The capital unscrupulously pumped from poor neighborhoods by way of predatory loans whizzes along a high-speed financial pipeline to Wall Street to be used for investment. "It's about creating debt that can be turned into bonds that can be sold to customers on Wall Street," explains Irv Ackelsberg, an attorney with Community Legal Services in Philadelphia who has been defending clients against foreclosure and working to restructure onerous loans for twenty-five years.
Household-name companies like Lehman Brothers, Prudential and First Union are involved in managing the process of bundling loans--including subprime and predatory--into mortgage-backed securities. They often provide the initial cash to make the loans, find banks to act as trustees, pull together the layers of financial and insurance institutions, and create the "special vehicles"--shades of Enron--that shield investors from risk.
Four securities-rating agencies--Moody's, Standard & Poor's, Duff & Phelps and Fitch--provide bond ratings for all of Wall Street; before assigning the acceptable rating that will draw investors, they assess the risk firewalls constructed by the securitizing company. It becomes a complex matrix of financial operations designed to generate capital and minimize risk for Wall Street with the unwitting help of borrowers. "This whole business is about providing triple-A bonds to funds that you or I would invest in," says Ackelsberg. "The poor are being used to produce this debt--what you have is a glorified money-laundering scheme."
Ackelsberg and his colleagues frequently find themselves struggling through a tangle of companies to find a party legally liable for remedy when a client is in foreclosure due to a bad loan. Often the company that originated the loan doesn't actually own it but, rather, is acting as a servicing agent--assuring the cash flow to a securitization trust. Frequently shifting ownership also complicates attempts to create accountability: In one case, United Companies Lending, once hired as a trust by Lehman Brothers, went bankrupt; EMC Mortgage Corporation, a wholly owned subsidiary of Bear Stearns, placed the highest bid for the right to service the outstanding loans and collect the servicing fees.
Sheila Canavan, a Berkeley-based attorney who recently won a settlement that will pay out some $60 million to the plaintiffs in a fraud lawsuit against First Alliance Mortgage, says, "The industry and lawyers make it as complicated and arcane as they can so people don't understand." They also, she adds, want to distance themselves from the frontline predators who hawk the loans.
Government-sponsored mortgage lenders Fannie Mae (FNMA) and Ginnie Mae (GNMA) have long bundled conventional loans--in the 8-percent range--to create mortgage-backed securities. During the mergers and acquisitions boom in the mid-1990s, when banks began absorbing subprime lenders, Wall Street caught on to the potential of bunching subprime mortgages, including predatory loans. "The banks realized that this was a moneymaker," says Shirley Peoples, a social research analyst for the Calvert Group, an investment fund specializing in socially responsible lending. "They put a legitimacy on it, but it still is what it is."
"Wall Street, since it got into securitization, needs product, needs mortgage loans to pull together," says Canavan. The securities are then aggressively marketed, she says. "The Wall Streeters go around the country, pools of loans are sold to institutional investors, pension plans, universities."
And while it looks as if the lenders themselves set up the difficult loan terms, Canavan says that Wall Street encourages the gouging practices. The big financial institutions fronting cash for predatory loans have information on the loans' interest rates and know very well what it takes to trap borrowers into those rates. They also build in incentives for dubious practices: "The loan originators are compensated with late fees," Canavan says, by way of example. "They're going to make sure payments don't get there on time, that they get lost or, as the industry says, 'drawered.'"
It's tough for a mutual fund investor to know whether investment dollars are going toward supporting a predatory loan scheme. The investor who knows the names of the biggest offenders may be able to detect them in a prospectus, but many times the information is not included or the names of the companies change. Socially responsible funds such as Calvert and organizations like the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility have been meeting face to face with banking interests to probe their policies and positions on bundling the predatory loans. And many in the industry argue that a rash of bankruptcies and financial failures has pressured the industry to reform.
But not all consumer advocates buy that.
"These companies come and go," says Ackelsberg, "but the residue of their abusive activity remains because the mortgage loans are still out there."
Inside an old courthouse in the dusty tropical town of Dili, an exhibition documents the history of East Timor's resistance to Indonesian occupation. Next to a grainy black-and-white photo of a youthful man in a beard, a large inscription reads, "Our victory is merely a question of time."
They were the words of Nicolau Lobato, East Timor's leader in the first terrible years of war against the Indonesian invasion of December 7, 1975. Ill equipped and abandoned by all, including their Portuguese colonial masters, the Timorese nevertheless held their ground, creating large losses on both sides. That is, until May 1978, when Jakarta made a successful plea to the Carter Administration for a squadron of attack bombers and more parts and ammunition for its counterinsurgency aircraft. Britain, under a Labour government, similarly authorized a request for sixteen Hawk ground-attack aircraft. Used to bomb and napalm the Timorese into submission, the escalation left 200,000 dead from war and famine, including Lobato and most of his fellow leaders.
But in the end, Lobato was right. This May, East Timor became the world's newest nation, the first country born in the twenty-first century. Lobato could not have foreseen the twenty-four years of despair, massacre, torture and disappearances that would follow the Indonesian invasion. Or the betrayal of friends, the connivance of wealthy nations and the paralysis of well-meaning institutions like the United Nations. His faith in a righteous outcome is common among Timorese: They believe that in the end, justice prevails. You just have to give it time.
And time is something the Timorese now have: time to build a society in their image, time to argue the minutiae of democracy, something they do with delight--sixteen parties contested elections last year, and 91 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot. It's hard to walk the streets of Dili and not be affected by this euphoria for openness, for democracy, for freedom. It's everywhere: in the light of a newly graduating teacher's eyes, the laughter of an expectant mother. And while people are clearly poor (according to the World Bank, East Timor is Asia's poorest country and the world's twentieth poorest), the capital of this half-island territory, on the southeastern fringe of the Indonesian archipelago, seems today alive with possibilities.
The danger is that this enthusiasm will be dashed against the rocks of reality once the Timorese see how slowly grind the wheels of development. This nation of 760,000 has a mortality rate for children under 5 of 200 per 1,000, while malaria, tuberculosis and dengue are endemic. More than half of the 2,400 villages have no wells or piped water, and only one in four schools can fully accommodate students or even functions at all. "We must have patience," says Paulo da Costa Amaral, a onetime guerrilla fighter now running a Timorese charity in the country's impoverished highlands. "Independence is the beginning.... there are many steps for us to climb."
Amaral is doing his share. With the help of the Australian aid organization Austcare, his Halarae Foundation is training scores of highland Timorese as teachers, offering microcredit to village cooperatives and helping establish community gardens where crops can be grown for both self-sufficiency and supplementary income. On a visit to the impoverished but immaculately kept mountain village of Belola, near the border with Indonesia, he is received with great ceremony, and a village meeting is called in his honor. After daintily dressed children complete a welcome dance, and after formalities are exchanged, people in their Sunday best wait for a turn to speak. He hears old men lamenting the village's lack of potable water and young women requesting sewing machines so they can set up a garment cooperative.
A grizzled old man asks for help to rebuild the school--destroyed by Indonesian-backed militias in the mayhem following the UN-supervised independence referendum in 1999--and receives popular acclamation. The village's 189 children are attending school in nearby Balibo, but they have to walk for hours in the hot sun or in the pouring rain to get there, dodging the perilously overloaded trucks that rumble up and down the narrow mountain roads.
Amaral nods in understanding. He speaks eloquently of the promise of the future and the difficulty of the present. Patience, he urges; we will do what we can. Later, as we talk on the journey back in the foundation's only vehicle, he shakes his head. Rebuilding a school is not the only problem; the fledgling government would also need to commit funds for teachers, books and other materials. There are many such villages in East Timor, not all of them within walking distance of a school.
History has not been kind to the Timorese. After a bloodless coup in Lisbon in 1974, Portugal began to decolonize and political parties met openly in East Timor. But soon, tensions between largely well-off Timorese and firebrand students who had returned from exile erupted into open conflict. Now known to have been fomented by Indonesian military intelligence, a civil war broke out and thousands died over a three-week period. Portugal withdrew, and the victors--the leftist Fretilin party--governed temporarily, while calling for Lisbon to reassert control and complete decolonization. But Portugal appeared unwilling, and into this vacuum stepped Indonesia. Sensing an invasion, Fretilin declared independence on November 28, 1975. Two days later, leaders of the defeated Timorese factions requested Indonesian intervention. The Democratic Republic of East Timor existed for all of nine days before a large-scale Indonesian invasion began, killing thousands and driving hundreds of thousands into the mountains.
Luckily for the Timorese, the UN had never accepted Indonesia's annexation of their country, a fact that was to prove crucial when, in 1997, the Asian financial crisis brought Jakarta to its knees. President Suharto--who had ordered Indonesia's invasion--was toppled, and his successor, in desperate need of economic aid, yielded to pressure for a UN referendum on East Timor's future. And so it was that on August 30, 1999, 78.5 percent of the Timorese voted for independence, despite a violent campaign of intimidation. So humiliated were the Indonesian military and its proxy militias by the result that, over three weeks, they laid waste to most of East Timor, destroying 80 percent of buildings and butchering thousands of unarmed civilians. In the end, this televised bloodbath prompted the world to act: An Australian-led multinational force landed on September 20 and put an end to the violence.
The territory was then ruled by the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor, the first time in history the international body has actually run a country. Led by Brazilian career diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello, it was both welcomed and cursed by the Timorese. Welcomed for bringing peace and stability to a people who had known little of it; for restoring burned-out homes and buildings, repairing badly damaged infrastructure and reopening hundreds of schools. For creating an impartial police force (a third of whom are women), an independent justice system, for training 11,000 civil servants (less than half the size of the bloated local administration under Indonesian rule) and for establishing a modest but well-trained defense force that has--along with a token contingent of international troops--created a sense of security among a people who still recall the unpredictable brutality of the Indonesian military and its militias.
But it's also been cursed for its mind-numbing bureaucracy, which sees so many initiatives repeatedly delayed or never completed. For the incongruence of air-conditioned Range Rovers roaring past dirt-poor households, or senior officials on fat pay-packets bickering loudly with Timorese waitresses about their restaurant bills. Or the sight of a young UN worker thundering down the streets on an imported Harley-Davidson motorbike, earning in one year more than a Timorese family might hope to see in a lifetime. "There have been many, many lost opportunities," admitted one senior French-speaking UN official who was heading home. "The waste has been phenomenal, the bureaucracy is at times unbelievable. There's so much more we could have done. But I have to keep telling myself, there's so much we've achieved, too. You've got to understand, the UN has never done this before."
For the Timorese, it will be a challenge to run their own affairs: Many basic skills are lacking, and their only role models are a lackadaisical Portuguese administration, a corrupt and bloated Indonesian bureaucracy, followed by a process-obsessed and expensive UN technocracy. "We've certainly seen how not to do it," joked one young Timorese official in the new government. Luckily, many of the estimated 20,000 Timorese in the diaspora for a quarter of a century--largely in Australia and Portugal--have returned, bringing not only Western degrees but Western sensibilities. This not only means a taste for cafe latte and cable television but expectations of impartial justice, an intolerance of corruption and an understanding of individual rights and responsible governance.
Exiles are certainly well represented in the power structure: Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri was a high-ranking Fretilin official who escaped to Mozambique, where Justice Minister Ana Pessoa Pinto--an exiled law student--became a judge. Agriculture Minister Estanislau da Silva was a research agronomist in Australia, and Foreign Minister José Ramos Horta--a Nobel laureate and for many years East Timor's resistance spokesman abroad--taught international relations in Sydney.
Time has also mellowed the leftist fervor of Fretilin (Revolutionary Front of an Independent East Timor), which emerged from a UN-supervised election last year with fifty-five of the eighty-eight seats in the new Parliament. Despite Fretilin's dominance, Alkatiri has formed a cabinet with members from minor parties as well as independents. And the onetime radical is now often seen networking with potential investors or officials of the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. Seventies-era talk of nationalization is gone. The US dollar is the national currency, and revenue from the new offshore oil and gas fields in the Timor Gap will (for the first few years) be banked rather than spent, and the government plans to run deficit-free budgets.
But it would be a mistake to see East Timor as a client state of neoliberal think tanks: In the first years of independence, education and healthcare will consume 48 percent of spending. Thanks to a cleverly negotiated aid program that is top-heavy at the start (until the big offshore oil revenues kick in), East Timor will begin life debt-free--something few nations can claim. It's as if the government is determined to leverage its oil and gas windfall--estimated at $6 billion over twenty years--to create a self-sustaining economy.
What is remarkable is how priorities were set. The government's National Development Plan is a laudable manifesto stretching twenty years, aimed at lifting the nation out of poverty and creating a sustainable economy based on crops like organic coffee and services like ecotourism. It was drafted after consultations involving 40,000 people in more than 500 towns and villages across the country. Asked to name the top priorities, respondents listed education (70 percent), health (49 percent) and agriculture (32 percent) as the top three, followed by the economy, roads, poverty, water and electricity.
Launching the plan, former resistance leader Xanana Gusmão--elected the country's first president in April--said that no other nation "has had the wisdom or faith in its people to ask these questions. No other nation has consulted the people so widely and so systematically. This is something unique that we all, as Timorese, should be proud of." Alkatiri called it "a common vision for development and the eradication of poverty."
Not all is rosy: Political leaders worry about Fretilin's dominance in Parliament, accusing it of bulldozing initiatives and paying lip service to democracy. The World Bank, while supportive of the National Development Plan, is critical of the lack of a timetable. Activists criticize the new government's unwillingness to push for the prosecution of Indonesian military officers guilty of atrocities in East Timor during the mayhem of 1999. But both Gusmão and Alkatiri prefer to focus on rebuilding bridges with Jakarta and its new president, Megawati Sukarnoputri. They even convinced her to attend the independence celebrations, despite the fact that wounds over the loss of East Timor have yet to heal.
All in all, it is easy for visiting Westerners to find fault. One foreign journalist criticized the new nation for bankrolling its $1.3 million independence celebrations with corporate donations. Others saw it as a master stroke; instead of diverting much-needed money from health or education, the government chose to lean on corporations and wealthy nations keen for good relations. It seems East Timor really is a twenty-first-century nation.
With the Bush Administration too often feeling the pain of its corporate sponsors, and with the Enron scandal (so far) producing little political fallout or legislative change on Capitol Hill, advocates of corporate accountability have cause for frustration. (Martha Stewart is not much consolation.) But in one area corporate critics can feel encouraged. For several years, a small group of lawyers and labor advocates has been trying to hold transnational companies responsible for their actions by suing them in the United States for abetting and/or benefiting from human rights abuses overseas. Finally, these corporation-chasers are beginning to see signs of possible success.
In about a dozen cases, attorneys in the United States, on behalf of villagers, indigenous people and labor leaders overseas, have filed legal action against large corporations under the Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA), a law passed in 1789 that allowed foreigners to sue one another in US courts. The law was not much used until 1979, when the family of a 17-year-old boy tortured and killed by a Paraguayan policeman successfully employed it to sue the officer. Afterward, human rights lawyers turned to the act as a way to address human rights violations conducted or enabled by multinational firms.
In 1996, for instance, the Washington-based International Labor Rights Fund (ILRF) filed an ATCA suit against Unocal, an oil and gas firm, charging that it knowingly used slave labor to build a pipeline in Burma. The plaintiffs included villagers who said they were forced at gunpoint to work on the project. A federal judge dismissed the ATCA lawsuit, arguing that Unocal did not have direct control over the Burmese military regime, a partner in the pipeline project. That decision is under appeal, but, in a legal first, in June a California state judge ordered Unocal to stand trial. In that trial, in September, the plaintiffs will argue under state law that partners in a joint venture can be held responsible for each other's actions. That would be a blow to Unocal. Evidence in the federal case showed it was well aware that human rights abuses were committed by the military regime in relation to the pipeline.
ATCA-wielding lawyers and activists have been going after corporate malfeasance around the globe. Earlier this year, a case filed against Shell by EarthRights International and the Center for Constitutional Rights got a major boost. This lawsuit claims the oil company is liable for human rights abuses committed by the Nigerian military against the Ogoni people, who opposed a Shell pipeline. Shell repeatedly filed motions to dismiss the case, but in February a federal judge denied these motions and permitted the case to move into the discovery phase. Now the plaintiffs can take depositions of Shell officials and review Shell documents.
Texaco was sued in New York by indigenous people of Ecuador, who charged it with destroying their local environment by dumping a million gallons of toxic waste into the ecosystem for two decades. The company's actions, they claim, devastated rainforest areas, caused an increase in cancer and other diseases and brought several tribes to the brink of extinction. In March the two sides argued about whether the case should be dismissed on jurisdictional grounds. The court has not yet ruled. Two years ago, residents of Bougainville Island in Papua New Guinea filed a lawsuit in San Francisco against the London-based Rio Tinto mining firm. The plaintiffs maintained that the corporation, which took over a company that developed a mine on the island, was in cahoots with a government that engaged in human rights abuses and destroyed entire villages in wiping out local resistance to the project. In March a federal judge dismissed the lawsuit after the State Department argued that the case could interfere with an ongoing peace process in Papua New Guinea. But the judge said the Papua New Guinea government would have to agree to permit the plaintiffs to file a case there.
In addition to the Unocal case, the ILRF is handling ATCA lawsuits against Coca-Cola (for allegedly using paramilitary forces to suppress--violently--union activity in Colombia), Del Monte (for allegedly employing thugs who tortured union leaders in Guatemala), DynCorp (for allegedly spraying Ecuadorean farmers and villagers with toxic chemicals that were supposed to be dumped on coca plants in Colombia) and the Drummond Company, a mining firm (for allegedly hiring gunmen to torture, kidnap and murder labor leaders in Colombia). In a case against ExxonMobil, ILRF contends that Mobil, which formed a joint-venture natural gas project with the Indonesian government, paid the Indonesian military for security and that these troops committed human rights atrocities--including murder and torture--against villagers in the Aceh province.
As these ATCA lawsuits creep forward, corporations here and abroad have to take notice. A plaintiff's win would compel transnationals to consider bringing their activities overseas into sync with international human rights standards. As the Wall Street Journal noted, a ruling against Unocal--if upheld--"could subject a long list of US companies to lawsuits in American courts as human rights groups seek to expand the reach of American tort law to foreign soil." Already the Street is paying attention. "I've started getting calls from mutual fund managers," says Terry Collingsworth, ILRF's executive director. "They tell me that they cannot base stock recommendations on moral considerations. But if there is a chance a company could be damaged by a big award in a trial, its business practices overseas become quite relevant." That is, "the markets" are watching and waiting--to see if Third World locals screwed by transnationals can find justice in courts far from their villages.
In reiterating his vision for the Middle East--two states living side by side in peace and security--George W. Bush failed to lay out a viable path for reaching this essential goal. Israeli commentators agreed that Bush's long-delayed speech, in which his support for a provisional Palestinian state was so hedged as to be nearly meaningless, could have been written by Ariel Sharon. David Landau wrote in Ha'aretz: "Yasser Arafat, the seemingly immortal leader of the Palestinian national movement, was politically assassinated" by the US President. Thus, Bush brushed aside a democratically elected leader while calling for more democracy, simplistically made Arafat the problem and his removal the condition for a solution, and opened a rift with US allies.
The plan--favored by the pro-Sharon hard-liners in the Administration, led by Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld--is a victory for political expediency, but it does nothing to disempower the extremists on both sides. To have any chance of damping down terrorist violence, Washington had to offer the Palestinian people some hope of statehood, of control over their collective future. But Bush failed to call for an immediate withdrawal of Israeli forces from the West Bank and gave Sharon a green light for reoccupation, thereby endorsing the continuation of a failed policy. For Israel's military incursions do not stop, and indeed foment, suicide bombers' atrocities, as Israeli Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer pointed out. And if, as seems likely, the latest operation also fails, it will breed more violence and drain not only the devastated Palestinian economy but Israel's--itself nearing collapse.
While Bush was right to call for the withdrawal of Israeli forces to pre-intifada lines and for a halt in settlement building, he left those actions to be accomplished in some vague middle distance after violence is ended--meaning whenever Israel decides to de-occupy. For the long term, Bush urged an end to the cruel occupation and the creation of a democratic Palestinian state. But the vision he offered is so conditioned, set so far in the future and so vulnerable to American and Israeli interpretations that it offers little incentive for moderate Palestinians--such as the more than fifty intellectuals who recently called for a halt to suicide bombings--to risk their lives trying to curb the radical elements of Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
Arafat's leadership has been corrupt and autocratic; democratic reforms in the Palestinian Authority are needed. But what hope can those Palestinians committed to reform have when Israeli tanks are rumbling in their streets, their institutions and infrastructure are shattered, their compatriots under house arrest?
Bush did not even mention the international conference the Saudis and other nations requested to spur final-status talks. He said nothing about how the international community is to be mobilized to help the Palestinians achieve reforms. If he had made the bold gesture history demanded of him, he would have set a clear timeline for Palestinian statehood and called for an end to the Israeli invasion, dismantling of settlements, insertion of international forces and a firm US and international financial commitment to Palestinian nation-building and reform, including efforts to insure that the elections now set for January are free and fair. Instead, he temporized, and so, more Israelis and Palestinians will die.
"How long do I have?" James Pierson asked, trying to maintain eye contact with the man behind the desk.
"Three months, eleven days, seven hours and forty-three minutes," David Barnett said.
"Well, it's now the afternoon of August 19, 2010," Barnett said. "We're advising people not to wait until the very last day. December 31 is a time when there can be a certain amount of New Year's Eve chaos at hospitals, and that could put the death certificate over until next year, or at least muddy the waters if there's a question that ends up in court. So, getting it done in 2010, if you're being prudent, means getting it done before December 31, or three months, eleven days, seven hours and forty-three minutes from now."
Pierson swallowed. He found the phrase "getting it done" off-putting. Finally, he said, "I don't suppose there's a chance that this could be reversed."
"Well, in theory there's always a chance," Barnett said. "The Democrats could come back after recess and announce that they've changed their minds, and, despite everything they've said in the nine years since 2001, they're going to make the repeal of the inheritance tax permanent, but I don't think it would be wise to count on that happening."
"So it's now or never is what you're saying?" Pierson said.
"Well, it's this year or never. Look, under the provisions of the original law, the exemption has been raised and the rates lowered every year for the past nine years. It would have been shortsighted to die in order to take advantage of any of those tax reductions, because this year the tax is gone altogether. But the law still has its sunset provision: It fades away on December 31, 2010, unless it's renewed. So, given the Democratic majorities in both houses and the current deficit, it's likely that starting January 1, 2011, the estate tax will be the same as it was before the rates started coming down. From a tax liability standpoint, there is no alternative to taking advantage of this window of opportunity."
"Look, Jim," Barnett said, "Why are you in the business you're in?"
"Because the company had enormous paper losses that saved me a bundle in taxes and the only thing it actually owned was shares in some airliners that we depreciated the hell out of before we fobbed them off on some bush airline in Central America."
"And why do you drive the vehicle you drive, even though the dozer attachment makes it difficult to park in any space smaller than the Wal-Mart parking lot?"
"Because we can write it off as farm equipment, of course," Pierson said.
"This is my point," Barnett said. "You've always run your life according to what makes sense from a tax-liability standpoint. You have a vacation condo in Louisiana, where you exist in what amounts to a steam bath all summer, because it's in a development that juts out into the gulf and we figured out how to depreciate it as a shrimp boat. You and Margaret tried to time the birth of your children for late December to get an extra year's deduction. You've planted a lot of weird-looking trees so we could have your backyard declared an experimental forest and take a $14,000 loss every year, not to mention deducting what you pay the kid to mow the lawn. I'm just your tax consultant, Jim. But it seems to me that if you don't take advantage of the 2010 window, you wouldn't be you."
"I'd be alive, of course," Pierson said. "There's that."
"But don't you see: You'd just be living for the government," Barnett said. "Just because you live past 2010, 50 percent of your estate will go right into Uncle Sam's pocket. What's the point?"
"Fifty percent!" Pierson blurted out--and then, before he realized what he was saying, added, "I'd sooner die than give the government 50 percent!"
"Exactly!" Barnett said.
Pierson was silent for a while. Then, his voice still tentative, he said, "Have you been making any suggestions about method? When you said 'window of opportunity' a moment ago..."
"No, no," Barnett said. "What we're recommending is a high-quality hunting rifle. It's dependable, easy to operate and almost certain to be completely undamaged by the incident, so that it can be passed on in mint condition to the heirs--who, of course, would pay absolutely no inheritance tax on it."
"A high-quality hunting rifle would be rather expensive," Pierson said. "I don't suppose..."
"Yes, we believe that under a loophole in a rider to the Reserve Officer Training Act, as rewritten in 1978, we have a way to deduct it," Barnett said, "as long as you register your cellar as an Alternate Emergency Munitions Collection Point."
Pierson nodded his head silently, and then said, "I wouldn't imagine..."
"Yes," Bartlett said. "We believe we've figured out a way that your heirs could depreciate the hunting rifle."
"Over ten or fifteen years?"
"Six years," Bartlett said, beaming with pride.
"Six years!" Pierson said.
"Wow!" He nodded his head again, slapped his hands on his knees, and stood up. Then he said, with new resolution in his voice, "That settles it."
So far this year, US diplomats have secured the removal of Mary Robinson, High Commissioner for Human Rights; José Bustani, head of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons; and Robert Watson, head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. They were ousted because they weren't doing what Washington told them to do.
In the line of fire now are UNRWA, the agency that for more than fifty years has fed and educated Palestinian refugees, and its head, Peter Hansen; and Secretary General Kofi Annan, once lauded by US Jewish organizations for opening doors for Israel. Both cases are egregious examples of blaming the victim.
At the time of Israel's takeover of Jenin, Hansen condemned the refusal of the Israel Defense Forces to allow ambulances and relief workers into the camp. He also protested the Israeli use of UNRWA schools as military posts and interrogation centers and the destruction of the agency's clinics. Around the same time, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres invited Kofi Annan to send in investigators. This suggestion was enthusiastically moved in the Security Council by US ambassador John Negroponte. Israel promptly announced that it would not accept Robinson, Hansen and UN Special Representative for the peace process Terje Roed Larsen as investigators. Then it made it clear that it would not cooperate with anyone sent by the Secretary General.
By then, Annan himself was under fire. Within a month of becoming president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Mort Zuckerman was assailing him and Hansen and declaring that "UNRWA is the godfather to all terrorist training schools, notably in Jenin." AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby, joined in with a press release headed "Camps of Terror," alleging that "as the sole agency mandated to manage the Palestinian refugee camps, UNRWA has effectively turned a blind eye toward terror activities within the camps.... Inside the camps, where 99 percent of UNRWA's staff is comprised of locally recruited Palestinian refugees, food storage facilities and warehouses have become depots for ammunition and explosives to be used in terror attacks against Israelis."
That led to a joint call by Tom Lantos, ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee, and Tom DeLay, the GOP whip, for Congressional hearings on UNRWA, with a suggestion of ending US funding, which pays for a third of UNRWA operations. Jumping on the bandwagon, Republican Eric Cantor of the Congressional Task Force on Terrorism repeated the allegations.
Hansen has pointed out that the agency's sole responsibility is education, health and feeding the refugees: It has never administered the camps or maintained any police force. He added that from 1967 on, "We have not received from the Government of Israel any complaint related to the misuse of any of our installations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.... Since October 2000 to-date, and even though hundreds of UNRWA staff have been detained and subsequently released, the Israeli authorities have never provided any information or lodged any complaint with UNRWA concerning the official or private activities of any UNRWA staff member."
There is a very real fear that Lantos & Co. will soon demand Hansen's head as the price for continued UNRWA funding. He was recently reappointed to another term, but so was Bustani just before he got the boot. Also in his first year of a second term is Kofi Annan, who is about to produce a report on Jenin mandated by the General Assembly. Even Israeli government lawyers admit that the IDF breached international humanitarian law in Jenin, which was why Israel changed its mind about allowing the inquiry. People close to the Secretary General are beginning to worry that he will come under increasing attack in the same spirit of vilifying the messenger, and that the Likud-tinged alliance with the Christian and conservative right will revive the old attacks on the UN.
So far, the State Department has been defending UNRWA on Capitol Hill, and Colin Powell has a close rapport with Annan. But it remains to be seen how long this outpost of lucidity can hold against the faith-based foreign policy follies of the rest of the Administration and many members of Congress.
Belief in God is not the issue in the continuing brouhaha over the constitutionality of the Pledge of Allegiance. Rather, it's the government's endorsement of a monotheistic God.
Writing in a forthcoming issue of The Journal of Israeli History about Israeli revisionism, Mark Lilla of the University of Chicago's Committee on Social Thought makes the observation that while American neoconservatives like to present themselves as people who "care deeply about ideas," in truth "they are engaged in intellectual life...not out of curiosity or natural inclination, but out of a purely political passion to challenge 'the intellectuals,' conceived as a class whose political tactics must be combated in kind." Hence, the "quasi-militaristic rhetoric," the "cavalier use of sources and quotations," and the frequent "insinuations of intellectual bad faith and cowardice, even treason." This style marks them, Lilla notes, as a new breed: the "counter-intellectual."
A former editor of the neocon policy journal The Public Interest and author of The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics, Lilla observes that among his older friends, some "had once been genuine intellectuals who made important contributions to history and criticism." Their obsessive hatred of the culture of the sixties, however, induced them to renounce "any intellectual ambitions that did not serve the cause of restoring the cultural status quo ante. As for the young people they inspired and frequently sired, they became counter-intellectuals without ever having been intellectuals--a unique American phenomenon." Neocon history, Lilla explains, is one of "political success and intellectual failure." He laments, "To judge by the kinds of articles published in magazines like Commentary and even Partisan Review in this period, it was hard to imagine that writers like Lionel Trilling, Clement Greenberg, and Delmore Schwartz had ever graced their pages."
The mass media never noticed this transformation. If you look, for instance, at the reviews of David Brock's book Blinded by the Right--wherein Brock laments the moral and intellectual decline from Norman Podhoretz to homo-hating son John--even die-hard liberals take the old guys on their own self-flattering terms, as if the neocon parents were men and women of profound idealism while the "minicon" children can muster only attitude. Well, as John Lennon used to say, "The dream is over." The neocons have shown their true intellectual colors, and they are not pretty.
As The Chronicle of Higher Education recently reported, Irving Kristol, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Hilton Kramer and the intellectual historian John Patrick Diggins have all withdrawn from a conference honoring the work of Sidney Hook, to be held at the City University of New York. Diggins, according to conference organizer Robert Talisse, went so far as to threaten not only to convince others to stay away but also to convince certain funding institutions to withdraw their money (and hence, destroy the conference). The alleged crime: Somebody invited Cornel West to replace Richard Rorty as a featured guest.
Now whatever one may think of Brother West's recent political activities--and I think very little of them--he is a recognized scholar of both Hook and the pragmatist tradition in which the latter labored. Rorty, for instance, whose authority on pragmatism nobody dares to question, praises West's The American Evasion of Philosophy as "a novel piece of intellectual history." The book contains a long and thoughtful discussion of Hook.
The Chronicle reports that this Gang of Four felt West to be "not enough of a scholar" to justify their presence. This is a bit like a little league coach claiming Barry Bonds is "not enough of a hitter" to play a game of sandlot ball. Kristol and Kramer have made careers as ideological entrepreneurs and polemical publicists. They cannot boast a single work of lasting scholarly significance between them. Gertrude Himmelfarb and John Patrick Diggins are both serious, albeit unusually combative and ideology-minded, historians. Both have shamed themselves with this act of combined intellectual cowardice and conservative political correctness.
Harvard president Larry Summers, a neocon hero, lost West to Princeton at least in part because of his willingness to confront him with unfounded rumors that the deeply committed teacher was stiffing his students. West saw his name dragged through the mud in conservative and some not-so-conservative publications due to his willingness to take his scholarship and inspirational personal presence beyond the territories traditionally traversed by Harvard's University Professors. The great irony of the CUNY conference on Sidney Hook is that it finds West doing just what Summers and his critics complained he had neglected: participating in the scholarly life of the academy.
One wonders just what is so frightening. Perhaps it is a sense of being outgunned. I have seen West debate the elder Podhoretz at a conference sponsored by the Whitney Humanities Center at Yale, and the two proved so mismatched I left feeling a little sorry for Norman. Equally likely, however, is the fear that a leftist like West will remind audiences that their putative hero died a proud socialist. He may have been a fanatical anti-Communist, but his passions derived from an honest engagement in the life of the mind, something the neocons long ago forfeited in their love affair with power.
Ironically, West told Sam Tanenhaus that he didn't know he had been invited to the conference and was wholly unaware of having caused a conservative boycott. He explained, however, that he had been planning to go anyway--as a spectator. He saw a notice about it in The New York Review of Books and looked forward to catching up on the recent scholarship on Hook. West recalled that back in 1985 he had flown from California to Washington, DC, to be present for Hook's Jefferson Lecture and had the opportunity to tell the then-83-year-old philosopher how important his work had been to him.
Hook never succeeded in fusing Marx with Dewey, just as West, in this view, is still quite a distance from combining Gramsci with Sly Stone. They agreed on virtually nothing about the cold war or the culture wars. But they did share a commitment to follow their ideas wherever they might lead, and to take on all comers in a spirit of good faith and honest engagement. We can all learn from that.
Amid all the recent assaults on the Bill of Rights, including the latest trashing in the USA Patriot Act and the denial of habeas corpus to citizens, amid all this, in the span of one week, the Supreme Court has issued rulings almost beyond the dreams of the most ardent civil libertarians.
Listen to the exultant cry of Steven Hawkins, executive director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, who said this is "the most favorable term in a quarter of a century, in terms of death penalty jurisprudence."
For those who have gazed aghast over the past generation as jury rights have been trampled by tough-on-crime fanatics and liberal elites, there are paragraphs in certain opinions in the Court's rulings that are as momentous as any in the Warren Court. From whose pen did these sentiments issue?
"My observing over the past twelve years the accelerating propensity of both state and federal legislatures to adopt sentencing factors determined by judges that increase punishment beyond what is authorized by the jury's verdict, and my witnessing the belief of a near majority of my colleagues that this novel practice is perfectly OK, cause me to believe that our people's traditional belief in the right of trial by jury is in perilous decline. That decline is bound to be confirmed, and indeed accelerated, by the repeated spectacle of a man's going to his death because a judge found that an aggravating factor existed. We cannot preserve our veneration for the protection of the jury in criminal cases if we render ourselves callous to the need for that protection by regularly imposing the death penalty without it."
John Paul Stevens, you guess? No, Antonin Scalia. His emphasis on the fundamental role of the jury as guardian of our rights under the Constitution runs entirely counter to the trend of the past couple of decades, when judges have, with either the approval or indifference of legislatures and the press, been allowed not only to deprecate the jury's fundamental right to nullify and set the law aside but also to set jurors' verdicts aside and impose their own, often with lower standards of proof.
By and large, liberals have been the architects of these erosions of fundamental popular rights, whether it was Tip O'Neill rushing through totalitarian drug laws in the mid-1980s; or Clinton's Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (which, among other horrors, junked the doctrine of habeas corpus); or the hate crimes statutes written into many state codes at the behest of gay, feminist and liberal civil rights groups in the wake of the James Byrd and Matthew Shepard killings.
Scalia exposes the contradictions tellingly in his concurring opinion in Ring v. Arizona, where the Court struck down, 7 to 2, an Arizona statute that allowed judges rather than juries to impose the death penalty. He rightly chides Justice Stephen Breyer for inconsistency in endorsing the right of judges to overrule the jury in tacking on enhanced punishment under hate crimes statutes, and then, in Ring v. Arizona, for tacking the other way. Scalia's term for this kind of pirouette is "death-is-different jurisprudence."
Another momentous Supreme Court ruling, Atkins v. Virginia, concerns a case in which a man with an IQ of 59 was sentenced to death for committing a robbery and murder. The Court has ruled 6 to 3 that times have changed and that it's not OK these days to put the retarded to death.
Scalia, dissenting, made an argument in consonance with his view of the jury's paramount role, as expressed in Ring. Why, he asked, should the determining of a person's mental competence be allotted to the social scientists, the IQ testers, the battery of so-called experts so memorably stigmatized in the works of the late, great Stephen Jay Gould? Liberals don't want to execute the mentally retarded; they just want to abort or sterilize them. In the Atkins trial, Scalia noted, the jury had been given testimony on the murderer's mental capacity but had regarded it as insufficient in detaining the defendant from the death cell.
Scalia asks, How can one exempt people from the capital penalty on the grounds of mental incapacity to recognize the concepts of punishment and retribution, and then put them away in prison for their rest of their natural lives?
Where Scalia is caught in an obvious contradiction is in his endorsement of the notion that only those prepared to vote for the death penalty should be allowed on a jury, and that appeals court judges opposed to the death penalty should recuse themselves in capital cases. "There is something to be said," Scalia writes in his dissent in Atkins, "for popular abolition of the death penalty; there is nothing to be said for its incremental abolition by this Court." Again, it's a good argument, but abolition of slavery began in part with the refusal of juries to abide by statutes endorsing slavery. Ditto with religious freedom, starting with William Penn, whose jury refused to convict him for flouting the Conventicle Act.
If he were consistent, Scalia would recognize that jurors should be rejected only if they have a material interest in the outcome of the case. And given that some 30 percent or more in the United States are opposed to the death penalty, such juries would more than likely have a death penalty opponent among the twelve. On the role and rights of the jury I strongly recommend Godfrey Lehman's Is This Any Way to Run a Jury?
Meanwhile, we should honor the tremendous efforts of the defense teams who fought these cases to the Supreme Court and who have been rewarded by two decisions that overturn the death sentences of hundreds. But the fact remains that it is the death penalty itself that needs to be abolished, and this is a peerless moment of opportunity for death penalty activists to press forward.
The Court majority said in the Atkins decision that the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment reflects social values, which change from century to century and decade to decade (notwithstanding Scalia, who gazes back nostalgically 2,000 years to St. Paul). What an excellent springboard for an invigorated campaign to end the barbarism of judicial killing.
Agnostic's what he was, had always been.
He'd never prayed a prayer, confessed a sin.
He's thinking, though, if Martha goes to jail,
On Sundays henceforth he will never fail
To be in church. In fact, forevermore,
He'll be in synagogue the day before.
It's not as if this man's the sort of pill
Who wishes fellow human beings ill.
But he's convinced: If Martha takes the fall,
There is a God in heaven after all.
Even as campaign finance reformers celebrated the long-awaited passage of the McCain-Feingold bill this spring, they cautioned the public not to assume the fight for reform was over. "This bill will only thwart the special interests for so long," Senator McCain himself predicted. "Twenty years from now, they will have figured out other ways to get around it, and another couple of senators will be fighting to break the endless cycle of corruption and reform." While McCain-Feingold is a significant legislative accomplishment that will help to plug the gaping soft-money hole in the existing system, these reformers explained, there are still gaps through which private money can exert undue political influence--and the fight to close them is just beginning.
This is the way campaign finance reform has worked since the first piece of remedial legislation was passed in 1907--a cycle of public outrage, stopgap legislation and new forms of abuse, prompting further outrage. Lasting solutions have so far proven elusive--in large part because of the Supreme Court's 1976 Buckley v. Valeo ruling that campaign spending limits are unconstitutional. So reformers are stuck fighting with more or less the same tools they've always used: contribution limits, voluntary spending limits, public financing and full disclosure of funding sources.
The limited effectiveness of these tools has prompted two Yale Law professors, Bruce Ackerman and Ian Ayres, to offer a radical rethinking of the problem. Ackerman--who last attracted public notice with his book The Stakeholder Society, in which he proposed to eliminate chronic economic injustice by giving every young American adult a stake of $80,000, financed by an annual wealth tax--and Ayers clearly have no qualms about tackling big problems. Their new book, Voting With Dollars, starts with a simple and seductive question: If the old reform tools aren't working, why not try new ones? Rather than imposing increasingly complicated contribution and spending limits, they suggest removing them. Rather than relying on bureaucracies to distribute public funds to candidates, they say, let the voters do it directly. And rather than mandating complete disclosure of politicians' funding sources, they propose keeping such information completely secret--especially from the politicians themselves.
At the core of Ackerman and Ayres's proposal is what they call the "secret donation booth." Like votes, the authors argue, campaign contributions should be made anonymously. That way, private interests could not influence elected officials with their money, because there would be no way for a contributor to prove that he had given money to a candidate. (So as not to discourage citizens of average means from donating modest amounts by denying them the ability to take credit for their gifts, Ackerman and Ayres permit the government to confirm that a donor has given up to $200.)
Just as the introduction of the secret ballot in the late nineteenth century put an end to the then-common practice of vote-buying, the authors assert that the implementation of a secret donation booth (in actuality, a blind trust administered by the FEC) would eliminate influence-buying. Sure, John Richman might claim he's given a million to Jane Candidate, but such unverifiable talk is cheap, and politicians will attach to such assurances the same minimal weight they attach to promised votes. Once that avenue of political influence is closed off, Ackerman and Ayres reason, donors interested solely in the corrupting power of their contributions will have no reason to pour their money into politics, and private giving will be left to those few donors motivated by pure political ideology.
To make up for the funds that would be lost once this private money leaves the system, Ackerman and Ayres propose that the government give every registered voter fifty "Patriot dollars"--money they'd be able to put toward whichever federal candidate, national political party or interest group they wanted, simply by going to their local ATM. Based on voter participation numbers from the 2000 election, Ackerman and Ayres calculate that the Patriot system would infuse $5 billion into a federal election cycle, dwarfing the $3 billion that was spent in 2000. Thus, they reason, Patriot dollars would not only insure that viable candidates had enough money to fund their campaigns but would also make them dependent on funds from, and thus more responsive to, the electorate as a whole.
So far, so good. And there's more: In addition to the secret donation booth and the Patriot system, "voting with dollars" would produce two compelling side effects.
First, by giving each registered voter fifty Patriot dollars to spend on the election, citizens would be encouraged to inform themselves earlier and more thoroughly about issues and candidates, so as to make the best use of their allocation. This heightened civic engagement would likely translate into higher voter turnout and a consistently better-informed electorate--what Ackerman and Ayres call "the citizenship effect." Second, by avoiding all spending limits, a common plank of more traditional reform platforms, "voting with dollars" would not run afoul of the Supreme Court, which famously ruled in Buckley that "the concept that government may restrict the speech of some elements of our society in order to enhance the relative voice of others is wholly foreign to the First Amendment."
In theory, then, "voting with dollars" has lots of appeal. It's a fresh approach to an old problem; it promises to reinvigorate a tired electorate; and it's Supreme Court-proof. Not satisfied with a theoretical discussion of their proposal, however, Ackerman and Ayres devote the bulk of their book to describing what their reform would look like in practice. And this is where they run into trouble.
To be sure, many of their implementation mechanisms are impressively well-researched and carefully crafted, and at first they make it seem as if "voting with dollars" just might work. To prevent a donor from getting around the anonymity of the donation booth with an unusually large contribution, for example, the authors propose to enter large contributions into a candidate's account in random amounts at random intervals, according to a special "secrecy algorithm." That way, the donor couldn't simply tell the candidate to expect his account to increase by a certain amount on a certain date, and then claim the credit. (Ackerman and Ayres would bar what they call "stratospheric" contributions to eliminate amounts too large to be hidden even by their secrecy algorithm.) A donor would also be unable to prove he'd contributed by flashing around a canceled check made out to the blind trust, since all contributions would be revocable for a five-day period, giving the donor no way to prove he didn't simply ask for his money back the next day.
In spite of these intricate measures, however, there are a few reasons Ackerman and Ayres's implementation scheme is fatally flawed. First, no matter how refined your secret donation booth is, candidates will always be able to figure out where their money's coming from. For proof of this, one need look no further than our current voting system. Even with the secret voting booth, candidates use polling, voter registration rolls, demographic data and a host of other increasingly sophisticated tools to figure out with eerie precision who's going to support them, and they target their campaigns accordingly. Similarly, while a secret donation booth would prevent politicians from knowing precisely how much money each individual or privately funded PAC is giving, candidates would still have a pretty good idea of who their big donors were likely to be, and they'd still grant those likely donors uncommon access--a politician's most valuable resource. Even if the secret donation booth had been in place during the 2000 election, for instance, George Bush would still have asked Ken Lay for fundraising help (by, say, organizing a fundraising dinner--a permissible activity under Ackerman and Ayres's paradigm, as long as there's not a per-plate charge). And Ken Lay would still have been invited to meet with Dick Cheney's energy task force once the pair was in the White House.
Then there's the problem of independent expenditures. Ackerman and Ayres are sharply critical of McCain-Feingold's attempts to rein in such electioneering, calling the act's restrictions on such spending in the months leading up to an election an "important weakness" that "restrains free speech." (Because of arguments like this, these restrictions are widely held to be the most vulnerable part of McCain-Feingold. In June the FEC barely rejected a proposal that would have significantly weakened the act's independent expenditure restrictions, and upcoming court challenges target these restrictions as well.)
And yet, independent expenditures are a significant obstacle to any attempt to reduce private money's role in politics, as they allow any individual or interest group with money the chance to make an end run around the regulated campaign finance system. Conventional attempts to curtail these expenditures may not solve the whole problem, limited as they are by the First Amendment, but they're better than the unregulated alternative that Ackerman and Ayres propose. In their reform scenario, independent "issue" campaigns that do not explicitly endorse a candidate--according to the Court's limited definition of express advocacy, which focuses on certain "magic words" such as "elect" and "vote for"--would be unregulated. In other words, organizations would be free to fund "issue" ads whose timing and content are obviously intended to help a particular candidate, as well as to publish the identities of their contributors and the magnitude of their support, as long as those ads didn't explicitly tell you how to vote. One can only imagine that in the anonymous "voting with dollars" world, this opportunity to claim credit for expenditures clearly designed to help a particular candidate would be all the more alluring. And yet the only remedy Ackerman and Ayres offer is their statute's "swamping control," which would increase Patriot allotments in the next election cycle whenever private spending skewed the national Patriot/private ratio below 2 to 1. Other than this after-the-fact correction, Ackerman and Ayres offer no barriers to prevent private money from flowing to such unregulated channels.
In the end, Ackerman and Ayres's paradigm is handicapped by its Court-centered approach. The authors chide traditional reformers for painting Buckley v. Valeo as the primary roadblock to reform, saying that such a view is both counterproductive, because the Court is unlikely to reverse Buckley anytime soon, and wrong, because Buckley upholds such fundamental constitutional principles as free speech. By embracing Buckley, they argue, their approach is more pragmatic and more principled. And yet, its legal pragmatism notwithstanding, "voting with dollars" does not confront the central injustice of the current system: the exorbitant influence of big money. In focusing solely on ending the potential for quid pro quo corruption--the one aspect of campaign finance that the Court has consistently shown itself eager to regulate--Ackerman and Ayres downplay the degree to which private money controls politics even without such blatant dealmaking. The truth is, as long as politicians are dependent on private money to finance their campaigns, monied interests will play a disproportionately large role in setting the political agenda. This is why traditional reformers have chafed at Buckley's narrow definition of corruption, and it's why they continue to advocate solutions that use a combination of disclosure laws, limits and public financing. At its core, the campaign finance reform movement is about more than simply putting an end to under-the-table deals between wealthy individuals and unscrupulous politicians. It's about opening up the electoral system, so that people without networks of wealthy friends will be able to wage viable campaigns for public office, and won't be beholden to private interests once they get there. While Patriot dollars are a good step in this direction, they don't go far enough. Without contribution and spending limits, the public financing offered by Patriot dollars would quickly be drowned out by the torrents of private money flowing into the system.
For all its shortcomings, Voting With Dollars deserves credit for pushing reformers to rethink some of their cherished assumptions about what works, and what's desirable. However, by refusing to consider more standard approaches to reform like disclosure, contribution limits and, in particular, voluntary public financing systems like those currently in place in Maine and Arizona, Ackerman and Ayres have boxed themselves into an unworkable system. Ultimately, Voting With Dollars' radical approach to campaign finance reform would expand big money's role in politics, rather than insulate democracy from it.
It's easy to rephrase Tolstoy's opening to Anna Karenina so it describes junkies, who all share an essential plot line: Who and how to hustle in order to score. But in the world of postwar jazz, Charlie Parker gave junk an unprecedented clout and artistic aura. Bebop, the convoluted, frenetic modern jazz he and Dizzy Gillespie, among others, formulated, demanded intense powers of concentration. Bird played so far out of nearly everyone else's league that his heroin habit seemed to explain his godlike prowess. So heroin became an existentialist response to racism, to artistic rejection, a self-destructive way of saying Fuck You to mainstream America's 1950s mythologies. Parker warned everyone from young Miles Davis to young Chet Baker away from smack, but few heeded him. In 1954 Davis weaned himself from a four-year addiction; in 1988 Baker died after decades of living in Europe as a junkie, found in the street below his Amsterdam hotel window. (Did he jump? Was he pushed?)
Oklahoma-born and California-bred, Baker had one amazing artistic gift: He could apparently hear nearly any piece of music once and then play it. He intuitively spun melodies on his trumpet with a tone critics compared to Bix Beiderbecke's, and spent his long and unbelievably uneven career relying on that gift and coasting on his remarkable early breaks. In 1952 Charlie Parker played with him in LA, giving him instant cachet. When Gerry Mulligan hired him for the famed pianoless quartet that is the quintessential white West Coast Cool band, it made him a jazz star. After a drug bust broke the group up, Baker began singing; his wispy balladeering and Middle American good looks gave him entree to a broader public. During his early 1950s stint with Mulligan, he unbelievably beat Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie to win critics' and fans' polls; his first album as a vocalist, which featured "My Funny Valentine," got him lionized on the Today and Tonight shows and in Time. From there on, his life took on a downward bias within a junkie's relentless cycles.
Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker aims to synthesize all the information about the trumpeter and try to interpret him within the broader contexts of popular culture. Author James Gavin had access to unpublished autobiographical notes and interviews with Baker's erstwhile memoir collaborator Lisa Galt Bond, and also draws extensively on books like Jeroen de Valk's Chet Baker: His Life and Music and Chet Baker in Italy; he apparently scoured archives for interviews, profiles, pictures and video and audio materials as well, stirring in dollops from Bruce Weber's overripe 1989 movie about Baker, Let's Get Lost. Gavin has tracked Baker across Europe and America, distilled the wildly divergent attitudes toward him and his work, and attempts to make a case for what endures while not flinching from calling clunkers. He confronts black jazzers' resentment of Baker's playing: Most heard him, with excellent reason, as a paler, milder Miles Davis, yet he won polls and looked like he was making big money. As Gavin points out, Baker's lilting lyricism and even his demeanor owed almost everything to Davis's, but Baker wasn't raking in sales like Dave Brubeck, though he was churning out streams of highly variable product. In fact, Gavin explains the popularity of the sappy Chet Baker With Strings album, the trumpeter's bestselling 1954 disc (which sold an uncharacteristic 35,000-40,000 copies the first year), by comparing it to popular contemporary mood music--an apt and telling linkage.
Gavin's discussion of that record strikes one of his leitmotifs, Baker's charismatic visual appeal:
William Claxton's cover photo was so dreamy that record shops all over the country put the LP on display. Claxton showed Baker at his peak of beauty, staring out wistfully at the session, cheek resting against his horn's mouthpiece.... Many of the buyers were young women with little interest in jazz, who bought the LP for its cover. They were surprised to hear music as pretty as Baker was.... It was his looks, more than his music, that the Hollywood crowd cared about.
He's shrewd about Baker's singing:
[Record producer Dick] Bock listened in alarm as [Baker] struggled to sing on key, pushing the session into overtime.... Baker's dogged persistence didn't impress the musicians, who were reduced to near-invisible accompanists, tiptoeing behind his fragile efforts.... But as people stared at the cover and listened to Baker's blank slate of a voice, they projected all kinds of fantasies onto him.... Baker became the first jazz musician to attract a strong homosexual following.
Gavin is quite good at debunking longstanding myths about Baker, many of which Baker started himself. He didn't beat out loads of trumpeters to play with Bird in LA; a studio pianist, not Parker, hired him. It's highly unlikely Bird told East Coasters like Davis and Dizzy Gillespie that "there's a little white cat on the coast who's gonna eat you up." For Gavin, this self-mythologizing is a key to Baker's recessive, almost invisible character: "Just as he discovered how to seduce the camera lens into depicting him in make-believe terms, he learned to glamorize the truth into a fairy tale of romantic intrigue."
Naturally, the biographer seeks the man behind the layered tales. Here Gavin circles a black hole, because Baker was, as one witness after another testifies, nearly completely unrevealing. He didn't read, or speak, or otherwise express: He was "cool." Longtime junkiedom only hardened this character trait into manipulative blankness. So Gavin looks at Baker's doting, pushy mother and his violent failure of a father, checks out Baker's high school beatings for being a pretty boy, intimates that Baker's brief and harsh version of heterosexual sex may have covered for repressed homosexuality, and links him to the waves of rejection, from the Beats as well as Hollywood types like Marlon Brando and James Dean, rippling the 1950s. It's suggestive, though not necessarily convincing, since unlike other jazzers--Davis and Charles Mingus, for instance--Baker had no real contact with or interest in other artistic subcultures.
Baker's critical reputation kept crashing after the Mulligan quartet disbanded in 1954, and his drug use continued to escalate after that time, when his heroin addiction began. By 1966, he had hit bottom: He was badly beaten, probably because he ripped off a San Francisco drug dealer, and his upper teeth had to be pulled. His embouchure wrecked, his career, already smoldering, looked like it was finally in ruins. He worked in a Redondo Beach gas station and applied for welfare. Against the odds, record-label head Bock bought him dentures, and for more than a year he worked--probably harder than he ever did before or after--to rebuild something of the limpid trumpet sound that once made girls shudder.
In 1959 he had relocated to Europe, where he stayed for the rest of his life (except for a couple of brief homecomings) to avoid prosecution for drug busts. Inevitably, he got busted in Europe instead. Gavin rightly notes that the Europeans, especially the Italians, adopted Baker as a damaged genius, an artist in need of understanding and patronage. It didn't help. His trajectory careened mostly down; upward bursts of musical lucidity flashed against a churn of mediocrities and an ever-more-snarled life. His talent languished: He never expanded his musical knowledge, nor did he really learn to arrange or compose or even lead a band. He relied on producers and agents to direct his musical life; he didn't bother conceptualizing his own creative frameworks. He always demanded cash payments--no contracts, no royalties--on his endless scramble to score. And as women revolved through his life or fought over him and were beaten by him, he tried a few bouts at detox but compressed even further into a junkie's two-dimensionality. By the time he died, most American jazz fans thought he was already dead.
For this last half of his book, Gavin, even buoyed by research, swims upstream against the cascading flow of a junkie's essential plot line. For decades Baker is mostly chasing drugs, screwing anyone within reach, tumbling downward creatively and personally, and alternating manipulatively between victim and abuser. Except as a voyeur it's hard to care, especially since, with exceptions I think even rarer than Gavin does, Baker's music was generally worthless. Junk didn't make him a musical superman; it simply drove him to make fast, sloppy recordings with under-rehearsed bands, playing horn that was so unpredictable in quality it could sound like an abysmal self-parody. Sympathetically balanced as he tries to be, even Gavin can only cite a handful of ex-sidemen as Baker's musical legacy of influence. Instead, he depicts Baker as a kind of cultural icon rather than a cultural force.
It is one of history's ironies that Baker was resurrected after his death by a film made shortly before it. Bruce Weber, a fashion photographer famed for his homoerotic Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren ads, has a sharp eye for the scandalous, and decided to make Let's Get Lost when he saw Baker at the trumpeter's brief fling at an American comeback in 1986. He fell for what an associate described as "beauty that looked kind of destroyed." Weber bought him a French beatnik wardrobe from a Paris designer, and paid him $12,500 for a performance that Gavin describes: "eyelids sagging, slurring his words, all but drooling.... Unless he got what he needed, [Weber's assistant] said, 'he wouldn't have sat still a minute for us.'" The documentary refired interest in Baker among boomers and Gen Xers, who responded to the bathetic junkie glamour of his apparent frailty, personal and artistic, just as their 1950s avatars had. Reissues of Baker's albums on CD have gathered mass and sales since.
Which leaves us with Baker's mysterious death, long haloed by a host of theories. Gavin rejects accident, reporting that "the window [of the hotel room] slid up only about fifteen inches, making it difficult, if not impossible, for a grown man to fall through accidentally." Dismissing speculation that Baker might have lost his room key and tried to climb the hotel's facade, Gavin says it's unlikely he could have gone unnoticed on such a busy thoroughfare. He dismisses homicide, as did Baker's remaining friends and the Dutch police, and concludes that Baker was shooting his favorite speedballs and committed a sort of passive-aggressive suicide by "opening a window and letting death come to him.... [He] had died willfully of a broken heart."
That's a pretty sentimental final fade for a hard-core character like Baker, who for all Gavin's determined nuance ultimately seems less rebel than junkie. Maybe Gavin should have pondered Naked Lunch. Then he might have ended his book with, say, Steve Allen's take, since Allen was one of the many Baker burned: "When Chet started out, he had everything. He was handsome, had a likable personality, a tremendous musical gift. He threw it all away for drugs. To me, the man started out as James Dean and ended up as Charles Manson."
Southern Exposure, which somehow looks--even in its third decade, in the twenty-first century--as if very advanced high school students had just stapled it together and put it on your doorstep (that's a compliment...The Nation strives for that effect, too), is still doing a fine job on its old beat: investigating the strange mix of culture and corporatism that has made the South what it is today. By extension, every issue poses the same basic question: What exactly is America? In looking at the South in great detail over many decades, Southern Exposure has begun to propose, although not explicitly, some answers.
First, America is a place that advocates equality but thrives on inequality. In the 2002 Spring and Summer issue, which is subtitled "The South at War," James Maycock has published a piece on the black American soldier's experience in Vietnam--especially for people who did not live through the civil rights movement and that terrible Southeast Asian conflict, this piece will be riveting. "I'm not a draft evader," declares one African-American draftee on reaching Canada. "I'm a runaway slave."
America is also a place where the Marlboro Man has not abdicated, as Stan Goff shows in his gonzo essay on Vietnam and American masculinity (in fact, it has crossed my mind that all those ads may have been psy-ops prep for George W. Bush's ascendancy). And last, America is a place that loves the Army. In its useful and unassailable roundup on the Southern states and the war industry, Southern Exposure comes up with important facts. The dollar amount of military contracts to Florida companies alone last year amounted to $15.2 billion. The military, of course, is a good place to have your money right now. For example, Florida's education budget was slashed by 4.2 percent last year while the stock of Northrop Grumman and Raytheon, two of the largest companies with investments in Florida, were up 25 percent and 40 percent, respectively. Nutshell portraits of thirteen states provide a real sense of the give and take between politicians, the military and the job market, and population in places where the military chooses to spend.
Note also: Of the top twenty-one cities involved in military production in 2001, excepting Hartford, St. Louis, Indianapolis and Seattle, every city on the list is in the South or in California. According to Southern Exposure, 66 percent of the weapons sold to Israel under the Foreign Military Sales program were produced in the South. The South has helped situate America in the world today; that puts it in a unique moral position. But after reading this issue of Southern Exposure, one really wonders: Do most Southerners care?
After reading about B-29s and F-16s and macho men and Hellfire missiles made in Orlando--of all places--I was happy to read a few magazines that go to other extremes. Of the two big yoga magazines available on the newsstand, Yoga Journal is the yogis' Vanity Fair, and Yoga International is their Real Simple. We can dispense with the latter except for the pretzel-position pictures, but Yoga Journal is a very good niche magazine--good niche publications take their subject and use it expansively, as a jumping-off point. The June issue has an excellent and anthropologically important piece by Marina Budhos on how yoga practice in the West, especially among Americans, is changing the age-old practice in India, the Americans behaving like cargo cultists in reverse.
Budhos found that many of the Indians in an Indian ashram (where, by the way, the hatha yoga teacher was "a really tough Israeli") were attending because they "were interested in teaching yoga as a career." Many of the foreigners were simply having yoga fun on vacation--although, as I have discovered while doing the tortoise position, the word "yoga" and the word "fun" should never be used in the same sentence. Daniel Ghosal, an Indian-American, says the Americans who come to India for yoga are seen by the Indians as "kind of 'cracked.'" Indians don't think of yoga as a social trend. "The lighting of candles and all that," Ghosal says dismissively. "To Indians, it's just yoga."
"The Path of the Peaceful Warrior," by Anne Cushman, is also an amusing piece. In it--after lighting a fire with newspapers in which she sees headlines about terror and anthrax burning away, and after "folding into the silence and surrender of a deep forward bend" (that's classic yoga writing; you just have to push past it)--Cushman proposes a "Yogic Battle Plan for the War on Terror." I suppose it's better than beefing up your naval program at Newport News...
The first step: "Stop." I like that. That should be the entirety of an Op-Ed piece on the Middle East crisis.
There is also "Contemplate death." Under that weighty heading, Cushman includes this nice aperçu: "The American government's instruction to 'Be on high alert, yet go about your ordinary life' may have struck many people as all but impossible, but that paradoxical injunction is actually...a core yogic practice." (Don't tell Rumsfeld!) Under "Look Deeply," Cushman cites Tricycle editor James Shaheen's remark that bin Laden was "inadvertently speaking the Buddhist truth of interdependence when he said, 'Until there is peace in the Middle East, there will be no peace for Americans at home.'" "Practice nonviolence" is another step in the yogic battle; "take action," the last. By the end, Yoga Journal is beginning to sound like the editors of Southern Exposure.
Earthtimes, the monthly environmental and social paper spiritedly edited for twelve years by the effervescent Pranay Gupte, is folding up shop after July for lack of funding. As Gupte said in a farewell note to colleagues: "Undercapitalization is always bad for business; zero capitalization is worse. Since my basement press is beyond repair, I can't even print rupee notes any longer to sustain Earthtimes." That's Gupte and the tone of Earthtimes, too--in moments of pain and crisis, a quiet, self-deflating, sustaining humor.
There are perfectly respectable reasons to disagree with, dislike or distrust Jesse Jackson. His flaws as a human being are pretty well-known at this point. Some feel his politics are driven by ego. He certainly is prone to poetic puffery, as much disposed to allegorical tales in which he plays Good Shepherd as was Ronald Reagan. He's cheated on his wife. Most notoriously, Jesse Jackson's credibility as leader of anything like a rainbow coalition was profoundly shaken by his "Hymietown" remark. I am among those who distrust him as a result of that one statement, profuse apologies notwithstanding. But if I distrust him, I distrust him no more or less than the legions of other politicians who have made racist, sexist or anti-Semitic comments and then apologized as though they were children playing "words can never hurt you." I distrust Jesse Jackson no more than I distrust Jesse Helms or Robert Byrd or Pat Robertson. I distrust him no more than George Bush or John Ashcroft for being so cozy with the anti-miscegenist, anti-Catholic Bob Jones University (even as I also distrust the Catholic Church for its own history of anti-Semitism). I worry about him exactly to the same extent that I worry about those members of Congress who have spent their long, complacent lives as members of country clubs that discriminate against Jews and blacks and women.
In other words, while Jesse Jackson may have his problems, they can probably be summed up in a paragraph. Kenneth Timmerman's book Shakedown: Exposing the Real Jesse Jackson takes that one paragraph and reworks it for well over 400 pages. While it is important to document and acknowledge the shortcomings of public figures, it is also important to maintain a sense of proportion. In reality, Jackson is imperfect. In Timmerman's rendition, he is a bloated monster of evil impulses and global appetites, a "dangerous fool," "a David Duke in black skin" who "drifts off into mumbo-jumbo" "like a Halloween ghoul" while "mau-mauing" corporations that "think it is cheaper to buy protection" from the "race industry" he has purportedly milked dry.
The distance between the real Jackson and Timmerman's gargoyle is inhabited by myth, stereotype, unsubstantiated accusation, illogic and careless innuendo. It is a world in which the least mundanity of Jackson's existence is milled into malevolent disguise. Even Martin Luther King Jr.'s death is described as an event that "set him free. With King dead, Jackson could become his own boss." If Jackson is an opportunist, he is not this heinous a one, and nothing in the substance rather than the innuendo of this book says otherwise. Yet the innuendo playsagainst a backdrop of slapdash thinking, angry talk-show hosts, thoughtless prejudice. It plays to what many in the majority of this society think they already know--how else could such a carelessly contentious book make it onto the New York Times bestseller list for more than a month?
In the real world, Jackson is paid for his advocacy, for his attempts at conflict resolution and for his speaking. He is a skilled fundraiser for a variety of nonprofit organizations. His salary, fees and contributions are paid, quite straightforwardly, by constituents and supporters. One may honestly disagree with what he advocates or about whether he's an effective negotiator or is wise in his beliefs. To resent that he is paid at all is a tendentious and indirect way of expressing that disagreement, but that's the essence of what Timmerman seems to mean when he uses the word "shakedown." In Timmerman's world, Jackson's entire relation to money is one of "profiting," "profiting-at-the-expense-of" and "profiteering."
Yes, Jackson has been investigated a number of times for mishandling funds, particularly during the setup years of Operation PUSH and Operation Breadbasket. But despite numerous FBI investigations, despite frequent IRS audits and despite intense media scrutiny, none of his enterprises have ever been implicated in anything beyond the usual scope--promptly corrected--of what all businesses, including nonprofits, face in the course of accounting for their poor investment decisions, particularly when those decisions are made by inexperienced and disorganized administrators like Jackson. Nevertheless, even after Jackson hires good accountants and smart financial counselors, Timmerman refers to him as "still just a street hustler" who benefited from the "most friendly of audits" and whose "scandalous" accounting practices would surely have resulted in some sort of criminal action had not the FBI's investigation of him been "shut down during the early months of the Carter administration." That Timmerman is referring to the notorious COINTELPRO operation, which disparaged the reputations and disrupted the lives of so many civil rights leaders, is never made explicit.
To Timmerman, Jackson's every last tic is a deceit. Jesse Jackson is wrong when he wears shorts and sandals--too déclassé and inappropriate. He's wrong when he wears suits--too expensive and self-indulgent. He's a fraud because his "black buddies" give him a nice, large house in which to raise his family--a "fifteen room Tudor," mentioned so many times that to say Timmerman is obsessed with it might be too kind. The house is in a nice neighborhood--how inauthentic! His children go to private schools, graduate from college and turn out well--how hypocritical of him to complain about opportunity for blacks! His son is elected to Congress--what "dynastic" pretension!
There is a deep streak of class resentment running through this book. Jackson is disparaged in the classic language of resentment toward the bourgeoisie or the nouveau riche: He is demeaned for his grammar, for his manners, for his conspicuous consumption. I think this class bias accounts for Timmerman's irrational anger whenever Jackson moves beyond what Timmerman deems his place in the social order. Jackson is painted as too ignorant and lower class to play with the big boys; yet too flashy and profligate to make political claims on behalf of the poor. When Newsweek praises his children as "poised, proud and living antidotes to inner-city despair," Timmerman snorts that "Jesse Jackson with his three houses, his flush bank accounts, his first-class travel, his lucrative friendships with foreign dictators...was as close to inner city despair as the Beverly Hillbillies were to poverty."
Similarly, any use of economic leverage, including boycotts, is seen as nothing more than "bullying," the surest sign of someone who'd rather be staging a riot. Jackson's attempts to convince businesses to "provide jobs and award contracts" to minorities is redescribed as making them "pony up." Peaceful boycotts become racial extortion--as though African-Americans have an obligation to shop till they drop, as though free enterprise did not include the choice of taking one's business elsewhere. It is an oddly unbalanced insistence, particularly since Timmerman seems to feel that free enterprise includes the right of businesses not to hire or serve any of those supposedly extortionist brown bodies.
When Jackson joins the board of General Motors, he's not working within the system, heaven forbid, he's just "working" it. Indeed, General Motors itself is indicted for putting him on its board, for being in craven complicity with his "plundering." "For the scare-muffins who still dominate many Fortune 500 companies, it has become cheaper to toss bones to Jesse than to contest him in the court of public opinion," writes Timmerman, and quotes T.J. Rogers, CEO of Cypress Semiconductor, who refused to "pony up" to Jackson's concerns about hiring patterns: "My advice to other CEO's? Why don't you grow a pair of balls? Or if you're a female, whatever is the female equivalent."
Shakedown is flawed even more by racialized animus than by class bias, however. "Uncle Jessie," as Timmerman calls him on several occasions, wants "not just equal opportunity, but equal results." Shakedown purports to be filled with proof that Jackson and his "cohorts" have "more than." They are described not merely as lying, cheating and stealing but as possessing much more than they deserve, however they came by it. Every last car any member of the Jackson family ever owned--his son's wife's BMW, for heaven's sake--is listed and ridiculed, every last exotic make, size of engine, price paid, with a rundown of features including vanity plates and whether the tires were radial or whitewall.
There is nowhere offered in this book a chance that Jackson has a humanitarian bone in his body, no chance that he adheres to principles or beliefs. Jackson is not even a real minister, according to Shakedown, but a "seminary drop-out" whose "church" (always in quotes) is nothing more than a front for his "poverty pimping."
Anything Jackson is associated with becomes just too stupid or too dangerous to respond to or take seriously. And so Jackson is described as drawing up a "hit list" of corporations. In a passage astonishing for its old-style Confederate paranoia, Timmerman worries that Jackson's "inflammatory words" protesting the outcome of the 2000 election "were dangerously close to a call for insurrection." Even Al Gore is depicted as plotting with Jackson in hopes of "unleashing a massive outpouring of 'rage' in black communities across America." (Rage, too, is always in quotes.)
Whether one likes Jackson or not, reading Shakedown one gets the sense that Timmerman dislikes him for much more than his bad traits--and that's where the popularity of this book becomes truly troubling. Timmerman can't stand anyone who's ever shaken Jackson's hand. He despises the civil rights "establishment." He hates Bill Clinton, the Chicago Theological Seminary, African and African-American leaders of every political stripe, hippies, bleeding hearts and the NAACP. Just for extra wallop, every chapter or so he lumps them all together with Lenin, Castro, Hitler, Stalin, socialist "plants," radical "functionaries," card-carrying members of the Communist party as well as motley others "who are, unquestionably, enemies of the United States."
Jackson's closest friends are, according to Timmerman, members of the Arab League, Louis Farrakhan, Yasir Arafat and Chicago street-gang members. No matter that some of those gang members bullied Jackson, engaging in true extortionary tactics; or, more poignantly, were kids to whom Jackson tried to extend his ministry of social action. The fact that some gang members were neighbors and family members, or the fact that numbers of them ended up in jail, including Jackson's own half-brother, is never evidence of the stresses, the sad scripts, the human loss of ghetto life; in this book, they're all just part of "Jesse's World." Based on association alone, street toughs become his accomplices, his cohorts, his henchmen. Timmerman writes that Jackson "boasted of his ties to the gangs: 'I get a lot of them to go to church.'" Boast it may be, but it is not the ordinary or fair understanding of "ties" to gangs. To describe it so implies something more sinister, suggests much more.
Indeed, Jackson's mere family relation to Noah Robinson, his half-brother and a gang member doing hard time, is like a bone that Timmerman can't stop gnawing. It gets told and retold every few pages. His no-good, murderous, jailed gang member of a brother. Ten paragraphs later, Robinson is resurrected, still murderous, still jailed and still working overtime as Jackson's "link" to gang life.
Similarly troubling is Timmerman's description of Jackson's association with Jeff Fort, the jailed head of the Blackstone Rangers--none other than the same Jeff Fort who recently made news as leader of the gang with which the FBI says José Padilla, the alleged "dirty bomb" conspirator, once hung. Indeed, Shakedown's appendix contains a 1983 wanted poster of Fort, then on the run from a narcotics charge. The sarcastic caption reads: "The 'Reverend' Jackson's Best Pupil." Beneath Fort's picture is the following legend: "Jackson--a seminarian dropout who never even had his own church or congregation--" (perhaps the twentieth time Timmerman repeats that) "claims to have 'baptized' Jeff Fort in their early days together. Perhaps Fort should have sought the services of a real 'Reverend.'"
This kind of indictment by suggestion occurs in almost every sentence of the book. In one particularly troubling chapter, Timmerman tries to implicate Jackson in funding Al Qaeda by something resembling "six degrees of separation": In early 1999 Jackson negotiated a settlement between Deutsche Bank and Kevin Ingram, one of the bank's top five executives, who claimed he'd been fired because of his race. Ingram, who never saw Jackson again, was arrested two years later for brokering a sale of weapons on behalf of an Egyptian neighbor of his. The would-be buyer was a Pakistani national, who, Timmerman implies, represented the Pakistani military. Since September 11, "federal investigators have been interrogating Ingram...about possible ties between the ultimate buyers of the weapons in Pakistan and renegade Saudi terrorist Osama bin Laden." Why? Apparently Ingram was once spotted in Sierra Leone by a Florida diamond dealer who said as much while he was being questioned by federal investigators regarding unrelated fraud charges. What's that got to do with anything? Well, Libyan, Hezbollah and bin Laden operatives are known to have traded diamonds in Liberia. Liberia, you ask? Hey, Sierra Leone and Liberia are right next door to each other... What has this got to do with Jesse Jackson? Ah. That goes back to President Clinton (who, as the spawn of Satan and first American President ever to have traveled to any part of sub-Saharan Africa, is dismissed by Timmerman as having gone "on safari"). Clinton sent Jackson along as part of a State Department team that tried and ultimately failed to negotiate a peace in the diamond wars between Liberia and Sierra Leone.
As Timmerman leads readers down this tortured trail, Jackson's "race-baiting tactics" in Ingram's case against Deutsche Bank give the illusion of him being directly tied to Al Qaeda's illicit trade in diamonds, a trade that has "flourished under the Lomé Accord Jackson negotiated on behalf of the State Department."
In an era when our vast, unspecified war against terror has been used to justify detaining José Padilla, an American citizen arrested on American soil, in a military brig with no charges and no lawyer, one does begin to worry about what those vague Al Qaeda and Blackstone Ranger "links" will bring down upon inner-city Chicago and other communities already so beleaguered by careless suspect profiling. At a time when due process is fast being shelved as quaint and improvident, one only hopes that criminality and political heresy will be measured in some other forum than Timmerman's overwrought court of public opinion. In an era when politicians and talk-show hosts speak openly of assassinating a broad range of America's enemies by way of "pre-emptive" strategy, one worries about Timmerman's recurring theme of Jackson's alignment with those enemies; of Jackson's affairs being a matter of national security; of Jackson as threat to the stability of America's political and corporate culture. Indeed, Timmerman notes ominously, "No flags or patriotic banners are found at Jackson's PUSH meeting held September 15, 2001, just four days after the terrorist attack on the United States. But there was room for a gigantic portrait of himself."
John Ashcroft recently asked us to trust that the days of J. Edgar Hoover are gone forever; I would like to imagine that he means it. But who needs Hoover if Timmerman's book reflects a national backlash rushing to fill the breach? If Shakedown represents anything like a popular or dominant view not just in the country but specifically in the intelligence community (and Timmerman does thank "many" in academia, law enforcement and intelligence "who have asked not to be named"), we are in deep, deep trouble. This is a paranoid book, an ignorant book, a book that posits aggressive disrespect for an immense spectrum of African-American concerns as some sort of brave moral stance. It is a book that takes us right back to the 1950s and argues, in effect, that the South was right about that Negro problem. Indeed, I suppose there's really no need to read this book at all--one could just go see Birth of a Nation and wallow in all that panic about insurrection and uppity, overdressed black politicians who, as D.W. Griffith put it, "know nothing of the incidents of power."
Call me a Nervous Nellie, but will FBI and CIA agents, with their expansive new powers, be as subject to mocking and stereotyping black people as the careless Mr. Kenneth R. Timmerman? To put it another way, if the FBI and CIA see each other as enemies, do testy, overdressed, big-spending people of African descent even stand a chance against a popular culture so racially freighted?
If this book were not selling like hotcakes and if we were not at war, I might just feel sorry for Timmerman. I'd tell him to get out and make a few more black friends, maybe take a Democrat to lunch. Let him find out for himself that we're not as scary as all that. I'd urge that course, I guess, even for those white Americans whose sympathies are ostensibly closer to my own--perhaps people like Ward Just, a novelist who in reviewing Stephen Carter's new book, The Emperor of Ocean Park, in The New York Times Book Review wrote about his discomfort in attending a birthday party that Vernon Jordan gave for President Clinton on Martha's Vineyard:
More than half were African-American, not one of them known to me by sight; I mean to say, no entertainers or sports figures. They were lawyers and business supremos and academics, and many of them had houses on the island.... Introductions were made, but the names flew by. I had never been in an American living room where the paler nation was in the minority, but that did not seem to matter on this occasion, everyone jolly and conversational, very much at ease. But I was inhibited, in the way a civilian is inhibited in a room full of professional soldiers, listening instead of talking, trying to see beneath the skin of things--the uniform.
This fear of black social life, the perceived unknowability of it, has, I worry, become one more blind spot that endangers our national security, to say nothing of our national unity. There are so many white people who have still never been to a black home and have never had a black person to theirs. Of course, there are lots of black people who have never been much beyond the ghetto. But in general, I think black people have an overwhelmingly better sense of white people as just plain old human beings than the reverse. It's impossible not to: Black people work in white homes, white stores, white offices. If we are professionals, we can go days without even seeing another black person. I'd never be able to say at a cocktail party, "Who's that wonderful white entertainer? Oh, you know the one." And everyone there would have such a narrow range of reference that they'd all answer in unison, "Oh yeah, Steve Martin. He's great."
And so I keep wondering about who is reading Shakedown in such energetic numbers. Who finds it necessary to buy into the frisson of such hyperbole? Is it possible that the ability to maintain such a fevered sense of besiegement about Jesse Jackson, of all people, is related to the gibberishly panicked response of the police officers who shot Amadou Diallo in that frenzy of bullets in 1999? Are Timmerman's readers challenged to reflect upon the blind righteousness of the officers who assaulted Abner Louima two years before that--do they wonder where Louima would be if he were assaulted now? It should be remembered that Louima, a noncitizen, was initially mistaken for someone who had committed a minor crime. Would we ever have known of his plight if he'd been whisked into a detention center with no trial, no charge and no lawyer?
Do Timmerman's readers really write off all the disparities of black and brown life in America--from housing to healthcare, from schooling to employment--as simple market choices? Do they have a clue of the social resentment so many blacks endure--yes, even well-educated and wealthy black people? Sometimes it is in the little things: I do not fully understand, for example, why Vanity Fair felt it necessary, in a recent interview, to describe black philosopher Cornel West as not just extremely knowledgeable but rather "besotted" with knowledge. Sometimes it's in the large things. When Bill Cosby's son Ennis was murdered while changing a flat tire on his Mercedes some years ago, Camille Cosby wondered aloud where his killer, a vehemently racist young Ukranian immigrant, had learned to so hate the sight of a black man driving an expensive car.
Does Timmerman's book bring us any closer to acknowledging how many times more dangerous those traditions of resentment have become when political approval ratings soar with talk of ultimate control, of official secrecy, of necessity, of accident and of disappearance?
How terrifying for black and brown people when a highly dangerous but nevertheless very small network of terrorists are to be hunted down based not only on specific information but by employing broadly inaccurate assumptions about our race, our religion, our national origin. Who betrays whom when sweepingly invasive surveillance guidelines are embraced by commentators across the political spectrum--from Alan Dershowitz to George Will, from Charles Krauthammer to Nicholas Kristof. Who betrays whom when Timmerman's brand of vulgar overgeneralization spreads like a poison across the globe, insuring that whatever the final shape of our brave new world, some of us are doomed to catch hell from all sides, consigned to a parallel universe, figured as the enemy within--indeed, the enemy "wherever."
There is a fable about the lion that eats the lamb because the lamb has offended him with some imagined trespass. "But I didn't do it," protests the lamb. "Well," sighs the lion, "it must have been your brother"--and digs into his dinner.
CLUELESSNESS IS NEXT TO GODLINESS
Jefferson Valley, NY
When I took my copy of The Nation from my mailbox today, I was appalled at the cover showing George W. Bush, in hunter's garb, over the caption "Clueless?" The Nation has long been a debater of ideas, home for such writers as Christopher Hitchens, Gore Vidal and Jim Hightower. This cover is a personal attack on the President of the United States and does little to debate his policies. They're certainly open to debate, but they are the product of the President and a group that includes Ms. Rice and Messrs. Powell, Cheney, Rumsfeld and O'Neill--not a "clueless" bunch at all. Let's debate policies, political philosophies and economic theories and leave personal ridicule to others.
JOHN F. MCMULLEN
I am shocked and dismayed at the glaring copy-editing/proofreading error on your cover. The question mark after "Clueless" is such an egregious mistake it is hard to find words to express my dismay. After all, if anyone at The Nation has even the smallest shred of a doubt that Shrub is clueless...well, there's no hope; we're doomed.
Cartoon fans might appreciate a different caption on your June 10 cover: "Be vewy quiet. I'm hunting tewwowists."
An alternate caption might be: "George W. Fudd: 'Is that you, Osama, you wascawwy Awab?'"
Thank you for the picture of King George II attired for the hunt. It joins the collection of pictures of people like Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and Ronald Reagan on my dartboard. I took the liberty of deleting the question mark following the word "clueless."
St. Cirq Souillaguet, France
Your amusing cover picture of a clueless Bush was a great success in our village, reflecting as it did a widely held French opinion of the man. One neighbor went further: "If it's true that your President has an 80 percent approval rating, should one then assume that a majority of your citizens are equally dimwitted?" I was unable to answer.
SUN, WIND & WIRES
Liberty Hill, Tex.
Matt Bivens's excellent "Fighting for America's Energy Independence" [April 15] and the ensuing "Exchange" [June 17] covered many important bases but requires a post-mortem.
The idea of a 110-by-110-mile solar field in Nevada providing all our nation's electricity is seductive, but it ignores the fact that unless generation is located near the consumers, you need wires to transmit it. West Texas has the nation's largest wind farms, with plenty more capacity. The problem is that the people who want to use that electricity live in Dallas, 500 miles away. Transmission constraints, not economics or politics, have slowed the growth of wind energy. Building high-voltage power lines where people live is problematic; the financial and political challenges of moving tens of thousands of solar megawatts from Nevada to, say, New York, are daunting to the point of fantasy.
The big green solution includes a combination of commercial-scale renewable power (primarily wind and geothermal), decentralized clean energy (mainly rooftop solar and stationary fuel cells, with the excess sold back into the grid) and the three-legged stool of conservation, efficiency and demand response. A staggering percentage of generation plants are built solely to accommodate demand on midsummer weekday afternoons. Demand response, or peak load management, teaches us that the availability (not to mention cost) of electricity isn't always the same. California's legendary rolling blackouts are largely a result of inefficient use of the grid and can be avoided if consumers shift their consumption away from the peaks. People have learned to make phone calls and plane trips off-peak; we can use electricity the same way. This relieves wire congestion and delays the need for new power plants, accelerating our charge to the day when clean energy is overabundant.
Paul Wattles is correct that getting electricity down transmission lines would make it impractical to power America on solar electricity harvested across 12,000 square miles in Nevada. I never meant to suggest we try. My observations that Nevada could gather enough sun to power America--and that the Dakotas and Texas alone could also produce enough windpower to do that--were purely illustrative. The point is that our nation is rich in wind and sun, the technologies to harvest them are finally here and working, and yet we aren't moving forward as smartly as we could--in part thanks to our government's bizarre insistence on showering huge subsidies on oil, gas, coal and nuclear power while giving tiny sums to renewables and sniffing that they aren't "market ready."
Some of the best winds are remote from population centers, and new transmission lines can cost more than $1 million per mile. Electricity gets wasted when sent long distances down such lines, and stringing new lines is unpopular--people don't want to live near them. And wind and solar power are intermittent--churning out wattages only when the sun shines or the wind blows.
So these are all challenges--and it's striking how many of those challenges are finessed by the hydrogen fuel cell. Wind- or solar-generated electricity can now be stored as hydrogen (by using that electricity to "zap" water, which releases hydrogen). John Turner of the National Renewable Energy Laboratories observes that hydrogen made from the sun or the winds could be trucked or pipelined out of remote areas at a lot less cost and a lot more efficiency than hanging new power lines. A Dakota-to-Chicago hydrogen pipeline, anyone? Unlike transmission lines, it could even be buried.
Finally, I accept much of Wattles's "big green solution," but one small quibble: I'm all for more efficient air conditioners; I'm less enamored of training people to turn them off when it gets hot. Like berating people who drive gas-guzzling SUVs, it's a distraction and a political nonstarter. People have indeed learned to make phone calls off-peak--i.e., when it's inconvenient. But they don't like it! So why focus on it as the solution, when there is a much more positive vision--one that has room for an emissions-free hydrogen-fueled SUV? Yes, even one with a flag on it.
'JEWS FOR JUSTICE'--SOME THOUGHTS
"Hear, hear!" to Michael Lerner's "Jews for Justice" [May 20]--the best opinion piece I've read on the Middle East morass, and the only one brave enough to admit that Jews are themselves mostly to blame for the recent surge of anti-Semitism around the world--at least insofar as they participate, support and/or remain silent about Israel's arrogant, apartheidlike policies. It makes me especially sad and angry that in their eagerness to placate the conservative Jewish lobby, the most prominent Jewish voices in American public life today (Dianne Feinstein and Joseph Lieberman) refuse to recognize this, instead going blindly forward with their We-Are-a-Victimized-People and Israel-Can-Do-No-Wrong stance. I thank God nightly that my ancestors immigrated to America.
I suggest Rabbi Lerner move to Gaza and see how much "love" he will get from the Palestinians; or maybe he should move to Syria and share the "love" the other Arab countries have for Jews. He can preach "love" and equal treatment there, if they let him.
New York City
No one can quarrel with Rabbi Lerner's call for a Jewish voice to speak out for justice for Palestinians (and Israelis). But he is not correct in saying that there have been no pro-Israel alternatives to AIPAC, no organized voices that would speak out for the end of the occupation and the violence, for a Palestinian state as well as for security and acceptance for Israel.
There are such voices. One is Americans for Peace Now. APN has been working hard for this agenda for many years, at the grassroots level, in Washington and in Israel, with a very large coalition of peace activists there. They speak to the US Jewish community, they speak to other Americans, they speak to Palestinians and they speak to power. New voices mean new strength for this agenda, so welcome to the Tikkun Community. But they are not voices in the wilderness.
ROSALIND S. PAASWELL
I am delighted to read some constructive ideas on the Israel/Palestine quagmire. As Rabbi Lerner proposes, a good place to start is with a "big stick" wielded by an international effort to impose some separation and order. However, I also think a "carrot" is essential to effect a change of mind. I propose a Marshall Plan for Palestine--a model for the Middle East. They need democracy, schools, infrastructure, small business financing--all the basics for a progressive, prosperous country. When there is prosperity for all, reasonable people don't want to rock the boat. The religious fanatics would become increasingly irrelevant. Peace in the area would thus be reinforced. The United States should lead the effort, as we have much to gain. We'd be the good guys for a change.
I have never felt the urge to respond to anything I've read on the Internet, but I want to show my admiration and gratitude to Michael Lerner. His is about the only sane and objective Jewish voice on the Israeli-Palestinian crisis I've heard. More power (and media outlets) to you for recognizing the suffering of and injustices done to the Palestinians. It really hurts to see so many turn a blind eye to the root cause of the violence. As an Arab-American I am heartened to read this article and hope that it reaches Jewish and non-Jewish Americans and helps them realize the moral obligation of the United States to help solve this crisis.
Although I admire Michael Lerner's courage (I understand that he has been getting death threats) and strongly agree with his opposition to Israel's armed occupation of the Palestinian territories, I regret that he seems unwilling to face the most difficult moral dilemma presented by the state of Israel and its very disturbing history, which must be resolved by both Jews and non-Jews. Is there any moral justification for supporting a state that is fundamentally dedicated to the welfare and power of one religion and its believers over all others? Is there any moral justification for supporting a state that has repeatedly invaded its neighbors, killed thousands of nonbelligerents, destroyed housing, agriculture and civil infrastructure and confiscated the land and property of others without compensation? Is there any moral justification for supporting a state that has repeatedly violated international law and UN resolutions while scorning world opinion and humiliating the leadership of the United States, without whose aid it would not exist? Finally, is support for Israel truly an expression of solidarity with fellow Jews or is it a profound betrayal of centuries of Jewish tradition, from Hillel to Einstein, which has always celebrated human dignity, justice and peace?
MARVIN A. GLUCK
HOW HAS 9/11 CHANGED YOUR LIFE?
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