The Pentagon's recent decision to limit anthrax vaccine shots to those at high risk does not address the fundamental objection to the shots, which is the lack of informed consent. The military maintains that it is not required to seek informed consent for the vaccine because it is currently approved by the Food and Drug Administration, and it continues to court-martial personnel who refuse the vaccine. These servicemembers contend that the vaccine is unsafe and that the military is not using it in the prescribed manner.
The Pentagon announced its controversial plan to forcibly inoculate all 2.4 million troops against anthrax in 1997. Almost immediately, military members began to protest, based in part on the revelation that approximately 300,000 servicemembers had been given experimental drugs without their knowledge in the Gulf War. Both during and after the Gulf War, many military personnel experienced systemic medical problems, which are often collectively termed Gulf War Syndrome. Seven years after the Gulf War, the military finally admitted that it had used experimental drugs on its personnel without their consent, and that these drugs could be factors in the medical problems.
The FDA approved the current anthrax vaccine in 1970 primarily for agricultural workers, but not for routine immunization on large populations. Originally approved for a six-shot, eighteen-month protocol, the vaccine is intended to treat cutaneous (through the skin) anthrax, but has never been tested for inhalation anthrax, which is the most deadly form and the most likely to occur in a combat situation. Despite the military's assertions that very few adverse reactions have been reported from the vaccine, the General Accounting Office found that the Pentagon has been negligent in tracking such reactions. In fact, many military personnel have reported adverse reactions. In 2000 the GAO surveyed the National Guard and reserve forces given the vaccine, and 85 percent reported some reactions, with 23.8 percent reported to be systemic. Additionally, the GAO reports that the long-term effects of the anthrax vaccine have never been studied. In 1994 one of the Army's top biological researchers wrote that "the current vaccine against anthrax is unsatisfactory."
In 1996 the manufacturer BioPort submitted an application to the FDA to amend the original anthrax vaccine license to include treatment of inhalation anthrax as an approved use, as well as an approved reduction in the vaccination schedule. FDA regulations specify that should an organization desire a license change for a previously approved drug or a modified dosing schedule, the drug essentially reverts to experimental status. Due to a vaccine shortage, the military does not require that personnel complete the six-shot protocol, and in some cases it has prescribed that only two of the six required shots are necessary. So under the current law, the military, in using the anthrax vaccine as a prophylactic against inhalation anthrax, is basically using an experimental drug on its own people without their consent.
In light of the Gulf War experimental drug abuses, the Pentagon's circumvention of FDA regulations with anthrax vaccine is very unsettling. Even after the anthrax scare post-9/11, we cannot simply ignore the system of checks and balances for experimental drugs. In volunteering for service, military members sacrifice much for their country. Just as they are expected to conform to the rules of their superiors, the Pentagon should be expected to obey the laws of the land.
If a definition of news is something that hasn't happened before, readers of the New York Times may be excused for wondering why the paper featured a front-page story on June 8 on the travails of a Senate candidate from Oregon who spends hours a day cold-calling rich strangers to ask them to contribute to his campaign. There's nothing new about the terrible, time-consuming need for candidates to curry favor with the donor class; readers may recall Caleb Rossiter's first-person account of the numbing effects of fundraising for his 1998 Congressional campaign.
The real news story is in Arizona and Maine, where Clean Elections laws provide public funding for candidates who avoid fat-cat donors. In those states more than 300 candidates for everything from governor to state assembly are proving their political worth not by the size of their campaign war chests but by their ability to attract the requisite number of $5 contributors to qualify for public money. Participation rates have nearly doubled compared with 2000, when Clean Elections systems had their first run. In Arizona more than 80 percent of the statewide candidates are participating in Clean Elections--including seven of eight major candidates for governor and nearly half the legislature contenders. In Maine two gubernatorial candidates, a Republican and a Green Independent, have been certified for Clean Elections funding, along with 206 so far of 375 candidates for the state legislature.
In the past few years the determined organizing of dozens of state coalitions, led by Public Campaign in Washington, has chipped away at the belief that we'll never get the special-interest money out of politics. Adding new force to that effort, Senator John McCain, the country's most prominent campaign reform advocate, recently announced his support for his home state's Clean Elections system. In ads paid for by the Arizona Clean Elections Institute, McCain says: "Clean Elections works well to overcome the influence of special interests. It gives Arizonans the power to create good government. Keep supporting Clean Elections."
McCain's move has a significant local context: Right-wingers and business interests are trying to undermine his state's pioneering system. Clint Bolick has set up a state satellite of his conservative Institute for Justice to go after public financing in the courts, and former GOP Congressman and gubernatorial candidate Matt Salmon is attacking Clean Elections as "welfare for politicians" and promising to get rid of it if he's elected this fall. Activists tied to GOP fundraisers have floated the idea of a ballot repeal initiative if they can't get rid of Clean Elections by other means.
Outside Arizona McCain's announcement should end the notion that Republicans can't stomach public financing. In fact, there is a clear trend toward greater acceptance among GOP leaders, who are beginning to understand the rank and file's revulsion at big money's corrupting power. In recent years, Republican businessmen in Maine, veteran legislators in Vermont, a sitting governor in Massachusetts (along with the state party) and a slew of former elected officials from around the country have expressed their support for public financing, along with a host of politicians in those three states and Arizona. Now that McCain has thrown his clout behind the cause, let's hope others will follow.
The timing of George W. Bush's proposal for a Cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security--hastily unveiled when revelations about FBI lapses were hitting the front pages--smacks of high-level damage control. And it was followed by the announcement of the arrest in May of a Brooklyn-born Al Qaeda plotter who allegedly intended to set off a "dirty" bomb. This convenient coup was touted as an example of cooperation between the FBI and the CIA and used to bolster support for the Bush plan. Nevertheless, consolidating agencies that deal with the issues of domestic security and reducing bureaucratic rivalry and lack of direction make sense, if done right.
To be sure, reorganizing twenty-two agencies with 169,000 employees by Bush's deadline of January 1, 2003, seems a staggering task. Eighty-eight Congressional committees and subcommittees oversee the components of the new department, and the turf wars will be fierce. And Bush's legislative timetable nicely serves his political one: He'd love to see the subject monopolize the Congressional agenda in the run-up to the fall election, eclipsing the Democrats' potent issues.
Politics aside, many questions occur at the outset of the debate on the new department. How, for example, will it solve the shortcomings of intelligence gathering and dissemination and the endemic rivalry between the FBI and the CIA? Will it be charged with coordinating intelligence collection by other agencies or will it be merely a "consumer" of their work?
And what of the non-national security functions of some of the agencies slated to be aggrandized into the new DHS, like FEMA, first responder to natural disasters? Will those worthy activities be relegated to secondary importance? As Representative John Conyers Jr. asks, if immigration is brought under the new department, what happens to the right of political asylum when applicants are reviewed under the criteria of national security?
These are a few of the hard questions related to mission and chain of command that must be dealt with by Congress. Pace Bush campaign rhetoric, government can work effectively for the public good, but if this project is to succeed, Congress members should not let themselves be rushed by a re-election-conscious Administration or bullied into swallowing criticisms by charges that they're impeding the war effort. Issues of privacy and civil rights should be vigorously raised. The Ashcroft Justice Department's heavy-handed immigration crackdown, for example, should be dropped in the trashcan. Such measures are both an affront to civil liberties and will alienate the Arab community--the best source of intelligence on Al Qaeda ops among us.
Homeland security does not mean building a better Fortress America. It means building a better world. US pressure on Israel and Palestine to achieve a just Middle East settlement would remove one of the main irritants breeding hatred of America. Verifiable nuclear disarmament and deterrence will more surely promote international stability than Bush's pre-emptive war doctrine. Improving the lives of the world's poor--122 million people will die by 2015 of hunger-related causes--will weaken terrorist support systems more effectively in the long run than sending in US Special Forces. Homeland security is a global matter.
"How many times can you say 'unbelievable'?" my wife asked the other morning, as I was rattling the newspaper and again exclaiming over the latest outrageous news from American capitalism. Maybe it was the story about the CEO of Tyco International, a very wealthy and much admired titan, being indicted for evading the New York State sales tax on his art purchases. Perhaps it was the disclosure that the soaring market in energy trading, a jewel of the new economy, was largely a fabrication built on phony round-trip trades. Or the accusation that Perot Systems, after designing California's deregulated energy-trading system, turned around and showed the energy companies how to blow holes in it (and generate those soaring electric bills for Californians).
It is unbelievable--what we've learned in the past six or eight months about the financial system and corporate management. The systematic deceit and imaginative greed--the sheer chintziness of personal finagling for more loot--go well beyond the darkest hunches harbored by resident skeptics like myself. Indeed, the Wall Street system is now being flayed in the media almost daily by its own leading tribunes. Listen to this summary of the scandals: "The failures of Wall Street's compliance efforts are coming under intense scrutiny--part of a growing awareness of how deeply flawed the US financial markets really are. The watchdogs charged with keeping the financial world honest have all lost credibility themselves: outside auditors who bend the rules to please corporate clients, analysts who shape stock recommendations to woo investment-banking customers and government regulators too timid or overwhelmed to keep track of the frenzy." You might have read those points in The Nation, but these words appeared on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. A week later, another page-one Journal story crisply explained the implications for global investors: "Boasts about world-class corporate disclosure, bookkeeping and regulation of American financial markets have become laughable in the wake of Enron and Arthur Andersen scandals."
When radical critique becomes mainstream observation, change may be in the air. In my view, this is a rare historical moment--conditions are ripe for reforming and reordering the system, an opportunity unmatched since World War II. How things really work is on the table, visible to all in shocking detail, authoritatively documented by the torrent of disclosures, with more to come. The libertarian ideology that colonized economic affairs and politics during the past two decades (markets know best, government is an obstacle, greed is good) has been pulled up short. The conservative orthodoxy is vulnerable--actually breaking down--because it has no good explanations for what we now understand to be routine malpractice in business and finance. Political tinder is spread all around the landscape, but who will strike the match?
The potential downside of this moment is also palpable and quite ominous: Nothing will happen, nothing will change--nobody goes to jail, no significant reforms are enacted. If so, the main result will be confirmation of an already endemic public cynicism and the further poisoning of American values. The revelations, instead of provoking a sea change in political thinking, may be smothered by the alignments of corporate-financial power, diverted into false reforms and complexified to the point that media attention and public anger are exhausted. In that event, the consequences for the country will be less obvious but profoundly corrosive. The system would go forward in roughly the same fashion (perhaps tarted up with public-relations rouge), and everyone would understand that corruption is the system. In markets and in the popular culture, the message would be: Forget that crap about ethics--might as well take the low road, since that's how the big boys get theirs.
The stakes are enormous, and it's much too early to predict the outcome. But there's already abundant evidence that the business establishment expects to ride out this storm and is working the usual political levers to insure it. The politics resemble the S&L debacle in the late 1980s, when Congressional Republocrats put out lots of noise and smoke but left the high-priced suits unruffled and stuck the public with the bill. Our current galaxy of scandals is far more grave because it is systemic. Anyone with courage among the Democratic presidential hopefuls could seize this moment and reorder the agenda for 2004, but no one so far has found the guts to break ranks with corporate power. Smoldering public anger, however, may yet find a way to express itself, perhaps in the fall elections, and rouse the reluctant politicians.
For now, the best hope seems to be that the bankers and business guys will react to the fact that financial markets have been severely damaged by the scandalous revelations, as have the high-flying moguls of corporate America. Who can trust them? Who wants to pour more good money after bad? In other words, this scandal stuff is bad for business, especially bad for the faltering stock market. Henry Paulson Jr., chair of Goldman Sachs, delivered that message recently in a sober speech before the National Press Club and endorsed a number of useful reforms. His remedies are insufficient (even the Journal editorial page was happy to bless them) but are a fair start. A chorus of high-minded anguish from elite circles might persuade Washington that this problem does need fixing.
The scandals of Enron et al., unfortunately, must compete with another story--the war on terrorism--that's more exciting, and threatening, than dirty bookkeeping or the looted billions. The two crises are intertwined in perverse ways. The smug triumphalism of Bush's unilateralist war policy could be abruptly deflated by economic events--which probably would be a good thing for world affairs, since Washington couldn't run roughshod over others, but terrible for US prosperity. The financial scandals have provided yet another chilling reason to be wary of the US stock market, and if overseas investors decide to take their money home in volume, the already declining dollar will fall sharply. Credit would thus become suddenly scarce, since our debtor-nation economy relies heavily on capital borrowed from abroad, and such a convergence would trigger an ugly downdraft in the US economy. In that event, the fashionable boastfulness about America, the only superpower, would implode as swiftly as Enron's stock price.
BAN THE CLUSTER BOMB
Caleb Rossiter reports: The coalition of anti-landmine advocates who helped win the 1997 treaty banning the devices, which has been signed by more than 135 countries, is now seeking to ban "submunitions"-- better known as cluster bombs. These are beer-can-size fragmentation bombs spewed out of huge air- or artillery-delivered canisters to blanket an area the size of two football fields. Current US submunitions have a failure rate of about 5 percent, meaning a lot of duds are left lying around where civilians--frequently children--will explode them and be killed or injured. Some activists call for a total ban of the weapons, but at least attaching backup fuses costing $10 would reduce failure rates to 1.7 out of 1,000. The landmine activists have helped convince the major military powers to move forward on negotiations to find a technical solution, under the aegis of the UN's Convention on Conventional Weapons. Talks could begin this December. Meanwhile, activists should demand that the Pentagon halt exports of high-failure submunitions, update its current acceptable-failure standards and replace the Air Force's stockpile of millions of high-failure submunitions.
ISRAEL AND THE ICC
Israel's Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein has raised fears that Israelis might be charged and indicted by the International Criminal Court after it convenes July 1. He warned a Knesset committee that the court could charge Israel Defense Forces soldiers with human rights violations in Jenin or other cities during Operation Defensive Shield. It could also indict Jewish settlers on the grounds that the settlements are illegal. Rubinstein said IDF soldiers suspected of looting or other misconduct have been charged by military courts and are thus exempt from ICC proceedings, but he was worried about the court indicting settlers.
THE HEADLINE GAP
Washington Post: "'90s Boom Had Broad Impact: 2000 Census Cites Income Growth Among Poor, Upper Middle Class"; New York Times: "Gains of 90's Did Not Lift All, Census Shows." Times correction of related, earlier story: "A headline yesterday about a study on income inequality misstated the number of states in which the gap between rich and poor has widened over the last two decades.... It is 44 states, not 5."
NEWS OF THE WEAK IN REVIEW
President George W. Bush surprised Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso by asking, "Do you have blacks, too?" Condy (who's paid to know things) rescued her boss by aptly observing that Brazil "probably has more blacks than the USA."
Senator Russ Feingold had hoped the Senate Democratic leadership would challenge George W. Bush's decision to withdraw the United States from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. At the least, he had expected senior Democratic senators with track records on arms control to defend the agreement between the United States and Russia that since 1972 has underpinned efforts to curb the arms race. In a Senate where Democrats are still hypercautious about questioning the Bush White House on defense issues, however, Feingold stood alone.
"I wanted the leadership to take a lead. But when we contacted [majority leader Tom] Daschle's office, they just weren't interested," said the Wisconsin Democrat. Feingold knew that meant it would be impossible to get the Senate to block withdrawal from a treaty it had approved 88 to 2 in 1972. Still, he said, "I did not want the Senate to be silent on this." Three days before the June 13 expiration of the treaty, Feingold, chairman of the Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on the Constitution, rose on the Senate floor to remind his colleagues of the constitutional requirement that decisions regarding treaties be made by the President "with the advice and consent of the Senate" and of the Founders' intent--as explained in Thomas Jefferson's Manual of Parliamentary Practice: For the Use of the Senate of the United States--that "Treaties being declared, equally with the laws of the United States, to be the supreme law of the land, it is understood that an act of the legislature alone can declare them infringed and rescinded."
"It is clear to me, Mr. President, as it was to Thomas Jefferson, that Congress has a constitutional role to play in terminating treaties," Feingold declared. "If advice and consent of the Senate is required to enter into a treaty, this body should at a minimum be consulted on withdrawing from a treaty, and especially from a treaty of this magnitude, the termination of which could have lasting implications on the arms control and defense policy of this country."
When Feingold sought unanimous consent to debate a resolution making that point, however, Orrin Hatch, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, objected. That ended any hope for a Senate challenge to Bush. Meanwhile, GOP leaders in the House blocked an attempt by Dennis Kucinich to assert that chamber's authority to preserve the treaty.
The failure of Daschle and other Senate Democrats to stand with Feingold illustrates how, post-September 11, the loyal opposition frequently chooses loyalty to misguided Administration initiatives over necessary opposition. But if Senate Democrats are unwilling to fight the power, Feingold hopes a judge will do so. He has asked for Senate approval to accept pro bono legal assistance so he can join a lawsuit filed June 11 in the US District Court in Washington by Kucinich and thirty other House members who object to the President's unilateral decision. Peter Weiss, lead lawyer for the lawmakers, says that if it succeeds, Bush would be forced, retroactively, to seek Congressional approval of the treaty withdrawal.
Feingold's participation in the suit is important, as a judge could decide he has better standing than a House member in a legal matter involving interpretation of the requirement that a President seek the consent of the Senate. Still, the suit is a long shot. A federal judge backed a 1979 attempt by the late Senator Barry Goldwater to block termination of a defense treaty with Taiwan, but an appeals court overturned that ruling and the Supreme Court refused to take the case. That does not deter Kucinich. "The basis of this whole government is the Constitution. When an Administration comes to power in a manner that is extraconstitutional, as the Bush Administration did, it becomes all the more essential that we insist upon the legitimacy of the founding documents, on the sacredness of those documents," says Kucinich. "Washington has become a very vulgar place, but the Constitution is still sacred."
A specter is haunting the Jews of Europe: the specter of anti-Semitism. A synagogue is firebombed in Belgium; three more are burned in France, where Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front attracts millions of votes. In the town of l'Union, near Toulouse, a man opens fire at a kosher butcher shop, and in Berlin the police advise Jews not to dress in a conspicuous manner. Here in Britain two Orthodox Jews were attacked outside Harrods in broad daylight, and a synagogue in North London was desecrated only a few weeks ago. Britain's broadsheet newspapers agonized over whether the French ambassador's reference to Israel as a "shitty little country" was anti-Semitic or just anti-Israel, and Rupert Murdoch's Sun, a tabloid more famed for its topless page 3 "stunners" than for its high moral tone, ran a full-page editorial assuring readers, "The Jewish faith is not an evil religion." In Europe, argues Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, "it is not safe to be a Jew."
Something is happening. I've had more conversations about anti-Semitism here in the past six months than in the previous six years. Last autumn, after listening patiently while a friend wondered whether American support for Israel wasn't in some sense to blame for September 11, and seeing a writer who'd never expressed an opinion on the Middle East denounced as a "Zionist," I organized a panel on anti-Semitism and the press at London's Jewish Book Week. So if I say that Americans who argue it is time for Europe's Jews to pack their bags are either fools or rogues, it isn't because I'm looking at the situation with my head in the sand. When I went to synagogue in Florence with my older son on the last day of Passover this year, I was glad to see the Italian soldier standing guard at the door.
But the big danger in Florence that week was to Americans, who were warned by the State Department to stay away from public places. More Jews died in the World Trade Center than in all of Europe's anti-Semitic outrages of the past two decades put together. What's missing from the current furor over European anti-Semitism is any recognition that the whole world is now a dangerous place--and not just for Jews.
Some historical perspective might also be nice. It was widely reported here that Asher Cohn, rabbi of the vandalized synagogue, is himself the son of a rabbi who fled Germany after his synagogue was torched on Kristallnacht--the kind of coincidence journalists find irresistible. But the damage to Cohn's synagogue was repaired within days--by volunteers who included a Labour Cabinet minister and a member of the Conservative shadow Cabinet. The rise of Austria's Jörg Haider and the murdered Dutch maverick Pim Fortuyn are often depicted as heralds of a fascist revival. Haider is an anti-Semite, whose talent for racist double-entendre prompted Austrian journalist Eva Menasse to wonder why the foot in Haider's mouth always seems to be wearing a jackboot. Yet overt anti-Semitism has no place in either Freedom Party propaganda or in the program of the Austrian government. Hitler had a militarized state, a genocidal ideology and open contempt for democratic norms--a combination not found anywhere in the current European political landscape.
What Europe has instead is xenophobia. Since September 11 a wave of hostility to foreigners has swept over the Continent. Some of this has come out as anti-Semitism, particularly on the neanderthal right in Germany and among the marginal but mediagenic British National Party. Knee-jerk anti-Americanism has also seen a revival: in Greece, where left- and right-wing nationalists momentarily united in stressing US culpability after the World Trade Center bombings, and on the wilder shores of British and French Trotskyism. But the primary target of xenophobic rhetoric and xenophobic violence has been Europe's Arab and Muslim inhabitants. Fortuyn labeled Islam a "backward" religion and campaigned on a platform opposing Muslim immigration. (Fortuyn also came up with a new variation on the "some of my best friends" defense, assuring a Dutch television interviewer he had "nothing against Moroccans; after all, I've been to bed with so many of them!") The British government has resisted calls to broaden laws against incitement to racial hatred, which currently protect Jews (as an ethnic group) but exclude Muslims. Yet Richard Stone, who serves both as chair of Britain's Jewish Council on Racial Equality and chair of the Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia, is in no doubt: "There is much more anti-Muslim than anti-Jewish prejudice in this country." When Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi proclaimed the superiority of "our civilization," he didn't mean superior to Jews. From isolated incidents in Denmark and Ireland to Holland, where a mosque has been burned, to Germany and France, where a steady stream of anti-Islamic violence has swelled to a flood, Europe has become a great deal less safe for Muslims.
The fact that conditions are worse for Europe's Muslims--particularly in those countries where they have not been allowed to become citizens--does not, of course, mean that Jews should remain silent when we are attacked or even offended, just that we should retain a sense of proportion. The British Crime Survey, for instance, counts well over 100,000 racist incidents in each of the past three years. The number of racial incidents actually reported to the police, a much lower figure, has risen from 23,049 in 1999 to 53,842 in 2001. During this same period the number of anti-Semitic incidents reported--a category that includes anti-Semitic leafleting and verbal harassment as well as violence against persons or property--went from 270 in 1999 to 405 in 2000 to 310 in 2001. As of May 22 the total for this year was only 126--hardly indicative of Cossacks riding through Hampstead.
Yet one of the most striking things about the panic supposedly stalking Europe's Jews is how much that panic seems to be centered in Britain--a country where Jews are a very small (about 250,000 out of a population of 59 million) and very well-established minority. "What has been challenged is our comfort of having a foot in both worlds," Jo Wagerman, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, told the Israeli paper Ha'aretz. The 240-year-old board is probably the oldest Jewish lobby in the world; Wagerman, whose own family came to Britain under Oliver Cromwell, is the group's first woman president. In the years after World War II, she said, British Jews enjoyed "a kind of golden age...[but] recently, Britain isn't the same." Melanie Phillips, a columnist for the right-wing Daily Mail, who was heckled by a BBC studio audience for claiming that Israel was a democracy, wrote that "the visceral hostility toward Israel and Jews displayed...by the audience is representative now of much mainstream British opinion."
The connections between events in the Middle East and in Europe are complex, fraught with the potential for misunderstanding and manipulation. Only the statistics are straightforward. In London, says Metropolitan Police spokeswoman Miriam Rich, anti-Semitic incidents went "up in April because of what happened in Jenin, and are down again in May. Each month is a direct reflection of what is happening in the Middle East." If you plot the national figures on a graph, says Michael Whine of the Community Security Trust, "and superimpose them with another of incidents in the Middle East, you see one following the other." The same correlation can be seen in France, where, unlike Britain, a growing proportion of the attackers come from that country's disaffected and marginalized Arab minority.
To Jews, such incidents may feed a sense that the whole world is against us. The tendency--understandable if not justifiable--to let any act of violence against Jews on European soil conjure up images of the Holocaust also inhibits clear thinking. Anthony Julius, the lawyer who acted for Deborah Lipstadt against David Irving, and a scholar of British and European anti-Semitism, ridicules the "diaspora narcissism" that leads British Jews to exaggerate their difficulties. And while Julius is careful to distinguish between anti-Semitism and criticism of Israel, not all of Israel's friends are so scrupulous.
Indeed, it is hard to avoid the suspicion that many of those shouting loudest about the danger in Europe care more about retaining occupied Palestinian land than about the welfare of diaspora Jews. The BBC, the Guardian and the Independent--all news organizations with a clear editorial commitment to Israel's right to exist--are continually fending off accusations of anti-Semitism for simply reporting the day-to-day dehumanization inflicted on Palestinians. Whether the French ambassador's remark was a crime or a blunder, by making it at the home of Barbara Amiel, wife of Daily Telegraph (and Jerusalem Post) owner Conrad Black, and herself a staunch defender of Ariel Sharon, he put a weapon in the hands of those who argue, with Amiel, that "super-liberalism led to suicide bombers and intifadas in Israel."
Sometimes anti-Zionism really is a cover for anti-Semitism, and we on the left need to be clearer about that. Jews who view Israel's existence as the necessary fulfillment of their national (as opposed to civil) rights have grounds to be suspicious of those who grant Palestinian national aspirations a legitimacy they withhold from Jews. Most of the time, though, the line is pretty clear, and Jews of all people should be wary of using a double standard as a bludgeon. Or conjuring up specters in the cause of ethnic unity. If it is racist to suggest, as the New Statesman did recently, that "a Kosher conspiracy" inhibits criticism of Israel, then what are we to make of former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's claim (in the New York Review of Books, reprinted here in the Guardian) that Palestinians "are products of a culture in which...truth is seen as an irrelevant category"? The non-Zionist world has every reason to resent it when the moral odium of anti-Semitism is used to discredit those who object to the brutality of Israeli occupation, or when the tattered mantle of Jewish victimization is draped over policies of collective punishment and murderous reprisal that, as the Israeli press was quick to point out, are modeled on the tactics used to crush Jewish resistance in the Warsaw ghetto. If more Jews expressed outrage at these policies, and at the way our tragic history is demeaned by being used as a gag, we would be in a stronger position to demand not sympathy but solidarity.
Affirmative action, while generally a good and necessary thing, has always been more complicated than its supporters admit. It inspires a backlash; it often promotes people who are underprepared for their assigned tasks; and it attaches a stigma to those who do succeed on their own, often with a crushing psychological burden. Yet another problem is how easily it can be manipulated for nefarious purposes.
Women and minorities have been agitating for greater representation in a largely white, male media structure for decades, making their case by the numbers. According to a recent study published by Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR), women made up just 15 percent of sources appearing on the three major network news programs in 2001, while 92 percent of all US sources for whom race was determinable were white.
Conservatives, meanwhile, have also made a case for greater media representation. They've done so by redefining the terms of debate. While most pundits and nearly half the "experts" employed by the media are quite conservative by any reasonable or historical measure of the term, that's not good enough. They are demanding more. Bernard Goldberg, Nat Hentoff and Reed Irvine are hardly the only conservatives who say they deserve greater representation. Many news producers and editorial page editors apparently concur.
The media's response to the traditional affirmative-action constituencies and the well-funded propaganda offensive by the conservatives has been to capitulate to both sides at once. Hence the rise of the female and/or minority conservative pundit, often unqualified by any traditional standard and frequently close to the line in terms of sanity but with job security the rest of us can only imagine.
When MSNBC began operations in the summer of 1996 and hired eighteen regular pundits--of whom I was one--the most recognizable type among the mostly unknown cast were the blonde and black fire-breathing right-wingers. Laura Ingraham, Ann Coulter, Jennifer Grossman, Niger Innes, Deroy Murdoch, Brian Jones, Joseph Perkins, Betsy Hart (a brunette, but still...); the list goes on and on. At the time, I used to joke that the producers might wish to inquire about the politics of the black/blonde daughter of Quincy Jones and Peggy Lipton. If she liked Star Wars and tax cuts for the rich, they should offer her a lifetime contract.
It didn't matter to the network executives at the time that women and minorities in real life were far more liberal than most television people, and their gimmick was, in that regard, deceptive. These pundits gave the new network some "pop" in the larger media--or so it was believed. In fact, most of those named above have faded back into the proverbial woodwork. But not all. Laura Ingraham now wears her leopard miniskirts on radio and is apparently a political fashion consultant to CNN's Reliable Sources. (On Al Gore's Florida speech: "His perspiration was, I mean...it was quite unpleasant." On the state of the nightly news: "I think one of the worst things that's happened to news is this sort of open-collared shirt, no tie, you know, do you take the jacket off? That whole, you know, undress thing on television...")
Coulter, meanwhile, well... it's complicated. On the one hand, she is the television babe to end all television babes--bright blonde locks, legs that never end and skirts so short as to make Sharon Stone distrust her Basic Instincts. On the other hand, she is clearly the victim of an undiagnosed case of political Tourette's syndrome. How else to explain incidents like the time she attacked a disabled Vietnam vet on the air by screaming, "People like you caused us to lose that war"? Or when she termed Bill Clinton a "pervert, liar and a felon" and a "criminal"? Or Hillary Clinton "pond scum" and "white trash"? Or the late Pamela Harriman a "whore"? Coulter also wrote a book during the impeachment crisis that appeared to suggest the assassination of Bill Clinton. She was, also, as the Boston Globe reported, credibly accused of plagiarizing from a colleague at Human Events for her book.
By the time she finally got herself fired from MSNBC, Coulter was a star. (No man, or ugly woman for that matter, would have lasted remotely as long.) She found herself celebrated by the likes of John Kennedy Jr., who gave her a column in George, as well as bookers for talk shows with hosts like Wolf Blitzer, Larry King, Geraldo and Bill Maher, and quoted by ABC's George Will with the same deference usually reserved for Edmund Burke or James Madison.
Lately Coulter has gotten herself in the news again by calling for the wholesale slaughter of Arabs, the murder of Norm Mineta and the use of mob violence against liberals and Muslims. Perhaps she's kidding, but it's hard to know. We have, too, another book-length screed, Slander, this one bearing the imprimatur of Crown Publishers. As with her entire career in the punditocracy, it is a black mark on the soul of everyone associated with it. Here is Coulter's characterization of a New York Times editorial criticizing John Ashcroft: "Ew yuck, he's icky." She worries about "liberals rounding up right-wingers and putting them on trial." One could go on, and on, and on.
What's scary is that Coulter is hardly alone. Look at the free-associating reveries Peggy Noonan manages to publish every week in the Wall Street Journal, or the lunacies that right-wing lesbian Norah Vincent pours forth on the LA Times Op-Ed page--as if self-consciously seeking to fill the space mercifully vacated by that nutty nineties icon Camille Paglia. Check out Alan Keyes on MSNBC and tell me, seriously, that the man has ever made what Bobbie Gentry called "a lick of sense" in his life. I'm not saying that women and minorities don't have the right to be as idiotic as white men. But be careful what you wish for and smart about how you pursue it. Liberals and conservatives both got their affirmative action. Guess who won?
Gangbangers with dirty bombs! Now we're talking. The big news about the latest suspected terror bomber is not that he now calls himself Al Muhajir but that he was formerly José Padilla, a Puerto Rican raised in Chicago. Padilla became a son of militant Islam in the slammer, same way thousands of other young denizens of our gulag do.
In the normal order of business, suspected gangbangers don't have much purchase on the Bill of Rights. Their rights of assembly and protection against unreasonable search and seizure were curtailed long since. Padilla's current status could foreshadow a trend. Pending challenge in the courts, he's classed as an "enemy combatant" and locked up in a Navy brig in Charleston, with no rights at all.
Tuesday, June 11, all the way from Moscow, Attorney General Ashcroft fostered the impression that Padilla/Muhajir had been foiled pretty much in the act of planting radioactive material taped to TNT in the basement of the Sears Tower or some kindred monument of Chicago. "US: 'Dirty Bomb' Plot Foiled," exulted USA Today.
Next day came a modified climb-down. "Threat of 'Dirty Bomb' Softened" muttered USA Today's front-page headline. It turned out Muhajir had ten grand in cash and maybe big dreams but nothing in the way of radioactive dirt or even TNT. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz told the press, "I don't think there was actually a plot beyond some fairly loose talk." He should know.
But at least we're now sensitized to the "dirty bomb" menace. It seems that ten pounds of TNT, wrapped around a "pea-size" piece of cesium-137 from a medical gauge, would give anyone within five blocks downwind a one in a thousand chance of getting cancer. We should be worried about this? I'd say it should come pretty low on the list of Major Concerns. Suppose Al Qaeda were to plan something really nasty, like shipping spent nuclear fuel by rail from every quarter of the United States to a fissured mountain in Nevada not that far from one of America's prime tourist destinations. That's the Bush plan, of course.
What a gift to the forces of darkness the War on Terror is turning out to be, as a subject-changer from the normal terrorism inflicted by the state. Right now, across the United States, the final cutoffs for people on welfare are looming. The guillotine blade ratcheted into position by Clinton's 1996 welfare reform is plummeting.
Take Oregon. It has a terrible recession, the worst unemployment rate in the country and the largest deficit in the state's history. Back in 1979, according to the Oregon Center for Public Policy, 39 percent of poor Oregonians were getting public assistance. These days it's under 10 percent. Does that mean the previously destitute are now in regular jobs? No. It just means you have to be a lot poorer to get any sort of handout. It means the usual story: exhausted mothers scrabbling for petty cash, doing occasional starvation-wage work. Over the first fourteen months of the current recession, the combined number of unemployed in eight Oregon counties grew by 92 percent. At the same time, the number of welfare cases went down by 16 percent.
This is the Terrorism of Everyday Life, at the most elemental level, aimed at the weakest in our midst: no money for food, for shelter, for the kids, and a President who actually wants to stiffen the work requirements. Thus do we nourish the next generation of Enemy Combatants on the home front.Dershowitz: Baby Slaughter Plan Flawed
Nathan Lewin, a prominent DC attorney often tipped for a federal judgeship and legal adviser to several Orthodox organizations, has told the Forward, as reported there on June 7, that the families of Palestinian suicide bombers should be executed, arguing that such a policy would offer the necessary deterrent against such attacks.
According to the Forward, Alan Dershowitz and Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, argue that Lewin's proposal represents a legitimate attempt to forge a policy for stopping terrorism. Foxman refused to take a stand on the actual proposal, instead deferring to Jerusalem on Israeli security issues. Exhibiting his habitual moral refinement, Dershowitz--also an advocate of judge-sanctioned torture here in the United States--argues that the same level of deterrence could be achieved by leveling the villages of suicide bombers.
Lewin cites the biblical destruction of the tribe of Amalek as a precedent for measures deemed "ordinarily unacceptable." Those who consult the first book of Samuel will find the Amalekite incident vividly described. First, the divine injunction: "Thus saith the Lord of hosts.... Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass."
King Saul hastens to obey. "And Saul smote the Amalekites...and utterly destroyed all the people with the edge of the sword." But Saul spares Agag, king of the Amalekites, "and the best of the sheep, and of the oxen, and of the fatlings, and the lambs." Even though the animals were scheduled for sacrifice to Him, God is furious at the breach of orders and prompts the prophet Samuel to berate Saul: "To obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft....
"Then said Samuel, Bring ye hither to me Agag the king of the Amalekites. And Agag came unto him delicately. And Agag said, Surely the bitterness of death is past. And Samuel said, As the sword hath made women childless, so shall thy mother be childless among women. And Samuel hewed Agag in pieces before the Lord in Gilgal."
Now that's what I call getting back to fundamentals!
Politics were never far from anyone's mind at this year's fifty-fifth Cannes International Film Festival, which unfolded in a France still reeling from the shock of far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen's victory over Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin during the first round of presidential elections in April. Over 30 percent of Cannes residents (including a substantial number of its elderly poodle lovers) gave their vote to Le Pen in the election's second round. Few among the 34,000 industry types, stars, publicists and journalists from ninety-three countries who annually invade this quiet seaside retirement community may have noticed the offices of Le Pen's party, the Front National, a mere block away from the congested, glittering Palais des Festivals. But the shadow of Europe's rightward shift did make itself felt obscurely.
Le Pen's cultural program (less abstract art, more nature paintings) contained little mention of cinema. But it's doubtful that this resolutely cosmopolite media spectacle, with its requisite scandal--this time, bad boy French director Gaspard Noë's Irréversible, a skillful but ultimately sophomoric meditation on time and violence, in which the beautiful Monica Bellucci is forcibly sodomized for about nine minutes--fits Le Pen's definition of a wholesome art "that respects our national identity and the values of our civilization."
In fact, the idea of a film festival in the south of France was first conceived in 1939 as an alternative to Venice, then under the sway of Mussolini. (Eerily enough in these unstable times, the current organizers included a selection of films that had been slated for competition at that first Cannes festival, an event annulled by the outbreak of war.) And the twenty-two films in competition this year, as well as the hundreds of others screening in parallel sections and in two simultaneous independent festivals, the Directors' Fortnight and Critics' Week, offered a heteroclite and truly global definition of cinema. In a single afternoon, one might take in nonagenarian Portuguese auteur Manoel de Oliveira's latest recondite opus or a crowd-pleasing sex farce by French director Catherine Breillat, beside films by fresh or unknown talents from Thailand, Chad and Tajikistan.
The festival's top honor, the Palme d'Or, went to Roman Polanski's The Pianist, a cumbersome and uneven but oddly fascinating work of memory. Polanski, the son of Polish Jews living in France who returned home two years before the onset of World War II, drew upon childhood recollections of a shattered Krakow for this adaptation of the memoir by Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Jewish pianist (played by Adrien Brody) who survived the Warsaw ghetto and spent the rest of the war in hiding. What begins as a very conventional Holocaust drama gathers strength from an accumulation of detail drawn from the ghetto's microhistory, and then shifts registers into a horror film, as it follows Szpilman's solitary transformation into a hirsute and famished specter.
At the film's press conference, someone asked Polanski if his hero's voyeurism and enforced passivity--Szpilman witnesses the Warsaw ghetto uprising from the window of his apartment hideout--reflected his own choice of filmmaking as a profession. "That's one of those questions you'd need to ask my psychiatrist, if I had one," the director quipped acerbically. No one asked line producer Lew Rywin (who also worked on Schindler's List and Aimée & Jaguar) why big-budget Holocaust features seem inevitably to highlight stories of Germans saving Jewish lives, and thus to flout the grain of history.
Less hullabaloo surrounded documentarian Frederick Wiseman's brilliant fiction debut, The Last Letter, a one-hour feature screening out-of-competition. Filmed in rich black-and-white, Catherine Samie, an actress from the Comédie Française, performs a text drawn from Russian author Vasily Grossman's novel, Life and Fate--a chapter consisting of the last letter that a Russian Jewish doctor in German-occupied Ukraine writes to her son, who is behind the frontlines in safety. Visuals reminiscent of German Expressionist film--the actress's physiognomy and the shadows surrounding her figure--combine with the pure power of language to conjure up the lost world of the ghetto (the poor patients who pay her with potatoes, the neighbor in an elegant linen suit, wearing his yellow star like a camellia). Using these subtle and minimalist means, Wiseman's film builds to an emotionally devastating conclusion.
But that's Cannes, where the purest cinematic pleasures coexist beside a rare degree of hype and glamour. Where else would a jury including surrealists (president David Lynch and fellow director Raoul Ruiz) and powerful babes (actresses Sharon Stone and Michelle Yeoh) assemble to judge the fate of world cinema? They gave this year's critical favorite, Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki's The Man Without a Past, the Grand Jury Prize, while its star, Kati Outinen, took the award for Best Actress. A tender and whimsical portrait of a man who, having lost his memory after a beating by street thugs, finds himself reborn into a world of homeless people living in industrial containers by an abandoned Helsinki port, The Man Without a Past seemed to distill Europe's hope for redemption from a turbulent past and uncertain present with lyricism, gentleness and beauty.
In the Official Selection, refugees and genocides were everywhere: from the boat filled with survivors of the Shoah heading toward the shores of Palestine in 1948 during the mesmerizing opensequences of Kedma, Israeli director Amos Gitaï's alternately moving and unwieldy existential drama about the first days of Israel's founding amid the confusion of war between British, Arab and Jewish forces; to the hordes of Armenians fleeing Turkish forces in Atom Egoyan's Ararat, an overly intellectualized evocation of Turkey's 1915 extermination of its Armenian population (which came complete with a condemnation by that government); to the Kurds massed along the boundary between Iraq and Iran in Bahman Ghobadi's Songs from My Mother's Country, a letter from an ongoing genocide; to the largely unseen immigrants heading secretly north across the border in Chantal Akerman's From the Other Side, a bracingly experimental (if ill-paced) documentary exploration of the frontier between the United States and Mexico.
Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami provided a triumph of minimalist style in Ten, a film shot in digital, in which a divorced woman driving hectically through the streets of Teheran picks up a series of passengers--including an elderly peasant, a prostitute and her own young son--whose conversations illuminate her own condition in Iranian society. At the film's emotional climax, she stops her car to talk, and we suddenly feel the losses that have propelled her relentless forward motion. In an Official Selection routinely dominated by male directors, Ten was one of a mere handful of films to address women's experience.
It was a good year for gallows humor and dark comedies. Nebraskan satirist Alexander Payne's About Schmidt (an adaptation of the novel by Louis Begley) was notable both for its mordant wit and for Jack Nicholson's restrained performance as a retired insurance executive suddenly confronted with the meaninglessness of existence. A far wackier vision of America emerged from Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine, the first documentary to screen in competition at Cannes in forty-six years, which received a special prize from the jury. At times hilarious and biting, Moore's film ropes together the 1999 high school shootings in Colorado, the Oklahoma City bombing and an incident that occurred near Moore's hometown of Flint, Michigan, where one 6-year-old shot another, to raise the question, Why is gun violence endemic in America? Officials of the Lockheed Corporation, members of the Michigan Militia and Timothy McVeigh's brother James (a gun-toting tofu farmer) weigh in with their suggestions. There are a few surprises (a sheriff, for example, who thinks workfare should be abolished), but as an interviewer Moore is overly fond of the rhetorical question, and his film founders when it encapsulates the history of American foreign policy as a unique series of bloody coups and massacres. (Even the liberal French daily Libération took issue with Moore's anti-Americanism, which it deemed too much in the spirit of France today.) And so we're left to wonder, is it something in our water or in our DNA?
Alas, even a cursory glimpse at the festival's other selections showed violence to be far from an American exception. There was Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles's fast-paced favela epic, City of God, in which trigger-happy children devastate the slums of Rio. And there was Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman's Divine Intervention, a comedy set (miraculously) on the West Bank and in the town of Nazareth, where he was born. Playing E.S., a figure like himself, Suleiman melds Buster Keaton's melancholy and Jacques Tati's precision into a film whose plot revolves around a father's death and Palestinian lovers who meet at a checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem. But this slim story is merely a thread upon which to hang a series of inane gags--a discarded apricot pit that blows up a tank, a Santa Claus stabbed by a knife--that poetically encapsulate the absurdity, paralysis and rage-filled fantasies underpinning contemporary Palestinian life. Suleiman finished his script two years ago, just before the West Bank exploded. Though he considers himself a pacifist, at least a few of the dreams of his character have since become realities. During the festival's closing ceremony, in which winners evoked a variety of political causes--from the plight of Belgian actors to that of the people of Mexico--Suleiman (whose film took the Jury Prize) made a short speech noteworthy for its absence of polemic. He thanked his French producer.
Two offerings from different parts of the globe suggested that the best course for artists is to steer clear of politics. Italian auteur Marco Bellocchio's My Mother's Smile is a psychological thriller about a middle-aged painter, an atheist and a leftist, who suddenly realizes with horror that his deceased mother is being considered for canonization. ("Wouldn't it be useful for our son's future career to have a saint for a grandmother?" his estranged wife asks him, with what certainly appears to be an excess of calculation.) The film seemed a visionary nightmare, from a member of the generation of '68, about the state of contemporary Italian society.
And from Korea, Im Kwon-taek's Chihwaseon provided a lusty and inspired portrait of the legendary painter Ohwon Jang Seung-Ub, who sprang from common roots to dominate nineteenth-century Korean art. Ohwon (who apparently incorporated the worst qualities of both Van Gogh and Pollock) was never sober for a day, and kept a constantly changing series of mistresses filling his cups; he negotiated the intricacies of chaotic Chosun Dynasty politics with the proverbial delicacy of a bull in a china shop; yet his precise and remarkably vivid scrolls and screens filled with fog-covered mountains, wild beasts and flowers seemed to surge forth endlessly from some hidden well of creation. The 66-year-old Im (who shared the directing prize with American Wunderkind Paul Thomas Anderson for his Punch-Drunk Love) is perhaps the most prolific filmmaker on the planet, with some ninety-eight features to his credit, including dozens of studio genre pictures from his salad days as a hack, before his conversion to high culture. "In art," he said in an interview, "there is no completion, but only the interminable struggle toward it."
We are all fascinated by the lives of the powerful and famous, and in the last part of the twentieth century Andrei Sakharov became one of Russia's most famous. He burst onto the world stage in the summer of 1968, and seemingly overnight he went from the high-clearance obscurity of thermonuclear
weapons to world fame. His essay advocating "convergence" of capitalism and socialism, which was smuggled to the West, was extraordinary. It did not matter that its contents were naïve and sophomoric (he envisioned a world government by the year 2000). Its author was the "father" of the Soviet H-bomb, someone who understood that life and civilization could be incinerated in an hour's time and as such commanded instant respect. Moreover, he was a member of the elite, whose views were "profoundly socialist" and who abhorred the "egotistical ideas of private ownership and the glorification of capital." But there were deeply heretical undertones in his thinking. He insisted that the Soviet Union needed economic and political reforms, and if necessary a multiparty system, even though he did not regard the latter as an essential step "or even less, a panacea for all ills."
This was, of course, the time of the Prague Spring, when the peoples of the Communist part of Europe followed with sympathy and apprehension Prague's reformist Communist leaders taking Czechoslovakia down the path of democratization. A nascent democratic movement had emerged in Russia in the mid-1960s as well, spreading through large sections of the intelligentsia. "What so many of us...had dreamed of seemed to be finally coming to pass in Czechoslovakia," Sakharov said later. "Even from afar, we were caught up in all the excitement and hopes and enthusiasm of the catchwords: 'Prague spring' and 'socialism with a human face.'"
All hopes were squelched on August 21, 1968, when Russian tanks entered Czechoslovakia and arrested the reformers. It was also a fateful moment for Sakharov: His essay had transformed him into the leading personality of a small dissident movement. The regime ended his career at the secret weapons lab in Turkmenistan but allowed him to work at the Institute of Physics in Moscow. After a decade of defending dissidents, he was arrested in 1980 and exiled to the closed city of Gorky (now Nizhni Novgorod), where he was force-fed when he attempted a hunger strike. The dramatic struggle between a lone individual and a mighty totalitarian state ended with an astounding concession by the state: On December 16, 1986, the new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, personally invited Sakharov to return to Moscow and "go back to your patriotic work." It was an act of contrition that also enhanced Gorbachev's reputation in the West.
In this first English-language biography of Sakharov, Richard Lourie offers a beautifully written and engaging account of the physicist's life. Lourie is a distinguished author and a leading translator of Russian literature. He also translated Sakharov's own Memoirs, which they had discussed at length. Lourie has had extended help from Elena Bonner, Sakharov's second wife, and the portrait of their marriage is one of the most insightful aspects of the book. But writing a biography of so complex a figure as Sakharov is more difficult than it may seem, in part because his life was the stuff of which myths are made. It had two distinct phases.
In the first he eagerly served the state and performed his great bomb-making accomplishments. It was a period of Stalinist terror and appalling privations in which Sakharov accepted everything with "cheerful fatalism." Like Voltaire's Dr. Pangloss, he clung to his belief that everything Stalin did was for the best, that creating the most destructive weapons mankind had known was his patriotic duty, that "the Soviet state represented a breakthrough into the future." Even the repugnant KGB system of informing seemed to him a normal fact of life, an "ordinary link in the network of surveillance that enveloped the whole country." When the dictator died in 1953, Sakharov was deeply moved. "I am under the influence of a great man's death," he wrote to his wife. "I am thinking of his humanity."
The second period--one of political activism, open dissent and real sacrifices by Sahkarov--has been meticulously documented in the press. Needless to say, he was lionized in the Western press and awarded a Nobel Peace Prize. Yet his impact on the events that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union remains unclear. As a leading actor in the dissident movement, he seemed from the beginning a tragic figure who most fully reflected its strengths and weaknesses. Sakharov not only lacked charisma, as Andrei Amalrik said, but he also rejected the leadership role bestowed upon him by the dissidents. Sakharov, Amalrik says in Notes of a Revolutionary, wanted to be "a solitary monk under a leaky umbrella whose voice in the defense of the oppressed would be heard because of his moral prestige."
It is difficult to explain the almost complete break between these two periods. It coincides roughly with the publication of his controversial essay, "Reflections on Progress, Co-Existence, and Intellectual Freedom," and the death of his first wife. What made him do his U-turn, or, in Professor Philip Morrison's apt image, what made him go "from a Teller to an Oppenheimer"?
We can only speculate what went on in Sakharov's head. His explanation seems incomplete. He said he confronted a "moral dilemma" at the time of the 1955 H-bomb test because his calculations of death by fallout over the generations made it clear that the total numbers were staggering. He was also appalled by the ecological consequences and began advocating a ban on nuclear testing.
An incident at a banquet to honor a successful test may have had a greater impact on Sakharov. His toast at the banquet--"May all our devices explode as successfully as today's, but always over test sites and never over cities"--was immediately countered by Air Marshal Mitrofan Nedelin, who wanted to put the scientist in his place by telling a crude story:
"An old man wearing only a shirt was praying before an icon: 'Guide me, harden me. Guide me, harden me.' His wife who was lying on the stove said: 'Just pray to be hard, old man, I'll take care of the guiding.'" "And so," said the air marshal, "let's drink to getting hard."
Sakharov felt "lashed by a whip." An exceedingly proud man, he was humiliated before his colleagues. He drained his glass and never said another word for the rest of the evening. He was, he said later, shocked into a realization that he and his colleagues had created a terrible weapon whose uses "lie entirely outside our control."
After the first successful test, in 1953, Sakharov's self-confidence was at a peak. Still "outwardly modest," inwardly he was "actually quite the opposite." The director of the atomic weapons program, physicist Igor Kurchatov, had called him "the savior of Russia!" He had replaced Igor Tamm, his mentor, as scientific head of the hydrogen bomb project. He alone had written a report on his conception of the next generation of nuclear weapons and delivery systems; he attended a Politburo meeting that approved it. To outsiders he seemed able to walk on water. He enjoyed every privilege the state could bestow. He had the attribute of highest importance: a high-frequency phone, a direct line to all leaders. He was made a Hero of Socialist Labor, the nation's highest honor (for the first of three times). He was elected to full membership in the Soviet Academy of Sciences, bypassing the usual period of candidacy (Tamm's had lasted twenty years in an election before he became a full member).
Yet, as Yuli Khariton, the director of the secret weapons lab, put it, Sakharov's immense self-confidence was both his strength and his failing. Sakharov "felt his own strength and could not imagine anyone understanding better than he." When others found the solution to a problem he was unable to solve, Sakharov would set about with "exceptional energy" to search for the flaws in it. Not finding them, he was forced to admit that the solution was correct.
If the 1955 test was the turning point in his thinking, it was reflected only in his interest in and advocacy of a ban on nuclear testing. Clearly he had little understanding of the politics of nuclear weapons or the domestic political pressures that Nikita Khrushchev was facing.
Ignoring his pleas, Khrushchev insisted that the largest Soviet bomb ever be tested so it would coincide with the Communist Party Congress (and the expulsion of Stalin's body from the Lenin Mausoleum in Red Square). Having been overruled and slavishly following orders, Sakharov proposed that not one bomb but two be tested at the same time. This would provide sufficient information to eliminate the need for further testing for a long time. Even more bizarre was his grandiose proposal for a giant, atomic-powered torpedo with a 100-megaton charge that could inflict enormous casualties on enemy ports. A Russian admiral Sakharov tried to consult would not give him the time of day. As a military man, the admiral believed in "open battle" and was disgusted and outraged by the idea of merciless mass slaughter.
By 1957 the Russians had sent Sputnik into orbit and the competition for the control of outer space became a top priority. In the 1960s the space program was allocated the largest chunk of the research budget. Sakharov and other bomb-makers were shunted aside. This may be one of the reasons for Sakharov's foray into political theory, though Lourie does not explore it. But Sakharov is a hard man to assess. For example, his role in enabling Russia to detonate its first hydrogen bomb just nine months after the Americans is indisputable, but his accomplishments as a physicist must await final judgment. So far, none of his peers have placed him in the pantheon of top Russian physicists. None doubted his talent, but the common judgment may have been summed up by Lev Landau, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, who called him "outstanding" and said: "While I would not consider him a genuine theoretical physicist, he is rather a 'constructive genius.'" Tamm, another Nobel Prize winner, was more generous. Sakharov's tragedy, Tamm said, was "that he had to sacrifice his great passion--elementary-particle physics--first to create an atomic and hydrogen bomb," then sacrifice it a second time in the struggle for social justice.
It's even harder to assess him as a man. I first met him in the hospital of the Academy of Sciences in 1967, where he was a patient. I was visiting another patient, the writer Nikolai Erdman, who took me "to say hello" to Sakharov, who was recovering from a hernia operation. First impressions often gel into lasting images. I have subsequently written dozens of stories about him, and I never had any doubt that he was a rare good man who was prepared to oppose evil. As an absent-minded and eccentric professor, he was unassuming and humble. Yet his benevolent smile somehow demanded respect. He was born into a family that belonged to that section of nineteenth-century intelligentsia that believed it their duty to fight Russia's backwardness and authoritarianism. There was a sense of entitlement about him, something that must have come about from special considerations and privileges that had been extended to him over the years. Following the publication of his controversial essay, he was banned from military projects but accepted the position offered him at the Physics Institute, working under Tamm. He accepted. Neither side had entirely given up on the other. What if Sakharov came up with a new discovery? At the time, neither science nor politics had much meaning for Sakharov, who was grieving for his late wife and looking after his 12-year-old son, Dima.
Sakharov was still a unique figure, both admired and envied. His unanimous election to the Soviet Academy of Sciences was without precedent for two reasons: Not only had he not completed his doctorate (he was a candidate of science), but his work was so classified that more than 99 percent of those who voted for him had no idea why he was honored. Academic Vasily Yemelyanov, who headed the Soviet atomic energy commission in the 1950s, told me in an interview how Khrushchev had asked him to insure Sakharov's election without revealing his role in the H-bomb project. Yemelyanov replied that that was impossible. People are going to ask questions. After all, Sakharov, 32 at the time, was a molokosos (baby). "You tell them that he had done a great service to the state but you are not at liberty to reveal what it is," Yemelyanov quoted Khrushchev as saying.
Sakharov was still viewed as salvageable when two prominent dissidents were incarcerated in psychiatric institutions: Gen. Pyotr Grigorenko and biologist Zhores Medvedev, twin brother of Marxist historian Roy Medvedev, a friend of Sakharov's who distributed his original 1968 essay in samizdat form. Roy Medvedev's book about Stalin, Let History Judge, which Sakharov read in samizdat, played a major role in his developing politics. As Soviet policy hardened under Leonid Brezhnev, open dissent turned into a concerted opposition to a return to Stalinism. Sakharov created an international incident in 1970 when he appeared at an international symposium held in Moscow and announced that he was collecting signatures in defense of Medvedev, who was under psychiatric detention. A week later he protested directly to Brezhnev. Medvedev was freed in mid-June, but Grigorenko remained incarcerated for four years.
A void of ostracism, however, began to form around Sakharov. He had crossed over to the other side. This became irrevocable when he met his second wife, Elena Bonner, a die-hard political dissident.
Ironically, Sakharov was finally happy, being married to a woman he loved and who shared his ideas. Like God's fool from the Russian tradition, he was regularly challenging the lies on which the system was constructed yet not ending up in jail, because God's fool was the only person who could speak the truth to czars. The authorities, unwilling to lash out at Sakharov himself, instead targeted Bonner's children. Bonner herself was reviled in the press. Sakharov fought back--hunger strikes were his ultimate weapon. The state had considerable success in radicalizing his image and making it appear that the human rights movement was used by Sakharov to obtain exit visas for his family and friends.
Lourie presents a compelling account of Sakharov's personal odyssey, going behind the glossy picture we painted and repainted over the years. If there is a serious shortcoming here it is that Bonner's role has been, perhaps inadvertently, minimized. The book leaves the reader with a sense of disappointment that this genuinely great man did not have a more lasting effect. But we'd be remiss to forget the electrifying impact on Russia of his return from internal exile in 1986. Even more significant was his decades-long struggle to keep alive the best traditions of the Russian intelligentsia. Like his beloved Pushkin, he will remain loved because--in the poet's words--"I've struck the chords of kindness/and sung freedom's praise in this cruel age,/calling for mercy to be shown the fallen."
Hot, rained-on, packed-down straw, strewn then abandoned
between the rows of eggplant, tomato plants, onion, and herbs
catches the evening's last September gnats in pale mats
and renders, for a moment, the fall surrender untenable.
Impossible, too, to make this sign--your birthday month--
the winding vine of grapes at harvest, for who could drink
in this heat, or light the candles and praise the cake?
The half-century it took to make the man you are is far
outstripped by the tipped and tilting present tense in which
you accurately move, correcting the angle of guyed bamboo,
brushing a confusion of wings from the plot, and not,
in the slightest sense, wincing ahead to the unfathomable,
intolerable winter, for straw, you said, muffles
the living so they can't hear the dead.
A hundred days ago Wu'er Kaixi was a fugitive.... Yesterday, before an audience of 800 Americans and Chinese at Brandeis University, he showed what brought a 21-year-old Beijing Normal School student to the head of an earth-shaking movement.
He sang a song about a wolf.
And he told people who had listened to two days of often-ponderous analysis of the student movement that Chinese rock music composers Qin Qi of Taiwan and Cui Jian of mainland China were more important to the students than the dissident physicist Fang Lizhi...
The auditorium buzzed with the gasps and whispers of delighted students and their bewildered elders.
(Boston Globe, September 18, 1989)
John Sebastian's famous lyric about the impossibility of "trying to tell a stranger about rock and roll" notwithstanding, it was a special moment indeed when Wu'er Kaixi--the flamboyant Tiananmen student leader--attempted to do just that. I know. I was one of the strangers who heard him sing Qin Qi's "Wolf From the North" and explain what its celebration of individualism meant to his generation. The students agreed with senior dissidents that institutions must change, he said, but what they yearned for most was to live in a freer society. (The anniversary of the Beijing massacre recently passed, on June 4.)
When I witnessed Wu'er's performance, even though I was no longer a student and even though I had misgivings about any single activist claiming to speak for the Tiananmen generation, I was definitely in the "delighted" camp. One reason was that I was in Shanghai in 1986 when demonstrations occurred that helped lay the groundwork for those of 1989. I was struck then by the Western media's tendency to overstate the dissident Fang Lizhi's impact. Students found his speeches inspiring, but other things also triggered protests: complaints about compulsory calisthenics, for example, and a scuffle at--of all things--a Jan and Dean concert.
Another reason Wu'er's performance pleased me was that I was to give a presentation at Harvard the next evening and planned to talk about a song, albeit one without a backbeat: "Frère Jacques." Why that one? Because Chinese youth often put new lyrics to it during pre-1949 protests, Red Guards did likewise in the 1960s and the Tiananmen protesters had just followed suit. Wu'er used a new song to argue for his generation's uniqueness. But I used an old one to show how often he and others had reworked (albeit often unconsciously) a rich inherited tradition.
I also pointed out that the lyrics to the latest version of "Frère Jacques" (which began "Down With Li Peng, Down With Li Peng, Deng Xiaoping, Deng Xiaoping," and which went on to refer to these and other Communist Party leaders as "bullies") expressed contempt for corrupt, autocratic officials.
A desire for reform and personal freedom helped get students onto the streets--not just in Beijing but in scores of Chinese cities. A major reason that workers joined them there in such large numbers, though, was moral outrage, widespread disgust with power-holders whose attachment to the ideals of the Communist revolution of 1949 had seemingly disappeared completely. The country's leaders now seemed only to care about protecting their privileged positions. And this meant, I argued, that there were topical as well as melodic links between 1989 and some protests of the first half of the century. During the civil war era (1945-49), for example, demonstrators criticized the ruling Nationalist Party's leaders for being corrupt and abandoning the ideals of the revolution that had brought them to power.
In the many books on the events of 1989 published in Chinese and Western languages in the past dozen years, the uniqueness of the Tiananmen generation, the root causes of their activism and the songs that inspired them have all been handled in still different ways from the two just described. Most notably, when it comes to music, many Tiananmen books--including the two under review--have singled out for special attention one of two songs that neither Wu'er Kaixi nor I discussed. These are a Communist anthem (the "Internationale") and a composition by Taiwan pop star Hou Dejian ("Heirs of the Dragon"). Students frequently sang these songs throughout the demonstrations of mid-April through late May. And each was sung a final time by the last group of students to leave Tiananmen Square on June 4, during a pre-dawn exodus that took them through the nearby streets, which had just been turned into killing fields by the People's Liberation Army.
Zhao Dingxin's The Power of Tiananmen is the latest in a long line of works to treat the "Internationale" as the movement's most revealing song. He claims, in a section on "The Imprint of Communist Mass Mobilization," that students were drawn to it because it is "rebellious in spirit" and because a steady diet of post-1949 party-sponsored "revolutionary dramas and films" in which the song figured had made singing it "a standard way of expressing" discontent with the status quo. In this section, as elsewhere in his study, Zhao stresses the importance of history in shaping 1989, but he sees only the preceding forty years as directly relevant. In contrast to my approach, which linked the pre-Communist and Communist eras, he distinguishes sharply between (nationalistic) pre-1949 protests and the ("pro-Western") Tiananmen ones.
The Monkey and the Dragon mentions the "Internationale" and many other compositions (from Cui Jian's rousing "Nothing to My Name" to the punk-rock song "Garbage Dump"), but the gently lilting "Heirs" gets most attention. This is to be expected. Linda Jaivin's book is not a Tiananmen study per se (though 170 pages of it deal with 1989) but a biography of Hou Dejian. This fascinating singer-songwriter grew up in Taiwan and, while still in his 20s, saw "Heirs" become a hit (and be appropriated for political purposes) on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. Soon afterward, he surprised everyone (even close friends like Jaivin) by defecting to the mainland--only to quickly become a gadfly to the authorities there.
Hou ended up playing key roles in 1989 both as a songwriter (he penned a song for the movement, "Get Off the Stage," which called on aging leaders like Deng to retire) and eventually as a direct participant. He stayed aloof from the movement at first, but from late May onward threw himself into it with abandon. In short order, he flew to Hong Kong to perform in a fundraiser, returned to Beijing to join other intellectuals in a hunger strike, then helped negotiate a temporary cease-fire that allowed that last group of youths to leave the square on June 4. In 1990 the party shipped him back across the strait, making him, as Jaivin puts it, with typical irreverence and stylistic flair, "the first Taiwan defector to be returned to sender."
Patriotism is the central theme of "Heirs" (the "Dragon" in its title is China), and Jaivin argues that this explains the song's appeal to a generation of Chinese students who (like many of their predecessors) saw themselves as charged with an epic mission to save their homeland from misrule. According to Jaivin, this patriotism occasionally blurred into a narrow jingoism of a sort that appalled Hou--particularly because his song was used to express it. Her discussion of "Heirs" thus plays up 1989's nationalistic side and links it both backward (to pre-1949 struggles by youths determined to save their country) and forward (to such events as the anti-NATO demonstration that broke out when the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade was hit by US warplanes in 1999).
These opening comments on music are meant to convey three things. First, China's 1989 was a complex, multifaceted struggle (not a simple "democracy" movement). Second, in part because of this, the events of that year remain open to competing interpretations, even among those of us who dismiss (as everyone should) Beijing's self-serving "Big Lie" about the government's supposed need to use force to pacify "counterrevolutionary" riots. Third--and this is a much more general point--providing a clear picture of a multifaceted movement is never easy.
This is because one has to grapple continually not only with big questions of interpretation but also numerous small ones of detail--right down to picking which songs to discuss. This is true whether the protesters in question are American or Chinese and whether the person doing the grappling is a former participant (like Wu'er), a cultural historian (like me), a dispassionate sociologist (like Zhao) or an impassioned, iconoclastic, frequently entertaining, often insightful and sometimes self-indulgent journalist-turned-novelist-turned-biographer (like Jaivin). Whatever the movement, whoever the writer, contrasting approaches to small matters can create big gaps in overall perspective.
Leaving China aside, consider how minor divergences can create major differences in presentations of an American student movement--that of the 1960s--depending on the answers given to the following questions: When exactly did this movement begin and end? Which student activists and which nonstudents (leaders of related struggles, radical philosophers, singers, politicians) had the largest impact? How much weight should we give to the protesters' stated goals? How much to actions that contradicted these? Were countercultural elements central or peripheral to the movement? Give one set of answers and Abbie Hoffman gets a chapter to himself, but give another and he becomes a footnote. The same goes for everyone from Mario Savio to Malcolm X, Herbert Marcuse to Jane Fonda, Jimi Hendrix to Ronald Reagan. It also goes for such events as the Free Speech Movement (too early?), be-ins (irrelevant?) and the first gay-pride parades (too late?).
Accounts of student movements can also diverge, depending on the answers given to more basic questions. If one has complete data and knows a lot about "political opportunity structures" and "rational choice analysis," can one explain all dimensions of a movement? Or will some things remain mysterious, such as the moment when a nonviolent event turns violent or the process by which a song or chant assumes talismanic properties? Do we need to leave room for spontaneous, even irrational individual choices? To put this another way, do we need to make analytic space for what might best be termed--for lack of a more precise word--magic? I mean by this both the black magic that transforms a group of individuals into a lynch mob and the glorious sort that leads to brave acts of inspiring heroism.
It may be true that the potential for divergence between accounts is unusually great in that particular case, due to the struggle's protracted nature and connections to other upheavals, especially the civil rights movement. And yet, anyone who reads Zhao's study and then Jaivin's book may doubt this. Tiananmen was comparatively short-lived and self-contained, yet accounts of China's 1989 spin off in dramatically different directions.
This is not to say that Zhao's and Jaivin's treatments of Tiananmen never converge. You could even claim that for works by such different authors--Jaivin's previous writings include a rollicking novel called Eat Me, while Zhao's peer-reviewed scholarly articles are peppered with charts and tables--their books have much in common. One author may rely on things she observed and was told in 1989, the other on interviews conducted later according to social scientific protocols, but some of their narrative choices are the same. For instance, each focuses tightly on Beijing as a site of protest (it was actually just one of many) and of state violence (there was also a massacre in Chengdu). And each pays relatively little attention to workers.
Still, it is the divergences between the discussions of 1989 that remain most striking. There are people Jaivin discusses in detail (Cui Jian) who are not even listed in Zhao's index. And there are aspects of the struggle analyzed insightfully by Zhao that are ignored by Jaivin--what Zhao calls "campus ecology" (the physical structures and social patterns of student life) for instance. His treatment of the way this shaped 1989 is excellent, yet the topic falls outside the scope of Jaivin's interests.
The two authors also treat previous studies very differently. Take sociologist Craig Calhoun's justly acclaimed 1994 study Neither Gods Nor Emperors. Zhao cites it several times (sometimes approvingly, sometimes to criticize Calhoun for making too much of 1989's links to pre-1949 events and patterns); Jaivin never mentions it. On the other hand, she draws heavily on works by Geremie Barmé, a leading Australian China specialist whom Zhao never cites. Jaivin's reliance on Barmé is no surprise: The two co-edited a superb Tiananmen-related document collection, New Ghosts, Old Dreams, were married for a time (Monkey includes a diverting account of their courtship) and remain close friends. What is surprising is that none of Barmé's writings are listed in Zhao's bibliography. This wouldn't matter except that some specialists (myself included) think him among the most consistently insightful and on-target analysts of Chinese culture and politics.
Switching from references to events, we again find divergences. For example, only Jaivin refers to the 1988 campus riots in which young African men were attacked. In these incidents, some male Chinese students--of the same Tiananmen generation that would soon do such admirable things--lashed out against African males whose freer lifestyles they envied. The rioters also expressed outrage at efforts by the black exchange students to establish sexual liaisons with Chinese women. That only Jaivin mentions these racist incidents is illustrative of a general pattern. Zhao criticizes the Tiananmen generation for strategic mistakes, factionalism and political immaturity but otherwise veers toward hagiography. Jaivin takes a warts-and-all approach to her heroes. Hou gets chided for egotism and sexism, and the students for their tendency to be elitist (toward workers) and antiforeign (on occasion even toward Westerners).
Surprisingly, given Jaivin's greater fascination with pop culture, among the many events that she ignores but that Zhao mentions is the Jan and Dean concert fracas. I was glad to see Zhao allude to this November 1986 event (few analysts of 1989 have), but found his comments problematic. He states that demonstrations began in Shanghai "as a protest against the arrest and beating of students after many students danced on the stage" with the surf-rock band. Soon, the movement's focus shifted to "democracy and other issues," Zhao continues, when news arrived of campus unrest in Hefei (where Fang Lizhi taught). The protests there were triggered by complaints about cafeteria food and manipulated local elections. This is accurate but leaves out a significant twist: The buzz around Shanghai campuses had a class-related dimension. Students complained that concert security guards had treated their classmates like mere "workers," not intellectuals-in-the-making, the flower of China's youth. And while this sort of elitism was tempered a bit during the 1989 mass movement, it never disappeared.
In the end, though, where Jaivin and Zhao really part company has to do with something more basic than choices about whom to cite or even how critical to be of activists. It comes from the fact that only one (Jaivin) leaves space for magic. Zhao is influenced by a recent (and welcome) development in social movement theory: a commitment to paying more attention to emotion. And yet, in his hands, this emotional turn amounts to only a minor shift in emphasis. It is as though, to him, a sense of disgust or feelings of pride can be factored into existing equations quite easily, without disrupting a basic approach that relies heavily on assessing structural variables, the sway of formal ideologies and rational calculations of risk.
In Jaivin's book, magic--of varying sorts--figures centrally. Even the book's title is a nod toward the magical, since the "Monkey" in it refers to the most famous trickster character in Chinese culture, the mischief-loving hero of the novel Journey From the West, with whom Hou apparently identifies. A major characteristic of Monkey (in the novel) and Hou (in Jaivin's biography) is an ability to transform himself and contribute to the transformation of others--something often associated with spells of enchantment.
When it comes to the magical aspects of Tiananmen, Jaivin stresses the "magnetic pull" (Barmé's term) that the square exerted. And she emphasizes that the 1989 movement was full of unexpected developments that perplexed even those who knew Chinese politics intimately. In addition, she gives a good sense of how often people did peculiar, seemingly contradictory things. For example, she writes that Hou was convinced by late May that the students should leave the square before the regime cleared it by force. Only by living on could they build on what they had accomplished and continue to work to change China, he felt, as did many others. And yet, Hou flew to Hong Kong, even though he knew the funds raised by the concert there would help the students extend their occupation of the square. He could never explain why he did this, and I doubt any "model" can do justice to his choice. Moreover, Hou was not the only one to find himself doing inexplicable things as magic moments followed one another at a dizzying speed that spring.
Those who know little about Tiananmen can learn more from Zhao than from Jaivin (even if they find her more fun to read). And specialists will come away from his book with more new data. In the end, though, I think Jaivin gets closer to the heart of 1989. I say this in part because I agree with her on several points (the role of nationalism, for example). But my main reason for preferring her book is my conviction that with Tiananmen--and perhaps many mass movements--you have to take seriously not just structures and calculations of interest but also passion and magic.
In the United States a deeply rooted bias toward the practical renders all knowledge, even the most sublime forms of wisdom, merely an instrumental good. This pragmatic streak tends to push our literature of epiphany toward pop psychology and self-helping boosterism unless the work connects with something larger than the self. In some cultures that larger-than-the-self thing would be God, and the result becomes Spiritual Wisdom literature--a form that does not, in any serious way, flourish among us. The chief Other we celebrate is our Great Outdoors, and when moral epiphany connects with it the result is a distinctively American product: Environmental Wisdom literature.
At 67, with nearly forty volumes of work to his credit, Wendell Berry is undeniably a master of the genre. As poet, essayist and novelist, he has been concerned throughout his long writing life with how humans live and work in place, and with the moral and spiritual elements of their relationship to land. His nonfiction should properly be seen as a contribution to political theology, but in America we shelve it as Nature Writing.
Berry is one of the few contemporary authors worthy of mention in the same breath with that triumvirate of immortals, Thoreau, Muir and Leopold. If Thoreau stands for romantic naturalism; Muir for the preservationism of his creation, the Sierra Club; and if Leopold traced in his life and work the intellectual distance between conservationism (which treats nature as economically instrumental) and something like modern ecology (which doesn't), Berry too is the chief articulator of an environmentally relevant "ism": He is our foremost apostle of the agrarian ideal.
Ah--the agrarian ideal. But farmland isn't "nature," and Jefferson died centuries ago, right? Hasn't the Jeffersonian vision of a republic of free and equal yeoman farmers been completely occluded by the success of Hamilton's plan for a national manufactory? With only a minuscule portion of our population engaged in farming, talk of an agrarian ideal seems outdated at best.
Mainstream environmentalism seems to agree: It generally accepts that not in agriculture but "in wildness is the salvation of the world," as Thoreau famously put it. Thoreau meant also, of course, that in wildness was the salvation of the self. But Thoreau was a bit of a romantic poseur; during his idyll in the woods at Walden he was never out of earshot of the Fitchburg railroad, and when he did enter actual wilderness (in Maine, on the flanks of Mount Katahdin) he found it "savage and dreary," "even more grim and wild" than he had anticipated. If Thoreau's virtue was that he studied nature in detail while all around him men turned their backs on it (when they weren't actively cutting it down, draining it and otherwise "improving" it), still, he rarely saw the big picture except through the distorting lens of his romanticism. Like many another romantic, he did not see the ways in which his dissent from the antiromantic realities of his day failed to transcend the evils he railed against.
In 1850 it was not quite so clear that industrial culture, with its dark, satanic mills and the increasingly complicated, spiritually barren life that Thoreau bemoaned, could, without being deflected far from its course, easily accommodate and even assign value to "nature" as the romantics understood it. Even Robert Moses, the auto enthusiast whose highway planning led us into the promised land of modern urban life, understood the value of parks and green space; they were a necessary anodyne, a complement to the city he helped to create. "Nature" has exchange value. Within a market system, anything with exchange value--anything that people will pay cash money for--will be preserved. The market undervalues some things, yes, but market effects can be controlled and augmented by legislation. (Sadly, neither the market nor Congress has managed to preserve enough untrammeled nature for natural processes to operate there. Oxymoronically, we have to manage wilderness in order to keep it wild.)
The logic of industrial culture can preserve a bit of wilderness, but it won't preserve the life of the planet on which all of us ultimately depend. It won't even preserve the soil fertility that lets us fend off our own immediate death by starvation. Berry takes articulate exception to this failure, and he speaks with the authority of long practice as a farmer. His love of his hillside farm in Kentucky, which he works with horses, is evident on every page he writes.
Berry doesn't say that we all must become farmers in order to save the world. As Norman Wirzba, the editor of this volume, points out in his introduction, Berry isn't asking us to hitch up horses and become tillers of soil. He merely wants us to adopt the values, responsibilities and concerns of an agrarian life. Wirzba writes: "Just as we have adopted...the assumptions of an industrial mind-set without ourselves becoming industrialists--we are still teachers, health-care providers, builders, students, and so forth--so too can we integrate agrarian principles without ourselves becoming farmers."
One of the clearest contrasts between industrial and agrarian values concerns the matter of garbage. Urbanites dispose of it at the curb, where it is taken care of by jumpsuited specialists. Where these men take it the urbanites know not, nor are they able to see their responsibility for the damage it does when it gets there. The agrarian, with the wisdom and clarity of the farmer, knows that there is no such thing as a "sanitary" landfill. (No farmer would be so foolish as to welcome a dump anywhere near land being cultivated.) Agrarians are led to ask subversive questions about the origins of the waste they find so problematic. Is this purchase necessary? Can the old article be made to last longer? If the thing shouldn't be released into the environment when I'm done with it, then it shouldn't be created in the first place. Do I need it? What do I really need?
The contrast is between ideal types seen romantically, through the shimmering heat of passionate belief. Even so, the difference seen is real. There are those who understand culture's root in nature, and those who don't. For all but hunters and gatherers, farming is the definitive, determinative point of contact between culture and its environment. As farming goes, so goes the nation and the planet. Both have been going badly precisely because we have let the market assign valuations that should have been made morally, practically, agriculturally, ecologically. "A man who would value a piece of land strictly according to its economic worth is as crazy, or as evil, as the man who would make a whore of his wife," Berry declares in The Unforeseen Wilderness. For him that comparison is not an illustrative simile but an equation: How we treat the land is not separate from how we treat each other. Our agricultural practice should be ruled not by the market, whose cues and commandments are culturally and temporally parochial, but by a clear apprehension of what is needed to insure the long-range health of the soil, the communities it supports and the individual organisms (both human and nonhuman) within those communities. Berry's vision is trinitarian: These three kinds of life are one. He is enough of a romantic to believe that health is indivisible--that human health and the health of the planet are complementary, not antagonistic ideals.
Berry's romanticism is a source of hope. It doesn't distort his vision. He knows we're not going to save the planet or the self by playacting at being wild. Our world is neither completely a factory nor ideally a wilderness but in practice is very much under cultivation: We are inescapably agrarian. With even our wildernesses needing tender care, the question we face is not, "Shall we be gardeners?" or even "What proportion of garden to wilderness will we have?" but "What sort of gardeners should we be?" The essays collected here are Berry's thoughtful, comprehensive answer.
Berry throws off epigrammatic wisdom like a scythe sprays sparks when held against the sharpening wheel. Thus: "There can be no such thing as a 'global village.' No matter how much one may love the world as a whole, one can live fully in it only by living responsibly in some small part of it"; "We live in agriculture as we live in flesh"; "We do not understand the earth in terms of what it offers us or of what it requires of us, and I think it is the rule that people inevitably destroy what they do not understand"; "Marriage...has now taken the form of divorce: a prolonged and impassioned negotiation as to how things shall be divided"; "There is, in practice, no such thing as autonomy. Practically, there is only a distinction between responsible and irresponsible dependence." And, with an especially startling clarity: "The basic cause of the energy crisis is not scarcity; it is moral ignorance and weakness of character." If the essential rightness of these epigrams isn't immediately obvious to you, you need more Wendell Berry in your life.
Part of Berry's brief against agribusiness and the rule of the market in general is that both radically decontextualize human experience, including the necessary experience of nurturing life to grow food. Fewer and fewer of us have that primary experience any longer, and those who do still make a living directly from the soil are continually pressed to pursue their calling not in accord with its own standards of excellence but in response to market imperatives, which push farmer and consumer alike toward thoughtless, selfish, live-for-today exploitation. This isolation from context--this replacement of a dense web of communal, historical and natural relations with naked cash nexus--keeps most of us from supporting, or even seeing, the sort of care, knowledge, honor and integrity that good farming practice (and good neighboring) requires. In a society ruled by industrial values, commerce is the only context, and relations are dramatically simplified.
It's ironic, then, that the selections in this volume have been taken out of context. The cumulative effect of reading through them is not the effect created by reading Berry at his best. Berry is a farmer and a moralist, one who speaks with the humble authority of a man who regularly treads ground behind a team of horses. His contributions to the rarefied discourse of political theology are earned by the sweat of that kind of direct experience, and he knows it. In their original context the selections here achieve a better balance between theoretical rumination and chewy first-person detail, between wisdom gained and the texture of the life that produced it. When Berry speaks his mind, usually it's to the jangle of harness and hitch. In emphasizing Berry as an agrarian theorist, this collection tends to underrepresent Berry the farmer and neighbor and nephew and husband, the man whose experience makes his agrarian theorizing compelling. Reading the essays assembled here is rather like sitting down to a plate full of gravy and potatoes: It might be just what you want, but be aware that what the waiter brought you is only part of the meal the chef originally had in mind.
Berry is a master craftsman. His essays move from the personal to the abstract, the reportorial to the indignant, the anecdotal to the reflective as smoothly as an ecosystem moves through stages of succession, evolving toward its climax. Throughout Berry's work comes a strong sense of the narrative persona behind it: A kind and generous man, one at peace with his lot but deeply at odds with the temper of his times, a man of insight and empathy who never retreats into the solace of irony or smug detachment. Berry has a poet's ear, which keeps his prose from dissolving into the galumphing polysyllables and hissing sibilants (the "-isms" and "-nesses") that infect abstract subjects in the hands of lesser writers. He's constantly aware that, just as we are food incarnate (sunshine and soil, condemned to mortal life), so too are our ideas incarnated in our acts and organizations, each of which has a history it cannot fully escape.
It's odd, then, that Wirzba's Berry is a rather disembodied, timeless intellect. Sometimes the individual chapters in this collection aren't effectively introduced, and often something as basic as the date of original publication is missing. Occasionally Berry's text will refer to "the point of this book," though we are of course no longer in "this" book--we're in Wirzba's book, and he hasn't given us easy access to what the original textual reference meant. (For most selections, you've got to comb through the acknowledgments to discover the origin, and even then the provenance of many of them remains unclear.) Berry's 1993 plaint against the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade still has relevance--the issue of globalization hasn't gone away, and its portent for agrarian values is enormous--but "A Bad Big Idea" would benefit from annotation or an introduction explaining the current status of world trade in agricultural goods and limning the continuing relevance of Berry's analysis. Without that context, the reader may well dismiss the piece as an outdated tilt against a fait accompli.
As with any collection, one can second-guess the selections. I longed to read Berry's elegiac mea culpa, "Damage," in which he recounts his misguided attempt to carve a stock pond into one of his farm's hillsides. The piece, a kind of prose poem, could have served admirably as part of Wirzba's first section, "A Geobiography," which aims to "introduce Berry's person and place to the reader." Also missing is Berry's notorious essay from Harper's in which he gave his reasons for refusing to buy a computer (he writes with a pencil). Wirzba has included Berry's response to critics of that piece, though without the original essay the rebuttal's elaborate analysis of feminism seems puzzlingly non sequiturish. (In his original essay Berry mentioned that his wife types and edits his manuscripts, a circumstance that drew harsh criticism from some readers. A wife, one letter writer said, meets all of Berry's criteria for an appropriate technology: She's locally producible, easily repairable, doesn't burn fossil fuel, doesn't radically transform the community when exploited, etc.) Without a clearer sense of the whole exchange, one can't fully appreciate why Berry titled his reply "Feminism, the Body, and the Machine," or why he offers the telling insight that "one cannot construct an adequate public defense of a private life." (It's clear he's not apologizing, but admonishing those whose passion for political rectitude would destroy the boundary between public and private life. But the full exchange makes clearer why this is an agrarian's concern: It's that boundary, and not some chimerical escape from meaningful work or moral duty, that is crucial to the exercise of our liberty.)
Even with these limitations, this volume is worth a read. There is so much good sense collected here that one is tempted not to review it but simply to repeat it. Examples: "We must recover that sense of holiness in the world, and learn to respect and forbear accordingly." "Economic justice does not consist of giving the most power to the most money." "Eating is an agricultural act."
As to solutions: Berry's advice for those of us wishing to do what we can to make things better is simple, direct and difficult: "Eat responsibly." His essay "The Pleasures of Eating" (taken from What Are People For?) describes in detail what that means. Deal directly with a local farmer whenever possible. Prepare your own food. Participate in food production to the extent that you can--raise herbs in a window pot if that's what you can do. Learn the origins of the food you buy, and buy food produced close to your home. Learn what is involved in the best farming and gardening. Learn as much as you can, by direct observation and experience if possible, of the life histories of food species. Learn, in self-defense, as much as you can of the economy and technology of industrial food production.
The imperative, you see, is to learn. Of course: This is wisdom literature.
We are accustomed to our wisdom about nature coming from people who write about wilderness. We don't think of farmland as nature, or of the farming life as offering us much in the way of opportunity to accrue and exercise wisdom. As this volume shows, on both counts we are sadly mistaken.
Thanks to Richard Falk and The Nation for daring to defy the party line in the American media when it comes to Middle East coverage ["Ending the Death Dance," April 29]. Keep up the good work.
YUSUF A. NUR
Except for its criticism of the Bush Administration, Richard Falk's article contains more sophisticated nonsense than almost anything I've read. Bush is wrong, Sharon is wrong and Arafat stands by as young women prostitute themselves as mass murderers. Meanwhile, Falk and The Nation raise sophistry to new heights.
Even in the Arab press it would be hard to find such distortions, misleading statements and open justification of suicide bombers as are in Richard Falk's article. For example:
(1) Falk justifies suicide bombers as the "only means still available" for the Palestinians. One can only react to such an endorsement of suicide bombers with outrage.
(2) Then he equates the suicide Passover bombing at Netanya with the Israeli incursion in the West Bank. The Israeli incursion may have been wrong, but not all wrongs are moral equivalents. The suicide bombings have no possible justification and are sheer terror.
(3) Falk says Arafat did not opt for terrorism. What a distortion. Arafat's history of terrorism, from hijacking in 1968 to Munich in 1972 and thereafter is documented beyond contradiction. Has Falk forgotten Arafat's financial support for and public tribute to "martyrs"?
There are numerous other distortions in the article, but worst of all is Falk's blatant justification of suicide bombers. Just what is Falk's affinity for terrorists?
JEROME J. SHESTACK
Richard Falk says, "surely the United States is not primarily responsible for this horrifying spectacle of bloodshed and suffering." Such a view is typical of coverage of the conflict across the spectrum of the US press, from left to right. If we look solely at the actions of the United States, it is clear that this country is backing the occupation of Palestine with great vigor and enthusiasm. Last December, the Defense Department signed off on a sale of fifty-two F-16 fighter jets and 106 million gallons of jet fuel to Israel through the Foreign Military Sales program, earning Lockheed Martin $1.3 billion and Valero Energy $95 million.
If this doesn't constitute a green light to Prime Minister Sharon for the siege of Ramallah, then it certainly enables it. There is some controversy over whether Iran is backing the Palestinian Authority with military aid; it's beyond dispute that Israel is armed to the teeth with US-made weapons. If President Bush is genuine in his call for an Israeli withdrawal, then he should suspend military aid to Israel immediately. Of course the violence is not beyond our control.
Senator Jesse Helms, once head of the Foreign Relations Committee, stated in 1995: "Israel is at least the equivalent of a US aircraft carrier in the Middle East." There is no mystery here. Israel's military aggression guarantees the maintenance of US global domination. As long as we keep silent about the crimes committed in our name, Palestinians and Israelis alike will continue to die.
Richard Falk begins on a false premise and goes downhill from there. He claims simplistically that many analysts fault Arafat and the Palestinians because Ehud Barak at Camp David made an offer Arafat should have accepted. Actually, the argument is not that Arafat should have accepted the offer but that Arafat should have negotiated and made a counteroffer. Any counteroffer at all would have been welcome. Instead, Arafat made a fool of Barak and President Clinton and crushed the hopes that political moderates in Israel would be the driving force for peace. Falk treats the most significant gesture on Israel's part toward peace as rather trivial and similarly downplays Arafat's present attempt to make Israel bargain against itself through targeting innocent women and children.
Falk apparently feels that sophisticated people will agree that the Palestinians have no choice but to send suicide bombers into churches and marketplaces. However, there are certain tactics that cannot be rationalized as part of a bargaining process. The Palestinians can bargain by using publicity, civil disobedience, general strikes, boycotts, marches and other peaceful methods to help obtain their goals and popularize them. Instead, they violate the most fundamental notions of civilized behavior. No one can endorse wholeheartedly Israel's fiercely violent response. However, we can understand it and agree that it is necessary for the self-defense of its citizens.
EDWARD C. SWEENEY
Richard Falk ignorantly states that the Oslo agreements concerned 22 percent of the original British Mandate over Palestine, leaving 78 percent to Israel. The original mandate over Palestine also included what is now Jordan, which was essentially created by Winston Churchill when the British client Sharif Hussein was booted out of Mecca. Will Falk say next that the Six-Day War was a war of Israeli conquest? Or that there was a Palestinian national consciousness in 1948? You should be embarrassed.
JEFFREY A. GOLDMAN
New York City
Thank you for Richard Falk's bold and clear analysis of the current morass in the Middle East, which provides some much-needed corrections to the mainstream media's narrative of the Israel-Palestine conflict. It was high time someone pointed out that Sharon is at least as much an obstacle to peace as Arafat.
Indeed, nothing in Sharon's career, or in his actions since his visit to the Temple Mount, suggests that peace is remotely a priority for him. His only goal is to expand Israeli settlements so that the prospect of a contiguous, viable state within which Palestinians can live in dignity becomes ever more slim. He is basically continuing the same colonialist project that he helped initiate as agriculture minister.
It is amazing that in this country, for the most part, people react with such horror to the suicide bombings (which are indeed deplorable) but take no notice of the Israeli settlements. The settlements are the original violence to which all Palestinian action is a retaliation. To pretend that violence originates with the Palestinians and that Israel only retaliates out of necessity is a grotesque reversal of causality.
One hopes that Falk's bold piece will give at least a momentary pause to many who are otherwise committed to perpetuating the official lies.
How long can pernicious myths persist? Richard Falk writes, "It was Sharon's own provocative visit to the Al Aqsa Mosque that started the second intifada." This is a blatant deception. On December 6, 2000, the semiofficial Palestinian daily newspaper Al-Ayyam reported as follows: "Speaking at a symposium in Gaza, Palestinian Minister of Communications, Imad Al-Falouji, confirmed that the Palestinian Authority had begun preparations for the outbreak of the current intifada from the moment the Camp David talks concluded, this in accordance with instructions given by Chairman Arafat himself. Mr. Falouji went on to state that Arafat launched this intifada as a culminating stage to the immutable Palestinian stance in the negotiations, and was not meant merely as a protest of Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount." Why does Falk ignore the damning statements of a Palestinian government official in an article that purports to get at the reality behind the image?
Thank you for Richard Falk's intelligent and balanced piece, which places blame and responsibility for the madness in the Middle East right where it really belongs--with Sharon. I am sick of the lies that assault us endlessly in the nonexistent daily "news." Sharon is a butcher and an intransigent, blind criminal whose actions could easily cascade into World War III and destroy everyone on earth just to fulfill his own sick, narcissistic sense of destiny. The parallels to Hitler are now unavoidable.
Superb! If only all American media had the guts to address the blatant hypocrisy and bias the US government employs when dealing with the Israel-Palestine crisis. Richard Falk has done an outstanding job of delineating the injustices perpetrated by the Israelis and has revealed another side to the story that should be reported on a far greater scale.
I anchor my response in a personal observation. My whole intention in "Ending the Death Dance" was to focus on the need for a fair solution that brings peace and justice to both peoples. As a Jew I am profoundly concerned with the future and well-being of the Jewish people. To consider me "a self-hating Jew" because I am critical of the Israeli government or of certain interpretations of Zionism is absurd, as if being an opponent of the Vietnam War made me "a self-hating American"! The most vital premise of democracy and cosmopolitanism is that conscience trumps both obedience to the state and tribal loyalties, and that international law should be respected to the extent possible, especially by one's own country.
The harsh tone of the critical letters reveals a partisan unwillingness to engage in serious dialogue; denunciation and distortion takes the place of argument and discussion, thus reinforcing the gathering gloom about how to resolve the Israel-Palestine struggle. Take Jerome Shestack's provocative assertion that my analysis displays a "blatant justification of suicide bombers" and an "affinity for terrorists."
Could I have been clearer than to assert early in the piece that what I write is "not in any way to excuse Palestinian suicide bombers and other violence against civilians"? Far from any alleged affinity for terrorists, I condemned all forms of terrorism, and avoided the distorted effects of treating only antistate violence as terrorism and regarding state violence as "self-defense" and "security." As I argued, George W. Bush has contributed mightily to this lethal distortion of the meaning of terrorism by the way he phrased the post-September 11 campaign against global terrorism.
I essentially agree with Edward Sweeney's point that Arafat is to be faulted not for rejecting the Barak/Clinton proposals but for his lamentable failure to explain the grounds of his rejection and, even more, for his failure to produce a credible counteroffer, providing the Palestinians and the world with an image on behalf of the Palestinian Authority of a fair peace. Arafat remains an enigmatic figure, as disappointing to militant Palestinians who feel shamed by their leader's deference to Washington as he is enraging to those who expect the Palestinians to accept Israeli occupation of their territories without a whimper of resistance.
Jeffrey Goldman's comments about the British Mandate of Palestine and its relation to modern Jordan are confusing and wrong. The part of the original Palestine Mandate that has been the scene of the Israel-Palestine struggle has nothing to do with the sovereign territory of Jordan. Jordan occupied the West Bank during the 1948 war, and administered the territory until 1967, when Israel became the occupying power as a result of the Six-Day War, but with the understanding unanimously backed by the Security Council in famous Resolution 242 that Israel was under a duty to withdraw "from territories occupied in the recent conflict." The US government has all along backed this 1967 resolution as the starting point for any vision of peace between the two peoples.
My point was different and, I feel, important. By removing pre-1967 Israel from the Oslo negotiations, the Palestinians were conceding 78 percent of the territory of the Palestine Mandate partitioned by the UN in 1947, leaving 22 percent available for a potential Palestinian state (that is, 5,897 square kilometers versus Israel's 20,235 square kilometers) and making the presence of more than 200 armed settlements in the West Bank protected by IDF forces radically inconsistent with the agreed goal of a viable Palestinian state. There is a second Palestinian concession that should also be taken into account: In contrast to the modern belief that legitimate sovereign states should be secular, without religious or ethnic identity, the Palestinian leadership has not questioned the Jewish identity of Israel even though it means that the Palestinian minority of over 1 million will remain second-class Israeli citizens indefinitely and that any Palestine that emerges will be an ethnic state whether the Palestinians desire it or not. Israel has not even contemplated comparable concessions to Palestinian aspirations.
Finally, Jordan Green's argument that the US government has seen Israel, at least since 1967, as a strategic partner in the Middle East is pushing against an open door. My only point was to stress that in the setting of the conflict with the Palestinians, it is Israel that makes the decisions on how to pursue peace and security, and although backed to the hilt by Washington, "primary responsibility" lies with Israel.