah Muhammad.
Ali is what he is today, I think, primarily because of his draft resistance and opposition to the Vietnam War. This is what made him bigger than sports, and allowed him to endure so long after his career ended and to become an international icon.
This is what made him come to personify principle and sacrifice for all times. He gave up his championship, surrendered his prime athletic years between 26 and 29, and lost millions of dollars in earnings. He sacrificed all this--without being given any due process--to become a conscientious objector to an unjust war that was still popular when he took his formal stand in April 1967. He had moral courage equal to his physical courage.
The transcendent meaning of what Ali did was memorialized by literature professor and boxing scholar Gerald Early, in his essay "Tales of the Wonderboy." Recalling his reaction as a young boy to Ali's simple act of defiance, Early writes:
When he refused, I felt something greater than pride: I felt as though my honor as a black boy had been defended, my honor as a human being. He was the grand knight, after all, the dragon slayer. And I felt myself, little inner-city boy that I was, his apprentice to the grand imagination, the grand daring. The day that Ali refused the draft, I cried in my room. I cried for him, and for myself, for my future and his, for all our black possibilities.
Michael Mann, who directed the film Ali, told me, "The draft resistance was it for Nelson Mandela. When the cast had dinner with Mandela, while we were filming in Mozambique, Mandela told us that what Ali was willing to lose in order to oppose the war was the defining thing about him."
Jack Johnson was a sophisticated, apolitical hedonist. Joe Louis was a modest patriot. Michael Jordan will not do anything controversial. Jackie Robinson became a Republican and campaigned for Richard Nixon against Jack Kennedy in 1960.
Muhammad Ali is the most socially significant athlete in American history. He invented himself out of the cultural and political currents of the early 1960s--black pride, rock and roll, popular entertainment, anti-authority rebellion, generational self-expression and wrestling.
I once asked him where he got his early arrogant, bombastic performance art. He replied, "Little Richard, Gorgeous George and Liberace. George told me I could fill arenas by selling tickets to fans who would pay to see someone shut my big mouth."
When Ali upset Liston and won the heavyweight championship, he ignited a transformation in the consciousness of a generation. He consolidated a radical shift in black consciousness in America and, later, in the world. And he changed the popular culture of media and celebrity with the force of his personality. No football game ever did all that.
On that sea-changing night in Miami, the most mythic prize in sports passed from the Mafia, which owned Liston and used him as a strikebreaker, to this liberated, uninhibited black man, who kept saying, "I don't have to be what you want me to be."
The new champ announced the next morning that he was a member of the Nation of Islam, briefly taking the name Cassius X, and then Muhammad Ali. This was a lot for America to digest in twenty-four hours.
Ali's actual relationship to the Nation of Islam seems mysterious to this day. He never obeyed all its practices. He was promiscuous with women. He kept the white Angelo Dundee as his trainer, Ferdie Pacheco as his doctor and Bundini Brown as his camp cheerleader, even though Bundini was a black Jew who chased white women. Ali never displayed any hostility toward white people. He dumped Don King as his promoter in 1976 for Bob Arum, a Jew from Brooklyn. It is possible that his religious conversion was initially more of a social awakening, his way of asserting black pride and solidarity.
Ali quietly quit the Nation of Islam in 1975, to become a follower of a more inclusive Islamic faith, the brand that Malcolm X embraced in the last nine months of his life, after his pilgrimage to Mecca.
Ali once confided to me that he didn't become "a devout, true believer in Allah" until the mid-1980s, "when my career was over, and miniskirts went out of style."
The Greatest was the first rock-and-roll heavyweight champion. His rebellious heroes growing up were Sam Cooke (who was in the chaotic ring with him after he beat Liston in Miami), Lloyd Price, James Brown, Chubby Checker, Fats Domino and the exhibitionistic, uninhibited Little Richard. Ali moved to the backbeat with invincible confidence and vanity.
There are two distinctive assets underlying Ali's protean originality.
One is very simple--he loves people in a gargantuan, Babe Ruth kind of way that was never bogus. He likes to be around people, in crowds, signing autographs for free, joking with kids, performing his corny magic tricks. Ali always had a color-blind enthusiasm for humankind, even when he appeared to be in his most fervent Nation of Islam phase.
In Muhammad Ali, the definitive oral-history biography by Thomas Hauser, there is a revealing quotation from the champ, who says,
All my life I admired Elvis Presley. When I was in Las Vegas, I heard him sing, and it was a thrill to meet him.... But I felt sorry for Elvis, because he didn't enjoy life the way he should. He stayed indoors all the time. I told him he should go out and see people. He said he couldn't, because everywhere he went, they mobbed him. He didn't understand. No one wanted to hurt him. All they wanted was to be friendly, and tell him how much they loved him.
Ali proves the wisdom of the old Beatles message--the more love you give, the more love you receive.
Ali's second secret asset--and this is just my intuition--is that he possesses an almost mystical capacity to absorb energy and inspiration from the external world, and then filter it through his politicized rock-and-roll imagination. This helped make him special as both a fighter and a figure in history.
Ali drew strength and extra reserves of resolve from being black, from Allah, from being beautiful, from being a rebel and an outsider, from being underestimated, from Africa, from being booed by bigots, from being cheered by white hippies for opposing the Vietnam War, from having Lloyd Price and James Brown with him in Africa when he beat George Foreman to regain his crown on the soil of his ancestors.
Ali believed that if he could beat Liston or Foreman or Frazier, that would inspire a junkie to get off drugs, a child to survive a terminal illness, a welfare recipient to get a job, a drunk to go to rehab. He believed his life could change other lives, that his fate was linked to the fate of the masses, that if he won a fight, that could motivate a derelict to rise out of the gutter.
He believed he was on a divine mission, and that Allah would not allow him to lose a mere athletic competition. Malcolm X told him before the Liston fight that Muslims felt no fear, and Ali lived this way.
In his most desperate moments, when he was blinded by a foreign substance from Liston's "juiced" gloves, or exhausted against Frazier in Manila and feeling "next to death," Ali was able to draw confidence, desire and serenity from the external world beyond the ring and the gym.
He put this mystical faith into words--once on film, for Leon Gast's camera at his Deer Lake training camp, just before he left to meet the unbeaten Foreman in Africa, as the heavy underdog at 32. His soliloquy did not make it into the wonderful documentary, When We Were Kings, that Gast and Taylor Hackford put together. But it is in the outtakes. Sitting on the steps of his cabin, Ali speaks directly into the camera, with an honest self-exposure: "I am fighting for God and my people. I am not fighting for fame or money. I'm fighting for me. I'm fighting for the black people on welfare, the black people who have no future, black people who are the wineheads and dope addicts. I am a politician for Allah."
Then he added wistfully, "I wish Lumumba was here to see me. I want to win so I can lead my people."
Ali's rebirth has inevitably generated its own backlash, most notably Mark Kram's half-excellent book Ghosts of Manila, published last June. The book gives Joe Frazier all the respect and poetry he is due. But it goes on to claim that Ali was just a dupe of the Nation of Islam in his draft resistance.
Kram argues that Ali didn't know what he was doing when he refused induction, that he was being manipulated, and may have feared being assassinated by the Nation. Kram compares Ali to the empty simpleton Chauncy Gardner from the Jerzy Kosinski novel Being There, whose vague clichés were mistaken for deep insights.
"Seldom has a public figure of such superficial depth been more wrongly perceived," Kram writes of Ali.
This is a caricature of a complicated history. The Muslims wanted Ali to keep fighting so they could continue to make money off him; Herbert Muhammad, the Messenger Elijah Muhammad's son, was his manager, who took a third of all his ring earnings and a third of all his commercial-endorsement contracts. At the same time, the Messenger was--in theory--opposed to boxing as an enterprise.
When I asked Ali about this in 1991, he said, "If anybody used anybody, I used the Nation. They didn't make me do anything I didn't want to do."
What is not generally known (or remembered) is that the Muslims repudiated and banished Ali during his exile from boxing, when he was at his lowest ebb of earning power and legitimacy. On April 4, 1969, the Messenger published a statement in the Muslim newspaper that said:
We tell the world we're not with Muhammad Ali. Muhammad Ali is out of the circle of the brotherhood of the followers of Islam...for one year. Mr. Muhammad Ali shall not be recognized with us under the holy name Muhammad Ali. We will call him Cassius Clay.
The way the Nation exploited Ali is well told both in the film Ali and in one of the most sensitive books about Ali--Redemption Song, by Mike Marqusee (Verso).
The small reason the Messenger stripped Ali of his holy name was explained by the late Philadelphia Muslim minister Jeremiah Shabazz in Hauser's oral biography. Jeremiah was a large and much-feared figure in the Nation. He started Ali's conversion to Islam before Ali met Malcolm, he was a confidant of Elijah Muhammad and he maintained close ties to Ali. He told Hauser:
In early 1969, Ali was questioned on a television program about whether or not he'd go back to boxing. And Ali said something to the effect of, Yeah, I'd go back if the money was right. And that comment angered the Messenger, because to him, it was like Ali was saying he'd give up his religion for the white man's money. The Messenger sent for Ali, and I went with him to Chicago. I was there when the Messenger told Ali he was taking his name back and suspending him from the faith, that he didn't want to be involved with anyone so weak as to go crawling on hands and knees to the white man for a little money.
The Nation of Islam had no control over Ali after this brutal excommunication.
The rebuttal to Kram's depiction of Ali as a manipulated Muslim dupe is even further complicated. Ali's reaction to being reclassified as 1-A and thus eligible for the draft went through a process. It began on that first day of reclassification (February 17, 1966), and it evolved over the next few months, as his emotions changed and as the tactics of his lawyers changed.
Robert Lipsyte of the New York Times was present on that first day, and his observations are quoted at length in Redemption Song. Lipsyte heard Ali whine at first about how he could be drafted out of all the thousands of eligible kids in Louisville. Ali kept asking, "Why me?"
Lipsyte felt that in those first hours, as media calls poured in, Ali's attitude was "self-centered." Also, Ali did not seem to know where Vietnam was on the map.
But at the same time, also on the first hectic day, Ali was humming to himself Dylan's antiwar anthem "Blowin' in the Wind." And on this first day Ali did say to a reporter perhaps his most famous line--"I ain't got no quarrel with them Vietcong."
In that moment Ali began to change the world more than the world was changing him. This quote resonated and took on a life of its own.
Lipsyte has been a supporter of Ali in general, but is critical of his first, peevish response to being made eligible for the draft. He remembers Ali's anger over being reclassified for the draft on the basis of the recalibration of the intelligence-test standards, so that Ali's result was now counted a pass without his being retested. (Tom Hauser thinks Ali flunked the test legitimately because of his poor math skills.)
On that first day, Lipsyte heard Ali whine that his tax payments were paying for "three jet bombers and lots of bullets."
But within a few months Ali's selfish emotions subsided, and he grew into a critic of the war. He read, watched television and saw gory photos of the carnage in the newsmagazines.
The FBI certainly did not regard Ali as a brainless dupe. They began surveillance of him in early 1964, after he was observed with Malcolm X. An FBI memo dated July 25, 1967, recommended intensified surveillance of "Clay." Five of his phone calls were illegally recorded by the FBI, including one with Martin Luther King Jr., whom he called "brother."
By the end of 1966, Ali's opposition tothe war was more advanced than that of most senators. He told the great photographer Gordon Parks, "How can I kill somebody when I pray five times a day for peace?"
This is not to suggest that Ali had the complex global sophistication of I.F. Stone or Norman Mailer, or the towering moral authority of Martin Luther King Jr. He was still a fighter, not an intellectual or a foreign policy expert. But he was the undefeated heavyweight champion of the world, and whatever he said or did got on television and into millions of homes with draft-age children. The combination of principle and position made him dangerous.
Ali became a willing symbol, catalyst and martyr to the antiwar movement. He may have started out selfish and irritable, but he evolved into a serious man, a fearless American dissident who made the racist J. Edgar Hoover anxious and angry.
At first, Ali's lawyers argued that his Army induction would be an "undue financial hardship" on his family. But a month later they began to invoke his religion as alternative grounds for refusing to fight in the war.
Another historical detail that is often neglected is that the original hearing officer for his Louisville draft board (retired Judge Lawrence Grauman) actually ruled in favor of Ali's conscientious objector claim. But Grauman was overruled by the all-white draft board.
Ali's draft refusal seemed to be intuitive and authentic. Whether or not he was capable of shooting anybody, he certainly wouldn't kill any Vietnamese on behalf of a government that, in 1966, oppressed black people in his own country and in his own discriminatory hometown of Louisville. His quarrel was with his own government, which was the implication of his Vietcong remark.
Ali's feelings about the war were strong enough, and clear enough, for him to speak at an antiwar rally in Los Angeles on June 23, 1967, with Dr. Benjamin Spock. Ali told the crowd of about 20,000:
"Anything designed for peace and to stop the killing, I'm for 100 percent. I'm not a leader. I'm not here to advise you. But I encourage you to express yourself."
Ali's stand against killing wasn't vindicated until the Supreme Court threw out his conviction and five-year sentence on June 28, 1971, in an 8-0 ruling. The High Court agreed that his draft resistance was rooted in his religious faith.
This exoneration came three months after Ali lost to Joe Frazier. Years later he acknowledged to me, "I wasn't ready for Joe after only two tune-ups. But I felt I had to take the fight when I did because I needed the money. I assumed I was going into prison in a few months, and had no choice on the timing of the fight."
(The only major historical inaccuracy I noticed in the film Ali is that the Supreme Court exoneration is portrayed as coming before the loss to Frazier.)
Ali's first fight after his three-and-a-half-year exile from boxing was in Atlanta, against Jerry Quarry in 1970, because the local politics were favorable to Ali. There was no boxing commission in Georgia. And a local black state senator named Leroy Johnson cut himself in for a piece of the promotion. Johnson controlled enough black votes to be able to force the mayor, Sam Massell, to let Ali fight in his jurisdiction. An injustice was cured, and State Senator Leroy Johnson made a nice piece of change.
Ali had his blemishes, and committed his blunders, as a young man swept up in the wildest conflicts and largest personalities of the 1960s.
When he sided with the cranky, despotic Elijah Muhammad against Malcolm X, it left Malcolm naked to his enemies for the kill. If Ali, as the new heavyweight champion, had remained loyal to his mentor, and continued to lend his public support to Malcolm, history might have gone in a different direction. Malcolm might not have lost his power base. Louis Farrakhan might not have taken his place.
Ali shows the champion sobbing in remorse when he learns that Malcolm has been murdered (by Nation of Islam assassins), as Al Green sings Sam Cooke's soul masterpiece, "A Change Is Gonna Come," on the rising soundtrack.
The way Ali deployed his verbal skills to dehumanize Joe Frazier was indefensible. He used his wit and vocabulary to redefine "black authenticity," to cast his rivals as less black than himself, to rob them of their true identity. (Interestingly, he was never cruel to white opponents like Jerry Quarry and George Chuvalo. He did not try to mess with their minds.)
He called Frazier an "Uncle Tom" and a "gorilla" and the "white man's champion." Frazier experienced these racial insults as a personal betrayal, since he had befriended Ali during his years away from the ring, offered to lend him money and campaigned to get Ali his license back, so they could fight and make money together.
The taunting positioned Ali favorably among intellectuals--black and white--but it was essentially the tactic of an artful politician, campaigning for votes. Black laborers and cops tended to favor Frazier. It was Frazier who had the more impoverished origins, the darker skin color, the more African features, the black trainer and the black doctor. Frazier was pure blue-collar work ethic, a proud warrior from the slums and fields who was subservient to nobody.
In an interview in the early 1990s, Frazier told me: "I had to swallow a lot of razor blades when the butterfly ran his mouth. He grew up nice in the suburbs and says he learned to box when somebody stole his bicycle. I didn't have no bicycle! When I was 12 years old my family was sharecroppers in South Carolina. One day the bossman told me the mule had just died, and I had to replace the mule in the fields. I'm a lot blacker than the butterfly."
"I don't have to be what you want me to be" endures as Muhammad Ali's credo of self-creation, social defiance and historical significance.
The moral of his imperfect life remains: redemption through suffering, emancipation through courage, vindication through adherence to principle. Whenever he got knocked down, he got up, which is the best any of us can do.
Yet there is also the inescapable element of Greek tragedy to Ali's physical decline over the past twenty years. The same gift the gods gave him has also partially destroyed him. He was most renowned for his speed and speech, and now both those gifts are disfigured beyond recognition. He could survive astonishing punishment and still win, but this bravery eventually betrayed his body.
But what Muhammad Ali accomplished in his youth under two different names, both in the limited boxing arena and in the unlimited world arena of values and consciousness, changed history forever--and for the better.
Zero built a nest
In my navel. Incurable
Longing. Blood too--
From violent actions
It's a nest belonging to one
But zero uses it
And its pleasure is its own.
(from The Quietist)
The limits have wintered me
as if white trees were there to be written on.
It must be purgatory
there are so many letters and things.
Faith, hope and charity rise in the night
like the stations of an accountant.
And I remember my office, sufficiency.
The stains of blackberries near Marx's grave
do to color what eyes do to everything.
Help me survive my own presence, open to the elements.
Fog mist palloring greens, no demarcations,
but communitarian gravestones.
Celts lost to Anglo Saxons who endlessly defended marks.
Guerrilla war, terror:
the tactics for landless neo-realists.
Exile is the best school of dialectics.
Peter Gay emigrated from Germany when he was a teenager and worked his way through the American academic system, taking a doctorate at Columbia University and then setting out on his career as a historian. It has lasted more than fifty years so far--at Columbia and, eventually, Yale. (Now emeritus, Gay directs the New York Public Library's Center for Scholars and Writers.) His first book, which appeared in 1952, examined Eduard Bernstein and evolutionary socialism. From there, Gay proceeded to cultivate a long and fecund engagement with the French Enlightenment, translating, anthologizing and interpreting key texts, and in doing so establishing himself as a major figure in the field. He also wrote a history of Puritan historians in America, which only added to his reputation for being prolific and self-reflexive. Toward the end of the 1960s his interests shifted, and Gay began to study the Germany of his youth. The move resulted in an instant classic, Weimar Culture: The Outsider as Insider.
Gay's timing was excellent, as the zeitgeist in America had generated enthusiasm for the anti-establishment fulminations of German Expressionist art. Compact, lucid and informative, Weimar Culture had a ready audience both outside and inside academe. But while Gay admired innovators like Kandinsky and Rilke, he hardly celebrated Expressionism in general. Indeed, here is where we first see Gay's impatience with, even disdain for, the Modernist "revolt" against bourgeois culture. He wrote about "the danger of the movement's commitment to passion." And Gay heaped approbation on what was so often the object of its scorn, arguing that Weimar democracy had a chance against Nazism only "because there were republicans who took the symbol of Weimar seriously and who tried, persistently and courageously, to give the ideal real content."
Yet Gay was still years away from The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, his five-volume attempt to rehabilitate nineteenth-century bourgeois culture. He seemed to be up to something altogether different, in fact. In the mid-1970s, Gay began to use an interpretive tool that often functions as a sledgehammer in theories of Victorian society: psychoanalysis.
Of course, Freud himself was in some ways thoroughly bourgeois. He worked assiduously and enjoyed family picnics. And, unlike many of the critics who have appropriated his thought--for example, Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse--Freud subscribed to moderate political values. Gay has made much of this point. In Freud, Jews and Other Germans, which appeared a decade after Weimar Culture, Gay not only employed Freudian concepts to understand history, he also discussed the founder of psychoanalysis under the heading "the bourgeois as revolutionary." A decade later, Gay invoked this oxymoron again in his greatest scholarly achievement, a biography of Freud.
In his new book, Schnitzler's Century, Gay asserts--to no one's surprise--that "bourgeoisophobes," who anathematize nineteenth-century bourgeois culture as grimly repressive, are misguided: For it was bourgeois thinkers who enabled us to penetrate into the deep structures of sexuality, meaning that there must be more to this culture than Victorian squeamishness and hypocrisy. Witness Freud. Witness also turn-of-the-century Vienna's most successful playwright, Arthur Schnitzler.
According to Gay, Schnitzler, like Freud, recognized the ubiquity of sexual drives in psychic life; indeed, Freud himself praised Schnitzler's psychological acumen. And, a medical doctor who often reproached himself for being slothful, Schnitzler, too, had certain bourgeois sensibilities. But Schnitzler is no Freud in Gay's book; Gay bluntly contends that between the two, there is only one epoch-making thinker: Freud. So why did Gay call his new book Schnitzler's Century? The fact that he had put Freud's name in the subtitle of his multivolume history of bourgeois culture may be one reason. More important, despite his various bourgeois tendencies, Freud is too extraordinary, or not representative enough. The possessive form in Gay's title does not suggest that Schnitzler captured the essence of Victorian culture but rather that, while not at all average, Schnitzler's mind and lusty life are emblematic of his century. Gay's title makes a statement about Schnitzler's times, not about Schnitzler's art.
But Schnitzler's art matters. Again, it undermines the myth of bourgeois prudery. Schnitzler's stories and plays about Vienna evoke a world of small lies and swirling concupiscence. The dark comedy La Ronde is the most familiar example. Written in 1894, the play was deemed too racy for the Viennese stage, and the first performance of it took place in Berlin more than twenty-five years later. La Ronde consists of ten one-acts. In each case there are two characters, a man and a woman; the center of the action, a sexual encounter, has been omitted, and prevaricating dominates the dialogue. One partner always moves on to the next one-act. The prostitute who is with a soldier in the first one-act rounds out the play by reappearing with a count in the final one-act. Dream Novella, whose premise Stanley Kubrick borrowed for Eyes Wide Shut, broods over similar themes, including dishonesty and too much honesty in the bedroom, and lust circulating recklessly though different social spheres.
Schnitzler's writings abound with autobiographical references, and therefore, along with his letters and diaries (in which Schnitzler kept an exact and prodigious record of his orgasms), his art can be used to document the sexual openness of a real bourgeois experience. But Gay works with it sparingly. Schnitzler himself moves in and out of Schnitzler's Century, helping to introduce Gay's arguments and occasionally to illustrate them. As Gay writes in his preface, "He will appear in each of the chapters that follow, sometimes briefly as an impetus to broader investigations, sometimes as a participant."
Gay's main organizational conceit is that Schnitzler's Century is the biography of a class. Yet the book is actually the biography of classes--the middle classes. Gay stresses that bourgeois culture in the nineteenth century encompassed an array of lifestyles, from the penury of struggling shopkeepers to parvenu opulence. His claim makes sense, of course, but it creates logistical difficulties. How to tell so many stories in a single book? And, in fact, Schnitzler's Century has very little narrative development. To get that you would have to read the books that it is supposed to synthesize, The Bourgeois Experience. In Schnitzler's Century Gay presents material from the most diverse regions of bourgeois culture. He helps us to see, for example, the variegations in Victorian sexology. However, he does not show us how sexology in the Victorian era changed, and why. Schnitzler's Century might address a century, yet its approach is mostly synchronic. Gay fits this century into a large frame and points to its parts--Schnitzler, Dickens, theosophy, German Romanticism--as though they belonged to one complex portrait, which he sets up as a triptych. He begins with the "Fundamentals," or basic living and working conditions. In the other two sections, "Drives and Defenses" and "The Victorian Mind," Gay analyzes different areas of the bourgeois psyche.
Drawing on such sources as good and bad novels, the letters of famous politicians and of everyday people, newspapers, cookbooks, the writings of eminent scientists (Darwin, Rudolf Virchow), the writings of quacks and self-help manuals, Gay offers many lurid instances of sensuousness in bourgeois culture. But sometimes he goes over them too quickly. For example, he writes, "Here is a Parisian petty bourgeoise, a dressmaker, name and age unknown, writing to her lover in 1892: 'I am compelled to acknowledge to myself, 'I love you,' and I won't forget the night of love I spent with you. Dear friend, you must have noticed with what freedom I abandoned myself. I was not at all embarrassed by your presence for the first time. It must be that I am greatly taken with you, and that I'm almost convinced that I will experience happiness in your arms.'" According to Gay, the quotation bespeaks the earthy communication and relatively guilt-free legitimate pleasure among Victorians. Certainly the letter is passionate. And for just that reason the cautious phrase, "I'm almost convinced that I will experience happiness in your arms" has a jarring effect. After so much rapture, why "almost"? Why hit the brakes in an otherwise full-speed-ahead love letter? Many things could have prompted her to--including the very Victorian sexual unease that she supposedly did not feel. Gay does not stop to consider this possibility.
No doubt he avoids involved analysis because he wants to make his book readable. And it is that. It is also admirably balanced. While Gay celebrates the polychromatic side of Victorian society, he also acknowledges its industrialized grayness. He discusses other nineteenth-century ills as well, such as imperialism and the emergence of racist anti-Semitism. Here his debt to Freud is at its most obvious: Gay views these problems as effects of our aggressive drives. Yet elsewhere Gay distances himself from Freud, arguing that Freud generalized unduly about the links between common neuroses and sexual restrictions in bourgeois culture.
Freud is not the hero of Schnitzler's Century. If the book has a guiding spirit it is Freud's American colleague, the psychologist and philosopher William James. In Gay's brief account of James his tone becomes effusive. He calls James the noblest exemplar of the Victorians' spiritual needs and states that James takes pride of place in these pages. Second, and more important, Gay focuses on the part of James's career that bears an affinity with his own project: James's will to believe. Just as James worked his way through modern doubt to a considered religious faith, Gay seems to be attempting to achieve a kind of erudite belief in the bourgeois world of yesterday, and in its transformation of the world. Gay adverts to many of Victorian society's horrific moments--like ritual-murder trials and cheering at executions. But he resolutely underlines what he sees as its humane successes, such as labor and voting reforms and the spread of cultural literacy. Indeed, although Gay does not sketch the development of nineteenth-century bourgeois culture, he leaves us with images of progress. For example, a section of Schnitzler's Century that begins by enumerating the casualties of capitalism ends with the sentence: "More than ever before, the middle classes could spend money and time in pursuits more elevated than chasing wealth and make room in their daily schedules for listening to music, looking at art, and attending the theatre." Gay thinks, or rather, has decided to think, that things got better.
This generally sanguine attitude plays a greater role here than it did in the various volumes of The Bourgeois Experience, which, notwithstanding its much larger size, deals more narrowly with the question of bourgeois sexuality. In fact, Schnitzler's Century might connect more profoundly with My German Question, the memoir that Gay wrote several years ago, than it does with its explicit antecedents. My German Question defends the bourgeois Berlin milieu in which Gay grew up. It was, Gay insists, a vital culture, whose demise was far from inevitable. And by professing his belief in the overall value of Victorian culture and its possibilities, Gay extends this defense. Read My German Question and Schnitzler's Century together, and Schnitzler's Century will read that much more like a vastly learned existential reckoning. This is what makes it a powerful book, not its pummeling of tired ideas about middle-class prissiness.
Still, Schnitzler's Century would be stronger if Gay had taken on more formidable opponents. He could have found them among his fellow refugees from Nazi Germany. Consider just a few examples. During the West Coast stage of their exile, in the mid-1940s, Horkheimer and Adorno traced the rise of Nazism to blind spots in Enlightenment rationality. Years later Hannah Arendt saw Eichmann's neat, bureaucratic countenance, rather than Hitler's psychotic gaze, as the real face of fascism. Meanwhile, Marcuse had been exploring the connections between the libidinal demands of bourgeois culture and the orgy of Nazi violence that almost destroyed it. And with his studies on the interplay of bourgeois sexuality and nationalism, George Mosse did more than anyone else to perpetuate this kind of analysis.
In doing more than anyone else to defend bourgeois culture, Gay attacks the sort of criticisms that Steven Marcus raised in his famous study The Other Victorians. Leaning on a small body of sources, Marcus made far-reaching claims about the tortured character of Victorian sexuality. Gay easily piles up texts and facts that militate against them. He rejects Freud's arguments about bourgeois repression on the same grounds: insufficient evidence. But for the most part Freud articulates these views in essays on culture, theoretical speculations that he did not try to prove empirically. Needless to say, elsewhere Gay does not hold Freud to the same positivistic standard.
Furthermore, Gay ignores the rich literature on the cultural construction of sexuality, much of which is inspired by Foucault's unfinished History of Sexuality. Such works--Thomas Laqueur's well-researched book Making Sex is a persuasive example--challenge Gay's basic assumption about sexuality: that it exists, more or less as we understand it, beyond our invented world of concepts. After all, Gay presupposes as much in asking whether the Victorians gave their sexuality room to breathe. The more critical approach to sexuality, which has led to readings of Victorian society that differ dramatically from Gay's, should have received at least some attention. And the same goes for the writings of Horkheimer, Adorno and Marcuse. Obviously, Gay could not have taken into account every influential antibourgeois utterance. But engaging with such vigorous arguments would have given his own historiographical inversion just the sort of resistance it lacks--or would need in order to be satisfying. On numerous other levels, however, Schnitzler's Century remains impressive. Anyone interested in Victorian culture should appreciate the colorful sources Gay has gathered together; anyone interested in the writing of history should appreciate the elegance with which he arranges them. Writing about one of Schnitzler's early plays, a Viennese reviewer exclaimed, "How well everything is set up! How gracefully the characters are handled!" He could have been describing Schnitzler's Century.